Stewardship: Compassion (Elisha & Naaman)
2 Kings 5:1-19
Today we are in the fourth week of a five week sermon series on Stewardship. We are talking about how to take care of all that God has given to us. Today we will talk about approaching our stewardship with compassion.
Today is Remembrance Sunday when we honour our veterans. The soldiers who have fought in wars for Canada have made tremendous sacrifices and we offer our heartfelt thanks to them. When I have spoken to our veterans, they say that they served out a sense of duty and I always hear an undertone of compassion in their motivation to serve. They served, not for revenge or hate, but they served because they felt called to protect. We all wish that war was not necessary. But today we honour and remember those who were willing to serve to protect when war was necessary. Thank you.
Canadian soldiers have fought in wars that have brought peace to other countries and protected the peace at home. Just as Canadian soldiers went out to serve to protect in foreign lands, so the people of Canada back home have a rich history of offering that protection on Canadian soil as well. On Remembrance Day, we remember the stewardship of compassion that motivates soldiers to serve and that motivates the people back home to welcome strangers.
As I said, Canada has a rich history of welcoming refugees from wars. Our own L. F. moved here 35 years ago after 20 years of war in Lebanon. When I asked him what it was like to come to Canada, after losing family members in bombings and seeking a safe place to live, he told me that his family was warmly welcomed here. In that warm welcome, his family received a miracle enabled by compassion.
And it put me in mind of a letter that A. L. gave to me recently. This letter is part of Briarwood’s history. It was written by Heino Altosaar, who was a member at Briarwood. He has passed away, but his wife is still a member at Briarwood and is one of our shut-ins. Heino and L. were World War II refugees from Estonia. On Remembrance Day in 1997, Heino read this letter in worship at Briarwood.
The letter starts with a story about a Rev. Thomson who had a radio show. One day he was on a road trip with his family and his wife suggested they pull over for lunch. As he walked to the restaurant after parking the car, the phone rang in a telephone booth. He answered it and it was for him! The woman on the phone was going through a rough time and was considering suicide, [here I’ll pick up the letter] “but at the same time she thought that this preacher on the radio might help her. How to find him? The task seemed to be impossible. She was sitting at her desk and somehow numbers appeared to her. She scribbled them on a piece of paper and dialed. It was a miracle!
“What has that miracle to do with Remembrance Day, which we commemorate today? Usually we think of war veterans and especially those who lost their lives in battles. During the war millions of soldiers lost their lives. However, millions of civilians lost their lives, too, and many millions had to flee from their homelands and find refuge in foreign places and countries. And I with my family am one of them.
“We are Estonians and lived in a suburb of Tallinn, capital city of Estonia. On the 23rd of September, 1944, I was visiting a friend, a blacksmith in Tallinn. While I was there, he got a phone call from his mechanic, who told him that there was a ship leaving to Sweden from the harbour in four hours’ time. If he hurried, he could have space with his family on that ship. After finishing his phone call, he told the story to me and suggested I take a chance and come also to the port. Since he had an aunt living in the same suburb as us, he sent his helper with his horse and buggy to pick her up and at the same time give a lift for my wife’s grandmother and our 10-month-old son, Peeter. I myself took my bicycle, went home and told my wife what had happened. In a hurry she packed a suitcase; we helped her grandma and Peeter onto the waiting buggy and I pedaled towards the port with my wife sitting on the bicycle frame.
“Yes, the ship was there, however, our names were not on the list and the captain refused to take us on board. Money had no value anymore so my wife offered her wedding ring. The captain refused again. I lost all hope. However my wife did not and we continued to wait on the quay. After a while, perhaps 30 minutes, someone touched that captain’s heart and he told us to come quickly on board. Another ten minutes and the mooring cables were loosened and the ship started her journey to Sweden.
“Estonia is a small country, just south of Finland, the size of Nova Scotia and has only one million inhabitants, as in Nova Scotia. During the fall of 1944, when we fled the country, approximately 70,000 Estonians got out. They are now living in Sweden, the USA, Germany, Australia, and 17,000 in Canada.
“This little country of Estonia lost about 20% of its people through deportations to slave labour camps, recruitments to Russian and German armies, torture and murder. 70,000 were able to escape and every one of them has a miraculous story to tell, however, only a few think that God had a role to play when they crossed the[ir own] ‘Red Sea’ - the stormy Baltic Sea.
“Did Rev. Thomson feel that somebody asked him to open the door to the telephone booth? And it was only his wife who suggested to take the next exit. Did I feel anything in the morning of the 23rd of September, 1944 that this was my last day in my homeland? Why had I to be with my friend the blacksmith when he received the phone call? And why did he tell me about the ship leaving for Sweden, since it was a secret anyway? Who told my wife to wait on the quay, while I wanted to go back home?
“Today we remember the soldiers who lost their lives and we show respect to those who were fighting and survived the sufferings in trenches. Let us also think of civilians who lost their lives in air raids or when fleeing. And don’t forget to pray for those who have to leave their homes today or yesterday in Yugoslavia, Africa, or Asia. [This was 1997.]
“In conclusion, try to understand us, the once homeless refugees, who are now new Canadians and your neighbours and forgive us our idiosyncrasies.”
Well, I love history and this is a beautiful piece of Briarwood’s history. What I noticed in Heino’s story of his experience as a war refugee was compassion and miracles going together. Even in the midst of war, God was at work, bringing the miracle of escape and refuge into Heino and L.’s lives. God brought those miracles through people who were willing to act with compassion: the blacksmith telling them about the boat even though it was a secret, and the captain allowing them on board even though their names were not on the list. And then being welcomed in Canada and being known as new Canadians; that kind of welcome is a miracle, too, that is made possible through compassion.
We see this connection between compassion and miracles in our reading this morning from 2 Kings. Naaman is a foreigner. He is a commander of the army in Aram. He has a servant who is a girl from Israel. She has compassion on Naaman. Naaman has leprosy, but he is also her captor. She is his slave. However, she has compassion on him and tells him to visit the prophet in Israel in order to be healed of his leprosy. Naaman listens to her. He doesn’t take a straight road to Elisha, but he gets there eventually.
Why should Elisha heal Naaman? There is no reason for Elisha to do this. But he has compassion on Naaman, a foreigner, in fact, the commander of an enemy army. Elisha gives Naaman instructions in how to be healed. Naaman doesn’t want to follow those instructions, but again, it is his servants, his slaves, who have compassion on him and convince him to go and follow Elisha’s instructions. Naaman does and he is healed. He would not have received this miracle from God if the people around him had not acted with compassion because it is through them that God brings this healing miracle into his life.
Then we heard in our Luke passage this morning that Jesus referred to this story when Naaman was healed by Elisha. He says this in verse 27, “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” The point Jesus is trying to make is that the Gospel is for the Jews AND the Gentiles, not only the Jews. And he gives an example of a Gentile, a foreigner receiving a healing miracle from the Jewish prophet Elisha. Jesus is telling them that strangers and foreigners are welcome in God’s sight. And how do the people of Nazareth respond to this? With compassion? No. In verse 28 it says this, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They drove Jesus out of town and tried to kill him. The people in Nazareth lacked compassion. As we think about the connection between stewardship and compassion and miracles, could Jesus do any miracles in Nazareth? It says in Matthew and Mark that while Jesus was there he was not able to do any deeds of power.
We are called to respond to what God is doing in the world with compassion. And it is through our compassion that God often brings miracles. God often moves us towards compassion with the intention of working through us. But if we don’t practice stewardship of all that God has given to us with compassion, then God cannot work miracles through us.
Well, since this is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I want to leave you with a story of a miracle on the battlefield in World War I that could not have happened if the soldiers on both sides had not treated each other with compassion. This quotation is from the book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.
This took place during the first Christmas of World War I in 1914:
“Out on the Western Front, there was a strange meeting taking place, an event that has assumed an almost mythic status. It began when German and British soldiers called out Happy Christmas to each other across No Man’s Land. Tentatively, disbelieving, the soldiers negotiated their own totally unofficial truce for a day. Unarmed soldiers from both sides went over the top to collect their dead and, when they met in the bog of blood and mud that lay between them, they shook hands and agreed to bury their fallen comrades together. Somebody suggested a game of football. Provisions were produced and exchanged: sauerkraut and sausages for chocolate. That night... the sound of Silent Night being sung in German and English rose from the trenches. For almost twenty-four hours there was peace on the Western Front.”
(Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, by, The 8th Countess of Carnarvon (Hodder: 2011), pg. 149)
This totally unofficial truce was a miracle, a shining light in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in history. It would not have been possible without compassion, without those soldiers recognizing their shared humanity and deciding to celebrate the birth of Jesus, together, on that field of death, not as enemies, but for twenty-four hours as comrades.
Compassion and miracles. We practice stewardship with compassion because without it we cannot serve God. Without it we cannot be the vessels through which God brings miracles on earth. Lest we forget. Amen.