A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer: 16 October 2020
(2 Kings 7)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
That’s by my poet friend Emily Dickinson. I like her work because it’s simple enough that I can understand it and rich enough that I can ponder it. I like this particular poem for a couple of reasons. First, because I’m a nobody like she thought she was. I’ve faced it long ago: ten years after my death, few will speak of me; fifty years after my death, few — if any — will even remember me: a nobody. Second, because she gives dignity to us nobodies. And that reminds me that nobody is a nobody in God’s eyes. If you can’t handle the double negatives, that means that everybody is somebody to God — even us nobodies.
If you want a new perspective on Scripture, follow the nobodies in the stories: the slaves, the outcasts, the foreigners, the women, the poor, and — especially in our Old Testament reading this morning — the lepers. Remember what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:
1 Corinthians 1:26–29 (ESV): 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
God apparently has a special place in his heart, a special place in his purpose for the nobodies of this world — so much so that when the Word became flesh to dwell among us, he came as a nobody: a redneck hillbilly from Galilee, a nobody from Nazareth.
The story begins, as it almost always does, with the powerful. The nobodies are lurking in the shadows; they come in later.
2 Kings 6:24–31 (ESV): 24 Afterward Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria. 25 And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!” 27 And he said, “If the Lord will not help you, how shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the winepress?” 28 And the king asked her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.” 30 When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body— 31 and he said, “May God do so to me and more also, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today.”
The mighty, the powerful, the dreaded Ben-hadad, king of Syria, comes against Israel and lays siege to its capital Samaria. The siege lasts so long and is so devastating that the people are reduced to cannibalism. As always, when the powerful eat sour grapes, it is the nobodies’ teeth that are set on edge. The king of Israel — It is fascinating that he is not named in this account; the king has actually become a nobody: powerless, helpless, nameless. — the king of Israel blames God for this trouble, God in the person of his representative Elisha the prophet, whose head the king plans to remove from its neck.
The king sends messengers — and probably an executioner — to Elisha; apparently the king’s personal assistant, his captain, leads the delegation. Elisha bars the door to his house and shouts out to them:
2 Kings 7:1–2 (ESV): “Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” 2 Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” But he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”
It’s easy to get lost in the units of measure and currency, but here’s what it all means. Elisha says that the food which is scarce — nonexistent — today will be abundant and dirt cheap tomorrow and will be on sale in the open gate of the city. In other words, the siege will be broken and the threat eliminated. The captain — another powerful but unnamed figure — scoffs; not even the Lord himself could pull this off. “Oh, the Lord will,” Elisha tells him, “but you won’t live to see it.”
Now remember, we’re waiting for the nobodies in the story, for the lepers. It’s time for their scene in the play. I love these guys; they are absolutely logical fatalists, caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place. They almost serve as comic relief. They are exiled outside the city through all this business, hemmed between the city gates and the Syrian army, with no food. And, finally one looks at the others and says — pardon the paraphrase — “This is stupid. Are we just going to stay here and starve to death?”
“Well, what are our options?” the group asks. “It’s not like we can go into the city. They won’t let us in and even if they did there’s no food there either. We’d be no better off.”
“Then let’s go to the Syrian camp where we know there’s food,” the first leper says. “They may kill us, but, hey, we’re gonna die sitting here, and we can’t die twice. Quick Syrian sword or slow starvation? I’ll take the sword.”
And that’s just what they do; they march toward the Syrian camp hoping for scraps of food but expecting death. They sneak in after dark and — and there’s nobody there. Notice how the powerful king Ben-Hadad and his dreaded army have become nobodies as the lepers take center stage: something about the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Now the narrator breaks into the action to tell us what has happened, how the Lord confused the Syrian army and made the soldiers flee for their lives, tails tucked between their legs as we might say in the South. But get this: they fled so quickly that they left all their provisions behind, a whole armies’ worth of tents, horses, donkeys, silver, gold, clothing…and food! And nobody there but the nobody lepers. It’s Christmas and Santa has been good. The lepers eat and drink and carry off gold and silver to hide it. Then they eat and drink some more. Can you blame them?
That’s the fun part of the story, but here’s the beautiful part. The lepers begin to feel guilty about keeping all this bounty to themselves while their city — the very people who cast them out, remember — while their city starves.
2 Kings 7:9–10 (ESV): 9 Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” 10 So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city and told them, “We came to the camp of the Syrians, and behold, there was no one to be seen or heard there, nothing but the horses tied and the donkeys tied and the tents as they were.”
So the city is saved by God acting through a bunch of nobodies, which shows that God is the true and only power that matters and that the nobodies are actually the somebodies in the story. And now it’s time to tip my hand, to tell you what lies behind this homily. It’s this that the nobody lepers say:
“This day is a day of good news. If we are silent…”. Now, help me out here, Ms. Dickinson:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Brothers and sisters, we are nobodies, all of us. We are starving lepers who have stumbled upon a banquet. We are sinners saved by grace. We are enemies made sons and daughters. We are paupers invited to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. We are nobodies, but we are the children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ because our powerful God acted through his nobody Son to save all nobodies everywhere. This day is a day of good news. Isn’t that phrase beautiful? This day is a day of Gospel. If we are silent, the city, the state, the country, the world might well starve when a banquet — the banquet — is there for the asking.
The lepers took their lives in their hands — and probably some food, too — and went back to the city. These nobodies brought salvation with them. What will we do?