Did you ever hear about the squirrel and the beaver who were standing at the foot of the Hoover dam? The beaver said to the squirrel proudly, “I didn’t build it, but it is based on an idea of mine.” How about that prideful remark, those famous last words, from John Sedgwick the Union general during the Civil War? He saidfrom his vantage point at the Battle of Spotsylvania: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist- “ We are all very familiar with those words made shortly before the Titanic sailed, Bruce Ismay of the White Star lines declared, “God himself couldn’t sink this ship!” Our Scripture lesson today recounts the pride of General Naaman, a commander in the army of the kingdom of Aram, which is modern day Syria. The countries around Israel went through cycles of peace and war with Israel, and during a time of war or there must have been an invasion of Israel in which the king of Aram captured slaves. This Scripture seems to have been penned during a time of peace because of this correspondence to the king of Israel requesting this peaceful trip to Israel for the purpose of healing General Naaman.
Naaman must have treated his servant right because the Israelite slave girl recommended a visit to Elisha the prophet of Israel for healing his skin disease. It was truly amazing that Naaman listened to his servant. After all, she was a servant, a youth, a woman, and an Israelite. When Naaman and his entourage arrived in Israel it was as if the prophet Elisha did not even rise from his chair to greet them. Elisha’s servant told Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. This would be much like going to a doctor’s office and without even seeing the doctor or even a nurse, a receptionist meets you at the door and tells you to take a swim at a local pool. Naaman was furious because this was not the kind of treatment he expected. He was a general, a very important person, wealthy, and he felt entitled to some pampering. At the very least Elisha could have come to the door himself, created a mixture of magic mud, or recited a few Psalms aloud, waved his hands in the air, but Gen. Naaman didn’t even see the prophet with his own eyes. Naaman had a lot of issues. Back in his home country there were two rivers which were far superior to the Jordan. He had come all of this way and expected so much more. His pride created this expectation. This is why Naaman is such a good character for us to study today. We create expectations for ourselves and for how we need to be treated, too. Do you remember that story about Mohammed Ali during the height of his success arguing with a stewardess on an airplane? He didn’t feel as if he needed to wear a seatbelt. He ignored the instructions and finally announced in a booming voice, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The stewardess came back immediately with, “Superman doesn’t need an airplane either.”
As Christians we are instructed to follow Jesus Christ. We share expectations of what needs to be done like Naaman and Muhammad Ali. One theologian wrote about our common expectations as Christians and the expectations that Jesus might have. We are supposed to seek healing in life, yet many times the simple things feel so far below us, so we reply to Jesus, “That’s not what I had in mind.” Jesus instructs us to forgive others who have offended us and not to hold grudges against them. We reply to Jesus, “that is not what I had in mind.” Jesus tells us that the weakness in our life could be made into our greatest strength. Take up your cross and follow me. We respond to Jesus, “that is definitely not what I had in mind!” Jesus tells us to change our ways and to repent, and to seek peace and harmony with our world and with each other. We respond, “That is not what I had in mind” and we shake our heads, “Jesus you just don’t get it. We want all the rewards but we don’t want to pay the cost. We want peace, we were hoping for an easy victory over our enemies first. We want roses with no thorns, diets with no restrictions. We want to play the games with our own rules.” And Jesus just shakes his head and replies, “That is not what I had in mind when I called you to follow me.”
That is the story of Naaman, too. It seems to be a tale about healing, but it is really much more than that. It is a vivid parable about how we are supposed to protect ourselves from pride’s destructive attack upon our lives and find the wholeness of humility.
Naaman had to reconfigure his idea of the world and his place in it. He had to reconsider the idea of power and authority that had made him so successful. He had to possibly contemplate the power of God entering his life in an unexpected way. I am certain with his busy schedule this frustrated visit to the prophet Elisha was a breakthrough moment for him not only physically in his healing, but spiritually. Where was God’s power and how did it work? Our 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, used to converse with a friend in his backyard on Long Island before going to bed. The stars are spread across the sky. Teddy would turn to his friend and say, “That is the spiral galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one billion stars, each larger than our own sun.” Then Roosevelt would grin and speak these words: “Okay, I think we are small enough now. Let’s go to bed.” Naaman must’ve felt reduced in size and rather embarrassed when things came into perspective for him. Maybe that is a first step toward humility. The Roman Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister tells a story about a priest who took his first step toward humility when he visited a guru. “Master,” he said upon arriving, “I come to you seeking enlightenment.” “Well, then,” the master said, “for the first exercise of your retreat, go into the courtyard, tilt back your head, stretch out your arms and wait until I come for you.” Just as the priest arranged himself in that position, the rains came. And it rained. It rained the rest of the afternoon. Finally, the old master came back. “Well, priest,” he asked, “have you been enlightened today?” “Are you serious?” the priest asked, in disgust. “I’ve been standing here with my head up in the rain for an hour. I’m soaking wet. I feel like a fool!” The master said, “Well, priest, for the first day of a retreat that sounds like great enlightenment to me.”
Naaman must have felt a fool when he dipped in the River Jordan! Maybe this is part of what Jesus meant when he said “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” [Matthew 18:3-5]
Part of the challenge in our life is finding the balance when we do find our humility. A rabbi taught a lesson to students about finding this balance. He said to them that as soon as he feels puffed up and proud, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little piece of paper with the Scripture words remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. And in those moments when he feels down and out and lower than a worm, he reaches into the other pocket and pulls out a slip of paper with the words, “In the image of God you are created and it is good.”
God wants us to have good self-esteem and to be confident and strong in our vocations as Christians so that we can help others. God doesn’t want us to feel like a worm. Sometimes religion feels that it’s a task but that is not the task of religion. Winston Churchill once commented in response to a sermon that railed against humanity. After the sermon someone asked Churchill what he thought about it. He responded, “Yes, we are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glowworm.” Can’t you just picture him saying that?
As Dorothy Sayers writes in Creed or Chaos: “The devilish strategy of Pride is that it attacks us, not on our weak points, but on our strong. It is pre-eminently the sin of the noble mind — which works more evil in the world than all the deliberate vices.”
Finding this healthy balance is so difficult!
Edward Sanford Martin’s poem more than half a century ago illustrates the
struggle within so well:
Within my earthly temple,
there’s a crowd;
There’s one of us that’s humble,
one that’s proud;
There’s one that’s broken-hearted
for his sins;
There’s one that, unrepentant,
sits and grins;
There’s one that loves his
neighbor as himself,
And one that cares for naught
but fame and pelf.
From much corroding care
I should be free
If I could once determine
which is me.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis discusses the good kind of pride and humility and the bad kind of pride and humility. He talks about the difference between being proud of his son and being proud of being the very best. He ends the chapter, ‘If you have read this and you’re convinced that this does not apply to you, then it certainly does apply to you.’ It really does take you by surprise!
Jesus invites us into a life of humility: “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” But we have become badly confused about humility. Theologian Frederick Beuchner wrote: “Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly selfdeprecation of saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious of otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else when your good hand is played.”
The clearest definition of the struggle for humility in the battle against pride is found in Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals: “True humility must follow unavoidably from our sincere and exact comparison of ourselves with the moral law.” “False humility occurs when we compare ourselves to other moral agents—be they human beings, seraphs, “the Holy One of the Gospel,” or even God.” Kant sees our moral humility in the proper balance when we compare ourselves not to others but to God’s ideal. I would argue that God’s ideal is found in the person and life of Jesus Christ.
An old fragment of Jewish wisdom has a student asking a rabbi, “Why doesn’t anyone see God nowadays?” The rabbi’s answer is simple: “Because people are not willing to look that low.”
Jesus was known to always reach out in love to the alienated, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the “least of these.” Humility helps us to have the perspective of Christ. We see ourselves and the world differently and as Naaman realized we discover that the path to healing may not match our expectations.
God healed more than just Naaman’s skin. He deflated Naaman’s ego and pride and taught him a lesson about faith and humility and where true community is found.
Have you ever seen that old Jimmy Stewart classic movie Shenandoah? Jimmy Stewart plays a farmer in Virginia whose wife passed away. He sits down around the table with his children. The table is set and there is an empty place for his wife. He begins to tell his children that he realizes that she wants to raise them as Christians, but he isn’t really sure he knows how to do that, but he does know how to teach them good manners. He begins to say a prayer that illustrates his first steps in his new journey of faith.
Stewart: Lord, we— Son: What’d I do? Stewart: Well, it’s what you haven’t done, boy. A man who eats with his hat on is going nowhere in a hurry. Now, your mother wanted all of you raised as good Christians, and I might not be able to do that thorny job as well as she could, but I can do a little something about your manners. Now, shall we—? Stewart: Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest; it wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same, anyway, Lord for this food we are about to eat, Amen. During this movie, Jimmy Stewart’s character continues to experience loss. Two more sons pass away, his daughter-in-law passes away, and his youngest son who wore a Confederate hat is believed to have been mistaken for a Confederate soldier and killed. Jimmy Stewart begins to pray the dinner prayer again near the end of the movie but this time there is great contemplation in his voice. His emotions run so high that he finally trails off in this prayer and can take no more. He goes out to his wife’s grave, leaving his children at the table. He looks up into the sky and says, “I don’t understand life. Please speak to me.” As these words come out of his mouth, the church bells begin to ring. “You just don’t quit, do you?” He says, looking down at his wife’s grave. He goes home determined to go to church, so he gets them all dressed and ready. It is his first time back in church and you can see that he is not comfortable. During the singing of a hymn, the youngest son whom everyone believes was dead enters the church, limping and on crutches. The congregation sings the Doxology—“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
This does not illustrate that the church is going to magically replace the lost things of life, such as his son. This movie does teach us that the church is a place where we find humility and understanding. Maybe not even understanding but at least we find humility. It is a humility that is in balance because at church we are surrounded with love of God found in others who remind us that God is the source of all blessings. The church provides us with a humility to know God by giving us the context of the biblical narrative, which teaches us to be humbly aware that only God is right.
I think that we are addicted to being right in our society. Sometimes we confuse being right with winning. For instance if we are certain that our spouse is wrong and we provide evidence to prove it, we may feel that we have won, but if we end up sleeping on the couch we may have proved that we are right but we did not win. One recent study states, “There is, in fact, a vast gulf between being right and winning. Vital relationships and long-term successes are based on not just competency, but also respect, honesty, listening, caring and learning. The addictive need to be right damages all of the elements required to create success. In breaking the ‘’being right’’ cycle, stay aware of how often you need to argue your viewpoint, even in the privacy of your own mind. How often do you simply judge, discount and dismiss a viewpoint, argument or person because it challenges what you want to believe or your sense of self-definition?” Another way to illustrate this might be to use the word, “answerizing,” a term coined by Dr. Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School. He spoke at a conference I attended in 2007. Dr. Jones begins his definition with an illustration: A minister calls the children to the front of the church and begins his mini-sermon by asking them: “What gathers nuts in the fall, has a bushy tail and climbs trees?” After a longsilence, an 8-year-old finally says: “I’m sure the right answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” When a person knows the right answer regardless of the question answerizing goes into effect. This happens in politics quite a bit, of course, when spin doctors make certain you hear their side of the issue. Dr.Jones sees this trend as going much beyond the political world. “These tendencies toward answerizing are threatening to debase our conversations and our communities.” If they debase our relationships, they also debase our relationship with God. Dr. Jones stated that the problem began in family communication. A husband says to a wife yes dear, a wife says to a husband, I don’t understand you, the father says because I said so to a child, or go ask your mother, the mother says not right now and then in the teenage years the answerizing has taught the children to respond to most questions with I don’t know. Obviously this is a technique that we all learn. It is something that makes us programmed toward expectations in life similar to Naaman’s. Humility can be found when we recognize the vastness of the power and the grace and love of God. Humility is so important because it connects us to a community of faith where the language of God’s love conquers pride. Humility is so important because it teaches us to re-learn our expectations that our pride has created that keep us from learning to see, hear, and act with lives marked by healthy humility rather than living entrenched in lives of programmed, competitive, answerizing. Let us pray these words of our final hymn:
1. Open my eyes, that I may see Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the
That shall unclasp and set
Silently now I wait for Thee, Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my eyes, illumine me,
2. Open my ears, that I may hear Voices of truth Thou sendest clear;
And while the wave notes fall
on my ear,
Everything false will disappear.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will
Open my ears, illumine me,
3. Open my mouth, and let me bear Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart, and let me
Love with Thy children
thus to share.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my heart, illumine me,
Let us be humble this week!