I want to share the notes for the sermon I gave at Spring Friends Meeting this Sunday at their regular worship service.
I hope they inspire and challenge you. Also, know that I am open for speaking engagements. So, if you’d like me to come and speak to your church, community group, or event, email me at email@example.com or contact me through one of my social media sites.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
My reflection today comes out of a reading from the book of 2 Kings.
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 5:2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 5:3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 5:7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”5:8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”5:9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 5:10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 5:11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 5:12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 5:13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 5:14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 5:15c Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.
This story about Naaman and Elisha is a story of boundary crossings and bridge building that sharply contrasts the world we live in, hell bent as it is on building up walls. For some folks — including some prominent people running for public office — this means desiring to build a literal wall, on our country’s border, to keep out people of a different language, with darker skin than them, whom they have deemed thus as too different and dangerous. For some it is about building social walls. Churches do this, preserving their own sense of sanctity by keeping out those whose beliefs, families, or lifestyles are deemed too “different” to be welcome. In our state, we are trying to build walls, too, aren’t we? Rules are being passed to make it harder for certain people – let’s be clear, for poor people, people with disabilities, and people of color –to freely vote; and in the passing of HB2, walls have been put up for queer folks and even straight ones who don’t fit our narrow traditional ideas of how a man or a woman ought to look and act, that sends the message loud and clear: their life, their safety, is not protected here.
All of these are what many of us do every day writ large. When we choose to pull away when we see someone different than us, to not extend the hand of friendship, to jump to conclusions about their motives or ethics because of their skin color, how they are dressed, what religion they are, how they express their gender or the gender of the one they love, aren’t we building walls too? If we are honest, all of us bring prejudice to play in our relationships with those we encounter at work, in our neighborhoods, in our schools.
Against such constant building of walls this encounter between Naaman, the commander of the foreign enemy army who sought repeatedly to oppress Elijah’s people and Elisha strikes a great contrast.
In order for Naaman to experience the miracle which will make him whole and complete again, Naaman must be willing to lay aside his sense that he is better than folks from that poor backwater nation of Israel with which they have been at. He must be willing not just to go to Elisha, but to listen and learn from him, so that he becomes immersed in Elisha’s world, even dripping wet with its water.
Likewise, to be the vessel of God, the prophet he has been called to be, Elisha must likewise lay aside, his nation’s long animosity to the peoples that surround them and see Naaman for who he is: one who, as much as Elisha the prophet or any of the people of Israel, also is a bearer of God’s image and also deserving of a connection with the sacred.
To begin, I want to share about two such border crossing, and then some some ideas about how we can embark on building such bridges.
The first border crossing was shared recently by Dana Cassell, a Church of the Brethren pastor in Durham, NC. During a walk in her neighborhood, Pastor Cassell sees a group of teenagers standing on a street corner with signs sayings “blacklivesmatter”, “wewillnotbesilenced”, “ilovemyblacknessandyours”, and “stopkillingus”.
“I gave the women a smile,” she writes, “and a thank-you as I walked past, but as soon as I got out of earshot, I started crying. I cried the rest of the way home. These young women – these girls – were literally standing on the sidewalk shouting to the world that their lives had value. They were screaming in the street about their existence. They were using all they could muster – their presence, their bodies, their voices and their pluck – to insist that they belong, that they are human, that they deserve respect, that they ought not be ignored, oppressed, walked by, silenced, shot, murdered.
I have never – not once, not ever – felt that my life was in such danger of being disrespected, disregarded, abused or snuffed out that I needed to literally stand on a street corner and declare my own worth, assert my very existence.
I have never – not once, not ever – felt that my country didn’t value me, that the police were not for me, that the systems of economy and justice in my nation would not favor me or do right by me.
I have never – not once, not ever – been fearful of law enforcement, been shut out from renting a particular apartment or opening a particular bank account or applying for a particular job or attending a particular church.
No one gives me untrusting stares when I enter a store, no one moves to the other side of the street when I pass them. No one assumes I am a criminal. No one arrests me for being in a bad mood.
No one would mistake a book in my hand – a posture I assume every single day – for a gun, which is what Keith Lamont Scott’s family says happened on Tuesday when a police officer shot and killed him in Charlotte ….”
This border crossing opened Pastor Cassell to a whole different side of her life in Durham and America she might otherwise have not seen. It woke her so she saw her world differently.
In my own life, an important border crossing for me was a period of time in which I, a straight cisgender man, worked as a pastor with churches here in the south predominantly in the queer community. One couple that I had such an experience with are two men I will call Dylan and Gary. Dylan was a no nonsense factory worker about as lily white as I am who could point on his Eastern NC road to where his aunts, uncles, grandparents, and ancestors had worked the land, built homes, and worked with their hands. His partner Gary was Native American, an Ojibua Two Spirit. He would often talk to me as pastor with his distinctive West Virginia drawl in the same conversation both about what the Holy Spirit spoke in his heart as he prayed and also what he felt the earth was saying to him in the signs of bird feathers, the light of the sun through his trees, and the animals along his path.
Dylan and Gary had been together far longer than I had ever been with anyone, including my then wife. Both were so different and accepted each other just as they were. They at times picked each other about these differences, but always with a playfulness that showed that beneath the laughing was a true and faithful love.
I remember the oft-repeated scene of being on a pastoral visit with Gary when they called each other at the end of or beginning of Dylan’s workday. Almost without fail you could see Gary’s face get a big smile and his eyes dance like a little boy on seeing his first county fair. And then you would hear it: “I love you more”. “No, I love you more.” “No, I love you more”. And that would continue until one of them had to get off the phone.
Gary had multiple sclerosis for years before I met him. He experienced multiple health problems which shook his independence. Dylan was always a loving, dutiful, caring partner. He always made sure to make sure Gary’s needs were met sensitively and caringly. I never saw Dylan ever act as if the love and care he sometimes had to give Gary to help him through his health crises was ever a sacrifice or an act of pity. None of Gary’s health problems ever shook Dylan’s respect for Gary, and clearly he didn’t think of the time, energy, and heartache involved. He simply loved his partner as he loved himself.
I learned so much about how to be a man and husband from them, which I put into my relationship with Katharine, my then wife who died about a year ago this month. I learned how to love with respect, admiration, and a heart to learn from my partner as an equal through the examples of these two. I learned also how to be there when, some years later, my late wife’s health began to turn. Their example prepared me to be by her side without thought of cost or sacrifice when sometimes I had to care for her needs in ways neither of us would have ever imagined. This “border crossing” taught me through the experiences of ones very different than me lessons that helped me make space to embrace her in all of who she was when her life changed bit by bit every day as her health worsened.
Border crossing and bridge building can be healing personally to us, as it was for Naaman and me, and a first step toward healing our hurting communities. This story of Naaman and Elisha suggests some important ways we can learn to better engage in such border-crossing and bridge-building relationships.
First, we need to be willing to put aside, depending on our situation, our privilege or right to vilify others for their oppressive or abuse acts. In this scene, Naaman is the oppressor whose armies assault and often surround Elisha’s home. He has wealth, whereas Elisha appears like Elijah before him was, to be a person of poverty. Yet in order to experience the moment of sacred encounter between them that brings healing, Naaman must be willing to come to Elisha not as one above Elisha who commands him but as one who can sit at his feet and learn.
One way some of us we might lay aside our privilege is to not assume, for instance, when we encounter a white person and a person of color telling different stories about a shooting that the person of color must be lying and the white person in authority is telling the truth.
Similarly it would be easy for Elisha to simply shut Naaman out, refusing to be available to him. But Elisha also must lay aside his understandable desire for vengeance to become a person of healing.
An example of this choice is the choice that the people of color of South Africa chose in their Truth & Reconciliation committee at the end of apartheid. In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu describes South Africa’s refusal to treat those perpetrators of apartheid as those in Germany were treated in the Nuremburg trials — as moral monsters beyond repair — but instead as people capable of change with South Africa not falling into the cycles of violence he saw in other African countries after throwing off the chains of colonial occupation. Laying aside a sense of right to revenge, recognizing their sacred worth despite the wrongs they had done just as Elisha does for Naaman is part and parcel of what brings healing.
Another way of working toward border crossing and bridge building relationships is to be willing to enter into another’s world or invite someone into your own. Naaman must leave his homeland and not just go into Elisha’s country but literally be dunked in its waters, baptized by that land. Elisha also has to be willing to let Naaman into his world, even though it might be scary or uncomfortable.
What might this look like in our lives? For me, attending gay pride is a way I enter into the world of my queer friends. I still remember bringing another straight man with me who had never been. He commented on being uncomfortable at seeing gay people kissing, wondering “do those gay men find me attractive?” “How do you think gay people feel all the time seeing men and women all the time kissing in public and on TV & movies, since they find the idea of kissing a person of the opposite sex as uncomfortable as you do people of the same sex? Or, for that matter, not ever knowing if people of the opposite sex might hit on them in most places?” The man’s eyes got wide, his jaw dropped, and he said “I never thought of this. So my uncomfortability for a short time today at Pride is like what some gay people might feel a lot of the time, all year wrong.” Yep, exactly. That experience of coming with me to enter the world of queer people opened his eyes a tiny bit more to the inequality some queer people face every day.
I often think, too, of the question, in our often racially divided communities, how many of us who are white spend any length of time in the black or Latino communities around us? What relationships beyond ones in communities of people just like us do we have? Also, in what ways are people who are different than us invited into our homes, our neighborhoods, our work places, our schools, our churches?
Another lesson of this story is the need of those with greater privilege or power in bridge-building experiences to be willing to accept the terms of the person with the least power; and for those with less power to being willing to be unflinching on boundaries that make them feel respected when both encounter each other.
Namaan at first tries to dictate how we will experience Elisha and his land, saying “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” Yet until he accepts Elisha’s terms for their encounter, the true healing does not come.
Often when we are people of privilege we try to dictate our experience of others. Black people need to act and look “right” to us whites to be heard. Queer people better not be flamboyant and “rub our faces in it”. People with disabilities better be “grateful” to us for any tiny thing we do to accommodate them. We only can learn the lessons those different than us have to teach us if we encounter them as they are, letting those experiencing oppression set their terms for us entering into their world, rather than yet again pushing them into boxes that may not fit them.
Similarly, just as Elisha does not accommodate Naaman by trying to shortcut this experience, so if you are a person being oppressed, realize you do no one any favors by attempting to simply accommodate those who oppress you. Unless you remain honest about your pain, your needs, your experience, and who you are, you will both find the real issues swept under the rug.
As I conclude, does anyone feel a leading to share examples of any such experiences and how they have changed you or others?