Sunday, July 7, 2013

The General

I have the day off from preaching today. But that doesn't mean that I am not still thinking about the next installment in this ongoing summer narrative from Second Kings. This week's installment comes from the fifth chapter, the first fourteen verses. If I was preaching this weekend, here is where I might begin...

I remember that Geritol commercial when I was growing up. Now I’m not even 100% sure what exactly Geritol is (or even if they still make it) but the line was: “if you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” I remember the line because it’s something my grandmother loved to say.

Well, Naaman is just the opposite: he has just about everything, except his health. How many ways can you say it? Naaman is an important man—a military man—an accomplished man—a mighty man—an Aramean man.  One verse is jam-packed with powerful adjectives that help us to paint a mental picture of this this man of valor, this general. But…

Why does there always have to be a “but?”  No one gets it all. If there is one thing I have learned in pastoral ministry it is this. Even those whom we may think from the outside have it all—important job, fancy car, lovely home, honor students, beautiful spouse—there is still, very often, a “but.” Maybe it is an addiction or an illness or a secret that cannot be shared. In Naaman's case, we are told that he is a leper. So he has just about everything...except his heath. 

He has the resources to get the best healthcare that money can buy; no walk-in clinics for him! He takes with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments to pay the physician. The note in my old Oxford Annotated Bible (published in 1977) says that’s the equivalent of about $80,000. Did you know that if you Google "1977 dollars adjusted for inflation" that you get several hits to calculators that will do just that? So, adjusted for inflation, this guy is carrying around $307,518.15 . Even in the midst of the astronomical increases in health care, that still buys a lot of tests.   

Elisha the prophet sees this as an opportunity to bear witness to the healing power of YHWH, the God of Israel. The opportunity is not for financial gain because God’s healthcare plan is free. All Naaman has to do is go wash seven times in the Jordan River! Not only will his flesh be restored, but he will be clean. It’s not about money, but about the abundance of God’s grace that extends even to foreign lepers.

But to Naaman this river-water-cure just sounds like just an old wives’ tale! He’s furious. He is prepared to pay good money for the best doctors and the latest technology and for machines that go “ping.” But a free homeopathic remedy? “Surely the rivers or Damascus are better than the rivers in Israel?” he replies in disgust. “If that’s all it takes, is a swim in the river…”

Naaman is fortunate enough to have some pretty practical servants, however, who are not afraid to speak honestly to him: “If the prophet told you to do some great thing you would have done it. So what harm can come of doing this easy thing? Go down and wash in the River Jordan—what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  He does…and his skin is like a baby’s bottom! A miracle!

It’s a wonderful story. And there’s even more to the story (as there usually is) if one keeps reading beyond where the lectionary passage stops.

For me, though, it generates a whole bunch of possibilities and maybe it's a good thing I'm not trying to prech a pithy summer homily on this text on a hot summer day in some un-air conditioned parish. I suppose one could say that God's grace is free of charge. I suppose one could say a whole lot about the God whose love extends beyond the narrow confines of tribe and nation.

We might  also wonder, however, about all of the issues that healing stories generate: why do those people in the Bible like Naaman or blind Bartimaeus get cured while Uncle Charlie and my friend Joe have to settle for "spiritual healing?"  We pray and we pray for our friend with cancer and then she dies anyway: why didn't the God who healed the General not heal our friend. Is there a balm in Gilead or not? And why is there so much sickness unto death?

Cures are great and it’s fair enough to pray for them and we should give thanks when they are given. Sometimes those even happen in ways that medical science and human reason cannot explain. Imagine Naaman telling his friends: “I just went and washed in the Jordan River.” Sometimes healing does happen through the simple things, not the complex ones: a healthy diet and centering prayer or yoga do wonders to alleviate stress and lead to health, and sometimes people come into a Wednesday night healing service and ask for prayers and those prayers really do work miracles. But it's not very often that those stories make it into the New England Journal of Medicine.

That doesn’t make them less real, however. Perhaps it is left to us—the Synagogue and the Church—to keep telling these kinds of stories, and to remember that our God is an awesome God who can heal us of all that ails us.

Whether or not we get the "cure" we pray for, however, we pray for the power and presence of God in our lives. Because cure or no cure, God-with-us brings healing. And we can pray for our own receptivity to that free gift, which costs us absolutely nothing.

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