I’d like you to take your readings insert and grab a pencil or pen. At the top of the front page, right column, third line, circle the words “angry and went away.” Then go down to the end of v.12 and circle the words “went away in a rage.” Now draw a big circle around both of those. Go down to the bottom of the page and circle the first verse of the psalm: Hallelujah!… Now circle the whole gospel reading.
Those of you who were here last Sunday will find this exercise familiar, since we did something similar. The lesson is: When we set aside anger or resentment and replace it with gratitude, one likely outcome is a life characterized by joy! Today’s readings are all about gratitude.
Naaman was a rich and powerful man. Because he was rich and powerful he was used to being in control of his life. But then one day he came down with a skin disease and was powerless to do anything about it. When we’re really desperate we’ll try almost everything to solve the problem. In this case, Naaman was willing even to turn to his enemies in looking for a solution. He travels to a foreign land to see Elisha the prophet.
Elisha tells Naaman what he must do in order to be cured of his disease. But Naaman has more than a skin problem. Naaman has an attitude problem! Naaman wants to be cured of his disease, but he wants it on his terms! Instead of following instructions he flies into a rage and stomps off.
A surprising thing happens: Naaman’s servants—people who have no power—dare to approach him and ask him what I’d call a common-sense question. Father, they say, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’? Another amazing thing happens: Naaman listens to these underlings–and presto—he was made clean!
So–where do you find yourself in the story? Most of us here this morning have enjoyed at least some of the advantages of Naaman. Like Naaman, we take for granted certain privileges and powers that we enjoy because of no other reason than “accident of birth.” If you have what society calls the right skin color, the right sexual orientation, the right education, the right connections, you take for granted that the world should protect and defend that power and those privileges. When those advantages seem threatened, many privileged people take their cue from Naaman. They fly into a rage, demanding that the world meet them on their terms.
Christian discipleship follows a different path. Christians ask, in the spirit of Jesus himself, “Whose voice is not being heard? Who is invisible? Who’s not at the table?” The answer usually has something to do with those who are ignored or swept aside by society: the poor, the powerless, the diseased, the foreigner—or, simply those who seem different.
The gospel story of the ten lepers is certainly about outsiders. And, on the face of things—like the story of Naaman—it’s a story about health care. So, is there something in these readings that might inform our national health care conversation? Many people are asking, “What’s in it for me?” Others are asking a better question: “Who’s been left out?” As we find again in the story of the ten lepers, Jesus shows compassion for those who have been left out. “Who has not been able to afford health care?” Some of you, or your relatives, are among these.
So, a new path for our nation has been proposed that shows some compassion for those who have been ignored. It is new and being tried for the first time so naturally it is complicated, messy, and far from perfect. And yet, for all that, we are nevertheless able to see clearly that it addresses this important question: “What does affordable health care look like for those who have not had access to it before?” The new system may be complicated but the invitation behind it is not complicated. It’s simply this: What we had worked for a few but didn’t work for many; for the sake of those who’ve been left out, let’s at least try a different direction.
A recent news editorial noted that we as a nation have been very willing to spend trillions of dollars on war; we’ve been very willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of young soldiers. By comparison, a new approach to health care seems like a very easy thing—and one that would benefit veterans! In today’s story, after the powerful Naaman throws his hissy fit, his servants ask him, Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’? I wonder if there’s something we might learn from Naaman’s servants about perspective.
Wash, and be clean. It’s an invitation to equality, dignity, justice, hospitality, and hope. Still, for people who are used to being in control of their lives and enjoying life on their own terms, it is difficult to hear the voices of those who are not at the table, or the Scriptures that call attention to those voices.
Sometimes, in such cases, what turns the tide is suffering. Naaman was surprisingly open to heeding his servants’ advice. I wonder if it was because of his disease and the suffering he experienced because of that disease. I wonder, because that’s what seems to be going on in our second reading. Paul the apostle writes, Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead…for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. Paul, like Naaman, had once enjoyed great power and privilege. In choosing obedience to Christ Paul discovered suffering, and for Paul suffering was a refining fire that burned away his selfishness and developed in him a deep gratitude for God’s unconditional mercy and love, transforming his relationship with other people.
This may be what’s going on in today’s gospel reading, as well. Notice who returns to give glory and praise to God: It’s a foreigner! This particular leper was an outsider not only because of his disease but because he was a Samaritan. Here is a man whose suffering, both as a leper and as a foreigner, deepened his gratitude to God.
We don’t want to romanticize suffering. Suffering has the power to embitter a person and even break their spirit. We don’t go looking for suffering, but Christians remember that it is dangerous to run from suffering at all cost. When we do whatever we can to avoid our own suffering we are almost certain to ignore or to be blinded to the suffering of others.
Today’s readings seem to be about health care. But at a deeper level, they are about gratitude. They point to healing, not only of the physical kind but also the spiritual kind. When Jesus said to the grateful leper, “Your faith has made you well”—it was a reminder to all of us that wellness is not just physical health. Wellness has to do with a thankful spirit and a grateful heart. Gratitude is not simply saying “Thank you.” It is an attitude, a discipline, and a way of life.
Remember, in last week’s reading we were assured that each of us has faith the size of a mustard seed…and it’s enough! This week, Jesus assures us that just that much faith is enough to be made well. So–do not be discouraged by ingratitude, whether you find it in your nation, yourself or in others. You—and all people–already have a kernel of faith. And in that faith is the possibility of wellness. It may be well-hidden. It may be dormant. It may be undiscovered. But it is there, waiting for opportunities to be seen by a world in need of hope and healing!