2 Kings 5.1-14 and Mark 1.40-45
Isn’t it just my luck… after last Sunday’s sermon stated clearly that healing isn’t really Jesus’ main event, today, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament readings are stories of miraculous healings.
I’m sticking by what I preached. It was true to both last week’s Gospel lesson and to our tradition. Healing, though a transformative side effect, is more an ancillary blessing. The main thrust of Jesus’ ministry — I’m keeping the pressure on, church — our main task is to proclaim the Gospel…
Anyway, it’s hard to be too upset… with a story as wonderful as the miraculous cure of Naaman. How a great man can suffer a thorn in his flesh that no worldly success and power can cure. How powerless slaves can have more access to God’s wisdom than the world’s rulers. How the King of Israel can tremble over being mistaken for having the power of God. How easy it is to reject healing because it seems beneath us; how often we scorn a person or people because we haven’t felt enough deference from them. How often our wholeness involves letting go or washing away more than one thing? (Which 7 of your struggles might you drown to become more healthy?)
No one need leave church this morning without the hope of healing. Actually, we have been offered a way to put ourselves in line for a cure: take up the work of Jesus, live and model and share the Gospel so well folks can’t fail to notice, AND you’ll find:
what’s been torn knits back;
where there was brokenness, there’ll be restoration;
woundedness can be made whole…
Such miraculous cures take place when the Good News is at work in the land.
But here’s another spin on the story of Naaman, and also of Jesus’ healing of the leper in our Gospel:
There’s created — almost inevitably — within any set of religious propositions a disasterous line of demarcation between insider and outsider, between lost and found, saved and the damned. This separating of the sheep from the goats even becomes part of the fabric of the religion as its passed down.
The chronic temptation and sin of us insiders is to presume our own superiority. To our own peril, we ignore, shun and vilify the outsider as strange, unworthy, dangerous, and unclean. We smugly imagine the truth is our sole possession. We fail to ask God for that higher truth by which we might be transformed. Rather than considering solidarity with the lost, the lonely, and the outsider a privilege that enriches our lives, we construe the tradition in a self-centered way to constitute a case for our others’ inferiority.
This misuse of religion often plagues, perverts our Christian faith. And, of course, religious life is not the only aspect of human existence where such a dynamic plays havoc:
Arrogant ethnicity… an “important” job… a prestigious education… the right sexual orientation… privileged socio-economic status… gender, age (consider how our society demeans the elderly), body image, and politics… these are all identities we use alternately to exclude or embrace — personas we construct –to comfort ourselves that we are insiders and to scape goat others as outsiders.
But there is within the Biblical witness of our faith a consistent prophetic strand to counteract this… Though there is always some particularity in the Scripture’s stories, God’s intentions are universal in scope. God elected one particular community, Israel, that all people on earth might be blessed. Or, those same early Christians who proclaimed Jesus as the only way to God, also imagined heaven populated with a multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language.
The Biblical witness includes, even elevates the outsider. Its “outsider stories” cast the insider in a negative light and the outsider as favored in virtue or faith. These narrative reverse and correct our prejudices. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the woman at the well… (It’s not an accident how many of these outsiders who challenge the insiders are women.)
Israel’s enemies can also serve a similar role: the Ninevites or Naaman.
Naaman humbled himself.
A nameless slave girl holds the keys to God’s kingdom.
Elisha’s prophetic power subverts social and political power.
And the outsider joins the insider community.
The story’s ending — right after we stopped reading today — includes a reversal that shows all these themes off in high relief:
Elisha’s servant Gehazi, overtaken with greed, connives to obtain the gifts with which Naaman had intended to woo Elisha, but Elisha refused. Gehazi, the insider of Israel’s prophet Elisha, is then struck with the skin disease that originally afflicted the outsider pagan military commander Naaman. The story began and ends with this skin disease as a sign, but the outsider from Aram turns out to be clean, while the consummate Israelite insider is not.
Beloved, this is what proclaiming the Gospel means: no outsiders are too far off to cause Jesus to shun them. Not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed or the possessed. No one is beyond God’s concern or encompassing love.
But we have a choice…
To make it harder on God by being like the Pharisee, praying all loud in the front pew in the church: “Thank you, God, that I am not like other people.”
Or to be like the Paul, who in the Letter to the Corinthians recognized that his insider status was no assurance or insurance,
…that spiritually speaking, we’d better not boast, lest we turn out to be… essentially make ourselves be the one who ends up outside. Amen.