A Matter of Choice
The healing of Naaman, orchestrated by the prophet Elisha, and Jesus’ healing of the leper present interesting parallels that provide an opportunity to preach on the topic of choice. As I looked at these two texts, it seemed that there were similarities and differences that connected and juxtaposed these two biblical texts in interesting ways and made preaching them under the topic of choice a worthy endeavor. The following sermon “A Matter of Choice” was developed and preached originally at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 2003 as part of my interview process for a faculty position. I have updated it for this publication, in part to include it for the celebration of Black History Month.
Some people say that life itself is a matter of choice; and certainly we could not be faulted for such thinking, because at just about every moment of our life we are required to make some kind of choice. Now there are things over which we have no choice, such as the situation or racial group into which we are born – although society at times acts as though we do, and even that we should be penalized for it. But there are some simple choices that we make almost on a daily basis. Each of you made a choice to get out of your bed, get dressed and go about your day’s activities, and you certainly made a choice, hopefully a wise one, to come to chapel to hear a word from the Lord. Because, that is why you have come, I hope. I hope it isn’t simply to hear the latest preaching candidate. We are here together in God’s house, and we have gathered in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to worship him; so whether you meant to or not, you have made the choice to enter into God’s presence, to experience God’s self-revelation, and offer your response. And since I made the choice to be the preacher at this service, I have the responsibility to listen to what God is saying to us about making the right choices for our lives.
You heard the lessons read, and since you already know the title of this sermon, it must have struck you as pretty obvious. Yes, there was a lot of choice-making going on. So what about it? Well, let’s just take a look at things. Naaman the leper – I love this story. I would almost call it one of my favorite Bible stories. If you looked up the story, you would see it represented as Naaman the leper, not Naaman the commander, not Naaman the wealthy man, but Naaman the leper. Isn’t it amazing how folks pick on what they consider our inadequacies to describe us? As an African American woman and a pastor, that is a situation with which I am very familiar; but we are talking about Naaman. The thing I love about it is that it is so apropos of life. We are known and judged by the choices that we make or even those we do not make, but that are often representative of the actions we take. Naaman, Elisha, the two kings -- just look at their actions, and you will see so many similar life situations and experiences.
Naaman was the commander of the mighty army of the King of Aram (or ancient Syria), and he is a favorite of the kings because he was instrumental in Aram being victorious over Israel. Actually, he was God’s instrument because it was believed that it was actually God that gave the Arameans victory over Israel. However, Naaman had a problem, a big problem. He suffered from leprosy. Now you do understand that we are not necessarily talking about the disease as it is known today. At that time, any skin eruptions were called leprosy; but whatever it was exactly, Scripture says Naaman has leprosy. He was a leper. Imagine if you will, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the most powerful nation on earth with a bad case of psoriasis, the virulent kind that itches terribly. At the most inopportune moments, and most likely in the most inappropriate places, he had to scratch. The greatest commander of the greatest army would break out in a sweat as the need to scratch an uncontrollable itch took him. Now that is a problem, a big problem.
Can’t you imagine him coming home angry, snarling and shouting because once again he felt humiliated because in that critical moment, at a time when he was trying to be dignified, he just had to scratch. He had no choice; the itch would not go away. For Naaman, dealing with his affliction was not a matter of choice. It was a necessity, an absolute necessity. His wife tried all the remedies money could buy; they tried making herbal solutions, cooling salves, special baths, but nothing worked; the problem continued. Now consider how he felt when he heard that there was the probability of being cured. It did not matter that the healer was from little Israel, a lesser nation, a captured nation at that. He would try everything, do anything to get rid of the problem. Or would he?
Naaman sets out for Israel to find the prophet; he is coming to be healed. But despite the need that confronts him, he has to show himself for who he is. He comes as a conqueror. He intends to make an impression, and he comes showing off his wealth. What else would you call arriving with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments? Perhaps we can justify the silver and gold by saying that he felt nothing was too much to pay for his healing, but ten sets of clothes? Well, you decide.
Now I know I’ve bypassed the involvement of the kings, but that’s another story. Let’s stick with Naaman. Naaman comes with great expectation. He expects to be treated as his rank and wealth deserves. What happens? He arrives at the prophet Elisha and is totally disrespected. If I were in my church, I would say, he was “dissed.” Despite all that he has done to show that he is worthy of respect, in his mind, he is given no respect at all. He is not treated as he should be, as he has earned through his rank and position, or as he knows he deserves. That’s what goes through Naaman’s mind when the servant of the prophet, not the prophet himself, comes out and delivers a message and goes back inside. Doesn’t it just set you off when folks don’t give you the respect you think, no, that you know you deserve? Certainly, when you are dismissed simply because of who you are, it is more than annoying. It is a source of great anger – especially when such treatment occurs in the presence of others, especially those over whom you have authority, as is the case with Naaman.
Elisha is not impressed with Naaman’s wealth. Elisha, the prophet of God, is the successor of Elijah, who through seeing his teacher taken up into heaven received a double share of blessing as the favored son. Elisha has given up the trappings of his former life for the work of God, and the trappings of power that Naaman has brought do not impress him. He has a word from the Lord that will bring about healing. All he is concerned with is doing what God requires of him. His agenda is not to socialize or to get to know Naaman in any way, just show the working of God and move on. So when Naaman comes with his request, he provides the instructions necessary to bring about the desired healing with no fanfare, and then goes about his business as usual. And Naaman is furious. He feels totally disrespected, dismissed, diminished, dissed. Scholars who have analyzed this story tell us that the first hearers would have been thrilled to hear of the humiliation of the powerful nation of Aram at the hands of the prophet of Israel. Naaman felt humiliated, but why? Didn’t he get what he came for? He was desperate to be healed. He was given a prescription for his healing. So what’s the problem?
But you see that’s one of the reasons this story is so special; it’s so human. Aren’t we just like that? We need something, we beg for it, we get it, and we are unhappy, dissatisfied. Why? When you get right down to it, we are ruled by pride. Pride gets in the way of so much. Pride leads us to making decisions that are not in our best interests. Pride leads us to disobedience. Isn’t the old adage, “pride goes before a fall”? Wasn’t that what happened with our first parents? God said, everything I have made is yours to do with as you will; eat any fruit except that of the tree in the center of the garden. So what did they do? They listened to the snake that said, in effect, God does not regard you enough. God does not want you to be like God. Pride, disobedience, sin, sorrow. It’s a matter of choice.
Pride, disobedience, sin, sorrow. It’s a matter of choice.
Cloaked in the hurt caused by his pride, Naaman forgot about his desperation to get rid of his disease. He forgot about the uncomfortable, hot days with no relief. He felt humiliated, and he missed the opportunity to be healed. He had been humbled and humiliated because of his leprosy, and here again he was being humiliated. He did not understand the difference between humility and humiliation – same root, different meaning. In both cases, one is brought low, but with humility, it’s the individual’s choice that is made voluntarily. With humiliation, it’s the choice made by others against you that lowers you in the minds of others. So many of us in the African American community suffer humiliation that even our acts of humility at times become fodder for those who would see us humiliated. The commander of the army realized that in this situation he was not in command, and he could not allow himself to be brought low. Humility and gratitude, the only emotions truly appropriate to the circumstance were non-existent. Instead, like so many of us, Naaman allowed his pride to get in the way, and he made the wrong choice. But thanks be to God, the story does not end there.
“If you choose, you can make me clean.” It was another cry for healing. Jesus had begun his ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” That was his message. He had begun to call his disciples. Those who heard him teaching in the synagogue were amazed at the authority that it demonstrated, and the unclean spirits made it known to all from where that authority came. Jesus had begun to perform miracles of healing – of body and spirit. He was about his Father’s business. And so the leper came to Jesus. He had no gold, no silver. Given the laws about lepers and leprosy, he was most probably outcast, forced to live away from family and society. He had no wealth and no power, and only rags for clothes. But he was desperate. Like Naaman, he was ready to do anything to be healed, and like Naaman, he found himself in a situation that required humility.
Naaman could not do it, but this unnamed leper could. Naaman could not make the hard choice of humbling himself, putting aside his pride, falling on his knees in supplication, but this leper who knew that this was the only choice, the only opportunity that he had to be restored to wholeness, could, and did. It took others to help Naaman understand that the choice for a new life was in his hands. The unnamed leper who had already lost whatever place he had in society knew that reaching out to Jesus was all that he could do. And he did it.
(Lord) “If you choose, you can make me clean.” “I do choose. Be made clean!” Can you imagine what passed through that man, the overflowing joy, the relief. At last, that which he hoped for, longed for, prayed for, was in his grasp. It wasn’t just that it was within his reach; he had it. The healer who had come to Galilee had received him, as others had not. He had reached out and touched him as others no longer did, and he was whole. He could not contain his joy. He could not be silent. He had to tell everyone. He had to share his joy.
What a difference from Naaman. Now you might say that Jesus’ attitude was also different from Elisha’s. Yes, it was, but that’s not our focus. Two men, given the opportunity to be healed, to be made whole, and two very different, two opposite reactions. It’s just a matter of choice. All of us, bent, broken, sick, lost, and lonely; we have the opportunity to be made whole. For all of us who come to Christ with all our brokenness, asking, pleading, Lord if you choose, our Savior has an answer. Hear what Paul says to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God.” (2:8). Indeed, our healing, our wholeness, is a matter of choice, but it is not simply our choice. First and best of all, it is God’s choice. Our very lives are the result of a choice God made at the time of our creation, and that’s something that those who would deny the full humanity of all people, regardless of color, class, gender, sexual identity, or other social location need to understand and accept. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and that was indeed a matter of choice – God’s choice.
Not only was our creation God’s choice, but also when we were lost in sin, God made another choice on our behalf. God sent Jesus to take upon himself the sins of the whole world. The grace of God gave us a new start at life and through Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. All we need to do is accept God’s grace and live our lives in Christ. As disciples of Jesus Christ, each one of us is called to make a life-changing choice. It does not matter whether we consider ourselves rich in the things of world life or not. As we consider the uncertainty of our times, we all need to recognize the brokenness and sickness in ourselves, our society, our world and come humbly to Jesus, seeking wholeness in all aspects of life.
It may seem like things are happening around us over which we have no control. War seems never ending with the axis of evil widening and shifting continually to new and increasingly lethal groups, with each one trying to outdo the previous one in its global reach. There is also the expanding hegemony of the devaluation of the life of people of color, particularly Black people, here is the U.S. and globally. Evil continues to infect the world and its mark, like leprosy is obvious and infectious. The world seems to have an itch that, like Naaman, it must scratch; but we do have a choice, one that brings us right to the place of total healing, for ourselves and our world, one that brings us straight to Jesus. Each one of us who feels called into service as a disciple of Jesus Christ is where we are because of some important choices, and because of those choices, we can help to bring about great things, perhaps even wholeness for our world. Hear what Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1: 26-30):
"Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
The first and most important choice is to accept Jesus at his word and to follow his teachings and examples, not least of these is a life of prayer and faith in the power of God. I know it seems simplistic to say that if we simply pray, war will go away, terrorism will cease; but is it? Did not Jesus say that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you could make the mountains move from their place and take up lodging in the sea? Did he not say that we could do greater things than he did? All we would need is to decide to have that kind of faith and hold to it. You see, in the end, Naaman’s faith, yes faith, kicked in. He believed in the possibility of his healing, and he took the steps necessary to make it come about. Yes, you have the picture; he made a choice for his life. And at this time in our world, all of us who allow ourselves to be called by His name need to go to Jesus in faith and allow the miracle of healing to take place for the world. I believe that Jesus is waiting for us to make that choice. When we make and live into that choice, then and only then will be able to see the imago Dei in each and every person regardless of color or life-situation. When we accept all people as fully human and recognize the truth that all lives matter equally, we won’t need a special month to celebrate who they are and to acknowledge the contributions they have made to the world. It’s a matter of choice for each and every one of us.
Indeed, it is a matter of choice; and God made the choice long, long ago to be our Savior. God who created us, who chose us for redemption out of God’s everlasting love, sent Jesus to die and to rise for us. Just as Jesus had compassion on that poor, lowly leper, so our Savior continues to have compassion on us, poor, lowly sinners that we are. Naaman was forced to set aside his pride and go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. We, too, are called to set aside the pride and the sin that so easily bests us and wash in the redeeming blood of Jesus. As a nation, we need to set aside the pride that we have in our greatness and admit that we need the healing touch of our Lord. We need to recognize the hegemony that is represented in the systems that operate in and control the U.S. and global society at large. And when as individuals we have been washed and made clean, made whole, healed and forgiven, we can go forward to serve God, to serve the whole people of God. And through our service as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can be agents of healing and transformation in the church, in society and in the world. We can do this with these uplifting, enlivening, fulfilling words of our Savior ringing in our ears:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last …” (John 15:16a).
Yes, it’s a matter of choic,e and God has made the choice for our salvation. And with the choice of life in Christ, let us go forward to do the work of healing that our individual lives, our society, our nation, and our world need so desperately.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Once again, we find the language of slavery and the total subjection of oneself that it implies in this short section from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. These three verses are in essence the conclusion of Paul’s discourse on what he sees as the requirements placed on him as an apostle of Jesus Christ. His use of an athletic analogy speaks of discipline – a commitment to the level of discipline required by athletes who are focused unswervingly on winning the ultimate prize. His audience would understand the athletic reference in a way that even those of us who follow athletic performances of any kind and perhaps especially the quadrennial Olympic Games may not fully comprehend. Perhaps only the athletes themselves would more completely understand the level of self-control and discipline that they must exercise in order to attain that most sought-after prize. But that is the level of commitment that Paul considers is a necessity for those whose task and responsibility are to proclaim the gospel. In other words, this message is directed to us, preachers, proclaimers of the truth of God and the justice and righteousness that all who claim Christ are called to offer to the church community.
The language of punishment and enslavement is troublesome in a world where so many women -- especially young women and girls -- are still stolen from their communities and enslaved for nefarious purposes, especially in the sex trade that prevails in hidden and even known places in the world. Likewise in the African American context, where punishment of many persons, especially young Black men, is inordinately high in comparison to white perpetrators of even greater crimes, young people do not easily or readily accommodate this language. So the idea of Christians and preachers being called to a life of punishment and slavery even for the sake of the gospel is not easily heard, and it certainly is not the norm for those in the church at any level, whether laity or clergy.
By reframing the message as a call to a life of sacrifice, the result of such commitment is not only the prize of eternal life in Christ, but also the spread of the gospel message into both individual and communal lives. Thus the gospel cannot be preached in a vacuum, with the preacher standing above, beyond or apart from the message, in a position of power and authority. But the preacher of this text must offer the gospel message in the same way that he or she received it from God so that preacher and people together can lay claim to the ultimate prize of eternal life that is the same for all who receive and live the message of the gospel.
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks is the Director of the Styberg Preaching Institute and is the Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Preaching at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She is an ordained elder and full clergy member of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. She has served local churches in the New York Conference in rural, suburban, urban and cross-racial settings. She was the Assistant Dean of New Brunswick Theological Seminary from 1996-2000 and an adjunct professor in the area of Preaching and Worship at New Brunswick Seminary from 2001-2003.
Dr. Brooks holds a Bachelor of Business, cum laude, and a Master of Business Administration from Pace University, a Master of Divinity, summa cum laude, and a Doctor of Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Liturgical Studies from Drew University.
She is the author of Good News Preaching: Offering Good News in Every Sermon (Pilgrim Press, 2009) and Praise the Lord: Litanies, Prayers and Occasional Services (CSS Publications, 1996). She has been a contributor to the following texts: Companion to The Africana Worship Book (Discipleship Resources 2007), Zion Still Sings: For Every Generation (Abingdon Press, 2007), The Africana Worship Book for Year C (Discipleship Resources, 2008), Those Preaching Women: A Multicultural Collection (Judson Press, 2008), Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford Press, 2009). Dr. Brooks has also contributed to several publications including Homily Service (The Liturgical Conference), and The African American Pulpit (Generis). She is a member of the cademy of Homiletics, the North American Academy of Liturgy, and the American Academy of Religion.