God’s Faculty: Do You Know Who You Are
God’s Faculty: Do You Know Who You Are
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On November 6th, 2022
As you listen to today’s scripture text from the book of II Kings, know that the events here ostensibly take place about 150 years after the passage Pastor Katie shared last week which details Solomon praying for and receiving wisdom. The United Monarchy under David and Solomon has divided into a northern kingdom of Israel (or Samaria) and a southern kingdom of Judah. Various regional wars have been raging through this time, and Aram, another neighboring kingdom located in what is now modern-day Syria, has threatened and launched a few incursions into Israel. So diplomatic relations between Aram and Israel are rocky at best. This is the context in which an Aramean general and an Israelite prophet encounter each other. Listen for what the story might teach you and I about humility, transformation, and identity.
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’ So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’
It is good to be back in this pulpit. As you know, the last two weeks have been difficult and a bit of a whirlwind for me. From receiving a call just as I was about to conduct a wedding that my mom, whose health was already precarious, had just fallen and broken her hip and leg, to hearing the next morning that she was not able to talk. From flying home that day to be with her and my dad, to arranging for in home hospice care, which she entered that Tuesday. By last Saturday evening, just eight days after her fall, she’d breathed her last. Judith and I were there with her and my dad (and my brother and sister in law joined us on the phone). It was truly a blessing to be able to be at Mom’s bedside in that last week and few hours of her earthly life. There are a number of truly wondrous God moments that happened over the course of that time. I am grateful to this congregation and our amazing staff—Katie chief among them—for allowing me the space to be fully present there.
I also very much appreciate all of the cards, texts, and emails of support I’ve received in the past couple of weeks—and the food and gifts and other gestures of condolence, too. You members and friends of Immanuel, through your expressions of care and concern for me and my family in a time of death and mourning, have been a living embodiment of God’s love to me. You’ve been a testimony to what the name of this church means: God is with us. I love the closing lines of the IPC statement of faith on our website, “In life, and death, and life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”
That’s the sort of truth that’s particularly worth claiming on All Saints’ Sunday, when we hear the names of our dear ones who have died in the past year, and perhaps recall other relatives and friends whose passing was somewhat more removed in time. On days like today, it helps to remember that God is with us in the middle of it all. When our best laid plans come to nought and when life seems to be one big green light. In triumph and tragedy, in the extraordinary and the mundane, in the big moments and the small, in the death and dying of our dearly beloved ones and in living into the promise that death does not get the last word, but love does—God is with us, we are not alone. If we are fortunate enough in life, we get a whole slew of people, maybe groups and congregations full of them, who know and teach and embody that truth for us. But there are always some people for each of us who stand out in that regard. My Mom was and is and always will be one of those people for me—and perhaps for you, too.
But she wasn’t perfect by any means. Like the rest of the people on the list we’ll hear read in a little while, Mom wasn’t a plaster cast or stained-glass saint. She was a person of prayer, a person who grew and helped countless others grow, a person who went out of her way to let people know she cared for them, but she had her quirks and rough edges. I can promise you that not all of those rough edges were fully smoothed out by time and tide and God. What Mom understood about herself—and helped others to learn about themselves—was that she, like each of them, was a beloved child of the living divine. Not because of what she’d accomplished. Not because she had accumulated enough stars in her crown, or good deeds in her quiver, but because of the great love of her Higher Power for her before and beyond and within and sometimes even in spite of what she’d done. Mom knew who she was. A child of God. And so was everyone else she met.
All Saints’ Sunday may ultimately be about remembering who we are and who those deceased loved ones we remember were and are. We are beloved children of God and so are they. It’s not a merit-based points system. It’s grace.
When we keep that in the forefront of our mind, we know we have work to do. We can be conduits, channels of blessing. And so yes, there are some people who kind of do stand out in that regard.
Richard Lischer, the fine preaching professor at Duke Divinity School, said this about special saints in our lives in a marvelous All Saints’ Sermon he delivered at the chapel there years ago: The saints are our teachers. They are God’s faculty. And here is what they teach: they teach the hardest subjects, the kind that, when you’re honest with yourself you say ‘I could use a tutor,’ –subjects that even the world has not yet mastered and perhaps never will. They teach us how to forgive. They teach us how to say no to power. They teach us how to forget our own problems and to serve others. But most of all, the saints teach us how to die.
It may seem a bit of stretch to go from talking about saints to digging into the story of a haughty Aramean general with leprosy, and an irascible Israelite prophet, and a few unnamed humble servants, but hang in there with me. Because I think that like Mary Alice and some other people in your own life you are no doubt calling to mind, Naaman and Elisha and those servants have something to teach us—about how to live and how to die.
Naaman the Aramean general, while afflicted with a dreaded skin disease, does not appear to suffer from any lack of ego. As an effective general and mighty warrior, Naaman is highly regarded by the king of his country, and probably by the men who served under him. At least one of his wife’s servants—and Israelite girl who had been taken captive in a raid—thinks enough of him that she tells Naaman’s wife that her husband could probably be healed by this prophet over in Samaria. Naaman relays that to his king and his king sends him with a message to the king of Israel to ask for healing. The king of Israel, like people in power often do, thinks its all about him and whether or not the king himself can heal Naaman. Moreover he interprets it as a pretext for the King of Aram to declare war on Israel for not curing Naaman of his disease.
Elisha hears about it and sends a message to the king, saying in not so many words, this is not all about you—or as Katie put it last week, you are not the center of the movie. There is a higher power than you at work here, king. Send him over to me, so that I can demonstrate that there is a prophet in Israel. So Naaman shows up with his horses and chariots and his gold and his silver and parks them in front of Elisha’s house. But Elisha stays inside and sends a message out to him to say, go and wash in the Jordan River, seven times, and you’ll be all better. This enrages Naaman. Doesn’t he know who I am? I expected him to come out and wave his hands over the spot and pray to his God and I’d be healed. Not to tell me to wash in some dirty river in Israel when we have plenty of rivers back home that are better than this one. But Naaman’s servants—servants again, did you catch that, servants—tell him, essentially, just give it a try. What he asked you to do wasn’t hard. If he’d asked you to do something hard, you would have done it. Come on. All you have to do is get in the water and wash and be clean. Follow directions.
Of course, to do that, Naaman had to die a little. He had to die to the sense that his country’s rivers were better than this one. He had to die to himself and his own overblown ego that expected the prophet to come out and kowtow to him rather than making him participate in his own healing by following directions and getting in the water. He had to die to the illusion, as seemingly powerful as he had been, that he could finally manage and control outcomes. None of us, friends, can do that. By the end of the story, the last word you heard, Naaman goes from understanding himself finally as a commander, to understanding himself as what? A servant.
Rick Lischer was right. Saints teach us the hardest things, including how to die. So a couple of quick stories. In the last several days of my Mom’s life, my Mom’s Alanon sponsees came by and told her and us about lessons they’d learned from her. One was that when she took them on, she asked them first to complete a three hundred piece jigsaw puzzle. When they came back telling mom that was done, she’d say now do a five hundred piece jigsaw puzzle. When they completed that, she’d say, now a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.
Now that’s your first lesson in patience. It was also their first lesson from my mom in humility and following directions and taking part in their own healing.
But what my mom ultimately taught them and taught me was who they were—precious children of God, worthy of being treated that way. Not worse than, or better than, anyone else. That’s who we are. Children of God. Sparks of the living divine.
So a funny story to close.
During the final days at Denver's old Stapleton airport, a crowded United flight was canceled. A single agent was rebooking a long line of inconvenienced travelers.
Suddenly an angry passenger pushed his way to the desk. He slapped his ticket down on the counter and said, "I HAVE to be on this flight and it has to be FIRST CLASS."
The agent replied, "I'm sorry sir. I'll be happy to try to help you, but I've got to help these folks first, and I'm sure we'll be able to work something out."
The passenger was unimpressed. He asked loudly, so that the passengers behind him could hear, "Do you have any idea who I am?"
Without hesitating, the gate agent smiled and grabbed her public address microphone. "May I have your attention please?" she began, her voice bellowing throughout the terminal. "We have a passenger here at the gate WHO DOES NOT KNOW WHO HE IS. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to gate 17."
I hear this story and I think of Mary Alice, and of St. Naaman, and St. Elisha, and all of you saints, and the saints who we will be remembering today. And I give thanks that every now and then we remember who we are.