July 7, 2019

Pentecost 4 July 7, 2019 (Ps 30, Galatians 6:1-5,14-15) 2 Kings 5:1-19a

Practice Grace

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Naaman is a powerful general, highly respected by his employer, the king of Aram. (Aram is an ancient name for Syria). Naaman has led the Syrian army in many a battle and won many military victories. He’s got slaves and lots of money at his disposal. And – he’s also got leprosy. (The term leprosy in those days covered a wide range of diseases and skin disorders, and seldom meant the Hansen’s disease we now call leprosy. Naaman’s leprosy’s probably not life-threatening, but it’s at least causing great discomfort, anxiety, and social adjustment problems.)…

An Israelite slave girl, taken captive on a Syrian army raid, serves Naaman’s wife. This girl tells her mistress “there’s a prophet in Samaria (another name for Israel) who can cure your husband’s leprosy.” His wife tells Naaman, who tells the king, who assumes this Israelite prophet must work for the king of Israel. He sends a letter with Naaman to his counterpart in Israel, asking him to heal Naaman. The Israelite king, like nearly all the kings of Israel, is a flagrant idol worshiper. He knows of Elisha, who has accompanied his troops and saved his armies from major disaster through his wonder-working powers, yet – the king fails to even think of Elisha now, as he interprets the Syrian king’s letter as an act of aggression. (‘There he goes again – trying to start another war with me.’)

The kings of Israel and of Syria and Naaman are all portrayed by the biblical narrator as darkly humorous characters – idolatrous, ambitious, and clueless. And Elisha, knowing all these characters all-too-well – nonetheless still tells the king of Israel – “send him to me, so he’ll know there is a prophet in Israel.”

And Naaman pulls up at the house of Elisha, with his entourage of horses, chariots, and servants, hauling a huge amount of silver, gold and expensive clothing. Expecting to have to pay handsomely for his healing. And expecting to be treated as visiting royalty.

But Elisha won’t even come to the door. He just sends a servant with instructions – “go wash in the river Jordan seven times and you’ll be cured.”

Naaman is outraged. Feeling dishonored and disrespected, he’s ready to go home and wash in a Syrian river – much bigger and far-better-looking than this pitiful muddy Jordan stream. But his servants reason with him – “father, if the prophet told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you do it?” Finally convincing him to take the dip in the river as instructed. And when he does, Naaman comes out of the waters, cleansed and healed….

If this was the end of the story we’d have yet another classic biblical healing narrative. The kind of miraculous healing Elisha and his teacher Elijah have both done for widows and children. But we know this is not a typical healing story – as we remember – this story is referred to by Jesus in Luke’s gospel (800 years later) as a precedent for his own ministry to the Gentiles – people outside of Israel.

But – what’s up with this enemy general with Israelite slaves – getting healed from leprosy by an Israelite prophet? While there were, as Jesus says, many lepers in Israel in those days – yet Elisha was sent only to Naaman of Syria.

What is up here? – with Naaman – a rather unappealing, un-deserving candidate for grace – receiving what sure seems like way more than a fair share of mercy? Why does this guy – so full of himself, able to spend any amount of money, and expecting special treatment for himself – healed for free?

We need to remember again the context… The Book of Kings is a long sad story of God’s people serving false gods who demand endless sacrifice, including human sacrifice… Small g gods that always crave more blood, money, and service… Within and against this dismal historic background… Within the Book of Kings – the Elijah and Elisha cycles of stories mix history and theology together. Episodes are not always told in chronological sequence. It can be hard to sort out all that’s happening…

But we know Israel and Syria were at war on and off for a long time – (which still hasn’t really changed)… But in the next chapter of 2nd Kings, probably not in chronological order, Israel is under attack from Syria, and Elisha calls on God, who sends blindness on the Syrians – and Elisha leads the blind Syrian army right to Israel’s headquarters – and presents them to Israel’s king – who asks if he should kill them. But Elisha instructs him– feed the enemy troops – and send them home again. Which the king does for once. And peace happens… at least… for awhile….

So on one level – this story of Naaman and Elisha is simply about God teaching us to give grace even to enemies – because it’s the right thing to do (even before Jesus tells us so). And – because treating people better than they deserve can create space… for peace to become more possible…

So – this healing of Naaman is not just about one man’s personal healing (though it is that for sure) but – it’s even more about healing community… and regional… national, and international conflicts…

As now Naaman realizes that he’s healed, and wants to show appreciation – offering lots and lots of money – which Elisha of course refuses – since nobody from God ever takes money for healing – anywhere in all the bible.

Then Naaman asks for two mule loads of Israelite soil for the building of an altar to the God of Israel. Which seems like a primitive notion – God being connected to the dirt of a particular place. We know God doesn’t live just in our local church or our own country… But place does matter for most of us. So we can understand people long ago thinking God resides only or mostly in Jerusalem or Samaria or wherever we live… And on some levels, are we not still primitive people?

I’m still feeling like a primitive man… as so often I find – reading Kings feels like reading the morning paper… Just like in the bible – all the kings and rulers of this world still tell us… to sacrifice ourselves and our children to the gods of money, power, and the national interest. (Meaning whatever interests the ruler of the day…)

But into this dark night of the human condition, God sends prophets like Elijah and Elisha – and most of all of course – King Jesus – to call us back to the one God who made heaven and earth. God, who alone can heal body and soul – people and nations.

And so we see – God’s radical grace poured out abundantly on clueless Naaman – who represents now not only himself (and others like him), but also his entire nation (and other nations like his). And his treatment – freely given, without price – is simply to wash seven times in the waters of the River Jordan. The Jordan River whose waters parted to let Israel cross-over on dry ground to enter the promised land. Whose waters were parted again in last week’s reading from Kings, first by Elijah, then by Elisha… The same River Jordan… where Jesus will later be baptized by John…

And Elisha’s instruction to wash seven times reminds us of the ritual washing, seven times, a healed leper undergoes before rejoining community life in Israel (according to Leviticus 14). As Naaman, the enemy general, now is treated as an Israelite… A member of the beloved community…

A very new experience for Naaman – who, like most new converts, has a lot to learn about God and God’s ways… So it’s not a big surprise that we don’t yet hear

Naaman say “I’m sorry for my arrogance. Sorry for thinking I deserve special honor and respect. Sorry, prophet Elisha, for not believing what you said…  Sorry about all those raids on Israel. That’s my day job. Still got to earn a living right?”

And – “Speaking of my day job… reminds me – when I get home I’m still going to have to accompany my boss… as he goes into the temple of Rimmon. He’ll be leaning on my arm as we go together into the temple.

Now I realize –  Rimmon isn’t real. Now I know only the God of Israel is real. But – I do still need to keep my day job. So I hope the Lord will pardon your servant on this one matter.”

And Elisha says “go in peace.”

Meaning what?

Without hearing his tone of voice it’s hard to be sure exactly what Elisha means.

But – considering Elisha’s patience… even with the wicked kings of Israel, Judah, and Syria – probably Elisha means –

Hey buddy – God has done God’s part. 

I’ve done my part.

You’ve seen what God’s grace looks like. Up close.

Now it’s on you to figure out what to do with your day job…

And the rest of your life.

Go – figure.

Call me – when you’re ready…to discuss the details.

Meanwhile – Go in peace.

Love and serve the Lord our God.

And practice – saying – always –

Thanks be to God….

Thanks be to God….

Amen.