Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 21, 2019
“When Not to Apologize”
Luke 10: 38-42 – New Revised Standard Version
As they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Last August, Zoe Fenson went to “feminist summer camp” for grown women. It was full of nostalgic activities such as making friendship bracelets, campfire songs, and s’mores. And three days of presentations and discussions on how to stop saying “I’m sorry” for everything. Women, she said, are taught to apologize for the slightest hint of trouble. “Bump into someone in line? ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Take too long to find your credit card to pay, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ We say ‘sorry’ to defuse tension, to express regret, to joke, and even try to ease pain caused by others – apologizing to the store clerk for the rude behavior of the person in front of her. Women, she said, say sorry when we fail and we even say sorry when we succeed. When Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open, she didn’t beam with joy. She apologized for winning.
Zoe decided to try an experiment when she got home. Seven days without letting the word “sorry” escape from her lips. The temptations came fast and furious. “I wanted to apologize to my husband for having to take a shower, to my cat for being away so long, to my friends for missing a dinner party the night I got back.” But she did it. She caught the words before they left her mouth and instead simply told her husband, “I’m getting in the shower.” She told her cat, “I missed you.” And to her friends, she explained, “I need to stay home tonight to catch up on some rest.” Over the course of the week she was tested over and over, wanting to say sorry for having a stomachache, for heavy traffic, and “I’m sorry my hips are too wide for that narrow diner booth.”
Zoe said, “no one else probably noticed but I felt lighter, less slouched, and more confident.” Instead of saying “I’m sorry I’m late,” I said, “thank you for waiting.” Instead of apologizing for another customer’s bad behavior, I said, “Wow, that person was rude!” But the best thing, she said, was that after a week of “sorry-detoxing,” when real apologies were needed, they meant something. Instead of a ritual “sorry,” now, when I say it, I mean it. “I understand why you are upset, I hurt you, and I’m sorry.” It’s liberating.
But overcoming a lifetime of conditioning is hard. “In a culture that teaches women to apologize for everything – whether they have done harm or not – not apologizing is a quietly radical act.”
It’s radical because men keep demanding it. As Melissa Blake writes, “Powerful men use it as a tool – a weapon even – to suppress strong, confident women by making them feel humiliated, ashamed, and small.”
We saw clearly this week that was the goal of the tweeter in chief. Without the slightest hint of irony, he demanded the “radical left congresswomen must apologize for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said.” The terrible things they have said?!!! Doesn’t this make your head want to explode?! And what are the consequences if they refuse to apologize? Especially women of color. A crowd of red hats will gleefully foam at the mouth and roar the familiar refrain of racists, “Send her back.”
What is one way we know that Jesus was human? Sometimes he could act like a jerk. Not presidential level, but nonetheless, sometimes he said things that were not cool. Jesus is a friend of mine, so I mean no disrespect, but sometimes we need our friends to be honest with us. And so I simply have to say: Jesus, how you treated Martha wasn’t ok. You chided her, you scolded a grown woman. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
You can affirm Mary without turning sisters against each other – saying one way is better than the other. It’s not a competition. But, once you said those words, what else could Martha have felt but diminished and ashamed, to lower her head, step back, and walk away repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And Mary? I doubt she felt any better.
Scholars and commentaries offer all kinds of explanations and some excuses. With some of them, I agree. This short text has been rightfully used to argue in favor of women’s theological education. Mary clearly sat at his feet just like a rabbi in training would. This text has been rightfully used to support a balance of the active and contemplative life, to value being as much as doing. This is an exceptionally important text for that.
But it’s also true that it probably wasn’t good for Martha to involve her guest in what appears could be an ongoing dispute. One could argue that Martha breached hospitality by doing so. She made him feel uncomfortable. Which means, did Jesus deserve an apology from Martha?
Among the explanations and excuses is one that Jesus’ words were meant as an invitation rather than a rebuke. Jesus invited her into a new reality. But if that were the case, wouldn’t he have said, “Come over here, take a seat, and join us in our discussion. I’ll ask the other disciples to prepare the meal.”
His brusque words to Martha seem so out of character for Jesus. And yet he treated at least one other woman similarly. He was rude to the Syro Phoenician woman who asked for healing for her daughter. He said that “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Gasp. But she argued right back that “even little dogs eat crumbs from under the table.” And for her bold response, Jesus healed her daughter. The excuse for his behavior was that Jesus was just exhausted by all the demands placed on him, so he didn’t really mean to be rude.
“He didn’t really mean it.” Sound familiar? How often does that get thrown around. “He didn’t really mean it. He’s a good guy. I have known him for years.” Racist, sexist, homophobic language and abuse are constantly excused by “he didn’t really mean it.” Our new book club read Austin Channing Brown’s memoir about being a black woman in a world made for whiteness. As have others, she said white people have an uncanny need to excuse away the racist behavior of other white people. The words “he really didn’t mean it that way” have fallen off my own lips. And for that I must say “I was wrong and I’m sorry.” And stop doing it.
And yet otherwise, Jesus did repeatedly speak up and act out on behalf of women. He constantly challenged a deeply patriarchal world. Perhaps most notably, when men expected Jesus to denounce the woman who kissed and wiped his feet with her hair, a very sensual act, he not only defended but praised her. Men said, “Make her apologize! Proper women don’t do such things.” He said, “She understands the nature of my ministry more than any of the rest of you.” Judas chided the woman who bought expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. “That could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” This from the man about to sell Jesus down the river for 30 coins. Oh, but she’s the problem.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus honored women by revealing or confirming his identity to them. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well with 5 husbands. And Martha. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” She responded, the first person ever to do so, “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who was to come into the world.”
Martha may be best remembered for being too concerned that her guests will be taken care of and well fed. But, we should never forget she was the first to boldly affirm that Jesus is the Christ. Some communities in southern France remember her exactly that way. They elevate her in a way I had never heard of before. I want to share some stories I learned this week.
After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus began to spread the good news, but during a period of persecution in the year 45, they were among a small group put into a boat and left to drift on the Mediterranean without oars or a mast. In some traditions, they landed on Cyprus where they preached and taught until they died and were buried there.
But other traditions tell that the boat kept sailing until it reached the South of France. While others split off and went their own way, Mary found retreat near Marseille; a cave in a rock 2,800 feet high, where she spent the next 30 years in prayer and contemplation. Seven times a day, at each canonical hour, she “was raised in the air by angels to pray and afterwards placed gently on the ground where she ate the same heavenly food as the angels. Occasionally she left her place of solitude to ‘pour the honey of the words which flowed from her heart into the souls of the listeners.’” Sounds like Mary!
The ever-energetic Martha, on the other hand, kept busy along the banks of the Rhone River and in the towns of Avignon and Arles “cleansing lepers, restoring paralytic persons, raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, a sound walk to the lame, strength to the feeble, and health to the sick.” And probably providing supper for some drop-in guests on occasion.
Among the stories about Martha: She ate only once a day and then only roots and the fruits of trees. Bare-footed, her head covered with a white turban made from camel skins, she wore sack-cloth and a hair shirt belted with a knotted horse-hair rope -which tore badly into her skin. Like a Desert Mother, her bed was made from branches and vine-shoots with a stone for her pillow.
But the most remarkable story is the one in which she tamed a dragon. A terrible dragon of incredible length and extraordinary size whose mouth exhaled deadly smoke and from whose eyes, flames shot forth. It tore everything it encountered to pieces with its teeth and claws. Terrified, the people challenged Martha to prove the power of the Messiah about whom she preached. So, undaunted, she walked right up to the dragon’s den. She made the sign of the cross and it immediately calmed down. She tied her belt around the neck of the dragon and forbade it to ever harm anyone again with its breath or its bite. Afterward it lay down and followed her around like a massive dog on a leash.
These stories were not made up to tell at a feminist summer camp in 2019. These traditions date back to the middle ages. Relics of Martha were found in a church in Tarascon. To this day there are ancient churches and shrines dedicated to Saints Martha and Mary in Provence and elsewhere in southern France that keep these stories alive.
But, like any legend or tale or fable, the point isn’t its historicity but its meaning. And so, we should at least remember, Martha is far more notable than to reduce her to a dispute with her sister.
But back to the scripture text, if Martha felt rebuked by Jesus for being preoccupied, it didn’t seem to matter. Perhaps she didn’t feel rebuked and simply brushed it off and got back to work. That doesn’t excuse Jesus. But she didn’t feel a need for an apology; No big deal. Afterall, tradition says that Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus had an especially close relationship. They were like family.
And yet, the encounter between Martha and Jesus still makes me feel a certain kind of way. It raised some questions about women and apologies and left me wondering:
 Matthew 15:21-28
 Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Convergent, 2018 – Highly recommended. One of the best books I’ve read all year.
 John 11:27
 Thank you for the idea to Jane Anne Ferguson and sermon-stories.com
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 14, 2019
“Why Has the United States Lost Its Capacity for Compassion”
Luke 10: 25-37 – Common English Bible
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Last week I preached about Naaman, the foreign army commander with a skin disease. He followed the instructions of the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the River Jordan and was healed. Naaman was an outsider, an enemy. He led battles that defeated Israel. As such, he was an incredibly unlikely recipient of grace and healing. But such is the wideness of God’s mercy, grace, and love. However, as I noted, that’s only half the story. The only half told in the lectionary. The story continues that Elisha’s protégé Gehazi attempted to make a profit off of Naaman’s misery. When he got caught, Gehazi was afflicted with the very skin disease Naaman had been cured of. It’s the promise of divine justice for those who try to profit off the misery of others. For example, how corporations such as the GEO Group make enormous profits from the secretive world of migrant detention centers, or how a certain politician uses the suffering of asylum seekers, kids in cages, to increase his poll numbers… There may be divine grace. But when Gehazi tried to profit off the misery of Naaman’s suffering, we also discover divine justice.
I like obscure stories like that. How many of you had heard of Naaman before? Just a few.
I also love the story of Queen Vashti in the Book of Esther, too. How many of you have heard of Vashti? One night the Queen was summoned by her husband King Ahasuerus. He told her to parade in front of a bunch of men who had been drinking for seven days so he could proclaim that she is the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Ick, right! Some would make excuses for the king that he didn’t mean to degrade her. He just wanted to make the men jealous. Therefore, she shouldn’t be angry but be delighted by his pride. But Vashti refused the “honor” of being stared at by lustful men. So, for not playing along, she lost her crown and was banished from the kingdom.
A bombshell went off this week in progressive Christian circles when the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler announced she was leaving the esteemed Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is a glorious Gothic cathedral and a beacon of social justice – we’re proud, usually, to say it’s a federated church of the UCC and American Baptists. It’s where Dr. King gave his famous Vietnam speech. Many decades ago, it was the first church in the UCC to declare itself Open and Affirming to LGBTQ people. So, when Dr. Butler was named the first woman Senior Pastor of such a prominent church, finally, it was celebrated as a big crack in the stained-glass ceiling.
She is leaving, however, because she dared call out sexual harassment against her and other female staffers by, among others, a longtime leader in the church. Instead of taking her seriously, other leaders made excuses that he’s a good person, probably a large contributor, and, you know, he’s just “old school,” so you should understand and forgive him and move on… you know the drill. Dr. Butler was supposed to be grateful for the privilege of being the pastor of such a large, revered congregation and let sexual harassment wash over her shoulders like water off a duck. Instead, she followed the example of Queen Vashti. And as one author put it, “She was thrown off a stained-glass cliff.”
I like to tell the stories of people such as Naaman and Vashti and other more obscure characters from Anna the Mother of Mary to Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. More than the heroes of the Bible, I like telling the stories of people with outrageous character flaws that demonstrate the depth, length, and breadth of God’s grace and love. Because, if them, then you and me too. When I tell their stories, I feel like I’m introducing you to interesting people at a dinner party. In contrast, who wants to chat with the Good Samaritan over cocktails? We already know his story.
How many of you have heard of the Good Samaritan? Even people who have never touched a Bible know that we’re supposed to act like Good Samaritans to people in need. It’s harder to preach on a story everyone already knows. And yet, we also believe that God always “has yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” It’s a story worth repeating for a reason.
So briefly, a legal expert, sometimes called the young lawyer, asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Was he just an antagonist testing Jesus or did he sincerely want to know? Well, Jesus replied to his question with a question for which the legal expert knew the right answer. What does the law command? “To love God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” To the original question, whether a trick or sincere, Jesus answered, “You want eternal life? Go do that.” He didn’t say, first you must confess your sins, then go to a class so you can learn to say the Apostle’s Creed, promise to stop cursing, and refuse to bake a cake for a same gender wedding. No, “You want eternal life? Go love your neighbor as yourself.”
But then the legal expert asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Was he being genuine or was he looking for some exceptions clause? Sure, love your neighbor, but only if they are citizens. Surely not the trans soldier. Surely not Colin Kaepernick or the US women’s soccer team. I don’t know if Jesus rolled his eyes about the question. He simply answered by way of a story about a man beaten by robbers and left for dead alongside the road, passed by on the other side by a priest and a Levite.
Levites, by the way, if you’re wondering, were temple helpers and musicians. They both walked by. Sometimes excuses are made for them that they had to stay away because touching a dead body would make them unclean for their jobs in the temple. Jesus doesn’t make note of any excuses.
He simply tells how a Samaritan stopped, not only to help bandage him up, but how he extended compassion so far out of the ordinary, we respond “no way.” The care and the cost of what he gave the man was so over the top, we’re meant to be incredulous.
But along with the incredulous actions of the man who stopped alongside the way, the “who” was meant to shock the crowd. We’re supposed to have a visceral reaction. Gut level. No!!! Not them! For example, imagine that the hero of the story is a confederate flag waving Trump supporter who listens to Rush Limbaugh and rails against flag-burning liberals ruining our white culture. That’s the hero of the story. Or, depending on the crowd, it’s like Jesus is saying, only Nancy Pelosi stopped to help. Whichever side, say the name and cue the rage.
These days we feel a lot of rage. There are a lot of people about whom we feel only outrage. It’s gotten so that frankly, if the president did something of which I approved, I doubt I would believe it. That’s the exact visceral reaction of hearing a story of a “good” Samaritan. No. There is no such thing.
It’s not hard to identify someone as a stand-in for the Samaritan. But as ICE makes it raids today, trying to distract us from the fact that kids are still being locked into cages (that doesn’t poll quite as well among the base), it’s also not difficult to recognize the immediacy of the question, “Who is my neighbor.” It’s the migrant family frightened of opening the door this morning. Or any family who might be mistaken for being undocumented. But in this complicated world, who also is my neighbor? It’s Gehazi too, making profits from his stock in private prison detention centers. It’s the men in church who harass women pastors with impunity. They are my neighbor too.
But wait a minute. I just did the classic false equivalency. The post-white supremacist Charlottesville rally at which “there were fine people on both sides.” No, Dr. Amy Butler and the man whose “apology” to her included a bottle of wine and a t-shirt, get this, both with the label “Sweet b.i.t.c.h.”, are not equally fine people. Nor those who excuse him. Those who demand kids be locked in cages, those who profit from it, and those kids and their families are not morally equal.
What does “love my neighbor” mean then? God’s mercy may be wide, but it does not offer excuses or defend abuse. To “go and love your neighbor” requires both grace and accountability. It doesn’t forget that love and justice are two sides of the same coin, but that in the end, reconciliation is always the goal.
The story of a Samaritan who did good is meant to arouse disbelief and rage. Sometimes when a story is too familiar, it loses its edge. But even then, it’s easy to remain fixated on the doubt that anyone who is a Samaritan can be good and forget the ways that he was good.
“While traveling, he came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’”
Do you hear how beautiful that is? To pause and imagine the whole thing is to tear up. He came near him. He saw him. He was moved with compassion. The tenderness of his care. It’s extraordinary. To see people suffering and care. It makes me all the more sad to wonder, why has the United States lost its capacity for compassion?
Reading this story over and over, year after year, reminds us that compassion is the ultimate vocation of Christians. I’m grateful the legal expert asked, because it invites us to keep asking, in every generation’s time and place, who is my neighbor?
So, in that vein, do you know the name of the person sitting next to you? Or two people away or three rows ahead or behind you? It might be hard to take seriously the question “who is my neighbor” out in the world if I can’t answer that question in this room.
Some of you who came today know that we have an exciting new venture to announce at our semi-annual meeting after worship. Late last year we began preparing to engage in a new strategic planning process, helping us to discern our future. To what is God calling us as a church? Along the way we learned that it is difficult to do a strategic planning process when most people say, “I like what we’re already doing.” In fact, healthy, growing churches often have a harder time doing strategic planning than a church that feels stuck. Ironically, our strategic planning process got stuck. What we have known all along, however, even before we started, is that whatever we do, we need to feel more connected – more deeply connected to God and to one another. The only way the church will remain healthy and keep growing is if we are growing together as a community. When I feel stuck in my personal life, I call a therapist. When a church feels stuck, you call a consultant for advice and guidance! And I’m sure glad we got stuck because a whole new possibility opened up. For the next six months we will be engaging in what is called a “relational campaign.”
We’ll introduce Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher a little later and she’ll better explain the how. I need as much help as you to understand how. That’s why you hire consultants. But the what and why? To know one another and our neighbors more deeply. Many of us struggle with how to talk to people whose beliefs and values differ so sharply with our own. Practicing that, preparing for that, will be powerful. The possibilities for circles of transformation beyond our walls for us as individuals and as a larger community are exciting.
But in the end, trusting the process, relying upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we will know much, much more about who we are and who are neighbors are – both down at the end of your row of chairs and down at the end of the block and around the corner. I hope you want to know more about “who is my neighbor.” Why? Because then we can work together for a world that is Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 7, 2019
“Profiting Off the Misery of Children
1st Kings 5 - see the story within the text
My sabbatical earlier this year was full of experiences that left me overflowing with joy. There was one notable exception. My friend Chris, the pastor at Sixth Avenue UCC, and I went on a mini-civil rights tour of Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama. Our first stop was at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered by white supremacists who threw a bomb at the church on Youth Sunday. We remember their names: Denise, Carole, Addie, and Cynthia. Across the street there were memorials to the 4,000 nameless school children who braved police dogs and fire hoses, including a statue of children behind jail bars. In Selma, we walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
But the real reason for the trip was to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, otherwise known as the lynching memorial. It is a monument of stunning proportions including 800 coffin shaped steel boxes hanging above your head, engraved with the names of more than 4,000 documented victims – men, women, and children. Like 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi, accused of flirting with a white woman. Among that list of names there are a disturbing number of 14, 15, and 16-year olds, like Ernest, Charlie, Jesse, Willie James, and an 18-year-old pregnant Mary Turner. Accompanying the lynching memorial is the Legacy Museum, which shows the uninterrupted, ever-adaptable strategies of white supremacists to dehumanize – methods that morphed from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to the pre-school to prison pipeline of mass incarceration. One particularly brutal exhibit is a hologram of a woman crying out for her children who had been ripped from her arms and sold on the auction block.
Naturally, children are on many of our minds this weekend, this weekend of celebrations for our freedom and independence, all the while migrant children are still being locked in cages, now debating the necessity of soap (?), ripped from their parent’s arms as they flee violence and seek asylum. Didn’t I just preach about this? I looked back and found my sermon from one year ago entitled “Children Ripped and Scattered” in which I read from the poem Home, written by Warsan Shire (pronounced “she-ray”), the British/Somali poet. Here is an excerpt:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore.
Those lines are so painfully poignant as we recall images of the father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande two weeks ago, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria.
A year ago, we were shocked that the intentional cruelty of this administration could descend to such an unimagined level as to lock kids in cages as a strategy. Now it doesn’t shock us at all. Just more business as usual for the administration which was forced to admit there was no registry created to reunite children with their families, despite reassurances, and that a year later, some 300 are yet to be reunited. There are fears that some may be adopted without permission of their parents. Those fears are not unfounded. Families who agree to foster migrant children are told explicitly that they may not adopt those children. That didn’t stop one family in Michigan from suing to do exactly that, claiming they feared for the girl’s safety.
They probably read the glowing reviews from Bethany Christian Services about the joy of fostering a migrant child. Like Juanita. When Juanita and her older brother were apprehended by immigration, they were separated, and Juanita was placed in detention with other minors. Her brother was sent back to Guatemala. Juanita was sent to a family in Michigan. She didn’t want to go, but the testimonial claims that “over time, Juanita realized how much her foster parents cared for her. She slowly began to trust them. And eventually, that trust turned into love.” “Now,” she said, “when I think of family, the first thing that comes to mind is my foster family.” Today Juanita is completing a college degree in social work to help others navigate their own difficult journeys.
What an absolutely lovely sentiment, an uplifting outcome. I am grateful for families willing to offer a loving home. And horrified at how absolutely normal such testimonials portray the role of organizations like Bethany Christian Services, the Betsy DeVos funded agency, well connected and extremely well-compensated for their work. It may seem necessary and justified, but one day we’ll realize it is just as complicit as all the Christian denominations that facilitated the efforts of the federal government to “kill the Indian and save the man” during in the boarding school era. Another example of black and brown children ripped from their families, including plenty of “success stories” about children who were “educated” in those nightmare schools to become doctors and other professionals, overlooking the generational trauma of forced family separation.
Today’s reading is one of those success stories too, although the Juanita-esque aspect of it can be easily overlooked. There is a detail we often miss from the story we tell of Naaman. My seminary friend Katy Hawker, however, isn’t one to miss such details.
But first, the story: Naaman was an exalted army commander who had successfully led his soldiers to win difficult strategic battles. But this valiant soldier had a skin disease – sometimes called leprosy, though this was probably not that. As the story goes, during one of his successful campaigns against Israel, he brought a young girl back to be his wife’s servant. That girl suggested to Naaman’s wife that he should go see the prophet back in Samaria, in the territory of Israel, to be healed. Naaman asked the permission of his king, who agreed to send a letter to the King in Israel. When the king received the letter, however, he thought it must be a trick. “I’m not God, I can’t heal someone.” Naturally suspicious of his enemy, the king pondered, “What does he really want?” Elisha told the king to send him over. So Naaman, with all his many horses and chariots full of jewels and gold and gifts, stopped in front of Elisha’s house. Elisha had his servant tell Naaman to simply go wash in the River Jordan seven times and he would be clean as snow.
But the valiant and exalted army commander was furious. He was insulted that a mere servant spoke to him, not Elisha directly, and that he would tell him something so ridiculous. For one thing, someone of his stature was surely capable of a regimen more demanding than dunking himself in a river seven times. For another thing, the Jordan was a mud pit. The rivers back in Syria ran fresh and clean and pure, fed by the melting snow of the mountains. He was doubly insulted and underwhelmed. In a rage, he turned to go back home. But one of his servants carefully approached Naaman and suggested that if Elisha had told him to do something difficult, he would have done it. Why not do it if it’s simple? So Naaman, the great warrior humbled himself and went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as he was told, and his flesh was restored and became as clean as a young boy.
It’s a great story with a happy ending. There are themes of humility and trust and what happens when you swallow your pride and ask for a little help. It’s a good story for fiercely self-sufficient people who proclaim, “I can do it myself, thank you very much.” It’s a story of international cooperation between enemies. It’s a story of “ask and you shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” It’s a story for anyone who has refused a simple instruction, such as, I want peace in my soul, but don’t ask me to forgive my neighbor. I want a better relationship with my spouse, but don’t ask me to go to counseling. I want better friendships, but don’t ask me to be a better friend.
It’s a great story because Naaman, though reluctant, listened. It’s an even better story, however, because it all started with a little girl suggesting it. She, with no name and no power, proclaimed faith in the God of Israel and demonstrated God’s great power – available to everyone, not just those in Israel.
But wait. The little detail Katie mentioned? That girl? She was war booty; a captive. She was kidnapped from her home and made to be a slave. The spoils of war. With news stories for the past year about children in cages, how could we miss the detail that this girl was ripped from her family, too? Perhaps it’s because we can too easily turn her into a Juanita “success story.” Thanks to the great faith of the little girl, everything is OK because the valiant soldier was healed and made whole again. But what about her? Was she set free? Allowed to go back home? All of this “success” without naming the girl’s pain and trauma from being separated. Katie notes this is a “familiar pattern – when those in power celebrate the “faith” of the little ones on whose necks they stand. Accolades from the mighty for the faith of those they disempower.”
All of this is terrible and true. So, then what? What do we do with this?
I don’t envy those who must figure out how to handle the humanitarian crisis at our border. But I can’t help but notice the familiar response to black and brown children is to remove them from their parents. And for “religious” people like James Dobson to call them such things as illiterate and unhealthy and declare them a threat to “our culture.” Another white supremacist ever-adapting strategy to dehumanize black and brown people that must be dismantled.
So, there is one last part almost always left out when this story is told. Even the lectionary leaves this last part out. After Naaman’s skin is made whole, he returned home. He had come prepared to pay for his cure, so he brought loads of jewels and gold and clothing. Elisha refused payment. Grace and healing are not commodities. They are gifts. Free. Well, Elisha’s protégé Gehazi saw an opportunity for a little profit for himself. He chased after Naaman and told him that Elisha had changed his mind and wanted payment after all. Naaman was more than happy to oblige and even doubled the amount Gehazi had requested. When Gehazi got back home, Elisha asked where he had been. Like a teenager, he responded, “Nowhere.” “What have you been doing?” “Nothing.” But Elisha knew exactly what Gehazi had been doing. And so, for using the situation of free grace and healing to make a profit, Gehazi was stricken with Naaman’s skin disease, which, Elisha proclaimed, will “now cling to you and to your descendants forever. And immediately, Gehazi’s skin became as flaky as snow.”
I don’t know which makes this ending “happier.” Whether it’s thanks to the faith of that nameless little girl so Naaman’s skin was restored or the divine justice for those like Gehazi who seek to profit off the misery of others?
Like politicians on both sides of the aisles. Like companies such as the GEO Group and CoreCiviv who earned $985 million from ICE contracts in 2017 alone. Or Southwest Key which in the past few years has amassed almost $1 billion in contracts. Just one in the lucrative, secretive world of migrant-shelters. 547 Wayfair employees had enough. They walked off the job, writing, “We believe that by selling products to contractors who enable the violation of children’s rights are complicit in furthering the inhumane actions of our government.” Now, Bethany Christian Services, which collects $700 per night per child, doesn’t seem similarly concerned, nor do they seem concerned about Gehazi’s skin disease for profiting off misery.
What can you do? Are you certain you don’t have stock in companies like the GEO Group that profit off the misery of children? Do you have social responsibility screens on your investments? You can join us on our week long border immersion experience in September. Several UCC churches in Metro Denver, including ours, are collaborating right now to create a sanctuary space for families facing deportation in the building of one of our recently closed churches. It will need funding and volunteers. Those are only a few things.
Forced separation is simply wrong. It is immoral. It is unethical. And it should be understood by all to be unchristian. But if they must be in our care, temporarily, are the children well cared for? Do they have enough to eat? Do they have soap, a toothbrush? Is someone lifting them when they cry? Is someone wiping away their tears? Are the children well?
And is someone holding the adults charged with their care accountable for their crimes against humanity?
Oh Lord, we pray for your divine justice for those who profit off the misery of children. And pray for the children and their families.
"For Children at Our Borders"
By Alden Solovy
God of mothers and fathers,
God of babies and children,
Youth and teens,
The voice of agony echoes across the land,
As children are taken from their parents,
Perverting our values,
Perverting the ways of justice and peace.
So that a few may reap the political rewards of their suffering
By playing tough at our borders.
Source of grace,
Creator of kindness and goodness,
You call upon us to stand in the name of justice and fairness,
To witness against this abuse of power,
To battle the systematic assault on human beings,
To speak out against their suffering.
Bless those who rise up against this horror.
Bless those who plead on behalf of the oppressed and the subjugated before the seats of power.
Bless these children
Who wait in misery
To be reunited with their families
Bless those bondage at the hand of the U.S. government.
Grant comfort and consolation.
Release them. Free them. Heal them from trauma.
Reunite them with their families.
Hasten the day of their reunion.
Blessed are You, God of All Being,
Who summons us to oppose violence, slavery and injustice.
 https://medium.com/poem-of-the-day/warsan-shire-home-46630fcc90ab - I just used a short excerpt
 Slightly adapted - https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2018/06/19/3-prayers-children-our-borders
I love being the