Thursday, June 30, 2016

Naaman Sermon from 2013

2 Kings 5: 1-14
Did you have a favorite board game growing up? Guess Who is a favorite game at our house. Some of you may be familiar with this game. Each player has a board that looks like it is filled with doors and behind each door is a picture. Each player chooses who they will be and the other player gets to ask 5 yes or no questions to figure out who their opponent is. The questions are often, do you have blue eyes or do you have brown hair. The winner is the one who first correctly identifies the other person. This game was a favorite of mine as a child too! It teaches children to ask questions, to see that people may be similar, but not interchangeable. All in all it’s a good game.
But the more often we play this game the more I find that I want to change things about it. For example, there are not enough women. There are not enough people of different ethnicities. And while you see an image of the people you don’t know who they really are. It doesn’t really show us their identity. You can’t tell just by looking if Joe is a single parent of three, one of which has special needs. You can’t tell if Debbie is a cancer survivor on her way to her next check up.
We have to learn to look beneath the surface to see who people really are and to learn what they really need.
Identity is something that is at the very core of who we are as human beings. We are more than just our occupations, our hair or skin color. We are more than the sum of our various parts. But identity is something so many in our world struggle with, seeking to find their place in a chaotic society.
In the lesson from 2 Kings this morning we have to look closer than outward appearances. At first glance we have a high ranking solider, 2 kings, a prophet and some slaves. With this list of characters one expects the action to really happen with those in power, the kings and the officials, and if we are listening only to them we miss where God is at work in the scripture. It’s through the cast of supporting characters that the work of God becomes known.
Naaman is a high ranking officer in the Aramean army. He is described as a great man, a mighty warrior, but he has fallen victim to leprosy. Leprosy was a huge issue in biblical times. It characterized a host of skin diseases from what we call leprosy now to eczema or rashes. This disease often led to being cast out from among the people. So here we have a high official with the disorder. No doubt there was panic in the household. This kind of thing could ruin the reputation of anyone and Naaman was enjoying being on top. We are not told how many cures he tried, how often he was kept awake by fear, but the issue was serious enough that the slave girl heard about it.
This brave young girl stepped up and offered healing words to someone out of her “sphere of influence.” Naaman, under normal circumstances would not have noticed the girl. She was after all a slave girl, taken from Israel in the Aramean victory. There was no reason for her to share with her captor this good news. But she did. She knew that there was a prophet in Israel who spoke the word of the Lord – Elisha – and she knew that God was in the business of wholeness and restoration. So the slave girl told her mistress about Elisha. Something in her led her to speak of the prophet of God and the healing possibilities.
How often have we been nudged to give words of healing to another, but stopped short? What is it that stops us? Is it doubt? Is it fear? Is it a lack of understanding our own identities? I’m sure that each of these plays a small part in it. By speaking up this girl took a small step that began the journey that would alter and indeed save Naaman’s life.
Naaman went to his king and requested to go visit this prophet for healing. In that time, people believed that if one army defeated another, that army’s god had also defeated the other.  So it was incredible that Naaman would seek the help of a God who apparently couldn’t defend his people.  Of course Naaman didn’t yet know that God works in unexpected ways and shows up in unexpected places. Naaman must have been very important to the king for he agreed and sent a letter to the king of Israel explaining what he wanted to happen. Naaman brought an enormous amount of wealth with him to the king of Israel. It is not clear from the story if it was given by the king or from Naaman himself, but the intent is clear, these items will pay for his cleansing. Naaman was a man of the world and knew the way the world worked. He wanted to make sure there was no reason to deny his request. Naaman did everything in his power to secure healing.
In his power. Power had become a key point in Naaman’s identity. He was a powerful mighty man and he approached another king with the words of his king and treasure to assure he would be listened to. If we had any doubts about Naaman’s reputation the reaction of the king of Israel should clue us in.
When the King heard of Naaman’s request he tore his own clothing. He was convinced this was a military ploy to take him out of what power he has left. He was worried this was a way to begin fighting between their two nations once more. This king’s identity is also found in power, but he had learned that his power could be taken away.
When we place our identity in things like rank, power, prestige we will spend most of our time and energy to preserve those things. To be on top, the top of the class, the top of the pyramid, top dog, top gun these things are goals, glorified by our society. Yet once you attain these heights you must spend time looking over your shoulder waiting for someone to attempt to knock you back down.
Elisha, the great prophet who had picked up the mantel of Elijah, stepped forward and told the king to let Naaman come and see that there is a prophet in Israel. And so the King agreed.
But while Naaman was on his way a messenger was sent out to him. Naaman was not happy with this news. He expected at least a little special treatment from the prophet. Naaman’s pride was wounded by the low-key, if not outright rude, reception he received from Elisha. Naaman clearly had an idea of how things would play out and was angry that the prophet didn’t make a big production out of calling on God. He was a big man, important, wealthy; a big deal should be made to save him.
What’s worse, all that the servant told him to do was go dip in the Jordan River – that muddy insignificant creek – 7 times. What junk.  What insult.  Just wait till the King of Aram hears how his favorite general was treated!  Naaman turned to go.
 Naaman couldn’t see the God might just work in a different way.
Naaman was so upset by the simplicity of the prophet’s directions he almost missed out on the opportunity for healing. It again took the words of servants to tell him to try even though it is unexpected.
His servants called out to him –if the prophet had asked you to do something great, wouldn’t you have done it?  This is such a simple thing – why not do it?”

And that was the exactly the issue.  There was not spectacle, no magic, no pomp.  It was too simple.  It was too easy. It was too good to be true.
Naaman had built an identity for himself of power and prestige and he expected others to respond to it. Elisha does not play into Naaman’s ego. Neither does God.
It was so unlikely – a slave girl has an important message for her master, giving him the information to get the thing he most desired.

It was so lowly – not a king, not even a prophet, but a servant gives him the message that can heal him.

It was so improbable – a dirty creek, not a mighty river, is the means to his healing.

Naaman saw the wisdom in his servant’s words.  There really was nothing to lose.  And if this worked…
He dunked down in the muddy waters – once, twice, three times…seven times.  And when he came up on the seventh time – he was healed.
            And more than just physically – because Naaman knew in that moment that God was God.

 God had opened the mouths of the servants and the heart of Naaman to the real possibility of healing, and once Naaman was healed he then professed faith in the only God, the God of Israel.
It’s a powerful story, taking twists and turns that would not have been expected. And it leads Naaman to a new identity, that of a child of God. You see my friends, that is the identity that we need to claim in ourselves, that is the identity that we need to recognize in others, that is the identity we need to help others see in themselves. We are children of God, joint heirs to the servant’s kingdom.
Here in an act strikingly similar to the sacrament of baptism Naaman begins to see his need for God and responds with a profession of faith. This moment was not the end of Naaman’s journey, but rather the beginning of his new identity, his new life in God.
Are we, like Naaman, looking for God in all the wrong places?
 Are we looking for fireworks and miracles, and miss the little daily ways grace comes to us?
 Are we expecting mighty prophets (or preachers) when God sends servant girls, and apprentice disciples, and healed demoniacs, - and us - to spread the good news?
 We find God in the unlikely, unexpected places when we open ourselves up and look beyond our expectations.
 In the words of a slave girl and a message from a prophet, and a dip in muddy water,
In the song of a expectant mother and a baby wrapped in swaddling and the shepherd’s story,
In the cry from a cross and an empty tomb,
In water poured over a baby’s head,
In a bit of bread and sip of wine,
In a listening ear, and a burden shared,
In laughter, and a child’s joy,
 In the words of a holy hymn or even song on the radio that touches your heart,
In the smallest moments, the simplest things,
God speaks healing in our souls.
When we look beyond the goals and dreams of our society, when we set aside the roles assigned to us, when we seek to see ourselves as children of God, nothing more, nothing less, we begin to change. It is the beginning of our journey to healing and wholeness. We will be made new.

With this new identity may we boldly proclaim the good news, just as the slave girl and the servants proclaimed it. May we claim our identity today and help lead others on their journey. Amen. And Amen.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

A sermon based on Luke 7:36-8:3 (Cumberland Presbyterian Church aka CPC; Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, aka CPCA)
There are so many things that I love about this passage of scripture! I love the amazing act of worship the woman completes, letting Jesus and everyone else present know the extent of her devotion to Christ. I love that Jesus points to the faith of an unnamed woman and says, this is what it looks like to be healed! I love that Jesus takes the important act of a dinner party to turn the expectations of his host on their head.
I had originally planned to address them all, but that sermon would have been entirely too long! And that was before General Assembly.
General Assembly was a wonderful experience, a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones; a chance to see what’s happening in the denomination and celebrate good news; an opportunity to see that Cumberland Presbyterians are not just from one corner of the US but cross international boundaries. GA was all of those things, to everyone who was not on my committee!
I served as the acting Chair of the Committee on Theology and social Concerns/Unification. The long and short of that is, all the hot button issues came through my committee and I was in charge of making sure we came to as close to a consensus as possible.
Oh how I longed to be on the Children’s Home committee, who finished by 2 pm Tuesday. Or even the Stewardship committee who had everything signed by 9 am Wednesday morning. Instead I was chair of the committee that worked until 7:30 Wednesday night and then met again Thursday morning for reviews and edits!
Most of what we dealt with was fairly straightforward. There was an amazing sense of the Holy Spirit at work as we heard about Unification efforts between the CPC and CPCA. I was encouraged by the work being done in both denominations. We read difficult, but wonderful papers on Homelessness, and the churches response and on Discrimination as a justice issue. We talked about their eye opening nature and got very excited about passing them on to the church as a whole.
Two Memorials were brought to us concerning our relationship with other denominations that are often perceived as more liberal than the CPC. These memorials sought to alter our ecumenical relationships. I’ll admit to being nervous about discussing them, but it was obvious that the members of the committee saw clearly that cutting the CPC off from other denominations would be a mistake.
The biggest issue that we dealt with came from a resolution presented by a commissioner on the floor of GA. It was titled “Resolution of Repentance, Apology, and Resolve” and from the moment it was read it caused a firestorm of conversation, dislike, confusion, and anxiety. The resolution named many acts throughout the history of the CPC denomination that have oppressed, hurt, damaged our brothers and sisters in the CPCA church, including allowing the division of the two churches in an effort to maintain a “separate but equal” kind of church.
And as I stood there, listening to whispers of outrage around me, I thought of this scripture.
I saw this known sinner, this unnamed repulsive woman, not fit for polite society, sneak into the room and begin to pour out a sacrifice of thanksgiving at Christ’s feet. I watched her bath his feet with her tears, dry them with her hair. I watched her bowing in front of him with no shame, only gratitude and recognition of the forgiveness she had received.
But all around her were those who couldn’t see the forgiven nature. All they saw was her past, her sin, her unworthiness. They stood their judging her and wondering why Jesus was putting up with her. Simon, the host of the party, even puts Jesus down for allowing her to touch him at all.
 And then we hear Jesus’ words. ““Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. This phrase doesn’t mean that Simon, or any of the other Pharisees present that night had not sinned, or had sinned very little. It means that they had been forgiven little, because they had not realized their need for forgiveness. They could not appreciate the joyous worship of this woman, because they themselves were blind to their own need for repentance, for apology, for forgiveness.
As my committee considered this resolution, this uncomfortable resolution I heard many things. I heard “It’s not my fault their denomination faces prejudice.” “I didn’t have slaves.” “As far back as we can find on my family tree we never owned slaves.”  “I don’t benefit from anything that happened so long ago.”
I also heard “I am glad to read these words.” “A recognition and apology from this church are long overdue.” “I am humbled by the realization that I have benefitted from the sins of those who came before me.”
As a committee we bowed before God together. Some of us on our knees, we asked for guidance, for open hearts, for God to work even if we made the wrong choices. Then we came back together and voted to send the resolution on to a permanent committee, because we didn’t have faith that our fellow CPC members would be able to see what we had eventually all seen. We didn’t trust that others would agree that we needed to offer this apology. That we needed to open ourselves up to the possibility of being hurt and recognize that things are not as they should be, and promise to try our best to do better.
We asked the GA to pass it along. We were wrong. But thank God, that God is faithful. Thank God my friends that God listens to and answers prayers. We asked God’s will be done, even if we had made the wrong recommendation. And it was.
From the floor of GA came the request to pass the resolution. From the other members came the challenge to apologize to our brothers and sisters. And together we asked for forgiveness from God and from the CPCA.
Together we bowed at the feet of Jesus. Together we humbled ourselves in an act of service. Together we took the position of servant, a place that others might look down on us for being, and we thanked Jesus for forgiving us.
Our eyes were opened to the sins that have lingered, and we can rejoice in our forgiveness. We can offer love from a place of humbleness. And we can commit to going forward building relationships one on one and denomination wide.
 “Let it be resolved, that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church repent and seek God’s forgiveness for the many ways we have benefited from, participated in, condoned, and been blind to our role in racism, oppression of our African American brothers and sisters, and all forms of brutality; and be it further
Resolved, That the Cumberland Presbyterian Church apologize to our African American brothers and sisters, seek their forgiveness, and work to restore the broken relationships our sin has caused; and be it further
Resolved, That the Cumberland Presbyterian Church commit itself to preach the Word of God without compromise, and that we resolve to “oppose, resist, and seek to change all circumstances of oppression-political, economic, cultural, racial, by which persons are denied the essential dignity God intends for them in the work of creation (COF 6.30). We seek to promote reconciliation, love and justice among all persons, classes, races, and nation” (COF 6.32)
May it be so, may it be so.

(full text of resolution printed below.)
Whereas, we Cumberland Presbyterians are considering the call of God to “Go” during this 186th meeting of the General
Assembly; and
Whereas, Jesus sent the twelve with these instructions: “As you go, proclaim the good news. The kingdom of heaven has
come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:7-8); and
Whereas, we seek the healing of our divisions as Cumberland Presbyterians; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded in 1810 in Dickson County, Tennessee, USA, and grew rapidly
in a nation that endorsed, participated in, and benefited from the practice of enslaving African men, women and children
who were brought to this nation through the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was inconsistent in its condemnation of American slavery as an institution
-- an institution that condoned the buying and selling of persons made in the image of God; an institution in which African
American families were often separated, and individuals were beaten and abused in body and mind; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church often condoned the segregation of its African American members into separate balconies, congregations, and classes because of the influence of cultural ideas of racial superiority and inferiority; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church refused to allow its African American members full and equal membership
following emancipation and the end of slavery; organizing instead separate congregations, presbyteries, and other judicatories
that were denied representation in the General Assembly, and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church encouraged and supported the organization of the Cumberland Presbyterian
Church in America (originally the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church) in 1874 in order to avoid the difficult work of
integration, and to avoid offending its members who continued to hold fast to ideas of racial superiority; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was complicit in accepting Jim Crow segregation, lynching as a means of social control, economic oppression of freed slaves, and denial of educational opportunities; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America have both suffered
from their separation, a separation that is harmful to the witness of the Church and a denial of our oneness in Christ; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church laments the loss of friendship, gifts and graces from which our life, worship,
witness and service would have been enriched had we not been separated all these years; and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church affirms the providence of God, whose purpose it is “that the whole creation
be set free from its bondage to sin and death, and be renewed in Jesus Christ” (COF, 1.15); and
Whereas, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church acknowledges our ongoing need for repentance, so that “In response to God’s initiative to restore relationships, (we) make honest confession of sing against God, (our) brothers and sisters, and all
of creation, and amend the past so far as is in (our) power.” (COF, 4.07); therefore, be it
Resolved, that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church repent and seek God’s forgiveness for the many ways we have benefitted
from, participated in, condoned, and been blind to our role in racism, oppression of our African American brothers and sisters, and all forms of brutality; and be it further
Resolved, that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church apologize to our African American brothers and sisters, seek their
forgiveness, and work to restore the broken relationships our sin has caused; and be it further
Resolved, that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church commit itself to preach the Word of God without compromise, and that we resolve to “oppose, resist, and seek to change all circumstances of oppression -- political, economic, cultural, racial, by which persons are denied the essential dignity God intends for them in the work of creation (COF, 6.30). We seek to promote reconciliation, love and justice among all persons, classes, races, and nations: (COF, 6.32). (Quoted in the Resolution Marking the 50th year since the end of World War II, by Japan Presbytery of the CPC)