Last week was Scout Sunday. We got to celebrate being the charter organization for both Cub Scout Pack 1980 and Boy Scout Troop 1980, and also celebrate the way we support the local Girl Scouts through their local council, the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey by serving as a training and meeting center for the council and also serving as a meeting place for some of the local troops. As part of that, the Scouts helped us remember both the grounding for what Scouting is in scripture, which some of our Girl Scouts read, and the twelve parts of the Scout Law, which some of our Boy Scouts and Scouts from the pack recited in response. The seventh part of the law has to do with obedience. This is what the law says: A Scout is OBEDIENT: A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and pack. He obeys the laws of his community and country. Obedience. An important idea.
Obey is a powerful verb – it is a strong action word. It implies hearing, understanding, and doing. Two descriptors, obedience, and obedient, grow right out of the action of following, of doing, or of NOT following, not doing – which is where DISobey, DISobedience and DISobedient come from. When we are expected to obey, we have two possible behavioral responses: to do, or to do not. That is some of what today’s reading is about.
Naaman is strong, powerful, respected, successful – and also afflicted. His social contact with others was necessarily afflicted by the skin disease that is translated “leprosy.” The key here is not the actual disease, as we understand it now, that he suffered from – it is that he was socially isolated even as he was also strong, powerful, respected and successful. What to do?? When he hears, through a slave girl, an Israelite captive who serves his wife, that there may be hope in Israel,he asks for, and receives, support from the king of Aram to go and see. The king of Aram sends him to the king of Israel – but the king of Israel was not the prophet the slave girl had in mind. So there is a course correction, and Naaman is sent to Elisha, the prophet who followed Elijah. Elisha merely sends out a messenger, who tells Naaman to go and bathe in the Jordan, seven times. Naaman was enraged by all that happened: he’s strong! He’s powerful! He’s respected! He’s successful! Why isn’t Elisha coming out and honoring all of that!?! And what is the Jordan compared with the waters of HIS hometown!?! His servants refocus him: why are they there, again? Why refuse such a simple order? Why NOT obey? What have you got to lose, Naaman? (Well, pride and pridefulness loom large here. Also hope – coming to Elisha was a desperate measure.) So, probably grumbling and complaining under his breath he follows Elisha’s instructions – and is healed, probably again way beyond all of his expectations and desperate hopes. And the Lord God of Israel gains a powerful, obedient follower. That’s why he asks permission to bring back two wagonloads of dirt – because in that time and place having some of that particular soil was key in being able to offer right worship. The Lord God gained a powerful, OBEDIENT follower, when Naaman decided to obey the man of God.
Obedience matters to God. In scripture, there are 299 references to the word obey, obedience and obedient – which also includes the references to DISobey, DISobedience and DISobedient. Time and again the people promise to do what God says. One of the first references comes from Exodus 24:7: All the Lord has spoken [after the giving of the Ten Commandments] we will do, and we will be obedient. We know how THAT worked out. The role of the judges and the prophets was to call the people back to obedience – and we know how THAT worked out as well. So in the fullness of time the Word became incarnate, became flesh – for US and for OUR salvation. Yet, when even the wind and the seas obeyed Jesus, as told in Matthew 8:27, Mark 4:14, and Luke 8:25, when even evil spirits obeyed Jesus and came out, as told in Mark 1:27, we are shocked. The wind, the rain, evil spirits – they obey Jesus. What about us?
Obedience is hard. Obedience means we have to sacrifice OUR way of being, doing, following, leading to instead follow Jesus’ way of being, doing, following. We have to be willing to accept grace. Naaman did that. He accepted grace, and because of Elisha’s generous response, because Elisha refused to accept any kind of payment for the healing Naaman had received, Naaman learned another valuable response – go, and do likewise – extend grace, and the message of God’s grace, to others. That public act of ongoing worship Naaman proposed was part of that – a testimony of God’s ongoing grace, a grace that was not bought by wealth and precious clothes and jewerly, but a grace that was freely given to all who would set aside their expectations and be obedient.
Obedience is hard, because our obedience is often framed with expectations: if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you. God doesn’t work like that. This old poem, “I Asked GOD,” attributed to an unknown soldier, shows us the fallacy of expecting tit-for-tat from God:
I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey...
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be
I was given poverty, that I might be wise;
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God...
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…
I got nothing that I asked for- but everything I had hoped for;
Almost despite myself, My unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.
May we too learn humbly to obey, continuing to do the things Jesus reminded us to do in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – both jails and the psychological prisons that restrain people. May we be as obedient as Naaman, until Jesus returns in glory. And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus! Amen.