First Congregational United Church of Christ
August 23, 2015
II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 “Broken Barriers”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Naaman, whose name means pleasant, lived up to his name. He denied the lesions on his body for years. I suspect he learned to keep his gloves on as much as possible in public. But when the disease began breaking out on his face, he could no longer deny its spread.
All of his energy went into his job. He focused on proving himself and retaining his position as commander of the army—an army that had served Syria well in a time of conflict. However, they had entered into a peaceful era. If one is competent enough, no one has the audacity to even bring up the issue of leprosy. In his time, leprosy was a term used for any number of skin conditions. He had too many pieces of brass on his shoulder to be questioned. He had proven himself over and over again. His military record was flawless. He assured himself that the King of Syria paid no attention to his condition believing that any commander with his kind of record demanded respect, didn’t they?
It seems to be a perpetual truth that those at the bottom of society know those at the top far more fully than those at the top ever know those who serve them. Naaman was no exception. There was a young Jewish girl in his household who had been taken captive during one of his military raids on Israel. As is too often the case, she remains nameless. We’re told that she did her communicating through Naaman’s wife. She said, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would heal him of leprosy.”
It was quite an audacious statement. Naaman had the best HMO in the kingdom. However, Naaman’s wife was savvy and she was political. I suspect she nudged Naaman to make his appointment with the king at the palace and he ultimately left the palace with a letter safely tucked in his pocket addressed to the King of Israel. He stopped off at the Bank of Syria and did what no financial planner would have suggested. He cashed in a bunch of CDs and went on a spending spree. It was pure guesswork on his part as to what a prophet expected to be paid for a cure for leprosy. He loaded his chariot with piles of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothing. When Naaman showed up at the home of the King of Israel, his majesty responded by having what we might consider a “melt-down.”
The King of Israel read the letter and without any discussion regarding the letter, he began ripping his clothing. I suspect he thought it was some kind of trick. He was probably braced for another military attack, knowing that if that happened he would lose even more of his kingdom.
That kind of activity has a way of being leaked to the press. The townsfolk were baffled as to what to make of the palace encounter. When Elisha got the news, he sent word to the king. He didn’t spend a lot of time on niceties; he cut to the chase asking, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman had to have been puzzled as to why the prophet Elisha didn’t plan on meeting him at the palace. After getting directions from the palace concierge, his entourage began their trip to the home of the prophet. The neighborhood was no gated community. When they arrived at the humble home, Naaman sent in a messenger while he began to untie his bags of goods—ready for a generous display of payment for his pending cure.
For someone who fully understood entitlement, having a servant come out and instruct him with the words, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times” sent Naaman reeling. He didn’t even meet the prophet. There was no hospitality—just a servant telling the commander of the Syrian Army to go to some mucky, shallow, muddy Jordan River. His chariot sat there holding enormous wealth, and in his anger he began yelling out the names of rivers in Syria that surely were better than the one the messenger had to offer.
Once again, it was those with little power who best understood the one with power. Naaman’s own servants cajoled and calmed him and ultimately convinced him to step down into the Jordan. After all, what did he have to lose?
He slung aside his clothes as he headed for the murky water. He stepped into the deepest part of the water and let it all be buried. He let go—he let go of his persona. He let go of his image that had kept him from losing his job. He emptied himself. He dunked himself once, twice…he let go of all his wealth and all his medals. He dunked again. He let go of his prestigious office, his awards and his barn full of chariots and horses, none of it mattered any longer. Seven times he dunked himself. Something shifted in his soul. He could not explain it. He opened his eyes and gingerly began to touch his hands, his face, and then he dared to look at his flesh—all restored like that of a child. He was offered hope, transformation and new life. He had encountered God.
Getting rid of the leprosy of “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism) is hard work. The leprosy of exclusion is a demanding disease. It was Tim Curran, a journalist with CNN, who first sued the Boy Scouts in 1981. He was 19. It took 17 years before a decision finally came. The Supreme Court voted in favor of the Boy Scouts. Now, at the age of 53, he has finally seen a shift as the Boy Scouts have opened their doors to gay youth and gay leadership. Although we can be proud of our local Ashland scout chapter who took an inclusive stand on both members and leaders, the painful truth for us is knowing that churches with Scout Troops still have the right to discriminate.
Yes, the leprosy of exclusion is a demanding disease. I can appreciate the words of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hammer who said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Inclusion is a complex journey.
There is a new group here in Ashland called Ferguson Space Friends. They are hoping to collaborate with SOU in the Race Awareness week that is scheduled for November 2nd – 7th. In their email this week they offered a web site featuring diversity trainer and filmmaker, Lee Mun Wah.
I was so touched by his story. On a TED talk he tells about his Chinese parents and how they spent a two month long process to name him. And then they gave him the name Gary. The audience laughs…and then he describes the emotional leprosy that comes with racism. He shared the anguish of not having the respect to have ones differences valued. He tells the story of being six years old and taking his lunch to school. He left the house so excited to have his special lunch meal in his traditional Chinese basket. He hides it under his shirt because he knows that the other children will be envious. And, then he learns the reality of life in school. The first thing he deals with is students wondering where that awful smell is coming from. Listening to his story, one can feel the weight of not belonging. By noon, first grader Gary, who can’t go by his Chinese name, because it is not English and it is considered unpronounceable…takes his treasured lunch and his chopsticks and dumps them in the garbage can. It is his first exposure to the leprosy that comes with racism.
Lee Mun Wah, talks about how Rev. Jesse Jackson believes that the most segregated hour of the week is 11:00 am Sunday morning. He disagrees. Lee Mun Wah believes that the most segregated hour is our school lunch rooms. He speaks to his audiences about how we celebrate differences but we don’t practice differences. He tells how when he began teaching in schools he chose to sit with the children rather than eating in the faculty lunch room. The questions he asks his classes are “When people look at you, what do they see, and what don’t they see?”
Lee Mun Wah shared with the TED Talk audience that he and his Dutch born wife adopted a son from Guatemala because they felt he would fit in better with a Chinese father. When the son started school the teachers were so very impressed with his academic achievements. They would often refer to his son as the Asian student who excels. However, when his son got older he explained to his teachers that he was from Guatemala. The comments on academics ended. From then on the comments were only directed towards his skill on the soccer field.
This week our members Lucy Edwards and Jim Phillips are in Honduras meeting with Padre Melo as they work together –standing in solidarity with those who have no voice. They are choosing to stand with those who speak out against the leprosy of corrupt political and environmental practices that are depriving Hondurans of their futures. Lucy and Jim are standing with folks who are risking their lives. Our role is to hear their stories upon their return and to be informed as to what steps we can take to make a difference.
As I sat yesterday afternoon at Camp Latgawa with other campers sitting in a circle of music and singing before we entered the dining hall for dinner, I felt so blessed by a rich day of play. The work to which we have been called is challenging work. However, I was reminded yesterday that we have to have fun together—play together—sing together. We have to seek to know each other on a deeper level. We cannot do the work to which we have been called without the balance of a supportive, joyful community that knows how to laugh together. I thought about refugee camps who when setting up their structure always make it a priority to have someone in charge of parties. They know that they cannot survive their incredible hardships without the joy of fun, laughter and play.
It was the voices of the powerless that made a difference in Naaman’s life. Naaman wanted healing on his terms. He wanted drama and magic. He wanted an opportunity to display his goods and power. He wanted an immediate healing. But he was sent to walk through the mucky water of the Jordan. To do the work of healing the leprosy of “isms” and the leprosy of denied climate change issues demands that we immerse ourselves into those waters over and over again Elisha provides us with the important lesson of welcoming the stranger without insisting that they first embrace our theological beliefs or traditions.
Healing of any “ism” by its very nature is a long, intentional journey. Therefore, we must be intentional about our social times with one another. For it is our relationship with God and one another that will sustain us for the long haul. It is the gift of the glue within community that molds us and helps us have the courage to do the work.
May God grant us the empowerment and grace needed to do the work to which we have been called and, may we take the time to deepen our friendships and enjoy the gifts of one another along the journey. Amen.
“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too.” (Frederick Buechner)