Sermon: Faith in the Time of Leprosy

2 Kings 5:1-27
All Saints Sunday
November 2, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 Listen to the Sermon.

AsthmaI think I’ve always grown up with some sense of illness, either in my own life or in the life of my parents or my relatives.  I was diagnosed with asthma when I was about two.  I can remember that Mom and Dad had to do a few things to help me not have asthma attacks or at least lessen their frequency.  They got central air to protect me from the molds and grasses.  They made sure what ever school I went to was clean.  I remember I was enrolled to go to one school which happened to meet in the basement of the church.  Mom pulled me out of that school after two days.

 

I also couldn’t have pets like cats or dogs.  There was a tiny problem.  I seemed to like cats.  Mom had enrolled me in a daycare center and she told them to keep me away from cats.  Well, there was stray cat in the area, and somehow I was outside and decided to pet the cute kitty.  A few hours later, I was in emergency with a 103 temp fever and a bad asthma attack.

 

My asthma was pretty serious until I was about 9 or so.  I can remember one image that seemed to sum up my time living with severe asthma.  I was looking out the living room window.  My parents were careful when to let me outside and when to stay indoors.  They didn’t want me pushing myself too hard and triggering another attack.  So here I was maybe about 3 or 4 staring out the window seeing the world outside, a place that was viewed by the grownups as somewhat dangerous to me.  I can remember a sense of isolation, that I was different.

 

Illness has a way of doing that to people.  For whatever reason, getting sick with a chronic illness tends to either keep people away or separate people from the rest of the world.  The current struggles with the Ebola virus has resulted in people being cut off from the wider community, even when there is little chance that the person in question would get sick.

 

Sometimes people isolate themselves from others in order to not have face others or have people see them in a vulnerable position.  I’ve known people with psoriasis who wear beards to cover their skin.  Older people who have various health problems tend to stay home instead of going out, something that might be too hard or too embarassing.

 

In the Bible, we might be familiar with the texts that deal with people with various skin diseases.  These stories are found more often than not in the gospels.  Jewish law deemed these people unclean and they had to separate themselves from the wider community.  In today’s story we meet a man named Naaman.  He’s the top general in the Syrian army.  He was considered a masterful warrior which probably made him famous in Syria.  But while things might seem to be going well for Naaman, we learn that he has leprosy.  Now leprosy in the Bible was probably not the thing we think about when we think of leprosy: which is also called Hanson’s Disease.  Instead, it refferred to a number of skin diseases.  We don’t know what kind Naaman had, but we do know it was serious.

 

One day, a servant girl speaks to Naaman’s wife.  The young girl was from Israel and was taken during one of Syria’s raids.  She tells the wife: “Oh, if only my master could meet the prophet of Samaria, he would be healed of his skin disease.”

 

Naaman hears this and goes to tell the king.  I can imagine him feeling a little bit of hope.  Maybe, a cure was around the corner.  He tells his boss, the king, the news.  The king decides to send a letter his counterpart in Israel and sends Naaman on his way.

 

Naaman is probably thinking he would have this grand meeting with Elisha the prophet.  But that wasn’t meant to be.  Instead of seeing Elisha he was greeted by a servant and instructions: go wash in the Jordan River seven times.

 

Some theologians criticize Naaman for being so prideful and I think there is a bit of that.  But I wonder if this is not more an anger of frustration than mere pride.  Elisha never bothered to come out to meet Naaman.  There was that problem of isolation again.  Instead of meeting him face to face, Elisha seems to hold Naaman at a distance, something he’s been used to for as along as he had the illness.  Maybe he thought Elisha was doing the same thing: staying away and then to add insult to injury being told wash in a substandard and probably unclean river.

 

A journalist of Liberian heritage was in her nativeland to report on the Ebola epedemic.  Back in the United States, she talked about the fact that she couldn’t touch her family members and noticed how sad it was to not be able to hug a neice or shake a friend’s hand. Could Naaman have been angry that yet again, someone couldn’t come near him for fear of being infected.  He was ready to head back to Syria, unhealed.

 

Like in the early part of the chapter, it is the outsiders, the servants who come to Naaman’s aid.  They persuade him to wash in the Jordan and he is healed.  The outsider is now free from what kept him separated.  He is made whole.

 

The interesting part of this whole story is that God was always there in the background.  In verse one, we see God affecting the outcome of the battles Naaman fought in.  The little girl had faith that Elish could heal Naaman through God’s power.  God is with Naaman when he is the outsider with a skin edition, God is with the servant girl who is considered an outsider by being a servant.  After Naaman is healed, he asks that he might take some clumps of the soil in Israel.  He plans to play on that soil, as a reminder of who it was that healed him.

 

Before I go any further, there is an anti-story here as well.  Gehezi, Elisha’s servant schemes to get some of the riches Naaman brought as a gift for Elisha, the gifts the prophet refused.  The insider decides to get his pound of flesh.  But Elisha knew that Gehezai had scammed someone who has been healed by God.  Because of that, he got the same skin condition Naaman was healed from.  The insider was pushed out because of his greed.

 

The story to hear from this passage is that the God of the Israelites is the God of the world.  It is a God that cared for a foriegn general, a man from a foreign people who wanted to worship and follow God.

 

The ultimate healing that would come in the form of Jesus Christ would not be just for certain people, but for the whole world.  Outsiders would become insiders.

 

This past Friday, we had our first ever Trunk or Treat.  Yes, it was dissappointing to only get one child after standing out in the cold.  But the role of a church is to tell those around us that they are welcomed at God’s table.  We can’t force them to come, but when we as church share God’s love with others, we are bringing others to God’s Welcome Table.

 

By the way, as I got older, I kind of outgrew my asthma.  I still carry an inhaler that I use at times.  But I was able to get outside more and most importantly, I got to pet cats and not get sick.  I wasn’t separated anymore.  And neither are we.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Volunteers Needed: Church Launch/Re-Launch Team

First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this Mainline Protestant congregation as well as launching a preaching point somewhere in the St.Paul area.

The Re-Launch/Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you know of someone who feels called to redevelop or develop a congregation, please pass this along.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact the pastor. We will contact you shortly!

Sermon: The Whole Truth

Micah 5:2-4 and 6:1-8
Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 9, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 Listen to the Sermon.

Our long national nightmare is over.

2014-midterm-electionsI’m talking about the conclusion of the 2014 midterm elections.  For several months we have seen endless commercials on television, our mailboxes stuffed with campaign mailings, our email inboxes filled with several emails a day and so on.  Our own mailbox here at church was filled with mailers from a close fought Minnesota House race.  Now, we don’t have to deal with that anymore…until 2016.

As much as I detest all the spam that seems to come into my life, I like to watch the returns come in on election night.  I remember watching the election returns in 1980 as Ronald Reagan defeated sitting president Jimmy Carter.  I remember my first election in 1988 and watching Vice President George Bush become president and I saw the votes come in 1992 as Bill Clinton became president.

I tend to watch the returns of midterms as well.  In the fall of 1990, I was in a ballroom in Lansing, Michigan waiting for the returns to decide who would be the next governor of my home state of Michigan.  I was covering the event for a number of radio stations in the state.  And no one can forget watching in either joy or terror in 1998 as Jesse Ventura became Governor of Minnesota.

Politics can be an exciting thing to take part in.  But I’m learning that it also has a darkside.  Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein wrote in his blog in late September about how ideology is splitting America apart.  Sunstein noted the findings of a test which asked people how people would feel if you child or friend married someone of the opposite political party.  In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats would be uneasy.  Fifty years later, in 2010, the number is now 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats who would have a problem.  Political prejudice is now greater than racial prejudice.

Sunstein writes that modern political campaigns are partly to blame for the increase in party distrust and that distrust is starting to spill into other aspects of life- such as marrying someone of a different political persuasion.

And this “partyism” is seeping into the church.  In many cases, we have “red churches” mostly evangelical congregations and “blue churches” mostly mainline congregations.  Some churches have gone in such an ideological direction that people of the other persuasion now feel unwelcome at church.

Read More…

Yet More Thoughts on “Hate the Sin…”

love-covers_by-robg

My post last night bothered me a bit, partially because I don’t think I did a good job of explaining myself.  Chalk it up to lateness of the hour and dealing with a cat that was trying to use my laptop as warming pad.  So, I wanted to offer another post to share some thought on “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” and why there is a good reason to chuck it  and a good reason to keep it.

On using it selectively Most people who object to the phrasing say it is used for only certain sins (ie: sexual sins).  Other sins never have anyone saying this out loud.  If people use this phrase to condemn a sexual minority, but never say it with other sins, that’s a telltale sign of hypocrisy and should be called out for it.  Either it is used all the time or not used at all.

Words and actions As I said last night, my own mother has lived an ethic of loving the sinner.  Here it is used out of love for the wayward soul.  Pointing out someone’s sin is something that needs to be done from time to time, but it has to come from a place of love, not condescension.

What Ever Happened to Sin- The big reason that I am always a bit wary of chucking the phrase is because we in American society don’t really want to talk about sin.  We don’t want to talk about the sin of others and most certainly don’t want to talk about our own sin.  Most of the time when preachers talk against this phrase, there is no caveat about dealing with sin.  We live in a culture that wants to feel good about themselves and others- they see religion more often than not as too judgemental.  I agree that this is a problem.  But there is still the matter of sin.  How do we be truly honest with each other and not use words to condemn?  Sin happens; how do we talk about it without being judgemental jerk?

About 15 years ago, I met a gay man in his 50s.  I knew he had a boyfriend what I didn’t know is that he had another boyfriend as well.  It was a threesome. This was new territory for me.  I didn’t want to appear judgemental, so  I said nothing to the man.  I don’t know if that was the right thing, but it’s what I did.  A few years later, the gentleman left to accept a job working for a religious organization in California.  I found out that he lost his job for issues related to the threesome.  His position was one that took place in the public and for that charity it was just too much to deal with.

Should I have said something earlier?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that for most of us in mainline/progressive churches we would rather not deal with sexual issues.  Like many liberals, we want to believe all things are possible as long as there is consent.  But aren’t Christians supposed to aim a bit higher?

Love Is All You Need- If you look at the image on top, you can see that the last panel has someone saying “love covers a multitude of sins.

There is something unsettling about that.  Is that to mean that we should just ignore whatever sin is going on?  Did Jesus really ignore sin when he was on earth?  Did he only focus on the Pharisees, but everyone else was okay?

Growing up I did have a more strict upbringing that I ran from..kind of.  I don’t want to head back to it, but isn’t just saying love is all we need nothing more than cheap grace?  Does our faith require us to be better people?

So yes, criticize how people use that phrase.  But if that is all we talk about, then we are sending the wrong message to people in the pews.  I want to close with what I said in 2012:

Is there a way we can hold each other accountable and yet not be judgmental and condescending?  I’d like to think so, but how do we practice that?  Christian Piatt is correct to bring up that Jesus told folks not to worry about the splinter in our neighbor’s eyes and ignore the plank in our own.  But does that mean we never to talk about what might be going on in another person’s life?  What did Jesus mean when he said this?  When is it right to “butt in” and when is it right to stay out?

Can we use this phrase in a way that doesn’t beat LGBT Christians like myself?

More Thoughts on “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner”

A recent online conversation has led me back to the old debate about the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner.”* As I said back in 2012, I’ve never had the reaction that other mainline/progressive Christians seem to have about it. Blogger Ben Godsen shares why he feels we need to kick this phrase to the curb:

See here’s the thing, you can’t “love a sinner” without getting to know the person. But you can hate the sin without ever knowing the person. So if we don’t really know a person but we do think you know about their sin, then we’re just trying to find a “bless their heart” way of saying we don’t approve of whatever it is we think their sin is. That way the real guilt remains on the other person and not on our judgmental view of that person. It’s a phrase that gives us the right to declare what’s right and wrong with the world without ever having to invest in the lives of another person and especially a person who might be different from us. It’s a phrase that gives us permission to guard ourselves against encountering the grace and humanity in others and thus preserving our own sense of superiority.

I’ve been wondering why I don’t have as much a problem with the phrase that others seem to have.  As I mulled it over, I came to a conclusion: I saw this practice lived out in the life of my mother.

Mom has always been someone that seems to balance sin and grace in a way few do.  I remember Mom talking about her two younger brothers who at the time were living with women without being married.  She thought that was sinful, but she never stopped loving them.  She never stopped helping them out when they needed help.  Contrary to the belief of some that this phrase is used to express moral superiority, Mom never saw herself as better than her brothers.  She had her belief that what they were doing was in her eyes sinful but it didn’t keep her from loving her brothers. Love, not counting sin was what mattered.

Mom showed this same love of sinners and hating sin in other occasions.  Mom used to see homosexuality as sinful, but that would never stop her from caring for people no matter who they were.

This new conversation has me thinking more about sin in American society, namely how much we don’t talk about it.  A lot of the discussion around “hate the sin…” is focused on telling people to focus on their own sin and not the sins of others. That makes sense to a point, but here’s the thing: we don’t really focus on our own sin. We really don’t want to focus on our sin, let alone the sins of others. How many churches really do confession and forgiveness on Sunday mornings?

Maybe that’s what bothers me about some of the criticism; it doesn’t talk about sin in our own lives and the lives of others in our communities. The alternative vision offered seems to look like cheap grace more than anything else. I might be wrong, but it feels that way.

I’m not advocating that we start acting like Puritans and placing Scarlet Letters on people. I don’t doubt that there are people who want to offer backhanded comments that put down people instead of lifting them up. But I wish that when we think about this phrase, that we be more thoughtful about how it is used.

*The funny thing about “hate the sin…” is that I’ve never, ever heard anyone utter those words. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just that I’ve never heard it in my own life.

Stopping A Freight Train

I’m a little wary about writing this.

freight-01The reason for my skittishness is that I don’t want my frustrations to be misunderstood.  But I think I need to try to find someway to share these frustrations; otherwise they will eat me alive.

Anyone that knows me knows that I am a bit focused on new churches.  I’ve really wanted to see new Disciples of Christ churches in Minnesota reaching various populations.  Last year, there seemed to be some passing interest with a few people, but in the end none of the people who expressed interest were that passionate to do anything.

What has also frustrated me is the lack on interest in new churches.  For reasons that allude me, Disciples clergy and lay alike don’t seem to be rushing to find ways to plant new communities.

One thing you need to know about someone like me who has autism (and maybe ADHD as well).  When we believe in something, we are all in.  There is no half steps, no casual participants.  This belief is hard to let go.  It’s like trying to stop a freight train, it just ain’t gonna happen.

If I were in a church and saw someone like that, I would have a talk with them  They would be the best workers because they believe this.  Really, really, believe this.  But I think most churches and middle judicatories don’t know how to deal with someone like me.

It was the crazy speeding train passion that led me to start a church 10 years ago.  I still had a lot to learn and I made mistakes, but I felt I was able to find a place to channel my obsession.  Community of Grace never worked out and it was closed a few years later, but it was a fun ride.

I don’t know if I want to do that again, partially because I have a church to worry about and partly because I lack the people skills needed.

But I still want to see new churches.  What is frustrating is that it seems like no one else in my denomination here in Minnesota is interested.

I know that starting new churches is not everyone’s cup of tea.  I know there are other things that mainline churches are involved in such as social justice issues.  I know that most people aren’t this obsessed about this issue.  I know that my passion/obsession has pissed people off in my denomination (and for that I’m sorry).

I wish I could just be able to push this aside.  But this desire isn’t something I can switch off, as much as I would like it to.

I don’t think I can plant another church, at least at this time.  But I do want to help others (if there are others).  I do want to spread the word on this.

This post is not supposed to be a bitchfest.  It is showing how sometimes my autism and church life collide.  It’s hard to have a desire or calling, and be told no.

I have no idea if this blog makes any sense.  Maybe I have to learn as hard as it is to do, that sometimes your passions have to be set aside.

I guess that makes sense, but it is hard to accept.

Aspergers, Self-Esteem and God

Self-Doubt in relationships autism

I will be writing a blog post on partisanship and the church, but right now I need to chat about dealing with self-esteem when you are on the autistic spectrum.

People with Aspergers especially deal with low self-esteem, partially because of being bullied and partially because we tend to isolate ourselves when we’ve been bullied.  For me, there is this sense that I’m stupid, which isn’t true, of course, but it is there because of the low self-esteem.  Sometimes experiences tend to bring people down and it is a lot harder to shake things off than it is for someone who is neurotypical.

Last year, a blogger who also has Aspergers explained why low self-esteem goes hand-in-hand with Aspergers:

The primary reason that most people with Aspergers, including myself, have self esteem issues, is due to bullying and people not being willing to make allowances for our social mistakes. Personally I have never met anyone with Aspergers who did not experience bullying in their school years and often beyond. Being socially awkward identifies us as targets in the playground. The fact that a lot of people with Aspergers are also physically clumsy doesn’t help matters at all. I always found that certain aspects of my Aspergers made me more sensitive to childhood bullies than other people. One example is the fact that I am a very literal thinker. Until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t understand that people would say spiteful and malicious things that they knew to be untrue just to hurt somebody’s feelings. I always assumed that people were just being honest and genuinely thought that I was ugly or a freak. If you are told something enough times, you internalise it and it becomes part of your self image. Many children with Aspergers are miserable in their school years-they are often isolated and excluded from playground games. If the only reaction your peers have towards you is to walk away, how are you supposed to develop a healthy self image of yourself as someone who is nice to be around? Of course, having these sorts of self esteem issues lead, in turn, to low self confidence, particularly in social situations where you feel that others will be judging you and looking for your flaws so that they can take great pleasure in pointing them out and ridiculing you for them. This compounds our social awkwardness and thus the vicious circle continues. At almost 27, I am still suffering from the effects of experiences I had before anyone even knew that my difficulties had a name, I still have days when I think the world would be a better place without me in it although, thankfully, these days are now few and far between. I always say that, until you have looked in the mirror and genuinely despised the person staring back at you, you will struggle to understand just how pervasive and destructive low self esteem can be.

It can take years for someone to get to a point where they feel good about themselves. I remember early on in ministry, a fellow pastor ripped me to shreds. It took a long time to piece back together my confidence. Once I did get it back, it happened again a number of years ago. And again, I had to rebuild myself, a process that took years. What neurotypicals can shake off takes a long time for someone on the spectrum.

Then there are what one writer calls Self-Esteem attacks.  When someone with Aspergers does something perceived as wrong there’s a sense of shame that can act like a panic attack.  Blogger Amy Murphy explains:

“Self Esteem Attacks” occur whenever a person with low self esteem does or says something that he afterwards deems to have been inappropriate, stupid, rude, obnoxious, off target, or inaccurate. At that time, the person may experience immediate remorse, excruciating anxiety, his heart racing, his face turning red, a sinking feeling of embarrassment, depression and/or devastation. Wishing he could sink into the floor or disappear, he may immediately look for a way to escape. He may feign illness, sneak out without saying anything, or just become totally silent, hoping not to be noticed. He will believe that everyone saw his blunder and is thinking poorly of him, maybe even laughing at him. This is a full blown Self-Esteem Attack that may last for minutes, hours, even days during which he berates himself, is fearful of seeing anyone who was in attendance at the time he made his “mistake,” and remain seriously depressed.

I’ve had moments where I wanted to hide and just curl up into a ball after making a mistake. On the outside, I might not show much emotion, but on the inside I start to feel like crap. I berate myself and get stuck in feedback loop of self-loathing. It’s not pretty.

The final thing to talk about is how this low self-esteem can affect relationships. I think a lot of my friendships have been stunted out of my own fear that I’m not good enough, that I can socially engage others and reminders of other past relationships. So, I remain distant,to protect myself and because I don’t have confidence that I could be a good friend or fear that I will say or do something wrong. This has happened in romantic relationships as well, but it happens more frequently in friendships. Gavin Bollard has a good blog post on how self-esteem can wreck potentially good relationships.

One thing about how my faith and self-esteem.  I truly believe what has helped me not totally fall of the deep end is my faith in God and the belief in the concept of grace- that I am loved and called by God even when I mess up and feel like I’m stupid.  It doesn’t take the self-esteem attacks away, but it does surely blunt their punch.

I was a bit leery of sharing this.  I don’t want to focus on myself or get into a pity party in front of others.  But I do want to share what someone with Aspergers deals with on daily basis.  The world can be a harsh place for those of us on the spectrum and people who don’t have autism need to understand that.

I want to end with a quote from Steph, a woman with Aspergers, about understanding how people with autism deal with self-esteem:

Next time you see someone with Aspergers or autism, please remember how they may be feeling inside and have compassion for them. We struggle daily to get by in a world which often seems to revel in making us feel like failures and sometimes just a small amount of kindness can make our day so much better.

Indeed.

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