Sunday, July 7, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.
What’s your secret? Not the kind that you might reveal in a parlor game or at a cocktail party. I mean – what’s your secret? What’s the one thing that you don’t want anyone else to know? Is it a treasure or is it a curse? And if it’s a curse as most secrets are, have you ever wondered what it might be like to be free of it?
Silence keeps a lot of our secrets, but not all of them. Some are more difficult to conceal. They’re visible if we’re not careful. And so we smooth our wrinkles with fancy products. We wear slimming devices to give us the illusion of health and beauty. We hide scars and blemishes with clothing and make-up. And it can be expensive to keep those kinds of secrets. Dolly Parton once famously quipped about her so-called eternal youth: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” Indeed, it does, Dolly.
Once upon a time there was a high-powered Syrian general named Naaman. General Naaman commanded the army that had defeated Israel. And 2 Kings reports, rather surprisingly, that God actually favored Naaman over God’s own people. So this man was a well-placed mover and shaker in the ancient world. But despite his success and wealth and power, Naaman had a terrible secret. He had leprosy. Now when the Bible speaks of leprosy, it’s often a general reference to any skin disease – not just Hansen’s Disease where people loose fingers, toes, and nose. Naaman’s condition might have been something like severe psoriasis. But whatever it was, skin diseases were highly feared in the biblical world. They were all thought to be contagious. So having a skin disease put you on the outside.
Maybe Naaman’s leprosy was in a place where he could hide it under his clothing. But folks in his household knew what he had, because they had seen him in various stages of undress. Those in the know included the little Jewish servant girl who had been kidnapped away from her family during a raid into Israel and given to Naaman’s wife. This little girl had seen Naaman’s shame and suffering. But she also knew of a prophet back home named Elisha. And she knew that if Elisha prayed for Naaman, his leprosy would be healed. So she told Mrs. Naaman all about it, who told her husband all about it.
I imagine at first he resisted the idea. Who wants to go to your enemy for help? But in the end, Naaman’s secret made him desperate enough to try. He asked his king to write a letter to the king of Israel describing his desire to meet the famous Elisha. At first the king of Israel thought it was a trick – setting up an impossible to meet demand - meant to humiliate Israel all over again. But the prophet insisted that he would help this foreign general. So Naaman set out and took gifts for the prophet: one-thousand pounds of silver, six thousand gold coins, and ten sets of the most beautiful garments you’ve ever seen.
The great general arrived at the house of the prophet and expected to be greeted for the great man that he was. But instead, Elisha didn’t even come out to say hello. He sent out a messenger to tell Naaman to go and wash himself seven times in the muddy, unimpressive Jordan River. Well, this was too much! Not only had General Naaman gone to his enemies for help; not only had he been met by a messenger and not the prophet himself, but he had been told to strip down and humble himself and wash in this sorry excuse of a river. He was furious and began to storm off. But just before he left, his own servants intervened: “Sir, you would do much more than this to be cured. All you have to do is go wash yourself. What do you have to lose?”
And that made sense, so Naaman relented and walked down to the river. He removed his clothing piece by piece. Maybe in doing so he revealed diseased parts of his body that no one had ever seen before. And then he walked into that muddy water and dipped himself seven times; a biblical number that always implies “completeness” or “wholeness.” And each time he came up out of that water, his skin looked better until at last he was restored. And his terrible secret, once exposed to the light, completely lost its power over him.
This story is notable for all kinds of reasons, but one of the most striking is its bold upsetting of the social order. Jesus makes reference to this story in Luke chapter 4 as an illustration of how the Gospel upsets the social order; God’s love and care is for all people – not just us so-called chosen ones. Naaman: a Syrian, a pagan, an outsider, and an enemy of Israel was the one upon whom the favor of God rested.
So that upsets our understanding of the way things ought to be. But so does this: the Word of the Lord came through the lowly ones no one paid any attention to. It was through the mouth of a female child and a slave – a nobody - that the word of the Lord came to the mighty general. And instructions for his healing were delivered by another nobody – a mere messenger of the prophet. And then it was Naaman’s own servants who implored him not to storm off, but to at least try the muddy Jordan to see if it would work. Healing and wholeness were facilitated by those whom we ignore. And if you read the Bible carefully and fully, you will see that this pattern repeats over and over again. And we’re still learning the lesson to listen to those no one else hears.
This is a story about how much those things, by which we stratify society, don’t matter to God at all. This is a story about how our social stratification keeps us trapped by our secrets. This story is about pretending to be perfect as we compete for social acceptance. And the Good News of the Gospel in this story is that our salvation is found in the very thing we run from: our commonality with everyone born. Standing naked in the world makes us free.
Once while at my church in New York City, I had taken ill and was in and out of the hospital several times over a number of weeks. The leadership of the church knew about it, but I had sworn them to secrecy. I didn’t want anyone else in the congregation to know that I was sick. But the people of my church were not idiots. They saw my pale face and need to sit down during worship. They saw my occasional grimaces of pain. I insisted to keep up this ridiculous façade up until one day one of my leaders – a New England Congregationalist by the way - called me out on it and told me that I was being silly by trying to hide my illness. She told me I needed to trust the community to do for me what I could not do for myself.
And so, I let them care for me and comfort me and worry about me. I took off my armor. And I stopped pretending that I was different just because I had a title. I stopped keeping that secret. And once exposed to the light and to the water, it not only lost its power over me, but it served as a bridge between me and the people of that church.
Today little Cecilia was washed in the waters of baptism - her skin fresh and beautiful like any child’s. That’s also what happened to Naaman. But those waters of grace are also available to any of us who are tired of hiding and longing for a new beginning. From these waters we all rise, healed and made whole.
Thanks be to God. Amen.