Monday, October 10, 2016

The Acculturation of Naaman

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about the year 2040.  Does anyone know why that’s such an important year? [answers]. Right.  According to U.S. census projections, 2040 is the year when the percentage of non-Hispanic Whites will make up less than 50% of the U.S. population.  We will be a country made up of different racial-ethnic minorities.  And most of this population changeover is due to immigration.  As of 2010, one in four U.S. children had at least one “foreign-born” parent.  In 2040, the United States will be a lot less White, and a lot less Western.  These trends have fueled a lot of anxiety in America, and not just among Trump supporters.  Businesses, schools, community organizations, and churches are trying to figure out how to adapt to a society that encompasses many different languages, traditions, and worldviews. Some of these efforts are effective, some are not. 

The way we talk about the year 2040, and our suggests that we are in an unprecedented moment, that we are dealing with opportunities and challenges that humankind has never had to navigate before.  But when we turn to 2 Kings, we find a story, thousands of years old, about a Syrian general, an Israelite slave girl, and YHWH’s prophet.  A story about a culture clash, and how it lead to restoration and salvation. 

Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through hi YHWH had given victory to Aram.  This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease.  Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel.  She served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria.  He would cure him of his skin disease.”

When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his cloths.  He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You all must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes?  Let the man come to me.  Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots.  He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.  Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River.  Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”

But Naaman went away in anger.  He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand, and call on the name of YHWH his God, waive his hand over the bad spot, and cure this skin disease.  Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Ababa and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters?  Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.

Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet has told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?   All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’”  So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said.  His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean. 

He returned to the man of God with all his attendants.  He came and stood before Elisha, saying, 
“Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.  Please accept a gift from your servant.”

Before I delve in, let’s get situated by exploring our main character a bit.  Naaman is the commander of the Aramean –the Syrian—army, the man responsible for the defeat of the Israelites.  A “great man,” a “mighty warrior,” the consummate macho man.  He represents the Center.  Let’s remember that the Bible has always been written from the margins, and for the margins.  My—and most of our—power and privilege as native-born United-States-of-Americans connect us to Naaman.  That’s who we are in this story.  That’s where I’m going to challenge us to stay.

Now, Naaman also has a skin disease that is unsightly, one that is supposedly incurable.  Now we know that Naaman is a man of means, so we can assume that he’s consulted dermatologists far and wide to find a cure for his skin affliction.  He’s tried the local magicians, the court priests, poultices, salves, juice cleanses, hot yoga, everything.  He’s exhausted his own society’s knowledge and resources and has come up short.  Now this is important, and a point that I want us to pay close attention to. Naaman may be powerful and privileged, but he is still suffering from a skin affliction.  Aramea may have great riches and reach, but that society is still limited.

Naaman learns that an Israelite prophet may have the cure for his affliction.  And who delivers this information? An Israelite slave girl.  This girl is often overlooked in the retelling of Naaman’s healing, but let’s pay some special attention to her.  Her entrance into the story comes right after Naaman’s introduction, and these two characters couldn’t be more different.  General:Slave.  Male:Female.  Adult:Child.  Native:Foreigner. It is her situation as an outsider—as other—that uniquely qualifies her to give the Good News.

She is an Israelite.  She knows about Elisha.  She knows that the God Elisha serves – YHWH – not only has the power to cure afflictions, but the desire to do so.  She knows all of this because she was born in a particular part of the world, to a particular people and culture, and thus sees through a very particular cultural lens.  Her other-ness, her difference from Naaman’s dominant culture, gives her a unique understanding.

So here is lesson number one from the story of Naaman’s healing: that cultural differences are not a burden, but a blessing.  Traditions and beliefs that are different from our own are not only valid and true, but equally valid and true.  Naaman has to take this foreign-born girl’s witness seriously in order to find healing.  And this is where we often fall short in our attempts to meaningfully engage with diversity. 

There is a prevailing notion in our culture—Western, predominately White, culture—that there is some universal “truth” that transcends culturally-specific worldviews.  If we all check our cultural baggage at the door, we can peacefully coexist.  This view pervades most of our approaches to engaging diversity, to cross-cultural interactions.  The problem is that this belief is culturally specific—to Western, predominantly White, Enlightenment-revering societies.  We demand that people from different countries and cultures disengage from their traditions, so that we might meet on “neutral ground,” – our ground.  Only then can we come together in harmony.  Our idolatry of “objectivity” blinds us to the Divine presence in difference.  It is often this view that undermines our attempts at cross-cultural dialogue, that often results in pressure on our immigrant brothers and sisters to assimilate to our culture.  The witness of the slave girl suggests that the dominant culture would do better to acculturate ourselves to the riches of diversity that immigration brings.

Other-ness gives a unique perspective, one that is equally true

Now let’s get back to Naaman, to the moment right after he takes the slave girl’s advice.  What does Naaman do with this information?  He puts on a display of repeated cultural ignorance and arrogance that seems to only hinder his healing.  He first sends a message to the Israelite king because of course the Prophet works at the will of the monarch.  Not in Israel.  He then goes to the prophet’s house and expects to be greeted by Elisha in person because of his own great stature.  I mean, obviously, a prophet would welcome the general that conquered the prophet’s people.  Not in Israel.  Finally, Naaman expects the cure to be immediate, for Elisha to wave his hands, say “abracadabra: affliction be gone!”  That’s how miracles are performed.  Not in Israel.  Again and again, Naaman is obstructed by his own discomfort to step outside his particular worldview.  He arrogantly holds onto the notion that the Syrian way – his way – is the right way.  This all comes to a head when Naaman flat-out refuses to follow Elisha’s instructions.  How in the world could a foreign river be better than his nation’s own?

We laugh at this part of the story: poor, ignorant, Naaman.  And we’re supposed to laugh, the Hebrew Bible loves irony.  But, let’s not skip over the second lesson of this cross-cultural encounter: they’re often messy, and intimidating; they’re difficult.  That doesn’t mean we should avoid them, or soften the experience by tiptoeing around our differences. Even us progressives step back from fully engaging with cultural difference because it gets tricky.  There is a fine line to walk between appreciation and appropriation; between orientalism and respect.  The “safe” thing to do is to limit cross-cultural interactions to sociological study and sterile encounters that do not demand our vulnerability.  We segregate ourselves into native and immigrant communities.

Naaman’s frustrated outburst at Elisha’s prescription reveals that underlying anxiety we all have about changing demographics in the United States: our own vulnerability. To take other cultures seriously, is to change our society. It’s hard, we have a lot invested in our own myths and traditions. We stubbornly cling to our culture’s dominance.

Are not Abana and Pharar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters in Israel?  Could I not wash in them and be clean?

Is not our academic system the best measure of knowledge and wisdom? Is not our version of Democracy the most fair?  Is not the scientific method the most objective way to understand the universe? Is not the academic study of Scripture the purest way to discern God’s will?  Is not the Mighty Mississippi better than the Rio Grande?

At the moment of extreme frustration, when Naaman bumps up against the limits of his own worldview,his servants, probably fed up with his ranting, chime in. 

If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, “wash and become clean.”

Dude, chill out.  All he’s asking you to do is to wash in the Jordan River.  It’s right down the road.  It’s here that Naaman realizes that he’s misinterpreted the entire encounter.  Elisha wasn’t insulting the Syrian nation or Naaman himself.  All Elisha did was tell Naaman what to do to be healed.  Naaman bathes in the Jordan, and in that action humbles himself to an understanding of God and nature that is foreign to him.  And as soon as Naaman gives the Israelite Prophet the same respect he would for Syrian priests—as soon as he opens himself up to an Israelite truth—he is healed. 

And here is the third lesson of culture clashes: we are better for them.  For all their messiness, for all the discomfort we feel, for all the revelations – good and bad -- it is through these engagements that we find salvation.  Naaman’s engagement with the Israelite religion and culture – his acculturation to a different truth – will make him a stronger and wiser leader.

Like Naaman, I have had my share of culture clashes, and I am better for them.  There is one particular experience that has been at the forefront of my mind all week as I was reading this Scripture and doing my sermon prep.  Three years ago, I spent the summer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia doing research for a social service organization.  While I was there, I made friends with a young Ethiopian man – Nahom.  One day, Nahom and I went to the National Museum in Addis, where we saw Lucy – the skeleton that provides “conclusive” proof of evolution.  Ethiopians are very proud of Lucy.  While at the exhibit, I asked Nahom (who grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) about that church’s views on evolution.  I told him that there was a big argument about it in the United States and wanted to know what he thought. 

“Oh, the Ethiopian church doesn’t believe in that.” 

“Really? Huh.  Do you believe in evolution?”


Mind you, there are three people in the conversation: me, Nahom, and Lucy who is lying between us.  Lucy, who is one of the national treasures of Ethiopia.

“But, what about Lucy?”

Nahom looked at Lucy, and then looked at me, and shrugged. “It’s just science.” 

Lucy has her own café outside the National Museum --
really good coffee
It was like I had been hit with a Cosmic Baseball Bat. I had never thought that Science could be as easily dismissed as the Supernatural often is; that it could be just as limited as any other worldview. I still do believe in evolution and I still put a lot of stock in a scientific framework for the universe—that’s my culture—but ever since that day I have not regarded it as this Absolute Truth.  It’s just science.  That’s a revelation that could only have come from a culture clash, and it’s a lesson that has had profound effect on my own faith and relationships.  That memory has – more than once – kept me from displaying an ignorance and arrogance worthy of an ancient Syrian general.  I have been able to accept unexplainable experiences.  I have been able to take seriously others’ encounters with the supernatural.  I have become more open to different truths that have enriched my own faith.

The story of Naaman’s healing reveals that cultural differences do not impede salvation, but are the vehicle for it.  The slave girl draws on her particular traditions and beliefs to provide a path of relief to Naaman.  It is the waters of the Jordan River – which Naaman accepts as sacred although he may not fully understand why– that cure Naaman of his affliction.  The whole encounter may have been awkward and messy, and Naaman may have come across as a fool, but he also leaves transformed—a better person.

As Sergio has mentioned, this October, University Church is celebrating Latin@ Heritage month.  This is our opportunity to honor and engage with some of the cultures that enrich this congregation, the relationships that have blessed us with revelation.  This is one of the ways that we are affirming our identity as an immigrant-welcoming congregation. 

This is important, because we are getting closer to the year 2040. Now, and over the next few decades, our society will become even more diverse than it already is, and so will our church. Those of us who live comfortably in the Center – who make up the dominant culture – have a great challenge ahead of us.  Like Naaman, God is calling us to open ourselves up to different truths, different worldviews. We should not expect our immigrant brothers and sisters to assimilate to our particular ways of thinking and being; we have to be open to the witness that they bring from their own particular traditions and experiences.  The change it will bring will transform us for the better.  We’re in for a lot of culture clashes; let’s welcome them

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Roar of God

Sermon delivered at University Church, July 31, 2016

I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to preach today, because it forced me to engage with Scripture this week.  It’s a practice that I’ve struggled to maintain since leaving seminary. And in reading the text, I could hear God; but not they way thought I would.  In times of trouble we turn to the Bible for comfort, but sometimes there is no comfort to be had.  Sometimes, we open Scripture not to our own laments, but to God’s.  Sometimes we don’t get the still, small voice; we get a roar. 

So let’s turn to Hosea, chapter 11, verses 1-11.  Listen for the word of God.

When Israel was a child, I loved them.  And out of Egypt I called my child.  The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume their oracle-priests, and devour because of their schemes.  My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, YHWH will not raise them up.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel?  How can I make you like Adma?  How can I treat you like Zeboim?  My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 

I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst.  I won’t come in wrath.  They will walk after YHWH, who roars like a lion.  Where YHWH roars, YHWH’s children will come trembling from the West.  They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says YHWH.

2016 is shaping up to be a year to remember.  And not in a good way. Our country is a mess.  Tensions between law enforcement and communities of color are worse than maybe they’ve ever been.  We can’t go a week without a mass shooting.  Mosques, Black churches, Sikh gurudwaras are being attacked and vandalized regularly.   Women’s health clinics are being systematically closed down and our right to control our own bodies is being wrenched from us.  And this election cycle is marked by terrifying and unchallenged hatred.  If there was ever a time to lament, it is now. 

And that’s what we hear in this text, a lament.  But not our lament, YHWH’s lament.  The chapter begins with YHWH remembering when Israel was a child, when YHWH led the people out of Egypt by the hand.  YHWH remembers guiding the people, nurturing the people, bringing up the people.  And being abandoned by the people.  Having that love and faith thrown back, discarded, for the temptation of idols. 

Democracy is good, but it's not GOOD
Idolatry. That persistent threat that has tempted us ever since we entered with God into the Covenant.  Our nasty habit of elevating beliefs, systems, and persons to the status of the ultimate.  And we are an idolatrous people, with good intentions.  We often confound something that has the potential for doing good into something that is capital-G Good.  National security.  Wealth.  Law enforcement.  The free market. None of these things is inherently evil; we make them so by orienting our lives and our theologies towards them instead of God.  They can never fulfill God’s role in our lives; they cannot be the guiding stars for our moral compasses. They were constructed by human logic, and are therefore fallible.  And the more we raise them up, the further we turn from God.   

Because I know y’all, I’m going to assume that most of you were captivated by the Democratic National Convention this week.  It was a really good show, wasn’t it?  Every speaker was on fire.  And when Hillary Clinton walked out on that stage as the first woman nominee of a major party, I teared up.  After her speech on Thursday, I was ready to GO. Give me the clipboard and the buttons, I’ll start knocking on doors NOW.  2016 is a make-or-break year.  On November 9, we’re either going to be on the road to redemption or the highway to hell. That’s the story, anyway.  That’s what our idols are telling us. 

Our idol is our political system, our democratic republic.  We put such faith in this system and its ideals that we are unable to recognize its limitations or imagine an alternative.  Let me reiterate, “democracy” is not inherently evil.  Conservatism, Liberalism, Progressivism, are not inherently evil.  But when taken to their logical conclusions, these systems and ideals become instruments of our destruction.  In the name of keeping our “citizens” safe, we allow our government to round up “undesirables” and deport them.  And so people like Jose Juan are separated from their families.  Because we want our own children to have the best future possible, we invest only in our own neighborhoods, and abandon underfunded communities.  And a whole generation is relegated to poverty.   We hold the right to protect ourselves and our families so dear, that we refuse to regulate firearms.  And we find ourselves 8 months into 2016 with over 2,300 shootings in Chicago.  Because we believe so strongly that the way to make change is through political debate and the long legislative process, we ignore the immediate demands of underserved communities.  And we are surprised when police officers get off scot free for murder.

We have prioritized the stability and familiarity of our political system over and above mercy, compassion, and justice.  We have oriented ourselves to the laws and logic of the earth instead of to the laws and logic of God.  As Pastor Julian has said from this pulpit, as Malcolm X said 50 years ago, this is the inevitable consequence of our choices.   The chickens are coming home to roost.  And this was predicted thousands of years ago when the book of Hosea was written; we see it in the text. Because Israel has turned away from YHWH, they will once again be captive to a foreign power.  Because the people have chosen to align themselves with Baals, and to orient their theologies towards earthly things, they will suffer violence and destruction.  And because we have put all of our faith and hope for change into political ideologies instead of in the Law of the Covenant, inequality, intolerance, and hostility will continue to fester.

And this is YHWH’s lament, the cry of anger and grief at the future God’s people have chosen. 

“They will return to the land of Egypt and Assyria will be their king because they have refused to return to me.  The sword will strike wildly in their cities…will devour because of their schemes.”

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?...My heart winces within me.  My compassion grows warm and tender”

Pretty sure the author meant "roars like a lioness"
God’s cry isn’t just one of anger, but one of anguish. We are suffering, and so is God.  As a partner in the Covenant, God is bound up with us with cords of love.  And because God is bound up with us, God will suffer because of us.

Our idolatry, our willful disobedience to the Covenant, actively hurts God.  And idolatry is a way of life; it manifests itself in obvious and subtle injustices.  So God isn’t just hurt when a kid is shot in Englewood.  God is hurt every time a straw purchaser crosses the state line from Indiana to Illinois.  God wasn’t just hurt when the community of Saqja’ was displaced by paramilitary forces; God was hurt every time we bought a Del Monte banana. God wasn’t just hurt when Philando Castile was shot, God was hurt every time Philando was pulled over.  God isn’t just hurt when ICE breaks up families, God is hurt every time we shake our heads and resign ourselves to incremental progress like DACA.  If we keep this singular focus on electoral politics, the People, and God, will continue to suffer.  And though we should recoil at the idea of violence against other people, the knowledge that we are doing violence to God should stop us in our tracks.

What is God to do? Struggling between wrath and compassion, pained by the Chosen People, what is God to do? The logical choice would be to leave us to our own devices, to abandon us just as we have abandoned God.  Or maybe to smack us down with righteous anger.

But God is God, and no mortal.

“I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim…I will not come in wrath.” No, instead, God will “roar like a lion; when God roars, God’s children shall come trembling from the West…and I will return them to their homes.” 

To be God in this crisis to not to abandon, not to punish, but to liberate.  God roars, and calls God’s people home.  This won’t be easy.  Grace will come, but it won’t be cheap.  Restoration is inevitable, but it will be a fierce deliverance.  And it will not resemble our idolatry in any way.  The good news is that misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and economic inequality will not have the last word.  The difficult news is that we are going to have to abandon the familiar and find the courage to follow God into the unknown.

Now I like and admire Hillary Clinton, I do.  But Hillary Clinton is not going to save us.  And to be clear, Bernie Sanders wasn’t going to save us either.  I am a vocal progressive and a proud Democrat.  But the Democratic Party is not going to save us.  In the next 99 days, I will knock on doors, I’ll vote early, and I’ll watch the election results roll in on November 8.  But this election is not going to save us. We have to recognize our political system for what it is, a human construction, created with some good intentions, but limited in its ability to do capital-G Good.  We have made it into an idol; we have put all of our trust and faith into the democratic ideals it represents, even after it repeatedly disenfranchises our brother and sisters.  It will never save us. 

So where will our salvation come from? From whom will we hear that liberating call back to our Creator?   The answer is obvious, really. The saving Spirit of God is where it has always been: among marginalized people daring to imagine something different.   For months, every time I’ve read Scripture I hear the same thing.  Every time I come to church, I hear it in the sermon.   Every time I open up my Twitter or Facebook newsfeed, I see it.  Black Lives Matter.  Not One More Deportation.  These movements and leaders have challenged our conceptions of what is inevitable and what is possible. They are calling out our idolatry.  In their organizing, I hear the promise in Hosea: a fearsome deliverance to a restored and fundamentally altered community.

Here at University Church, we’ve already seen the amazing transformation that can take place when we heed the Roar of God.  We dared to join forces with a group of young people taking on the University of Chicago.  If there was ever an idol in this neighborhood, it is the University of Chicago.  And guess what—a trauma center is coming to Hyde Park.  We dared to open our doors to Jose Juan and his family, refusing to allow his deportation.  In doing so we joined forces with young leaders who are challenging the Department of Homeland security.  And guess what—Jose Juan is still here in his home country, with his family. We have dared to hear and heed the Roar of God, and our community—University Church—has been reenergized. 

Is the Roar of God calling us to the Voting Booth, or Freedom Square? 
Should we be surprised at this?   That our transformation has come from aligning ourselves with communities whose anguish God shares?  These young leaders are intimately familiar with the evils of our political idolatry are also the ones with the power to break its hold on us.  Here in Hosea, God shows us that a lament leads to liberation, that the cry of the oppressed is also a call to justice.  We have to listen for the roars that challenge our idolatry, that make us question our faith in Earthly logic. Do we really need the police?  Are deportations ever really necessary?  Can we really not afford reparations? Do we really have to wait for the right candidate, the right bill, or the right Supreme Court case?

In 2016 salvation will not be found in the Senate, but in the streets.  Justice will not be brought about by politicians, but by protestors.  2016 doesn’t have to be the worst year ever; it can be the year we abandon the idolatry of a political system that only divides and distracts us from the liberation promised by God’s love. This can be the year we step out on faith and dare to heed the Roar of God. 

In this moment of silence and reflection, I invite you to think about where you have put your faith, and whether or not that faith has been earned.  Ask yourself, where do you hear God’s roar, and are you willing to follow it?