Scripture: 2 KINGS 5:1-4
In commemoration of Charles Dickens 200th Birthday, which would have been this past Tuesday, I thought I would entitle my sermon today: Great Expectations: It’s not just a Charles Dickens novel. Indeed, it is much more than that. It is a malady that has plagued us as humans probably since the beginning of time. We see it in the story of Naaman from long ago that we just heard, and we see it all around us in our world today. Expectations often run feverishly high around this time of year, with Valentines’ Day coming up. Unfortunately, this often leads to disappointment, disillusionment, and fractured relationships. Its main symptom is a blindness to the very real, albeit often small, ways that love, and healing are present in our lives.
The story of Naaman so vividly shows how great expectations can prevent someone from receiving the very thing they most desperately need. Naaman, a mighty and successful commander in Aram, wealthy, powerful and well-respected had everything going for him. Except for one thing: this skin disease called leprosy.
He had probably visited the most highly regarded Doctors, and tried all the medications and treatments – all to no avail. His last resort was the prophet that the servant girl suggested.
In a manner befitting a man of his prestige, he went to his King, to ask him to get in touch with the prophet’s King in Israel. Why not go to the top when you have connections? The King of Aram – to make sure Naaman would get his cure - sent along a little “gift” to the King of Israel. Well – not so little: All that silver and gold would amount to about one million dollars today. This gift was accompanied by a letter basically commanding the King of Israel to heal Naaman..
When he received all the gifts, and the letter, the king was furious. He didn’t know how to cure Naaman. And yet how does one say No to the leader of a country that has already once invaded your land?
News of his vexation spread to the prophet Elisha, who came to his rescue saying: “Send Naaman to me. I can cure him.” So Naaman went, making sure Elisha knew how well-connected and important he was. He brought his entourage of horses and chariots and servants to impress him. Elisha, however, was markedly unimpressed. He did not even come to the door when the commander arrived. He merely sent his servant with instructions for Naaman: Go wash in the Jordan river seven times. I imagine Naaman heard it as: Tell him to go jump in the lake.
Naaman was understandably outraged. He had great expectations for healing, which this prescription did not measure up to. The Jordan river was a small, shallow, and muddy river – nothing like the clear, clean, deep rivers of his home country. It was preposterous to think that he could be cured by washing there seven times. Surely Elisha was trying to make a fool of him. It’s no wonder he just stormed away.
The only reason his story has a happy ending is because of his servants. They somehow convinced him to let go of his ego, his anger, his high expectations, and to follow Elisha’s instructions. And lo and behold, the Jordan became his healing river.
This story of 2500 years ago is still relevant for us today. How often are we like Naaman, unwilling to open ourselves to healing or love in our lives because it doesn’t come to us in ways we expect, in ways that are big enough, prestigious enough, expensive enough, complicated enough? This passage illustrates how God uses the small and seemingly insignificant to bring healing.
If we consider the heroes of this story, we find they are not the big, important people: The commander Naaman, The King of Aram, the King of Israel. None of them were instrumental in providing the healing Naaman so desperately longed for. The first person to really start Naaman’s healing process was his wife’s servant girl, an Israelite who had been captured on Naaman’s raid of that country. She was torn away from her homeland, from her family and friends, from all that was familiar. And yet, she was nevertheless filled with a compassion and kindness for her suffering captor. Seeing his plight, her heart was moved, and she was the one offering the healing and hope that would eventually cure his illness.
The other heroes in this story are Naaman’s own servants. Despite being under his command and power, they were brave enough to risk offending him, to risk their jobs, and maybe even their lives by opening their mouths and daring to suggest that perhaps he might want to try Elisha’s uncomplicated simple cure.
Often, we miss out on opportunities for and experiences of healing because they don’t come from the people we expect them to, or in ways we expect. When we expect all miracles to come from professional, important people, or to be big and grand, we miss so many wondrous ways small acts of love and healing trickle into our lives. As Barbara Crafton wrote in an article for the Christian Century:
“We don’t claim the healings that come to us. Instead, we set the evidentiary bar so high for a miracle of healing that a dozen miracles happen to us and we don’t notice any of them. For us, a miracle has to be magic, full of special effects, before we’ll pay any attention. . . . When it comes to miracles, we are snobbish.”
(The Christian Century, February 8, 2003)
So what might happen if we were to get rid of our snobbery, to put aside those Great Expectations that blind us? Where might we see God’s healing love in small, yet powerful ways?
Being back here at Federated, I am amazed at all the ways that the call to be the healing Body of Christ in our world is being answered by members of this congregation. There are a myriad of ministries here that volunteers head up: From Angel rides to Angel visits to Angel food ministries. There are those who make phone calls, Communion calls, flower deliveries. We are starting a new memorial ministry to provide care and companioning for grieving families. People here generously build fellowship and share resources in this community, and also in other places near and far: From St. Paul’s church in Cleveland, to JustHope in Nicaragua to Sparrow Village in South Africa. We have prayer groups, support groups, Stephen ministers, deacons and so many others who truly follow their call to minister to the world. These ministries all provide ways in which God’s healing and loving presence is made real.
Another way that we experience God’s healing love is through the power of prayer. Just recently, a group of us gathered around a person who had received a scary medical diagnosis. We laid our hands on this person and prayed. There was no grand miraculous cure. But that night there was the first peaceful night’s sleep for that person since the diagnosis. The prayers created a channel for God’s peace to come in, and anxieties and fears to be washed away.
We had a healing gathering here this past Wednesday evening, and heard the story of a remarkable journey of healing. About two years ago, Linda Kupiec was an accident victim who suffered severe brain injury and nearly died. She is now, against all odds, back to teaching. Her healing has been aided by medical attention, prayer, yoga, and also by the telling of her story.
The telling of one’s story is one of the most under-rated, yet highly effective helps to healing. Listening to another’s story is a meaningful part of our healing services here. It is an integral part of twelve step programs. It is an important part of Stephen ministry training. Being a kind, fully-present, attentive listener while someone tells their story may seem small and insignificant. But if we get rid of the expectation that everything we do for healing has got to be big and complicated, then in just listening we become vessels which offer God’s healing to our hurting world.
Naaman’s healing came through washing in the Jordan River. It is the same river where Jesus would later be baptized. On that occasion, the sky opened and a voice came saying, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” This was God’s message to Jesus, and it is God’s message to all of us as well.
When we accompany a suffering, struggling person on their journey and offer them total presence, heart-felt compassion, love and unconditional acceptance, we become for them a sign and reminder of how God loves and accepts them unconditionally. This is a way to make real God’s healing love in their lives.
The hymn “The Gift of Love”, based on 1st Corinthians 13, speaks to this. It reminds us that in everything we do, whether big, impressive and eloquent, or small, modest and quiet – we must have love. Mother Teresa puts it this way: “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” Through love that is patient, kind, and compassionate, that accepts and listens, and cares, God’s healing love comes into the world.
(Now I invite the Leaf of Faith Dancers to share this hymn with us.)
And so we pray: Come spirit come. Take hold of our hearts that we might be made whole. Help us to let go of great expectations, so as to open ourselves to your healing in all the ways it trickles into our lives. May your grace and love wash over us, and fill us to over-flowing so we might become channels of healing for others. Amen.