Real Reality: Bumping up Against Grace
Naaman is a hot shot general. A high up muckity muck commander of the King of Aram’s army. And he’s got a terrible secret. He has a dreadful skin disease. The kind that if it were widely known; people would shun and fear him. The kind that spreads wickedly and eventually destroys you, bit by bit, making you numb and breaking you down, until you’re worthless and ruined, and then you die.
Now, there is going to be some rearranging in this story, some view-shifting suprises. Some lessons about who God is, and some surprising places where power does and doesn’t reside, and what ultimately is real reality. So listen up.
To start, Naaman is powerful. The slave girl that his soldiers stole from her homeland who now serves Naaman’s wife, is not. And yet this girl knows who can help him (which means she also first must know he is in need of help) and she offers to him what she knows – there is a prophet who can cure you.
The slave girl from Israel does not keep silent and guard her knowledge, instead she reaches out to help the very person responsible for her slavery. Why?, we might wonder if we were Naaman. Why would she help me? It makes no sense. But Naaman, so secure in his perch of power, doesn’t stop to wonder about this. He misses the first sign.
Instead he goes straight to his boss, a king, who sends him off to the king of Israel – because who is the most powerful person in a nation but its king? Any shamans or seers or healers would certainly be under his employ; he wields the power of life and death, so surely he is the one to whom Naaman should be sent, right? And off Namaan goes. Now these two kings have been at war before (such as when the slave girl was taken from Israel to begin with) and they will be at war again. But for now, the king is asking a fellow king for a favor.
Only, the king of Israel is not pleased by this request. In fact, he tears his clothes, thinking the other king is provoking him, creating a situation that could lead to more war. Because, and here’s our second glimpse into the strange workings of the people of God- the descendants of those delivered out of slavery into the promised land, those who knew the wilderness and the covenants of God’s way of life that is radically different from the Pharaoh’s, those who lived under King David, who have known the direct intervention of the Almighty, and the guidance of prophets, and the wisdom of Solomon – they don’t function like other kingdoms. You see, the king is not really the most powerful person in Israel. Kings have their place, sure, but God appoints prophets who anoint kings and hold kings accountable, who speak to God for the people and for God to the people, and who provide a kind of checks and balances, cosmically speaking.
So as Naaman’s journey unfolds, he’s getting himself into something. All the centers of power that should be, are proving to be merely illusion, or simply a matter of opinion, as Naaman travels farther and farther from what he has always known as reality. He just doesn’t realize it yet.
Until, after Elisha summons him from the king’s court, he arrives at the front door of the prophet.
Naaman’s life is in the balance. This disease will eventually take his health, his reputation, his career, his life. And here’s his chance to be cured. So he is going to throw all he can at it. And what he can throw is considerable. He is accustomed to getting what he can pay for, to knowing what his prestige and riches can buy. He is not used to being treated as though he is… ordinary. He knows the score. He has settled it more than once. He knows the rules to the game and how to stay on top, where he belongs.
Here’s the irony though, for the very powerful Naaman, for most of us, from time to time, perhaps. Super-commander, leprosy-infected Naaman stands at that door believing he is both better than, and worse than, every other person around him.
He knows he is in a position to need to humble himself enough to ask for healing, but not so much that he is helpless or anything. He can certainly pay for it. He can wow the prophet in the process. He can show up with his chariots and entourage, with his considerable wealth dripping off him ready to trade treasures for services rendered.
And yet, as he is soon to discover, this is not about what Naaman can earn or buy or bargain for. This is not about approaching kings and impressing prophets and purchasing a new shot at life.
This is grace. Pure and simple. Unearned. Undeserved. Healing because God chooses to heal him, and nothing else. Naaman has bumped up against the grace of God.
So Naaman’s choice to receive this gift that can’t be bought is going to be humbling. He’s going to have to follow instructions, as mundane as they are, that give no attention whatsoever to his greatness or his terribleness. They simply say, go and bathe in the Jordan river. The river that Jesus will one day be baptized in and claimed as God’s own. Bring your impressive self with your impressive disease to the muddy, ordinary, unimpressive river. Dip seven times- the number of completion, of perfection- and you will be made clean.
This infuriates Naaman. It makes him crazy with indignation. Here he stands in real need, the spot on his arm spreading, he swears, even since yesterday! Here he stands near his state of the art chariots in his flashing armor and rich robes, more striking in his might and in his need, than anybody else, right? He is to be taken seriously. And then he is sent off by a lowly messenger like an errand boy, to bathe in an underwhelming river. Elisha the prophet doesn’t even come to the door.
Will he receive the gift of healing? Will he accept the grace that is offered?
How do we try to earn what is only a gift?
How might we miss what God wants to do in and through us through ordinary people in ordinary ways, because we are so convinced God should do it in the way that would impress us or others? Take us as seriously as we take ourselves? Respect our hard work, or our deep pain? We want God to play by the rules of the world. To reward those who earn it, or buy it, or deserve it, or can prove they’re worthy, or who pray the loudest, or beg the hardest, or give the most selflessly.
And we want God to join us in our conspiracy to cheat death or avoid death, which means, actually, that we want God to fear death along with us.
But God doesn’t. God is not afraid of death. God’s not afraid of anything that intimidates us or impressed by anything that sways us. One day we will stand with God on the other side of the ordeal, on the other side of whatever told us we were dirty or different or dangerous, whatever told us we were worthy, or better, or good. One day we will stand on the other side of it, not because we did anything to get there but because Jesus did. Jesus is more powerful than all that we think is powerful, more real than all we think is real.
You and I, we’d like a little lead time. We’d like a heads up, and maybe a bit more of a buffer, financially speaking. We’d like to be able to rest our whole security in something we can see and touch, even if what we can see and touch is the respect of others measured by the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers or letters after our name, or people who know our name. We’d like to trust in our success or stability as witnessed by the numbers on our bank statement, or report card, or frequent flier miles, or on our latest fasting-cholesterol reading, or gauge our value by how well our kids and grandkids are doing in the world’s eyes.
What we don’t realize is that healing never comes to our bodies alone, or an isolated problem or situation. It’s always more of a total overhaul: it changes our spirit and our outlook and our way of being in the world, maybe even more than it affects the physical ailment or specific immediate problem. Because healing is a stepping momentarily into the eternal, where our metrics don’t mean a thing. It shifts what matters to what really matters.
The final voice of wisdom, that is, voice of with the power to shape the outcome of things for Naaman, is another servant. Come on, the man says. If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would’ve done it in a heartbeat. This is easy! Why not give it a try?
So a discombobulated Naaman, stripped of his pride and his pristine robes, steps through the weeds and muck into the Jordan river and begins to dunk himself under. One could say, he steps into his own baptism, his own Red Sea crossing – “Be Still, and God will fight for you.”
I wonder what got washed away with each dip?
How could that “prophet” humiliate me in this way? Who does he think he is?
Dunk. Does he even know who I am? I am important and powerful!
Dunk. I am powerless and filthy, riddled with disease and heading for the grave.
Dunk. I want to be made well. I really want to be healed.
Dunk. What if this works? Could this possibly work?
Dunk. Why should it? Who do I even think I am?
Dunk. Oh God, help me!
And out he emerges from the watery darkness, glowing and clean, with the skin of a child, fresh and unblemished.
Listen to what happens next:
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’
But [Elisha] said, ‘As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’
He urged him to accept, but he refused.
Then Naaman said, ‘If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.’
[Elisha] said to him, ‘Go in peace.’
God is God and we are not.
God’s way of being and doing is not a bit like our own, and God doesn’t care one whit for our success or power or credibility or how much we can bargain for what we think we should earn. Instead God cares for each of us in our most naked and vulnerable selves– all the mess and all the glory mixed up together in a body that breaks down and an ego that puffs up.
Naaman discovered that God heals and makes whole. He felt what it is to be seen and loved by the Creator. He glimpsed a reality stronger and deeper than what he’d always believed, so off he went, with a ridiculous grin plastered on his fresh-skin face, and a couple of wagon loads of Israeli soil so that from now on he could pray on holy ground to the God who saw and saved him.
Today is All Saints Sunday. It has been celebrated in the Christian Church for over a thousand years, as a day to look beyond the reality in front of us to the bigger picture, to remember that those who’ve gone before are, what the author of Hebrews calls, “a great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us. That in God’s reality nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not time or death, not heights or depths or angels or demons or principalities or powers or things present or things to come or success or power or weakness or failure or who we think we are or who we say we know or what we can measure. All the things we see as so important, so permanent, so powerful -they cannot define us, they cannot save us, and they cannot keep us enslaved. God is outside and beyond, and also enters right in, right alongside, so that we are not alone.
A tradition in many churches today is to remember your baptism. That which truly defines us. The reality spoken over us that our identity is first and foremost, and last and forever, in Christ Jesus. We approach the font and feel the water in our hand and imagine ourselves going under, imagine the lies and the sickness and the sin and the shame and the pride and the arrogance and the self-importance and the self-hatred and the judgment and the pity and all of the layers washing away as we dunk under into the watery chaos and come up, clean and new.
We imagine ourselves alongside all who’ve ever gone under that same water – Naaman, and Jesus, and your own dear grandmother, and those sitting beside you right now- no better and no worse than any other, and saints, every single one. Because we are not defined by the reality of the world that tells us who we are is earned, bought, lost, or bargained. We are defined by the Creator of the Universe who reaches out in unearned, undeserved grace, and grabs hold of us and says, this one is mine.
Listen to the words spoken over the baptized – as I speak them over you again today:
For you, little one,
the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation,
and the Lord God made covenants with God’s people.
It was for you that the Word of God became flesh
and lived among us,
full of grace and truth.
For you, [N], Jesus Christ suffered death
crying out at the end, "It is finished!"
For you Christ triumphed over death,
rose in newness of life,
and ascended to rule over all.
All of this was done for you, little one,
though you do not know any of this yet.
But we will continue to tell you this good news
until it becomes your own.
And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled:
"We love because God first loved us."
May we, like Naaman, be washed again today of whatever we fear and hide, whatever we believe is powerful and able to say who we are and aren’t.
And may our hearts be opened and our perception awakened,
to see what is really real,
to walk vulnerably into the healing that is offered us,
and to face our lives confident in the promises that hold us, and brave to live them out,
alongside all those we share our days with, and all those who’ve gone before us, and all those who will come after you and me.
Today, may we bump up against grace.