190707 – Skin Deep Faith

Yr B ~ Epiphany 6 ~ 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45 

We’re starting in the Hebrew Scriptures, or First Testament, or Old Testament this morning in a book called 2nd Kings which is about how the kings of Israel came into being.
The main character is Naaman. He is powerful, in charge, a respected warrior, the right hand man of the King of the Arameans, who at this point were much more powerful than Israel. But despite his rank and power Naaman had leprosy – a skin disease of some kind.

Perhaps he’s one of those rare enlightened feminist warriors – or maybe he’s desperate to be cured so he’ll try anything – or perhaps he could sense the presence of God in the words offered by his Hebrew slave girl – but for whatever reason, beyond all common sense, he follows this Hebrew slave girl’s advice to seek out Elisha, a prophet of Israel.

Naaman takes with him a letter from the King (!) and a small fortune – Why? Because that’s the way it was done. You paid for your miracles, and a great miracle required a great fortune. He presents himself to the King of Israel – who is mortified, thinking this impossible ask is a thinly veiled prelude to invasion.

Then Elisha (and that’s Elisha, not Elijah, they’re different guys) hears about this, somehow, and sends word to the King of Israel – “Relax! Send this guy to me and we’ll get him fixed up.”

Ok, here’s where the fun starts.
Naaman was a powerful man, but he knows his place. He’s humble before his king, respectful before the King of Israel, but now he’s at a mere prophet’s house. Naaman has the right to burst in and take whatever he wants – but instead, he and his horses and his chariots, the whole entourage, halts at the entrance to Elisha’s house. This is a great act of humility for powerful Naaman.

And what does he get for his trouble?
Elisha doesn’t even go out and see him, but just sends a messenger to say “go jump in the lake” – sort of.
“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

Well, that’s too much. Naaman will not be humiliated anymore.
It’s one thing to obey kings, but to be sent on a ridiculous errand by the servant of a prophet – no way.

v.11 Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!

I thought that for me he would surely come out. There’s that arrogant self-importance again. ‘He should get out here and do his magic trick and heal me. Anyway, how does jumping in the water heal me? And besides, even if I did…’

v.12 Are not…the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” Naaman turned and went away in a rage.

v.13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 

Again, it’s his servants that are counselling him – this just isn’t done. And finally, his heart softens, he accepts the counsel,

v.14 (And) he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

It’s such a great story.
Naaman thinks his problem is skin deep – “I’ve got leprosy, I need it cured.”
But God has a greater plan for Naaman.
The entire story is about breaking down his arrogance and self-reliance, teaching him humility and trust, showing him that he’s not in control, and until he yields his control he won’t be made whole.

This story isn’t about the curing of a leper – it’s about the healing of a man’s soul. His problem wasn’t skin deep – it was soul deep.
The order to go and immerse himself in the river is like a baptism. “Go and die to your old way of being, and be reborn with new life in the Spirit of God!”

When Naaman humbled himself and submitted his will to the will of God he was healed – of what? – leprosy, yes – but through this experience Naaman had a massive transformation of his character.
He learned trust, humility, and submission – not great attributes for a warrior, but essential for real healing, for wholeness.

The Bible is filled with stories of healing, but the story behind the story, the real story, isn’t about the skin deep issue, it’s about the soul deep one. Like in the medical field, the presenting symptom is often not the real issue but a window into a deeper problem.

This may get a little heavy.

We often pray for healing for people. But what the scriptures seem to say is that curing a skin disease (or whatever) is nice, but it won’t necessarily bring healing – wholeness – to the person. There are lots of healthy people with soul deep problems. Remember, Jesus counsels us “what good is it for a person to gain the whole world but lose their soul?”

But what about the reverse? Can it be true?
Is it possible to be “whole”, to be healed at a soul deep level and yet still be physically sick?
I believe it is.

Friends of ours had the tragic experience of having their 8 year old son die of a cancer called neuro-blastoma. This family has an incredibly deep and abiding faith. The dad wrote a book about the emails that were exchanged throughout this journey, and he titled the book after one his son’s favourite sayings, “Ya can’t let cancer ruin your day.” That little boy’s wholeness was not dependent on his health.
Healing, for Jesus, doesn’t seem to primarily be about the physical disease – it was about the spiritual dis-ease.

In Mark 1:40 we get another healing story about a leper. It’s really important to see how this scene begins.
“A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
The leper does three things – begs, kneels, and yields his will. And with his touch Jesus restores the man to wholeness.

You see, in their society sick people were shunned, isolated and cut off from the rest of society, and they had to be declared “clean” by the priests before they could re-enter the community.

So Jesus heals him, but then he sends the man to the priests, because the man’s disease wasn’t the real problem it was only the skin deep problem.
The man’s real problem, his real dis-ease, was that he was disconnected from his people.
So Jesus removed the barrier that stood between the man and wholeness.
The presenting barrier is the illness, but the soul barrier is what keeps us from wholeness.

Why do people want to be healed? So they can enjoy life – live more fully. But nobody lives forever. The current percentage of people who die is 100.
In the gospel lesson Jesus healed the leper, but that doesn’t mean he never got sick again, or suffered. Jesus raised up Lazarus from the dead, but where is he today?
A pessimist might say that Jesus just put off the inevitable, but these healings are meant to teach us NOT that if we believe hard enough all our ills will forever magically disappear – no, they’re meant to teach us that we are invited to life anew, and that’s more than optimism; it’s faith – it’s trusting in the promises of God.

The way some people try to portray Jesus is “take one dose and you’re cured forever.”
But do you think that’s what he was really about? Magic?
Or was he more about the process – about growing in discipleship and harmonizing our will with God’s will?

Illness used to be considered a spiritual thing – it meant disfavour with God. If you got sick they thought it was because you did something evil.
Let’s be clear.
Illness is NOT the result of evil! You don’t get sick because you’re bad – reckless maybe, like smoking or drinking too much – but not bad.

So when Jesus healed and said things like “your sins are forgiven” – he was re-writing the book on illness. He made people “whole” and “clean” – which meant in God’s eyes they were no longer outcasts, shunned and excluded from the community.
Jesus touched them, broke the barrier down, blessed them and accepted them, restored them, and gave them new life. In their society the skin deep symptom or disease condemned the whole person, so Jesus went beyond skin deep and offered the person wholeness.

Now, we don’t have many lepers around here, but we don’t have to go back too far in time to remember times when we’ve isolated and cast out people because of illness. Not that long ago AIDS victims were cast out – just like the lepers.
But I’d like to suggest that we don’t even have to go that far to see how illness isolates.

Think of the members of this faith community who have become elderly or seriously ill and can’t come to church anymore.
Aren’t they isolated in a sense?
Aren’t they disconnected from their community?
And even if we can’t cure their infirmity, surely we can bring the healing gift of God’s love to them.
We can break down the barrier that separates us from them.
We can call and say “hi.”
We can go for tea.
We can send a “thinking of you” card.
We can pray for them.
What a blessing it is that we have a team of visitors who take the lead in doing just that!

I wonder if the isolation of illness isn’t as bad or worse than the illness – if spiritual dis-ease isn’t worse than physical disease.

I hope you noticed that in both of these stories, Naaman and the leper, that while they were focused on the product (the end result of being cured of their ailment) Elisha and Jesus were focused on the process – humility and submission to the grace and power of God.
We come asking for one thing, but through the touch of the Holy we receive so much more.
We come thinking we know what we need, and God reaches out (reaches in) with what we truly need.
We come with a skin deep faith, and leave with soul deep wholeness.

The lectionary stops the Naaman story before it finishes, but in the next scene Naaman emerges from the water and goes back to Elisha’s home and Elisha meets him this time. Naaman stands before Elisha and gives him honour. He wants to pay for his miracle, to which Elisha replies “No, I serve God.” Naaman urges, Elisha refuses. Then Naaman asks for permission to go through the motions of worshipping his King’s god, but promises to only worship Yahweh, our God, in his heart. Elisha says, “Go in peace.”
You see Naaman wanted his skin fixed, but got his soul transformed instead.

And finally, what about us – our church?
Do we, The United Church of Canada, have a skin deep faith – thinking that we have all sorts of problems and issues, but perhaps not entertaining the notion that our dis-ease might be deeper?

If so, then we need to get busy being about the work of allowing God to transform us.
And that takes humility, submission, and a willingness to be moved, stirred, and changed from within.
Is it possible that we’ve come here to scratch a spiritual itch, and have instead heard the siren call of the Holy Spirit to a far deeper, richer, more beautiful, more awesome Sacred adventure?
We’ll only know if we keep opening ourselves to God’s presence.
We’ll only discern the will of God for our lives if we let down our guard and listen for it. God loves us far too much to be only concerned with our skin deep problems.
Thank God!