Mr. Big Stuff

Sermon preached July 4, 2010

Texts: II Kings 5:1-14

This morning we are going to begin with a little quiz. Did you all bring your number 2 pencils? The quiz is called, “Bible or Not,” but I also don’t want to embarrass anyone, so it will be a silent quiz. Only you will know how you did. I am going to share a few quotes, and you have to decide if they are from the Bible or not.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If you don’t know this one you were not here last week!

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Sorry, but your mother’s were wrong about this.

Don’t make love by the garden gate. Love is blind but the neighbors ain’t. No.

My country right or wrong. Again, no.

God helps those who help themselves. No, and it is not even true from a biblical point of view. It is only partially true. We have our role to play in shaping our lives, and we need to be responsive to God. But part of the Bible story is that when we fail to live up to our end of the deal, God is there to help get us back on track.

Pride goes before a fall. Well, close but not exactly. The closest thing we have in the Bible is Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

If that last proverb were to have a song, it might be Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” (play a snippet). If it were to have a story, it might be the story of Naaman. The story of Naaman from II Kings is a story about pride and humility. Before getting into the story more, let me offer some general reflections on pride and humility – these from Frederick Buechner (Wishful Thinking).
Pride: Pride is self-love, and in that sense a Christian is enjoined to be proud, i.e., another way of saying “Love your neighbor as yourself” is to say, “Love yourself as your neighbor.” That doesn’t mean your pulse is supposed to quicken every time you look in the mirror any more than it’s supposed to quicken every time your neighbor passes the window. It simply means that the ability to work for your own good despite all the less than admirable things you know about yourself is closely related to the ability to work for your neighbor’s good despite all the less than admirable things you know about them…. Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don’t accrue any interest that way, but become less and less interesting every day.
Humility: Humility is often confused with the polite self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or 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. This kind of humility if a form of low comedy. 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. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.
Naaman was a great man, a Mr. Big Stuff. He commanded the army of Aram, and was admired by the king. He was a mighty warrior. He had a problem, though – leprosy. No doubt there was shame and embarrassment with this for Naaman. He had probably tried any number of cures, but to no avail. When a servant girl belonging to his wife suggests that Naaman might consult the prophet in Samaria (Elisha), Naaman goes to the king asking for permission to seek out this cure. The king sends him off with his blessings – and with many goods to give and a letter to share with the king of Israel. The letter causes the king of Israel a great deal of consternation – what’s he supposed to do? And if he doesn’t send Naaman back cured, how will the powerful Arameans react?
Enter Elisha. He hears about Naaman and tells the king of Israel to send him his way. Elisha will help Mr. Big Stuff. You can imagine Naaman’s excitement, but his bubble is soon burst. He arrives with his entourage, and is met by Elisha’s messenger who tells Naaman, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Mr. Big Stuff is outraged. Doesn’t Elisha know who he is? How dare he send a servant out with a message! Elisha should have come out and prayed, called out, waved his hands. And don’t we have better rivers back home?! Naaman’s pride has been wounded. His pride is getting in the way of his healing, however.
The story takes a quick and remarkable turn. A servant respectfully suggests that Naaman set his pride aside and think more clearly. If Elisha had asked him to do something hard, wouldn’t he have done this? Isn’t it worth taking a chance and doing something simple. Naaman’s sets aside his overweening pride, is willing to be humble enough to take advice from a foreign prophet and from a servant, and he washed in the Jordan and is made clean.
This is a delightful story with lessons for us – for our lives, for our country.
David Schmelzer, in his book Not the Religious Type argues that our pride can get in the way of the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. When we become too concerned with always “being right,” we can be closed off from new ways God’s Spirit might be weaving her way into our lives. Schmelzer argues that it might be better to be on to something than to “be right” (xii). Naaman almost missed God’s healing because he wanted to be treated as Mr. Big Stuff.
Overweening pride in the form of needing to be right all the time, can mess up our relationships. When we are always concerned with being right, and making sure everyone knows we are right, we can crush others, become blind to the nuances of others feelings.
Excessive pride gets in the way of healing of addictions. It is not a big surprise that the first step in many addiction recovery programs is to admit you have lost power over your lives. Excessive pride blinds us to the harm some of our own behaviors causes for others and for ourselves. The first step in healing can be honesty humility.
Immoderate pride can get in the way of learning and growth. There is no one from whom we cannot learn in some way, yet immoderate pride tells us otherwise. The beauty of the story of Naaman is how again and again this proud man works through his sometimes overweening pride and is willing to listen to servants – people whose education and social standing are quite different from his own. God’s voice speaks to us in unfamiliar accents.
On this July 4, this day when we celebrate our nation, lessons about overweening pride are important as well. I am proud to be a citizen of The United States. I love this country. When I think about some of the things that bring me joy, so many are deeply rooted in this country: jazz, blues, rock n roll, the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, baseball. I am proud to be an American. I am also deeply aware that blind pride is counter-productive. It gets in the way of our progress as a nation and can hinder work toward peace and justice. I wince when I see some of the ways we let our pride become immoderate. When the government of France raised objections to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Congress passed a resolution which changed the name of French fries, and French toast in the congressional cafeteria to “freedom fries” and ‘freedom toast.” How silly. I am bothered by the conversations in the Senate when the Supreme Court is discussed that seem to suggest that learning from the laws of other countries somehow is “un-American.” Really? Are we so proud that we cannot learn from others? I hope not. We all need to find ways to get along as we share this small planet.
At the end of the day, I hope we can be proud of who we are – as individuals, as church, as country. We have a lot to be proud of, a lot to love. And may we be humble enough not to let our pride get in the way of healing, of relationships, of growth and learning, of peace and justice, of the work of God’s Spirit. Amen.