October 13, 2019
At one point on Wednesday, I checked to see how close we were to the full moon. I had several conversations with people who were anxious, and their anxiety was affecting their ability to express themselves clearly—and their ability to listen. They were caught up in their own narrative and couldn’t—or wouldn’t—open themselves to what I was offering in response.
I hear something of that in today’s first reading, that story of Naaman asking for healing but then resisting what was offered.
A little background for you. The kingdom of Aram was not friendly with the kingdom of Israel. Even if you don’t know anything about their history, that Israelite slave girl in Naaman’s household is evidence that there has been armed conflict between them recently. The text says a “raid”; probably some sort of battle. That she has not been returned to her home says a lot about the relationship between those two countries. But she’s a young girl and doesn’t necessarily understand the subtleties of international politics. She just sees a man who is suffering and believes there is another man who can help him. So she tells him about Elisha.
I’m not sure why the lectionary leaves out the next few verses, especially as without them, the reference to the king of Israel’s response to “the letter” makes no sense. Naaman goes to his king and tells him what this slave girl has told him. He must be feeling pretty desperate to go to his king with a report from someone who so completely represents “powerlessness” in that time. The king of Aram sends Naaman to Elisha, with a letter for the king of Israel explaining why he is sending his best general across Israel’s borders.
When the king of Israel receives this letter, he thinks it’s a ploy, to get a spy into the land ahead of an invasion. That’s why he tears his clothes in such a dramatic, over-the-top response. He isn’t expressing some appropriate humility about his position relative to God. He thinks he’s being set up. He spirals into worst-case-scenario thinking.
Elisha interrupts that catastrophizing with a dose of reality. Because of who he is, it’s not a gentle pastoral response, either. Elisha is generally pretty cranky throughout his time as prophet (remind me to tell you the story about the bear), so I hear him saying it with an exasperated tone of “WILL YOU JUST RELAX?!” rather than anything kindly and reassuring.
His attitude doesn’t improve any by the time Naaman arrives on his doorstep. Naaman is seeking to buy a cure—or at least to receive it as an affirmation of his own importance. But Elisha is unimpressed with Naaman’s show of wealth and power. I can just imagine him looking out at the scene, and muttering, “Oh, get over yourself” and deciding right then and there to put the guy in his place. He doesn’t accept the rules Naaman sets for the encounter. He changes the narrative.
And Naaman will have none of it. He wants healing on his own terms. He wants a dramatic story of magical hand waving to take home with him along with his smooth, clean, healthy skin. He is offended that he came all this way, and the magic healer won’t even come out and talk to him, just sends someone out to tell him to go take a bath in the local river. He lets his ego get in the way of wholeness. He wants his healing to be an affirmation of his status, something he has somehow earned or deserved, rather than a gift. Even after he relents, bathes in the Jordan, and finds himself healed, he still tries to make it about himself. The text continues beyond what we read today, telling of the great reward he tries to give Elisha. And Elisha refuses it, refuses to let Naaman draw him into his ego game. Elisha keeps it focused on the power and mercy of God, and sends him home with the simple blessing to ‘go in peace.’
Go in peace.
Think about that. This was the great military leader of a nation that most of the people of Israel considered an enemy. Elisha had been, frankly, rude and dismissive of him the entire time he was there. And now, he was telling a man of war to go in peace.
Perhaps there was more going on there than curing a man of leprosy. Perhaps there was a deeper healing in the relationship between two rival nations.
This distinction between cure and healing is in play in the Gospel reading today, too.
There is a lot going on in this passage—enough to fill hours of discussion. But I know better than to extend my sermon beyond three pages (the original draft of this one was five!) so I’ll try to contain myself.
Lepers were cast out from their homes, their communities, because people believed the illness was highly contagious. Everything that makes them who they are is taken away from them; their sole defining characteristic is their disease. Lepers—not people with leprosy.
This story suggests that they formed new communities for themselves. Jews and Samaritans may hate and avoid each other, but afflict them with the same devastating, isolating illness and suddenly those distinctions don’t seem to matter. They made space for each other despite their differences. In a peculiar, paradoxical way, their disease led to a different kind of healing. They experienced peace with one another—maybe only as a lack of war, but it was a start.
Then along comes Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, and all that entails: betrayal, trial, crucifixion, death. Jesus takes time to heal lepers on his way to the cross. Those who know their Hebrew prophets might recognize that cleansing lepers was one of the signs of the “kingdom of God” being at hand.
A different kind of peace being offered. But I suspect these ten are not thinking in broad “kingdom of God” terms. They just want to be able to go home to their families.
Jesus responds by telling them to go to the priests. No magical hand-waving, not even so much as a bath in the Jordan River this time. Just go. To their credit, they do what Jesus tells them without argument or skepticism. Going to the priests is what Jewish religious Law required. Only a priest could declare a leper ‘clean.’ Only a priest could restore him to community. So they obey Jesus. They go—and on the way they are made clean; no more leprosy. They are cured, and that appears to be enough for most of them. They are content to return to how things were before.
But what does it mean for the Samaritan? For him, the cure unravels the healing. He can’t go home with them—their families won’t welcome him, even if his skin is clear and smooth and perfect. By those old rules, he’s still unclean. He’s a Samaritan—he’s genetically unclean. There is no priest in that old system who can restore him to community.
But it occurs to the Samaritan that maybe Jesus can. So he goes back, and thanks Jesus for clearing up his leprosy. And Jesus does declare him “well,” or whole. And in that moment, we see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, the new system that offers healing and inclusion to any who will receive it. A system that is not particularly worried with separating the “unclean” out so that they can’t infect everyone else, and instead seeks to draw everybody in, offering healing and wholeness and welcome to anyone. A system that defines peace as so much more than “not war.”
I started my sermon talking about the anxiety that was swirling earlier this week. I hear your fears, and I don’t deny that there is real reason to be concerned. But actions driven by fear never lead to wholeness. All this “wrangling with words” is making us less able to hear each other and us more afraid. We will not find light by going more deeply into the darkness. Letting our anxiety shape our view of the world will only make us more anxious.
So what is the alternative? Where do we find the seeds of real peace?
I believe that the Samaritan leper had an answer: gratitude. Seeking the good in the present moment, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Living a life of gratitude can free us from seeing the world through the lenses of despair and hopelessness. It’s not a matter of living in denial, pretending that there aren’t hard and frightening things out in the world. Gratitude helps us see the hope beyond them.
That little slave girl in Naaman’s house had every reason to resent the circumstances she found herself in. But instead, she saw the hope beyond them, and her one small action led to a much greater peace—even if there were several scary moments in between.
Gratitude reminds us of the blessings we have received. Hope promises there are more to come. Together, they are the antidote to anxiety, and offer us the peace of God that is unlike any other.
In Hebrew, the word peace is shalom and means more than just a lack of war. It is the peace that comes from being made whole—healed—and in right relationship with God, neighbor, and self. Shalom is, perhaps, the balance that comes from holding gratitude in one hand, and hope in the other, so that there is no room left for you to hold fear.