6TH AFTER EPIPHANY — 12 February 2012
Trinity – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.
How many of you have read the Bible? The whole Bible — or at least pretty much the whole Bible? (I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, and I’m not taking names!) Did any of you do the thing where you said, “I need to read the Bible!” and you started in on page 1 with Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1? How far did you get? (Or at least, how far did you get before you started skimming ahead? Along about Chapter 5? Right!)
We all think we ought to read the Bible. And we’re right, we all ought to read the Bible; and at one time or another we probably ought to read at least most of it. (Incidentally, there was a very interesting posting on the Episcopal Café a week or so ago about whether everybody should be encouraged to read the Bible, with lots of good comments. Here's the URL:)
The truth of the matter is, in some respects the Bible isn’t all that reader-friendly. A lot of it really isn’t very accessible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and particularly the parts that drone on and on about who begat who. But there are some wonderful stories in the Old Testament -- as well as some that are terrifying -- and we should read them and know them, because for good or ill they are our story.
Today we get the story of Naaman. We get Naaman because the Gospel today is about Jesus healing a leper, and Naaman was a leper who was healed by the prophet Elisha. Okay. But Naaman is a story worth knowing for its own sake, apart from any connection with today’s Gospel reading.
Naaman was a general in the army of the King of Syria, or “Aram” as the Hebrew text actually says. He had contracted leprosy. It’s not entirely clear just what “leprosy” is in the Bible. It was regarded as a dreadful and fearsome affliction. It may be that some of the “lepers” in the Bible did have what we now call Hansen’s disease, which is a grievous affliction, though generally controllable by modern medicine, at least for people in the first world who can get modern medicine. But other persons who are called “lepers” in the Bible may have had nothing worse than the heartbreak of psoriasis. But whatever the disease was dermatologically, it still had the same disastrous social and psychological consequences, and Naaman desperately wanted to be cured. And, as we hear this morning, he finally ended up at the gate of the Israelite prophet Elisha.
Elisha, like many godly persons, was good to people but not always nice to them, and he simply sent out instructions for Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. You know how sometimes when we’re not feeling well we call the doctor, but the doctor isn’t available just then, so we have to tell the nurse or the office secretary what ails us, and by and by the office staff calls back and says the doctor has called in a prescription for us, and we run down to the drugstore and pick up the pills, and we take them, and they work and we feel better, but we’re still a little miffed about the whole thing because we didn’t get to actually talk directly to the doctor. Well, Naaman is a Very Important Personage, at least up in Syria, and he was expecting a Personal Consult and a Major Prophetic Procedure. Instead he’s been treated rather shabbily by this Israelite prophet, and he gets into High Dudgeon about it. Naaman’s servants, who have acquired some good sense over a lifetime of being treated rather shabbily themselves most of the time, understand that High Dudgeon is not a particularly fruitful place to be, and they talk Naaman down. Naaman goes grumbling off to the crummy ol’ Jordan River, and he washes seven times, and he is cured of his leprosy.
We all love to complain and whine and get into High Dudgeon about the fact that things aren’t the way we want them to be, instead of simply doing what is necessary to make things better. We would rather curse the darkness than light one candle.
We are especially like Naaman when, as with Elisha’s instructions, what we need to do is something fairly simple. We think that we could get our lives into better shape, get our act together, get our ducks in a row, if only God would perform some great miracle, if only we could have some great spiritual experience, if only we could accomplish some truly heroic quest. If only, if only — anything but just taking care of business right here and now.
And that isn’t the way it really works. It’s all the little daily things that are the real substance of our lives, not the big fat hairy deals, not the “if onlys.” The way we share in the boundless creative love of God that sustains the immensity of the universe in being is — by loving the specific person who is next to us right now. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Every few years we get a cycle of exotic fad diets: buy some TV time for an infomercial hawking your new book on the Beer and Parsnip Diet, and my gosh how the Visa charges roll in! Of course, fad diets don’t really work in the long run, and some of them are dangerous. What does work (though I’m hardly a convincing witness, am I?) is to eat well-balanced, but smaller, meals, and get regular exercise. Calories do count; to lose weight you must consume less and burn up more. It’s that simple. Maybe not easy, but simple. Too simple for many of us. We’re just like ol’ Naaman.
Christian discipleship is a lot like following Elisha’s instructions: relatively simple, really, though not always easy; but the key is to start doing it. Let’s not hold in contempt the ordinary day-by-day things that countless generations of Christians have found necessary to their spiritual growth. Prayer. Reading the Scriptures. Gathering together with the community of fellow disciples to worship and to be fed with Word and Sacrament. Self-discipline. Generosity. Service. Love.
We are such Very Important Personages, in our own minds. We’re so proud. We’re so rebellious. We’re so self willed. Like Naaman we want to do it our way!
“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times.”
Really pretty simple. Let’s just do it!