(Psalm 82, 2 Kings 5:1-14)
We have here a powerful warrior and military commander, Naaman. Countless other warriors admire him and fear him and trust his strength and his smarts enough to follow him into battle. He had won great victories for his King, who showers him with praise and glory.
One day Naaman discovers a strange spot on his skin, which at first he can cover up. But quickly it spreads and boils, and he knows that the disease is unleashed and it won’t be long before he is not able to hide the fact that he has been afflicted. Once his condition is public so will be his shame, because he must have done something to deserve such a punishment as a disfiguring skin disease. Once his shame is public he will lose all the status that he had literally fought for – he will be marked with shame and become untouchable. So Naaman, the mighty warrior, threw himself into winning a cure.
But the way to that cure comes from the lowliest person in his household, an Israelite girl serving Naaman’s wife, whom he had enslaved after he won a battle against Israel. She feels compassion for his sudden mark of weakness, and she tells him about the prophet Elisha whom God had given the power to heal.
Naaman rushes at the opportunity. He gets his king to send him to the king of Israel with a hoard of treasure to buy his healing. But that doesn’t work; the king of Israel just gets upset because he thinks it’s some trick by the Aramean king.
Elisha hears about this and offers to heal Naaman, but Naaman gets upset because the prophet won’t even come out to meet him, let alone make a big public performance of the miracle and show everyone that God favors this great warrior after-all. Instead he must stoop to receive instructions from servants. Those instructions are even more infuriating. Naaman must wash in the Jordan river, a foreign river of an inferior nation, that is not nearly as grand and clear and holy as the rivers in the great city of Damascus.
The story of Elisha healing Naaman is the story of a prophet from God forcing a proud and arrogant man to humble himself to receive that healing, from a God beyond his understanding. Naaman’s illness has shown his weakness and it is only by entering into that weakness that he can become whole. He must lower himself to enter the healing stream that washes him clean.
Back then, like now, there was a lot of shame and guilt around illness. People with visible illnesses and disabilities often became outcasts. That’s not just back then. In our society today, where we have advanced scientific medicine, for those who can afford it –illness in public is often linked to poverty or to some moral failing. We try to hide illness and disability. We have this sense that we can conquer sickness and even death itself, and if we can’t conquer it we can at least pretend it doesn’t exist. We even photoshop out moles and birthmarks – you’re not going to find those on the models in the magazines that tell us what products and services we need to buy to become healthy and beautiful.
Our society is like Naaman, we want to cover up the mark, and if we can’t do that, we want to make a show of throwing money at the problem. And we want to make a show of the spectacular results that we’ve achieved.
Instead, the ancient wisdom is, we find true healing, true wholeness through our weakness, through embracing our natural vulnerability, through lowering ourselves into the river of a God who flows beyond us, the current of a power that overtakes us, to which we must surrender.
The healing in this story came through immersing oneself – not just once, but seven times – into the river of God that washes away shame and guilt. It’s a kind of baptism. And that’s how Jesus healed those who came to him – he released them from shame and guilt. Lord knows that’s a healing experience, especially for someone who has become defined by their illness and all of the judgment that gets thrown at it. It’s in fact a lifting up rather than a lowering down.
But it’s interesting to note that in some ancient Hebrew thought, the illness of leprosy is caused by the sin of arrogance, specifically the kind of arrogance that makes us insensitive to the plight of others. So there’s another level of meaning here.
Naaman’s heart had become calloused before his skin did. That’s why his healing was in his humbling. By giving up his might and entering into his weakness, he became open to the weaknesses of others. He recognized that he is broken, and in the river of God he is blessed, and that he is given to others who are broken and blessed. And it all was possible because a weak and powerless person, a girl he had captured in war, showed him compassion in his time of need, she saw that we all are broken and, in the river of God, we blessed and given. This is the way of Jesus. This is what we remember with Holy Communion.
From this experience Naaman became devoted to the God of this girl and the God of Elisha, the God of Israel. This is the God we heard about at the beginning of the service, the God of Psalm 82, the God who works with the lowly and the destitute, the places of need and weakness that the mighty – with their false gods – hate.
Naaman could have taken that other path, that path of hate and might. Thomas Merton wrote, “There is in every weak, lost and isolated member of the human race” – which Merton says is everybody – we are all broken – “an agony of hatred born of their own helplessness, their own isolation.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 72). Naaman could have let his agony at his helplessness become hate, he could have tried to cover his weakness by attacking the weakness of others.
We all know how that turns out.
These days there are a lot of people feeling vulnerable and broken, helpless and isolated. There are a lot of people feeling that way because of unspeakable acts of violence. This week, there are now countless police officers and their families who are grieving, and feeling vulnerable, and violated. There are also many African American citizens who are grieving, and feeling vulnerable, and violated. And for several weeks now there have been countless LBGTQ folks who are grieving, and feeling vulnerable, and violated. All because of unspeakable acts of violence. This is what violence accomplishes, and all that it accomplishes – more and more brokennes.
The disease spreads because of calloused hearts. So the only way through is by admitting that we need healing, however mighty we think we are as a nation, we all need healing. We must admit that we are broken, we are all broken. And we must lower ourselves into God’s healing streams, where that brokenness can be blessed. And that blessing can become a gift to others who are broken.
Thanks be to God.