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The Geography of Healing

July 13, 2019

657f5ff7f72ee67269af83b40561d09eWord of God, Word of Earth – Part IV
Psalm 104         2 Kings 5:1-14

This is the fourth sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and grabs our attention so that we might be grabbed by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] We are in the midst of exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings. Above, artist Janet Mckenzie depicts a mother and child, which for the purposes of this sermon represent the parents and children being separated at my nation’s border right now. They are like all those in the Elijah and Elisha stories who suffer the trauma of national wars – overt and covert – stories filled with mothers and children.

We are part way into a summer sermon series on the ways God comes to us in the natural world; comforts us, challenges us, grabs our attention so that God might grab our attention and make us useful and responsible in this world. We are in the midst of the stories of Elijah and Elisha and I am so excited to be talking about these stories every week and feel we are just scratching the surface of them.

It would be hard to over estimate the importance of these stories of Elijah and Elisha for our New Testament and for the gospels. The gospel writers clearly thought of Elijah when they were trying to understand who Jesus was for them.

  • When the New Testament was being put together, for example, the Hebrew scriptures were ordered in such a way that the prophet Malachi was placed last so that the final words of that book seem to herald the coming of Jesus as they look for the return of Elijah who would turn the heart of parents and children to one another and restore a covenant community.
  • When John the Baptist appeared out of the wild, he appeared to be the prophet Elijah dressed in the telltale costume – a hairy man with a leather belt eating locust and wild honey.
  • When, in John’s gospel, inquisitors from Jerusalem came out to see John the Baptist they wanted to know, “Are you Elijah come back?”
  • When Jesus asked his own disciples who people thought Jesus was, the first answers was, “They think you may be Elijah.”
  • On Mt. Tabor, when Peter, James and John witnessed what we know as Jesus’ transfiguration, they saw Jesus atop the mountain in the company of Moses, and Elijah.
  • At the crucifixion, onlookers hear Jesus cry, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” meaning “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Now the Roman guards witnessing this don’t speak Aramaic, so they are confused and think that Jesus is crying our for the prophet Elijah to return and save him. You see, even they knew the importance of the prophet Elijah to God’s people.

These are all will known references to Elijah in the gospel stories, but it wasn’t until just this week that something else was driven home to me, and that was not only how importance the stories of Elijah were for the gospel writers, but how importance of the stories of Elijah and Elisha were for Jesus himself.

Last week I said that Spirit that was upon the Prophet Elijah, the Spirit that was passed on to the prophet Elisha, was the same spirit that animated Jesus in his ministry, descended upon him at his baptism, drove him into the wilderness, and led him back to Galilee where he stood in his hometown of Nazareth and recited the words of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim released to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor (Luke 4:18-19)

Immediately after reading this scripture, Jesus tells two stories: one is about the prophet Elijah, and the other is about the prophet Elisha.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow [and her son] at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ (Luke 4: 24-27)

Remember, Jesus says, the prophet Elijah, during a time of drought and famine, helped the foreigner first. Crossed the border and helped a woman and her child in need. And remember the prophet Elijah who when a foreign military commander came for healing in Israel, Elisha helped him, though there were lepers aplenty in Israel. The significance of these stories for Jesus seems to be that prophets do not serve at the behest of local or national rulers, but serve the real needs of people no matter which side of the border they are on. There is a geography to healing.

[Read 2 Kings 5:1-19]

ON KINGS AND PROPHETS

The story cites an aphorism that ‘prophets are not welcome in their hometown,’ but I think that skirts some of the politics of these stories, the particularities of why these prophets – Elijah, Elisha and Jesus – are in conflict with the rulers of their day. So there are several things that I want to point out about this story and the first is that these prophets operate entirely outside the halls of power. There is a conflict set up between both of these prophets, Elijah and Elisha, and their respective kings. While the kings are busy parading their horses and chariots, their means for making war, while they bicker across their borders with their neighbors fighting back and forth, the prophets deal with the fallout. Elisha in particular is a prophet who picks up and cares for the victims of the kings wars.[ii]

I mentioned last week that biblical scholar Gale Yee opens her commentary on these stories by saying:

In 1879, General William Sherman declared “War is hell” to give a reality check to those in the graduating class of Michigan Military Academy who looked on war [in the post-Civil War era] as all glamour and glory. Much of the background for the so-called miracles that Elisha performs is the hell of war.

Do you know remember what Elisha’s first prophetic act was? It was to prevent a mother from being separated from her children by selling them into slavery during a time of national crisis. Elijah ministers those experiencing the trauma of war, particularly

  • war captives (5: 2);
  • famine (4: 38–39);
  • starvation (6: 24–25; 7: 3–4);
  • cannibalism (6: 26–31);
  • economic chaos (6: 25);
  • and ecological destruction (3: 25).[iii]

Elijah brings healing and help and hope outside the halls of power. Elijah frees and feeds and heals and helps people, while the kings/rulers can think of nothing but making war. Elisha performs miracles at a local level. The kings, in these books of 1st and 2nd Kings stand helpless before the people’s real needs. Walter Brueggemann suggests we think of the books of 1 and 2 Kings as 1 and 2 Kings? (with a question mark) because it is the prophets, not the kings, who bring to people what is truly needed.

Naaman comes from his own king with a letter, he comes to the king in Samaria with a letter, asking for help and the king in Samaria says, “What? I cannot heal anybody.” But so that Naaman may know that there is prophet in Israel, Elisha says, “send him to me.”

INDOORS AND OUTDOORS

There is another really fun aspect of this story in light of our special service today where we are beginning indoors and moving outdoors; there is a whole indoor outdoor aspect to this story. Naaman crosses the border out of Aram and into Israel, enters into the hall of the King of Samaria with his letter of recommendation, and then has to travel back out of doors to the prophet Elisha – and then when he arrives at the home of the prophet, Elisha remains inside, he doesn’t even bother to come outside. Instead, he sends a messenger, “Tell Naaman to go wash.” While the prophet remains inside, the commander is left standing outside.

“Surely the prophet is going to come out and wave his hands around and do something really impressive to heal.” Naaman is looking for a show. For a display of power. And the prophet simply says, “go wash.” Naaman recalls the geography and rivers of Damascus, “What is the Jordan River to all this, he wants to know.

Well last week was saw that when the prophet Elijah passed on this authority, power and wisdom to the younger prophet Elisha, he did so by taking him on a tour of Israel’s sacred geography, its topogeny, he took him both literally and mythically through the Jordan River to remind him that the God of Israel is a God who takes slaves and sets them free, that the God of Israel wishes health for God’s people, that the God of Israel helps. The true power is not in the great display but in the land and waters blessed by covenant care. This is the river, the River Jordan, into which Naaman must descend and in which he will find his healing.[iv] Word of God, Word of Earth.

It’s a very funny story when the servants have to tell Naaman, this great commander, “Surely if the prophet instructed you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” Naaman is no doubt used to giving orders to others, probably these very servants, and to telling people to do difficult things; he’s been successful on the field of battle. He is asked by the ‘Man of God’ to do a very simple thing. His servants, those also outside the realm of power, get to point and get to point this out to him – outdoors, in the water, a sacrament of healing for this foreign commander. When it comes to healing as opposed to war making, there is a reversal here of who the insiders and outsiders are, of where true power lies.

Naaman comes out of the water and his skin is cleansed; he has skin like that of a young boy, the text says. Which might make you remember where this story began: mighty commander, skin disease, and a servant girl – a captive, a slave, taken in war, working in his household of a military wife, this young girl, the spoils of war, she says, “There is a God in Israel.” She knows what no one else knows. She does not appear again in the story, but she may remind us that the context for Elisha’s amazing ministry is both the fact that ‘war is hell,’ and the hell of war.

ON GOD AND THE GODS

God and the god’s: another aspect to this story. “Surely, I know now,” says Naaman, “that there is no other god than the God of Israel.”

This confession begins curiously. Naaman tries to offer payment for what has happened to him. “Please take a gift.” We recall that he came with gold and silver and ten changes of clothes. “Please take something.” He wants to monetize a miracle. He wants not to be in the prophet’s debt. If he can pay for this, then everything’s square. He’s good. He can go home. But he has received a free gift from Israel’s God, he is the recipient of God’s grace. The prophet will not take payment for this. And so what Naaman says is “please give me …” – did you notice this? I had never noticed this before and have yet to speak with a colleague this week who has taken note of it. Commentaries are all but silent – What Naaman asks for is two carts full of earth. He ask for soil from Israel, because he has learned the sacred geography of healing. The God of freedom and hope is the God of this land. Naaman will stand on this land when he worship God, from this point forward. The geography of healing.

Yet he asks for pardon while he takes his master, his king, up before the god of Aram. “You know, he’s old. I’ve got to take his arm. I’ve got to help him kneel down. Please, forgive me this one sin.” This later is an odd bifurcation of conscience and duty, but the prophet simply says, “Go in peace.”

We don’t talk a lot about the conflict between God and the gods in scripture, partly because it seems too easily to lead us into some kind of religious chauvinism or holy war. But I was arrested by an image a week and a half-ago, listening to the testimonies in congress over reparations to African-American’s for the legacy of slavery, that helped me understand this conflict better. Ta-Nahesi Coates gave a speech before congress in which he was addressing the Chairman and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell had said that “America must not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago.” You may remember these words as Coates spoke about the legacy of slavery, the assets accumulated to the country and to white people through the practice of slavery…

The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader.

It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.[v]

The god of bondage! A god our nation has served alongside others gods, a god comfortable enthroned alongside God, God forbid! Right there I felt, ‘this is the kind of conflict our scripture is showing us.’ The conflict between the God of liberation and freedom and hope for all people, and the gods of bondage, slavery, oppression – Biblically Baal or Rimmon – the other gods that authorize enslavement and land theft and all those victims of the nations’ wars. Even Israel’s wars. These are the conflicts into which Elijah and Elisha entered, charging not only that both kings and people sometimes worship ‘other gods,’ but that all too often they also use the name of God to bless that which should not be blessed, that which is blessed by these other gods, to the destruction of themselves and others.

“I know there is no other God,” says Naaman, “but the God of Israel, who heals and helps and brings hope, and from now on I will stand on the earth, on the soil of Israel, having washed in the river, from now on I worship this God alone.”

These are really powerful texts for us, and they remind us that when Jesus appeared, and the spirit came upon him, he understood himself to be standing on the same soil, and in the same place as, and walking in the footsteps of, action prophets like Elijah and Elisha; and all those around Jesus saw this as well.

Today, we will in a short while move outside to continue our worship outdoors – indoors/outdoors – and we will slip off our shoes and stand upon this, our local earth, and we will greet ‘all our relations’ and share the sacrament of communion for the healing of all creation and share God’s presence with one another.

Our next hymn is “For the Beauty of the Earth,” to put us in mind of all creation as we walk outside.

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Note: The Indoors/Outdoors service drew on liturgy published by Prof. Lisa Dahill, California Lutheran University.

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it.

[ii] Horses and chariots were the ancient world equivalent of tanks, and are so treated throughout scripture. Three days before this sermon President Trump’s partisan Independence Day Celebration featured tanks and fighter-plane fly-overs in Washington D.C., with a price tag of 5.4 million taken from the National Parks.

[iii] Yee continues, “To counteract and militate against the trauma of war in its myriad guises, Elisha performs miracles at the local level, but does not critique the roots of war at the systemic level. His prophecy to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom deals with whether God will grant them victory over Moab (2 Kings 3), not whether they should engage in war in the first place. These texts encourage us to examine the systemic causes of war to eliminate the monstrous effects of war on the people and the land.”

[iv] On sacred geography, or topogeny, see last week’s sermon, Wisdom Sits in Particular Places.

[v] Ta-Nahesi Coates testimony before congress, and his original article on reparations.

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