2 Kings 5:1-15; Luke 17:11-19
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
According to Jewish wisdom, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” I feel my life experiences have confirmed this aphorism not so much because I believe God laughs derisively at us like a divine know-it-all, eager to upset our plans (although sometimes it might feel like that and even the Bible sometimes seems to suggest that – See Psalm 2:4). I believe this aphorism is true because I experience God laughing lovingly while taking great delight in surprising us.
Our readings this morning are about God’s surprises. In 2 Kings, we learn about a man whose frustrated plans prime him for an unexpected grace. This man’s name is Na’aman, which is fun to say because of the Hebrew guttural, which makes one sound kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Na’aman. If you can’t make that guttural sound, you can use the Anglicized version of his name, which is Naaman. So when Na’aman (or Namaan) learns of this prophet in Israel who can cure him of his leprosy, he plots his healing out to a tee. He expects the Israelite prophet to greet him with open arms, conjure the power of the Israelite god and then perform a shamanic healing ritual over his leprous skin in order to enact a dramatic and magnificent cure. However, the Israelite prophet Elisha does not even give him the courtesy of greeting him at the door. Instead, he sends a messenger to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan, a muddy river that pales in comparison to the beautiful rivers of Namaan’s home in Syria. Naaman is, of course, outraged not only because of Elisha’s peculiar instructions to basically wash in mud and his apparent lack of hospitality (which is a serious offense in Near Eastern culture); he is also outraged because things simply are not going according to his plan. He wants to be healed of his leprosy, but he also expects to be healed according to his schedule and his sense of custom and aesthetics. Thanks to the advice of his intrepid servants, he decides to let go of what he had planned and to follow the prophet’s instructions, no matter how bizarre and humiliating. As a result, the muddy waters of the Jordan transform his crusty, leprous flesh into skin as clean and fresh and soft as that of a young boy. He is so surprised by this transformation that he completely rejects his Syrian gods and proclaims, “There is no God in all the earth except in Israel!” So when almost nothing goes according to his plan, Naaman experiences the unexpected grace and healing of the God of surprises. And he learns the spiritual lesson that mythologist Joseph Campbell invites us all to learn when he says, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to be surprised by the one that is waiting for us. I imagine we can all relate to Naaman to a certain degree as we find ourselves sometimes wallowing in the mud of our frustrated plans. But it is by letting go of the life that we have planned that we can embrace the God who is waiting for us, right around the corner, eager to surprise us with grace and healing and unexpected adventure.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see Jesus also giving peculiar instructions to a rabble of lepers in order to prime them for God’s surprise. These lepers have apparently heard of Jesus who has been performing miraculous healings throughout the region and so they call out to him, hoping that he will somehow provide some healing, even from a distance. However, instead of healing them, Jesus says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now this is not what they expected to hear from Jesus. The priests were essentially health care consultants who could diagnose their condition according to the provisions of the law. However, this would often involve elaborate procedures that could require shaving, burning clothes, and undergoing quarantine. And if the leper was healed, he would then have to spend money to purchase birds, cedarwood, yarn, hyssop and unblemished lambs for the priest to sacrifice. And then the priest would take the blood of the sacrificed animals and smear it on the leper’s right ear lobe, right thumb and the big toe of his right foot, among other things. (If you think I’m making this up, read Leviticus 14. It’s all there and much more). So going to see the priest at this time was like going to see a doctor who would either tell you that you’re sick and then make you do all kinds of unpleasant things or who would tell you that you’re well and that you have to pay a lot of money. So if you think healthcare today is bad, be glad you’re not living in first century Palestine.
What made Jesus so unique was that he was essentially providing free healthcare for those who came to him. There were many healers at the time but they would charge an arm and a leg in order to heal your arm or leg. Jesus stood among the rest because he healed the sick at no charge which is why his injunction to the lepers to go see the priests is so peculiar and was probably very disappointing.
Moreover, we learn that one of these lepers was a Samaritan who would have likely been disparaged by the Jewish priests, who were generally prejudiced and racist against Samaritans. Also, the Samaritans did not even acknowledge the validity of the temple in Jerusalem. They had a temple of their own at Mount Gerizim. So the Samaritan’s hope-filled plan to receive some kind of healing from Jesus must have felt completely squashed by Jesus’s bizarre instruction to essentially go visit an ineffective and racist doctor who represents an institution that he rejects. The Samaritan leper has to let go of his plans and expectations in order to accept that which is waiting for him, even though it didn’t seem to make any sense. Joseph Campbell also says provocatively, “If the path before you is clear, you are probably on someone else’s.” It is often the adventures that are most unexpected and unplanned that prove to be the most transformative and healing. And it is often when our future seems most obscure and even dreadful that “the God of surprises,” in the words of Desmond Tutu, will play “his most extraordinary and incredible card.”
So as the leper proceeds down the unclear path before him, we can hear God’s loving laughter as the divine healing power sneaks up on him and throws a surprise party all over his skin, transforming it from dry and diseased to soft and clean, just like Naaman’s. The Samaritan shouts out in praise with a loud voice and rushes back to Jesus, who I imagine has been smiling mischievously this whole time. Jesus did not need the lepers to go see the priests. He wanted them to let go of their plans and expectations in order to be surprised by his healing grace. And the Samaritan is the only one who gets the joke. He falls down and worships Jesus, whom he now understands as more holy than any temple or priest (either in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim), whom he now understands as the walking embodiment of the God of healing and surprising grace. And he gives thanks. And the Greek word used here for the Samaritan giving thanks is euchariston, which is where we get the word “Eucharist,” our thanksgiving to the God who in Christ continues to surprise us with love and healing. And we get to imitate the grateful Samaritan as we worship and give thanks to Jesus here at this altar.
And I give thanks to the God who has surprised me by bringing me here with you and I look forward to enjoying many more of God’s surprises during our time together. We will make some plans, but we can hold them lightly and be willing to let them go in order to be surprised. We can find joy in the God who laughs at our plans not because God wants to frustrate us but because God’s laughter is like that of a dear friend at a surprise party, hiding behind furniture, giddy, waiting for just the right moment, to jump up and yell, “Surprise!”
Pope Francis asks us the appropriate question, “Are we open to God’s surprises?” Do we believe that ultimately grace and healing are waiting for us? Do we believe that grace always follows us and precedes us, as this morning’s Collect says? Are we ready and willing to be given to good works as we enjoy the loving and mischievous laughter of Christ, the one among us who embodies the God of surprises?
May it be so. Amen.