If you were to go into my bedroom,
you would see that one wall is lined with books from a lifetime of study.
Except for one shelf.
There you would find: Framed pictures. An old box camera. A sea shell.
The pictures are of my mother, my brother, my father and me, taken over the decades. The box camera is what my father took many of those framed pictures with.
The seashell sat on my father’s workbench for decades
and shortly before his death I discovered why;
it reminded him of the summers we spent on the beach when I was young.
I’ll bet if I were to go into your homes,
I would find similar shelves with similar items;
They are souvenirs:
Which are not just some trinket picked up on a trip or given as a gift,
But are profoundly important objects
meant to connect us to a place like that beach, a time like when our children were young, a person like my father or an experience like our education, which impacted, and in some cases transformed our lives.
A Transformation was what Naaman in today’s first reading desperately needed.
For Naaman had developed a skin disease,
and the local religious authorities declared it to be leprosy.
In our modern world
It is hard for us to understand what this diagnosis meant.
But back then, once some priest decided that you had leprosy,
You were not merely ill, you were as good as dead
You were thrown out of your family, your home, your people
you had to live in the wilderness,
And warn everyone off as they approached,
Lest well-meaning family or friends come into contact with you – and become unclean too.
This was Naaman’s life – that is until he met the prophet Elisha,
Who told him to go bathe in the river Jordan –
He did, and his scarred flesh became like that of a child’s.
Naaman was healed; not just in his flesh but in his life – because He could go back to his family his country – Naaman was from Syria – his life.
God had given him back everything he had lost.
There was just one problem –How could he ever repay God for what God gave him?
At first, he tries to pay Elisha, but Elisha refuses – it was who God healed him not Elisha.
So Naaman says” I want something from you - two mule loads of earth.”
This is one of those moments when we shake our heads in confusion at the Bible– the request is strange even alien. What does he need the dirt for?
Until we remember; Naaman is headed back to Syria– but the God of Israel healed him.
So what Naaman gives God in return for his healing is himself;
from now on he would only worship the God of the land of Israel
And he would only do it on the land of Israel –
two mule loads of it in fact.
Back home in Syria, this dirt would connect him to the land where he got his life back.
It would connect him to the God who gave it to him.
It would be his souvenir.
Leprosy was still a problem in Jesus day.
So was the way lepers were treated.
They still were met with the same prejudice and fear.
One day Jesus met a band of ten lepers on his way to Jerusalem.
They did what lepers did, keeping their distance and crying out for pity,
When Jesus told them to go to the priests;
The very ones who had judged them to be lepers
But also the ones who had the power to declare them clean.
They go, on the way are cleansed,
and one of them, realizing he is healed,
returns to Jesus to give thanks for this gift.
It is only then that we discover
that this nameless leper and Naaman have something in common;
Naaman was a Syrian; this Leper was a Samaritan.
Both foreigners, both aliens,
both members of peoples
who where treated like lepers even without any skin disease;
And yet both were healed by the God of Israel
However, there was a difference.
Naaman asked for that souvenir to connect him to the God who had healed him.
The leper in the gospel asked for nothing.
Nevertheless, Jesus sent him off as well
with something which would always connect him
to the God who had healed him.
“Stand up and go,” Jesus said. “Your faith has saved you.”
His faith was what the leper took with him;
It was what Naaman took with him as well;
along with those mule loads of dirt.
Their faith was their souvenir.
Language like that might sound quaint to our ears;
But to their ears it was revolutionary.
Because in their day Gods and Goddesses were bound to people and places.
Like God was to the land of Israel and to the people of Israel.
That bond was expressed in things
like the covenant Israel made with God on Mount Sinai;
The temple and its priests in Jerusalem
It was why only priests could declare you clean
it was why Naaman wanted that dirt.
But according to Elisha, according to Jesus, God was NOT bound to peoples or places or things.
God could show favor
To whomever God wanted
Whenever God chose.
And the sign of that favor was ultimately
not a covenant a priest or even two loads of dirt; it was faith.
Faith was the sign of the presence of God in their lives – it was their souvenir.
It would be easy at this point to bring the homily home by speaking of all those people in our society that we treat like lepers;
the ill and the elderly; the undocumented and the unemployed;
the people who live in our streets and beg on our subways,
and point out that they are God’s people too.
However, I am going to go another way and I hope you’ll follow me.
Because a couple of weeks ago, we had a gathering of our young adult ministry;
Where we discussed was it was like being Catholic nowadays.
The group shared stories of rejection by coworkers,
Alienation by friends and family.
frustration with the church they had been taught to trust in.
I was stunned. Not just at the prejudice and alienation; I know that all too well. But I realized that I had heard similar struggles in the lives of older Catholics;
They felt like lepers! At times they just wanted to give up; some for all intents and purposes, had already.
Many of us feel these days like we have lost that connection with God that we once felt.
But we have not.
Because we still have what Naaman found and that leper had: faith.
It is probably not the faith we had as children,
With its simple certainties and catechism answers,
It may be more questions than answers
more doubts than certainties
But it is still there; How do I know that? Because it was enough to bring us all here.
Where we are reminded of that faith and the promise it makes to us;
That God chooses us, loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us
and the sign of that relationship is the faith God planted in US –
so that we can respond to that choice, that love and to that relationship.
If our faith is more questions than answers,
Ask the questions and seek new answers.
If it is more doubts than certainties,
allow those doubts to become expressions of the mystery that is God,
and know that if you ever think you’ve got God figured out –
you’ve figured out the wrong God.
But most importantly, hear the offer that God makes to us all in faith and respond – Say Yes!
For as Catholics we do not say we believe in priests or bishops
who are all too human,
nor do we profess our faith in Church administrations
which all too often are too.
AS Catholics we put our faith in the one who gave it to us.
It is a gift. And when we respond
When we ask and seek
Learn and pray
Worship and serve
That gift becomes not some relic of the past
but the profoundly important sign of God’s choice
of me and of you in the present.
(. . . or if you are troubled by the use of that word “souvenir” – then think of it this way:
Our relationship with God is like a marriage.
God is the bridegroom
We are the bride
What is faith? The ring.)