Sermon presented in 2012 at the Anglican Parish of St. Andrew and St. Mark, Dorval, now the Parish of the Resurrection, St. Andrew and St. Mark.
Heavenly Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight. Amen.
Today’s Old Testament reading provides valuable lessons on how we receive God’s grace and blessings when we are prepared to reverse commonly held beliefs about people who are different – in race, social status and occupation. The account of Naaman’s healing also gives a voice to the marginalized and shows how, as St. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians, “God has chosen the things which the world regards as destitute of influence, in order to put its powerful things to shame.” (1 Cor 1:27 Weymouth New Testament version)
These lessons are particularly relevant during Black History Month, a time when an appeal is made to read the “missing pages” of history of people of Black African descent, a people who have endured centuries of material oppression and political marginalisation, and call to all of us to celebrate the contribution of Black people to the world.
The account of Naaman’s healing teaches us many things –
We’re all vulnerable – regardless of our social standing
We are told in verse 1 that Naaman is a great man, respected by many, including the King of Syria, his boss. This respect is based on his status as the captain of the victorious army of Syria. But, we are told, and this is a big ‘but’, that he has leprosy – a disease that relegates people in Biblical times to ‘outcast’ status. Therefore, we learn that in spite of Naaman’s social status, his illness in the form of leprosy is a reminder that regardless of our station in life, human beings are all vulnerable and flawed in some way, and in need of divine intervention.
Solutions can come from unlikely sources
Then in verse 2, the solution comes from an unlikely and seemingly ‘weak’ source – an enslaved Israelite girl who was captured by Naaman’s army and is assigned to serve Naaman’s wife. We are led to believe that the slave girl doesn’t hate those who captured her. Driven by a courageous faith in God, she seeks a way for God to be glorified in her oppressive situation. By declaring that Naaman can be healed through a prophet in Samaria in the land of Israel, she offers the possibility for the oppressor and the oppressed to worship and serve the same God.
We can jeopardize the flow of God’s blessing by observing socially accepted beliefs and practices
Then in the ensuing verses, we see how several factors come into play that potentially jeopardize the flow of God’s blessing to Naaman. Social barriers, the effect of political oppression, ethno-centric biases and distorted human beliefs about the knowledge and wisdom of people classed as being of “low social standing” all come into play.
- The social order of that time prevents people from directly addressing other people of different rank. God’s inspired message to the young slave girl about how Naaman could be healed is first spoken by the slave to her mistress who is Naaman’s wife. Naaman’s wife then speaks to Naaman, who then speaks to his boss, the King of Syria. The King of Syria then writes a letter to the King of Israel – the country where the healing prophet resides. We note that in the letter, the Syrian king requests not the prophet, but the King of Israel, to heal Naaman. The expected healing by divine intervention of the prophet as told by the slave is therefore lost in the maze of ‘respectful rules of communication’, social ranks and political correctness.
- So we see that Naaman and the King of Syria are willing to accept the solution to Naaman’s problem, but only through the intervention of people of high social standing and rank. In exchange for Naaman’s healing is the offer of material gifts of significant value: 10 talents of silver, 6,000 shekels of gold and 10 changes of clothes. We learn that openness to the grace and healing blessing of God can be marred by the power and influence of material things that entice and induce the physical senses. At this point, the offer of divine intervention is almost lost.
- We note in verses 6 and 7 that the King of Israel reacts with suspicion and outrage to the King of Syria’s letter and Naaman’s presence in his court. How could the king and captain of the dominant nation of Syria that plundered Israel now turn to Israel for help? The King of Israel is suspicious, outraged and anguished. He tears his clothes – an act declaring his grief and mourning as he perceives that the leaders of the oppressive nation of Syria are again attempting to assert their power over his nation. The King of Israel’s reaction shows us how military and political oppression by one nation and race dominating another not only cause suspicion, hostility and poor communication among nations, but it also has adverse psychological effects on the people of the oppressed nation or race.
The faithfulness of God’s people is crucial for His will to be done on earth
BUT in spite of it all, it is the faithfulness of God’s people – the slave girl and the persistence of the prophet Elisha that predominate. Elisha’s faithfulness to God prompts him to speak up when he hears of Naaman’s need and the anguish of the King of Israel. So Elisha summons Naaman and invites him to “see that there is a prophet in Israel” – physical healing as well as divine revelation are offered. We’re reminded that God’s people must not, as St. Paul says to the Galatian Christians, “grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap” (Gal.6 v 9). We, like Elisha, must persist in being conduits of God’s goodness and healing, even to those who are in a position to dominate and exploit.
But Naaman persists with his belief about his social standing and expects to be treated with ‘honour’ by the prophet Elisha. He is disappointed that he is not invited into Elisha’s house. To make matters worse, Naaman is appalled that it is Elisha’s servants who give the healing message instead Elisha himself.
It gets even worse when Naaman’s ethno-centric biased belief emerges. In an angry rage, he questions whether the river of Jordan, which is in the land of the Israelites – the nation the Syrian army plundered, could be better than the rivers of Damascus in the land of Syria. This is not dissimilar to the disdainful comments often heard today about the qualifications of people and products coming from the so-called “Third World” countries.
We all need to face our own beliefs in order to accept the Truth of God
BUT in the midst of Naaman’s rage, Naaman has an epiphany, a moment of truth when he confronts not only the truth about his own distorted beliefs, but the truth of God’s unrelenting desire to heal him and make him whole. This moment is made possible from an unlikely source – Naaman’s own servants. His servants point out his biases and beliefs about social status, saying that had the prophet spoken directly to Naaman, Naaman would have accepted the same message that the prophet’s servants gave in regard to his healing.
Desiring to overcome his own biases and prejudices, Naaman puts his ego aside and follows through on the instructions from Elisha’s servants. He dips seven times in the Jordan River and is healed – so much so that his skin is like that of a little child. WOW! A physical and spiritual rebirth occurs when Naaman embraces God’s grace and healing power. This happens only after he is prepared to disband his beliefs about social status and human power, to release his ethno-centric bias and to submit to the advice and wisdom of persons of lower rank, who admittedly are God’s chosen conduits.
Seek spiritual revelation first
Naaman, now forever grateful for God’s healing grace, commits himself to serve the God of Israel. Naaman steps into another realm of spiritual revelation. God is real. God is good. God is powerful. God’s power works through the oppressed, those of lesser rank, the marginalized to heal him, a man of military might and power. Naaman now has a testimony and he appreciates those who have led him to his physical healing and spiritual revelation.
Blessings come from unlikely sources
But then, he offers a gift to Elisha the prophet. Elisha refuses, because he sees himself only as a conduit of God’s grace to Naaman. I wonder, is the desire to give a gift an act of “noblesse oblige,” a remnant of Naaman’s old beliefs about status and power? I don’t quite know. But I certainly am reminded that our richest blessings very often come from people who we perceive to be in a disadvantaged position. Some of the most materially disadvantaged and oppressed people in this world are far more spiritually rich than many of us and will give the best of what they have, with the expectation of nothing in return.
Black History Month
There are many truths that emerge from the account of Naaman’s healing that are cause for reflection and action, particularly during Black History Month.
There is a parallel between the account of Naaman’s healing and the history of Black people in the Caribbean and North America. The story of Naaman occurs against the backdrop of the dominance of Syria over Israel, the taking of slaves and a rigid social and class structure that emerged. This is quite similar to the conquest and plundering of the African continent by European countries beginning in the mid-15th century in their quest for economic and political dominance. What ensued from this was four centuries of capture, brutalization and marginalisation of an estimated 12 million Black Africans who were transported and enslaved in the European colonies in the Caribbean and also in the United States of America and yes, slavery, even here in Canada.
We see in the account of Naaman’s healing, that it is the marginalized – the slave girl and people of lower social rank – the servants of Naaman and Elisha, and even Elisha himself – who are instrumental in bringing about Naaman’s healing and transformation. We don’t know the names of the slave girl or the servants, but we do know that the quality of Naaman’s life improved because of the role played by these persons of lesser rank. Similarly, people of Black African descent in the Caribbean and North America have made spectacular contributions to the improvement of the quality of life of European nations and to their descendants in North America and the Caribbean. But as in the Biblical text, their names are not frequently mentioned nor is their contribution given the level of deserved recognition and credit in mainstream history books.
This leads us to the reason why there is the need for Black History Month and the creation of important initiatives such as the “Missing Pages” project here in Québec, Canada.
Black History Month has its roots in ‘Negro History Week’ that was declared in February 1926 by Dr. Carter Woodson, a Black American graduate of Harvard University. Dr. Woodson saw the need for the methodical study of the life of African Americans and their history. Negro History Week has evolved to become Black History Month and is an observance of the history of descendants of Black African slaves in a number of countries outside of Africa.
The “Missing Pages” project has its genesis in a request by a class of young secondary school students who were studying Black history at the Da Costa Hall summer school in July 1993. These eager students of Mrs. Junia Wilson questioned the general absence of Blacks from the school textbooks. Personnel from the Ministère de l’éducation heard the complaints of these young Black students, recognized the need and acted to introduce the relevant materials found in “Some Missing Pages.” Again, it is those who are marginalized who speak up and offer a solution.
Black people in the Bible
Euro-centric interpretations of the Bible have generally failed to acknowledge the presence and role of Black people in the Bible. In the same way that we gain an understanding of the role of the young slave girl in bringing God’s word of healing to Naaman, so too must the Church gain an understanding of Black personalities in the Bible and to fully acknowledge their contribution to the spreading of the good news.
This turns me now to the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, an unnamed Black man in Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 8:26-39) We are told that the angel of the Lord speaks to the apostle Philip, telling him to go to Gaza. In obedience, Philip goes to Gaza and there he meets the Black Ethiopian man, who has great authority under Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He is in charge of all of the Queen’s treasure, and he came to Jerusalem to worship and on his return journey, he is sitting in his chariot reading the Bible. Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to speak to the Ethiopian.
We learn that this Black Ethiopian is an important government official – a man of high rank and respect. We also see that he loves reading God’s Word. We see how God brings these two men together. From a social class viewpoint, Philip was from a position of lower rank and the Ethiopian was an important government official. Racially, Philip was Greek and the eunuch was African. Now get this – neither man saw these distinctions in each other. They focused on their common quest to know God. Together, both men, rich and poor, White and Black, share the good news of God’s message. God then uses Philip to lead the eunuch into an encounter with Christ, he is converted and baptized promptly. We can only imagine the large number of Ethiopians who heard the gospel message and were converted, because of this one man’s testimony.
As in the account of Naaman’s healing, we learn from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion, that the revelation of God’s truth is accepted when barriers of social status, ethno-centric biases and distinctions are dropped, as in the case of Naaman or are absent, as in the case of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The way to the truth is complicated for Naaman but straightforward and easy for the Ethiopian eunuch. Black History Month offers us the opportunity to step out of the ignorance of the history of Black people and accept the truths about their contribution to our world and our Church.
Contribution of Black people
Some of the many machines and devices we use on a daily basis were invented by Black people during the nineteenth century, a time when Black people were largely regarded as inferior and incapable of being educated. The air conditioning unit, the stove, typewriter, thermostat control, stethoscope, radiator, small pox vaccine, the lawn mower, railway air brakes, the golf tee, cellular phones are just a few inventions that came from people of Black African descent. Ref: http://www.blackinventions101.com/inventionslist.html
Here in Canada, Elijah McCoy, “The real McCoy”, invented a number of devices to lubricate locomotive engines. Mary Ann Shadd was the first Black female attorney in North America and first woman publisher in Canada. Charles Drew attended McGill University medical school in where he graduated with honors. He pioneered blood transfusions and established the Red Cross Blood Bank.
Like Naaman’s slave girl, his servants, Elisha and his servants, Black Canadian soldiers in World Wars 1 and 2 looked beyond their own oppressive conditions of racial segregation, injustice and marginalization, to fight for this country and the world in the quest for justice and the greater good of all, including their oppressors here in Canada.
The Anglican Church and Black people
There was a time when Anglican Church – clergy and lay people, like Naaman and the King of Syria upheld and perpetuated discriminatory beliefs about social status and ethno-centric superiority. The Anglican planter class in the USA and in the colonies of the West Indies refused to have their slaves baptized as this would make Black people spiritually ‘equal’ to White people. We know that the Anglican Church was part of the oppressive colonial government institutions and made no attempt prior to the early to mid-19th century to declare their abhorrence of slavery and racial discrimination. Here in Canada, we learn that Black Anglicans were relegated to their own congregations and lay-readers in the 19th century were only permitted to read the Bible and lead prayers under restrictive conditions. A case in point is Joseph Leonard, a Black Anglican lay-reader in the Brindley Town settlement in Nova Scotia, who inspired by God, went way beyond those restrictive conditions and was flatly refused permission by Bishop Inglis to be ordained a minister.
It is the persistence of evangelical missionaries – the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and other denominations that were not highly regarded at the time, as well as the persistent faith of marginalized Black Christians – that shook the conscience of the “established” Anglican Church in the early to mid-19th century. This led to a reversal in the Anglican Church’s position on slavery and the offer in 2006, of a formal, unequivocal apology for the role it played in the slave trade and slavery. Like Naaman, the Anglican Church has had its epiphany – its moment of truth when the voices of people, considered to be of low social and religious status, were heeded and this led to a new revelation and era for the Anglican Church.
Today, Anglican Churches in the Caribbean integrate local, afro-centric cultural elements in the liturgy. Many educational institutions under the aegis of the Anglican Church turn out scholars and citizens who continue to make a sterling contribution to their communities in the West Indies and in North America. In the Anglican Church in Canada, people of Black African descent comprise a significant percentage of many congregations. They play an active role in the life of the Church and in advancing its work at home and abroad.
I am the daughter of forefathers and foremothers who endured the harsh conditions of the Atlantic slave trade, who suffered the lashes of the whips of slave masters in the pelting heat of the sun on the sugar plantations in Jamaica and who later lived under oppressive and limiting social and economic conditions of post-emancipation colonialism.
I was born in a vastly different world from that of my enslaved fore parents and of own my parents. I was born right after Jamaica became independent from Great Britain. I won’t deny that I grew up learning that to succeed in a British-based education system required political correctness, British cultural adaptations and the stifling of Jamaican cultural expressions in certain contexts. Thankfully, much of that has changed since I was a child. I have benefited tremendously from the best quality educational and professional opportunities that Jamaica has to offer. Interestingly, this has been recognized by the Government of Canada, which continues to quietly recruit professionals like myself to live and work in this country.
Like any other person of Black African descent coming from what many Canadians refer to as a “Third World” country, I have been stereotyped and insulted by racist co-workers, government officials and people with ethno-centric biases. And this, in spite of all I have achieved and contributed to this country. Even with the concerted efforts to make this great country a model of inclusion and multi-culturalism, racism is still a problem in Canada.
HOWEVER, I choose today to pay far more attention to the deep pride, appreciation and gratitude I have as I stand before you here today.
- Pride and appreciation for my forefathers and foremothers whose faith in God inspired their endurance and gave them the hope that succeeding generations would have a better life;
- I am grateful that live in an era where the history of Black people is now written truthfully and spoken about openly;
- I deeply appreciate the limitless opportunities I have in this great, free and fair country, Canada, which has given me my beloved Canadian family, who have opened their arms and folded me in their loving embrace;
- Most of all, I express my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to God, whose promise to Abraham “to be the father of many nations” is now a reality. This promise is also a promise of inclusion, that all people of all nations, races and social rank can be united as one universal family under a gracious, loving Father God.
As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual congregation, may these reflections cause us to rejoice in our diversity and renew our commitment to make inclusion our reality here and in the world.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this morning. May God bless you all!
Christ in you, the hope of glory. That’s why glory matters.