A Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 7, 2019

A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, July 7, 2019

I woke up last Sunday to pictures of the President stepping across a raised line in Korea and I’ve been trying all week to understand why the same man would want to ignore a border in Korea and build one up in Texas. I’ve been wondering whether today’s Old Testament reading can help us understand. It’s all about borders: the walls we build and the walls we tear down.

Naaman was a Syrian: commander of the armies of Aram Aram or Syria – same thing – a major power in those days stretching from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates It took in modern Syria and most of Iraq. Some borders mattered to Naaman and some didn’t. He ignored borders when he wanted to plunder his Hebrew neighbors. He was raiding south of the border one day and captured a young Hebrew woman and brought her north as a slave to serve his wife. Borders couldn’t stand in the way of personal gain.

Naaman’s behavior is similar, I think, to the way American corporations have plundered Central America for generations, exploited resources, overthrown governments, enriched a few and impoverished many. The American novelist, O Henry, invented the term “Banana Republic” to describe the governments created by the United Fruit Company and others to enrich American investors and impoverish Hondurans and Guatemalans. Borders don’t matter when we’re looking for plunder.

Israel had been a plunderer in the time of David and Solomon but now Israel was the plunderee, now it was a banana republic, ravaged by Egypt to the south and Syria to the north. Naaman would have understood our politics today. You might bring a few Central Americans north as servants and to work in the fields, you would certainly plunder the wealth, but you would build walls to keep most of the people you impoverished from coming north themselves. You build borders to protect yourself from that.

But the situation was complicated because Naaman was a leper. Well, it looked like leprosy. They couldn’t much tell different skin diseases apart in those days, but it looked like leprosy and that was scary. Leprosy ate away at your body and slowly destroyed you, and it was contagious so you exiled lepers, you made them stay outside the towns and cities, wander the countryside, but not get close. Lepers had to stay outside an invisible border ringing a bell to warn you and calling out “Unclean, unclean.”

But Naaman was the commanding general of the Syrian armies, so he wouldn’t be exiled quickly, but if that patch on his arm began to spread and he couldn’t hide it that was the end: no more palace, no more servants, no more luxuries, but a slow, painful, miserable death away from everything he valued and everything he cared about. But the Hebrew servant girl knew something, and she told Naaman’s wife and Naaman’s wife told him. The servant girl said, “There’s a prophet in Israel who does healings. Some say he even raised the dead. Maybe he can solve your problem.” So Naaman told the king and the king gave consent and Naaman headed south with a small army of servants and soldiers and went straight to the king’s palace in Israel.

The king of Israel at the time was probably King Jehoram, son of Ahaz, but this minor king was so unimportant we’re never told his name. So Naaman showed up at the door with a small army and said, “Cure my leprosy.” Well, the maid never said the king could do it, but Naaman just started at the top and scared Jehoram to death. “Me cure leprosy? Is he looking for another war?” But they got things straightened out and General Naaman went to see Elisha. And Elisha couldn’t be bothered even to go to the door. “Leprosy? No problem. Tell him to go wash in the Jordan and he’ll be fine.”

But Naaman was outraged. “Wash in the Jordan? That muddy creek?” We’ve got better rivers in Syria. Well, they did. Yjey had the Euphrates. He could have washed in the mighty Euphrates. Why bother to come all the way down south to wash in some muddy brook in Israel? Naaman flew into a rage and it took a while for his servants to calm him down. “Look,” they said, “if he’d asked you to do a hundred pushups or wash all over with Chanel #5 – wouldn’t you have done it? So why not the simple thing? What’s to lose?” So, grudgingly, he did. And it worked. And he was thrilled And that’s the end of today’s reading. It’s supposed to parallel or connect with the Gospel reading about Jesus sending the disciples out on a healing mission, but I’d rather make the connection to the headlines and borders.

So let me just finish off the story that the reading left hanging, unfinished. Here’s what we didn’t hear. Naaman was thrilled. He went back to Elisha and offered to pay him. But Elisha waved him off. “No problem. Go on home. Don’t worry. Forget about it.” So then – here’s the part I like – Naaman said, “Well, OK, but at least let me take back to Syria two mule loads of earth.”

Why? What’s that about? Naaman wants the dirt because now he knows there’s a God in Israel who answers prayer and he wants a chunk of Israel to stand on from now on when he prays so the God of Israel will hear him.

Do you see what’s happening? We’re at a stage of human development, religious development, when different people had different gods and the gods were connected with certain areas, certain lands. When in Israel, pray to Jehovah. When in Syria, pray to Baal. Gods have borders too. But Baal didn’t help my leprosy and Yahweh did. So if I have to go back to Syria maybe I can take some of Israel with me and stand on it when I pray and this powerful Israelite God will still hear my prayers

Here’s the point: this is a story of events that took place almost 3000 years ago and they were at a very early stage in the story of the human understanding of God. Move down a few centuries and you find Isaiah, another prophet for another time, and Isaiah knew something Naaman didn’t know and maybe Elishah didn’t either. Isaiah knew that God is a God who rules all nations. Isaiah knew that God could take King Cyrus of Babylon and use him as a tool in God’s hand. Isaiah knew that the God of Israel is the only God and there is no other. Isaiah knew that from the rising of the sun to it’s setting there is no other God. “I am the Lord,”“ says the God of Isaiah, “and there is no other.”

Think again about borders. We have a president who can step across one border and build walls on another. But what’s the big picture here? Where is God in all this? What does God care about borders? Here we are on the weekend celebrating American Independence and I learned something about that last week that I hadn’t known before. We have a prayer in the Prayer Book for Independence Day and we have assigned readings from the Bible, and I thought we always had. But No. No, the committee that created the first American Prayer Book in 1789 wrote a prayer for Independence Day and chose readings from the Bible, but the Bishop of Pennsylvania said, “Wait a minute. A lot of the clergy were not on board with this business. They had been loyal to their ordination oath to the King of England and some have gone back to England and some to Canada and we don’t want to embarrass the ones who remain by making them give thanks for something they aren’t thankful for.” So there was no prayer for Independence Day in the Episcopal Prayer Book until 1928 when most people had gotten over it. So in 1928 they put back the readings that are more relevant today than ever. They called on Episcopalians down to our own day to read these verses: Deuteronomy 10:17-21:

“The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”If that’s not clear enough, there’s a newer translation, almost ten years old, but more relevant than ever, that puts it this way: “The Lord your God is the God of all gods and the Lord of all lords . . . He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants giving them food and clothing. That means that you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Common English Bible)

Argue the politics however you want and do what you want about walls and borders but our instructions

are clear. I took a certain pride in the presence of the one openly Episcopalian candidate on stage lastweek and the fact that he alone acknowledged that Christians are under orders. He said: “we should call out hypocrisy when we see it. . . a party that associates itself with Christianity . . . (and) suggests that. . . God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

And, yes, is it really so good a thing that there’s another set of borders in the world, another division between human beings? Is it a good thing that Korea is divided North and South? Is it a good thing that North America is divided three ways? Is it a good thing that Central American terrorists can control tiny countries and that we respect their right to rape and pillage as they like because, hey, there’s a border we have to respect?

What is it about borders? How is it that capitalists can ravage tiny countries with no one to hinder them, but when their victims flee for their lives we turn them away? What’s wrong with this picture? The wall is not the whole picture. The picture includes small countries destroyed by our corporations, but we’re not responsible and I don’t understand why.

Now I’m a priest, not a politician. I get to ask questions, not give answers. Except this: our God is the God of Isaiah, who knows no borders. Except this: we have a vision given us and a mandate to fulfill and the same God who loves us and calls us will also be our judge.

We will end the service today with the singing of that great hymn, “America the beautiful,” that puts into words and music something of what I’ve been trying to say:

“O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam
undimmed by human tears . . .”

Few things, I think, cause more tears than borders, but we are given a vision that sees beyond the politics, beyond the borders, beyond the years; a vision that calls us and questions us: Must it indeed be always “beyond the years”?
Why not in our own day?
Why not now?

A Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Palm Sunday,  April 14, 2019, by The Rev. Christopher L. Webber.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .”

A week ago Friday I went to a demonstration. They held it at the corner of Powell and Market at 5 pm. There were placards being waved and a speaker, three speakers, in fact, holding forth. And a crowd. Not a very big crowd – maybe a few hundred quite a few waving posters of one sort and another. We were there demanding release of the Mueller report. I don’t think we made a difference. I didn’t see anyone with a TV camera and I don’t think it even made the local paper, but it made some of us feel better.

Now, I wouldn’t have done that before I retired because I wouldn’t have wanted the parish I was serving to be divided by a political issue. But I’m not in charge any more and I do have opinions and I sometimes feel free to express them in public. But I’m as concerned as I ever was about political differences dividing the church and I would hope that maybe next Sunday Beth would mention in a sermon that she’d been at a Trump rally and we could celebrate the fact that our unity in Christ was greater than any divisions between Donald Trump and Robert Mueller or any conceivable divisions that might come between us. I think we could do that. I hope we could. If our unity in Christ isn’t deeper than our political divisions, there’s something wrong.

I think there was a time when that wasn’t true. We assumed everyone else either thought as we did or else was wrong. The history of humanity is largely a history of wars being fought between armies dedicated to the simple proposition that we were right and they were wrong. We understand a little better now that not all minds work the same way and that we can sometimes learn from the way other minds work or at least need to be aware of their differences. I think, in fact, that human beings have always been fascinated by other lives, other mind-sets, other ways of thinking. We read books, or go to the movies, or exchange gossip to get insights into other lives. “Did you hear what happened to Joe or Susan?” we ask.“Can you imagine?”, we ask. And if we can imagine, really imagine, not critically, but sympathetically, (the word sympathy means “feeling with”) – if we can do that, if we can feel with others, we can grow, we can get outside ourselves a bit, not be so cooped up inside our own mind-sets, our own limited insights, the narrowness of our own experience and understanding.

We need to pray for our leaders, on both sides – or many sides – that they have some glimmer of understanding of what it must be like to be Donald Trump, in an overwhelming job, under constant pressure, constant second guessing by talking heads, and with a very real possibility that his taxes will be made public and he may lose everything.

I remember meeting a very wise bishop years ago who had been a missionary in Africa and had known the man who became one of the first African dictators when the future dictator, Kwame Nkrumah, was a school boy. The bishop had gone back to visit him years later when Nkrumah was at the height of his power. “The poor man,” the bishop said, “The poor man.He has all that power and doesn’t know how to let go of it.” I wonder whether there’s someone who has that perspective on Donald Trump. “The poor man; he has all that power and can’t trust anyone.”

Sympathy. Feeling with. Understanding. The need for understanding. To get inside the minds of others and see the world as others see it and understand, really understand, why they act as they do. Is it even possible. Do even husbands and wives, children and parents, ever really understand each other; really understand?

But however hard that may be, think about the challenge posed by this morning’s epistle: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Can you even begin to imagine really doing that? And yet, isn’t that just one way of saying what Christianity is all about and what we are doing here today?

The letters of Paul come back to this theme again and again in all kinds of different ways. He talks about being “in Christ,” “Having the mind of Christ,” about Christ being in us, about being Christ’s body, about being joined with Christ. There’s a new jargon phrase I hear all the time in church talk these days: Christian formation. Well, yes: being formed – being re-formed – being not so much who we were as who we might be. “Putting off” – Paul’s language again -“putting off the old man or woman” and “putting on Christ”and beginning to be someone else: Christ in us; a new creation.

What would it be like to look at Donald Trump through the mind of Christ, to think about it from Jesus’ perspective? But more important still, what would it be like to live even a minute or two or three of our lives here, with the mind of Christ? What would it mean to deal with the children, the grandchildren, the parents, the neighbor next door, the clerk in the store, the waiter in the restaurant, to say nothing of our political leadership with the mind of Christ. Could we, for a minute or two imagine, letting that mind be in us?

The sentence just before that in Paul’s letter goes even further; it says:“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”Isn’t that dangerous doctrine? To look to the interests of others: Mexican refugees on the border, for example. They do me no harm, they don’t show up in my neighborhood. But some people obviously do feel threatened. Can I understand their interests? Can I look to their interests also or expect my representative to do so? And how do we deal with it when the President looks to other interests, that radical right, that so-called “evangelical” right. What is it that forms their mind-set, and could I somehow begin at least to try to understand, or share their concerns, or find common ground. What would a world be like where we all looked first of all not for our own good, but for common ground, common ground? or better still for the mind of Christ: Christ in my spouse, my friend, my neighbor: Christ in the stranger on the N-Judah, the waiter in the fast food restaurant, the homeless man or woman huddled against our office buildings against the cold and the rain?

It might not be easy. Having the mind of Christ led Jesus to the cross. Someone described for me some time ago an icon, a painting, showing Jesus at the moment of his arrest with soldiers bearing down on him with spears and clubs all pointing towards him and Jesus paying absolutely no attention but reaching down toward the slave whose ear Peter had just cut off, reaching down to heal, concerned for the other, not for himself. Death staring him in the face, and his mind, his hand, on the other. Have that mind in you, Paul says. Have that mind in you, that concern for the other before yourself.

This church is here for that purpose. Here at the center of this community is a building and a gathering centered on the notion that others come first, and that we can make a difference in this world, can serve God best, can serve our neighbors best, can serve our families best, by letting the mind of Christ be in us.

Paul goes on – we read it just now – to talk about Jesus emptying himself, humbling himself, down from the heights of heaven, down from any human glory, down to the place of a slave, down even to death and the grave. And what did it accomplish? Now, two millennia later, a worldwide church, a changed society, one in which elections are fought – sometimes at least – over how best to improve our schools, how best to provide security for older citizens, how best to use our government to heal and help and serve.

And yes, that’s putting the best possible spin on a situation that we know falls far short of the mind of Christ, but think of how far we’ve come from the day we read about in the gospel when an innocent man could be arrested, tortured, and killed in a matter of hours, with no pretense of a fair trial. And think of how far we still have to go and yet what a privilege we have in being called to be citizens of the new kingdom Christ came to build and to come to his table and be nourished with his life and to let the mind of Christ so transform us that we see the world through his eyes and respond to it with his love.