Sunday, July 04, 2010

To Flag or Not to Flag

2 Kings 5:1-14

For some people, celebrating the 4th of July is an important expression of their faith. As we live in a nation that declared freedom from and freedom of religion as an important part of the first stepping stones towards nation-hood, it only makes sense that we would want to celebrate this day in our worship service. Others want to celebrate this day in hopes that our Christian faith will lift up this nation, that our fervent prayers and hopes will lead our nation towards greater things.

However, there are still others that believe this day makes an idol of the nation itself, that especially on the calendar years where the Independence Day lands on a Sunday, we end up making our nation the center of our worship, and therefore we should avoid combining this holiday with any expression of our faith, all together. For some, we are still a free nation, and while there are a majority of Americans who profess Christianity as their faith, to be American does not mean you have to be Christian, so how do you reconcile the two on this day of both celebration and worship.

I’ve struggled with these thoughts all week. I’ve struggled mainly because I know there are a fair number of all these opinions within our congregation, and I’m confident there are still more opinions I have yet to even think of. I have gone back and forth between the importance of celebrating our nation, what it stands for, and remembering it’s “birthday,” but I have also thought about the meaning of worship, that to worship God we are giving praise and glory to God, worshipping a God who is not exclusive to this nation only.

I’ve done lots of reading this week, between biblical commentaries, articles, books, and have come across a fair number of readings on “both sides.”

I’ve come across some authors who assert that it is un-Christian to celebrate the fourth of July in any form of Sunday worship because as Christians we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ who often spoke against the empire of Rome and empire in general. Speaking against social systems that marginalize and disenfranchise the outsider is a large part of the Christian faith for many, as we follow Jesus Christ who not only spoke with, but also ate meals with the outcasts, with the sinners, with the tax collectors, and the prostitutes, so why would we celebrate a secular holiday on the day we worship?

I’ve come across authors who declare that as the United States, it is only natural for us to celebrate our Independence Day in worship. We come from a group of people who were seeking religious freedom and the right to worship in ways they find authentic and fulfilling. We are thankful for our upbringing, or for our lives in a nation that allows us to follow Christ, that allow us to worship God freely and openly. Still more authors have made connections between our citizenship in the United States, and our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Some that use the examples of our passion for our country that we live in, for our home, as a model for the passion and devotion we should have for our eternal home

In all my reading, I did find one author that I resonated with, that I thought conveyed a feeling about this holiday that almost everyone in our congregation could resonate with. Ted Smith is a professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He says that he has come to think about his country like he thinks about his family of origin.

His family of origin is not perfect, but he can't really leave them. He says he has come to love his family fiercely. They show him the same grace, and then some. He has come to think that the members of his family have been given to him to love, just as he has been given to them. They belong to each other, for better and for worse, by the grace of God. And so he loves his country like he loves his family—as that which has been given to him to nurture, chastise, wrestle with, care for, raise up, suffer beside, celebrate with, and love. So it only makes sense that he would celebrate and remember its birthday. ( But is it suitable to celebrate and remember its birthday in the weekly worship service where we lift up and remember Christ, who died for all, that all might come to know faith in God who transcends nations?

I think it’s safe to say that we want to recognize this day in worship. And this is more than some congregations do, who simply refuse to address the issue at all out of fear of controversy. It shouldn’t bring about controversy, because I think it’s safe to say that we want to at least address Independence Day in our worship this morning. Worship is a coming together of our lives, a coming together of all the “things” in our lives, all the: emotions, celebrations, sadness, frustrations, stresses, gifts, and all the faith we hold. Worship is a coming together of our lives as we worship God through Jesus Christ. We bring all these “things” to worship with us, and we can hardly bring our lives together if we refuse to address an important aspect of our nation for fear of controversy.

So we’re going to address it. We’ll address Independence Day, the “birthday” of the United States of America. But how? How do we go about addressing this celebration, this day of thanksgiving for a country founded on the principal that all people are created equal, where all will be free to speak their minds and to worship God? How do we speak to a day that commemorates the ideals for which this country was founded, while still maintaining our allegiance to Christ, while maintaining our citizenship in the Kingdom of God?

I think we can find our inspiration for this question in scripture.

We find our scripture passage in the book of 2 Kings.

Now the books of 1 and 2 Kings were never originally meant to stand as two separate books, rather they were written as one large book, as a collection of stories of kings and prophets, and the people of Israel as they continue to follow God, and try to be that “city on a hill, a light to the nations.” The books of Kings highlight the successes and struggles of the people of Israel, stories of their faith, of their struggles, of their successes, of their backsliding: stories of the moments when they truly embraced the prophetic words spoken by God’s messengers, and moments when they relied on an untruthful word. Both 1 and 2 Kings have stories of the prophets, the people who sought to lead God’s people through a visionary word, as well as stories of kings who led God’s people by different inspiration. The whole book is full of stories that struggle between divine will and human will, and this is where we meet a commander named Naaman.

More specifically we return to Naaman’s encounter with one of God’s prophets, with the prophet Elisha whom we met last week.

Naaman is the commander of an army that is an enemy to Israel. King Aram’s army had fought with Israel previously, and Naaman was held in high regard, because his army defeated Israel’s army. We even see in verse one that God used Naaman to defeat Israel’s army.

But it is interesting because Naaman now needs Israel . You see, Naaman suffers from leprosy. This great army commander, who is high favor with his King because he won a battle over Israel, he is an outcast. He is an outsider because he suffers from a disease that seemingly had no cure. A disease that pushed you to the outskirts of society because of fear you would pass on the disease to others.

But Naaman’s wife had a servant, who was from Israel. And this servant girl proclaimed the power of God to Naaman, telling Naaman that if only he would go see the prophet Elisha, in Israel, he could be cured of his leprosy.

Naaman had defeated Israel’s army. But now Naaman needed Israel.

So after a visit with his King, Naaman sets off towards Israel, to meet the King of Israel, complete with lavish gifts and a letter from King Aram to the King of Israel, because the person with the power to cure this leprosy most certainly had to be a king.

But scripture tells us it is not a king who has this power to cure leprosy. No, it is not the leader of a nation, nor the most well known person. It is not the most powerful or commanding person in the country. The King of Israel in fact is concerned that Naaman’s king is trying to start an argument with him. Surely King Aram could not think that he can cure Naaman’s leprosy.

But all is well when we read that Elisha has heard of these events and sends word to Naaman, that he is the one who can cure him of his leprosy. Naaman heads toward Elisha with his caravan of horses and chariots and gifts for the one who will cure him.

After some hesitation towards his instructions, Naaman finally listens to the instructions of Elisha and takes a dip in the Jordan River. He washes in the Jordan and was made clean, his leprosy was cured and his skin was as fresh as the day he was born.

So what does leprosy and a king unable to cure it, or a commander who visits a foreign prophet – what does this have to do with the national holiday we observe today?

It’s not the commander of the Israeli army that is cured.

It’s not the king of Israel, in all his power and glory that cures this man.

It’s not the high powered officials of God’s people, God’s chosen nation that make this story.

So what could this story have to do with our national holiday?

It’s not the commander of the Israeli army that is cured. It’s an outsider that receives God’s healing.

It’s not the King of Israel, in all his power and glory that cures this man. It’s a prophet, a man of God, of little societal importance that can channel God’s healing presence.

It’s not the high powered officials of God’s people, God’s chosen nation that make this story. It is the outsider, the ones of little societal influence that make our story important.

An outsider, an army commander of a foreign nation, and a prophet who struggles to be heard , a prophet speaking to God’s chosen nation demonstrate God’s power and love, and have something to teach us.

Naaman’s healing teaches us the importance of nationality. Because in God’s saving acts, God sees beyond national lines, and includes all, even the outsider in salvation.

Naaman’s healing teaches us that God works through the powerful, people of each nation. Because it is not the most well-known elected officials who are the most powerful in a nation, but rather those often overlooked, but most devoted to God’s purpose who are the most powerful, for it was a servant girl who told Naaman about a prophet in Israel who could cure him.

Elisha’s work teaches us that work between nations must be led by the leaders of the nation. Because it was not the two kings who worked out a negotiation through letter writing, but rather a leaders of the people, a prophet and an army commander, who caused social change and through Naaman’s healing.

As many of you may know, when I was in college, I studied abroad for one semester in New Zealand. I spent seven months, studying and living in a different country, a different culture, as an outsider. And while I was there I had a spring break that just happened to fall on Holy Week. But it being Spring Break, and seeing as how I would rarely have an opportunity like that again, I chose to go on a trip during Spring Break and missed out on some of the worship services during Holy Week. Yet, my faith was still strengthened that week, and I still had an experience with God.

You see, on Good Friday I was headed from one city to another by way of a bus. I was backpacking through the Northern Island of New Zealand. I wasn’t really sure what the next town would hold. I had a reservation at a hostel to stay the night, but other than that I was a blank slate, ready to take on the next adventure.

While I was on this bus, driving to a town called Lake Taupo, there were a group of travelers who began talking about this opportunity in Taupo, an opportunity they heard was an absolute must. Lake Taupo was the best place to do this, and so if we were all arriving in Lake Taupo this afternoon, we just had to do it. Sky Diving.

And before I knew it, I was in a jump suit, head in a helmet to keep my hair back, goggles on, strapped to a jump instructor who was going to jump with me and climbing into one of the smallest planes I’ve ever been in.

I’m afraid of heights, so this was truly a “before I knew it,” moment, because before I really and truly could grasp what was going on, and what I had decided to do, I was headed up in a plane to jump at 9000 feet with hopes that my instructor and tandem jumper would remember to pull the chute.

But I did it. With the help and some encouragement (known as a push) from my tandem partner, I successfully jumped out of an airplane, out of a perfectly good airplane, 9000 feet in the air.

But after those moments of shock and absolute fear, and even a couple of profanities, I was able to see something I think very few people have the pleasure of seeing. Reserved for others who jump out of planes, for astronauts and God, I could see one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

I could see the curvature of the earth. Now I’ve been in airplanes in general before, I’ve flown all over the country and to many different places around our globe, but never had I seen such a picture. The curvature of the earth and the land beneath me.

I imagine this is how God sees our earth, and us, each and every day.

I imagine this is what it must be like to see humanity from up above.

I imagine that God sees all of God’s children, and loves each and every one of them, beyond nationalities, beyond ethnicities, beyond gender.

I imagine that as you look down on the earth, the lines of division fade away. The lines of neighbors yard have no distinction between another neighbors yard, that the cities blend in with one another and fade into each other without distinction. I imagine that harsh divisions of color within God’s family are rubbed away as the colors of skin fade from one beautiful color into another.

I imagine that as Christians gather with one another around the world, God sees national lines fade, and the blending of the Body of Christ.

We are gifted this same view, this same view that God has when we read our story this morning. We are able to see that love of God that transcends nation and ethnicity when we see God healing a commander of a foreign army.

We are gifted a view of God’s complete and encompassing love when we see that God works through all of us, that God works through the great leaders of countries, just as God works through a whispering prophet and a slave in a foreign land.

This is not to say that nationality is pointless or is without merit. No, this is not meant as any sort of disrespect to our country, or to the day on which we celebrate the many people of this country.

Rather, it’s meant to remind us that we worship a God who is bigger, more inclusive, more loving, more justice oriented, more righteous, more faithful, and just plain MORE than we could ever imagine.

It’s meant to remind us that God is bigger than any division we might make here on earth. Whether that division be by nation, gender, ethnicity, economic status, orientation, race, political party, neighborhood, school, or any other manner of division we could dream up. God is bigger than those divisions.

It’s meant to remind us that God is bigger than the divisions we create over how to celebrate this day. It’s meant to remind us that the many different faithful attempts to mark this day, whether they play up the flag, or include many national songs, or whether they purposefully ignore the secular holiday, these many different attempts to mark this day, this day of worship and commemoration become like stars in a constellation – or on the bright blue field of a flag. They play off one another to suggest something more than any one of them could embody alone.

They bear witness to a hope that is our God. They bear witness to a God who is bigger, more inclusive, more loving, more righteous, more justice oriented, more faithful, and just plain MORE than we could ever imagine.

And we give thanks THIS day, that we worship in a place that allows us to give praise to God openly and without reservation.

Rev. Laura Ann Phillips
First Christian Church of Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
July 4, 2010