Sunday, November 6, 2022

Sermon: "Speak Up!", 2 Kings 5:1-15a (November 6, 2022)

I haven’t heard it yet personally (I’ve been checking), but now that we’re past Halloween, I suspect that we’ll soon be hearing Christmas music on the radio. Although I firmly believe that the anticipatory aspect of Advent is a crucial part of our liturgical year and our faith, I don’t mind hearing these tunes outside the context of worship in November and December. It helps me to plan ahead and mentally prepare for the upcoming liturgical seasons, and of course, who can’t use a little extra joy these days?

I HAVE found, however, that the longer I’m a pastor, the more critical I become of specific Christmas music for personal, nitpicky, often silly reasons. A good example of this is the 1962 song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” There’s nothing wrong with the song in and of itself, yet this festive account of one of the world’s first games of telephone always makes me roll my eyes a little bit. With some leeway given for poetic license, I can believe that the night wind and little lamb have a conversation and that the little lamb passes the message on to the shepherd boy – but then, all of a sudden, the shepherd boy is standing before the MIGHTY KING, suggesting that he bring silver and gold to a baby.

Um, I’m sorry; what? Since when are shepherd boys granted an audience with the king, let alone for the purpose of dictating fiscal policy? And aside from that, since when does the king LISTEN to that shepherd boy and make governing decisions based on his advice? Every time this song comes on the radio, I always think, “Boy, THAT escalated quickly!”

Of course, while this song doesn’t have any direct scriptural basis, its theme should certainly be familiar to anyone who’s read the Bible, especially the New Testament. Scripture is all about the social order being flipped on its head: the last becoming first and the first becoming last; God elevating the meek and lowly; the Good News revealed through the poor and the oppressed. As people of faith, we shouldn’t be surprised at the idea of shepherds conversing with kings. But when I picture it in my mind, it STILL sounds like a bizarre and unlikely scenario. While that might be how God’s kindom is supposed to work, it's certainly not how human society works. The voices of the meek and lowly don’t carry a lot of weight in our reality. Hence, my reaction.

These days, one doesn’t even have to BE especially lowly to feel like their voice is irrelevant in the world. We feel it especially keenly in an election week: It’s no secret that voter turnout in the US is chronically low, especially in states that lean heavily towards one end of the political spectrum or the other. (By way of example, less than half of all eligible voters turned out for the last midterm election in Idaho. Even fewer turned out in New York, my home state. And that’s the highest voter turnout has been for a midterm election in either state in over a century)[1] People believe their vote doesn’t REALLY matter. After the election is over, reaching out to our representatives feels even MORE futile than voting, like shouting into the void. Although a shepherd boy SHOULD be able to tell his leader what he wants according to our national values, most of us don’t even bother speaking up. We collectively feel like those with the power to create change don’t listen.

I expect that the Israelite slave girl in today’s scripture reading could relate well to these feelings. She was probably among the least important people in Naaman’s household – she didn’t have the social standing to be giving advice to her master, and she probably felt invisible more often than not. But she had compassion and knowledge that she believed could help Naaman. She boldly adds her own verse to “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, sharing what she knows about Elisha’s power to heal. She has no reason to believe that anyone would listen – maybe that’s why her thoughts are expressed as a wish rather than an assertion. But her words somehow make their way up the ladder all the way to the king, who, in turn, arranges for Naaman to travel to Israel. Boy, THAT escalated quickly, didn’t it?

Later on, when Naaman is on the verge of indignantly heading home without his cure, it’s another seemingly insignificant voice – this time, Naaman’s own servant – who speaks up. He gently appeals to logic, saying, “If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” Although his question is reasonable, he could have easily been accused of insubordination. Yet somehow, his words are just convincing enough: Naaman decides to give Elisha’s cure a shot after all. And, of course, it works: Naaman’s skin is restored, and (perhaps even more miraculously) he recognizes God’s hand in his recovery. It turns out that the seemingly unimportant voices of a slave and a servant are not only able to provide Naaman with a path to healing, but they’re the means by which he comes to know the one true God.

This all could have gone very differently. The slave girl and servant could have chosen to stay silent. Or they could have very easily (and very reasonably, according to social norms) been ignored. They probably had been in the past. Or worse, they could have been disciplined or punished. But they didn’t, and they weren’t. They chose to speak up about what they knew to be true, and, thanks be to God, Naaman chose to hear and act on their messages. Their seemingly insignificant voices brought new healing and faith into the world that wasn’t there before.

We often picture evangelism as someone important sharing deep theological insight or proclaiming some profound divine truth, but that’s probably the rarest (and honestly, least effective) model. Far more often, evangelism happens without even mentioning God’s name right away. It happens when an everyday person openly acts according to a value that has grown out of their faith. It happens when a person chooses to publicly stand up for what God stands for. It happens when we speak up, regardless of how (or even if) we think our words will be received.

But how are we supposed to know if we’re speaking up in a way that honors God? More often than not, our voices are doing the most holy work when they’re speaking on behalf of someone else. In “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, the shepherd boy wasn’t seeking a personal favor from the king. In the scripture reading, the slave and servant weren’t getting anything in return for their advice to Naaman. None of them had any sort of personal agenda in speaking up. The only reason any of them said anything was to help someone else. THAT’S at the heart of real faith: not convincing someone else to think like you do but speaking up in a way that will make the world a little bit more like God’s kindom for everyone. At the end of the day, that’s what the gospel is all about.

Living faithfully today doesn’t look like convincing generals to take the advice of prophets, but it does follow the same principles. It involves speaking up for the good of others, even when you don’t know if your voice will be heard. It means advocating for those who can’t speak for themselves. It means voting in elections whose outcome is all but determined. It means writing letters and emails that you aren’t sure will be read. It means standing up for a better world for everyone every chance you get. People don’t come to God because of ornate words that talk about divine things. People come to God because of simple words, spoken by voices that seem to matter the least to the world about the things that matter most to God.

This is how God changes the world: little by little, with love, from the ground up. None of us can control whether anyone will listen to us. But you DEFINITELY won’t be heard if you don’t speak up. God has given you a voice for a reason. Use it! God has given you wisdom – trust it! God has given you Good News – share it! If Naaman can listen to the words of a foreign slave, if a mighty king can heed the words of a shepherd boy, then surely God can use YOUR voice to make good things happen. But only if you speak up. Amen.

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