Sunday, February 26, 2012
*This sermon was preached on the first Sunday of Lent, February 26, 2012 with a Lenten theme of "A New Covenant."
The Noah story is a tale of terror, a horror story of global apocalypse. What? This
beloved children’s story? Although we most often think of it as a children’s story, the Noah story must be read as a story for adults. Our first reading of the Noah story was probably as a child in Sunday School. Childhood images of the Noah story have stuck in our heads. Ark floating peacefully on the water. Smiling animals stuffed inside the bobbing boat. Giraffe head poking through the ark window. Noah's hand reaching out to feel for drops of rain. Dove with olive branch. Rainbow arched across the clear blue sky. And all is well on the earth. That's the children's version. And unfortunately, many of us still read the story through the lens of our childhood. Understandably, our children's version leaves out the utter destruction of the story. As children we didn't read Noah and the flood as the tale of those who survived the total annihilation of all creation.
If we read the story of Noah as a children's story, we will continue to avoid the interpretive work of struggling with the questions it raises. We need to face head on the problematic issues in the text as we reread this story as adults. To read the story as an adult may mean reading it as it is read within the Jewish tradition---with the freedom to raise questions about the story without feeling our faith will be denied, the Bible will be denigrated, or God will be disturbed. And raising questions doesn't mean we will get satisfactory answers to all our questions. An important part of adult faith is wrestling with our holy texts and living with the questions that remain.
An adult reading might begin with some of the problematic issues surrounding the Noah character. The text says that the world was irredeemably wicked and Noah was "alone righteous, blameless in his generation." Was Noah really the only righteous person in the whole wide world? Of all the people in the world was there not at least one other person worth saving? What about the children in diapers who perished under the waves? Were they all "bad seeds," mere fish food? Must they have suffered along with the wicked? Should we, and even more so God, ever look at humans as irredeemable? Was humanity really more wicked and beyond saving than other countless moments in human history? Did all those outside the ark deserve death by drowning?
I once wrote a poem on the flood that took a sympathetic position toward those left outside the ark. I entitled it One guy outside the ark:
a sour stream runs through my life
it rushes through the canyons of my days
wearing my body thin, tearing up my roots
who can fight against the torrents of God,
against the headwaters of Yahweh's foul flood?
I am not Noah, nor one of his relatives
I am just a poor guy who missed getting into the ark
before the door slammed shut with a loud bang
the blood drained from my face
as the slow drip of water fell from the sky
The water is beginning to rise
and the boat begins to creak
I feel the wetness on my feet
I cry out and bang my fists bloody on the ark door
the water rises to my ankles, then my legs
my voice is going hoarse from the screaming
my knees are now covered in the mud and debris
It's up to my waist, my chest, now my neck
the churning waters try to pull me under
I stand on my tip toes and look up into the gray sky
shouting to the Noah-god as the water reaches my mouth
I gurgle to the heavens, "please open the door for me...
there is still room in the ark for one more...
open the door before I............
Were all those outside the ark really so bad as to die at the hands of an angry, vengeful god?
Now, stay with me. I think we must also ask: Was Noah really such a tzaddik, a righteous person? Was he as righteous as Oscar Schindler. The story of his life was entitled, Schindler’s Ark. In an utterly wicked generation, Oscar Schindler was a womanizer and scoundrel, schmoozing with the Nazis. Yet, unlike Noah, he didn't simply think of himself, but tried to save others from the flood of the Nazi holocaust. Was Noah more righteous than the womanizer Oscar Schindler? Can we consider Noah a mere "innocent bystander," not uttering a word of protest amidst the screaming, gurgling and gasping for air, the clawing and pounding at the gofer wood door, and remaining silent at the sight of all the muck and mess and bloated bodies lying in front of the ark's open door? Can anyone be called "righteous,” who stands by silently, protecting themselves while others suffer tragically? Would we call "righteous" those who stood by and said and did nothing during the holocaust? Doesn't righteousness mean speaking up or doing something for the victims, expressing concern for others beyond ourselves?
Abraham was a tzaddik, a righteous person. He argued with God in an attempt to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were facing annihilation. Was Noah really all that blameless? After leaving the ark he got stinkin' drunk, lay in his tent naked as a jay bird exposing himself to his children, then overreacted by cursing his grandchild because his son saw him in his birthday suit! Why curse his grandson? Would we consider such a man as a moral example, a hero of our faith? Was Noah that righteous or just the most righteous in his generation, which was probably not saying a whole heck of a lot? Or, as the biblical text and Jewish commentary indicate, did Noah merely find favor in God's eyes? That is, was he saved by God's sheer grace?
Don’t tune me out yet. A few more hard questions. I’m hoping not to be struck by lightning! What about God's hand in this shetef (flood), this "humanicide"? In our story we have a God who regrets having made humanity. People, supposedly we're talking about the God of the universe, God with a capital "G." God regrets having created humanity? Shouldn't God have thought this through before Genesis chapter two? A little forethought might have been nice before wiping out all of creation. I mean it's not like God didn't have time to figure out that we humans were going to blow it. I could have told God that! Wasn't God being just a bit rash? What would you think if a parent looked at their own children and said, "I regret having created these children. It makes me so sad they turned out so bad, so I guess I'll just have to wipe them off the face of the earth and start all over again, like starting a new game of “cosmic Monopoly.” Oh, but I will spare little Johnny and his friends"?
We consider it “childish behavior” when the child doesn't like the sand castle he made and says, "I don't like this!" and throws a fit and knocks it down. The problem is after God knocks down the sandcastle of this world, the new one isn't a whole heck of a lot better. According to the story, after totally destroying all of life on earth, except in the ark, the text says God finally learns something about us humans that God didn't seem to know before the flood---we humans are evil from the start. It’s not just that we humans do bad things. We are bad to the bone! But then, God repents. God changes his mind. He rethinks this whole apocalyptic destruction thing. Well, maybe by using water. Some think God will use fire next time! Much cleaner approach. As long as the earth lasts and the seasons change, God will not kill us all off with a flood again. Does the God of Noah need an education at the expense of all of created life?
Or, we might ask of the text, was the destruction of all living things really necessary? Total annihilation? I mean, this was a cataclysm beyond the help of the Red Cross and Mennonite Disaster Service! Wasn't this overreacting a bit? Could not God have been a little more selective in judging the world? Remember the children in diapers outside the ark? Well, tell me also, what horror had the hippos done? What was the sin of the sparrows? What crime had the kangaroos committed? Isn't nondiscriminating, mass genocide or "cosmocide" overdoing it a bit? Does the punishment fit the crime? Like Noah, does God need to learn some self-restraint and to not overreact so much? Tough questions I think an adult faith needs to ask.
Now, we realize that the ancient writer of the story presents God from a very human point of view. I have been questioning the text from a modern viewpoint, wrestling with the text, questioning the god portrayed, probing for its truth. Some of us may want to stick with the children’s version of the story with drifting ark with animal heads poking out and the rainbow arching overhead. But, as adults I think we may need to ask these kinds of questions of the Noah story. Remember, this is not a child's story. It's a story for adults. This is tale of terror to wrestle with.
At the same time that this is a tale of terror, it is also a story of hope and global peace. This story has some affirmative things to say to us as a people. Admittedly, the God of Noah brings both weal and woe, judgment and grace. However we understand or whatever we think of Noah’s “God,” this God is one whose heart grieves humanity’s wickedness, rebellion, and violence, like a parent grieves a wayward child. The God of Noah calls for humanity to avoid the shedding of blood or the taking of human life. God says, “I will require a reckoning for human life.” Violence and killing must be countered with justice.
Then, God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants. This is a covenant with all of humanity. God binds God’s own Self to this irrevocable covenant with humanity to never again destroy the earth by a flood. God’s cosmic weapons will “never again” be drawn. What has changed is not humanity or creation. God has changed. This does not mean that evil has ceased or that war, death or destruction will not come. It does mean that these destructive things are not rooted in the heart of God. They do not reflect God’s desire for retribution or vengeance.
I wonder if what we see reflected in this ancient tale of terror and this story of hope is a primitive grasping after an understanding of God or Reality. Since in this early human grappling with Reality all things come from God, does the story place the chaos and destructive nature of creation in the lap of God? We know that this story is borrowed and modified from Babylonian stories of a flood. Aren’t floods a sign of an angry God? Do we see in this tale not only a revolution in God’s heart, but a revolution in our human perception of God as being for us and offering undeserved grace toward all humanity and creation? Possibly what we have reflected in this ancient story of Noah is a seismic shift in humanity’s understanding of God or Reality as turned toward grace and peace. I wonder.
The sign of the covenant with Noah and his descendants is a rainbow in the sky. It is a promise to humanity and creation. The bow represents not just a weapon, but an undrawn weapon. God is no longer looking for an enemy. God will not be “brain-washed” by the destructive flood as a symbol of divine retribution. God will look upon the rainbow and remember this global covenant of peace with humanity and creation.
We can align ourselves with this cosmic shift toward peace, this divine covenant of peace with all humanity and with creation. As descendants of Noah, as God’s children, as partners with creation, as followers of Jesus, as Peacemakers, and Anabaptist-Mennonites, we align our lives with the God who proclaimed this global covenant of peace. Not only is this a covenant that speaks to global peacemaking, but also to ecological concerns, for God made this covenant with “every living creature.”
If the heart of God has turned toward peace with humanity and creation, then to align our lives with this God is to follow the way of peace and preservation, conciliation and conservation. We could say the same as followers of Christ. If we align our lives with Jesus Christ, we will be a people of peace. Our symbols are the dove with the olive branch and the unstrung bow overarching the earth. As Menno Simons sang with his life: We are people of God’s peace as a new creation…a new covenant of peace binds us all together. This is the covenant that binds us together with God as a congregation and as a people. This is our collective identity. This is who we are as a people. This is who we are as descendants of Noah. This is who we are as followers of Christ. We are people of God’s peace.
At the same time, God’s covenant of peace transcends our own nation, our own faith tradition, our own denomination. This is a global covenant of peace. It is a covenant with all the descendants of Noah, a covenant with all of creation. So, we can celebrate wherever the descendants of Noah honor and nurture God’s global covenant of peace with humanity and creation. While the world may continue to be flooded in chaos and violence and humans destroy the environment, there are descendants of Noah who remember, honor, and nurture God’s global covenant of peace.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
*This sermon was preached on Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Chuch, Hubbard, Oregon.
One in a million is awake to the divine life. So said Henry David Thoreau in his famous writing Walden. Thoreau goes on to say: To be awake is to be alive. I have yet met a (person) who was quite awake. How could I have looked (them) in the face? The words of Thoreau remind me of the story of Moses, when he came down from Mt. Sinai following a rendezvous with God. The people couldn't look upon his face because of its radiance. His own face had been transformed by gazing upon the face of God. Where, today, are the faces of those who are awake to the divine life? Who has been transformed by the splendor of God?
We may have difficulty beholding the radiant splendor of God's presence. Unlike Moses, most of us don't commune with God face-to-face. Our encounter with God comes through splinters of the reflected glory of God that shine through occasionally when we read the scriptures, break the bread and drink the cup, listen to our favorite music, sit alone in silence, watch a child playing, or bask in the setting sun. Shafts of God's glory sometimes beam through the cracks in the curtain of this world and we catch our breath.
Imagine what might happen if God's glory broke through the veil of this world unhindered and unmediated. We would all need crash helmets and fire suits to protect us. We're like the Israelites who, according to one interpretation, were afraid of even the reflected glory of God in the face of Moses, so he had to wear a veil in their presence. The Hebrew people believed that a direct encounter with the splendor and awe-full glory of God could mean death. That's why a rope was tied to the leg of the High Priest before he entered into the Holy of Holies, just in case he kicked the bucket they could pull him out without having to go in after him. Pulitzer prize winning writer Annie Dillard once remarked that she often thinks of the various parts of the church's worship as words people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.
Rudolph Otto, in his classic study The Idea of the Holy, describes the human experience of this mysterious, awe of God. His term for it is Mysterium Tremendum. Mysterium points to the awe-inspiring, incomprehensible, unutterable experience of a Wholly Other God. Tremendum indicates the aweful, fearful aspect of encountering God. The terrible glory of God is both fascinating and fearful. This experience of God's radiant presence is dramatized in Steven Spielberg's movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. A sinister archaeologist poses as a Hebrew high priest and dares to invoke the Shekinah or Glorious Presence from the ark of the covenant that had been recovered in an Egyptian tomb by the Nazis. At first the priest is fascinated and overwhelmed by the light of God that begins to arise from the open ark. Then, after a moment a deep rumble and moan begins to rise up from the ark of God's presence. The horrible light of God consumes the priest and all the Nazi soldiers who stand near the ark with their unholy feet trampling on sacred ground. The unveiled glory of God is too aweful for any human to behold directly.
But, in Christ we see clearly the radiant reflection of God's glorious presence. The story of the transfiguration dramatizes this truth. Like Moses on the mountain, Jesus radiates the glory of God. The disciples get a peek at God's splendor shining through Jesus. The veil of his humanity is pulled back for a moment and we catch a glimpse of the glory that was and is and is to come. Edwin Muir, in his poem Transfiguration, has the disciples looking back on their experience of the transfiguration and asking,
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that's everywhere
"In Christ the veil has been removed from our faces," says the apostle Paul. We all, with open face behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord. Christ is the glass that reflects into our eyes the awesome glory of God, like looking at the brilliant sun through the windshield of our car near the end of the day. Christ is the bright reflection of God, which we can bear to gaze upon with unveiled faces. To see in the face of Christ the glory of God is to be, in the words of Thoreau, awake and alive to the divine life.
For Christ is the untarnished icon of God. Paul uses the term eikon or "image" to describe the reflected glory of God in Christ. Christ is the icon or image of God. In Orthodox Christian churches icons or painted images of Christ, surrounded in shining gold leaf and with a hallooed head, are used in worship. The Orthodox worshipper may bow down before the icon, light a candle in front of it, and pray to God while meditating upon the icon. The icon is believed to re-present Christ in such a way that Christ is present through the icon. As the icon of God, Christ re-presents the presence and glory of God. Christ is the meeting place, the blood and bone sanctuary where we meet God. Christ reflects the unbearable splendor of God not only in his transfiguration and resurrection, but also in his life and death. In the transfiguration we see clearly the brilliance of God in the veil of Jesus' human flesh. So that with unveiled faces we may behold in Christ, the icon of God, the reflection of God's awesome and terrible brilliance.
What's amazing is that we are being transformed into that very image little by little. Paul says that as we behold the glory of God in Christ, we're being changed into that image or icon from glory to glory. Origen, an early church leader, put it like this: The human who has been made in the image of God by contemplating the divine image...(will) receive...that form... By degrees we are changed into that which we contemplate. This is true negatively as well as positively. For example, children who grow up with their minds filled with TV violence, see violence in their schools and on their streets, and hear violence justified by their political leaders, become, little by little, what they have fed into their minds and hearts. We are changed, bit by bit, into what we contemplate. As we read, study, imagine, meditate upon, hear, and apply the word of Christ to our daily lives, little by little we become what we contemplate. In spoonfuls, we become more Christ-like. We become icons of Christ.
We are becoming more and more icons of Christ, through whom the glory of God in Christ shines. We become icons as our lives reflect the light of Christ through meditation, visualizing ourselves in God’s image, reflecting on the story of Christ’s life, shaping our lives by imitating the image of the living Christ. That's an awesome thought and responsibility; one which we shouldn't take lightly.
As icons of God in Christ we are to be ready to let our lights shine before others so that they may see the splendor of God's glory reflected within and around us. We re-present to those around us the image of Christ, at times the only image of God that others will see, no matter how dusty and tarnished we may be. As we continue to fix our eyes on the image of Christ, we are bit by bit, glory to glory, being transformed into the radiant image of Christ. The amazing truth is that it is in our faces that others will see the image of the divine face.
In a pleasant, sunny valley surrounded by lofty mountains, lived a girl named Christa. On the side of one of the mountains, in bold relief, nature had carved the image of a gigantic face. From the steps of her cottage Christa would gaze intently upon the stone face. Her mother had told her that someday a stranger would come to the valley who looked just like the image of the Face on the Mountain. The coming of this wayfaring stranger would bring the light of joy to the entire community. "Mother," said the girl, "I wish the face could speak, for it looks so kind that its voice must be pleasant. If I were to see a person with such a face, I believe I would be a different person." So, Christa continued to gaze at the Face on the Mountain for hours on end.
Several times the rumor spread that the long-awaited stranger whose face reflected the image of the mountain's face was coming, but each time the person arrived the rumor proved to be false. Years past and Christa had grown into adulthood, doing good to all people. The people of the village loved Christa. As she aged, Christa still waited for the arrival of the long-expected stranger, whose face reflected the image of the Face on the mountain.
One day a poet came to the valley. He heard about the prophecy concerning the Face on the Mountain. One evening, when the sun was setting, he saw Christa going about her business of helping others. As the last rays of light flooded the massive outlines of the distant mountainside, they fell on Christa's face. The poet cried aloud to all the people in the valley, "Behold! Behold! Christa herself is the image of the Face on the Mountain!" Then, all the people looked and, sure enough, they saw what the poet said was true. By looking day by day upon the Face on the Mountain, little by little Christa had been transformed into the very image of that majestic face.
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory
of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being
transformed into the same image from one degree of
glory to another.
So let us, who gaze into the transfigured face of Christ, contemplate these words of contemplative Thomas Merton:
Make ready for Christ
Sets free the song of everlasting glory,
that now sleeps
in your paper flesh
Sunday, February 12, 2012
*Prophetic sermons are sometimes difficult to preach, but it is often necessary to tell the truth. This sermon was no exception. It was preached with some "fear and trembling" on Sunday, February 12 at a white congregation by a white preacher.
When Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States, there was a lot of talk about the US becoming a “post-racial” society. Supposedly racism was now a thing of the past along with slavery, white hoods, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discrimination. How could our society be racist when we had elected a black president? But, I, and others, didn’t fall for this line.
Usually the ugly face of racism is more subtle, hidden, or disguised under a mask of concern for the equal rights of everyone, including whites, who have more than our equal share of benefits and privileges in our society. Recently, in the Republican primaries, racism blatantly showed its ugly face again. Now, I don’t exclude Democrats from racism. Just a few examples being, Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps, Robert Byrd and other democrats’ membership in the KKK, democratic filibustering of the civil rights act, just to name a few. Democrats are equal opportunity offenders! I use incidents during the Republican primaries primarily because they are very recent, sustained, overt and public examples of racism that are usually exhibited with a bit more subtlety and more often couched in coded language within the public square.
On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday beneath a Confederate flag flying over South Carolina, Newt Gingerich unapologetically put Juan Williams, a conservative black journalist, in his place for being an “uppity negro" when he asked Gingerich about the racist overtones of calling Obama a “food stamp” president and suggesting that black people are lazy and their children should be given mops and brooms to learn the value of hard work. Newt’s condescending backlash at “Juan” drew the applause of the audience.
This was one of a number of more overt examples of racist political rhetoric during the Republican primaries. Ron Paul argued that the landmark federal legislation that dismantled Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s was a moral evil and a violation of white people’s liberty. And we could go on about his other comments about most black males being criminals. Rick Santorum told white conservative voters that he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” meaning “white people’s money.” Yet, the fact is 84% of welfare recipients in Iowa, where he made the comment, are white. Mitt Romney used the phrase “Keep America America” reflecting the Ku Klux Klan’s phrase “Keep America, American.” And it doesn’t take a genius at breaking codes to understand that in the phrase “Keep America, America” the second America equals “white.” And finally, Michelle Backmann stated that black families were stronger during slavery than in freedom. Again, racism is just as much a part of the Democratic party, but this recent sustained barrage of public racism, along with thousands of other ongoing examples since Obama’s presidency, reveal clearly that we are not living in some kind of “post-racial” society.
Racism is still alive and well. Whether or not we are prejudiced against people of color, racism is a reality that permeates North American society. In this post-civil rights era we are encountering a far more ingrained, deeply rooted, subtle form of racism that is more difficult to recognize and to heal. The story of Naaman and his healing from leprosy can serve as a narrative metaphor to address another kind of healing needed today----the healing of racism.
The story of Naaman begins in the land of Aram. Naaman was the commander of the Aramean army, a mighty warrior held in high honor and esteem. He was afflicted a skin problem; leprosy. Even though his "leprosy" was probably only a mild form of skin disease, it must have caused him untold moments of social embarrassment. Naaman's wife heard through her slave girl of a prophet in Samaria, who can cure him. She told her husband. Naaman decided to send a letter to the prophet through the official royal channel of King Hazael of Aram. Naaman was able to use his power and privilege to get what he wanted. I could comment on how that works for whites in American society, but I’ll let that one pass for now.
Upon receiving an official communique from the king of Syria asking that Naaman be healed King Joram of Israel ripped his clothes. He couldn't heal Naaman of leprosy any more than having an African-American president can heal our nation’s racism. Elisha informed the king that Naaman needed to come to him. Surely this bruised Naaman's ethnic ego.
Naaman's skin problem was bad enough to cause him to take the risk of stepping over to the other side of the tracks. Naaman gathered his entourage and headed south of the border. He was probably singing, “I’m proud to be an Aramean, where at least I know I’m free.” As he halted his chariots in front of Elisha's house the coins he brought jingled. Still wrapped up in a flag of ethnic and nationalistic pride, Naaman didn't even get down from his chariot to speak directly to Elisha. Elisha, who was a dignitary in his own right, must have considered this a slap in the face, something akin to calling an African-American man a “boy.” So, he responded in kind by sending out a messenger to Naaman to tell him a thing or two. Elisha's messenger told Naaman that he must go and wash himself seven times in the muddy Jordan River, another big blow to Naaman's ethnic ego. This demand raised the hackles on Naaman's skin and he stormed away infuriated.
In our story we find Naaman infected with an ethnocentric worldview. Admittedly, he did have to eat a slice of humble pie in order to cross the border into a foreign land and to stand before a foreign prophet of a foreign God. Naaman wasn't looking for any long term relationship with another ethnic group. Maybe all he wanted was to be able to say, “Hey, I’m not prejudiced. Why, I even know some Israelites.I’ve been to their country.” Naaman wanted to do his deed and get the heck out of there. This was kind of like the hit-and-run approach of short-term mission work. Go to some ethnic community, do your thing, and then go back to right side of the tracks, with no long term commitments.
Naaman figured his healing wouldn’t take too long. He expected Elisha to come out to him, like one of the priests of his own religion. The prophet was supposed to call on his god's name, magically wave his hand over Naaman's spotted skin, and abracadabra, he would be healed. Then, he would be on his merry way. Instead, Elisha told him to go and wash himself in Israel's Jordan River. "What? Are you nuts? Aren't the Arbana and Pharpar rivers, the rivers of my land and people, better than the waters of the Jordan? Why can't I be healed in my own land, among my own people?" What did Elisha's Jewish land and rivers have that were so special? Naaman didn't get it. He had trouble understanding how washing in a foreign, inferior river was going to heal him. Naaman, the river is not the issue here. It's your ethnocentric attitude that needs to get washed away.
Our process for healing racism may begin with overcoming our ethnocentricity. Ethnocentricity is a viewpoint and attitude which says, "My race, my ethnic group is superior to others." In order to understand Naaman's actions and attitude toward another people we need to understand his actions in collective terms more than as an individual attitude. Let's think of Naaman as part of a larger social system of a people displaying prejudiced attitudes toward another people group. Ethnocentricity says, "My people, my nation, my land, my ethnic group is better than yours." Ethnocentricity keeps us from healing relationships. As long as we cling to white superiority and privilege, we will not be able to nurture those relationships which can be healing balm to our lives. Dealing with our ethnocentricity can become the first step on the road to healing racism.
Ethnocentricity blocks the power of God's healing streams that flow through all races, ethnic groups, and nations. To consider our race, our people, our land as better than everyone else's fosters xenophobia, the fear or hatred of the stranger or foreigner. Ethnocentrism has dominated our white, European culture and history. It has resulted in a nation wounded by imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, racism, and violence. Ethnocentrism is, in reality, one of the first words that must be written on the pages of American history. As European Americans we need to be reminded that the land on which we live was not our land to begin with. The death of millions of Native Americans, their ghettoization, and the destruction of many indigenous cultures in the process of taking this land was fed by ethnocentrism. There is no record that any of the white intruders into these native lands looked positively upon the Native American peoples, their religion, or culture. The Naamans who took this land of America thought, "What do the streams of Native American life have to offer to us Europeans? Aren't the cultural streams of our own native lands much cleaner?"
In our own day ethnocentrism still permeates the land founded upon "liberty and justice for all." It has resulted in systemic white racism. One of the ways we blind ourselves to the presence of racism is by thinking of it only in individual terms as racial prejudice. Racism is not about personal prejudice. When we say, "Well, Black people can be just as racist as white people," or throw around ideas like “so-called “reverse racism,” we are thinking of racism in individualistic terms.
Racism is not just a matter of personal prejudice. Mennonite Central Committee's Damascus Road Antiracism training defines racism with this formula: Racism= prejudice + abuse of systemic power. Trainers are adamant upon this analysis in understanding racism, even when white people don't get it. No other ethnic group in our society has the power to enforce their prejudices upon another group, no matter how many individual exceptions we might conjure up to try and negate this systemic reality. Therefore, with this definition racism is primarily a white problem. If anyone still doesn't get it, I suggest that they take the Damascus Road training, another small step into the stream of healing racism.
The disease of racism causes us to break out in a skin condition called "white supremacy." I'm not talking about white supremicists like the KKK marching down the streets in white sheets unashamedly yelling "white power!" I’m talking about the pervasive, prevailing, but unrecognized problem in white American society where white people, white culture, and white religious expression are seen to be the norm. Our ways, white ways, are not only normal and standard, but are superior. White is our social norm. Just look at a “flesh colored” band-aids or crayons. Look at Jesus’ color in our Sunday School pictures. As a collective group white, European Americans hold the most power and privilege in our society. Whites hold economic, judicial, educational, political, and social power. Whether or not we are overtly prejudice or racist in intent, all whites, including myself, participate in and benefit from a racist system, which subordinates and oppresses people of color.
White racism is still with us. Racism is not exclusive to the KKK, the Aryan Nations, and the Skinheads. That's why electing a black president has very little to do with systemic racism. Systemic racism exists in the systems and institutions of our whole society. Racism shows up in pocketbooks, politics, and perceptions. Take, for instance, these findings from some recent surveys and studies. A Census Bureau study from ten years ago revealed that the average college-educated African American man earned less than the average college-educated European man by $10,000 a year. That gap is most likely the same or wider today. Another survey revealed different perceptions among whites and blacks about work among the races. Two-thirds of the whites surveyed believed that African-Americans get "equal pay for equal work," while two-thirds of blacks believed just the opposite.
In another study, for whites an integrated neighborhood is a community with at least one Black household out of fifteen, while for African Americans it is a fifty-fifty ratio. Also concerning housing, another survey showed that 55 percent of whites said blacks are not worse off concerning their homes than other groups with comparable education and income, but 64 per cent of the blacks surveyed believe they are worse off. One survey showed that more than one-third of whites still think blacks tend to be "less ambitious," "breed crime," and "have less native intelligence than whites."
Naaman had a skin problem. Racism is, in a real sense, a skin problem; the problem of power and privilege that comes with having white skin and judging others based upon the amount of melanin in their skin. It is disease that has infected our institutions and infected our social arrangements, including education, housing, job opportunities, economics, legal and judicial systems. Ethnocentrism, white supremacy, and racism block the healing streams of God's power that flows out to all nations, races, and peoples. And we remember from last week how Jesus broke through these types of barriers to allow God’s healing streams to flow to a Samaritan woman.
Healing racism will require that we step into God's healing streams. It will require a religious and social conversion; a baptism against the strong currents of racism. Naaman was cured of his leprosy only as he obeyed the word of God from the foreign prophet, Elisha, and washed himself in the Jordan River. He was not only healed physically from his leprosy, but also personally and spiritually from his egocentricity, and socially from his ethnocentricity. He stood face to face with Elisha and confessed his faith in the God of Israel. A religious and social conversion took place within Naaman's life. His new perspective caused him to act in a rather strange way. He asked to take some dirt from the land of Israel to worship on! Naaman even asked to be pardoned when he bowed within the house of worship of his former god, Rimmon. Naaman missed the point by focusing on the land, like some who wake up to racism and advocate "cultural awareness" or "multicultural training" as a solution to racism. They are missing the point. It’s more than simply appreciating other cultures. It has to do with dismantling the structures that keep the healing streams of life from flowing to all people.
The story of Naaman can point us to the healing waters. Our own spiritual and social healing from the disease of racism will require that we listen to the Word of our universal God that comes from the prophets of other races. We will be called upon to bathe in the living streams of other races and peoples. In order to be healed of our racism we will need to listen to and take seriously the prophetic voices among African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. Their word may open blind eyes and set captives of racism free. We will need to trust the leadership of people of color to show us the way to the healing streams and not think our way of doing things is always the right or only way. But, be prepared. Our white communities will probably be far more resistant to following the word and leadership of people of color than Naaman was in following Elisha's advice. Yet, the word of our brothers and sisters may be just the Word from God's that we so desperately need to hear for our own healing. The streams of lives and communities different from ours may be the water we need that cleanses us of America's original sin.
To be healed of our skin problem will require stepping into God's healing streams. We can put our toes into the stream by educating ourselves and our children about the dynamics of racism and the cultures of people of color. One of our white privileges is that we don't have to know anything about other cultures or think about race or racism, which is a daily reality for people of color. We can step into healing waters by making long term relations with people of color in our communities, like with Bridging Cultures. We can go waist deep by dealing with racism on a congregational level. Both my wife, Iris, and I have been involved in antiracism work through MCC, Mennonite Mission Network, and MC USA and will continue to advocate for the institutional dismantling of racism, so God’s healing grace can flow freely.
And what does this all mean for Zion? Racism is admittedly a tough topic to tackle in white congregations. Where do we even begin? I don’t suspect Zion has openly and intentionally intended on becoming a “white congregation.” It is not in your constitution, any confessions of faith, or mission statements. But, have you ever sat down and seriously explored the simple question, “Why is Zion a white congregation?” Hopefully, it would be more illuminating than guilt or justification producing. As with most white congregations, this is not a question we have ever had to ask ourselves or would feel comfortable asking ourselves. It’s not a topic we care to or would find any real reason for discussing. If we honestly answered the question, “Why are we a white congregation?,” we would have to explore the historical, traditional, community, social, economic, religious, familial, and attitudinal roots and the boundary markers that have formed us into a white congregation? Just asking and discussing that question among ourselves might be the splash of cold water in the face needed to wake us up.
Or even before discussing that question, we might first begin by recognizing and naming ourselves as “white.” Not so much as a description of our pigment, but as a classification of our racial group’s privileged social and economic status. You see, we have the privilege, unknown to other racial groups, of never have to think of ourselves as a race, let alone as “white” or as a “white congregation.” When have we ever had to be identified like this, “My friend, Dave, he’s a white guy,” “I go to a white church over in Hubbard,” “Yeah, I attend a white school in Canby” “In seminary I studied white theology.” Naming our whiteness and its privileges and problems may be just putting our little toe in the river, but it might be a start toward healing our racism.
Some of us may still be wondering what in the world the story of Naaman has to do with ethnic/racial issues. Isn't this stretching the application a bit? Well, a precedent for applying the story of Naaman to ethnic issues was once set by a well known preacher. When he was in his early thirties, just starting his ministry, he preached his first sermon in his home church. He read the scripture text for the morning service and started to preach. The congregation was amazed at the eloquence of his sermon. That was until he got to the part where he applied the Scripture text to their lives. He applied the scriptures to some ethnocentric viewpoints and attitudes of his audience. The preacher simply referred to the familiar story of Naaman and let its meaning bubble up in the well of their consciousness. He said, "There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” The congregation shifted in their pews and tugged at their collars. The implication was right there in their own Holy Scripture. God is free to choose another people, nationality, or race above their own, through which to act and to bring healing. When the sermon was over the congregation didn't come up to the preacher after the service, smile, and say, "Nice sermon, preacher." Instead, they went into a rage, drove him out of town, and were ready to throw him off the edge of a cliff! Who was that young preacher? Jesus! (Luke 4)
If we are to be healed of our disease of racism, like Naaman we will need to listen to the Word of God coming from unexpected sources and strange sounding requests. Today's prophets are telling us to go and dip ourselves in God's healing waters, however foreign and unfamiliar the streams. It’s time to step into the healing waters.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, February 5, 2012, the fifth Sunday of Epiphany.
Jesus sits on a rock beside the well at Sychar resting his dusty feet. The hot yellow sun creates heat waves on the horizon. Jesus waits under a date tree for some merciful passerby. His lips are cracked and dry. There’s no clay jar for drawing the water to quench his raging thirst. The sound of jingling ankle bracelets can be heard along with the distant bleating of a goat. A woman, with a water jar balanced ever so precariously on her head, makes her way down the sunbaked road. Her dark almond eyes are painted and her lips pomegranate red. In one nostril is a small silver ring. She comes upon this bone-weary stranger and a conversation begins to flow and life-giving waters begin to gush forth.
This chance meeting of Jesus and a Samaritan woman, as told in the gospel of John, appears to be a normal and natural human encounter. And yet, this ordinary meeting turns into an extraordinary life-giving conversation. Jesus offers the woman something deeper and more soul-quenching than the water from Jacob's well. It is but a symbol of the gift of living water which Jesus offers to her. Living water is the gift God offers in the life of Jesus, who reveals God's gushing gracefulness in life. From her simple encounter with Jesus at Jacob's well this woman's life begins to overflow with living water from a well within. Jesus satisfied her deepest thirst.
If we look closely, we will see there were many invisible barriers that could have dammed up the healing stream that flowed between them. Jesus and the Samaritan woman had to break through a number of barriers in order for God's living water to flow between them. We may not readily see the barriers, but they are in the story. Given all the barriers that existed between them in their particular cultural context, it's a miracle they even met let alone have a life-giving encounter! Everything was working against their conversation ever happening and the flow of God's living water between them.
Jesus asks the woman for a drink. She responds, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria." The first words in their conversation indicate two barriers they broke in their meeting. First, they broke through a gender barrier. The fact that Jesus was a man and she a woman was an obstacle which stood like a wall between them. Her question reveals the patriarchal culture of their day. It can also be seen in the reaction of the disciples upon returning: They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Men and women, including married couples, did not speak to each other in public. It was not proper first century Mediterranean custom. What makes it even more astonishing is Jesus not only asks for a drink from a woman, but as a rabbi he openly discusses theology with a woman in public.
It hasn't been that long ago women could not drink from the streams of life as men could. And in many situations today women still face barriers to experiencing the fullness of life God offers in the arenas of family, the job market, economics, politics, and religion. Just walk into any number of churches where this story is read and you will find women not allowed to teach or preach or who are serving in limited roles within the church.
How odd that congregations who would restrict women’s place in the church have read this story of the Samaritan woman over and over again. Here was a woman who had a theological discussion with Jesus, preached and "evangelized" the Samaritan people through her personal testimony, and converted many to belief in Jesus as the Messiah! And yet, if she were present today in many churches, she wouldn’t be allowed to preach or she would probably be looked upon as being in a lesser role than a male leader. What’s up with that? Now, Zion Mennonite has moved beyond all that, right? We have a woman as an associate pastor and one woman elder. I’m glad no one at Zion has those old patriarchal attitudes toward women. That’s why I’m sure everyone here will be open to considering a woman as your new pastor. Ahem. Just clearing my throat of some irony. Jesus and the preaching, theologizing, evangelizing Samaritan woman were transgressing the gender boundaries of their day in order to have a life-giving conversation.
Second, they broke through an ethnic/racial barrier. The Samaritan woman was thrown off guard by Jesus initiating a conversation not only because she was a woman and he was a man, but also because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew. The gospel writer even notes that "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans." There was enmity between Samaritans and Jews. The Jews considered the Samaritans "half-breeds" in that their Israelite ancestors co-mingled and intermarried with the Gentiles that earlier had colonized their territory. The tension between Jews and Samaritans was proverbial, which makes Jesus' parable of the "good Samaritan" a subversive, counter cultural story. The language of John's comment about Jews and Samaritans not sharing things in common indicates the prevailing attitude that Jews considered Samaritans unclean, particularly their women. By drinking from the pitcher of a Samaritan woman Jesus risked becoming "contaminated."
Remember the separate drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites in America only a few decades ago? This weekend Iris is on a 4 day bus learning tour of the South visiting places where social barriers to the waters of life were walled off by whites. There were even separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites. Whites, including religious folk who had read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, feared being "contaminated" by blacks.
The invisible wall that separates people of color from whites is still a thick one. That wall surrounds most white congregations, including Zion. It has been said that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. The bricks of this racial barrier are built upon the foundation of white supremacy, privilege and power. But, the racial barrier that damns up God's flow of life is cemented with far more subtle tactics of excluding people of color, such as patronizing attitudes, acceptance of the status quo, and stereotyping. Racism continues to damn up God's gift of ever flowing life to all people. We will explore this theme further next Sunday. Jesus and the Samaritan woman broke through an ethnic/racial barrier in order to share the fountain of life that God freely offers to all.
Third, Jesus and the Samaritan woman broke through a moral barrier. It was not by accident the Samaritan woman came to the well about noon time. Most women came to fill their pitchers with water in the cool of the morning or early evening. This woman comes during the heat of the day, probably to avoid the glaring eyes, furrowed brows, and whispered comments of the other women in the village. Most likely she was not considered one of the most morally upright citizens of Sychar. Jesus knows all too well how true this is. He asks her to go call her husband, as if to open the door for her to confess her lifestyle.
She is something of a Liz Taylor. She has had five husbands and is not married to the man with whom she currently shares her bed. Co-habitation existed in the first century. How shocking! Well, it doesn't seem to shock Jesus. It doesn't even ruffle his feathers. You would think Jesus, being a prophet and a holy man, should have pursued the subject of co-habitation and sex outside marriage with this wicked Jezebel. What kind of prophet is he, anyhow? Jesus doesn't even press the moral issue. It appears that he has a more important issue to discuss with the woman.
But what could be more important than dealing with sexual morality? Jesus, you need to get your priorities straightened out! Maybe Jesus should take some lessons from us. We Americans have sex on the brain. It's a major preoccupation of our culture and our churches. The hot moral issues used to be divorce and co-habitation or "living in sin." Now the big moral issue is homosexuality.
Homosexuality has become a central moral issue of the church, to the exclusion of all other moral issues, like injustice, war, violence, inequity, globalization, materialism, consumerism, and intolerance. And some Mennonites think homosexuality is an issue the church can easily solve with a simplistic bumper sticker theology like, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” Both sides in this debate grab Jesus by the arm and shout, "Jesus is on our side!" and yank him this way and that practically ripping the body of Christ apart. And instead of focusing upon how we together can share the healing streams of God's grace, we remain intensely divided over this moral issue.
Though Jesus is not disinterested in morality and ethics, maybe Jesus isn't always interested in pressing moral issues, particularly in his encounter with real human beings. Maybe Jesus has a more important subject for us to consider. He has within himself God’s wellspring of life to share freely with everyone, no matter what their moral situation. Jesus and the woman broke through the moral barrier that could have hindered the flow of God's life-giving river.
If moral positions don't divide us, then surely religious ones will. The fourth barrier Jesus and the Samaritan woman broke through was a religious, social, and political barrier. Remember, religion and politics were mixed in Jesus' day, along with social attitudes, as they often are today. The Samaritan woman initiated a conversation with Jesus about the differences between Jewish and Samaritan religion. She acknowledged that Jewish worship was centralized at the temple in Jerusalem, while Samaritan worship was centered at Mt. Gerizim. Differences in religion had hardened political and social divisions between Jews and Samaritans.
Is there nothing new under the sun? We have a hard enough time breaking down the barriers between Mennonites who are like us and in our own congregations, let alone trying to break through barriers to find commonality with our Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Baptist, Nazarene, and Pentecostal brothers and sisters. And we can’t forget about the necessity of dialogue with persons of other religions, like Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Sadly enough, some Christians would just as soon push people from other religions into the well rather than share with them a cup of refreshing water!
And the streams of religion always seems to get mixed up in the political ocean. We see it in the politics of the conservative Right and the liberal Left in the U.S. We have seen it in the religious politics of Bosnia and Serbia, Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Middle Eastern Muslims and American Christians. These rock-hard barriers damn up God's free flowing streams of healing grace and produce stagnant pools of death. What a shock it was for many Americans to hear of a small group of Mennonite Christians, which included my wife Iris, meeting with, eating with, and talking with Iranian President Ahmadinejad out of their faith in this Jesus. How controversial, to follow the example of Jesus who sat, talked, and shared a cup of cold water with a Samaritan woman at a well.
While most Jews would go around Samaria to avoid it when traveling between northern and southern Palestine, our text says Jesus had to go through Samaria, as if it was a spiritual necessity. Maybe there's a real sense in which Christians have to go to the Muslim countries and open conversations with Muslims. And though he spoke of salvation in Jewish terms, Jesus nevertheless chose to speak to the Samaritan woman what they shared in common. He talked about how their same God, who is Spirit and not some tribal god, transcends the differences in their places of worship. Dare we dialogue with people of other denominations and faiths based on what we hold in common? In order for God's life-giving water to flow between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, they had to break through the gender, ethic/racial, moral, religious, social, and political barriers of their day.
What barriers will we need to break through in order for God's life-giving stream to flow to all people? I might suggest that the barriers to the fullness of life God offers to all are often dammed up by these same barricades. Otherwise, why are women still not treated equally with men? Why are most of our communities and congregations still segregated? Why is ecumenical and interfaith dialogue so difficult? Why does the church fall in line with our national agenda of hating our enemies instead of at least trying to talk with them? Why do we quickly judge and look down our noses at those whose moral lives are not perfect, like ours? Ahem! Clearing my throat of some more irony. Two thousand years have passed since Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman and the issues are still the same.
Let us remember who we are, O children of the baptismal waters. We have been baptized into a community where the barriers to God's living water are dismantled! The barricades to God's river of life have been toppled. We, who have entered the baptismal waters of new life, have been initiated into a new community where the human barriers to God's living water have been removed. The apostle Paul said of all who have been baptized in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28). Elsewhere Paul said Christ is our peace, having broken down the dividing wall between us (Ephesians 2:14). He was most likely using the image of the temple walls which had literal walls that separated God's presence from priests, priests from people, men from women, Jews from Gentiles, and everyone from the impure.
In their grace-full encounter Jesus and the Samaritan dismantled these kinds of invisible walls between them allowing the life-giving water of God to freely flow. When the walls that divide us as human beings are dismantled, God's gurgling brooks of grace flow between people.