Friday, July 19, 2013

“Elisha and Naaman: The Road to Healing" - July 21, 2013

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Last week, we watched as Elijah was carried to heaven in a whirlwind, on board a chariot of fire. Elisha stood watching and after Elijah was gone, he took up the mantle of Elijah. Elisha was now the prophet in Israel.

There is a story that comes later in that same chapter that doesn’t appear in the lectionary and I have never heard a sermon on it, and I seriously doubt that you have. You won’t be hearing a sermon on it today, either, but it is a memorable story, and since we have been taking several weeks now to look at Elijah and Elisha, I thought it would be a shame if I didn’t at least mention this story – I don’t know when else we would have a chance.
Here is what happened: Elisha, the man of God, the brand new top prophet in Israel, was traveling when some small boys made fun of him. “Go away, Baldyhead!” they yelled at him. “Go away, Baldyhead!” I’m sure they thought they were really clever. I remember when I was in sixth grade or so, I went on a trip with my friend Monty and his family. On the long car ride, we wrote poems about our dads. We called them Baldo and Baldino, the Baldwin brothers. I remember one poem: “Traveling through Newbern, Baldino doesn’t show much concern.” Really excellent, riveting stuff.

But what goes around comes around, and when I first became an American Baptist, I was an interim pastor in Lincoln, Illinois. We lived in Bloomington, and one day, just for fun, I decided to take the Amtrak train to work – it was about a 35-mile ride.

I got off the train and walked to the church. And as I walked past the junior high, I heard some kid yell from the second floor – I had to stop to be sure I had heard correctly – and the kid yells again, “Where’s your hair?” Can you believe that?

Elijah cursed the kids who made fun of him. I didn’t curse the kid in Lincoln, but I thought about it. The story in scripture turned a lot more serious than my little encounter in Lincoln, Illinois: Elisha cursed these boys, and then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 youths.

It doesn’t make you want to think kindly of Elisha, does it? It seems like if you were really a man of God, you wouldn’t need to be cursing children. And then there is this matter of proportionality. Maybe it’s just me, but the punishment seems pretty unreasonable considering the offense.

What kind of story is this and what is it doing in the Bible? Presumable this story is included in the Book of Kings to emphasize that Elisha is the man of God and you better not mess with him. There are several really nifty miracles he performs included along with this dark kind of story. Beyond that, I think it is safe to say, the point of the story is obvious: don’t make fun of Baldyheads.

Well, this probably wasn’t a good way to start a sermon, but it’s too late now. But maybe this just illustrates that there is a lot of really fascinating stuff in the Bible, and we don’t get all of it in Sunday morning sermons.

Well, our text for today comes from 2 Kings chapter 5. We are introduced to Naaman, the commander of the powerful army of Aram, which is Syria today. Aram and Israel were often at war, but for the time being they were at peace. Aram had a stronger army, however, and Israel knew it.
Naaman was a military hero and next to the king, the most powerful person in all of the country. But there was a problem. Naaman had a skin disease. This was not quite as big a problem for Naaman as it would have been if he were a Jew, but it still seriously affected his life. As an important leader, he hobnobbed with heads of state, but there was always that awkward moment when he met someone for the first time. Some handled it well, but some could not hide their shock or disgust or repulsion. He had learned to put both hands behind his back and do a kind of slight bow, so as to avoid extending his hand to others.

His power and position had not insulated him from the effects of this disease. He had gone from doctor to doctor seeking help for his affliction. But nothing helped, and he was getting desperate.

During a successful military campaign a few years back, an Israelite girl had been taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant. And she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a great prophet in her home country, back in Israel, who might be able to cure him. It says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this slave girl. The very idea was preposterous: all of the king’s physicians had been unable to help him, and he was going to seek help from an Israelite prophet?

It was preposterous. And yes, Naaman immediately pursues this possibility. Once you have run out of respectable doctors, once you have tried everything they have prescribed – the pills, the treatments, the therapy, the ointments, the positive imaging, and nothing has changed – then you are willing to try alternative treatments, anything that holds just a bit of promise. You are willing to go see the veterinarian in Mexico with a new treatment that works on humans. You make a beeline for the faith healer to whom people are ascribing miracles. If you really want to be healed, you won’t leave any stone unturned – even if the stone was a prophet in Israel.

Naaman mentions the servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea. To pave the way, the king of Aram sends a letter for Naaman to take with him to the king of Israel.

Naaman has no idea how much it costs to be healed of leprosy. Just like today, you couldn’t find it on the doctor’s website. So he empties his bank account. He takes with him 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten new suits. He was willing to spend it all.

Naaman arrives at the palace and presents the letter that the king has written. “I have sent Naaman to you,” the letter said, “so that you may cure him of leprosy.” And the king of Israel was scared to death. He freaked out. “What, you think I can just cure leprosy?” he asks. He was obviously being set up. When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to beat up on Israel again. It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.

News of what had happened was soon all over, and word reached Elisha the prophet. He sent a message to the king of Israel. “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this. King Jehoram had ascended to the throne about the time that Elisha succeeded Elijah. Elijah, he knew. He apparently didn’t know Elisha yet – but he certainly would.

Naaman and his whole entourage go to the house of Elisha. As commander of the Aramean army, he expects to be treated with dignity and respect. Naaman wasn’t sure about the protocol, but expected that the prophet would come out to him. He was surprised that Elisha did not rush out to receive him. And instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet finally just sends out a servant.

Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, arrives at the home of an Israelite prophet, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him! This had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in years, and this prophet just blows him off. A scrawny messenger boy comes out and tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was. Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner. The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek. It was shallow and foul-smelling. If you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is furious. He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought all these expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole. If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home. Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say mysterious words to cure the leprosy. I thought there would be drama. I thought there would be spectacle. I thought it would be a big production!” And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

For the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing. His servants realize that he is not angry as much as he is hurt. They approach him and say, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not at least do this simple thing that he asks?”

Naaman would have paid 900 pounds of silver and gold. He traveled to Israel and would have traveled anywhere. He would have undertaken difficult assignments. He would have endured painful treatments. That, he was willing to do. But a cheap cure, an easy cure – he wasn’t ready for that.

But Naaman really can’t argue with the logic of his servants, so he does it. He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and immerses himself seven times in the water.

Naaman’s problem was, as they say, more than skin-deep. He has a problem with pride. The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down. He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria. He had to lower himself to be set straight by his own servants, and finally he was asked to go down into the muddy waters of the Jordan.

When it came to healing, his power and fame and social standing did not help him. His royal connections, his reputation, even his bags of silver and gold did not help. Elisha wouldn’t even come out to meet him. And now he had been asked to perform a ridiculous and utterly stupid act. But because he wanted to be healed badly enough, because he had reached rock bottom, because he was desperate, because there was nothing to lose, because he had come this far and had already tried everything he could think of, he went along with the prophet’s instructions.

He went down in the greenish, fishy-smelling, muddy water again and again, and on the seventh time, as he emerged from the water, his skin was clean and new, like that of a child. Naaman was healed.

Afterwards, he tried to pay Elisha. But Elisha wouldn’t take his money. “Your money’s no good here,” he said. “God works for free.”

In the end, his power and fame and connections and money did not matter. None of it mattered. Jesus sent out 70 disciples and instructed them to travel light, with no cash, no luggage, no extra clothes. Naaman brought all of this stuff but it did not help him. It was only the power of God that made him well.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer. As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands. He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting. He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own. He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient. In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying. He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them. Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease. The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed. He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

We can only hope it was that way for Naaman. He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, learned to trust less in wealth and power and celebrity and insider status.

Naaman’s story speaks to us because we all have vulnerable places in our lives. We all long for wholeness and healing. And to really find healing, we have to humble ourselves—not to think less of ourselves, but to see ourselves as we really are. We may think we can handle everything all by ourselves, but we can’t. We have tried and it doesn’t work.

When the crises of life come – whether it be cancer or unemployment or marital problems or struggles with our children or failing health of parents or the challenges of aging or any of those hard times that come our way - we realize that it takes more than we have. It takes giving up control and listening to others and allowing others to be there for us and with us and it takes placing our faith in God.

Crises in life may bring us down, but we can find healing in unexpected places. The road to healing is not always straightforward; it certainly wasn’t for Naaman. But we can find, like Naaman, that when we go down, God can lift us up to new life. Amen. 

(for this sermon I drew inspiration from Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon, "The Cheap Cure.")

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