Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sanitized


Sanitized for your protection! That’s what the paper band proclaims that’s wrapped around the Gospel this morning.

Remember that phrase? There was a day that you couldn’t check into a hotel or motel without having to tear that assurance of purity before one could “visit” the restroom! They were birthed, undoubtedly, in the 1950s when standardized motel chains sprouted up along major highways and byways, and establishing confidence in a brand name was the key to success. The bands produced visions of men in hazmat suits with noxious chemicals, if not flamethrowers, methodically inspecting every surface of the commode and related fixtures to insure that no errant germ lingered and that all was clear for the delicate derrieres of weary travelers.

Now I realize that opening a sermon with the visual of a bathroom fixture is probably not kosher, but it serves well the image of what we’ve done to the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve sanitized it for our protection and to our detriment.

The Bible is full of great stories that are part of the vernacular – stories and parables that have been passed down from generation to generation, have been acted out in countless pageants, been converted to coloring pages for children or comic books for kids, and along the way, lost their edge.

To make the point, let’s leave the Bible for a moment and look at another book, and unlike the Bible, one that’s likely been read cover to cover by everyone in this room, “Huckleberry Finn.” Now, we all know the offensive word that’s peppered throughout the book and the aversion we have to read it or think it, much less say it.

Apparently a publisher recently released an edition of Huck Finn and scrubbed the N-word and replaced it with the slightly sanitized, “slave.” Washington Post writer, Jonathan Capehart, recently made this comment:

I completely understand why NewSouth Books [did that] and it's a decision I completely disagree with. As my colleague Alexandra Petri notes in a characteristically clever post, "This is like changing War and Peace to Peace, because war is unpleasant to remember, or removing World War I from All Quiet on the Western Front." She adds, "If we keep updating things to reflect our current sensitivities, where do we stop?"

So true.

Petri speaks for me when she writes:

Huckleberry Finn is uniquely marvelous because it is of its time yet manages to transcend it. In spite of the limitations of vocabulary, cultural expectations, and racial stereotypes, it lays bare the inhumanity of slavery through the power of satire. To remove it from this context is to strip it of its power -- and to needlessly whitewash a period that deserves no whitewashing.

As the only black kid in class, I know all about awkward moments. Reading aloud and hearing passages in history books about slavery or in literature about the disparaging views and treatment of blacks the awkwardness for me would range from embarrassing to painful. Each utterance of the N-word or some other derogatory term (say, coon or darkie or Sambo), even in context, was like a kick to the groin that hurt worse than that time in the fifth grade when I got a little too cute on the balance beam after school.

But I wouldn't trade that pain for a cleaned-up version of history in order to make me or anyone else feel better. Maybe it's the journalist in me, but I prefer the unvarnished truth to one sanitized for my protection.

Maybe it’s the Bible geek in me, but I prefer the unvarnished and caustic words of Christ to a parable sanitized for my protection.

Here again the parable of the “Good Samaritan” but this version has it set in Gainesville, Georgia…

in the mid-1950's. Southern-style racial injustice is in full bloom. Jesus is preaching to a group that ranges from businessmen on their lunch break to prostitutes, derelicts, white trash, and Negroes. Some of the local sheriffs and ministers have gathered to see if they can make Jesus look bad, maybe even catch him "inciting a riot" so they can throw him in jail.

One of the ministers said, "Preacher, tell us again what we have to do to go to heaven." Jesus replied, "You're a minister. What do you say?"

The minister immediately went on autopilot: "The Good Book makes that perfectly clear: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself.'" Said Jesus: "You have correctly stated what God requires of you, sir; do that and I assure you that you will go to heaven."

"And," said the minister, with mock sincerity, "exactly who is my neighbor?"

"Let me tell you a story," said Jesus. "Once there was a traveling salesman. One day, when he was headed for Dalton, he was jumped by a gang of thugs. They beat him half-way to death, took his money and car, and left him to die along the side of the road. Soon, a prominent businessman drove up, realized that he had stumbled along the scene of a crime, got real scared, and sped away. Then a minister came by, pushed the unconscious salesman with his foot, muttered something about 'this sinful world,' and he drove away too. Later on, an old Negro man, a junk collector, came by. He listened for the salesman's breath, realized he was still alive, and put him in his truck to drive him back to Gainesville. At the first hotel, he got the man a room, stayed with him for a day, and shared his food with him. He paid the hotel clerk all the money he had, and promised to come back after he sold his junk to take care of any extra charges."

"Now, you tell me," said Jesus, "which one was that man's neighbor?" There was a palpable silence in the air as Jesus and the minister stared at each other.

"I guess it was that [Negro]," the minister reluctantly acknowledged.

"Then," Jesus replied, "why don't you go, and act the way you know you should."

I should scrap my beloved and oft imitated benediction and simply close each service with that phrase: Why don’t you go, and act the way you know you should.

Here’s an interesting nuance: in the 1950s version of the story, the minister responds to Jesus’ question by naming the person who was the neighbor – the old Negro, but in the actual parable, when the lawyer is asked the same question, he can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan” and instead says, “the one who showed him mercy.”

The other nuance of the more current parable is the pause that’s been inserted, the moment of dramatic standoff when you could cut the tension with a knife, and can hear and smell the seething of the minister, his mind whirling to avoid saying what he knows to be the truth. It’s the famous courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson sparring, the tension growing, and Nicholson clenches his teeth, seething at the young prosecutor, knowing he’s trapped in his own nasty web.

Unlike the most memorable line from that movie, we can handle the truth of Jesus’ words but only after we hone the context and lay bare the affront they convey.

I asked those at Panera Bread this most recent Tuesday where they saw themselves in the story. Given that we could all afford an overpriced cup of coffee, it’s no surprise that we saw ourselves as either the Levite, the lawyer, the Samaritan, a person in the crowd watching the discourse, or even the trusting innkeeper – I’d guess a show of hands right now might produce similar results – none of us identified with the mugged and beaten person in the ditch. That’s really no surprise, and I’m not going to attempt a guilt-trip just because we’re well-off Americans – but I would direct your attention to the fact that we are a minority.

The vast majority of the world’s population will see themselves as the one robbed, beaten, and left for dead. We, of the wealthy industrialized nations, pejoratively refer to smaller, poorer, less developed lands as “3rd world countries.” I read recently that they see it a bit differently and segregate themselves from the likes of the United States by referring to nations as either “plundered” or “plunderers.” Guess which one we are.

Let’s take a look at some of the truth we’re prepared to handle:

First: How did the Samaritan care for the person robbed and beaten? With generous and practical assistance. He bandaged the wounds, gave the victim a ride to the inn and cared for him. He assumed responsibility for the person’s most basic needs until they were well enough to care for themselves. This isn’t life-long welfare, or entitlement, or any other dignity decaying program – it’s help when needed, plenty of it, and aid that returns the victim to their former life – as they live it, not how we think they should.

Secondly: There’s no mention of bringing the poor guy to church or doing a little preaching in exchange for the help. What was perhaps most offensive to Jesus’ audience was that the Samaritan was indeed preaching the Gospel – just not using words.

Thirdly: For me, the key phrase in the whole story is “moved with pity.” The Samaritan experienced the feeling of sorrow and compassion which was caused by the suffering and misfortunes of the one in the ditch, and, he was moved to do something. In him was the marriage of emotion and action without the nagging in-law of judgment. No questions about what the guy was doing on the road alone, not questioning why he was carrying so much cash, or chastising him to know better than walk a dangerous road – no, he helped without judging the man’s worthiness or ability to repay. And he didn’t help halfway. The key is that the Samaritan’s help wasn’t based on whether the man deserved it but that he was a human being in trouble. Merit wasn’t the issue; grace was.

And that’s what we’ve sanitized for our protection – grace – and in doing so we’ve all climbed out the ditch and onto the curb to watch the story with sanitized eyes rather than seeing ourselves in the muck of life.

Sure, it’s a folksy tale about taking care of those in need, and really, if you spin it forward just a notch, it’s a social justice parable about why the darn road was so dangerous in the first place and what we’re going to do to fix the system – but that’s us, sanitized and glamorized from the comfort of the asphalt. Get in the ditch and see what grace feels like from that posture. Just for a moment be the person in the ditch, in the mud and filth, broken and beaten, watching the polished shoes of the affluent walk by pretending not to notice, and then hear a person approach, stop, look down on you, and lower themselves to get a closer look. At first you cower in fear of more abuse, but then you realize they are simply checking for breathing and a pulse. Help has come. You feel yourself being lifted up, wounds cleaned, blanket to cover you, water to rinse the mud from your bloody mouth. Soon you feel the motion of being moved to safety. Bathed, clothed, bandaged, fed, and now resting – secure, cared for, and healed.

Grace. God is moved by pity. God is love. God cares for us with all the dirt and grime and bugs and grunge of our lives – for God needs nothing sanitized for God’s grace.

Amen.



Sunday, July 7, 2013

Restored

Small-town USA at its best: beach chairs arranged in an arc, feet digging down to the cool layers of the sand, paper plate balanced on knees loaded with fried chicken, slaw, and slabs of ruby red watermelon – while saving room for a brownie drowning in melting soft-serve ice cream and chocolate sauce. An hour later, as the sun sets, bottle rockets and sparklers ignite, and then, when darkness overtakes the ocean, the show starts. We hear that satisfying “thump” as the firework launches from the steel tube buried deep in the sand aimed ever so slightly toward the sea, all heads tilt back at the same rate as the flaming tail streams toward the stars, and then, after the slightest hesitattion, the crowd is rewarded with a gut-shaking boom and the heavens light up in stunning displays of colorful sparks, and sound.

It’s the Fourth of July on the Delaware Bay and these aren’t professionals firing off the pyrotechnics – rather it’s a family that’s been staging the show for years – thanks to benevolent police who appear not to notice. The beach is packed with people from all walks of life, cultures, and classes. It was feast for anyone who loves to people watch.

I couldn’t help but think what a great country this is: the freedom, the security, the pride, the diversity, and the ever-present and seemingly increasing commitment to justice and equality. I always fly the American flag on my home with deep patriotism, but this year, with maybe an even greater sense of gratitude.

And why not?

Pride of homeland is, of course, not limited to the United States or certainly to this generation. No one has to stand in this pulpit and talk about how deeply our service and commitment to America runs. Perhaps what we might be reminded about, however, is that allegiance and appreciation for one’s country of origin may be a nearly universal human trait even, perhaps especially, for those countries not nearly as prosperous or free as ours. Case in point: Nicaragua.

A friend of mine started an organization called Neighbors to Nicaragua (N2N) after visiting a few years ago to attend a Spanish immersion language program. He was not just struck by the conditions he saw, but also moved to help. By way of background:
1.  Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere (Haiti is the poorest).
2.  The average annual income in Nicaragua is $1028.00 (or $2.92 a day).
3.  Nicaragua has one of the lowest school enrollments and highest dropout rates in the world.  Children average 4.6 years of education.
4.  Extreme poverty forces many children to live on the street for a chance to survive.  They often become addicted to glue, attractive for its ability to lessen hunger and pain.

Within a few years, N2N built and equipped a small school by partnering with local folks, and the group returned this year to help complete a second one. As you might imagine, the infrastructure and economy of the country are nearly in shambles and so things that we might take for granted are complicated and multi-layered challenges, things like renting a truck to move desks from a furniture factory to the school.

After discovering that the reserved truck was still filled with wood for roofing material, the group headed out into the streets in search of a driver and an empty truck. Sure enough, they found one, negotiated a rate, and were soon off on their errand! On the way over, the local contact of the organization looked over at my friend and said, “Welcome to Nicaragua. You gotta love this country, Amigo!”

I believe most people love their country – they may not always be thrilled with their government or leadership or current conditions – but most people love their country and have no small amount of pride for it.

Naaman, the Syrian, was particularly proud of his country and his role in its increasing prominence and domination of the Middle East. The great victory referenced in today’s story claimed the death of King Ahab, the current king of Israel’s father. It was a decisive victory and one that marked the beginning of the end of Israel. Yet even Naaman didn’t emerge from battle unscathed as he apparently suffered from some form of skin disease. Now, here’s the biggest problem with that type of ailment: it’s usually fairly public! It’s bad enough to be stricken with the “heartbreak of psoriasis,” it’s another to be a great and powerful general with a nagging rash! Add to that a widely held belief that illness and disease were inextricably linked to divine displeasure and/or sin.

For those, and likely other, reasons, Naaman was itching for a cure. Apparently none was to be had in mighty Syria, yet a young girl taken captive in the war against Israel and now a servant of Naaman’s wife knew that a prophet in her homeland had a reputation as a healer and maybe he could help.

Naaman did what any important government and military leader would—he gathered up plenty of cash, impressive gifts, and a letter of introduction from the head of his country and had them delivered to the king of the land he visited. Good diplomatic protocol!

Only it backfired. The king of Israel was so panicked and paranoid that he essentially melted down into a quivering mess. Somehow, word got to Elisha that his monarch was in a tough spot so he sent word to send Naaman to him, which apparently, the king did, as soon thereafter, Naaman’s motorcade showed up. Yet Elisha was unimpressed by the entourage at his gate. Without ever seeing Naaman, he merely sends instructions through a messenger, telling Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River with the promise of restored skin.

Naaman is indignant at this treatment by Elisha. The general had already envisioned how it was all supposed to work: Elisha would come out, call on the name of the Lord, and he would be magically and instantly healed! Quite the spectacle!

But alas, he leaves not with skin healed, but with ego bruised. Not only that, his national pride had been stepped on by Elisha’s indelicate sandals: if he’s to wash in a river, why not a majestic river from his own country? The Jordan is some muddy, shallow trickle – more of a sluggish creek than a full-blown river!

So enraged Naaman turns on his arrogant heel and sets out homeward. But his servants, with no small degree of trepidation, point out that he would no doubt go to great lengths to do what Elisha instructed if it had been something difficult, something complicated, and intricate. Don’t you hate it when you muster your miserable self into the doctor’s office, certain that you’re suffering from something rare and challenging—requiring a break-through experimental procedure, only to be told to go home, get into bed, and drink plenty of fluids? Naaman was far too important for such a pedestrian prescription!

His arrogance almost prevented the restoration of his health, as he considered it beneath his dignity to wash in the Jordan. But this folly is balanced by the wisdom of his servants who talk him out of his rash disdain of Elisha’s instructions. The one who commands armies, but who cannot command the powers of his disease, is saved, in part, by the humility and courage of servants.

Naaman swallows his pride long enough to repeatedly wade into the Jordan and he is healed, his skin that of a young boy’s. Don’t miss the irony that Naaman is described in the opening verse as a great and powerful general yet when fully restored and healed, was compared to a young boy, and the one who started the whole episode was no more than a young girl held captive – a person of the lowest social status imaginable.

God works through what is not only culturally specific but also foreign and strange.

Naaman’s path to restoration was by no means a straightforward one. While he was amenable to heeding the suggestion of a captive slave and desperate enough to travel all the way from Damascus to find Elisha at his home in Samaria, Naaman had, however, his own idea of how the restoration of health would be carried out. Elisha’s instructions sounded ridiculous to Naaman, and his pride was wounded. He was expecting something far more difficult, yet, he was restored only when he submitted himself to the seemingly silly ritual of taking a bath. He expected something dramatic, but restoration came to him through the words of a prophet, conveyed by a messenger—and requiring a baptism – nothing very difficult.

The most difficult thing Naaman had to do was to trust – which required first an infusion of humility. Faith is not believing without proof, but trusting without reservation. That’s the difficult thing Naaman had to do – and likely the difficult thing for us as well. Trusting without reservation.

When you live in a country like ours, it’s easy, at least for me, to be arrogant and confident – but what the great and powerful Naaman is showing us is that God works through the ordinary, the foreign, even the captured. 
What does America have to learn from the people of countries like Nicaragua? 
What do we have to learn from the marginalized? 
What is God doing in our lives, right now, with people we’re likely to dismiss?

Naaman knew he was restored when he was transformed from a mighty and dominant commander to a young innocent child – simple, aware, open, and of no consequence. Who or what would it take for the same thing to happen to us?


Amen.