Saturday, July 6, 2013

"But, Like, the Jordan Is So GROSS..."

...ok, maybe Naaman sounding like the stereotyped Valley Girl isn't theologically defensible, but it is kinda funny. To me, anyway...

2 KINGS 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he 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?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I used to work for a man who said, “People who say ‘money isn’t everything’ obviously don’t have money.”  Today’s Old Testament reading would seem to speak against that idea.

Naaman had money, lots of it. He had power, fame, and authority, he had the king’s ear, he had servants, and he even had an army at his beck and call.

What Naaman did not have was his health. Honestly, we don’t know what Naaman’s illness was. “Tzaraath,” which our reading translates as “leprosy,” was a term used interchangeably for skin diseases of all kinds, as well as for mildew in clothing and houses. Its possible root word may translate as “smiting,” because it was seen as a punishment for sin.

Whatever Naaman had, it was bad. Bad because it not only affected his health, it was a visible sign to all those who saw him that, mighty and rich though he may be, he was vulnerable. Folks like Naaman saw vulnerability as weakness, and people who command armies cannot be seen as weak.

I imagine that Naaman tried everything money could buy to cure the leprosy – arsenic and elephant’s teeth and creosote and mercury are listed among the historical treatments, not to mention the gifts and sacrifices he must have made to his gods… and nothing helped. Day by day the disease spread. If it was indeed the disease we know today as leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, his nerve endings would be affected, causing numbness, and his skin would have developed lesions.

Now, I admit freely that sometimes my imagination gets away from me, but I can’t help thinking that, at his core, Naaman, great and terrifying commander of the greatest of the Syrian armies, was a nice guy. His name translates as “pleasantness,” after all. He must have been kind to his servants, because even a girl his troops captured on one of their raids on Israel, a young lady forced to be a slave to Naaman’s wife, worried about his health. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria,” she said to Naaman’s wife, “He would cure him of his leprosy.”

And Naaman's wife told him, and he told the king... and I think we have a little telephone game going on here, because by the time word got to the guy who wrote the King of Aram’s letters, it sounded like the King of Israel was the one who did the leprosy curing.

This, as you might imagine, freaked Joram, the King of Israel, out. He threw a King-sized tantrum, flailing about and tearing his clothes and fretting that old Ben-Hadad II, the King of Aram, was looking for an excuse for all-out war, which Israel would lose again.

Then he got a message from the prophet in question, Elisha: “Cool it, dude. Send him to me.”

I bet it was a sight, Naaman and all his horses and chariots and carts of silver and gold and clothing, armor flashing in the sunlight, standards waving majestically in the breeze, foot soldiers stamping out a mighty cadence, marching and rumbling down this dirt road in Samaria, pulling up in a cloud of pomp and circumstance and dust to the door of a mud hut.

Naaman dismounts his chariot and stands at attention, awaiting the greeting of this mighty prophet, ready for a dazzling display of metaphysical pyrotechnics and is met by…

…a servant. Some lowly slave boy with a message from the boss, a directive to do something utterly demeaning and ridiculous: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

This was be the equivalent of writing a carefully crafted, painstakingly detailed text message to someone who replies, “K.”

It was Naaman’s turn to throw a tantrum now. How dare he! Doesn’t he know who I am? There are better rivers at home, why can’t I go dip there instead of this nasty little creek? I wanted a big to-do, invocations and intonations and gesticulations and all that stuff – shouldn’t there be lightning and whirlwinds and bright lights and an orchestra in the background when miracles are done?

And again it is servants who speak reason to Naaman, saying, in effect, “I love you, but you’re being kinda stupid.”

If he had told you to do something complicated, you’d have done it, right? He could have sent you on one of those Monty Python “bring me a shrubbery” quests, and you’d have jumped at it, and you know it. You love those things. All he is saying is go dip in the Jordan, no big deal, just go do it, what can it hurt?

And I know it is just my imagination but I can see Naaman doing an eye-roll like a fourteen-year-old, saying, “all right, gosh!” and stomping off to the Jordan in a pout. His army and his servants and his horses and his chariots all follow behind him and line up on the banks of the river to watch him. He dips once, twice, three times… “nothing’s happening,” he complains, and one of his servants shouts, “keep going!” Four times, five times… “I’m getting water up my nose!” “Don’t stop yet!” “But...” “Keep going, sir!” “Gah! All right!” Six times, and the seventh… and every person on the army simultaneously gasps.

Naaman is healed. Spectacularly, unquestionably, completely healed. Not as good as new, better than new.

Our reading doesn’t include this, but Naaman returns to Elisha and thanks him and begs him to take the gold and silver and clothing as payment for the healing, which Elisha refuses.

What does happen, though, is that Naaman takes back two donkey-loads of dirt, so he can have Israeli ground to sacrifice to the God of Israel, who he will alone worship from that day forward.

There are so many lessons in this account, so many things we can apply…

First off, of course, Naaman didn't get what he wanted – he didn't get the recognition and respect he felt like he deserved, he didn't get a floor show, but he got what he needed.

And for crying out loud, Naaman certainly didn't deserve his healing! He worshiped false gods, he fought against Israel, he whined and complained the whole dadgum time he was being healed about the way he was being healed – but in the end he did it anyway, and God healed him anyway.

And isn't it interesting that, for all the rich and powerful and influential people in the story, all the kings and generals and armies and all their horses and chariots and silver and gold, the ones who made the difference, were exactly the ones with no power – a slave girl, some servants and a prophet’s messenger boy?

We know, you and I, that God doesn't often do things the way we expect. God comes in the backdoor of history, putting babies in mangers and kings on crosses, healing and forgiving and loving based not on who deserves it, based not upon who the one loved is, but based upon who God is.

And though we may at times feel powerless, it is a fact that the rich and powerful of our world rarely change things. Revolutions don’t happen in the halls of government, but at the kitchen table, and those are just the revolutions that change temporary things. Nations and governments and empires and kingdoms come and they go, after all.

The revolutions that count, the ones that change eternity, where a human being loved by God responds with joy to that love, these revolutions happen in soup kitchens bus station waiting rooms and storefront churches as often as they happen in megachurches and cathedrals, and I daresay more often.

We may feel as if we have no voice, but we are called to speak. We may not like the messenger but we are called to listen. We may not like the method but we are called to go and to do.

And we may not see the lightning or feel the earth move or hear angels singing or even get the credit for what is done, but when we are faithful – and I mean faithful even in the way Naaman was faithful, doing what God required with the same attitude as a kid being sent to his room without supper – even then, God is faithful, and things change.

Amen and Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Another good message. Simpler than most, but straightforward. Made me smile.

    Of course, I'm a sucker for a good Monty Python reference. :)