I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17:11-19.
I don’t know why, exactly, but fall is a season when I start to reflect on the past — something about the approach of holiday traditions and the winding down of the year and the brilliance of the autumn leaves lends itself to the sharpening of particular memories. These recollections waft on the air like woodsmoke, sweet and sharp, occasionally stinging the eyes.
And it’s interesting—I don’t know if this is true for you, but I have noticed that when I am looking back on life and remembering things and people and places that are long gone, long past, my most vivid memories are of very small things, very particular little details, rather than one big grand narrative playing out in my mind.
I might suddenly recall the sound of my dad’s laughter one afternoon in late September when I was 15, or the particular way my grandmother carved a chicken on Sunday afternoons, or the scent of the gardenias my mom used to buy on the way home from work when I was a little boy.
All ordinary things, unremarkable, perhaps, to an outside observer, but nonetheless these are the little things that stick, that signify meaning, long after the worries and speculations and fantasies of the past have faded away. I don’t remember most of the conflicts and longings and unsatisfied desires that seemed so important when I was 12 or 22, but I can recall with crystalline specificity the small moments of beauty and kindness and care that have been strewn along the path of my life.
This suggests to me that it is, in the end, these small things that imbue our lives with significance, with holiness, with hope. And it is these small things that are vessels of God’s grace, far more than the big concerns and bold plans that so often preoccupy our imaginations.
We may have great expectations, but it is the small things that sustain us. It is the small things that save us.
But this isn’t always easy to see. Naaman, the mighty general seeking a cure for his leprosy in today’s reading from 2 Kings, doesn’t quite understand the value of small, ordinary things, or perhaps he has simply forgotten it in all of his conquering and striving to be important. He is a man burdened by disease, but he is also burdened by the sense of his own significance, and so he presumes that any healing he might receive from the prophet Elisha will come at great cost and will arrive with great dramatic impact. No humble, commonplace treatments for this man. And so he loads up his treasures and his servants and his other accumulated defenses and brings them to Elisha’s door, ready for anything.
For anything, that is, except for the rather anticlimatic thing that actually happens. Elisha, in his wisdom, doesn’t even come outside, and instead simply sends out a message Naaman: go take a bath in the river.
Imagine having come all that way, with so much build-up, with your whole entourage looking on expectantly, and then being asked to take a dip in an unremarkable, muddy body of water. Naaman, who expects so much more of himself and of the world, is offended by the simplicity of it all. Surely that can’t be it? Surely this God of Israel, if he is so powerful, would reveal his works in a more impressive way? Surely healing requires something more than this? Surely, after I have suffered so much and traveled so far, salvation cannot come from such a small thing?
We might laugh a bit at Naaman’s pride and his self-importance, but I also have to say I relate to his disappointment a little bit. I look back at my life, and I look around at the problems facing our world today, and I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of longing for a big and decisive answer. I know what it feels like to want a dramatic solution, to yearn for God to appear in glory and make it all better, make it all clear, to lift us up from the mud and the misery.
So maybe I, too, would be frustrated by the instructions to go bathe down in that mud instead. Maybe I, too, would just want to pack it in and go home. Because I confess that some days I get tired of meager solutions to big problems. I get tired of relying on small things when the grief of the world is so big.
Maybe somedays you get tired, too. Naaman would certainly understand if you do.
But then, at the moment when all hope seems to be lost, another small thing: this time it is the voice of one of Naaman’s servants, the voice of practical wisdom—
“if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?
In other words, yes, the journey has been long, and the outcome may be uncertain. But it can’t hurt to do the small thing that is asked of you in this moment. And, in fact, it may be that finding hope in such small things, believing in the power of small things, is more reflective of God’s purposes than any dramatic solution. Why that might be, I cannot say for sure. I only know that I remember my father’s laughter, and my grandmother’s hands, and the scent of my mother’s gardenias in the cool of the evening, and that these things matter more than I can say.
They matter in the same way that it matters that God offers us himself in the frail body of a man, and in a morsel of bread and in a sip of wine. It seems that he longs for us to love the small things, to submit ourselves to their humble grace. He asks us, like Naaman, and like the grateful Samaritan healed by Jesus, to remember that when we encounter love and beauty, no matter how simple or small, we are seeing God.
He is in the muddy waters and in mended bodies. He is in the gifts we share with one another. He is in the moments when we remember to say thank you. He is in everything, every small thing, holding the universe together with love.
Naaman does, of course, eventually take Elisha’s advice. He strips off his many layers of armor and submerges himself in that muddy water and emerges, the text tells us, with flesh appearing as it did long ago, skin gleaming like when he was a young boy. When he himself was a small thing: bright, laughing, free.
And perhaps that is the mystery of love: not only that it flourishes in small things, but that it distills us back down to smallness ourselves, like children, sloughing off our grief and our delusions of grandeur, leaving only our essence, our innoncence, our intense and enduring joy.
Can you remember what that felt like, back when you were small, too? Can you remember that version of yourself, back through the turning of the seasons? Can you remember when you believed in simple things, when love was not a memory, but an ever-present gift, as numerous as the autumn leaves?
God, help us to remember.