This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/9/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: 2 Kings 5:1-15 & Luke 17:11-19. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
If you wanted to vastly simplify – and certainly oversimplify in many ways – the status of America today, you could say that we’ve been divided out into the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe. We all know these tribes very well, and I’m not going to try to give an extensive explanation of them right now. But in light of our scripture reading this morning, I do want to look at one specific area where the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe have dramatically different perspectives.
The Blue Tribe thinks of itself as universalist – in the sense that it has a vision of a world where all the diversity and particularity of cultures, languages, histories, and ancestry are all an opportunity to express something that is fundamentally the same. In this view, we’re all experiencing the same human story, one that we all share; our superficial differences are nothing compared to the shared experience that we have as members of the human race.
For Christians who are members of the Blue Tribe, this concept extends to the way we think about our faith, who God is, and what salvation means. For members of the Blues Tribe, God is all about universality. Jesus lived and died and rose again for everyone. No one is excluded. God doesn’t belong to any nation, language, culture, or ethnicity. God is radically for all of us humans, even for the whole creation.
Members of the Blue Tribe don’t like anything that might suggest that God picks sides, or that God acts particularly – in special ways in certain people, communities, nations – in ways that simply can’t be replicated anywhere else.
The scriptural witness provides a lot to support this worldview. There’s no doubt that God is universal in many ways. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – everything! God created everything by and through Jesus, the preexisting, universal Word, through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. The universal emphasis of the Blue Tribe is right in so many ways.
But, as you may have already guessed, the Red Tribe has another perspective. The Red Tribe revels in the particular. Our family, our community, our nation. The Red Tribe sees the way that God has been at work in very particular times, places, and people. The Red Tribe sees a God that picks sides and stands with certain people, communities, and nations in ways that are not merely universal. For the Red Tribe, everything is not the same – God is not abstract; he shows up in the details of our lives.
And, just like the Blues, the Reds find a lot of scriptural support for this worldview. God chose to act through a particular man, Abraham, through whom he gave rise to a family that would become a nation that would bless the world. God raised up Moses to lead that nation out of Egypt and into the promised land. God consecrated the people of Israel to himself, making them a holy nation – set aside for a special purpose.
It was from this special nation, chosen by God, that the Messiah was born. And here, again, we see the particularity of God’s action. Jesus could have been born anywhere, as anyone, with any language, ethnicity, culture, or social status. And yet God chose to be made flesh as the son of a carpenter from a backwater town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. The word became flesh as a Jew, speaking Aramaic, and expressing himself into the culture and tradition of the Jews of first century Judea.
So the Reds look at scripture, and they see the particularity of God’s action. Yet there are challenges for the Red Tribe in scripture, too. Abraham is called by God – Abraham is chosen, not someone else – but God tells Abraham that he is called to be a blessing to the world. God delivers the nation of Israel out of Egypt and establishes them in the promised land, but he does so as a sort of holy experiment, which is meant to serve the redemption and healing of all the nations. Jesus is born a Palestinian Jew, but he is to become the savior of all people – Jew and gentile alike.
In our reading this morning, we see the interplay of particularity and universality. We see in the story of Naaman and Elisha that anyone can be touched and healed by the power of God. Even Naaman, an enemy of God’s chosen nation, can be blessed by the Lord if he comes in faith. That’s one point for the Blue Tribe perspective.
But then we also see that Naaman must come to Israel. He must come to Elisha. He must wash himself in the river Jordan – not the Abana and Pharpar, nor the rivers of Damascus, but the Jordan river of Israel. He must discover this power that, as far as his healing is concerned, is not available everywhere. It is where God has decided it should be. Naaman must come to his enemy – whom God has chosen. He must experience God’s presence and power in a way that leads him to declare, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” This seems to score a point for the Red Tribe perspective.
I hope it’s clear by now that both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe are right. God acts through the particular: A certain song. A certain person. A certain place. A time. A season. God acts in history and meets us where we are. God does things in your life that he may never do in mine. But God doesn’t act in my life just for me. The way that God chooses you is not the end of the story. God chose Abraham, God chose Israel, God chooses us in order to bless the whole world.
Sometimes we forget that we have been chosen. It’s especially easy for those of us who have received from God so generously in our particular lives to imagine that everyone has received the same gifts that we have. They haven’t. Sometimes, God blesses our neighbor instead of us, because God expects our neighbor to be the instrument of God’s action in our lives. Sometimes God acts in our lives – not just for our benefit, but so that we can be a blessing to those around us.
There’s a flip side to this, too. Like Naaman, we may very well find ourselves not being blessed by God directly, but rather finding the healing we need from those whom God has chosen to bless us.
Sometimes, we need to rely on God’s work in others, rather than expecting to be able to be the chosen ones. Sometimes, being the not-chosen, like Naaman, can open God up to us in new ways, as we discover gratitude for God’s presence in others, even enemies.
This is what Jesus discovered, I think, when he healed the ten lepers. Only one came back. Which was it? The Samaritan, who did not imagine that, well, of course God would heal him! The nine others came from the holy people. The God of Israel was their God. As excited as I am sure they were to be healed by Jesus, perhaps they each thought, “Wonderful! I am so glad that God finally got around to doing what he promised to do.” And that was the end of it. They went back home.
For the Samaritan, though, things were different. For him, this was a double miracle. Not only had God healed him, but the God of Israel had healed him through Jesus, a Jew. Clearly, God had blessed him in a special way, by the hands of someone from whom he never expected healing. Now, just like Naaman, the Samaritan saw that “there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” I wonder, did the Samaritan leper who returned after feeling the hand of God on him in such a particular way, did he sense that he had now also been chosen – called into a life of purpose, to bless the world?
Everything that we have, everything that we are, everything about us has been given to us by God for a purpose. God has not just healed us, he has left work for us to do. Just like Abraham, and Israel, and Naaman, and the Samaritan leper, God has drawn us into his story as we are, so that we can be an instrument of his grace where we are. We have been made unique, so that we can serve in God’s story of universal restoration and peace.