As I celebrated Independence Day with friends and their family on Lake Travis, I was reminded how much I enjoy the privilege of the freedoms afforded me living in this country as a white male of relative economic wealth. I celebrated and appreciated those freedoms, even as I was acutely aware of all the people around the world, across the state, and within my own community who don’t have those same freedoms and privileges. And because I was also thinking in the back of my mind about my sermon for July 7 and the scripture reading from 2 Kings 5, I kept thinking, “Yes, I appreciate these freedoms and all that I have, AND yet at the same time, I grieve for those who long for freedom and still are waiting for it!” After the hot dogs and sunshine of Independence Day, I returned to the task of sermon writing and asked myself, “What does this story of Naaman being cured from his skin disease have to say to us about freedom and power and allegiance and liberty?”
What I realized is that this story from the ancient history of Israel almost 3,000 years ago mentions rival political leaders, military invasions, human trafficking of a child forced into slavery, the story of a woman who is believed by her husband, conflicts between religious leaders and political leaders, and access to health care. In short, it has every modern #Hashtag flying about in our public conversation these days, and yet it has nothing to do with America or Iran or Russia or Central America, or Democrats or Republicans, or the Supreme Court or Congress. It has everything to do with human beings and power and authority and fear and conflict and compassion and God and openness and grace and healing and humility. Our human sin and brokenness, it seems, transcends modern American political parties and transists across the ages.
On the surface, this story seems like another one of many stories of miraculous healing which leads to a confession of faith by the one who is healed. Naaman, the Aramean military commander, has a disease. He hears about the power of Elisha to heal people. He asks the Aramean King to give him a letter of introduction to the King of Samaria, and thus he gains access to Elisha the prophet. Elisha gives Naaman instructions, which he follows, and he is cured of his disease. As a result, Naaman confesses that the God of Israel is the one true God. It seems like a familiar biblical formula, one we know is repeated many times in both Old and New Testaments. But there is so much more to this story than a prophet healing a man of his leprosy. It is also a story about power – who has it and who doesn’t, and who God sides with in the dynamic of unequal power differentials.
Who has power in this story? Is it the King of Aram? Is it Naaman the military leader? Is it Elisha the prophet? Are these the characters in this story we should focus our attention on and learn from? Who doesn’t have power? The slave girl in Naaman’s household? Naaman’s wife? The defeated King of Israel? What can we learn from the ways in which they act in this story?
So, as we mark our national Independence Day holiday, the question remains: “What does this story have to say to us about freedom and power and allegiance and liberty?” I wonder: can we be faithful followers of God AND patriotic citizens of our nation? Can Naaman be loyal both to his King (an Aramean), AND be a worshipper of the God of Israel? Can he have divided allegiances?
The answer for Naaman, and for us is the same: “Yes, and….” Of course we can love God and country! It is not an either/or, it is a yes/and. And yet still, we have to ask ourselves, in every time, at every moment, regardless of who sits in the halls of government: what does it mean that God calls us to live and act and behave towards others in a certain way AND our nation asks us to accept and follow rules and patterns and behaviors that sometimes seem to contradict our faith in God? How do we reconcile our various allegiances to the principles of justice our faith teaches and the principles of justice our levels of government set forth? Is our primary allegiance to God or to country?
Naaman is freed from his illness, but not everyone receives the salvation that Naaman received. What about the slave girl? What happened to her? Was she granted freedom from slavery because she led Naaman to find freedom from his illness? The narrative doesn’t ever tell us what happened to her. When we tell our national narrative of liberty and justice for all, how many other narratives of those left out of the reach of that liberty and justice do we never hear?
I don’t have answers, even as I celebrate and enjoy the privilege of freedoms won for me by others. But I do know I have to keep asking the questions and listening to the stories of those who long for freedom and reading the stories of those to whom God has extended the freedom of grace and healing.