Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
There are two primary characters in our Old Testament lesson this morning. There is Naaman, a powerful, valiant, wealthy, and successful military leader. And there is a no-named servant girl, a slave captured during one of Naaman’s many raids. This girl is a foreigner, an immigrant, taken against her will to live in a strange land.
Have you ever noticed the stark contrast of characters that often show up in Scripture together? This helps us understand what the kingdom of God is like and that it includes all and uses all. We also become more mindful of the nearness of the kingdom of God than we might otherwise imagine.
In a day when it might appear that God is silent or absent we are able to say, “Oh yes, that what that was! This is what God looks like!”
Naaman was a man of privilege and status, esteemed by all including the king. He was not necessarily prone to religious matters, especially to the God of the Israelite people. I mean, who needs God when one has so much going on?
But Naaman had an issue, like we all have issues of one sort or another. Naaman was sick, afflicted with the most dreaded and incurable disease of his day. He was a leper.
We might ask ourselves, what are those dreaded diseases of our time? Not just afflictions of the body but also, dis-eases of mind and spirit? What are those symptoms and conditions that rear their ugly head and render us incapacitated, stuck, broken, vulnerable, and unhealthy?
Always the question for the faithful is whether or not – or how – will we allow God to define healing in our lives? How will we be changed by the process?
There is a sense that we must always do what we can, but there is also a sense of abandonment and letting go that often prevents us from truly being healed.
Like any of us fallen ill, Naaman was preoccupied with his illness and rightly so. You may recall that there were many variations of leprosy. The worse conditions came with physical scars, legions, and boils and those infected were labeled or marked “unclean” and forbidden to be in the company of others.
This was not likely the case with Naaman since he lives at home and finds himself present on the battlefield. One commentary suggested that his symptoms were more likely related to loss of skin pigmentation that caused a bleaching effect.
Still, he was no match for such a formidable foe. All forms of leprosy were debilitating one way or another and carried with them a social stigma.
In his house was a slave girl serving Naaman’s wife. She would have been the ancient world’s equivalent of a nonperson, an “outsider:” young, female, most likely further disadvantaged by inadequate mastery of the king’s language and lacking citizenship. Hmmm…who might she represent in today’s culture? We live in the United States of America, New York City, and I’ll bet we all run into people like that almost every day.
She was doing her work but never forgot her true identity, vocation, and purpose. “I know a man,” she says. Is that the reality of our faith in word or deed? Do we know someone whose way is the cure for the world’s ills and our own? When was the last time you shared your experience of faith: “Come and see!”
It might be difficult to imagine the courage it would have taken for this young girl to speak up. I’m guessing that no one expected anything from her or solicited her little two cents worth.
But healing and wholeness can often come from the most unlikely places, can it not? From people we did not expect. From those we were not paying much attention to and whose story or identity did not line up with our master plan.
At another time Naaman might have dismissed her, but not now. Though she was the least of all, or so “they” might have said, her identity remained intact and she never allowed herself to buy into someone else’s image of who she was or whose she was. She speaks with confidence and absolute trust: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Here lies the problem with pride and self-sufficiency. Naaman will be required to humble himself, to shift his mindset and move to another kind of awareness about himself and how things are. In other words, he will have to change – something he does not want to do.
And yet. He tells the king what the girl has said. The king, not quite catching the part about the Israelite prophet, hopes he can do something for his military commander. He sends a letter to the king of Israel, which is a bit like a medical referral. Naaman’s case is held up by bureaucratic twists and turns. Don’t even get me started about that.
Israel’s king panics when he receives the letter. How in the world is he supposed to cure leprosy? And if he doesn’t, will Aram attack again? So much is at stake!
I suspect the king would have done anything to help Naaman at this point in order to maintain the power he held. And so he sent word and Elisha, upon hearing of the king’s anxiety, tells him to send Naaman.
And Naaman goes. He hides his vulnerability, even his frustration, and sets out to find the prophet while arriving in grand style: chariots, horses, and an entourage – all of which he thinks will impress the old prophet.
But Elisha does not even bother to come outside. He sends his servant to tell Naaman: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman can barely contain himself. He is insulted, outraged, angry: “I thought that for me he would surely come out, call on his God, wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”
Go wash in the Jordan, Elisha says – the dirty, slimy, ugly Jordan River, more like a muddy swamp than the beautiful Mediterranean Sea or the rivers of Damascus. “Could I not just wash in one of them, and be clean?” Naaman wants to know.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and so, Naaman goes to wash himself seven times as instructed, and his flesh was restored like a newborn baby. But it was more than the leprosy that was cleansed. Sometimes, God invites us to things that seem absurd so that we can truly be made whole.
We are invited to take what appears to be a leap of faith, to stretch far and wide, even amid what appears to be dirty, uncomfortable and inconsequential. Muddy water, the least among us, grape juice, and hallal bread might seem odd or weird, but to God they are channels of healing and grace.
Our lives are not packaged bundles of predictability. As a matter of fact, the only predictable thing about life or faith is that there is little to no certainty at all.
The work given to our hands is not always interesting or fun. It is not perfect work because it is performed by imperfect people and yet, all kinds of people are invited into it and all kinds of people are doing it every day. Church people and non-church people. People with great faith and people with little to no faith at all. The rich and the poor, the privileged and unprivileged.
It is absurd and wild and crazy. Some days accepted and other days completely and totally rejected. But it is wonderful, good work because we all are created by a good God who sees all and loves all. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.
Followers of Jesus, we are called to be sources of inspiration and hope for the world wherever we are and whatever we are doing. This is our mission. Sometimes, the absurd thing or the most unlikely person or circumstance might very well be where the kingdom of God is most near. Can you see it?