Priest reaching out to help a man with leprosy, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55726 Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bas%C3%ADlica_de_S%C3%A3o_Francisco_das_Chagas_(Canind%C3%A9)_-_Casa_dos_Milagres_008.JPG.

Isaiah 66:10-14; 2 Kings 5:1-14

Anyone ever seen the Godfather? I’m guessing most have; it’s widely considered one of the best movies of all time for a good reason.

If you’ve seen it, you might remember a scene where Michael Corleone, is telling his girlfriend Kay a story about his father, Don Corleone,. In the story, Michael Corleone talks about how Don Corleone got his Godson, Johnny Fontaine, out of a contract. At first, the Don offered Johnny’s manager $10,000 to get out of the contract. The manager refused. The Don goes back the next day with one of his… associates, named Luca Brazi, and manages to walk out of there with Johnny released from his contract for $1,000. How, Kay asks? Michael continues: Luca held a gun to his head and the Don told him; one of two things will be on this contract- your brains or your signature.

This is basically the situation at the beginning of our second bible reading this morning, the story of Namaan’s healing.

Before we dive too deep into understanding this story, know that it’s all about power, and the many forms it takes, how it’s used, and who has it.

So let’s start by thinking about the nature of power as we understand it now.

Let’s begin by asking who is powerful?

Power: what is it?

The ability to do things, to influence the world?

What types of power are there?

Power is vitally important, yet in my experience, many in liberal and progressive circles are scared to talk about it. We’re certainly afraid to use it.

There are certainly good and bad forms of power, ways of wielding it that are destructive, violent, and coercive.

But today’s reading, like many- not all- but many of our Bible stories, tell us that there’s a different side to power than what was and is commonly believed.

Power and authority does not have to come from warrior generals and powerful kingdoms. Power can be wielded by slaves and war captives, poor prophets, and people on the margins just as effectively as any marauding army.

Indeed, I believe this story reminds us that a wise person does not run from power, but considers carefully how to apply it, and who is wielding it in each situation.

Let’s dive in.

Naaman is a general from the nearby powerful and wealthy country of Aram. He’s a mighty warrior, highly favored, but he has a problem. He has a skin disease- in those days, there were many skin diseases that were put under the blanket term of leprosy yet we would not today call them leprosy.

This was a problem in the ancient middle east, as it was seen cross culturally as a sign of divine disapproval, and must have also been very uncomfortable.

Naaman must have had had access to the best healthcare as it were in his country, yet nothing apparently worked.

I find it especially meaningful that one of the people who is most powerful in this story- and as we said before, knowledge is power- is a war captive, an enslaved Israelite who didn’t even serve Naaman, but Naaman’s wife, so who was even further down in the hierarchy of the household.

So the King of Aram sends Naaman to the Kingdom of Israel in order to get Naaman healed. He sends Naaman with an astronomical amount of wealth, something like 750 pounds of silver and an additional 150 pounds of gold, and asks that he be healed.

This is the Luca Brazi Don Corleone moment that we opened the sermon with. This terrifies the King of Israel because the gift is no real gift- it’s a threat. If the kingdom of Aram is willing to spend this much money, if it doesn’t work out, will they return with Luca Brazi and a gun? Instead of Naaman asking for help, will the next time he visits, will he be at the head of the army?

The king also freaks out because although he is king, the power to heal is not his to wield. Elisha, the prophet, who is Elijah’s successor, is not a direct servant of the king- no prophet worthy of the title is. But Elisha is not a cruel man; upon hearing of the King’s distress, he tells the king to send Naaman to him and he’ll deal with him.

Another pause here to note something about power dynamics; although today, most of us are used to traveling for medical services, in those days, and sometimes today, the wealthiest and most powerful would have sent for a physician or someone to come to them. By not going to the palace or to Aram, Elisha is already disrupting the normal ways that people expected power to work. Furthermore, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home, Elisha doesn’t even greet him! He sends a servant outside to tell him to do the ritual bath of the Mikveh, a very basic religious ritual that our own baptism is a descendant from. Who is this man that would seemingly mock and defy the mighty general?

If you’re getting shades of Jesus in this, don’t be surprised, much of Jesus’ ministry was in a direct line of descent from prophets like Elisha. Jesus would have known this story, known how power works and even more so, how it should work.

Naaman rants and raves about this mistreatment, but Naaman did not become a mighty general by pure strength of body. He is smart enough to take the counsel of his slaves and servants, for he knows that the force of arms- both the strength he has as a person and the men he commands- have no power here. They remind him that he was willing to submit himself to Elisha’s intervention if it was some sort of difficult procedure, so why not do it as it’s something easy?

And it works. It requires no esoteric knowledge, no religious test, no pledge of money or allegiance. It is simple, and easy, and Naaman is healed.

This story is a glimpse of how power should work; its source is God, and we tap into it by listening to the wisdom of those voices we’ve often ignored, who society tells us have no value. It shouldn’t come from how many men we can boss around, the size of our bank account, or our ability and willingness to commit violence.

Instead, it comes from our mercy, our gentleness, our ability to cooperate, not dominate. It is neither passive nor aggressive, but holds its ground, as it’s foundation is firmer than the vagaries of flesh that weakens or riches that rust away, but the mercy and lovingkindness of a God who holds us fast.

Amen.

Updated: Jul 7


Hofheinz-Döring, Margret, 1910-. Endless Road, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55314 Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Endlose_Stra%C3%9Fe,_Margret_Hofheinz-D%C3%B6ring,_Strukturmalerei,_1971_(WV-Nr.5001).JPG.

Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the poet James Weldon Johnson, writing in the depths of the Jim Crow South in Jacksonville, Florida, in the midst of rampant racism, strict segregation and the rule of the lynch mobs, wrote a poem about the struggles that African Americans faced. Put to music within a few years, this poem became one of the most beloved songs in American music. I speak of course, of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Johnson used as underlying, but not explicit, metaphor the journey of the Hebrew Exiles from Egypt to the Promised Land. This was not novel for African Americans, but a key part of the black Christian tradition. Harriet Tubman was called Moses, after all. One of the songs you sang last week- not me- as I was out with Covid- sang was wade in the water, an African American spiritual that used the language of crossing the Jordan River.

The song is about a journey; “let us march on till victory is won; Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”

All of us have felt those days. We’ve all had days, weeks, months, or years even, when the road was too hard to walk. When even waking up and getting out of bed made us weary, when the road was too steep and too uneven. When we stumbled and couldn’t help but believe that hope itself had died.

We might have felt this because of a change in material circumstances; we got fired from a job, or we lost our house or apartment. Maybe it was because a relationship went sour- a break up or a divorce or a ruptured friendship. Maybe it was because of a piece of news; death of a loved one or a tragedy of some sort, or perhaps a piece of cultural or political news.

Many, not all, but many of us felt that on Friday with the US Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Perhaps you felt as I did: uncertainty, anger, frustration, sadness. Maybe you didn’t; I ask only that you respect the feelings of those who are feeling those things. Especially as many of us believe this is not the culmination of a movement, but an expression of it, that will continue to reach into people’s bedrooms and lives, ending with the rollbacks of freedom to access birth control, same sex marriage, and even anti-sodomy laws.

What has become increasingly clear to me is that the road we travel on, the path of Christ, the one called “The Way” in the book of Acts before the word Christian was invented is undergirded by freedom from coercion. The freedom to walk this road is intimately tied to the freedom to not be forced to walk on this road. When decisions in our lives are not our own, when we are forced to walk a path we did not choose, it is no good road, and not the way of Jesus. When we are coerced into a particular vision of “goodness”, it is often not good at all. A gospel not freely chosen is no gospel at all.

Too often the “good news” that the people of world encounter when they hear the word Christian is not good at all; it comes at the barrel of a gun, or dangled by the offer of “civilization”, or wraps itself around the flag so tightly that a government becomes beyond critique. This vision of a coercive Christianity is anti-Christ. Jesus was killed by the coercive power of the Roman Empire who wished to impose religious values on a man that upset systems of domination that we are still struggling against.

This sort of Christianity leads to no fruits of the spirit, for the fruits of the spirit that Paul speaks of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, come about only because of growth by the spirit within and outside of us, not forced onto us by the dictates of someone else. Self-control must start inside the self, not because of fear of another or fear of God.

A brief aside about the phrase “fear of God”; there are two meanings to this phrase and we confuse them. One, as the Bible means it, is closer to a healthy respect for God’s power, and otherness. This is not the fear that an abuser has over their victim, or what we feel towards those who have power and no accountability. This is because love is patient and kind, and does not abuse, and as Paul reminds us, the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can see the difference between a Christianity of born out of fear and one that is born out of love. Christianity that rules, dominates, and terrorizes does not inspire love, but rather abuse. It does not build up those who need it most, but rather bite and devours, consumes those who have the least to give.

Yet for love- for joy, for peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, there is no law against these things. The Christianity that I try to practice- that we try to practice is based on these things; it does not force, it does not coerce, it does not abuse. It helps out as it can, when it can, yet does not devour itself, and especially does not devour others.

It recognizes wisdom as it finds her, calling from the rooftops pointing the way to the great feast. It faces rejection- as Jesus does in our Gospel reading- not with fire and flames, but with equanimity. It does not taunt, but listens; it does not gloat in its victories, but expresses solidarity with those who have been harmed and keeps its eye on the prize.

The roads we travel- of our lives, in our Christian faith- are not easy. Yet the path does not and cannot lead backwards; if nothing else, we are always different even as when we encounter the same obstacles again and again.

In one of the most heartfelt lines in American poetry and song, Johnson declares that his people have treaded their path through the blood of the slaughtered. Even as it seems like hope will never be born, the lives and deaths of those who came before us were not, and are not in vain.

For even if we have trouble seeing it, there is a bright star on the horizon that is leading us to the promised lands. It cannot help but beckon us toward it; we might have different names for it- wisdom calling from the rooftops to dine with her, or Jesus whispering our names, calling us beloved. It is the angels singing Glory to God and Goodwill toward men to poor farmworkers. It is the communion of the saints, our grandparents and aunts and uncles who have gone before us to the promised land, who could only dream of who we’ve become who call us ever forward on our paths.

Let us hear and respond to that call. Let us see that star. Let us continue on in our journeys.

Amen.



Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8

Has anyone ever taken a job that seemed like a good idea at the time but ended up being a bad fit? For me it was my attempt as a car salesman in the summer of 2009. The recession was in full swing and it was right before cash for clunkers, so no one was buying. All the love in the world to natural salespeople, but I am not one of you. I lasted a full week.

For Vincent van Gogh, that failed career path was the professional ministry. At the age of 23, he was living in England after having been fired from teaching at a boarding house, and became a minister’s assistant at a Methodist church. This lasted about six months before he went home to the Netherlands, where he tried to study for the entrance exams to become a minister. He failed them miserably.

Then he tried to become a missionary; he chose not to go to far off lands, but to a small town in Belgium, where coal miners and their families lived savagely hard lives; many of the men who worked the mines did so from sun up to sun down, and rarely or never saw the sun. Pay was low, and families suffered from lung illnesses from coal dust and other pollutants.

Van Gogh knew that platitudes would do little for these people. He decided to get to know them, not from a distance, but in the same conditions as they did. The conservative church authorities thought that this “undermined the office” of pastor and removed him from his post.

Three times tried, and three times failed as a minister, yet it was these experiences that set him on his way to his artistic career.

But I do not wish to give a van Gogh lecture; there are artists and art historians who have dedicated their entire lives to his work and the meaning of it. Rather, what I hope is that we might examine together his art and philosophy in conjunction with our Bible readings and come to new understandings that might help us in our own religious understanding.

I think Van Gogh was a man who has much to contribute to our understandings. Although he was considered weird in his day, today we might call him a progressive Christian; I personally think he would fit in well at this church.

Three things lead me to that conclusion. First; he had a life-long love and devotion for nature and the rhythms of life that was spiritual in its nature. Second, he was willing to see God in places that many of his contemporaries did not; in nature, in novels, in other religions, and in the daily lives of ordinary people, not just saints. Third, he and related to this; he had a deep concern and solidarity with the poor, peasants and industrial workers alike that was religious in its origin, but not solely so.

Van Gogh’s deep connection to nature came from his time as a child, shy and introspective, in the rural southern Netherlands. The fields and meadows that he played in as a child were a reoccurring theme in his later artwork, and he associates them with the turning of the seasons of life and the cycles of nature.

Yet it was the stars and the night skies which entranced him the most. Carol Berry, in her book, “Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art” describes his connection to the night sky like this:

“He looked to the stars in the night sky—to the “Something on High”—as a source of faith and hope, comfort and inspiration. Below his feet the fertile soil of rural Brabant nurtured the roots of his very being. His sister commented to a biographer, “Nature spoke to Vincent with a thousand voices and his soul listened.” Indeed, Vincent learned to experience life not as a set of rules, but as a series of sacred chords, individually striking his soul.”

And here is where our scripture comes in, full force! Both our reading from the book Proverbs and our Psalm, proclaim the night skies as heavenly handiwork. Just as they delight in the wonders of the natural world, so are we. Just as we are to learn about an artist, and about ourselves from her paintings, so are we called to learn about ourselves and our God from nature.

Starry Night, Van Gogh’s most famous painting, is designed to provoke this sort of awe and connection. The representation of humanity, is only in the small houses of the rural village, and are miniscule in comparison to the grandeur of the night sky. Only the church peeks up into it, and only barely so. The heavens declare the glory of God, with surreally large galaxies and stars dominating the canvas.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.

Yet it was not only in the grandeur of nature that van Gogh found religious meaning beyond scripture.

Thankfully for us, Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, especially to his brother Theo, and worked out a lot of his internal thoughts through writing them out. We know that he had numerous arguments with his father about if the God and Jesus Christ were knowable through writings other than the Bible.

His father argued the Orthodox position, that the Bible was the only way for people to know Jesus, and indeed God’s love.

Vincent had a broader view; he saw it in fiction, in the works of Emile Zola and George Eliot, both of whom wrote realist novels about the interactions of normal people. He believed that Christ was acting in and among the living author as much as the dead gospel writer; after all, Van Gogh reminds us in a letter, Jesus said, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

He also saw it in other ways too: During his time as a missionary, he wrote this in a letter to his brother Theo:

The best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you will like, you will be on the right path of knowing more thoroughly afterwards; that is what I say to myself. But you have to love with a high, with a serious and intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more. That is what leads to God, that leads to unshakeable faith.

Vincent saw Jesus and God’s love as something that could not help but infuse all things. Like Wisdom in our reading from Proverbs, God and God’s love was here at the creation of the world and would be here at the end of it. Just as dust we were made and to dust we shall return, so too from God’s love were we made and to God’s love we shall return. If only we could love will, compassion, intelligence, and a thirst for knowledge, we would be led inevitably to God.

This leads him to find a remarkable fondness for Japanese art, culture, and philosophy, which was becoming very popular as Van Gogh was producing some of what would become his most famous work. I quote Van Gogh again:

If one studies Japanese art, then we see a man, undeniably wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time—doing what?—studying the distance from the earth to the moon?—no; studying Bismarck's politics?—no; he studies a single blade of grass.

This is remarkably respectful for his time; let us remember that 20 years after this, the United States would ban all immigration from East Asia for decades, until the 1960s.

This is just one of many examples of his deep and abiding love and solidarity with humanity that infuses his life and work.

We heard about why he was kicked out of being a missionary- that he was too close to his congregants and thus degrading the office of pastor, but this was also in his art.

We can see it in his portraits, which are not of the wealthy and famous, but of workers, or old peasant lovers. His models did not pay him for his portraits; most of them couldn’t have afforded it if they had wanted to. Instead, Van Gogh went into the homes and fields where people were and observed them. This might have been in a dance hall, or in a café, or outside of a church. Sometimes they didn’t have to include people in them at all to tell us something beautiful about us.

The still life with Bible was painted right after his father’s death, and probably shows his father’s Bible. It’s well worn, brown on the edges. This is an old and loved Bible, opened to the prophet Isaiah, the favorite Old Testament book of many a preacher. The candles are worn low and extinguished, possibly symbolizing a life extinguished. La Joie de Vivre, a novel by Emile Zola, lies underneath it. Perhaps it represents Van Gogh in relationship to his larger than life father and the debates he had with him about life and the Gospel.

We still have much to learn about and from Van Gogh; not only to about how to appreciate the swirls of stars and galaxies in his paintings and in nature, but how each of us is, as our psalmist says, a little lower than God, a painted image of the divine artist.

I will leave us with this quote about Vincent from Carol Berry, who’s book I have quoted. I hope that one day it might apply to me as well:

Vincent learned to experience life not as a set of rules, but as a series of sacred chords, individually striking his soul.

Amen.