(2 Kings 5:1-19)
Every so often, something in life reminds me of the Edgar Allen Poe short story called “The Masque of the Red Death.” I don’t know if any of you have read it. It’s a fantastic story, and I mean “fantastic” in the sense that it is bizarre and unreal. Poe creates a strange world in which a strange tale takes place. I read it as a child and it made a lasting impression on me.
It’s the story of a country and its people that were being ravaged by the Red Death, a plague that was hideous and fatal. It marked its victims with bloody stains on the body, which is why it was called the Red Death. It’s also the story of a Prince – Prince Prospero – and how he dealt with the plague that was ravaging his country. When the disease had killed half of the people in his kingdom, he called together a thousand of his friends, all of whom belonged to the upper crust of society, and he retired with them to one of his castles. The castle was surrounded by a wall and had gates of iron. Once the prince and his friends were inside the castle walls, they welded shut the bolts of the gates. Their plan was to shut out the Red Death, leaving those outside to its ravages while they partied and played inside. This is how Poe describes their plan:
A strong and lofty wall girdled [the caste] in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and . . . hammers and welded the bolts. . . . The [castle] was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
After about five or six months of being ensconced in the castle, Prince Prospero decided to throw a masked ball to entertain himself and his friends. He held it in a section of the castle that was unusually designed and decorated. This section of the castle consisted of a suite of seven rooms. Rather than leading in a straight line from one to the other, the rooms were set at angles, so that you couldn’t see much more than one room at a time. In the middle of each room, on both the right and the left walls, there was a tall, narrow Gothic window that looked out upon a corridor that followed the angles of the rooms. The windows were made of stained glass. Each set of windows in each room was a different color. The color matched the decorations in each of the rooms. The first room had blue windows and blue decorations; the second purple; the third green; the fourth orange, the fifth white, the sixth violet. But the most fantastic of the rooms was the seventh. The seventh room was hung with black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and the walls. It had a black velvet carpet. But, in this room only, the color of the stained glass windows did not match the color of the decorations. Instead, in this room, the windows were stained blood red. This room also contained a big, ebony clock that struck the hour with a strange and disturbing sound.
Now, outside each window in each room, in the corridor that followed the rooms, there was a tripod that held a bowl of fire that lit the rooms through the stained glass windows. This was the only light that the rooms had – there were no lamps or candles in any of the rooms. They were lit only by the light from the fire glowing through the stained glass windows.
Prince Prospero and his guests were having a grand time at this grand masked ball held in the grand and bizarre suite of rooms. But, as the ebony clock in the ebony room lit by the blood-red windows struck midnight, they all became aware of a new guest, one they hadn’t noticed before. This new guest was dressed in a costume that offended each and every guest. He was dressed as a corpse that had been struck dead by the Red Death.
When the prince saw this guest he was outraged! Who dared to insult them by mocking the Red Death in the midst of their revels? He ordered the guests to seize and unmask the intruder!
But no one approached the intruder – in fact, all the guests shrank against the walls of the room, away from the intruder and he began to walk, slowly and deliberately, through the blue room to the purple, through the purple to the green, through the green to the orange, through the orange to the white, through the white to the violet, and through the violet to the black. As the intruder reached the violet room, Prince Prospero rushed after him, through all of the rooms, determined to seize and unmask him himself. As he ran he pulled a dagger from his garments and prepared to stab the intruder.
But, when the prince was three to four feet from the intruder, the intruder had reached the farthest wall of the black room and he turned to face the prince. At that moment, the prince uttered a sharp cry and fell, dead, onto the carpet. Then the rest of the guests rushed as a crowd into the black room and seized the intruder, only to find that the costume held no person.
Poe ends his story with the following:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the [happy]. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
By this time you’re probably asking yourself why in the world I’m telling you this bizarre and gruesome Edgar Allen Poe story. Isn’t this supposed to be a sermon? Yes, it is, and here comes the sermonizing part of the sermon.
Prince Prospero, a wealthy and powerful man with wealthy and powerful friends, thought that he and his friends were immune to the Red Death. They had the means to withdraw to a walled castle and lock its gates to the Red Death. They would play and party while the plague raged on. They thought that, because of their social and political position, they were above being harmed by those things that the poor and lowly contend with on a daily basis – in this case, disease and death.
But the prince and his friends were wrong. Their wealth and their power could perhaps postpone the inevitable, but the inevitable would come, uninvited. What they learned – too late – is that no one – no one – is immune to the trials and tribulations of this world – no one. Disease and death are the great equalizers and, in the end, both the rich and the poor of Prince Prospero’s kingdom lay in their graves.
In the Old Testament scripture reading for today, Namaan, the commander of the King of Aram’s army, discovers what Prince Prospero discovered too late, that no one is immune to the trials and tribulations of this world. As the commander of the king’s army, Namaan was an important and powerful man. He held a position of great political and military power. Yet, he suffered from a painful, embarrassing, and humiliating skin disease.
Now, Namaan, like Prince Prospero, probably surrounded himself with other important and powerful people. After all, he was in high favor with the king. But it wasn’t the important and powerful people who helped him with his skin disease. Instead, it was a lowly servant girl, an Israeli prisoner of war, who helped Namaan. She told Namaan’s wife about Elisha, the prophet of Israel, who she was sure could heal him of his disease. Namaan’s wife told Namaan, and Namaan set out for Israel seeking to be healed by the great prophet Elisha.
There was Namaan, the powerful commander of the King of Aram’s army, approaching Elisha’s house with all of his horses and chariots. I’m sure it was a grand procession. But Elisha didn’t even come out of his house to speak directly to Namaan. Instead, he sent a messenger to him with instructions on how Namaan could be healed. Namaan had expected a great show of respect, followed by a great show of healing, maybe with some thunder and lightning and the voice of God thrown in for effect and, instead, he got a message from a lowly messenger and instructions to go and wash in the River Jordan. Ha! He could have stayed home and washed in the rivers of Aram if that was all that was necessary! He didn’t have to travel all that way to be insulted by a so-called prophet of God. He deserved better! He was the commander of a great king’s army!
Again, it wasn’t his important and powerful friends that helped him – it was his servants. They – bravely, I might add – approached him while he was in a rage and convinced him that it wouldn’t hurt to try what the prophet had instructed. What did he have to lose?
And Namaan was touched by their reasoning. His rage melted away. He did as Elisha had instructed and was healed.
Both Prince Prospero and Namaan suffered from the same thing: arrogance. Long before they suffered from physical disease they suffered from the spiritual disease of arrogance. The dictionary defines arrogance as “the state or quality of being arrogant.” And “arrogant” is defined as being “overly convinced of one’s importance; overbearingly proud; haughty.” Both Prince Prospero and Namaan were overly convinced of their importance. They were both proud and haughty.
But there was a crucial difference between Prince Prospero and Namaan. The prince sequestered himself away from those who were suffering. He didn’t allow them to touch his life in any way. Namaan, however, was surrounded by servants. Servants are people who tend to know suffering. They have no status or power and are poor. We know, from the Bible, that at least one of his servants was also a prisoner of war, the young girl from Israel. Certainly, she had suffered. As those who know suffering and have felt powerless in the face of it, servants tend to be humble. They don’t suffer from arrogance. They know how to both seek and give help, because they have had to do so with each other to survive their plight.
Namaan was surrounded by suffering servants and he was graced by their presence. It was they who saved him from his arrogance and thus from his disease. Namaan’s arrogance would have prevented him from being healed had not the humility of his servants saved him. The humility of his servants allowed Namaan to receive God’s grace. And his response was deep gratitude and deep faith. He was no longer an arrogant, prideful man, but a humble, faithful man.
Who knows what would have befallen the prince had he been exposed to those who were suffering? Perhaps they would have shared their survival tips with him. Or, perhaps, when he fell sick, they would have ministered to him. Or, perhaps their humility would have saved him from his arrogance. But the prince wasn’t blessed, as Namaan was. He was not blessed with the presence of those who suffer, and so he was never delivered from his arrogance, and so he never experienced God’s grace. Truly, as Poe says at the end of his story, for Prince Prospero and his guests, separated forever from others and from God by their arrogance, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion.”
The story of Prince Prospero and the story of Namaan teach us that no one is immune from the trials and tribulations of life. It doesn’t matter what position we hold in life or how much money we have. We will all suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” at some time in our lives.
The story of Prince Prospero and the story of Namaan teach us that arrogance prevents us from experiencing God’s grace in the midst of the trials and tribulations of life. It keeps us separate from those who can be a blessing to us. And it keeps us separate from God.
The story of Prince Prospero and the story of Namaan teach us that humility saves us. Humility allows us to seek and receive the healing we need. It allows us to let others minister to us. It allows God to grace us through others.
And, finally, the story of Prince Prospero and the story of Namaan teach us that when God graces us, we are changed. When the redeeming grace of God is given the opportunity to enter our lives, our lives can never, ever stay the same. We are given a new heart and a new spirit, one reoriented and redirected by God.
May we allow God to grace us, for, when we do, we are blessed. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 24, 2016, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.
 In The American Tradition in Literature, Volume 1, Fourth Edition, edited by Bradley, Beatty, Long and Perkins. Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., 1974, 839-840.
 Bradley, Beatty, Long and Perkins, 844.
 In The American Heritage Dictionary. Second College Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991, 129.
 This sentence is adapted from Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, by Cousar, Gaventa , McCann, and Newsome. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 413.