On Healing, Armor, and Praise

A sermon on Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-15 (For an audio recording of this sermon, click here).

He didn’t ask me why I came back after I had been healed.

At least at first, Jesus was more focused on the other nine – my companions in isolation and shame – the others who, like me, had just had their lives changed by his healing. When I came back, alone, to throw myself at his feet, overcome with praise and thanksgiving, he didn’t ask me why. Rather, he wondered aloud about the other nine. “Where are they?”

It was a rhetorical question, but I could have told him all the same: It never occurred to them that he might want them to come back.

You see, something happens to your identity when you have a stigmatized disease like leprosy. A disease that makes other people step back – afraid of getting too close, afraid that you might pollute them with your misfortune. The perpetual exclusion has a way of eating away at your sense of self as surely as the leprosy eats away at your skin.

You get used to keeping your distance, isolating yourself before others can demonstrate their discomfort or demand that you stay away. You get used to believing that your presence is a curse, that even the people who once loved you want nothing more to do with you.

And so, you go numb.

It makes sense. The physical part of the disease numbs your ability to feel pain – you can suffer a serious wound on a hand or a foot and not even notice it. And the same thing happens with your soul. You get so used to the isolation from the rest of society that you don’t even notice the wound. You don’t realize that you have come to see yourself as unworthy of love – as someone whom no healthy person would ever want to see or touch. Not even so you could say “thank you.”

I’m pretty sure that’s why my companions stayed away. They were just so used to not being wanted; they’d lost the instinct for connection. Their bodies were healed, but their souls were still numb.

Of course, that raises the question that Jesus did not ask: why did I come back? I suffered from leprosy just like them. I had been conditioned by isolation and rejection just like them. Why had my spirit not gone numb?

I think, maybe, it was because of the story of Naaman.

Now, if you don’t know much about my people – the Samaritans – it might seem strange to you that a Samaritan would be attached to a story from the Hebrew scriptures, but they are my scriptures too! My people are also the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the stories of the Northern Kingdom of Israel are the stories of my ancestors. We are descended from the remnant that was left in Israel after the Assyrian invasion. We fight with our cousins from the Southern Kingdom, the Jews, because they say we have to worship in Jerusalem, not in Gilgal… but we worship the same God!

So, maybe you can understand why the story of a man with leprosy who is healed by the prophet in Samaria would mean something to me. In some important ways, Naaman’s story is my story.

Our leprosy is our most obvious connection. Although he was spared – by his rank – from the social isolation that I endured. And, I have to admit, it was actually nice to hear a story of a man with this condition who didn’t lose everything.

But even so, he was an outsider. For all his status and wealth, he had to come to Samaria begging for mercy, come to a people who saw him as the enemy. And I could relate to that too. I lived in the border region, where Jewish towns and Samaritan towns were intermingled. If I had been whole and well, I would have stayed with my own people, and probably been just as suspicious of the Jews in the nearby towns as my neighbors were.

But illness is the great equalizer. When I was struck with this disease, I had to go to the only group that would have me. They were Jews, my ethnic enemies, but we shared the same affliction. I needed them. And they took me in.

So, I saw myself in the story of Naaman. I spent many nights pondering his story in my heart until it came to feel like part of me, until the transformation that unfolds in his story began to leave an imprint in my soul.

And I think this process inoculated me, as it were, against the numbing effects of my own disease and social dislocation. I learned, from his story, the danger of holding onto the protective shell of defensiveness.

Defensiveness is the automatic instinct we all feel when we are confronted by our own weakness – by the pain we cannot prevent, the illness we cannot cure, the fear we cannot ease. We armor up. We get angry, or self-righteous. We are on alert for insult or offense so that we can guard against it. And when we do this, we turn in on ourselves. Our frame of reference shrinks down to the tunnel vision of our own need to feel safe, and we stop seeing anyone around us… even when they are reaching out a hand of mercy.

That defensiveness was almost Naaman’s undoing. He had come to the prophet of God with all his armor on. He came with a display of power, surrounded by a military force and laden down with an offering of immense wealth to buy his cure. And he came, also, laden with expectations about how a man of his status and importance should be treated. He had all his defenses on display, guarding against the helplessness, the desperate need that was his deeper truth.

The prophet Elisha never came out of the house to see Naaman’s impressive spectacle, because God’s Spirit had already revealed to him Naaman’s heart, a heart that needed healing as much as his body did.

So, the man of God told Naaman to take off his armor. To literally take off his armor and immerse himself in the muddy flow of a Jewish back-water. AND, to take off the armor of his status, and his wealth, and his conqueror’s attitude. To take off the armor of his expectations about the honor he was due, and the kind of healing he would accept.

If he wanted healing, if he wanted mercy, he needed to let go of the self-protective lie that his healing would be anything other than an underserved and gracious gift… a gift that he could never demand or earn… a gift that would heal his heart as much as it healed his body.

I love that it was the servants in Naaman’s story who taught him this lesson – the people who didn’t have any protective armor, any fiction of their own self-sufficiency and independence. They are the ones who convinced him his healing could follow a script he had not written out ahead of time. And perhaps the biggest miracle in the story is that he listened. He followed their advice, and the prophet’s instruction, and he washed in the dirty, unimportant river… and God healed him!

But that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is what Naaman did next: he returned to offer praise to God. Because it wasn’t just his body that was healed. It was his soul too! He had learned to take off his armor, and to turn his eyes to the source of his help. He’d been healed from his self-protective, self-consumed condition.

And that’s why I came back, as well. To offer praise to God who healed me, and to cast myself at Jesus’s feet to express my thanks. Because I knew that my healing isn’t just about my body, it’s also about my soul. It’s about drawing near, instead of staying at a distance. It’s about freedom from the self-protective posture that’s so used to fear and rejection that it can’t imagine anything else. It’s about not worrying about the social rules or identity barriers that tell me to hold back… because Jesus is my healer! I am free! How could I not return and praise, just like Naaman did?

Jesus didn’t ask me why I came back.

At first, he didn’t speak to me at all. Instead he talked about the other nine, and he just referenced me as “this foreigner.”

It was a moment when I could have put my armor back on. I could have pulled back and gotten defensive about being treated like “the other”. But I knew that Naaman’s pride had almost prevented his healing… And I also knew that I needed healing for more than just my body.

And that’s when Jesus turned and looked me in the eyes. And in that look of love I KNEW he didn’t see me as “this foreigner.” He had said that for the people around him – the people who needed to recognize that a foreigner, like me, could violate their expectations… could offer praise to God.

The only words that Jesus spoke to me were the only words I needed to hear from him:

“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

And I was well. Body and soul, I was well.

Thanks be to God.

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