How many people does it take to change the world?

Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing 7th July, 2019 by Revd Sue McCoan

2 Kings 5:1-14

Luke 10:1-11,16-20

I asked a couple of questions before the bible readings: how many people were involved in healing Naaman, and what specifically were the 72 followers of Jesus asked to do. How did you get on?

Let’s look at the second reading first. When these 72 followers of Jesus find a house that makes them welcome, other than eating all the food, what does Jesus tell them to do?

Heal the sick.

Well, there we are – sounds simple enough. Except it isn’t. Although there might be people here with medical training, most of us wouldn’t know where to start if we were asked to heal someone.

So this is where the story of Naaman comes in. Naaman is the army commander for the King of Aram, an old name for Syria. He’s a seriously important person – we might think of historic figures like Nelson, or the Duke of Wellington, to get some sense of the high regard in which he’s held. Unfortunately for Naaman, he had a chronic skin condition – leprosy was used to cover a variety of ailments. He’s evidently tried many treatments, but nothing has worked. So who is the first person who makes a suggestion about how Naaman might find a cure?

His wife’s servant. A young girl, captured from Israel as one of the spoils of war. She has no reason to be nice to Naaman, but she knows that in her native country, there’s a man who could help him. She mentions it in a chance remark to her mistress, Naaman’s wife. Naaman’s wife would be jolly glad to get her husband cured of this rather revolting condition, and clearly she tells Naaman about this, because Naaman decides to go to Israel and see for himself.

Trouble is, Naaman has a full-time job as commander of the army. Who does he have to see, to get permission for some leave?

The king of Aram.

And what does the king of Aram send with Naaman? (Addressed to whom?)

What else does Naaman take? He’s a man of considerable wealth, as well as important. It seems perfectly reasonable to him to go straight to the king of Israel – he is used to dealing with heads of state. He goes, and presents to the king of Israel the letter from the King of Aram: ‘This letter is to inform you that I am sending to you my servant Naaman, and I beg you to cure him of his leprosy’.

The king of Israel is very welcoming, but utterly stumped. He can no more heal people than most of us can.

It’s rather like those meetings of heads of state that we see today, where two leaders have a warm and cordial exchange and everything looks lovely and then one of them says, ‘so you are going to give us a better trade deal/overlook our nuclear programme/ignore our human rights record, aren’t you’, and there’s a sudden clunk of silence.

We don’t know how word gets to Elisha the prophet that the king of Israel is in this awkward spot – probably, again, one of the servants. Elisha sends word that he can help – phew- and so Naaman makes his way to Elisha’s house.

Who comes out to meet him?

Elisha’s messenger.

Elisha sends a messenger, to tell Naaman to go and wash 7 times in the Jordan. Naaman is outraged. He wants the works – he wants Elijah, in person, waving his hands, big fanfare. He’s not going to bathe in some rubbish Israeli river.

Who persuades Naaman to change his mind?

His servants.

So, adding all these together, how many people does it take to heal a Syrian general? The Israelite girl, Naaman’s wife, the king of Aram, the king of Israel, Elisha the prophet, Elisha’s messenger, and Naaman’s servants. That’s at least 8 people, plus the unknown person(s) who informed Elisha. Some of those 8 were royalty; some were nobodies.  Half of them were not Jewish. But all of them were needed to play their part to make the healing happen.

Jesus tells his followers to heal, and here’s a story to help us reflect on healing.

Now, both these readings are about healing individuals, but I’d like us to think today in rather wider terms. Because it seems to me that this country – in fact the whole world – is in great need of healing. There is something really wrong, when the blunders of some of the wealthiest people are addressed by cutting the benefits of some of those most in need. There is something deeply unhealthy in a system where people can work flat out and still not have enough for a secure home. There is something seriously out of kilter when a government can declare a climate change emergency on one hand and plan the extension of Heathrow Airport on the other. And with all this, there are still people who imagine themselves as leaders who think the most important issue in the country right now is Brexit. God help us all.

The country is in need of healing. And it’s not the healing of smoothing things over, of saying, let’s all make the best of it. We need radical treatment.

Helpfully, we’ve had an example of healing at this national and international level in the raising of concern about the climate crisis. Well, maybe not healing, but at least the beginning of a healing process. Scientists have known for years that human activity is causing a build-up of greenhouse gases, which leads to global warming, which upsets the ecosystems on which we depend which causes disruption to climate and so on and so on. We have made some changes – clean air acts; banning the use of CFCs in fridges; developing renewable energy sources; as individuals many of us have tried to save energy, to recycle, to use public transport. But it’s not been enough and carbon dioxide is still rising.

Until a few months ago, the world was in much the same position as Naaman the Syrian – aware of the problem, but not knowing how to fix it. And then along comes a girl, not a captured Israelite slave in this case, but a Swedish schoolgirl, who comes at this whole issue with a completely different viewpoint. The viewpoint of those in leadership now is: how can we maintain our current lifestyle, so we don’t lose votes, and also save the planet. Greta Thunberg’s viewpoint is: this is my future. I will have to live in the mess you leave. End of.

Greta has galvanised schoolchildren. And adults have responded. The conversation has shifted. And industry is starting to react, looking at ways to cut back on single-use plastic, to use green energy. When you have children and captains of industry working together, change can happen. It has taken, and will continue to take, all sorts of people to keep up the pressure, and to keep up the individual changes and sacrifices that make it real. It takes each one of us, to play our part.

Where does the church come into this? At the heart of our faith is our worship of God as Creator, and we recognise our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. Our response to the climate crisis comes out of this responsibility, as an act of faith and commitment. This is a call on all Christians; but it’s not a call that’s unique to Christians. One of key things we might draw from the healing of Naaman the Syrian is the interfaith aspect – non-Jewish people played a significant part.

In responding to the climate crisis, this is a time for Christians to work with other agencies, and other faiths, to do whatever is needed.

And there’s one more thing. The Church that is called to heal is itself in need of healing. In the last several years the Christian church has been variously rocked by scandal, challenged by new atheists, shown up by the devotion of other faith groups. We fret about decline.

For Naaman to receive his healing, he had to do a lot of climbing down. He went to the king of Israel with horses and chariots, carrying gold, silver and fine clothes. He had to go own from the palace to Elisha’s home, then down from Elisha’s to the river, and then get down from his high horse, literally, to take off his fine clothes and climb down into the water. Only when he was truly humbled was he made well.

The Christian church might do well, instead of fighting for our position, to embrace the humiliation, to see it as God getting us off our high horse of righteousness, of thinking we have all the answers. We might do better to climb down, and repent, and in our humility reach out to others. So that in bringing healing, we are also healed.

How many people does it take to change the world? As many of us as there are.