Naaman's Cure

Sunday 12th February 2006
Year B, The Third Sunday before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
2 Kings 5:1-14
Mark 1:40-45

How often have we heard a teenager say: "Oh, I just can't be bothered!"; and, before we come on all superior and pleased with ourselves, how often have we said it ourselves? But it's difficult to imagine somebody saying that if they were really ill and offered a cure.

So here we are at the God'll Fix It Healing Centre and there's this holy man, a bit tiresome really, always talking about God as if he was just around the corner or in the board room upstairs; and this man is saying that if you go through a week-long washing ritual and ask for God's help, you will be cured; and you say: "no. I can't be bothered, why can't you just cure me, here, right now. I'm an important man and I don't see why I should go through all that rigmarole; and, anyway, I don't think I can stand that smelly little river of yours; we've got a much better one where I live."

Then there is this other man who rushes up to the God'll Fix It Healing Centre and all he says is; I know I don't have to do anything; I know that if you want me to get better it will happen; just like that. and so it does.

So the question is, what's the difference? What's the difference between Naaman in our Old Testament reading, who didn't want to follow the instructions of Elisha, and the man with leprosy who asked Jesus to cure him? The simple difference, of course, is that Naaman came with a sense of superiority. He didn't have much time for these wild, unsophisticated Israelites but, as one of their servant girls had made an intriguing suggestion, he thought he might as well follow it up; but only on his terms.

In a way it's not fair to preach this part of the sermon to you because you're here. The lesson in Naaman's story is that in order to give God His proper due, the thing you absolutely have to do is go through all that stuff: humility, prayer, worship, faith. This part of the sermon is really for those who think that being a Christian is to write the word on their hospital admission form but hope the Chaplain is too busy to see them.

You could almost say the same about the message for us in the incident of the leper who came to see Jesus. You hear so many sermons that you can see it coming a mile off; yes, of course, the man was cured because he had absolute faith. What makes Naaman and the Gospel leper different is their approach to God's offer of a cure.

At one level, that could be the end of the Sermon; sigh of relief, on with the Creed. No chance!

The problem with the position that we have now reached in considering these two stories is that too many of us think that we're like the New Testament leper and we feel a warm sense of superiority over Naaman.

Let us, then, ask the Naaman question. As I said, we are all here in church; but how seriously do we take what we are doing? How often do we consider the liturgies that provide us with the framework for worshipping God? How seriously do we take what is actually going on rather than getting worked up about the choice of hymns or some minor detail of the ritual? How intense is our relationship with what is going on and how does that intensify our relationship with God?

More central, however, is the question raised by the leper in Mark's Gospel. My starting point for thinking about faith is that terribly sad story about Orpheus and Euridice where Orpheus could have his beloved restored from the underworld if he did exactly what was required; he was told that on no account must he turn round as he led her away. It's not entirely clear from the myth whether he turned round because he could not resist looking at his beloved or whether it was to check that she was still there; either way, faith requires self denial and obedience; (incidentally, the Orpheus and Euridice story is much more touching than the one about Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt.)

I want to put the words self denial and obedience to one side for a moment and say a few words about what we generally understand when we talk about faith. Normally when we use the word we tend to think about the Creed, a body of doctrine. So people will say to me: "Do you really believe in the virgin birth?" or " ... the empty tomb?: To which my reply is invariably "Yes I do but in a way that I can't communicate to you; only God can do that". At which point I am frequently accused, particularly by rationalists, of a cop-out. that is because such questioners assume, without thinking, that faith is something that I generate from within myself in a very similar way to that in which I generate a degree of expertise with geometry; if I work hard enough at it, I will get to the QED stage.

But, of course, it isn't like that at all. Faith is a gift from God and because our communication with God is always going to be faulty - that's in the nature of our being human and God being God - there are times when we are bound to wonder about the meaning of that body of doctrine, at which point we may simply have to live as if we believed in it whether or not we do at the time.

But the important point is not how we view this bundle of approximate, provisional doctrine, the best formulations we have managed up until now, what matters is what we do. What matters - and here are those unpopular words again - is the extent to which we obey the will of God insofar as we can discern it; and what also matters is what degree of personal sacrifice we are prepared to make in order to stay true in obedience to God's will.

Almost finally, then, the question is this, a question which is posed in different ways again and again in Mark's Gospel which we will be reading in this church year; what are we to do when we are faced with the absolute, radical question of whether we are prepared to do what God wants, always supposing, of course, that we know? Are we going to ignore it; shelve it; fudge it; or are we going to throw ourselves wholeheartedly, naively, as children, as children of God, into obedience? Are we going to be worthy of God's healing as the leper was in Mark?

But, finally, the real message of today for us is that, in spite of his posturing reluctance, Naaman was cured; and here we are, not clear and simple in our faith like the leper who knelt before Jesus; here we are, cleansing ourselves again and again, like Naaman; day, after day, after day, after day.