Salvation: Returning with Gratitude to Places, People, and Practices that Heal
A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Rev. Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, October 13, 2019 – Proper 23
In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God who heals us. Amen.
For obvious reasons and possibly because of my profile picture on social media, I receive lots advertisements for hair-restoration products. Products that promise to fully restore the glorious afro I once had the follicle potential to sport in my early twenties. Talk about scarcity and abundance! I love it when the prophet Elisha – not Elijah who had a full head of hair – but when Elisha, my fellow bald brother in Faith, makes it into the Revised Common Lectionary. Elisha inspires me to reject those shame-inducing hair-restoration adverts and embrace my baldness.
You may recall this passage of Holy Scripture in the Second Book of Kings:
Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When Elisha turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there Elisha went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria. (1)
I love Elisha. But setting Elisha and my rejection of society’s shamed-based, money-making, impossible-full-head-of-hair-standards-of-beauty aside; we turn to today’s stories of Elisha and Naaman and of Jesus and the Samaritan Leper.
The healing of Naaman and the healing of the Samaritan Leper made me realize how easily we forget the places, the people, and the practices that reveal God’s healing work in us. We get so caught up in being wounded and in wounding others that we forget to return to the places, the people, and the practices that heal us. I think we can all agree that we need healing. So, this Sermon will explore how out-of-way places, unlikely people, and surprising practices reveal God’s healing.
As we heard, Naaman, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. The young, captive servant girl says to Naaman’s wife, “If only [Naaman] were with the prophet who is in Samaria! [that’s my guy: Elisha!] [Elisha] would cure him of his leprosy.” (2 Kings 5:1-3). Now when we hear the word Samaria or Samaritan in Scripture, we must remember the historical-cultural hatred that existed between the Jewish people and the Samaritans. And it is Samaria, that hated place where Elisha lives, to which Naaman must go to be healed. And Naaman gets grumpy when Elisha tells him to go into the river Jordan to be healed. Naaman wants to go to the rivers in Damascus, and when he can’t get his way, Naaman turns and goes away in a rage. But his servants convince Naaman to go into the Jordan. We read, “So Naaman went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God [my guy: Elisha]; Naaman’s flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was made clean.” (2 Kings 5:14).
We sometimes have to go to out-of-the-way places; places on the margins of so called “respectability;” liminal, in-between places that make us uncomfortable; places where we have to let go of our ego, our self-importance, and our rage in order to humbly immerse ourselves, sometimes seven times, in Healing Truth.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in one of those liminal, in-between places – “On his way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11), where he encounters and heals ten lepers, one of whom is a Samaritan. As we heard, “Then one of [the lepers], when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” (Luke 17:15-16). Again we hear “Samaritan” we must remember the historical-cultural hostility and hatred between Jews like Jesus and Samaritans like the grateful Leper.
Let’s take a detour here, to explore how those who are most different to us, oftentimes show us God’s healing presence. For his role as Andrew Beckett, Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the 1993 film Philadelphia. The story of how a gay, white lawyer living with HIV/AIDS and a straight, black lawyer played by Denzel Washington heal one another and heal their colleagues, families, and community from the sickness of racism, homophobia, and serophobia (the fear of and aversion to those living with HIV/AIDS). My favorite scene in the film, unsurprisingly, involves Opera. (2) In a sublime speech, Tom Hanks’ character describes his favorite aria “La mamma morta” from the opera Andrea Chenier to Denzel Washington’s character who is not familiar with Opera.
For me, that scene is profoundly theological and beautifully describes the Christian Doctrine of God’s Incarnation. As the recording of the inimitable voice of Maria Callas is playing in the background, Tom Hanks’ character translates the meaning of the words and music being sung. As the aria moves into its climax, both men are in tears, as Tom Hanks’ sobs through his English translation of the Italian words Callas is singing:
It was during this sorrow that love came to me.
A voice filled with harmony. It said:
‘You have to live! I am life itself!
Heaven is in your eyes
You are not alone!
I will collect all your tears!
I will walk with you and support you!
Smile and hope! I am love!
Is everything around you blood and mud?
I am divine! I am oblivion!
I am the God that comes down to the Earth
From heaven, and makes Earth
Into Heaven! Ah!
I am love. I Am Love!
The people society has taught us to hate; the people society makes us fear; “those people” – Lepers and Samaritans, despised and rejected foreigners – when we see ourselves in “those people,” God teaches us what healing really means. Healing is not a medical cure for an ailment. Healing is being made spiritually whole again by God’s Love. Love that restores us to right relationship with God; Love that restores us to right relationship with ourselves; Love that restores us to right relationship with our neighbors especially those whom society has taught us to hate and fear. Those unlikely people reveal to God’s healing presence in each and every person.
Having explored God’s healing presence in out-of-the-way places and unlikely people; we now turn to healing practices. After God healed Naaman in the river Jordan, we read that Naaman returns to the man of God [my guy: Elisha]; and Naaman and all his company came back to Elisha to acknowledge with praise and thanksgiving the One, Holy, and Living God who healed Naaman. Then we read that Naaman says to Elisha, “please accept a gift from your servant.” (2 Kings 5:15).
This practice of returning with a gesture of gratitude to give praise and thanks to God is also witnessed in the healed Samaritan Leper in today’s Gospel. He turns back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice; more over the healed Samaritan prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. (Luke 17:16). This would have been surprising in Jesus’ day; as surprising perhaps as praising God with loud voices and prostrating ourselves before the real presence of Christ at St. John’s this morning. Think about how surprising this practice really is [as we sing today’s fabulous hymns with loud voices and] as we receive Holy Communion this morning.
Brother David Steindl-Rast teaches that Surprise is the beginning of gratefulness. He writes,
Our heart longs for the surprise that a gift is truly a free gift. But our proud intellect balks at surprise, wants to explain it, wants to explain it away.” He continues, “When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver… Gift giving is a celebration of the bond that unites giver and receiver. That bond is gratefulness… interdependence joins us with others through the bond of a joyful give-and-take, a bond of belonging. (3)
Naaman and the Samaritan Leper return to give praise and thanks to God whose freely given gift of healing made them well. This practice of gratitude requires trust; this practice of turning back to give humble thanks requires a wholehearted vulnerability that is rare and surprising. Steindl-Rast also writes,
Thanksgiving is a gesture of the whole heart, or it is nothing… the child in us steps out, self-forgetful, spontaneous, with a gesture of gratefulness… Never are we more vulnerable than in those moments when we respond from the heart. (4)
I leave you with some questions to reflect upon. Is there an out-of-the-way place you go to that heals you? Where is that place? Is there an unlikely person or unlikely people who help you recognize God restoring you to your whole, true self? Who is that person? Who are those people? Is there a spiritual practice that makes you turn back and let the child in you step out, self-forgetful, spontaneous, with a gesture of wholehearted gratefulness? What is that spiritual practice? Return to healing places, people, and practices with gratitude; then, as Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19). Amen.
- 2 Kings 2:23-25.
- David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 10, 13, 15, 17.
- David Steindl-Rast, 19.