PENTECOST XVIII, Sunday October 13, 2019
O God, who hast made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after thee and find thee; bring the nations into thy fold; pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of thy kingdom; in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In reading about Naaman this last week, I couldn’t help but feel strangely convicted by how he treated Elisha. While it’s not even close to a one to one comparison (for reasons that will become abundantly clear), the way he first reacted to Elisha’s ministry kind of reminds me of all the times I’ve exalted myself when I’m on the phone with tech support only to get the most maddening question: did you reset the device? Maybe you can relate, and I can remember one time being on the phone with Apple in Cupertino one Good Friday a few years back; exasperated because a thing I really needed to work really didn’t work, and I actually tried to pull priest rank with a dude out in Silicon Valley as I moved further up the chain of problem solvers. Each time I spoke to a new tech, I’d bristle at the the maddeningly basic “reset the device” spiel as I went.
The subtext became, “I’m important and you should recognize that I’m important by giving me a fancier, more elaborate fix” as my ticket moved steadily further up the ranks at Apple’s tech support Mecca. Finally, I did reset my device and it worked (mostly); regardless of my station in life, and mostly without much elaborate ceremony or intervention.
Like I said, it’s not quite the same as petitioning Almighty God to heal leprosy, but I still kind of threw down like Naaman did. Speaking of, let’s step back into that story from 2nd Kings we heard this morning because even though I read being a poor guest in the face of pretty amazing customer service, there’s actually quite a bit more going on in that text; so much that I’m fairly certain that St. Luke the evangelist wanted his audience to have it in mind when he described the Samaritan Leper.
So the text of 2 Kings makes it very clear that its original audience shouldn’t have liked somebody like Naaman. He was a gentile, from a place called Aram. He was a warrior, and it looks as if he had led raids on the Israelites because he had captured a young woman and placed her in service to his wife. To an ancient Israelite, then, he is basically the worst: a man outside the family, a man with Israelite blood on his hands, that had put an Israelite into forced labor. On top of all that, he was a man who suffered from that terrible disease leprosy; a disease that meant he was even less likely to be invited to an Israelite dinner party. And really, any dinner party anywhere in the ancient world as having leprosy was generally agreed to have been a sign of God’s disfavor on a person. Naaman, to summarize, was not a popular dude.
But he was successful on campaign, and he’d earned some begrudging respect from his neighbors. He’d heard about one of the local deities, one that was apparently more powerful than some of the other gods. He’d gotten wind from that Israelite servant girl that there was a holy man that served Israel’s God in Samaria and he’d be able to fix up that whole leprosy thing. Naaman sent a letter to Israel’s king to inquire about the availability of such a God that could work this amazing healing, but the king took it as a personal affront and ruined his clothes (as one does). Thankfully, the prophet Elisha heard about the situation and Naaman joined him in Samaria. Elisha, via some poor lowly assistant, instructed Naaman to go wash in the Jordan seven times so that God could clear up that leprosy for him.
But Naaman, like me with Apple tech support, got angry at the simplicity of Elisha’s prescription. Not to mention not having rated to warrant an actual appearance by Elisha himself. I can’t help but see my own condition here and there’s a faithlessness imbedded in the anger; there’s a fair bit of pride as well. I can’t help but get a strange enjoyment out of his response to Elisha when he says:
“I thought that for me he (Elisha) 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 all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”
Naaman had expected the magic of a priest of the other local idols. He expected some cool pageantry or ceremony to accompany his miracle. And on top of that, he had to wash in the Jordan which was I guess kind of a “meh” river compared to the Pharpar or the Damascus rivers. Even still, his servants cooled him down and reminded him that the leprosy was the problem, not the perceived slights, so maybe just do as the prophet said.
And he did. And this leper, man of war, and gentile rose from the river cured from the disease and filled the valley and the camp of the prophet with his confession; proclaiming “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” No weird magic, no elaborate rite, just the working out of God’s mighty hand through the work of His chosen people; inviting the worst of the worst to know the power, mercy, and love of God.
Some years later another leper, a Samaritan, would seek God’s healing. This one would meet God incarnate in Jesus Christ from a ways off, and Jesus didn’t even require a wash. He simply bid them on their way to the priest to get ceremonially checked out. But Luke was careful to record that important detail for us: that the worst of the worst, again the Samaritan; hated by the Judeans for a significant theological dispute, was the one that received Jesus’ ministry most fully. Enough to return to Jesus to worship him and thank him.
I think what we see in both these texts is that God really wants to heal us. Leprosy is not something we see around here in Winter Park. But there are plenty of other things we carry with us that we think marks us just the same. But God wants to cast that away and bring us back to Himself in Christ. I think we also see that it matters how we respond to God’s grace. He is so generous to us, and sometimes we live like He isn’t. That’s when I forget myself and act like a diva when I don’t like the answer my tech support person gives me. But really, if someone as rough as Naaman can rise from the Jordan to proclaim the unique glory and power of God, and if a Samaritan can prostrate himself in thanksgiving to Jesus, maybe we can do likewise. Like I said, God wants to heal us from all those things we carry with us; whether that’s the sickness we endure in the body, or the leprosy of our hearts as we suffer in our regrets, our shames, perhaps even our sin. God is faithful with his people, and seeks to pour forth his love in and through us.
I pray that we would take that with us this week, as we head out from this place into our weekday lives, and as the parish begins another stewardship season. In every part of our lives, I hope that we remember his restorative work in gratitude, indeed always striving to remember the words of the psalmist who wrote that God…
…sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever. Amen.
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
1603 E Winter Park Rd.
Orlando, FL 32803