Sermons That Work

Today’s Scriptures Contain…, Epiphany 6 (B) – 2003

February 16, 2003

Today’s Scriptures contain an interesting reflection on the notion of “social acceptability.” It’s the topic of countless talk shows these days, because we really do have a problem. When people are different from us, those with the most features in common band together and single out “the other.” The nature of the “difference” can determine the way children are incorporated into the community for the rest of their lives. International wars have been started over these differences, too, and we stand at the brink of one of them right now. Meanwhile, right here at home, we continue to harass the “different.” Some of their conditions are seen as social defects — like people who are obese, or have HIV/AIDS or scarred facial skin, or epilepsy or are paraplegic. We limit our range of social contacts with “those people.” We limit their contacts with society as a whole. Or if forced to interact with them, we send them reminders of their unacceptability — like the recent painting of swastikas on cars on Brooklyn streets.

People who are different, disabled or disfigured simply do not “fit in.” We invest their “defects” with a social stigma that we do not want to “catch.” We avoid looking at them. We avoid touching them. Until the Civil Rights Movement, African heritage was such a social disability that white shop keepers would slap a black customers’ change on the counter to keep from touching their hands. In some eateries, dishes or glasses used by blacks would be broken immediately after they finished eating. If a black swam in a public or hotel pool, it would immediately be closed, drained, and disinfected. And in some of our own parishes, blacks were denied the Sacraments, or required to wait until all the white parishioners had received the chalice before presenting themselves at the altar for Communion. But the issue here is not a “simple matter” of race or socially disabling condition. It’s a question of what Jesus taught us about the Realm of God.

In our Old Testament lesson, Naaman was the commander-in-chief of the Assyrian army. He suffered from a skin disease that bore no stigma among his own people, but it put him in the “unclean” category among the Chosen People of Israel. Naaman wanted to be healed of his condition, and his wife’s maid, who had been captured from Israel, knew of an Israelite prophet who could cure him. As the general who engineered the military defeat of Azariah, king of Israel, Naaman was “highly connected” in his own king’s court. For him, it was a simple matter of approaching his own king and securing an agreement with the king of Israel to arrange for Naaman’s cure. Lavish gifts were sent to Azariah as tribute, to insure that the process would go smoothly.

But King Azariah saw it all quite differently. Not only had Naaman been the instrument of his downfall, but, among the Israelites, the purifying of a leper was the province of priests, not kings. So the request infuriated Azariah. He was spoiling for a fight and saw the Assyrian king as provoking one. But Elisha the prophet heard about the situation and sent word to Azariah, to send Naaman on to him. He sent a messenger out to Naaman with instructions for him to take a ritual bath in the Jordan River. This in turn insulted and infuriated Naaman, who was prepared to leave without the healing, until his servants convinced him to follow Elisha’s instructions. Once he did, he was healed immediately, went back to Elisha, and acknowledged the lordship of the God of Israel.

In the Gospel of Mark, we find the story of another leper seeking and receiving healing from a holy man of the Chosen People. The leper goes to Jesus, asks for healing, and receives it. But beyond these basic circumstances, the situations are significantly different, as Jesus was doing something completely new.

In the Old Testament story, Naaman’s cure came essentially through “connections” — through conversation with intermediaries. First he spoke with his own king, then with the king of Israel, then with Elisha’s servants, and then his own. Elisha the prophet had his own interests to protect, as being in the presence of a leper would make him ritually unclean and socially unacceptable. He dealt with Naaman by means of a messenger until the healing was complete. Even the healing itself took place as a result of intervention by Naaman’s servants, Naaman himself being a most reluctant participant. And the healing was effected not by direct human contact but by means of a ritual process.

But none of this was true for the leper in the Gospel story. The leper seeking healing did not have high status — he was an outcast with no status at all. To the average citizen in his community, he was nothing more than a faceless beggar. We are not even given a name for him, and we have no sense of family or any other significant relationships in his life. But unlike Naaman, the poor man did not need “the right connections” to have access to the holy man Jesus, and he went to him directly for help. No gifts are lavished upon Jesus, no ritual is required of the leper, and no one “worked the system.”

The leper went to Jesus willingly, his healing was immediate, and, most important, while Naaman had found his faith only after he experienced healing, the leper in the Gospel was led to Jesus BY faith. He went to Jesus IN faith. He needed no proof of Jesus’ power; he believed that Jesus could do whatever he chose, and Jesus the Jew did not shun the company of this “unclean” man. Rather, Jesus spoke to him face-to-face and restored his health — simply for the asking. Jesus made the sick man well and immediately sent him back to the synagogue, to be restored to the community of the faithful.

Both these stories consider healing a holy action, gained by divine intervention. But the Gospel teaches us that one does not need high status or affiliation with the right people to receive blessings from Almighty God. We cherish material comfort, social connections, and homes in the “right” communities. But the Gospel calls us to consider the ways in which our possessions and associations can become obstacles in our pathway to God.

We see in Naaman a man who lived his life in the center of wealth and power. He was very much aware that he knew the “right people.” He came from the “right places.” He insisted on receiving the “right treatment.” He was insulted by any limits to the system of access and privilege to which he had been well accustomed. And he was fully prepared to leave Israel unhealed because he did not feel he had been accorded respect consistent with his elevated status. Naaman became infuriated when he was not “greeted properly” by the king upon whose favors he depended, although this was a king whom Naaman himself had helped to overthrow. Naaman also objected to bathing in the Jordan River, considering all of the waters of Israel inferior to the two rivers in his home country. When he did finally comply with Elisha’s instructions for his healing, it was not out of faith in God or willingness to follow the guidance of a man of God. Rather, Naaman was led to obedience by the faith and at the insistence of his servants — of people considered to be his “inferiors.” Their faith and trust in God was the same faith and trust that led another “inferior” man — a filthy, sick beggar — to receive healing and restoration directly from the Jesus of the Gospels.

The Scriptures focus our attention on the uncomfortable truth of a God who simply does not work in ways we consider “proper.” In human society, we position some people in the center of power. We measure people’s value by their relationship to what we consider to be the center of “the action” — whether it’s based on material wealth or complexion or culture or geography or national origin or gender or age or orientation or profession or whatever determines who’s “in” or “out.” As the songwriter says, we like to be “in with the ‘in’ crowd.” But the Divine Action — the healing, transforming power of God — is found among the outcast — among the rejected and excluded people we consider the most unworthy.

This is as true in the Old Testament as in the New, for God is not limited in time. If we look closely at the Naaman story, we find its roots in a God who punished faithless Israel and its idolatrous king. The instrument God used for that chastisement came from an enemy nation and worshipped a foreign god. Worse still, he was considered unclean, unfit, and unworthy in the Kingdom of Israel, because he was a leper — a leper and general whose name was Naaman. The Gospels teach us that for all his foibles, Naaman was special to God; as Luke has written, “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

So this morning, God is calling Christians to rethink all those circles we create to include some people and exclude others. Jesus is calling us to re-examine the barriers we create to ensure that only the “right” people come into our fellowship. But most of all the Holy Spirit is calling us to remember that the systems of power that we construct do not limit the power of God’s action to heal and transform this world. The Scriptures teach us, time and time again, that Jesus comes into the world not to support the “centers” of the powerful but to touch and heal the people on the “margins” — the powerless, abandoned, excluded, degraded, exploited, and disregarded. These are the ones with whom “right” people do not associate but righteous people recognize as fully God’s own. The challenge of the Gospel is not to include them into “our circle” but to allow God to expand that circle until it most fully reflects the richness that God alone has created. We must allow the Spirit of God to guide the relationships within that circle to the place where they mirror the love that God has for everyone regardless of social station.

So let us come to the Table of Grace with eyes open to see the hand of God at work in our fellowship of faith. Let us come with hearts open to the helping, healing touch of Christ in our lives. And let us come with arms open to uphold, empower, and strengthen all who walk in the Spirit, that we might all grow from strength to strength in the service of the God who has loved us all into life. And let the people of God say, AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema


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