by Michael Usey2 Kings 5.1-16, The Voice
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this week: Still deep in Pride month, this week we remembered with sadness the Mother Emanuel massacre six years ago, as well as Mildred Cottrell’s passing a year ago. Today is Father’s Day, as well as a blazing hot summer solstice, and the first national holiday of Juneteenth. So this is a week populated with keen significance.
But the last item I mentioned is perhaps the weightiest. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Frederick Douglass asked in 1852. Not much, was his conclusion. White Americans celebrated their independence from an oppressive regime. But enslaved Black people remained unfree, as Christine Emba noted in the Washington Post. Frederick Douglass’s July 4th speech remains emblematic of the racial inequality that persists in the US. “The blessings in which you rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” he said. “All your religious parades and solemnity are mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy.” Our country celebrates its achievements now, as it did then, with outsize self-regard — even when those achievements are only fully realized for some citizens.
And so, for more than 150 years, Black people have celebrated their own Independence Day: June 19, or Juneteenth. It marks the anniversary of the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation, and chattel slavery’s official end, finally reached enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Tex. Talk about traveling stories: this was months after the Confederate Army had surrendered to the Union, ending the Civil War; six months after Congress passed the 13th Amendment; and more than two full years after Abraham Lincoln had first issued the emancipation proclamation. An oppressive regime hoped to delay liberation — but it could not stop progress.
Black Americans, starting in Texas in 1965 and spreading across the US, have celebrated on that day ever since. But it was only last summer when the holiday gained broader national and cross-racial attention, as part of the belated wave of recognition for Black stories during and after the protests of George Floyd’s murder. Major brands — including Twitter, Nike and the NFL — made Juneteenth an official holiday within their corporations. In 1985, when I served 7th & James BC in Waco we gave all our staff of color Juneteenth off. Politicians honored the day in speeches. And this week, a bill passed unanimously in the Senate to make Juneteenth the 11th official federal holiday.
A cynic would say that symbolic change is not the same as substantive improvement (and they would be right).. Anti-racist reading lists haven’t stopped Black Americans from being killed by the police. Corporate diversity, equity and inclusion workshops haven’t closed the racial wealth gap. The Senate may have voted in favor of recognizing Juneteenth, but the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is still withering away waiting for the Senate to act. The For the People Act and its voting rights protections are all but dead. And some of the same senators who voted in favor of a new Black holiday are sponsoring legislation that would ban the teaching of our country’s racist history. There is no easy cure for systemic racism.
A new holiday won’t fix the material injustices that continue to fall heavily on Black America: poverty, state violence, incarceration, environmental hazards, poor access to health care, a legacy of financial discrimination and limitations on political power. In fact, symbolic wins more often serve to let their champions off the hook. “Your national greatness, swelling vanity; your shouts of liberty and equality, are hollow mockery,” Douglass said.
But symbols accomplish something, too. Elevating Emancipation Day to the stature of July 4th may not change everything. But it does mean something. History is written by its victors, after all. To have Black people’s story represented means that they are finally victors too. It means that Black memory is respected. It means that as we come to terms with the truth of our national past, the more difficult conversations — about reconciliation, about reparation, about the racism that still exists — are given space to begin.
The acknowledgment of race in America has always been less than enough. Progress is a two-step Texas style, moving forward, then back. Juneteenth itself reflects this. It’s a holiday of progress mixed with disappointment. Black Americans were told of their freedom, yes — but years delayed. It’s a celebration of the end of something that never should have existed to begin with. And yet, it is celebrated anyway.
A new holiday is inadequate. But as Douglass concluded in his contemplation on the Fourth, we can do more than sit in resignation. “Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation,” he said, “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work.” He felt some optimism by appealing to the stated ideal. Juneteenth can be a day of rest and a renewal of the fight. We can give what is owed — and we can, always, push for more.
In many ways, this new holiday is the perfect intro to this morning’s story. The text begins with a description of Naaman: He is a great man, commander of his nation’s army, a man of mighty valor and the king’s right-hand man. Think our General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But we forget that Naaman did not represent Israel but Israel’s enemy, Syria. Moreover, the text says: “By him, Yahweh the Lord had given victory.” Given victory to Syria! Syria, Israel’s enemy. Naaman is the commander of the enemy’s army. What if the text said today: Yahweh has given victory to Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, or to Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran?
Why is the story focusing on Israel’s enemy? Israel had become corrupt under King Ahab. Perhaps the message is that Naaman had a role in Aram’s victory over Israel’s corrupt King Ahab recorded back in 1 Kings: God using an enemy to chastise an unfaithful people and bring folks back to their spiritual senses. But it’s still startling. God uses our enemies, nations, even ones with no faith in God, to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. Just maybe God uses our personal enemies to make us better people. Does that thought disturb you, the way it does me? God is the God of all nations, not just our nation, of all history, not just my little corner of history. Naaman was a Syrian military hero, the king’s right-hand man.
But there is a complication: He has leprosy. Generals with leprosy in the ancient world did not long remain generals. Leprosy was considered bad luck, even a curse of the gods, and could spread! Who wants to be led in battle by one cursed by the gods? For a while he could keep it hidden. Everywhere he went he showed up in full military dress, including white gloves and a hat pulled down as low as it would go. His wife began having fewer dinner parties.
Enter now a surprise twist: an enslaved young girl from Israel. She had been captured in one of Naaman’s raids across the border and brought to serve in Naaman’s house. She knew about the leprosy. If you had been an enslaved girl in Naaman’s house, taken from your homeland, how would you have responded to the news that he had leprosy? Gotten on your knees and thanked God for justice? Would you have secretly gloated? Called it the judgment of God? James Blay preached an excellent sermon centering on this girl a couple of years ago. To the contrary, she saw it as an opportunity for God’s mercy! Where had she learned such compassion? Had her parents, her religion taught her that? Had she been to Vacation Bible School? Learned the song: “God’s love is not exclusive. God is there for everyone.”
This week I read about the Southern Baptist Convention (College Park is NOT SBC, but we were born in that denomination), as the SBC self-destructed, tearing themselves apart. God forgive me, but my very first deep down reaction was schadenfreude (a secret glee over another’s misfortune). Some dark part of me whispered, yes. But this enslaved Hebrew girl in this text knew more about God’s love than I.
The enslaved girl said to Naaman’s wife: “I wish my master could go to the prophet who is in Samaria. He could heal him.” Sometimes one person can make a difference, even a young person — like this enslaved girl. Naaman’s wife told her husband, who took it as the last sliver of hope he had. Naaman told the king, who was thrilled and sent Naaman to the king of Israel with a royal letter and a camel’s load of silver, gold and fine clothing.
When Ahab the king of Israel read the letter, he broke out into a cold sweat. The letter said, “When this letter reaches you, know that I’ve sent my servant Naaman to you, that you may heal him of his disease.” The king of Israel took it as a scary political threat, a ploy: The king of Syria is setting me up. If I fail, he will use it as a pretext for war. How often do we take things politically — interpreting all actions as political acts, as power plays. Everything must have an ulterior motive, some political motivation. But here he was completely wrong.
The king missed the real issue: A man’s need of healing and an opportunity for the mercy of God. He was too busy consulting his political advisors. Elisha, the prophet, however, heard of Naaman’s leprosy and sent a message to the king: “Why are you in such a tizzy? Send Naaman to me. I’ll show him there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman traveled with his horse and chariot to the entrance of Elisha’s house. (“Are we there yet?”) Elisha heard him pull up, but did not bother to go out to greet him. Instead he just sent out his servant with this instruction: Go, wash seven times in the Jordan River, and you will be healed. Elisha’s utter disregard of the social status of people who sought his help is surprising; he was not a political opportunist.
Imagine being a famous person with a serious illness who goes to the Mayo Clinic to visit a renowned physician, the best in treating your disease. You get there. The doctor is nowhere to be seen. A janitor appears with a slip of paper that says: Go to the fountain in the downtown park. Dip seven times in it, and you will be healed. Naaman flew into a rage and wheeled to leave. He was not used to being dissed. The general had in his mind how it was all to happen: The proper protocol for a healing. He imagined making the trip, the prophet coming out, bowing in respect, waving his arms, saying the holy words and healing him. Then he would pay the prophet the silver, gold and fine garments and leave.
Naaman was a sick man. But like us all he wanted to diagnose his own illness, prescribe his own medicine and plan his own cure. We all prefer to self-medicate. We can sympathize. It’s bad enough to be sick, to be humiliated by our illness and our powerlessness over it. At least we ought to be able to choose how we want to get well. Naaman had it all worked out: His part, the prophet’s part, God’s part. But got to Elisha’s house. Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him but sends a servant with a weird ridiculous message: Go wash seven times in the Jordan.
Naaman was livid. At least he could come out to see me; and as far as dunking seven times in the Jordan, that Jewish sewer, I’d just as soon swim in a septic tank. Damascus has beautiful clean rivers. I could have stayed home and washed there. Dip seven times in the Jordan? No way! And he wheeled to leave.
In his human pride he resists the word of God as command. Sometimes the word of God comes as comfort, sometimes as forgiveness, sometimes as the best news you’ve ever heard. But sometimes it comes as a command: Go, dip. And our healing, our wholeness depends on what we do. The command violates Naaman’s sense of dignity — dipping in the Jordan — and confounds his rationality: What’s the connection between those muddy waters and my being cleansed of leprosy?
So he wheels to leave. Enter now his servants. If the first hero of the story was the enslaved Hebrew girl, these other servants are the next heroes. God uses the lowly. They speak right to the point: Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. Now why can’t you just wash yourself as the prophet said and be cured? Smart servants – and extremely brave to speak the truth to their master, who has power over them and is not in a very good mood. They knew him well — know us well. We’ll do something big and glorious, something heroic to match our estimate of ourselves, but we’ll not do the little thing that can make a difference. Naaman would have done some great heroic thing to be healed, but dipping in the Jordan, a dirty brackish river? Too little, too lowly. And it made no sense.
But the servants knew the truth and knew their master and were brave to speak. Naaman saw the truth in their words. So following the word of the prophet, he went down to the Jordan and dipped seven times. And when he came up the seventh time he saw his flesh restored like the flesh of a young boy. An amazing miracle that he almost missed out–one of the most famous stories in the Hebrew scriptures. He was clean! Naaman returned with great thanksgiving and said to Elisha: “Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Then he offered the gifts he had brought as an expression of thanks.
A second minor miracle: Elisha looked at the silver and gold and lavish clothes and said, “I will accept nothing.” Naaman urged him to accept. Elisha again refused. This second miracle of the story is a minister refusing money. Elisha would never have made it as a televangelist. Such behavior would get him kicked out of the Professional Televangelists Association. Elisha finally blessed Naaman and said, Go in peace. Some authentic religious leaders are unmotivated by money and fame.
Sometimes healing comes as a command. We hear the word and do it. Often we don’t hear and do it until we have to, but finally we are sick enough of our lives and ready to be healed and we do it. Go to AA, find an NA meeting! You must change your life! Your behavior is harming yourself and those you love. If you do not change, you will die.
One of my heroes is Rabbi Abraham Heschel of Jewish Theological Seminary. He was a close friend to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and the two often held programs together. Once Niebuhr asked him why he still obeyed the Jewish dietary laws. Heschel replied: My friend, I will give you a strange answer. I obey the Jewish dietary laws because I do not understand them. Here was this brilliant Jewish theologian saying that sometimes he obeyed, not because he understood, but because he didn’t. I think this spiritual posture cuts across the grain of our society and of our liberal Baptist stance. We tend to obey only that which we understand.
But if that is the case, are we worshiping God, or are we worshiping our own understanding — which is not always reliable and is prone to follow other more powerful interests and urges? I do not think the command of God will violate our rationality, but it may well transcend it. Sometimes we are called, says Heschel, not to a leap of thought but to a leap of action: We do more than we understand in order to understand what we do. Sometimes healing comes as a command. So Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom, forgiving sins, healing the sick, and offering these clear commands. We covered these in a series not long ago, but we tend to forget Jesus’ commands of us:
o Consider the lilies
o Love your enemy
o Sell and give to the poor
o Don’t judge
o Forgive as you are forgiven
o Go and sin no more
o Don’t be anxious
o Enter by the narrow gate
o Seek first the kingdom
o Come to me
o Go and do likewise
o Stretch out your hand
o Rise, walk
o and the last so reminisce of this story, Go and wash.
It’s a complete wonder to me that every Christian doesn’t have these commands of Christ memorized. They are peculiar and take some interpretation. Jesus means freedom, I know, and these are the very things our Christ told us to be about.
In Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth he almost got lynched by his hometown congregation. Part of the reason was when he referred to this upsetting story. He said, There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. Was this because Naaman was able to see that sometimes healing comes as command? There is no famine of God’s word in our land — only a famine of our hearing and doing. Think about it this way. Juneteenth comes to us as a new command: stop what you’re doing, learn of our national past, remember, repent, and do better. Don’t let this holiday become performative virtue signaling.
On this first Juneteenth national holiday weekend, praise be to the God of Israel, Syria and Gaza, the United States, and Iran and North Korea. Praise be young girls who have learned the mercy of God and act it out. Praise be for honest prophets and brave servants, all—and a foreign general who was willing to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Praise be.