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Healing the Warrior

A message preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on Sunday July 3, 2016.

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Healing the Warrior

Naaman is a relatively obscure person in the Bible.  Hold on, let’s check that: how about an informal survey–show of hands if you knew of Naaman before this morning … [a good number of hands raised!]. Whether or not you’re familiar with Naaman’s story, I hope you will remember it after today because I think he is one of the more captivating figures in all of scripture.

To review, Naaman is Commander of the military forces of Aram–modern day Syria. His battlefield successes have earned him fame, fortune and the loyalty of his king. However Naaman has a serious problem which is stated almost in passing in the closing words of verse 1:

“The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.”

The term “leprosy” usually comes footnoted in the Old Testament to explain that the Hebrew word can refer to a variety of different skin diseases.  We don’t know which of those diseases afflict Naaman. That brief declaratory phrase raises all sorts of questions.  But all we know for certain is that the mighty warrior Naaman is in distress.

On the battlefield, Naaman is a conqueror (… “a mighty warrior” (!) …). He has impressive power, authority, status, yet none of this can relieve his suffering. This is what makes him so compelling.

Most cultures, certainly our own, worship The Warrior.  By warrior I do not mean “soldiers” per se, I’m referring to the warrior archetype with all the associated attributes: fearless, intimidating, confident, willing to do whatever it takes to prevail. At some point in his life (maybe his teenage years?) Naaman learned how to fight.  By the time he comes to our attention in 2 Kings 5, Naaman has learned what it takes to prevail. He leads men into battle and returns victorious.  He has conquered every foe, perhaps even cheated death on the battlefield, only to be confronted by an enemy he cannot intimidate or overpower by force of will … or “cheat”.

I see the influence of the warrior archetype in our culture whenever it is declared that “we” … “must fight” … any illness or any threat to our existence; whenever the ideal adopted to meet any threat involves coercion or removal by force. For example, it is common to hear that someone is “fighting cancer” or “fighting for their life” (or “lost their fight with” some illness). On a larger scale, we have waged war against poverty, against drugs, and most recently against all terrorists, all of which seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect.

Whenever “we” declare that by sheer force of willpower, “we will defeat [fill in the blank]” that’s a clear indication of the influence of the warrior archetype (or the warrior ideal or the myth of the warrior). Naaman is the embodiment of all that.

And if I may refer to our soldiers for a moment, this warrior archetype has been very destructive. Because we do not know what to do with our warriors off the battlefield nor do we equip them for the transition to “normal” life. For every warrior who successfully adapts from battlefield to home-field, there’s too many who cannot.

The antidote, the antithesis, to this warrior archetype is a warrior of a different order.  To me Jesus is a warrior b/c he embodies the warrior’s intensity, dedication, fearlessness.  What makes Jesus a warrior of a different order is both the means he employs and the outcome he seeks: the outcome is never conquest, but always connection. Jesus lives (and died) to connect us to God, to each other, to creation. The mightiest forces of this world directly opposed him and conspired to shame then kill him.  The means Jesus employed in opposition was not force in return, but rather the spiritual resolve to keep his humanity and his divinity intact no matter what. Some of his own followers, and some of his critics, rejected him for his failure to employ violence to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel (even though other “Messiahs” tried this and failed).

Jesus knows that to do this would cost him (and us) his humanity and his divinity. He certainly had this choice available to him (see Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) but Jesus understood that using “any means necessary” to accomplish any so-called good or virtuous outcome ultimately corrupts and dooms the outcome.

I would venture to guess that Jesus knew the story of Naaman quite well.  Back to that: even though Naaman doesn’t “know” or acknowledge God, God knows and even favors Naaman. That’s a wonderful something to consider.

God’s unlikely counterpoint to warrior Naaman is a young girl, taken captive by Naaman’s troops from Israel. This girl has no status, no power, she’s not even named; she is a prisoner of war. And yet, moved with compassion, she offers hope for Naaman in the person of the prophet Elisha telling Naaman’s wife “if only the Good Sir were with the prophet of God who is in Israel surely he would cure him of his leprosy.”

After some confusion between the kings of Aram and Israel, the Prophet Elisha intervenes avoiding another war between the two. He requests the king of Israel to send Naaman to his (Elisha’s) home.  Naaman arrives with lots of money and enough chariots and horses to carry an army.

When they halt at the entrance of Elisha’s house, you can almost hear the thunderous horsepower grinding to a halt–the sound of Naaman’s reputation preceding him as he and this entourage invade Elisha’s quiet, hobbit-like, contemplative neighborhood. No need to ring the Eilsha’s doorbell the whole town knew a prominent visitor had come a callin’.

Elisha responds to warrior Naaman’s show of power and authority by sending a messenger out to meet him.

A messenger!

The Great and Mighty Naaman is greatly insulted.  Being a Commander as well as a warrior, Naaman surely had a plan all worked out in his mind about how this was going to go, but this … this … Elisha was messing it all up:

“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!…”

Nope.  Bad enough Elisha sends a messenger. This messenger has the audacity to give orders to Mighty Warrior and Commander Naaman (I would not want to be that messenger!): “Go wash in the Jordan seven times.”

Naaman is enraged. He fumes: “Are not the Ab’ uh-nuh and the Phar-par, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters here in Israel?  Could I not wash in THEM and be clean?”   Naaman storms off in a rage.  His “righteous indignation” mixed with his self-pity leaves him disconnected and alone.  Another aspect of the warrior archetype: the lone wolf.

Most of us find it hard – if not impossible … unacceptable – to give up control especially when our future is on the line.  Like Naaman, we have expectations about how life is supposed to go, and when it goes wrong, how it’s supposed to end.  We invest a great deal of energy into controlling things we cannot control, which usually keeps us enslaved to yesterday, disinterested in and disconnected from the God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life from death.

In a crisis, perhaps our greatest barrier to resolution is our expectations. Too often, like Naaman, our expectations isolate, alienate and disconnect us.  In a crisis, our reaction(s) can easily disrupt our connection with God and God’s community at a time when we need more of both.  When we’re preoccupied with who we think we’re supposed to be, we leave no room for Who God Is and what that can mean in the moment (or even after the moment has passed).

It’s so easy to get stuck living out some image of ourselves, one we have likely forged out of many long, lonely hours of fighting some enemy all alone, all by ourselves, in the darkness. And where does that ever get us but more and more isolated, more lost, and disconnected from the God in whose image we are created.

Even so, God’s love comes through.
See how God’s love prevails, how it comes to Naaman first through a Hebrew servant girl, then, after he rejects the gift handed to him in the prophet Elisha, through the humanity of his own servants who say to him, at the risk of offending him and drawing his wrath,

“if that prophet ordered you to do something really difficult, you’d do it: if the prophet had said ‘go and fight a hopeless battle, go and lay your life on the line, the odds are against you … but just go and do it now and your leprosy shall be gone’: you would do it without hesitation.  We know you would … WE KNOW YOU.  Yet all that was asked of you was, ‘go and wash in the Jordan ’…”

Next thing you know, there’s Naaman in the Jordan river … his leprosy washed away by the current and maybe along with it, some of that warrior image he’s clung to for most of his life. How could this be? he must have thought, the prophet wasn’t even there.

No magic. No drama. Just the quiet, mysterious love and presence of God, surrounding him there in the waters of the (previously despised) Jordan River.

God’s love is more consistent (that’s what steadfast means) than any other love we experience.  No wonder we don’t recognize it when it comes to us—as it often does—in disguise.

Matthew Laney says that time and time again we come upon moments when we must cross over the Jordan, moving from one reality to another.  Whether it’s graduation or job loss or a diagnosis, or the birth of a child or, death, Laney notes

while it’s happening we might feel like things are coming unglued. That’s how a lot of us feel when we look at the world today with its perpetual violence, global warming, terrorism, fiscal cliffs, grid-locked government. We really are at a pivotal point in human history… which is where we have always been.

Church scholar Phyllis Tickle is famous for her thesis that every 500 years or so, the Church reinvents itself: Constantine in the late 4th century; the Great Schism of the 11th century; the Reformation in the 16th century;  and right now in the 21st century, something new is emerging.

Jesus looked at the religious structures of his day and predicted they will all come tumbling down because God was cleaning house for a new era. Christianity (and life) is all about crossing over. As people of the cross, this is not only an obvious message but a hopeful one. Because resurrection is on the other side of the cross, we know that the end of one world is only the beginning of another. In many places in our life, we are transitioning and crossing over.  We can learn to embrace these moments, when we trust that Christ, who is the timeless Alpha and Omega, is there with us every step of the way[1]

 

Jesus Christ, God’s Warrior comes to heal the warrior within us all.

 

May this be so.

 

[1] Matthew Laney, “Crossing Over” published by the UCC in dailydevotional@ucc.org, June 29, 2016.  Matthew Laney is the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, in Hartford, Connecticut.