Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23C), October 14, 2007; delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA
Heading for Healing
For those of us who like a good story, today’s a good day, because today we have a pair of fine stories to consider – the story of Elisha healing Naaman the leper, which is found in the Second Book of Kings, and the story (from the Gospel of Luke) of Jesus healing ten lepers and receiving a word of thanks from one of them.
Let’s take a look at Naaman’s story. He’s an impressive fellow, this “commander of the army of the king of Aram.” The land of Aram bordered the land of Israel and the two neighbors were often in conflict. Naaman is a “great man“ and a “mighty warrior” whose victories in battle have earned him the admiration of his king. Naaman is a big shot – I imagine him being a proud and self-sufficient man, a man acutely aware of his own accomplishments and importance. But at the same time Naaman also suffers from leprosy, a debilitating disease that in ancient times was incurable and considered the most devastating illness you could possibly have. So that’s his situation: a man of public power and prestige with a deep and ingrained illness gnawing away at him that only God can cure.
The action begins when a young girl who was taken captive by the Arameans from the land of Israel and who now serves as a slave to Naaman’s wife comments to her mistress, “Oh, if only Naaman were with the prophet in Samaria! He would be cured of his leprosy!”
The slave girl obviously has no social standing whatsoever – she’s young, she’s a slave, she’s a girl – but apparently her mistress has the good sense to listen to her. After all, what if the girl is right? What if Israel’s prophet really can cure Naaman’s illness? So Naaman’s wife talks to Naaman, who talks to the king of Aram, who in turn sends a letter to the king of Israel that says, “I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy” [2 Kings 5:6]. The next thing we know, the king of Israel is reading the letter and tearing his clothes in despair. How in the world is he going to cure Naaman’s leprosy? Only God can do that! Is his enemy, the king of Aram, just trying to pick a quarrel?
At this point the hero of the story finally makes his entrance: Elisha, the man of God. He hears that the king of Israel has torn his clothes and he sends the king a message: Don’t you worry. Send Naaman to me, “that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” [2 Kings 5:8].
So Naaman travels with a grand retinue of soldiers and servants and horses and chariots. They all march up to Elisha’s little house, stop at the front door, and Naaman says, “OK, here I am. Give it your best shot.”
But Elisha stays inside. He doesn’t even bother to come out and say hello. He just sends a messenger with a very simple instruction: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman throws a fit. “Who does this guy think he is? Doesn’t he know who I am? I’m important and I deserve an important cure! I don’t want something simple – I want something elaborate! I want Elisha to come out in person and do a special ritual, maybe use a lot of big words and wave his arms around and cure my leprosy in a dramatic way. I’m not going to stoop to washing in the lousy river Jordan – I’ve got rivers of my own back home in Damascus!”
He turns away in a rage and there is a wonderful moment of suspense – is he going to go home, taking his leprosy with him? Is he going to walk away from his own healing? But his servants intervene – and you’ll notice that just as with the slave girl at the beginning of the story, again it is the humble people of low social status who have words of wisdom for the people in power. His servants are deferential – “Father,” they say – and rather than tell him what to do or give him direct advice, they simply raise a question: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” [2 Kings 5:13]
Somehow Naaman has the grace to take a chance, take a risk, and so he “[goes] down and [immerses] himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God.” We don’t see the scene in detail, but here is how I imagine it went.
Naaman strides angrily down the riverbank, wades into the chilly water, holds his breath, drops below the surface, and whoosh – his self-importance is washed away. He comes up for air and then drops into the water a second time, and whoosh – his desire to be in charge is washed away. He drops into the river a third time and whoosh – his desire to be in control is washed away. In all, he makes seven plunges into the river – a good large number that for us might symbolize a washing away of the seven deadly sins, or a kind of baptism that heals him, body and soul.
When at last Naaman steps out of the river, the story tells us that “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” [2 Kings 5:14], which means, I suppose, that not only his painful wounds and sores, but also his freckles, wrinkles and age spots, have been restored to healthy young flesh. He has obviously received not only a physical healing, but a spiritual healing, too. Naaman “[returns] to the man of God, he and all his company; he [comes] and [stands] before him,” and confesses his faith in the God of Israel.
I hear this delightful story and I start thinking about our own stories of healing. Every person in this room has a healing story, for we are all sinners in the process of being healed. We are all fallen souls in the process of being redeemed, and surely there is a bit of Naaman in all of us, whether we like it or not. For instance, maybe we know what it means to look good on the outside, as if everything in our life were going perfectly well and we hadn’t a care in the world, while secretly something was eating away at our soul. Maybe we know what it is like to have many good deeds and accomplishments to our credit, to be leaders of one kind or another and to receive people’s praise and respect, while deep down we know that something within us is amiss and we cannot heal ourselves.
Leprosy is a metaphor for the fallen human condition, for the lost-ness and sin to which human beings fall prey and which can’t be healed without God’s help. “Leprosy” can take many forms. Maybe we’re eaten up with resentment and complaint; maybe we’re grumbly, critical, and dissatisfied, and we secretly or openly scowl because the people around us never quite measure up. Maybe we’re gnawed by self-doubt and insecurity, by a deep sense of unworthiness or shame, and compensate by spending our energy trying to please other people and make them like us. Maybe our lives are poisoned by worry, by a constant, lurking, fretful dread that something awful is coming around the next corner. Maybe, like Naaman, we’re riddled with pride, by the desire to be in charge and in control, and we take quick offense if we don’t get the respect we think we deserve. Sure, Naaman wants to be healed, but he wants to be healed on his own terms, not on God’s terms. He wants to be healed in a way that leaves his pride intact.
There are all kinds of leprosy going around.
Here’s another connection with Naaman: like him, we may need to open ourselves to God’s healing by doing something very simple. Our deep healing often does not depend on doing something dramatic, but on being willing to take a small step – maybe to start going to Al-Anon meetings, or to begin a practice of daily prayer, or to walk up to that person we’ve hurt so badly or neglected for so long and to say we’re sorry. Our first step to healing may be as simple as falling on our knees and asking Jesus for help. I know that sometimes the step I need to take toward healing can be very simple, but – heaven help me – I can be as stubborn as Naaman and put it off as long as possible, and may even consider marching back home with my pride – and my illness – intact.
But, if we are willing, we will finally do what Naaman did: take Elisha’s good advice and take ourselves down to the Jordan, down to the healing waters of God, and give ourselves a good soak. If you were to dip yourself seven times into that river of God, what would those cleansing waters wash away? Every time you dunked your head and came up for air, you would be freer, more able to let the love of God flow through you without any hindrance at all. What would those healing waters wash away from your soul?
And let’s say you’ve been cleansed. What would happen then? What would you do next? I bet that, like Naaman returning to stand before Elisha and like the tenth leper who returned to thank Jesus for his healing, you and I would want to give God thanks. That, of course, is what we do every Sunday, and what we come back every Sunday to do: to give God thanks. Our whole service is about thanksgiving. The lector reads a passage and says, “The Word of the Lord,” and we say, “Thanks be to God.” At the Great Thanksgiving – note the title! – the celebrant says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and we say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” At the end of the service, the deacon says, “Let us bless the Lord,” and we say, “Thanks be to God.”
It’s all about saying thanks – thanks to the Creator who gave us the gift of life, thanks to the Redeemer who shares our suffering and heals our sin, thanks to the Holy Spirit whose love embraces us at every moment of our lives, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Someone [David Steindl-Rast] once said that the human heart is made for thanksgiving, and I think that’s true. All the lepers had faith in Jesus and all of them were healed, but only one of them, the tenth, knew the joy of turning back and saying thanks. I can’t help thinking that he was the happiest one of them all.
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” – that is what today’s psalm says [Psalm 111:1], that is what Naaman said to Elisha, and that is what the tenth leper said to Jesus. Healing ends in gratefulness, and sometimes healing begins there, too, for sometimes it is when we choose to be grateful rather than bitter, when we choose to give thanks rather than to be skeptical, critical, or sour, that God’s healing waters can begin to flow in us again and we can be drawn back into the stream of love that is our true home.
I will give ee cummings the last word:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)