Coming and Going

(sermon 7/7/19 – Immigration Sunday)

go away doormat
Elisha’s doormat

2 Kings 5:1-14

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. 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. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 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.” 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.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 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.” 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! 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. 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’?” 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.

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Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

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The prophet Elisha may not be the strangest person in the Bible, but he certainly ranks up there, which is impressive given just how relatively little the scriptures tell us about him. Unlike his mentor Elijah, who never seemed to be at a loss for words, Elisha actually didn’t say much. Most of the scriptural record of him focuses on supernatural miracles he performed – making oil mysteriously not run out, raising a boy from the dead, making an axe head float in water – usually without much conversation from him surrounding it. In one case, Elisha wanted to say something to a woman who’s been offering him hospitality in her home for years, so he has his personal assistant Gehazi bring the woman to him – in her own home – and while she’s standing there right in front of him, Elisha tells Gehazi, “Tell the woman…” what he wants to say, refusing to speak directly to her while she was standing right in front of him and must have been thinking “Well what am I, chopped liver?”

Another time, in maybe the most bizarre of Elisha stories, Elisha is being hounded by a large crowd of young boys who are teasing Elisha because he’s bald, so he summons two bears to come down out of the woods and maul 42 of the boys, indicating that Elisha had anger management issues, to put it mildly.

That’s all a long-winded way of making it clear that Elisha was not by any stretch of the imagination a people-person, and that sets the stage for the story we heard about him this morning. Naaman, a powerful, highly decorated, well respected five-star general in the army of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, hears that this odd little man of God in the Samaria – this backwater, the armpit of the universe by Naaman’s estimation, might be able to cure him of this ailment that he’s been suffering from for so long. So at least for a little while, he pushes down his substantial ego and goes to get an audience with  Elisha.

Of course, we heard that isn’t exactly how things played out. When Naaman and his entourage arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha wouldn’t even agree to see this foreign bigshot in person. He sends out some unnamed lackey to tell Naaman to go jump in the lake, almost literally. Elisha instructed the lackey to tell Naaman to just go bathe in the Jordan River nearby, which in that location was likely muddy, and brackish, and hardly more than a large creek, something that looked like if you tried to bathe in it you’d probably come out dirtier than when you’d gone in. This was too much for Naaman’s ego, and he decides to go home, unhealed, until some of his people talk some sense into him. Finally, Naaman gives in, and does what he’s been told, and he ends up heading home healed and humbled, and all without Elisha ever having to debase himself by actually meeting Naaman.

There’s a bit of a reversal of this situation in today’s gospel reading. There, Jesus sends his disciples out to engage directly with people throughout the countryside, to heal the suffering and proclaim God’s good news, rather than waiting for them to come to them, as Naaman came to Elisha, to receive God’s blessings. When the disciples did this, and they return, they’re joyful as they tell Jesus all about what had happened, and their experiences. You can imagine the excitement in their voices. Clearly, this was a transformative experience for them, and you can almost hear them tell Jesus that most  often-heard comment made by people coming back from a mission trip, that they know they helped others, but they’d received so much more than what they’d given. I’m sure that when our group in Puerto Rico gets home, many of them will say the same thing.

That seems to be an important way that God works within us. We’re called to be compassionate toward others, to proclaim God’s good news of love for them, to be the face; the heart, hands, and feet of Christ to them – but at the same time, we experience God, we learn about God, we’re transformed by God, largely by coming into contact and relationship with them.  They have things to teach us – about them, about God, about ourselves. That act of being open to and receiving others seems, in fact, to possibly be the most important way that we grown in our faith and see God in the world.

So let’s think back, then, to that story of Elisha and Naaman. There are all sorts of things that a person could draw out of this story, but I suspect that more often than not, it’s told as a morality play in which the moral of the story is “Don’t be a Naaman” – don’t let our pride and ego get in the way of God working goodness in our lives. And that’s a good enough point, I guess, but today I want to suggest seeing the story from a different angle, one where the moral of the story might be “Don’t be an Elisha.” I imagine Elisha, sitting in his house after this encounter, feeling all smug and superior for having basically just phoned in Naaman’s healing, without ever having any actual personal contact with him. And in the midst of that feeling of superiority, I imagine Elisha passing by a mirror in his house, and stopping for a moment to look at himself in it; and as he’s looking into his own eyes he hears the voice of God saying “Really, Elisha? Do you know what you just missed? Do you really know everything about why I sent that man to meet you? Do you realy think you couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from him? Do you know what I’d had in mind for you, what I wanted you to learn through him, how I wanted to make you a better servant of mine, by meeting and talking with him? Really, Elisha?” And I imagine Elisha realizing what an opportunity he’d just missed, how he’d frustrated God’s good intentions for him, by not opening himself up to this other person, and suddenly, he couldn’t look into his own eyes anymore, and he quietly walked away.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating our American ideal of independence. This coming week, let’s also try to recognize and celebrate the interdependence that God has created us for, and designed us for, and continually is drawing us toward. Let’s be thankful for the good news that God loves us. And God loves and all the people that Jesus’ disciples helped. And God loves the Elishas of the world, and all the Naamans of the world. Let’s remember and be grateful for the truth that just as God uses us to transform the lives of others, God also uses those others, however we go to them or however they come to us, to transform us, too.

So whose life will you transform this week? And who will you allow to transform your own?

Thanks be to God.

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Dinner Reservations (sermon 8/28/16)

place cards

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)

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Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.

I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe  just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”

And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.

It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.

But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.

There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.

There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.

From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.

But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do.  We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.

Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.

Thanks be to God.