I remember returning to my hometown of Boone, Iowa to preach, after my first semester of seminary in Boston. I looked out at the congregation, and there were all my former Sunday School teachers and youth leaders. These were the people that had formed my faith, those who said don’t run in church, and stop hiding in the bushes when you don’t like Sunday School. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, was there. She had written on my report card that I was a bright student but I did not apply myself, and that I needed to step up work harder in 4th grade if I wanted to make something of myself. Pastor Roy was there, the man who had increased membership and built a new education wing, and who was determined that I should be a preacher since I was 12 years old.
I never understood this because I had been a thorn in his side. Pastor Roy was the kindest man I ever met, and I was a rebel. He never preached a controversial political sermon in his life, except the one against gambling, where he actually raised up on his toes and hammered the pulpit once. I was a believer in Ghandian nonviolence and conscientious objector against military service, and questioned if all of the Bible was really true. I never understood this patient man’s obsession with me being a pastor, when I wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein or Upton Sinclair.
He won in the end, at least in the seminary part, but Boston was a revelation. Having grown up as a liberal dissenter in Bible Belt, finding people more radical than me was unmooring. I was in the first class at Andover Newton that had more women than men, and I kept using male pronouns for God for the first semester. I had never met an “out” gay person, let alone asked out on a date. People saw my open, Midwestern naivete and just thought I was gay, until I had a girlfriend, who later came out as a lesbian. I slowly figured out that at least 1/3 of my class mates were gay, and I respected them, and had to rework my understanding of the Bible.
So like Jesus, when I went home to preach, I felt compelled to share my journey with them. And I struggled with my sermon, because we all cared about each other, and they were so proud, and I was so grateful to them, but I wanted them to know my experience. That’s not entirely true, because I knew their blind spots. They had fired the first pastor I ever knew, Rev. Dixon, who had secretly listened to Jesus Christ Superstar with the young married couples group my parents belonged to. That happened in my living room when I was supposed to be in bed. When he ordered a glass of red wine at a church dinner at the Tic Toc Supper Club, that was it for him. Oh, and the Associate Pastor and Youth Leader, also fired for exposing us to liberal ideas. I knew all the skeletons in the closet in this small town because my Dad was a pilot and Mom was a piano teacher, and people told them stuff. I knew who was a closet alcoholic and who had burned the cross in the yard of the only black family in town. I loved these folks and still do, but I had a truth burning a hole in my heart. Whether this was out of loyalty to my friends in seminary, or my own nature to be a provacature, I told them what I thought, with as much gentleness as I could.
There were no cliffs involved in my story. I got some cold stares. Later, when I shared with college friends, some of them would not speak to me again, and I will never be invited to speak at my alma Mater, but people mostly shook my hand on the way out and said something Midwestern like, “Well, you sure have some interesting experiences.” Or “That was sure different.” One pillar of the church did say, rather loudly for everyone to hear, “I think it is good that you bring new ideas for us to think about. That is why you go to seminary.”
I always wondered if there was a more open but quiet faction in Nazereth, who said to those enraged with Jesus, “Don’t throw him over the cliff, he’s young and will grow out of it. And it will just start a big feud. Let it go.” So I can identify with Jesus. Sometimes there is an itch and you have to scratch it. At the same time, as I read this Gospel text, Jesus was picking a fight. He was entering the cultural wars of first century Galilee.
To understand, we need to know who are Zaraphath of Sidon and Naaman of Syria? Story number one, the great prophet Elijah, who battled the corrupt King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire rather than die a natural death (swing low sweet chariot!), was given haven and food by Zaraphath in Sidon. Zaraphath was a widow raising a child alone, and when Elijah went to her and asked for God’s help, as told him in a vision, she says that she only has a little bit of flour left, not even enough for her family. Elijah tells her to make a loaf from it and bring it to him. When she does so, Elijah says that she that God will always fill her flour jar until the drought is over. (A miracle kind of like manna in a jar.) Jesus says, there were a lot of widows in Israel, but the prophet got his help and blessed the widow in Sidon, which is the capital city of the Philistines, so we know that can’t be good. We know who Philistines are, to this day they lack good taste and culture.
Story number two, the next great prophet, Elisha, comes along. Naaman was a general in the army of Syria. Speaking of Syria (and Iowa), did you hear about Rev. Dr. Pam Saturnia, pastor of the First Presbyterian church in Muscatine, Iowa? Donald Trump was at her church last Sunday,
“Syrian refugees and Mexican migrants,” should be welcomed rather than shunned by Americans. “Instead of feeling rage at Jesus that we have to share him, we are called to do just that….Share Jesus with the ones who need him.” she said in her sermon.
The Bible reading of 1 Corinthians 12 appeared to pique the real-estate mogul’s interest and his head turned toward the lectern as a woman from the congregation spoke about humility. “I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are part of,” the woman intoned. Can you imagine eye telling hand, ‘Get lost, I don’t need you?’ Or, head telling foot, ‘You’re fired, your job has been phased out?’” the woman continued.
Back to Elisha and Naaman. He’s the General had been sending raising parties into Israel’s northern border to test their strength. He had a skin problem, which is translated leprosy. Not only would that cause discomfort, it was a bad omen. Leviticus notes that people with leprosy could not go into the Temple. They were ritually unclean. So a captive slave girl says, “There is a great prophet in Israel named Elisha, and he can heal you.” Namaan gets a meeting with Elisha and brings along a fortune to pay him, but Elisha says, just go wash off 7 times in the Jordan River. Namaan says, “Jordan River? We have bigger creeks than that in Texas. The Euphrates goes through Syria, why should I bath in the Jordan?” Finally a servant says, Namaan, let go of your pride and go to the river of Israel, for that is the only way. Sure enough, Namaan is healed and believes in the God of Israel. Jesus says, “There were lepers in Israel, and Elisha didn’t heal them.”
Here is where people get very angry. It is hard for us to understand how much this upset them, so let’s modernize it. How might people object to Jesus message for the outsiders today? “Why are you talking about welfare queens? You can’t just give her handouts. What we need in Syria is not healing, but boots on the ground. Bomb them into the stone age. You are weak on national security and border control. Why are you singling these people out? Don’t you know “All Lives Matter?” What would Jesus say if Northampton was his hometown and he was preaching this sermon here? He might say, “No doubt you want me to support Bernie Sanders, and talk about income inequality and Global Climate change. All right, your progressive values seem to line up with mine, but most low income workers still can’t rent in Northampton and Amherst. The person bagging your organic groceries lives in Greenfield. You have a lot of nice signs and banners and rallies and You also have a great deal of wealth and privilege here. What are you going to do with it between political campaigns? Life is different on the other side of the Tofu curtain. Its not enough to be right on the issues if you don’t know any neighbors who make you uncomfortable.
The point is Jesus is standing for the greatest truth of all religions. Every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, love your neighbor, do unto others as they would have them do unto you. Everyone believes in love and the Golden Rule, as long as we can have a few exceptions.