Monday, July 05, 2010

Coming clean

Naaman Washes in the Jordan River, Andreas Heidrich

2 Kings 5: 1-14; Psalm 30
******** United Church of Christ
July 4, 2010

In the United States between 1976 and 2006 there were 7,166 cases of Hansen’s disease or as it is more commonly known—leprosy. In 2006 the majority of new cases reported in the U.S. were from California, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Texas, with the largest proportion declaring itself as white and male. Globally, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Brazil have the highest outbreaks. In 2006 the World Health Organization registered a total of 259,017 new cases worldwide but this represents a drastic reduction from the 500,000 to 700,000 cases reported each year for the previous 13 years. However, there are millions of people that, though they have been cured, still suffer from physical disabilities and social injustice.

Of course it is the shame attached to Hansen’s that keeps the disease from being eradicated, among other factors. There is still the belief that one’s bad behavior is somehow responsible, especially in third-world countries. Many do not seek treatment because of fear, ignorance or social stigma. Those with Hansen’s are still shunned from community not only because of fear of contracting the disease but also because of the victim’s supposed lack of morals, very much akin to the misconceptions about AIDS. Despite our post-modern world, sickness and sin still walk very much hand in hand on this earth.

But we all know from experience that when it comes to sickness, it doesn’t matter who you are. The greatest and least and everyone in between will get sick at some point in their lifetime. It’s the last thing we want to think about: the weakness of our bodies and our dependence on them. And Naaman is no exception.

We read that Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram, what would be Syria, that he was a great man, in high favor with his master, that the Lord had given him victory. Yes, it reads that the Lord had given Aram, a foreign nation, victory over Israel. Recall that Israel worshipped a foreign god, other than the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. And for this reason sin and defeat in battle also went hand in hand.

So we have this mighty warrior, this great man. Yet we can hear the “but…” coming: he suffered from leprosy. The word ‘leprosy’ is used in the Bible to convey any number of skin diseases. It was thought that any imperfection in the body was due to one’s sin and thus, one was considered unclean by the Levitical code of purity. In truth, having a skin disease was the equivalent of saying that one was covered by one’s sin. In the psalms we read “my face is covered in shame” and “my sin is ever before me”. Though Naaman was a great man, he had been brought low by this leprosy and needed help in his suffering.

He receives help from the unlikeliest source: his wife’s servant girl, who was taken from Israel in a military raid. Naaman is to go the prophet Elisha who will heal him. To his credit, Naaman heeds this advice, even though it comes from a girl who is a servant and a foreigner. Status and station in society are observed in this communication: the servant girls tells Naaman’s wife, she in turn speaks with her husband; Naaman then goes to the king of Aram who then writes a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

Now here’s where everyone’s egos start getting involved. First, Naaman brings a treasure trove of gifts, presumably not only for the king of Israel but also for the prophet Elisha, as a sign of power. Second, assuming that he is expected to cure Naaman, the king of Israel thinks this foreign king is trying to pick a fight with him. And third, none of this transpires the way Naaman thought it would, that he, being a great man, arriving with his chariot and horses, would be greeted by this great prophet, who would then show forth the great power of God in this great healing. Instead he receives a message from Elisha via a messenger, another servant, to wash in the Jordan, which was like a creek compared to the great rivers of Damascus. All of these unrealistic expectations are a recipe for conflict. Naaman just wanted to be healed; now everyone is ready for a fight.

Then the voice of reason and wisdom enters in from yet another unlikely source, from Naaman’s own servant. Notice that it is the servants, those in a weak position, the “little people” that bring wise counsel and the key to salvation and healing. Naaman then washes and his skin becomes like that of a young child.

This story could have turned out to be a foreign policy nightmare. Whenever there is arrogance, power, ego and large sums of money involved, conflict usually follows. Yet it was those who serve who move the story along, who know it is God who is acting, who have a simple faith in what is right and true. Without “the little people”, Naaman would still be waiting to become clean and whole.

Today as our nation commemorates its independence, we too need to come clean. Like Naaman, we have behaved arrogantly with other nations, entering in with great expectations. Like the king of Israel, we have received the expectations of other countries as though they were fighting words. Just as one person can be self-absorbed and addicted to their own way, so can a nation. Deep down we know our sin is ever before us, covering our face in shame.

But how do we correct this, how do we come clean? It is so very easy to point our finger at those in government, in multi-national corporations, at those who seemingly have more power than we do. Ironically, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was not far from the truth when he said that “small people matter to us”. No great healing change in this world has ever come about from government or corporations having a great idea. Abolition, peace movements, civil rights for everyone regardless of gender or color or sexual orientation have come about because of groups of individuals. If anything is going to change in our country, if the American story is going to keep moving, if God is going to act, it begins with us ‘small people’ knowing and living what is right and true.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

So I’ve got one word for you…plastics. If we really want to come clean and reduce our dependence on oil, we also need to reduce the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis. Think of all the containers you use for food, from milk to peanut butter to juice and soda and water, not mention plastic bags for things like rice, bread, veggies and snack foods. Your clothing, if it contains nylon, Lycra, acrylic or polyester, is made from oil. Oil has become the very fabric of our lives. It has become our leprosy, it has brought us low, and we are covered in it.

As we come to this table and eat this sacred meal as the Body of Christ, let us be mindful of the ways we need to be healed from this system of self-absorption, dependence and sin. Let us confess to ourselves and ask God, how do we participate in this and what can we do to change? As we consume elements of the earth, we say that this is the body of Christ, broken and shed for us, that we might be healed and begin anew. May God give us the strength to choose what is right rather than what is easy. Amen.

Go to Facebook to hear my friends Boys in Hats sing their original song "Petroleum Communion".

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