Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon for Epiphany VI (Year B)

I Kings 5:1-14
Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign                                                                      

Naaman had a problem. He was a military man, a prominent general in the army of the King of Syria. He was a man of material substance and high social standing. People looked up to him and admired him and envied him. But Naaman was also sick. He had a disease called leprosy, which disfigured the appearance of his skin, a distinctly unpleasant sight to behold. Moreover, unless he could do something about it, Naaman’s leprosy put his high social standing at risk, because lepers were despised and feared; they were the outcasts of society in the ancient world. So Naaman wanted to be healed.
Naaman wanted to be made whole. Naaman needed help.

It would surprise me to hear that anyone at St John’s today has leprosy. But it would also surprise me to hear that anyone worshipping with us this morning does not desire healing and wholeness and feel a need for help in attaining those goals. Many of us, like Naaman, want literally to be healed from a physical disease. Sickness has gotten in the way of living life to its fullest, and we crave deliverance from that sickness. Others are aware of ill health that is rooted in emotional and mental health issues. We crave peace of mind—peace that settles our stomachs and lowers our blood pressure and allows us to think clearly, peace of mind that flows from a clear conscience. Or, it could be that we see disease as a metaphor for a troubled marriage, or a relationship with a child or parent or other loved one that seems to be falling apart; a symbol for lost hopes and dreams, or for that inarticulable angst, profound sorrow that does not flow from any apparent cause, but which tells us that all is not particularly well with our souls, or with the world.

There was within Naaman’s household an Israelite slave girl. She had been taken captive in one of Syria’s on again/off again armed conflicts with its neighbor, and put to work as a domestic servant. The slave girl, whose name we are never told, sees her master’s distress over his leprosy, and in an expression of magnanimous goodwill that, given her circumstances, seems incomprehensible to us, tells him that she knows a prophet in Israel who can cure his leprosy. Now, of all the people connected to Naaman, this girl was the least likely to even be noticed, let alone heard by him. She was the weakest and most vulnerable person in his life. If it were not for the enormity of his problem, and his desperate desire to find a solution, he probably wouldn't have given her a second thought. But he did. He listened, and he acted.

Naaman went to his own king and got a letter of reference to the king of Israel (apparently at that point, the conflict was “off again”). Then he loaded up his wagons with expensive gifts and made his way to find Elisha, stopping first at the Israelite capital of Samaria to pay his respects to the king. In an amusing subplot, the king is scared to death the he is expected to heal Naaman. Elisha eventually hears of the awkward situation and sends for Naaman to pay him a visit. But when Naaman—the great and highly-esteemed Naaman—arrives at Elisha’s house, the prophet doesn’t even bother to greet him personally, but merely sends a servant with the following instructions: Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River, and you will be healed of your leprosy.”

Naaman is highly insulted. “I’ve come all this way, bearing all these gifts, and this two-bit Israelite-scum prophet won’t even extend me the courtesy of coming out and greeting me and waving his hand solemnly across my leprous skin while he intones some mysterious prayer to his mysterious god? Take a bath in that slimy Jordan River?! Is there something wrong with our rivers in Syria that I had to come all the way down here to do this?”  

By virtue of a series of unlikely possibilities, Naaman finds himself at a critical moment of decision, possibly the most pivotal moment of his life. But he has plenty of company, the company of each one of us. In our search for healing and wholeness—or, to put it another way, in our search for salvation—it is extremely, almost irresistibly tempting, for us to decide that the path which is recommended to us is the very path we find least appealing, least palatable, even unacceptable.

Several years ago, I developed a pinched nerve in my neck, which made living in general, and sleeping in particular, highly uncomfortable. I went to my doctor, who told me what we all hate to hear: “These things are really hard to treat.” He gave me a range of options, the least invasive of which was physical therapy, so I made an appointment with the therapist. I was sort of like Naaman. I hoped she would use her knowledge and skill and experience to do something to me that would make me feel better. And like Naaman, I was a little disappointed when the emphasis in our therapy sessions was to teach me to do things for myself, in the form of some exercises in some rather undignified body positions which made me look and feel quite foolish. It was not what I had in mind when I went to the doctor!   
I am blessed never to have acquired an addictive dependency on drugs or alcohol or nicotine, but my observation is that recovery from addiction involves facing several alternatives which at first appear “unacceptable” to the addict. And the healing of broken marriages and other human relationships requires humility and compromise and willingness to lay pride and ego aside. 
So Naaman was confronted with a critical decision. Would he or would he not follow the “unacceptable” instructions of Elisha and dip himself seven times in the River Jordan? His first response is “No way! I’m heading home.” And head home he did—or at least he started to when, once again, one of his servants intervened with some common sense advice: “Look, boss, there are all sorts of harder things he could have asked you to do, and you would have done them gladly. Here’s the river; what have you got to lose by giving it a try?”

It is to Naaman’s credit that he found the strength of will to overcome his innate abhorrence of what he had been asked to do. In his eventual compliance, he experienced and demonstrated the truth of a fundamental spiritual principle—that salvation, healing, wholeness, fulfillment, come mysteriously at unexpected times and in unexpected ways and from unexpected sources, when we are obedient to God. God spoke to Naaman through Elisha, and Naaman overcame his instinctive reluctance. He obeyed, and was blessed by being delivered from leprosy. He found the wholeness he was seeking.

God speaks to us in many and various ways—through the sacred scriptures, through the collective experience of his people, through fellow pilgrims in Christ who serve as spiritual friends and guides, through the voice of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, and through the unique circumstances of our lives—the ordinary and the unusual; the comic, the tragic, the ecstatic, and even the sinful. He calls us to a general obedience—asking us to order our lives in ways that flow in the same direction as his own loving energy flows—and he calls each of us to a specific obedience—asking us to be attentive, to discern his presence and activity in our lives, to listen to his call to vocation and service. When we attend to what God says to us, we will probably hear a great deal that strikes us as unacceptable, even as a bath in the Jordan struck Naaman as unacceptable. But in our case, as in Naaman’s, that unacceptable path is the route—the only route—to the healing and wholeness we seek. It takes courage and faith and spiritual fortitude. Naaman would tell us, if he were able, that the gain is certainly worth the pain.

See you on the riverbank. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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