2 Kings 5:1-14, Luke 10:1-16
The Fourth of July brings up a lot of conflicting emotions for me. As a follower of Jesus, who was crucified by the nations, I’m skeptical of nationalism in all its forms. The rise of the nation-state has led to some of the bloodiest wars in human history. And for those of us who are following political developments both in our country and abroad, it’s clear that nationalism remains a force that can inspire fear, division, xenophobia, and outright warfare.
I’m also very aware that the United States was built on a foundation of almost unspeakable horror. Mass confiscations of land from the Native American inhabitants. Genocide of countless indigenous nations. Centuries of racialized slavery, followed by the de-facto serfdom of African Americans. Brutalization, rape, murder, intimidation, and campaigns of terror have been some of the building blocks of the society we live in today.
In many ways, this story continues even now. We are reminded by our brothers and sisters in the Black Lives Matter movement that the systematic subjugation of black people is a present-day reality in cities and towns across our nation. America has built its economy, culture, and self-understanding on a race-based hierarchy that persists, regardless of the laws that have been passed.
So I hope you’ll all have some compassion on me if I confess that I have a difficult relationship with the Fourth of July. I love my country. This is the land, the culture, the people who have created the person I am today. I love America like I love my own mother and father. But love does not mean that we ignore blindness or abuse; rather, it demands that we seek the best and most life-giving path for those whom we love. To love our country means to pray for it. We ask God to bring healing where we see the scar tissue of historical evil and the wounds of present-day pathology. We pray for the strength to grow and change.
We show love in the stories that we tell, and in the dreams we dream. We should never forget the long history of murder, theft, and oppression that stains our national conscience, it would be a mistake to stop at condemnation. Jesus tells us that he did not come to steal, kill, or destroy – and neither must we. In the name of Jesus, there is abundant life – even for a people as fallen and lost as we are.
As people who love God and our neighbors, we have a responsibility to dream a more hopeful future for our nation. There is more to America than the horror of hatred and genocide. In spite of all the lies and betrayals of America’s past and present, there is an undeniable beauty to be found in this country. Like all the nations of the world, God has created America in his own image, no matter how marred that image has become by the sins of generations.
There is an alternative story to be told about the United States. It’s a hopeful story, one that we can choose to encourage and live into as a people walking in the way of Jesus. As I consider what this alternative American story might look like, my mind keeps coming back to the Statue of Liberty. For more than a century, this statue has stood in New York Harbor as a symbol of American pride, openness, and hospitality. Viewed by millions of new immigrants to American shores, it has become an icon of who America is, and who we are called to be.
This statue reminds us that we are – and are to remain – a nation of outsiders and misfits. From the beginning, this land has been a haven for persecuted religious minorities. We’ve been a safe harbor for the refugees of bloody wars. America is a nation that has founded itself on the boldness and courage of those who dared to dream of a better life for their children. We are a land of invention and inspiration, all built on the sweat and ingenuity of people who would have been voiceless peasants anywhere else.
Back in 1883, when the Statue of Liberty was being constructed, an American poet named Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called “The New Colossus.” This poem captures a vision of America as a land of welcome, hospitality, and freedom for all people. It’s a vision that, if fully embraced, would transform our nation forever. Listen to what Emma Lazarus says about the Statue of Liberty and the nation it guards:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That’s beautiful. That’s what America is about. In my heart, I know that this expresses the true spirit of our country. This is what God created us to be. A mighty woman with a torch: Mother of Exiles.
Our readings this morning come from a time that pre-dates the United States by more than two thousand years. Yet there is a resonance between scripture and the challenge of history and vision that faces us here in Washington, DC in 2016. The encounter between Naaman and the prophet Elisha illustrates how the power of God can overcome the shadow side of our national identities. This story teaches us to embrace a more expansive vision of who God is and the work that he is up to – in all nations and among all people.
In the book of Second Kings, we find Naaman, an Aramean military leader, conducting low-intensity warfare against Israel. Naaman was a really important man in his society. He commanded the entire armed forces of Aram. As such, he was on regular speaking terms with the king. In many ways, he had it made; he was a total insider.
But there was serious trouble in Naaman’s life. Despite all of his power and privilege, he suffered from a skin disorder – commonly referred to in those days as “leprosy.” And while none of us today would be too pleased with having a serious skin disease, this kind of illness was a much bigger deal in the ancient world. For the people who wrote the Bible, having a skin disease meant that you’d be excluded from the community. Lepers were untouchables, forced to live on the outskirts of populated areas and restricted from participating in social life or worship. Lepers were outcasts and rejects, unfit for contact with people or with God.
Naaman felt the weight of this social ostracism. Despite his great power and influence, he couldn’t save himself from the humiliation of leprosy. No one could. I have no doubt that he had tried all sorts of remedies. He probably searched high and low in his homeland of Aram to find a cure to his condition, but he found nothing.
So when a young slave girl, captured on a recent raid into Israel, told Naaman’s wife that there was a man in Israel who could cure his leprosy, Naaman went immediately to the king of Aram. He got permission to ask for help from the king of Israel, taking along with him gifts, and a letter from the king of Aram.
I think warfare must have worked a little differently back in those days than it does today. After all, Naaman had just recently raided Israel and carried away a bunch of loot and some of its residents. But apparently relations were good enough – or Israel was scared enough – that Naaman could come for a visit to Israel’s king and deliver a letter from the monarch in Aram.
Still, Israel and Aram were definitely not friends. When Naaman showed up with his request, the king of Israel assumed that the request was a prelude to war. “I have no idea how to cure anyone of leprosy! The king of Aram must just be looking for an excuse to invade!”
But when the prophet Elisha heard what was happening, he told the king to send Naaman his way. This foreigner would learn from first-hand experience that “there is a prophet in Israel.”
I think it takes a little bit of imagination to fully appreciate the next scene. Naaman pulls up to Elisha’s house, with all his horses and chariots – serious battle gear – and asked to see the prophet. I imagine what this would look like today: the top general of a whole country rolling up in a humvee, flanked by some armored personnel carriers – probably with helicopter support. Imagine them stopping in front of Elisha’s little rowhouse and knocking on the door.
You’d expect Elisha to open the door. But to everyone’s surprise, Elisha never even comes out to greet the visiting general with all his warriors. He just sends a servant to deliver his message: “Go wash in the Jordan river seven times, and your skin will be made clean.”
Here’s the crazy thing: Naaman almost refuses to do it. He’s ready to roll his chariots all the way back to Aram with nothing to show for it. He came so far for this, why did he almost miss out on his big chance for healing? Well, to start with, he was definitely a little peeved that Elisha didn’t even bother to come out of the house for him. Here he was, an important Aramean leader, second only to the king, and this local shaman couldn’t even make the time to emerge from his hut and greet him? Ridiculous!
And anyway, even if Elisha had shown more respect, Naaman had beaten Israel frequently enough on the battlefield to know that his nation had better water to offer than the Jordan. As far as Naaman was concerned, Aram was a far better country than Israel. He was beginning to regret that he had ever decided to humiliate himself by begging for help from these foreigners.
Despite his deep need for healing, Naaman’s pride almost prevented him from undertaking the simple act of cleansing that could change his life forever. His sense of national superiority blinded him to the work that God could do through simple things – like the Jordan river – and simple people – like the clearly “inferior” Israelites.
Fortunately for Naaman – and probably for the cause of peace between Israel and Aram – a wise servant convinces him to give the prophet’s words a chance. Despite his misgivings – and his sense of national pride – Naaman finds that the waters of the Jordan do indeed cleanse him from his skin disorder. The cure that he had been seeking for years finally came – not from Aramean military victories or cultural achievements, but rather through the help of a foreign people and a God that Naaman had never taken seriously.
Naaman came to understand that God is at work beyond the borders of Aram, and that even an apparently weak, unassuming, downright strange person from Israel could be a source of transformation and renewal. Naaman was changed forever. Where once he had been a jingoistic nationalist, he became a believer in a power beyond the borders of his home country, one that reconciled him to his foreign enemies.
This spirit of humility and reconciliation is waiting to be born again among us today, here in 21st-century America. Like Naaman, many Americans are frightened, dismissive, and even contemptuous of people who are different from us. There is a growing sentiment that foreigners should be excluded from our society, and that the greatness of America lies in its isolation. But in the encounter between Naaman and Elisha, we learn that the power of God can be discovered most powerfully when we cross the cultural, political, and ideological barriers that normally separate us.
This is the same experience, the same vision that we discover in the Statue of Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus – a dream of a nation that welcomes the stranger, the homeless, the refugee – all those who are yearning to breathe free.
This is the vision that we find in Jesus, who sends us out defenseless, to share the news of a kingdom that is beyond tribe and language and national borders. In this new community, we welcome everyone who is hungry for freedom and ready to join in the adventure of discipleship. This Fourth of July, what could it mean to embrace this vision of independence: freedom from the chains of nationalism that so often blind us? Walking in the way of Jesus, are we ready to discover God’s plan for our nation?