Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 7, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘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! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to 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”?’ So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
1 Peter 5:5
All of you, leaders and followers alike, are to be down to earth with each other, for
“God has had it with the proud,
But takes delight in just plain people.”
The drama in this morning’s scripture is all about ego: Naaman, the bigshot military commander, feels he hasn’t been given his due when the prophet Elisha won’t even come out of his house to greet him. And he’s even more upset that Elisha gives him a seemingly insignificant, small task to complete in order to be healed of his leprosy – surely such a puny assignment couldn’t cure such a devastating disease! Naaman was insulted, enraged – no way was he going to listen to this crackpot! Hmpph.
Now before we all chuckle at Naaman’s expense – at the way this story paints him as a self-important buffoon – it’d behoove us to realize that we might very well have the same reaction in his place.
Imagine you have looked all over for an effective treatment for a rare and deadly disease, and you even travel to another country to consult the most famous, most skillful specialist in the world who says, simply – “Go take a bath.” That’s it – “go take a bath.” I think we’d all feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not just that the treatment is unexpected – it’s that it hardly seems up to the task. Really, how could dunking yourself in a river seven times be the key to clearing up a devastating skin disease that normally consigned those afflicted with it to a life of ostracism?
Yet Naaman, persuaded by his servants, gives Elisha’s instructions a try, and they work: “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young child, and he was clean.”
I wonder if it’s the servants’ position humility, of having no illusions as to their own personal grandness, that allows them to see Elisha’s command for [the simple invitation] what it is: “[I]f the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult,” they say to Naaman, “would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
How many of us have let our egos get in the way of a straightforward solution, a simple invitation to heal? How often have we made up our minds that maybe for this other person, such-and-such an approach might have worked, but our circumstances are so much more complicated, so much more intransigent, that we’re sure it will fail before we even try it? I know in 5+ years of reading parenting books, I’ve often thought to myself that simply telling a child to eat what’s on their plate or to go to bed when it’s time or to leave the park now and not spend the next fifteen (thirty?) minutes negotiating, cajoling, and yelling might work in someone else’s family, but my child is uniquely stubborn and our situation is different. Maybe for you it’s a tense relationship with your in-laws, or a difficult working dynamic with your boss, or training your dog, or trying to live a healthier life. Yes, of course, sometimes we do have unique circumstances and sometimes the problem in question is unsolvable – but often, nearly always, there’s a way to either solve it or to change our response to it (which, p.s., is the same as solving it), and it’s just our own sense of importance – our ego – getting in the way.
When I do premarital counseling with couples planning to get married, I tell them about the work of Dr. John Gottmann. As part of his research, he’s spent decades watching married couples fight. And he can predict, with 90% certainty, which of those couples will stay married and which will divorce, just based on how they fight!
He identified four “specific negative communication patterns that predict divorce. He called them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling,” with criticism being the most common and the gateway to the other three. Criticism isn’t critique of a specific action or issue; it’s an attack on your spouse: “How come you never seem able to put the dishes away? It’s like you’re just lazy.” Or “Why do you always work so much? You care more about your job than you do our family.”
Regular criticism can start to derail a relationship; “it can have devastating effects because it makes the [recipient] feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt. It often causes the couple to fall into an escalating pattern where criticism reappears with greater frequency and intensity.” But the solution, Dr. Gottman shares, is deceptively straightforward: “complain without blame.” You simply state your feelings “using “I” statements” and then positively express what you need from your partner. So instead of “Come on, we’re going to be late! Are you just being slow on purpose?” You can try: “Hey, we’re running late. It’s really important to me that we get there on time.” Or instead of “You said you’d wash the dishes, but there’s still a pile in the sink. You never do what you say you will,” you would say, “There’s still some dirty dishes in the sink. I need you to clean them up, please.”
Logically, it’s a very easy change to make. But as with Naaman – and with so many other human circumstances – it can be hard to change our assumptions, let go of our sense of outrage at how we perceive we’re being treated, and embrace a simple solution.
Yet I think that is often where God meets us: in the moment we choose to praise our child for the good thing they did rather than zero in on the bad, even if the bad thing makes us feel disrespected or like we’re failing at parenting. God meets us in the pause between yelling at someone who cuts us off and deciding to say a quick prayer for whatever’s made them so eager to get where they’re going – even if we’d like to believe that our agenda is the most important thing. God meets us in the minute we have to zoom in on yet another frustrating comment made by the elderly parent we’re caring for or to choose to let it go, imagining what it must be like for them to lose independence or health.
You see, friends, it’s not that God doesn’t see our own priorities and needs as important; it’s that God is trying to fulfill those needs, to heal our hurts and make us whole, but like Naaman, sometimes our own sense of importance gets in the way.
We often so desperately want to be whole, or free, or less stressed. And in our desperation, we imagine that the solution to our problems must match how large and serious they feel to us. But sometimes – maybe oftentimes – they are as easy as a dip in the Jordan – as letting God show us the way.
After all, God takes delight in just plain people – in just plain helping us. Amen.