(Please read the text first!)
This story that we’re given in the reading from the second book of Kings is rife with drama and political intrigue. Our main character, Naaman, the most powerful general from a land called Aram is cursed with leporosy, a skin disease. In an attempt to ask for healing, Naaman is sent to Israel by his King, trusting the word of a servant girl he had taken from Israel on one of his raids. That’s right. This disease is so disturbing, that he enters into enemy territory trusting that his servant girl knows of a prophet that can heal him.
There are layers and layers to this story.
But I’d like to focus in on this disease that was causing so much chaos in the land of Aram. Now this disease probably wasn’t what we know as leporosy today, but it was still very painful. Uncomfortable as this unknown skin disease might have been, it was most devastating because if and when people found out that he had it, Naaman would be cast out of community. This disease separated him from others, much as a similar disease separated the man Jesus healed in our gospel lesson today.
We’re given two powerful healing stories. Two stories of people healed of diseases that made them outsiders in their communities. Two people facing isolation, loneliness, disconnection from community and possibly, a perceived sense of disconnection with God. All of this begs the question of what the skin diseases of our time might be. I think about those things that our collective culture has deemed unseemly, or unclean, even dirty. I think about those things that people desperately desire healing for – because they feel cut off from community.
Maybe it’s physical hunger, or a lack of shower because one has no home. Maybe it’s a painful, or public divorce. Maybe it’s the isolation found in mental illness. There are all sorts of ways that our culture, and at times our church, casts people out of its midst.
And in our gospel lesson today, Jesus steps in, heals the disease, and the man in welcomed back into community. In the lesson from second Kings, Namman is only healed because God acts through people that Naaman knew.
At the insistence of the students I work with, I’m reading the first of the trilogy of the Hunger Games books right now, and as I was reading the text about Naaman, I remembered this story. In the beginning of the book, we meet Katniss, who has just lost her father in the mines. Her District, District 12, is the poorest of the districts and her family has no way to survive. Her mother has one month to find a job, but plagued by grief and hopelessness, she is unable to care for her children. Katniss, just 12, sells off as many of their possessions as she can and finally gives in to despair.
She’s walking home in the wealthiest part of town, in the icy rain, and decides to stop and look in the dumpster of the bakers’ shop. Suddenly, the story goes, “a voice was screaming at me, and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the peacekeepers and how sick she was of having us brats digging through her trash. The words were ugly and I had no defense. As I carefully replaced the lid and backed away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother’s back. I’d seen him at school. He was in my year, but I didn’t know his name. His mother went back into the bakery, grumbling, but he must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig. The realization that I’d have nothing to take home had finally sunk in. My knees buckled and I slid down the tree. It was too much. I was too sick and weak and tired, oh so tired. Let them take us to the orphanage, I thought. Or better yet, let me die right here in the rain…
There was a clatter in the bakery and I heard the woman screaming again and the sound of a blow, and I vaguely wondered what was going on. Feet sloshed toward me through the mud and I thought, it’s her. She’s coming to drive mea way with a stick. But it wasn’t her. It was the boy. In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire. His mother was yelling, “Feed it to the pig, you stupid boy!” He began to tear off chunks from the burned parts and toss them into the torugh. The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because fo the red welt that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with?
The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back on the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tight behind him.”
The next morning, Katniss realized that this boy did this on purpose, burned the bread knowing he would be punished, but understanding she was utterly hopeless. And later that day, Katniss saw a dandelion, was reminded of the hunting lessons her father had given her, and found hope, strength, and confidence in her ability to survive.
A young blond boy, hiding behind his mother, purposefully burning bread so that Katniss might survive.
Brothers and sisters, our alienation, our isolation, our brokenness can find healing in unexpected places, and through unexpected people. When we return to our text, we find the cast of characters surrounding Naaman, not only advocating for his healing, but making it okay to be honest about the isolation and the brokenness that he’s experiencing. The two bickering kings are interesting, the prophet Elisha is elusive, but notice the role of the servants.
- The young servant girl, enslaved by Naaman, tells him about a special prophet in her homeland
- Elisha’s servant who delivers the news to an arrogant patient, telling Naaman to bathe in the Jordan
- And Naaman’s entourage of servants, cajoling him into entering the river
Naaman never would have gotten in that water had it not been for the cloud of witnesses that surrounded him, especially those with less power, risking everything they had to participate in the healing of this man. Just as Katniss would not have survived without the little blonde boy risking his mother’s beating, assuaging her hunger and in that helping her remember her internal will to survive – so none of us can survive, let alone heal, in isolation. We need one another, and we especially need the ones our culture would deem weak among us.
I remember the first invitation to share a meal offered to me by homeless folk in Seattle, and one man’s deep smile of welcome. I think of infants curled up sleeping on their auntie, or their neighbor, bringing healing with each shallow breath. This healing is the work of God. That young blond boy peeking out behind his mother’s arm, the infant’s shallow breath, this is the work of God in our midst.
While it’s true that our God is a powerful God, it’s also true that God shows up in the poor, the outcast, the broken, the beaten. God shows up not just to raise those who may be low, but to bring about healing and wholeness and redemption for all of God’s people, to help us heal as individuals, and as communities that are divided. We are called to bear witness to that God who shows up in our midst, working as agents of reconciliation in our own life and in the life of the world.
We are a community of healers, joined together in Christ, to participate in the healing, forgiving, and creating work of God in this world. And at the same time, we are a broken community. We’ve known heartache and division, spite and deep loneliness.
And so today, I am here to tell you that there is healing that exists for you. There is a welcome in community, in this community here, to bring your whole selves. There is also invitation to be a part of this healing community, loving and serving and reaching out to those who are broken.
In the meal that we will share together in just a moment, we are reminded that God is always present amongst us, with us, especially in those broken places, and especially among those cast out of community, those with the everpresent skin diseases of our time. Our sins are forgiven, and we are set free by God to be agents of healing and reconciliation in this world.