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The Best Ancient Story

Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here on the website. For the nerds in the know, this is Proper 23, Year C, Track two, and here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 9, 2022.

The audio-only version of the sermon is here. The full text is below.

Good morning! You know, if anyone asks me, ‘why do we still read the Old Testament (or, the Hebrew Scriptures)? Why don’t we just read the New Testament, or just stick to the Gospels?’ Well, for me, it’s not about Genesis. It’s not about the creation story, or Noah’s ark, or Abraham or Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s not about King David, the rather faulty paragon with significant family issues. It’s not about the trials of Job, or the faithfulness of Ruth, or the crazy-bizarre stories of the Judges from Samson and Deliah all the way to Jael, the tent peg lady. For me it’s not even the prophets, though Amos is my favorite and there’s some extremely quotable stuff in there. It’s not about the Psalms or the Proverbs, or Queen Judith who changes the fate of Israel through very strategic hostessing.

For me, it’s this very brief but beautiful story from Second Kings, and you know, the lectionary skips a little boring bit at the beginning there, right in the page turn between pages five and six. It’s boring, perhaps, because it’s uses the repetative, rhetorical, and ritualistic language that was popular at the time for such stories, but not really now. So here’s what we miss in the page turn: we miss that the King of Aram sends the King of Israel (that’s the northern kingdom, also called Samaria, that didn’t go into exile) a letter saying, ‘Heal my Commander,’ which we then see on the page turn the King of Israel’s reaction to; he thinks the much more powerful King of Aram is picking a fight with him, setting him an impossible task, and will then use Israel’s failure as a reason to invade… which was a really valid fear at the time. So the King of Israel tears his clothes, which you may remember is a typical ancient Jewish response to deep mourning and grief, and deep remorse, and it’s a very visible sign to everyone around the person who is doing it, but it’s also meant to get God’s attention. It’s meant to say, ‘Whatever I did, I’m sorry! I’m sorry and I’m not trying to fake my way through this! I’m sorry, I’ll let everyone know I’m sorry, I’ll do better next time, just send me a prophet to tell me what it is I did wrong, and please, by the way, God, please don’t kill us all.’ That’s the message that the tearing of clothes was meant to convey. And if the prophet Elisha hadn’t found out about it, hadn’t sent a message for the king to stop, the king might have continued on to the next steps: abandon the torn clothes and put on rough sackcloth instead (think… burlap), and put ashes on his head, which is sort of the opposite of being anointed with oil on your head – anointing with oil marks you as chosen by God. Ashes on your head is a reminder of your mortality, your lack of control over… really… anything in this life, and this ancient Jewish practice is something we participate in on Ash Wednesday.

So. Back to the story. But the prophet Elisha sends a message to the king to calm down and send the Commander on over, and he does.

And the Commander arrives. Oh, does he arrive. He arrives with a flourish. He arrives with chariots! Now, a quick word on chariots – these were the ultimate war machine of the time. This was one of the reasons that Aram was stronger and more powerful than Israel. Chariots. So, it would be, today, like a Commander arriving in a convoy not just of humvees, and tanks, but with an escort of fighter jets and a vanguard of bombers, and the awareness that nuclear submarines were just off shore in the Mediterranean. It was an ostentatious display of power, wealth, and safety – safety for the Commander, not for Israel. It was a promise, too, of what Aram would do to Israel if the Commander wasn’t healed. 

This is one of those stories Hollywood could have a lot of fun with, if it wasn’t so short.

So the impressive and intimidating convoy pulls up to the prophet Elisha’s modest dwelling and the prophet… is not impressed. The prophet… does not come out to greet the Commander himself.

He sends a servant with instructions.

Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and you’ll be healed and clean.

It is almost an afterthought.

This… does not impress the Commander. He’s insulted. He was expecting fireworks. Magic. Visions of angels. Arduous trials. At the very least, he was expecting the actual presence of the actual prophet and not a messenger. 

Also, the Jordan isn’t very impressive as a river. And honestly, it’s only a little bigger than the Oatka. It’s not like the prophet told the Commander to go wash seven times in the upper rapids of the Niagara, where the likelihood of death is upwards of eighty percent, even if you were on a tether while you did it.

So, the Commander is annoyed and insulted and he’s… not a person you want annoyed and insulted, and now we’re looking at an international incident going all pear-shaped. And the fate of Israel is saved by Syrian servants. The Commander’s own servants urge him in a very diplomatic way to abandon his pride, to follow the instructions even though they are easier than easy and simpler than simple… and he does so.

He does so.

And he’s healed.

After all this beautiful build up, it’s almost anti-climactic. Except for the mic-drop moment, when the Commander returns, healed, to the prophet, the Commander and the whole convoy, and says in his own words, the fundamental declaration of belief for Jews: Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.

And that’s the story. That’s the reason I think the Old Testament is worth reading. There are other good ones, too, but this one has it all for me; high drama, lots of people approaching God full of really clear ideas about what God is, and how their relationship with God is going to work, what it’s going to look like, and when their assumptions are all blown out of the water… There’s anger. There’s offence. There’s lashing out. There’s pride and pain and little bits of torn ego everywhere. And if… if the person on the path can manage to limp forward toward God without their pride, without their ego, without all of their assumptions about how this is going to work, if they can still move forward toward God doing the actually really simple thing God requires, then they find what they seek. It won’t be served up the way they want. But it’s always there.

And you know, the Commander almost turned away. Aram almost had a reason to declare war against Israel. But someone convinced the Commander to leave his pride on the floor. And the simplicity of the action – wash seven times in our little local river – that left plenty of room to see that it wasn’t the amazing healing powers of the Jordan that healed the Commander. It was that Israel’s god was the real deal who didn’t require antics, or magic, or drama.

And the lasting message today is that God doesn’t require of us antics or drama or massive feats of sacrifice or effort, like the Commander was expecting. God’s requirements are so simple, and really so very easy. You already know what they are. They haven’t changed in thousands of years, since we first came to know them. Jesus distilled them beautifully, but they’re part of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and reiterated in just about every book of prophets that come later.

Practice loving your neighbor. Learn to love yourself. Be expansive about your definitions, and traveling that road, you’ll bump into God before you know it.

Amen.

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