Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28C] - October 9, 2016 (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Luke 17:11-19)

Cleansing of Naaman

I can imagine that ancient Israel absolutely loved to tell and re-tell this story about Naaman, the commander from the army in Aram. During those long years when Israel was in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland, far away from their River Jordan, I can just imagine that this story, peculiar though it may be, brought them great relief, made them proud.

I remember that when I first lived in Pittsburgh and the Steelers were still coming off of their long exile from the postseason any time the subject of football was brought up (and it’s brought up a lot in Pittsburgh) I would inevitably hear about the Immaculate Reception. I would hear every detail—every stirring detail—about the crazy, accidental play that saved their divisional title in December 1972 when they were trailing to the Raiders with 30 seconds to go in the game. A pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw was intended for one receiver but it seemed to get tipped by the Raiders’ defensive player. The ball ricocheted to the feet of Steelers fullback Franco Harris who scooped it up—from his shoe or off the ground, no one really knows—and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.

If you’ve never heard a Pittsburgh native who was alive in the 1970s tell you the story of the Immaculate Reception, you’re missing out. Fathers tell it to their daughters, mothers tell it to their sons. That crazy event brought—and still brings—any Pittsburgh Steelers fan so much pride. The play was like this proof that the Steelers had magic, had destiny, that they occupied some special status in pro football.

I imagine that’s kind of how the ancient Israelites told this story about Naaman coming to Israel’s River Jordan to get healed. There are so many intricate details in it, signs that oral tradition was really doing its duty as father passed down the story to daughter and mother to son. They were not going to forget anything about how it happened. It probably reminded them that they had a certain destiny, special status in God’s grand plan.

In this story you have Naaman, the distinguished commander in the army of the King of Aram, a foreign military power. Naaman is a bigwig, has lots of power, but unfortunately he has a skin disease, which at that time, was basically a kiss of death. Back then all skin disorders were lumped under the term “leprosy,” and they were a one-way ticket to outsider status. He had probably been searching for a cure for this skin disease for a while. He ends up finding out that there may be a prophet down in this small, inferior kingdom to the south who could do something about it.

So a letter is written to arrange some type of meeting but the king of that small, inferior kingdom, known as Israel, immediately thinks he’s being set up. At that point the prophet, named Elisha, decides to step in and follow through on Naaman’s request. For whatever reason, Naaman rolls into town with all of his war cabinet and his chariots and horses. It would be like if Vladimir Putin came to get something from our HHOPE pantry here one day and he came up Monument Avenue with some of his tanks and officers. Elisha gives the word that all he needs to do is bathe in the River Jordan and he’ll be made clean.

After some initial reluctance and a temper tantrum, Naaman eventually goes through with it and, lo and behold, after dipping in the river seven times, he’s cured. Then before he rolls his huge entourage back up to Aram in the north, Naaman, overcome with thankfulness, journeys back to Elisha and proclaims praise to God’s name. Then, in the next part of the story, Naaman orders two mule-loads of Israel’s dirt to be brought back to Aram so that he could continue to worship the God of Israel.

That’s the story that ancient Israel probably loved to tell and re-tell. Here are some of the things that story was supposed to teach them: First of all, it was a reminder that the greatest faith is more often found in the lowliest faces. Notice throughout the story how the rich and powerful are the ones who have the least confidence in God’s ability to heal and save. Whether it is Naaman, who is dissatisfied with the proposed cure and wants to go back home, or the king of Israel, who freaks out at the chance to showcase God’s power, neither of those in the story with strong relative power are initially examples of faithfulness.

By contrast, it’s the unnamed folks at the edges that display faith in the Lord. The whole story gets started, after all, by this servant girl who merely mentions the abilities of the prophet living in Israel. And when Naaman almost backs out and gets ready to take his chariots back to Aram, it’s his servants who come through and convince him to trust the prophet’s words. It was an important lesson for Israel to ponder, especially as they constantly seemed to be seeking worldly status and power. Great faith so often resides in those the world overlooks or ignores or enslaves or devalues. Notice Jesus’ own shock when he sees the one thankful leper turns out to be a foreigner, not a regular Israelite. God loves those people, draws near to them, desires to help them. And it is those who have relative power and privilege who, somewhat ironically, are the easiest to convince they have no need of a God to redeem and heal them. Lesson one: great faith is found in the lowest faces.

Another thing the healing of Naaman was supposed to teach the Israelites was that healing comes in the most unexpected places. The kingdom of Aram was on a roll. They had an army that could conquer anyone; they had talented military personnel. But to give Naaman the healing he needed, he was going to have to visit lowly old kingdom of Israel, almost a vassal state. The Rivers of Damascus, Abana and Pharpar, were beautiful, big and fresh compared to the dinky, dirty Jordan. He travelled all the way down here for a simple bath in that water? Naaman was expecting some big show of power and drama, some mystical secret weapon of healing (after all, he is a weapons guy). But God’s word is not chained, as the apostle Paul would say, and God often prefers the simple and unassuming to bring about wholeness, in spite of our desire for the masterful.

Because of where our church is located, every once in a while we have someone off the street drop by looking for assistance. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred they claim they need financial assistance, but one day several years ago a woman showed up who said she wanted to talk with a pastor. Pastor Price must have been out at the time, so I ended up setting down what I was doing and speaking with her. The conversation lasted for quite a while, and my memory is hazy now, but I remember that she was really agitated and worried about the health of her husband, who had just finished a round of cancer treatment with no results. I kept waiting for her to get to the point where she would tell me she needed something—like a hotel room or money for food, but as the story went on, it appeared she wanted me to tell her what she was supposed to do now. There were some family conflict, too, and she felt overwhelmed. It was a bizarre conversation and I remember feeling absolutely helpless. She never wanted to tell me her name, even though I asked her for it so I could pray for her. Like Naaman, I expected of myself some magical, dramatic words or gesture that would reassure her, calm her down, give her hope. But nothing came. When she finally left, I felt like it was fifty minutes down the drain. I wanted to do something difficult, something impressive. She seemed every bit as disoriented and upset as when she arrived.

Then, about a week later, an unmarked envelope came to the church through the mail. All that was in it was a $50 bill wrapped in a piece of paper that said, “Thanks for listening to me. Signed, your stranger last week.” Why she felt compelled to respond in that way, I don’t know, but I have a feeling I was being taught Naaman’s again. Faith comes in the lowliest faces. Healing comes in the most unexpected places.

We cannot predict how God is going to work among us, and because we’re typically infatuated with the showy and spectacular, the giant and the grandiose, we’re apt to miss the profound healing that can come through the humble and humdrum. We can often overlook Jesus, that is, and the places where Jesus walks among us, in steady gentleness and kindness, calling out to us that we are clean. We can often overlook the point of the cross—that face, that place where God’s grace is poured out in a crucified man so that we may be cleansed of our sin and made well.

Cleansing of the Ten lepers (Codex Aureus)
God is not going to require us to perform some magnificent ritual or deed of glory to prove our worth. God is going to take us as we are, unclean and broken, and love us back to life in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God is going to meet us in the ordinary, in the Godforsaken path we’re taking, to give us his healing. And like Israel and the disciples of Jesus learned, it often takes an encounter with another person—a stranger, a foreigner healed of leprosy, a nameless visitor in the office, a person who has experienced that new life for us to see its power, ourselves.

That brings me to the last thing the story of Naaman should have taught the Israelites, and which still teaches us: We show thankfulness for God’s graces. A clean Naaman could have gone straight home from the River Jordan. Ten clean former lepers started running off to the priest that day. The visitor in my office could have gone about her business, clean from her worry. But there is something about expressing thankfulness that makes us well. There is something about the thanksgiving that completes the relationship, which seals the deal. We are created for God’s glory and joy, and as much delight as it must give God to have us clean and whole, imagine how delighted God is to hear or see our thanks. Imagine how much it does for us when we respond in that relationship with our gratefulness.

Living our faith in the world, living out the grace of our baptism is like carrying back those two mule-loads of holy soil. That is, wherever we walk becomes holy ground, an opportunity where we express our thankfulness for what God has done. Each person with whom we talk becomes an opportunity to show our faith in God. And as this happens, through God’s strange but humble power, we are face of faith for someone who needs it. We are an unexpected place of healing. And, if I may be so bold as to say, an immaculate inception—a moment where the crucified and risen Lord may find an opening.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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