Delivered at Ames UCC on November 4, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.
I wish this story was true. I wish that with seven sincere baths in a sacred river, terrible ailments could be healed. I wish that I could walk with each of you who are living with cancer and depression and arthritis and heart failure to a place that keeps its own rules of germs and degeneration and neurology.
I wish that the dead, the loved ones that we will name here in worship and then see in photos in our parlor after worship, could have received such treatment so that they would be with us, bodily, right now.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the tears of joy and relief? As much water as would flow from of our eyes as in the river.
And I wish that Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, could have been taken from the blood-drenched floors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, not to a mortuary but to a life-filled tree fed by the river Jordan. I wish that that there the gunman’s bullets would have been washed away, their sinews reknit, and their lives restored.
I wish that illness could be no more and sorrow a curious aberration from the past.
But those are not wishes destined for fulfillment.
All of our bodies will fail of their own accord if we are not first killed by an accident or another person. There is no river or stream or spring with magical properties that can make them do otherwise.
And it is an abuse of God’s name, and each others’ souls, to say that sufficient faith will bring bodily healing. God is not so egotistical or fickle as to respond to an abracadabra of prayers.
Disease and damage and death are part of creation and creation is part of God, so even the worst of pains and poisonous acts are part of God, too.
I believe the ancients knew this. I believe that the communities that authored our scripture, understood that God’s relationship with us is not capricious or mechanistic.
Yes, they have given us many stories that describe a quid pro quo of giving obedience and receiving blessing, but I think they had just as much capacity for subtlety and metaphor as us. They were not ignorant of inevitable bodily outcomes, they just were just more willing to live into mystery, into the imaginal realm, than we are. So even though some of us may have been taught that stories like this reflect “an age when miracles still happened,” it does not.
This story of Namaan and Elisha, and those like it, is about the miracle of holy presence within the wholly ordinary. Let’s look at the story.
Elisha is a disciple of Elijah.
Elijah was a powerful and, toward the end of his career, a horribly bloodthirsty prophet. You may remember him from his retreat to the desert where he was fed by ravens. Later he helped a starving widow and her son with jars of flour and oil that perpetually refilled. He even brought that son back to life.
Elisha proves to be a powerful prophet in his own right.
For example, immediately before today’s story, Elisha also helps a widow secure enough food for her family. He invites her to borrow her neighbor’s empty oil jars and then pour what little oil she has left into each one. She finds that her meager supply can fill all the jars in the neighborhood.
Later, the child of another woman dies. When Elisha arrives, he presses his mouth to that of the boy, his eyes to those of the boy, his hands to those of the boy, an offering of warmth and humanity, which brings the child back to life.
Elisha even feeds a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread.
Then today he relieves Naaman of a skin ailment by directing him to bathe in the river Jordan.
Notice how these miracles occur: through common earthenware, gentle and well-intentioned human touch, bread, and river water. No thunder, or potions, or shazam.
Notice what these miracles achieve: some relief from hunger, some relief from grief, some relief from discomfort. None of these miracles grant power or prestige. None of them grant a permanent lease on life.
Our miracle stories are not about extra faith granting the extra ordinary. In the commonplaceness of their means, and the impossibility of their ends, these miracles do not suggest a 1-2-3 formula for healing.
Our faith ancestors knew how poverty, illness, and grief distract and consume, so they used these radical reversals to startle and inspire us to recognize the simple, ubiquitous, and reassuring presence of God.