A Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who claims us as his own. Amen.
In the German town of Speyer, there is a beautiful old cathedral.
And by old, I mean old.
It was built in the early eleventh century. When it was constructed, the Catholic and Orthodox churches were still united and the Normans had not yet invaded England. The cathedral is extraordinary: it is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is home to relics of beloved saints, to tombs of Holy Roman Emperors, and, out in the plaza in front of the church, there’s a giant wine goblet that is filled so that the town may celebrate every time a new bishop is seated. (We didn’t have one last weekend, sad to say. Perhaps we should have brought that tradition back.)
But more interesting than that is the baptismal font, which is large enough for baptism by immersion – odd to find in a Catholic church, especially from the Middle Ages. (I’ve read that it’s the oldest surviving baptismal font north of the Alps, but I’m not sure how true that is; suffice it to say, it’s pushing nine hundred.)
As interesting as the cathedral is, Speyer is home to something even more fascinating, if not as well preserved. Just a few blocks away, you can go on a tour of an old synagogue – one that is just as old as the cathedral. Stonework footprints still remain, and posters show what the synagogue may have looked like. One structure still remains standing– a mikveh, or a ritual bath.
A long staircase leads down under the surface and joins a well. The stairs rap around the well until you’re standing at the water level. You can actually feel the temperature drop as you descend. And yes, there is still water in the bath.
Though this mikveh is no longer in use, the concept is still around and the practice continues in Jewish communities the world over.
The cathedral’s baptismal font and the synagogue’s mikveh, though they served different functions, both date back to an ancient custom – the use of washing with water not only for hygiene but also as a way to become ritually and spiritually clean. The laws in Leviticus state that people must wash before or after any number of occasions. Priests would wash before entering the Tabernacle, and lepers would bathe to become clean so that they may reenter society after their illness and exile. And while the Christian practice is that we are baptized only once, the ritual bathing of Leviticus was something that observant Jews did on a regular basis. Priests, lepers, and converts would bathe, but on top of that, any manner of bodily functions, interaction with dead bodies or animals, or preparations for holy days were all reasons to bathe. Both the bride and groom would bathe before their wedding. The initiation was, and still is, a repeated action to continue participating in the community.
So when Naaman the leprous Aramean comes to the prophet Elisha seeking healing? He should go wash himself and be made clean. It’s a ritual of washing away uncleanliness, of being declared “healed” and no longer contagious.
But it’s also about more than that. The baptismal font and the mikveh have more in common than we often assume. Washing was also a means of integrating oneself into the Jewish community. A sort of “baptism” was required of converts to Judaism.
So when Naaman the Aramean general, an enemy of Israel and a leper – an ultimate outsider – comes to Elisha – a prophet and an ultimate insider – seeking healing? He shoud go wash himself in the Jordan, the same river the Hebrews crossed to enter the Land of Promise – to become clean, and to become part of the the beloved community, joining God’s covenant people.
Which brings us to the rest of the story, for some unknown reason excluded from today’s reading. Naaman bathes in the Jordan, and becomes clean, but how does he respond? He goes to Elisha and professes that he will serve only the God of Israel. He’s converted. He even asks for some Israelite dirt, a handful of the Promised Land itself, so that he can worship on the same soil as his adopted people.
And later, Naaman tries to pay Elisha, as was the custom of the time. Elisha refuses the money. Inclusion in God’s covenant is an act of grace; there is no cover charge.
The story of initiation is one that is familiar to all of us. Washing accompanies us throughout our entire lives, from birth and baptism to the grave. It’s something we do on a regular basis. It cleans us, but more than that, it keeps us healthy, keeps us rooted in the community, keeps us whole.
Naaman was joining a community, and to continue participating in that community, he would have to continuously repeat that initial dip, to fully live into the covenant, into his new identity, and into his new family.
The lectionary for today pairs this story with the Gospel reading about ten lepers, which is appropriate: the Samaritan, an outsider, is made clean. But I wonder if maybe it would be more appropriate to pair it with a reading about John the Baptist.
John wandered around the country side calling for people to be baptized, to be brought into the People of God. But his call wasn’t only to the Gentiles. It was to the Jews, as well. It was to the insiders as well as the outsiders. All should come and be made clean, he said.
All should come and be initiated, or re-initiated, or re-re-initiated into the community of God.
All should be like Naaman, made clean and welcomed in.
All should be like Elisha, making clean and welcoming the stranger.
The story of Naaman is about the Lord working abroad and coming to be recognized as the one true God.
This story, like that of John the Baptist, is about God moving through the world and calling all of us to the Water.
Like Naaman and Elisha and John the Baptist, we too repeatedly remember our initiation into God’s Church and into the Body of Christ. That event, whether you were baptized into Christ at two weeks or as a teenager or well into adulthood, whether you can recall specific details of it or not, is still with you. God’s grace, poured out upon you in that single moment, is always present, always calling us to remember and rejoice and live into the covenant and community of God’s Kingdom.
We give thanks and celebrate by repeating the declaration of our baptismal faith in the form of the Apostle’s Creed, re-affirming our vows at every Baptism and every time we confirm youth or receive new members.
We give thanks by celebrating the Eucharist, the Body of Christ made present in our midst.
We give thanks by looking upon our our sacred bath, our font of God’s grace poured out, and celebrating our incorporation into the Body of Christ.
And through these sacramental acts of worship, we remember our initiation by participating in the community.
We remember that we have been joined together into the community of God and that once we have been joined together, there is no longer insider our outsider – only members of Christ’s Body.
We are brought together through our baptism, and we are called to daily live into the new creation granted us through our Baptism. Amen.
*Sometimes sermons need another edit. This one suffers precisely the opposite problem. The core dates back to my seminary coursework, and I’ve used elements in a number of sermons in several contexts. As a result, the manuscript has been edited and re-edited beyond repair. While I still like the illustration and the link between Naaman’s healing in the waters of the Jordan with John the Baptist’s ministry, this entire text needs to be re-written.