The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday July 14, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Tonight we’re celebrating the feast of St Benedict, the man this church is named after.

Benedict was born near Rome around 480 CE. His family was wealthy enough to be able to send him to Rome to be educated but he never quite fit in and so he left the city and eventually found a cave in an isolated spot in the wilderness where he lived for three years.

One day, Benedict was visited by an entire monastic community.  Their abbot had recently died, and they wanted Benedict to become their new leader.  He refused, warning them that that his leadership style was different from what they were expecting, but they persisted and eventually they wore him down and Benedict agreed to become their new abbot.

As he had predicted, Benedict was indeed not what they’d been expecting and the very monks who had begged him to lead them now plotted to kill him by poisoning his wine. They were unsuccessful in their attempt but when Benedict realized that they had tried to kill him he gathered the community together and said, “Look, I told you. I told you I wasn’t the kind of leader you were expecting and you begged me to lead you anyway.” Then he left the community and returned to the wilderness.

It wouldn’t be the last time someone tried to poison Benedict. In another instance, a jealous priest will send Benedict a poisoned loaf of bread. Again, Benedict will not be fooled and he will command his pet raven to get rid of the poisoned loaf.  Benedict is often depicted in art with a cup, a loaf of bread, and a raven because of these stories.

You might think that if the first community you try to lead attempts to kill you, to say nothing of multiple murder attempts, that you might not be cut out for leadership, but that was not the case for Benedict.  Eventually Benedict would form his own monastery, and then another, and then another.

Benedict would go on to write down the basic guidelines by which he organized these communities and those guidelines, called “The Rule of Benedict,” are still used by both members of monastic communities and individuals like myself to organize their daily lives.

The Rule is a short but fascinating little book that describes in great detail what you can expect if you choose to live in a Benedictine community. One of its most revolutionary aspects is the way Benedict chose to radically restructure cultural norms and hierarchies in the creation of his communities.

Benedict lived in a very hierarchical social structure in which people were given respect and power by virtue of their wealth and their family name. But all of that ended when you entered into a Benedictine monastery.

There was still a hierarchy, but the hierarchy was based on when you first entered the monastery, nothing else.  If the poorest man in the kingdom entered the monastery one minute before the king himself, then the first man would always be of higher rank than the king.

Additionally, Benedict counselled that whenever the leader of a monastic community needed to make a decision that they should seek the counsel of the lowest ranking member of the community and consider their advice.

Benedict structured his communities in these radical and counter cultural ways because he saw these sorts of values modelled throughout the Bible and in the life of Christ.

Now, Benedict didn’t ever write a direct commentary on tonight’s Old Testament reading, but a lot of his insight and wisdom about how to live a good life can be seen at play in that story.

In our Old Testament reading, we learn about a man who had leprosy named Naaman.   The Hebrew word translated as “leprosy” (tzara‘ath) refers to a range of skin conditions that would make a person ritually unclean.

Anyone who touched a person with leprosy would also become ritually unclean so, not wanting to become unclean themselves, people avoided them.  Lepers were marginalized and excluded from mainstream Israelite society and they weren’t popular in other cultures either.

Naaman wasn’t Jewish. He was Syrian. He was a successful military leader who was held in high regard by the king.  The combination of his high-status position and his low status disease seems to have resulted in a kind of mid-level status for Naaman.  He may have lost some of his social capital, but he wasn’t completely marginalized.

Naaman had all of the trappings of a successful military man.  Including enslaved people.  Enslaved Israelite people.

Naaman’s armies had conquered the Israelite armies and, as was common practice at the time, the winner took some of the losers as slaves.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be someone’s slave, someone’s property.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to be viewed not as a person, but as property.

It’s horrifying.

The enslaved girl in this story is of the lowest social standing – she’s not just a slave, she’s female, she’s young, and she’s a foreigner. She isn’t even really considered to be a person, she is Naaman’s property, not even worthy of a name.

If I was in that position, I think I’d keep my mouth shut and chuckle gleefully to myself when I saw my captor suffer.  Or if I wasn’t that vindictive, I’d at the very least choose to keep my mouth shut because not saying anything was the probably the safest thing to do.

And besides that, who was going to listen to me anyway?  Slaves listen to their masters. Masters don’t listen to their slaves.

And so it is utterly amazing to me that she would choose to speak up and try to help Naaman.  That’s a bizarre and risky and brave choice.

She has compassion for Naaman and takes a leap of faith. I mean, even if she was certain that Elisha could heal Naaman, how could she be certain that he would heal someone from an enemy country?

It’s a risk, and she takes it.

And that’s shocking, but it’s equally shocking to me that anyone bothers to listen to her.  You tell a slave what to do, you don’t go to slaves for advice.

This young girl tells Naaman’s wife that Elisha is capable of curing Naaman’s leprosy.

And for whatever reason, Naaman decides to give Elisha a chance.

I suspect that Naaman’s decision to listen to a slave isn’t an act of wisdom, it’s an act of desperation.   Despite all of his wealth and power, he can’t control his own health.  He wants to healed, and, at least at this moment, he’s open to suggestions from the most unlikely sources.

Anyone who has ever had to face the reality of their own vulnerability, the fact that they cannot control everything in their lives, will know just how scary and unsettling that can be.  Naaman’s entire career is based on his ability to command and control other people, but he can’t control his own body.

So Elisha might be able to help him, but he can’t just go knock on Elisha’s door.   He is a soldier from an enemy army. So political wrangling will be needed in order to avoid starting a new war.

But his king is willing to let him try telling Naaman, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.

So Naaman rolls up to Elisha’s house like the high-status man he is – bringing with him all the trappings of wealth and power – ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  His entourage includes horses and chariots.

Naaman is a powerful man who is used to giving orders. He is used to getting what he wants.  If Elisha really is capable of healing him, then Naaman expects to be healed, and to be healed with style.

But I think Elisha sees that Naaman is also a vulnerable man. A scared man.  His disease has made him realize that all of his wealth and power can’t protect him from everything. His disease has made him realize that there are some things he can’t control.

And that’s terrifying.

It must have been terrifying to realize that the only person who might have the power to heal him was a man from a foreign country. I suspect Naaman’s outward signs of wealth and power are a way of protecting himself from the terrifying realization of just how truly vulnerable he is.  It’s another form of armour.

Power and status have served him well in the past, and he hopes they will serve him well again.

But Elisha is like a wise spiritual director who sees the vulnerable spot that the armour is trying to hide and gently points to the weak spot saying, “That armour is pretty cool, but what’s going on over here?”

Elisha is not impressed with Naaman’s power and social status and goes out of his way to show it.  If Naaman wants to be healed, he is going to have to shed his protective armour and access that part of himself that was humble enough to listen to a servant girl.

Elisha doesn’t honour Naaman by coming to greet him in person. He sends a messenger instead.  And the humiliation continues. Elisha isn’t going to meet with Naaman at all. There won’t be a feast or a fancy healing ritual worthy of a man of Naaman’s status.  If Naaman wants to be healed, he’s going to have to take a DIY approach.

He will need to go and wash himself in the Jordan river seven times.

This is not what he was expecting.

Elisha has asked him to strip off every single layer of power and wealth and status and do something that makes absolutely no sense.  He’s not even allowed to use a high-end body of water.

Naaman is furious and storms off saying, “I thought that for me – for me – he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” (11-12)

Naaman had arrived at Elisha’s home with very clear expectations.  He thought his power and status would earn him not only a cure, but a cure suited to someone of his station.  But instead he gets a second hand message about a DIY cure in an “off-brand river.”[1]

But all is not lost, because despite his rage, Naaman still has within him a willingness to put aside his expectations and listen to his own servants who try to calm him down by saying, “Sure it’s a weird thing to suggest but isn’t it worth a try? What’s the worst that can happen?”

And Naaman listens. And he realized that the potential humiliation of smelling like a third-rate river is worth risking on the chance that he might be healed.

So he takes off his expectations, he takes off the armour of wealth and power and social status.  He shifts from a man who commands others and gives orders and become a man who listens and does what he is told.

And his is healed.

It is a truly terrifying thing to strip away our armour and be vulnerable. It’s a risky thing to admit we don’t have it all together and to ask others for help, but it is the only thing that can truly save us.

When Benedict invited people to leave mainstream society and form monastic communities, he knew that they would only be successful if they didn’t hide who they were.  He knew that they needed to take off the various forms of armour they used to protect themselves and to be the people they were created to be, not merely the people they were pretending to be, in order for the community to thrive.

And he knew that they needed to not only break down social barriers but be willing to really listen to one another as well.

Over and over again in Naaman’s story, the wise people are the ones who society teaches us are the easiest to ignore – the women, the foreigner, the enslaved person.

Status and wealth do not automatically confer wisdom and the people who society teaches us that it’s OK to ignore have much to teach us, if we are willing to listen.

Earlier this year, Kyle Mason challenged us at Idea Exchange to think about who we are listening to. He pointed out that if you only listen to music and read books or get your news from members of the dominant culture then you are missing out on a wide range of other perspectives, other stories, other ways of seeing.

So I’ve taken some small steps to diversify who I listen to and it’s been fascinating, for example, to listen to the perspectives of indigenous and latinx people this past week as we celebrated both Canada Day and the Fourth of July.

If Naaman had only listened to fellow soldiers of a similar rank to his own, he would never have been healed.

If Benedict had allowed people to maintain the same rank and social standing inside the monastery that they had once held outside of it, then those communities would not have been the revolutionary force for change that they have been for over 1500 years.

What might we learn if we removed our own armour and listened, really listened, to people whose experiences and opinions are different from our own?

We’ll never know, unless we try.

But it we try then perhaps, like Naaman, we will experience healing.

May it be so. In the name of our God who creates, redeems, and sustains.


[1] Thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber for this descriptor.