Rote makes right: Healing through ritual
Year C, 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)
2 Kings 5:1-3; 7c-15
Luke 17: 11-19
This sermon includes an interview with Naaman.
Minster: What ritual or practice brings God’s presence into your life on a regular basis?
Turn to your neighbour and share for a moment.
What ritual or practice brings God’s presence into your life on a regular basis?
Minister: Pray with me. God may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable to you. You are our rock and our redeemer, the one who makes us whole. Amen.
Picture being at the top of what you do. Number one! A teacher, you lead the profession. A nurse, your hospital ranks you best. Student, you stand head of the class. General of the army, no one defeats you. Picture it, whatever it is you do, or used to do, you rank first. A pretty good feeling, I reckon.
But what is that expression, “If you have your health, you have…everything.” So, picture someone at the top of their profession, ranked number one in their game, but they suffer some unhealthy affliction. Our story from Second Kings tells us of just such a person. His name is …Naaman.
Naaman: Did someone mention me?
Minister: Are you Naaman?
Naaman: Yes, I am.
Minister: Well, Naaman, perfect timing! You are just the person we would like to talk to. Refresh our memories. What do you do?
Naaman: I am the great general of the Syrian Army.
Minister: So… you come from Syria?
Naaman: No, I am from Aram, up north. In your times it is largely in Iraq and Jordan. The king of Syria rules over my land. As a young man I join his army. Through the power of my mighty arms, I climb the ranks to become… general.
Minister: Yes, we read that in our scriptures this morning. Victory follows you, wherever you go, it seems.
Naaman: Indeed, my troops and I enjoy great success as soldiers of the Syrian King.
We keep the peace along the frontiers. His competitors and enemies dare not provoke a quarrel with us!
Minister: And the King appreciates the work you do?
Naaman: Ah, what would the King do… or be… without me?! He rewards me handsomely for the work I do. You are looking at the second wealthiest man in all the land.
Minister: So, allow me to sum up: strong arms…
Naaman: Strongest arms!
Minister: Great general…
Naaman: Greatest general!
Minister: And second wealthiest man in all the land. And modest, too?
Naaman: Oh, yes! I am the most modest man in all of Syria.
Minister: Right…. So, according to the scriptures, you have it all?
Minister: No? Do I hear a bit of doubt in your voice? You swim in a sea of success: power, fame, wealth. What are you missing, General Naaman?
Naaman: I have much. You are right. But I do not have it all. A peasant’s proverb from the West says, “The greatest wealth is your…health.
Minister: The greatest wealth is your health. I have heard this saying. You do not enjoy good health?
Naaman: I did not enjoy good health.
Minister: You “did not.” Therein lies a story. Tell us.
Naaman: Strong arms. Intelligent. Handsome. Great leader . Victor in battle. The scriptures say that even the God of the Jews attended my victories.
Minster: The scriptures say the God of the Jews gave you the victories…
Naaman: Whatever… Yet, I did not have it all. A hideous skin disease plagued me. Even its name makes me shudder: leprosy. Of course, in my day the doctors cannot tell what sort of leprosy I have. They see the inflammation on my dark skin. They note where the skin becomes dry and flaky.
Minister: Too much detail. How did you feel?
Naaman: Terrible! Leprosy is a dreaded disease. I worry about it. The more I worry, the worse it becomes. Burning. Itching. I grow desperate for a cure. But then providence smiles on me.
Minister: What did providence provide you?
Naaman: The doctors and the priests do not banish me from society.
Minister: What happens?
Naaman: Again, providence’s hand plays a part. My wife’s slave, a young Jewish girl, who I captured on one of my “peace keeping” missions, this slave-Jewish girl tells my wife that in Samaria resides a Jewish prophet. This Jewish girl believes that the God of the Jews, through the prophet, can heal me.
Minister: What do you do?
Naaman: Desperation drives me to the Syrian King. He wants me cured. He sends me with a letter to the King of Israel seeking my health’s restoration.
Minister: To the King of Israel?
Naaman: Yes, confusion reigns. Israel’s King thinks he is supposed to heal me. Let me tell you, this King of Israel does not impress me. He tears his cloak in fear and faithlessness, thinking that Syria wants to provoke a war with Israel. That is not so.
Minister: Israel’s King believes that God has abandoned him?
Naaman: Yes. Fortunately, God’s prophet Elisha hears about all this, and he sends for me.
Minister: Ah, we know of Elisha. He is the one who succeeds Elijah as God’s prophet, actually receives a double share of Elijah’s spirit. And Elisha uses that spirit to do some awesome things! First he raises a child from his death bed. Then he multiplies jars of olive oil to save a poor widow from her debtors. And also, he miraculously purifies the poisonous waters of the town, Bethel.
Naaman: All true! Amazing power resides in Elisha’s hands and words. So, imagine my surprise when I arrive at Elisha’s house with chariots, many men, and lavish gifts for him and he does not even come out to see me. He sends a servant instead to give me his instructions.
Minister: How do you feel then?
Naaman: I am furious! I expect Elisha to conduct the battle against my leprosy in person. Just as I, the great general, am in the front lines issuing commands, I expect Elisha, the great prophet of God, to come himself, to speak words himself, and to cast out my illness. I expect him to wave his hands over the infected spots, and point the direction my affliction can go, then and there!
Minister: So, what does Elisha do?
Naaman: I am sorry to say, but Elisha does nothing! His servant is the person who gives me directives. “Naaman,” he says, “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean.” I think to myself, “Haven’t we bigger and better rivers in Syria and Aram?” Rage and fury overtake me. Luckily my servants help me calm down. They point out that if Elisha had instructed me to do something really difficult, I would have done it. So, why not get over my pride and try something simple and repetitive, especially if it promises a cure?
Minister: You tried it?
Naaman: You can see the results for yourself.
Minister: You are cured! Your sores went away.!
Naaman: They sure did!
Minister: So, what did you learn?
Naaman: A couple things, actually. First, “The devil is in the details.” Or perhaps here we should say, “God is in the details.”
Minister: What do you mean?
Naaman: I wanted Elisha to say words and wave his hand over my illness and then be instantly, miraculously cured. Sure, sometimes things happen that way. But more often, health comes through attending to the details, doing menial tasks over and over again.
Minister: Like brushing our teeth?
Naaman: Exactly, like brushing our teeth, exercising, eating and drinking in moderation, knowing there is a time for everything under heaven: a time for work and a time for play, a time for speaking and time for silence, a time for planting and a time for harvesting.
Minister: Yes, we’re celebrating our Harvest Festival today. What else did you learn that day at the Jordan River?
Naaman: As I washed myself in the river seven times, each time I washed I felt the presence of God, really strongly.
Minister: That is the power of ritual, isn’t it! Practicing repetitive rituals, even saying things from rote, can bring God closer to us. In communion we say the same words over and over and over, because those familiar words evoke the Lord’s presence from the past into today.
Naaman: Sometimes we need to refresh rituals, though. Sometimes we need to be reminded of what the words and the rituals are all about.
Empowered rituals, not dead ones, bring the Lord’s presence into our lives.
Minister: How true you are, Naaman. So, back to the Jordan. You were healed?
Naaman: I was healed. But more important than that, in all those ritual washings I was made whole. Elisha did not need to show up himself. His job was to tell me what to do, what would bring me closer to God. That prophet knew what he was doing. The sense of God’s presence in my life was renewed. Strong arms, intelligent, handsome, wise leader, all these gifts come from the one Eternal God, not from me. God is good.
Minister: All the time. All the time…
Naaman: God is good. I know that Elisha’s God, my God, lives. To God be the glory, thanks and praise.
Minister: Pray with me. Eternal One, You make known your presence through our daily devotions to you. When we turn our thoughts and hearts to you, you are there, as constant as the Northern Star, as faithful as the rising and setting of the sun. We celebrate your presence made known to us through the abundance of another harvest season. We marvel at the works of your hands. We acknowledge your awesome righteousness and justice. May we, your gathered people, feel your loving touch. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.