2 Kings 5
Namaan has it all. He has incredible power, with servants and minions waiting on his every command. He has military might, with soldiers and armies at his beck and call. He has amazing wealth at his disposal, silver and gold and wardrobes full of expensive garments ready to buy anything he could need or want. Namaan has it all.
And Namaan has leprosy.
For all of the power of a commander of a mighty military force of the nation of Aram possesses, Namaan could not heal himself of this dreaded skin disease. It made him physically uncomfortable, socially unacceptable, and emotional devastated. For someone with the power and privilege of Namaan, this simply does not compute. His assumption is that anything, including healing and healers, can be bought. He hears a rumor that there is a man in Israel who can heal him, so he makes a withdrawal from the bank and heads south. But everything that the prophet Elisha does, simply does not compute for Namaan. He doesn’t want money for his services. He doesn’t stand in awe of the mighty military commander. He doesn’t make a show of the healing, waving his hands and proclaiming incantations. In fact, he doesn’t even show up! When Namaan and his entourage arrive, Elisha doesn’t even bother to come to the door. He sends a messenger—Namaan is used to sending messengers, not having messengers sent to him. He sends a messenger to the mighty commander and tells him to go dip in the Jordan River seven times.
At this point, Namaan has just about had it. “The Jordan? That cow-pattie-filled, half-dry, sad little trickle of a crick? If I wanted to harness the power of a River, I wouldn’t have wasted my time with the Jordan River. I could have harnessed the power of the mighty Abana and Pharpar Rivers, which have been harnessed from their wildness to create a lush garden in the desert of Damascus! Why did I waste my time coming down here to crouch in this mudhole seven times?”
That’s when the harnesser of power realized that he was dealing with a power which could not be harnessed.
And it took the meekest around him to understand this. Throughout the passage, there are these unnamed characters which drive the narrative and really become the heroes of the story. There is this Jewish servant girl, really a slave taken in battle from the Israelite people, who suggests that Namaan check out Elisha in the first place. And then there are Namaan’s servants, who accompany him to Elisha’s residence. When Namaan storms away, hot headed and arrogant, they talk some sense into him. “Really, sir, what could it hurt? If he asked you to do something ridiculous and hard, like stand on one foot on a rock in the Sea of Galilee, while reciting the Hebrew alphabet backwards, you would have done it, right? Why not do this relatively simple thing, then? Is it such a price to pay for a little bruised pride, in case it doesn’t work?”
It shows this stark contrast, doesn’t it? Namaan, who in real life is used to getting his own way, and using the people and resources (“the Mighty Abana and Pharpar!”) around him to get what he wants, who in the story looks a bit like a buffoon. And in contrast, there are these servants, who have nothing in comparison, no power, no riches, no military might, but they have wisdom. Namaan is used to looking down, and telling people where to go and what to do, and thus he has no room for a plan different than his own. The servants, however, are used to looking up. And thus, they are the only ones who can see the potential power of God to heal. And they become the heroes of the story, leading Namaan into the waters of the Jordan River against his better judgment.
Today we celebrate River Sunday. It is more than just an excuse for me to climb into a kayak and get on the river…or in this case Rock Creek. Throughout Scriptures, rivers and creeks help to tell the story of God’s power and presence in the world. A couple of weeks ago, we read about the rivers of Eden, there to bring nourishment to the trees of paradise. Revelation harkens back to that imagery when it speaks of the New Heaven and the New Earth…the river will flow once again next to the Tree of Life. Rivers are symbols of community, and sustenance, of connection. There is a reason why a hundred and sixty years ago, people started to gather at the banks of this funny squiggle in the Kansas River. The River was what make it possible for the first Lawrencians to make a go of it here in Kansas Territory. Before that, the people of the Kiikaapoi, the Osage, the Kaw, the Oceti Sakowin tribes gathered along this River. Because they knew that rivers bring life.
And yet, there are those, modern-day Namaans, who see rivers, and trees, and soil, and mountains as Namaan did. Things to be harnessed. Controlled. Used. The mind-set of Namaan is still on display today: Namaan, who believed that anything he wanted could be bought with enough money, who thought that rivers and the land around them were meant to be status symbols to be harnessed, whose arrogance and hubris made him think that he was in charge.
Maybe on this River Sunday I am getting into waters where I should not tread, but here I go anyway. I don’t have a degree in political science, or in political history. But I do have eyes to see. And my eyes perceive that there has been a change in my lifetime. When I was a child, being conservative meant something very different. It was about a yearning to conserve life. These were people who were concerned with the unintended consequences of abortion. They were concerned for families, especially working families and working poor, and would have thought it was morally diseased to not care for their neighbors. And they were concerned for Creation that God had made. I remember growing up reading Field and Stream magazine with my Granddaddy, written by those concerned with conserving life in all its forms, including the rocks and the trees, the fields and the streams. In fact, conservatives began what used to be called the conservationist movement: the desire to conserve God’s creation for all to enjoy. Republican Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first conservationists, and had an amazing impact on the National Park System. Perhaps you have heard of ANWR, the national wildlife refuge in Alaska now threatened by oil corporations? It was protected first under Republican president and Kansan Dwight Eisenhower. Republican Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. Conservationists were conservatives and conservatives were conservationists.
But then, in the 80s and 90s, something started to change. Secular economists started to have more influence over conservative politics. No longer was it as important to conserve life in all its forms, as it was important to conserve corporations. You see, these secular economic conservatives understood that conserving fields and streams costs money. It interferes with the bottom line. And this new brand of economic conservatism has become the tail that wags the dog. So many Americans wonder what happened to the values that they grew up with. So many Christians wonder when it became important to start blaming their neighbors for their poverty, instead of helping them. So many conservationists wonder why it is now considered moral failure to care for God’s creation. They wonder “when exactly did we put Namaan in charge?”
Because the disease that we see around us is directly tied to the arrogance that views fields and streams as playthings to be used. Richard Louv decries the fact that Americans suffer from what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.” We have so long learned to either avoid nature or think that we can control it—or both—that it is literally changing our brains. We are less creative, less caring, less innovative, and less trusting, because we have learned to look down on nature and look down on each other. We are suffering from a leprosy of greed and arrogance, and it is killing our bodies, our communities, and the Creation we were called to steward.
And yet, there are voices who whisper. Voices who are not tied to power or prestige or military might of modern-day Namaans, but nameless and powerless voices who know what it means to look up. Kansas farmers, crying out against injustice of irrigation practices that are draining the Ogallala Aquifer that makes us the Breadbasket of the country. Kentucky school teachers, crying out against the injustice of the number of children that they see coming to school sick from chemicals caused by the destructive practices of the coal companies where their parents work. Lifetime residents of New Orleans, watching hurricane after hurricane crash into their homes and over storm walls, because the wetlands which used to dissipate such storms, were drained by those who wanted to sell ocean-view property. Residents of Punjab, India, who fifty years ago saw European-style farming techniques come in and change the way that they had farmed for generations…who see their soil overworked and simply unable to produce. Christians in Brazil who speak out against the environmental political decisions of those in power, intentionally encouraging wildfires and destroying the rainforest. Corporations who don’t just care about the bottom line: “ESG corporations” that care about environmental, social, and governance priorities.
There are voices of wisdom who whisper that this leprosy of greed and arrogance is not the end of the story. They whisper that the God of the fields and the streams still has power to change our hearts and our bodies and our world. They whisper that returning to the streams and the rivers to dip and splash and play and to fall in love again might be exactly what we need to understand again what it means to conserve and protect life in all its forms. They whisper what they have learned from looking up, that if humble ourselves and listen to the call of the prophets of God, we might again find healing. Even for the Namaans among us.
Conservatives. Progressives. Moderates. ”Fed-up-ers.” All followers of the God of Creation, embodied in the co-Creator Christ himself, let us hear the wise whisperers among us once again. Their names might not garner headlines, but they might just lead us back into the waters of healing and hope once again. Christian organizations doing this worshipful work: Blessed Earth, Evangelical Environmental Network, Interfaith Power and Light, Earth Ministry, Christians for the Mountains, A Rocha, Restoring Eden, even our own American Baptist Churches-USA. And a hundred more just like them. They are whispering. They are shouting! Will we listen?
The God of Elisha and the God of the River Jordan healed Namaan’s body and his heart. When he left Elisha, he still couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t take a dime. Elisha just smiled…”because I didn’t do it!” But before he left, Namaan had one more request. He asked Elisha if he could take with him two mule-loads of dirt. The earth of Israel. The dust of the home of the one who showed him true healing. Namaan wanted to take home these two loads of dirt so that he could set up an altar, a place of worship of Yahweh, the Creator who had created healing in him. He could have worshipped Yahwah on the dust of Aram, of course, but for him, the fields and the streams were a reminder, a catalyst, a tool to help him relive his healing. To remember his Creator in the days of his youth, and his old age.
Today, may we have the same change of heart of Namaan. May the beauty of the fields and streams, the rocks and the trees, and even the uncontrollable nature of the wilderness teach us once again to look up. May we load up piles of dirt and leaves and sunshine and breeze and birds and trees, and make an altar of gratitude and worship to the one true God! May the ever-healing and ever-creating Creator teach us again the power that streams from the Garden of Eden to the New Heaven and Earth still has the power to change hearts and minds and bodies, and the world around us. May this Season of Creation continue in our hearts and in our minds and our actions, until that day when we rest by that beautiful shore and know that God walks in the cool of evening by our side.