Pastor Karen Karpow
July 4, 2010
Freedom Isn’t Free
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Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.19
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Today, I have a wonderful story to tell you from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s full of irony and revelation, and I want to make sure you don’t miss anything. To really follow it, there are a few things you need to know.
The story is about the healing of a man called Naaman. He is a real big shot, the commander of the army of the nation of Aram (Syria), enemies of Israel for generations. Back then, as still today, people were fighting over the crossroads that is the Promised Land. Naaman is a very successful commander, wealthy and powerful, fortunate in every way—but one. He has a terrible skin disease.
Several years before this story takes place, almost 3000 years ago, Naaman’s army kills the father of the current king of Israel. His name was Ahab, and you might remember him—he’s the one who married Jezebel, who convinced him to erect temples to Baal throughout all of Israel.
Very bad idea. God was not happy about this. The scripture tells us that God uses Naaman to punish Israel, including killing their most wicked king, Ahab.
As part of the spoils of war, Naaman brings home an Israelite slave girl. We don’t know anything about her, though she may have come from the upper classes in Israel, since she is qualified to serve Naaman’s wife—such an honor would not go to a farm girl. She must be well-connected in Israel, because she knows of the miracles being worked by a prophet named Elisha. And she is both generous and bold, telling her mistress that she knows someone who can cure Naaman.
Naaman tells his lord, the king of Aram, about the potential cure. He wants him cured of this disease so he can go back out and fight! The king of Aram writes to the king of Israel, Ahab’s son, and tells him to cure Naaman. Understandably, the king of Israel freaks out, because he knows he can’t cure anybody of anything. He thinks Aram is just picking a fight.
Nobody sees it yet, but God is at work. The prophet Elisha, the one the slave girl was talking about, hears what has happened, and he thinks this is a great opportunity to become better known. He tells the king to calm down and send Naaman to him. Naaman arrives at Elisha’s door, in all his splendor, and is incredibly ticked off that he doesn’t get the welcome he feels his wealth and status merit. Instead, Elisha gives him a prescription: go wash seven times in our local river, the Jordan.
This makes Naaman even more angry—if washing would fix this, then surely the rivers that run through his home town, Damascus, would be far superior to the muddy Jordan.
None of the famous people in this story are listening to God, but the servants are. Naaman’s servants convince him to try it—having come so far, why quit in a hissy fit now? Naaman goes down to the river Jordan, washes seven times…and it works. He is healed.
Finally, finally, somebody in this story “gets it.” Naaman recognizes where his healing has come from, and gives glory to the one God, our God.
Here is the scripture. (2 Kings 5.1-15a)
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. 2 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. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
[Naaman] went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 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.” 7 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.”
8 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.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 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.” 11 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! 12 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. 13 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’?”
14 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.
15 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;…”
May God add a blessing to this reading from the Holy Scriptures.
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Imagine, if you will, a bunch of white girls, twelve or thirteen years old, sitting around a Girl Scout campfire somewhere in the Midwest in 1969. Somebody has a guitar, and they are singing,
Freedom isn’t free
Freedom isn’t free
You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice
For your liberty.
Not realizing that this song was from the squeaky-clean and super-cheerful Up With People repertoire from 1965, these girls feel like rebels. They think they know something important. Freedom isn’t free! Vietnam, you know. Richard Nixon and secret bombings in Cambodia. Student protests. Chappaquidick. The first moon landing. Woodstock!
Freedom isn’t free—a cliché, but like most, true. On this Independence Day, we can think of many people who paid—a lot—for our freedom today. From the Revolutionary soldiers to our troops today in Afghanistan and Iraq, freedom isn’t free. But it’s true on many other levels as well.
Naaman wants to be free of his skin disease. What does he have to pay for that freedom? He wants to pay with money, but that doesn’t work. He goes to the prophet Elisha, who is so completely unimpressed by his resume and his money and his fancy clothes and horses and chariots that he won’t even come out of the house. He just sends a message: go wash in that river over there.
So: what does Naaman have to pay for his freedom? He pays with his arrogance and his pre-conceptions. He has to let go of his ideas of how he will be cured, how he will be treated, what is a good river and what is a bad river. He has to stop listening to himself say what a big shot he is, how important he is. His cure is brought about by a slave girl and his servants. Letting go of his arrogance, his pride, and his pre-conceived notions: that is the price of Naaman’s freedom.
What do we have to pay for our freedom? Depends on what we want to be free from, I suppose.
· If we want to be free from certain problems, we may have to pay with some of our pleasures. If we want to weigh less, for instance, the price is eating less and exercising more. We all know that.
· You may know someone who has to pay with abstinence from alcohol, for the freedom to have a happy family life.
· If we want to be free to live on an earth that supports abundant life for future generations, it’s starting to look like the price will be giving up our addiction to fossil fuels of all sorts.
Once I started to think along these lines, I came up with lots of examples. You can do it too. What do you need to be free from? And what would it cost?
Christians say that the price for our freedom has already been paid, on the cross, by Jesus. But that leaves out one very important thing: we have to accept it. And what does that cost us?
A recent Barna poll says 9% of adult Americans identify themselves as having no faith. That’s 20 million people, of the 220 million adults in America. And the percentage is increasing with every generation. Why is it so hard to believe in God? Maybe it is because we, like Naaman, misunderstand what God does. Our expectations are out of whack.
If we expect God to be our Big Daddy in the Sky, who makes everything all right, on our timetable and in our way, then every time things are not all right, we lose a little faith. And if my life is anything to go by, there are plenty of times when things are not all right. But that is making our own expectations the measure of God’s work—and that’s a mistake. God doesn’t work that way. God does not reward “good” people and punish “bad” ones. God does not create some people who are immune from tragedy (as invincible teenagers would like to believe). But God also does not leave us bereft of support when tragedy strikes.
Freedom, even (or maybe especially) spiritual freedom, isn’t free. We have to let go of our ideas of how things are supposed to be. The freedom of life with God costs us our pride in ourselves, our sense of control, our delusion that if we worry and scurry we can fix it ourselves—as well as the delusion that something is hopeless and we might as well give up.
William Sloane Coffin, former university chaplain at Yale and senior minister at Riverside Church, said something brilliant on this subject. He said, “There is nothing anti-intellectual about the leap of faith, for faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation.”
Trusting without reservation. Trusting that everything will be all right, even if it’s not the way we want it to be. Trusting that God will take care of us. Trusting enough to move out and give up the things that are bad—or even the things that are not-the-best—so that we can have the best.
Trusting without reservation doesn’t mean sitting around and waiting for God to fix it, whatever it is. It means trusting God to work in and around us, even if we don’t understand what dunking ourselves in a muddy river seven times could have to do with anything. Trusting without reservation.
Trusting in God, would you please join me in the prayer of confession?