Let’s imagine, for a moment, a present day version of the story of Naaman:
Barack Obama’s top General has brought back from Iraq or Afghanistan a young woman to help his wife around the house. Incredible so far? It goes further.
This General has a shameful disease without hope of a cure: Aids, perhaps? But the young woman knows of a prophet whom, she believes, has the power to heal - and she shares this information with the General’s wife.
It’s not the sort of relationship we might expect to find between a ‘captor’ and ‘slave’… There seems to be a loving quality: a generosity of spirit from the girl - and an equally generous response from the wife, then from the General, and then from king himself!
What depth of affliction would it take for a mighty General to listen to the words of his ‘prisoner of war’… to take them seriously enough to turn to his king… and for the king to take them seriously enough to turn to his enemy, in supplication? Could we imagine Barack Obama writing to someone like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, asking them to heal his General? It seems absurd!
Now it may be that I don’t know enough about warfare between Aram and Israel… so let’s consider it on the basis of two individuals who really aren’t getting along: they’re always having arguments and they don’t see ‘eye to eye’ on anything. Every time they cross paths they're left with bad feeling. They have even come to blows. One of them has an incurable disease, and the other has a maid who knows a ‘healer’. How readily would the diseased person turn to this maid’s healer? I imagine it would not come easily. Naaman must have been desperate!
And so, having swallowed his pride and amassed a small fortune hoping to tempt the healer to help him, Namaan makes his way through ‘enemy territory’ to the foreign king, who imagines the worst… supposing there to be some subterfuge afoot. Fortunately, a ‘diplomatic incident’ is averted by Elisha’s intervention, and Namaan – the big, important General, with horses and chariots laden with precious gifts – drives up to Elisha’s house… and the healer can't even be bothered to come out to meet him?!
Can we enter into Namaan’s experience and empathize with him? ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out,’ Namaan fumes. He storms and rages. I have certainly experienced times in my life when I have been caught in this kind of defensive superiority.
Though it might not look like it, Namaan is terribly vulnerable. Leprosy was an incurable disease with the potential to disable, and even to kill. This outwardly mighty warrior is very fragile, and his fragility is expressed in rage. “Have I come to this… that I must beg from this foreigner?!” he might have spluttered, “This man is lucky that I spared his life! … and yet, he has the gall not even to come out to greet me??!!!!”
Namaan turns away at this point – ready to return home to the waters of his own, much superior, rivers. But then, (very gently, perhaps): “Father”, says one of his servants. This, for me, is the moment of healing. There is a reaching out which enables contact with Namaan in a way that he can accept. This is the moment of release. The defensive superiority gives way: he immerses himself in the Jordan… he allows himself to receive help, and “his flesh [is] restored like the flesh of a young boy…”
Is it just me? or can others recognize a similar pattern in our own lives – where God finds a way through our ‘mighty warrior selves’ – not asking from us silver and gold and fine raiments – but simple gestures: asking that we allow ourselves to receive from one another?
At the beginning of Galatians we heard: “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness”. If any of us is ‘caught up’ in something, as Namaan was, is there another part of us, or another among us, who can play the role that gently says ‘Father… would you not try it if the healer had asked of you something very difficult?’
This is one of the riches that I have experienced in Community Life. Each of us has our ‘Namaan moments’ in one form or another, I suspect, and, by grace, each of us has the opportunity to become agents of healing for one another. As Paul says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.”
Turning to the Gospel for this morning: it is difficult to know what led Jesus to say what he did – and how these words came to be recorded. This passage can sound quite harsh – not in the spirit, for example, of ‘bearing one another’s burdens!’ Jesus says: “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Well, Namaan’s servant might well have felt like a ‘lamb’ in the presence of a ‘wolf’!
And Jesus says: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’ Is there anyone open to receive the healing gift that is offered? Like Namaan, is there anyone willing to be ‘immersed’; to surrender the ‘mighty warrior self’; to receive peace?
And if not,
“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near…”
and there are several ‘fire and brimstone’ verses which come after this which have been left out of the lectionary.
Could it be that this passage reflects a similar passion to the one Jesus showed in turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple? Is it a way of saying “Look! This REALLY MATTERS! Your life – all life – depends on it…” The kingdom of God is near when you welcome one of my disciples; when you are open to contact, and to receive healing from another.
One of the invocations to the Holy Spirit which we used to sing quite regularly echoes this theme. You may remember it: “Come Holy Ghost, come to our hearts…” As we sing, we call upon the Spirit to “Bend, stiff-necked pride; warm what is chill” – a prayer that some of us are called to utter over and over again in our lives! It’s not easy, but in those grace-filled moments when it happens, we know that the kingdom of God is near.
Now, to finish, let’s return to where we began: a present-day version of the story of Namaan… Barack Obama (and perhaps we might add David Cameron), Iraq and Afghanistan… an apparently intractable situation; a seemingly incurable ‘disease’? What will it take to find healing? Might we call on the Holy Spirit to “Bend, stiff-necked pride” wherever it is found in these conflicts; to “warm what is chill”? and pray that God might inspire a ‘servant’ to make contact, in a way that will lead to immersion and healing?
And is there any way that we can contribute to this process? It is my fervent prayer, and hope, and sometimes even my belief, that in our own small efforts, in our own small life as a Community, we do make a contribution to the world’s peace. When each of us is released from our own version of ‘defensive superiority’… when each of us makes contact with and owns our vulnerability and fragility… when each of us receives the healing contact of the ‘servant’… we change the world for the better.
As Meister Eckhart proclaimed in the Middle Ages: “If you want to change the world, change yourself.” And as Gandhi expressed it more recently: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
So let it be, in Jesus’ name. Amen.