|Today’s scripture reading:
2 Kings 5:1-15a
The War of the Worlds is a British science fiction novel that famously describes a battle between Martian invaders and the people of Earth. The aliens have far superior technology, and can totally destroy whatever human force comes against them. Their giant walking machines trample human tanks and artillery. They overrun the entire countryside and are on the verge of bulldozing London. But just as all hope is lost, these great alien machines squeal to a stop, and their crunching mechanical arms fall limp. When people knock over one of the machines, they find its occupants dead in the cockpit. What killed them? By the end of the story, we learn it was tiny bacteria—all the organisms in the air—that killed the Martians because they had no immunity. Who would have thought something so invisible could save the planet? Deliverance comes through something small.
If it weren’t for the small characters in today’s Bible story, Naaman would still have leprosy. All the action begins because of something said by a Hebrew girl child. She is a trophy of war, a captive in Naaman’s house and a servant to his wife. She is a female foreign servant child, which makes her as noteworthy as wallpaper to Naaman. But she’s critically important to God, who uses her voice to bring about his healing. She tells her mistress, Naaman’s wife, about a prophet in Israel who can heal Naaman’s leprosy. The general’s wife tells Naaman, who asks the king for permission to go find healing in Israel, and the action ensues. The Hebrew servant girl doesn’t even have a name in the Bible, but her compassionate remark sets everything else in motion.
Contrast this with Naaman. He is anything but small, this great commander of the armies of Aram. When he comes to the prophet Elisha’s home, he arrives with a great train of goods—gold and silver and fine clothes, fitting for a general. And he expects something grand in return. He wants Elisha to hold up his arms, and in a dramatic voice call on the power of Almighty God. There will be magical spells of holy words, the moving of hands over his wounds, and in a miracle he will be healed! But Elisha doesn’t even come out to meet Naaman. He sends this message through a servant: “Meh. Go wash in the River Jordan and you’ll be healed.” There is a promise of healing in Elisha’s words, but it’s not the kind of healing that Naaman is looking for. Nothing about the prophet Elisha’s command lives up to Naaman’s grand expectations. Even the shallow Jordan River is not half as good as the ones where he is from. So Naaman storms away, determined to find a more impressive healing.
It is other unnamed servants who convince Naaman to actually do what Elisha said. “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult,” they say, “would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was ‘Wash, and be clean’?” Healing doesn’t require extravagance and astonishment. God often works through ordinary ways and ordinary people. It’s the humble servants of Naaman—the unnamed people—who point us in this direction.
Consider the same in our own American experience. Chances are, when you hear stories about our country’s history, they will be about great people doing great things long ago. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These are great Americans to be sure, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the waters of forgotten history are countless others who have made it possible for America to be what we are today. What are the names of the soldiers who died in the American Revolution? The families who sheltered fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad? The people who marched for women’s right to vote? The students who were arrested in nonviolent protests against segregation? The migrant laborers who marched with Cesar Chavez for fair working conditions? The transgender women of color who resisted arrest at the Stonewall Inn, and thus began the modern LGBT equality movement? We do not know who most of these people were, overlooked as they are in the history of the “greats”. But God knows their names. And God has been using ordinary, small people like them to move this country toward greater equality throughout our history. More often than not, everyday servants have been the ones to point the way to healing for this great and blemished country.
As we approach Election Day this week, the efforts of ordinary people continue. None of us here, for instance, are going to be legendary generals or national leaders. But we don’t need to have our faces carved on Mount Rushmore in order to point people in the direction of healing. We can serve God’s purpose in our country without doing something grand. God calls us to courageous, ordinary acts of citizenship that make civic healing possible. This week, it is about voting based on faith in what’s possible rather than fear of the Other, electing candidates who most support the common good. It’s also about moving beyond a personal joy or grief in Tuesday’s results, and searching for ways we can build common understanding with someone who voted for “the other side”. It’s about teaching our children to value equality, diversity and freedom. It’s about spending our money to support companies that mirror those values. It’s about finding our voices to oppose hate speech, and the courage to stand with those whose lives are threatened for who they are.
From the perspective that only considers great accomplishments by great people, none of these individual acts look very impressive. But if humble servants can help Naaman find healing from leprosy, and if ordinary citizens have the power to shape the leadership of this nation, then the official record of the notable “greats” isn’t what matters most. God saves instead through small people and everyday actions. What we are enlisted in as citizens and Christians is more than governmental, social, or policy change. Our civic, public and neighborly engagement is sacred work, the small, transformative movements of God’s Spirit to heal this world. Let us be the servants whom God uses to point the way. Amen.