Emerging glistening from the water – sermon preached on 7 July 2019

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I emerged from the water, radiant and glistening in the sunlight and made my way up onto the beach.

Not like Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in Casino Royale.

Not even like Ursula Andress coming up out of the waves in Dr No.

No – I emerged from the waves more like Venus, the goddess of Love arriving on the shore in Botticelli’s famous painting.

Not that there were many witnesses. Not for me the crowds of people in the Uffizi Gallery looking upon the goddess of Love.

My only company as I emerged onto the beach a fortnight ago was a friendly grey seal whom I had put on watch when I flung off my clothes and ran into the exhilarating waters of the Atlantic when on holiday in the Western Isles.

And now I emerged joyful and feeling incredible.

If you can swim in the Atlantic off Scotland, even in July you can do anything. Emerging from the freezing water, you suddenly feel warm. You suddenly feel invincible.

But that seems to be quite a long way from Naaman’s experience.

I rather love the story of Naaman the commander of the army of Aram. He is a man with great power who finds himself in great need.

There are so many ways to dive into his story. Let me just pick on three… the way power works in the story, the sevenfold advice that Elisha gives and what happened to the servant girl.

Power first. Naaman is clearly man with great power but someone who finds himself in great need.

But this is the bible. The usual conventions about power are very obviously going to be turned upside down. There’s the obvious way that the ability to unlock his suffering comes not from conventional power, privilege and prestige but from someone who is enslaved and owned by him. The slave girl has no power and no agency. But still the word comes from her that directs Naaman to his place of healing.

But there is also the disruptive fact that Naaman is an enemy. According to the conventions of his day he doesn’t deserve anything from an enslaved woman from the people of Israel. But he doesn’t deserve anything from the God of Israel either.

I love the way this story undermines the idea that God is only with us. If Naaman can be healed, God must also be with them, whoever they are.

So many of the stories in the bible are about the human ability to divide the world into us and them – this story very clearly undermines that.

On this weekend when Glasgow has had its biggest Orange Walk, I warm to a biblical story which undermines the idea of religion being about dividing people.

The religious practise that Elisha advocates is as available for the outsider and the enemy of Israel as it is available for the insider and the regular worshipper.

Religion that undermines sectarian divisions is religion worth taking notice of and diving into.

Secondly, I notice that Naaman isn’t just told to go and bathe in a river but to bathe again and again. A sevenfold bathing.

(The truth is, once was enough in the chilly Atlantic waters for me so I might have some sympathy for Naaman if he objected to having to jump in seven times).

Religion is often about finding that building rhythm into life is healthy and lifegiving.

I’m not sure we talk about that enough.

It happens to be the case that if Christians could reacquire the habit of weekly attendance at worship, most of the decline that has been experienced by Christianity in this country would be wiped out overnight.

But even that isn’t the point. We need to do liturgical acts regularly because that is how they work.

Whether it is the ritual act of bathing seven  times or encouraging one another in regular weekly holy habits of coming to church, it is the repetition that gives the experience greater depth and somehow unlocks things inside us.

When we do things again and again, we become part of the thing we are doing. Instead of us doing something to the thing, the thing starts to do something to us.

We are shaped and changed and made whole by repeatedly doing things that give us life.

Those things change us and make us act and behave differently in future.

And the future is the last thing I notice about the story.

The bit missing for me is when  Naaman goes home and sets the slave girl free in acknowledgement that as he is free, the person who unlocked his freedom needs to be freed from her slavery. He’s been freed from his affliction. Why shouldn’t she be freed from the affliction of being owned?

But that didn’t happen. Or at least we never heard of it. The bible is silent on what happened to her.

It is too late for her. Naaman appears not to have freed her.

But it isn’t too late for many who are still enslaved.

This week a horrendous case came to light of modern slavery.

It isn’t too late to set slaves free. It is still an imperative laid upon us.

If Naaman didn’t get work out that should have come next, we can.

When those in the past practised obvious injustice – obvious to us in our own day then it falls upon us to do the good in the future that didn’t happen in their day.

Slave girls and slave boys,  slave women and slave men can still be set free.

People need to be freed from real modern slavery today. And people need to be set free from all kinds of other things that harm them too.

And as I ran up and down on the stunning empty beach miles from anywhere I started to feel warm and joyful and whole. And I felt invincible. I felt as though I could do anything.

And that it what it is like for people plunged into the goodness that is God’s love.

We enact that in baptism.

Once we are out of that water, we are invincible, for we emerge encouraged by the very God of Love who walks this world and loves us very much.

Together with God, we are invincible.

We can do anything.

There is no wrong that can’t be righted.

For God’s love is real, and strong, wonderful.

And that love is with you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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