Sermon – 12 February 2006

When I was at school across in the west of Scotland, I remember doing a project on Glasgow, the nearest big city. We were told that the city had become prosperous through trading. Goods were imported and sold on at great profit. Cotton. Sugar. Particularly tobacco.

I remember hearing all about the plantations and the ships and the merchants and the traders and the rising prosperity.

Never once did I hear the word slavery.

At the same time, I was taken to Sunday School every week at the Salvation Army in Clydebank. And I remember learning the stories of the old testament and the unfolding gospels of Jesus Christ week by week.

And the story of Naaman from the second book of kings was something of a favourite. It works well as a story with children. The coming and the going. The characters of the king, the prophet, the  maid and the mistress. The icky, sticky skin disease. These things work well with children. It is a great story.

But again, never once did I hear the word slavery.

Yet looking again now, I see that the maid of Naaman’s wife was precisely that. She was captured in battle and taken away to server a rich man’s wife. It was she, the one who was enslaved who was able to set Naaman himself free from what he was scared of.

This young woman tells Naaman to go off to Samaria – the conquered country, and see the prophet there. In doing so, she does something important. She says to Naaman – “There are things in my land and in my culture that will make you free. Though I am enslaved to you, I can unlock your imprisonment. It is my history, home and heritage which will set you free”

We are living through a time when we are needing to reassess our own heritage in the light of the experience of those who have been kept enslaved and captured by it.

Just this week, the General Synod of the Church of England was asked not only to pass a resolution condemning slavery, but also to acknowledge that the Church had once owned and profited from the slave trade itself.

Self knowledge is a wonderful thing. Self knowledge can itself be a healing thing.

The demand that we acknowledge that we have benefited from the wrongdoing of our forebears is a hard idea for some people. Yet, I think it does matter and is necessary. For a one-sided history is a dangerous thing.

Simply to acknowledge that the churches benefited from a trade which they would now condemn is important. It tells us that churches can get things wrong and need, from time to time, to reassess their own beliefs, policies and ambitions.

The bible speaks of slaves with little or no critical comment. The churches benefited from that silence by allowing the slave-trade to go un-criticised.

Eventually, it was believers such as Wilberforce, from within the church structures who questioned this wicked thing. The Atlantic slave trade was a sickness in the body of God. Like terriers, they worried away at it, refused to let go of it and eventually killed it.

God’s people had got it wrong. It took a lot of effort on the part of a small group of God’s people to put something right. And only now, this week, did the Anglican church south of the border acknowledge and bewail their own part in it.

Naaman had to go to Israel and bathe his sick body in the river there not once but over and over again.

The call to us to bathe the sickness of this sometimes weary world in the river of God’s justice and the streams of human-kindness until all shall be set from what enslaves and what harms them.

The story about Naaman is a story about insiders and outsiders. It is, most particularly about the healing that comes when outsiders have a voice.

Firstly this poor slave-girl finds her voice and speaks up and out from her own sad predicament and sends the sick master over the hills to his healing.

Then of course, perhaps more uncomfortably for him, he becomes the foreigner. He becomes the outsider. He becomes the one with no voice.

When strangers are welcomed, when the voiceless are heard, when the enslaved are set free, God is there.

In the gospel reading this morning, we hear of someone else with a leprous disease coming before Jesus Christ. He says, “If you choose, you can make me clean”.

In the version of the bible that we read, we head that Jesus was moved with pity. There is an important early fragment of parchment, one of the earliest versions of this passage recorded which records the story differently. (There are variant readings of so many of the new testament texts, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that God used the evangelists as dictation machines) In this variant, Jesus is not moved with pity at all, but rather moved with anger.

Faced with a world in which more people are held in slavery than were enslaved in Wilberforce’s time. Faced with a world in which people’s healing depends on their income. Faced with a world in which the commanders of army’s still determine which lands will know prosperity and which lands will know poverty an they did in Naaman’s time. Faced with all this, are we, the body of Christ in the world today moved? And are we moved with pity, or are we moved with anger?

A world looks to us and says, “If you choose you can make me clean”.

Jesus Christ said yes. “I do choose. Be made clean today.”

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