2 Kings 5. Naaman the Syrian.
I’ve lived in Richmond for almost 19 years. I know if you are to qualify for resident status in Richmond you have to live here for 150 years, but this is home. To tell the truth, I don’t miss much about England, but one of the things I do miss is English satire. In England, the ability to poke fun at sacred institutions is an art form. No institution is safe. Not even the monarchy. Satire is wisdom’s way of giving power those who have been told they have no power. Satire serves notice to those who think they have power that real power lies somewhere else. “Power to the people.” Some of the greatest English satire can be seen in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Have you ever watched any Monty Python? One of my favorite sketches is the contest to find the “Upper Class Twit of the Year.” The scenes feature the bumbling buffoons of the English male upper class demonstrating their inability to handle most basic demands of an obstacle course like “jumping the matchbox.”
I’ve lived here almost 19 years. It’s home. I get fed up with people who are sniffy about Richmond. Richmond isn’t the cultural center of the universe, but it is home and it does rate #41 out of 351 in “Places Rated.” I am so grateful to Patricia Cornwell. It means a lot to see Richmond on someone’s best-seller list. It makes me feel that at least someone has noticed!
Not long ago, I read another “Richmond” thriller – Ann MacMillan’s “Dead March.” It’s set in Richmond, on the eve of the Civil War. The plot develops because MCV is having a hard time finding cadavers for its anatomy classes so some of the professors arrange to have a few dug up from Hollywood Cemetery. The book paints a fascinating picture of the two worlds of “Old Richmond.” There is the white upper-class world of the Medical school faculty and their families. Their lives have lots of “fun” and “culture” and “parties.” At the other end, is the world of the “freed” slaves who have to inhabit whatever spaces they are granted in the no man’s land between being white and being slaves.
One of the key characters in the book is a black woman called Judah Daniel. She is a Shaman, a woman witch-doctor. Her closeness to the earth supplies the knowledge and skill with herbs that make her the doctor to the souls and bodies of the poor who cannot afford the white man’s medicine. Such is her skill, that she is often consulted also by her white masters and mistresses. Judah Daniel embodies the wisdom they seem to have lost. The men and women who act like they have power in the city, actually lack the power—the wisdom—needed to deal with the real issues of life and death and sickness. And so, when reality strikes, they have to go to her. When reality strikes, everyone needs the witch-doctor.
This morning’s Old Testament lesson, the story of Naaman the Syrian from the book of Kings, has elements of Old Richmond and Monty Python. Naaman is Old Richmond or, rather, “Old Aram.” Naaman is a fine person—a great general. He is powerful in the court of the King of Aram. His wife clearly loves him. And it seems like his servants do, too. Naaman is obviously respected. Life is perfect in Old Aram for Naaman and his family. Except for one thing. A patch of skin disease. The English Old Testament calls it leprosy, but it may not have been the ugly disfiguring kind of leprosy that Jesus deals with in the Gospel this morning. Most ordinary people may simply have had to live with it. But not if you belong to the upper draw in Old Aram. For you and your wife, life has to be perfect.
Your spouse tells you that her new Hebrew servant-girl knows a Hebrew prophet who has a reputation as a shaman. He is a healer. Perhaps he can remove this blemish on life’s perfection. Naaman does what every powerful person does under the circumstances. He does what you and I would do. He pulls strings. He talks to the King. And off Naaman goes to Israel, with “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, ten sets of garments.” That’s one big consultation fee! It’s pure “Monty Python.” And, we read in Kings, he takes a letter of introduction from his boss to the King of Israel. But, like all upper class twits of the year, the King of Aram doesn’t really understand where the power lies. He thinks that the King of Israel controls the power to cure. It’s hilarious. The letter causes consternation in the court of Israel. The King of Israel knows he cannot work miracles. “Am I God?” he wails. “Do I have the power of life and death?” Now what? This guy is asking the impossible.
Mercifully, Elisha the prophet finds out. Elisha is the Judah Daniel of the Naaman story. He is the embodiment of divine wisdom in Israel. Elisha tries to set the crisis straight. Naaman gets into his chariot and sets off with his whole entourage to find Elisha. More Monty Python. Naaman pulls up outside Elisha’s shack, expecting to get the five-star big-deal mumbo-jumbo. After all, his skin problem is a big deal to Naaman.
But not to the prophet. The wisdom of the prophet sees through the overblown self-obsession of Naaman. Imagine the scene. Naaman is outside. Elisha stays right where he is and doesn’t even go to the door. He just sends a message out telling Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan. It is probably the first time anyone has ever treated him like that. Naaman goes purple with rage. But when Naaman’s pride threatens to get in the way of wholeness, when he thinks his problem is too grand for such a simple solution, his faithful servants understand something of the truth. Those who are not used to power know enough to sense there is more to the prophet’s command. They gently cajole him to do what Elisha says. Naaman baptizes himself in the Jordan. And he is clean. Perfect. Born again with the skin of a young boy, we read in Kings. Born again with the skin he was given in the Garden of Eden. Born again with a new Spirit.
This is where the Episcopal lectionary stops today—probably because we are in too much of a rush to get out of church. But you haven’t heard the “rest of the story.” Naaman returns to the prophet with all his company. He is not just cured, but his life is changed. Now he knows where the power lies. True power, the power of life and death, the power of healing, does not lie in the machinations of earthly kings and rulers. True perfection is not bought with silver and gold and fine clothing. Now Naaman knows there is no God but the God of Israel—the God whose healing power is not for sale. Naaman wants the assurance that this God will always be with him. So he asks Elisha for two mule-loads of Israel’s soil to take home as a concrete sign of his new birth, and asks of the prophet one more thing.
Like all who have been born again in the waters of the Jordan, Naaman has to return to the real world. He already sees that he must return to an alien culture with an alien God. He must tread once more the corridors of power and support the King of Aram as he enters the temple of the pagan god and bow before his image. He knows that he must return to a world of compromise. Naaman asks one last gift of the prophet, the gift of forgiveness for any compromises he must make.
But Elisha cannot give him this gift. Naaman has to return to his world of power knowing that he, and he alone, is now the agent of the one true God of Israel. It is the life he now enters as a disciple of the one true God. He will have to learn, in Luther’s words, to “sin boldly and more boldly still believe.” He alone is the agent of the God of Israel. He alone is given the awesome responsibility to live the live of love, to be God’s person, in the midst of all the ambiguities and compromises of the pagan world. That is what it means to be baptized. Elisha knows that he cannot pronounce God’s forgiveness for sins yet undone. Baptism is not a blank check to join the world on the world’s terms.
But Elisha also knows that the God of Israel is a bottomless wellspring of mercy to those who try to live out their new life faithfully in the world of power and conflict and compromise. This is the way God’s kingdom is built on earth, as the mirror of heaven. So the prophet speaks God’s final blessing. It is an open-ended blessing that reflects the way God will be present for Naaman in his new life in Old Aram. Naaman, cured and reborn in Jordan’s baptism, returns to his life with the blessing of the prophet sounding in his heart. “Go in peace.” Amen.