This sermon was given by Dr David Goodbourn on 10th October 2010
This week was the ninth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. It began on 7 October 2001. The horror continues. I spent much of the week following the initial outbreak putting together a letter to the Prime Minister which in the end the leaders of most of Britain’s Christian Churches signed; that was the kind of thing that Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, for whom I worked at the time, did. I can’t claim the letter got huge coverage, but where it was picked up it tended to be one little phrase that got quoted. Afghan lives, we had said, matter as much as British lives.
Now if ever there was an unexceptional statement for Christians to make, that was it. After two thousand years of being taught that every human being is a person for whom Christ died, that all are of equal value in the eyes of God, that neighbours and enemies alike are to be loved unconditionally, surely after all that it goes without saying that Afghan lives matter as much as British lives.
But no, it doesn’t go without saying. In fact it runs counter to what most of us, deep deep down, really feel to be true. It’s said that the Aberdeen Press and Journal reported the sinking of the Titanic under the headline, “Aberdeen Man Lost at Sea.” It’s an apocryphal story, but it witnesses to something important. Deep down, we are more moved when disaster happens to someone whom we feel to be “one of us”. The less we can imagine what it feels like to be another person, the less their life is like our life, the less they are “one of us”, the less we really care about them. Do we really care as much about the seven Afghans who died in the failed rescue mission yesterday as about the one young woman from the Isle of Lewis?
So I was fascinated when I turned to the lectionary readings for this week to see that two of them, at least, were all about strangers. I was also somewhat disconcerted to see they gave us the story of Naaman for the second time this year, and even more disconcerted that I was the preacher here the last time it came round, but that’s another matter. What I want to focus on is the role of the stranger.
First, we have the story of Naaman. Almost every encounter in this story involves somebody receiving illumination, enlightenment, from a stranger, from someone who is definitely not “one of us”.
Then we have a story of Jesus, walking the borderlands between his own Jewish culture and community and the feared and despised world of the Samaritans. And here, too, the key encounter is one in which it is the stranger who reveals the truth.
Naaman’s story is rich in comic detail. Naaman, for instance, going home loaded up with bags of soil, looking as though he called at B&Q on the way past, not understanding the first thing about the transcendent God he is in future going to worship. The comedy comes from cross-cultural misunderstanding. The richness of the story comes from cross-cultural learning.
Those who recorded the story concentrated on the powerful. Naaman the war lord. The king of Israel, the politician. Elisha, the spiritual adviser to the government.
For me the key figure is one who is not even given a name. It’s the little slave girl. She was captured in one of Naaman’s cross border raids; he brought her back as a present for his wife. You can tell he was a real romantic; when I’ve been abroad my wife usually has to make do with a bottle of gin from the duty free, or a couple of bars of Swiss chocolate.
This little girl is, of course, a victim of terrorism. We focused on that when we looked at the story earlier in the year. Naaman’s men had no doubt killed this little girl’s father, raped her mother and massacred her brothers; that’s what happened in these border raids. But still she speaks for him a word of loving truth, offers him a way of healing. She knew how to love her enemy, long before Jesus taught us to do so. I can’t speak to the victims of terrorism or the parents of the young woman from Lewis about what it means to love your enemies, because I have never experienced the violation and outrage they have. But this little girl can, as she seeks the best for the terrorist who destroyed her family. This nameless girl offers a model for all the thousands of nameless relatives and survivors of terrorist outrage. Not revenge, not even justice alone, but love is the Christian response.
Well, that’s one way to read the story. But maybe it wasn’t like that. Perhaps the little girl lived in a world where killing and raping was just what soldiers did. It didn’t make Naaman any worse a man than her own father and brothers, who would undoubtedly have done the same had they been raiding Aram. Such things were just part of the culture.
If that shocks us, perhaps the little girl is also telling us that we need to look at our own culture through the eyes of the outsider, the stranger, to see where the evils are here which should shock us but don’t. There are many in this world who look at our culture, and see evil. Its insensitive use of its overwhelming economic and political power. Its unthinking use of the earth’s resources. Its treatment of its own elderly and poor. Its obsession with sex. All these, others see in our culture and name as evil. If we want them to listen to us, we must listen to them.
Now I wouldn’t be going on about this if this theme of listening to the stranger was not so fundamental to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You see, it’s typical of Jesus that, in the story from Luke, he is walking the borderlands. There are lots of stories about his encounters with people of other faiths and other nations, and in nearly all of them it is these outsiders who speak the divine truth.
In one story, he takes his holiday in a gite in Lebanon, and gets into an ironic theological dialogue with a Syro-Phonoecian woman. In another he takes a day trip across the Lake to Decapolis, and is asked to leave after curing a pagan man. They tell us that the stranger – the enemy even, for sometimes it is an occupying Roman soldier – is one from whom we can learn; not one to despise. It is the one who is not “one of us” from whom we can expect to hear the challenging new word of truth.
Even more typically, it is those whose theology and culture he shares, but who live most locked up within it and least open to the stranger – the Pharisees – who most often feel the lash of his tongue.
On the occasion we read about, he is among the Samaritans, the despised outsiders of the Jewish world. And what happens here. Ten lepers are physically cured. Only one is made truly whole, because only one returns to express gratitude and praise to God. And the one is the Samaritan, the foreigner. The people Jesus grew up with would have said Samaritans don’t know how to worship God properly. In this story it is a Samaritan who is the only one who does.
It is when we are most locked up in our own culture, that we can expect the lash of Jesus’ tongue. It is when we identify the gospel with our culture, that we can expect Jesus to move outside to speak to us the word of truth. There have been awful periods in Christian history when we have thought Western culture and the gospel were the same thing. They led to forced conversions, where people were faced with a choice between baptism or death. They led to crusades, where people killed Muslims in the name of God. They led to the destruction of indigenous cultures under the influence of well-intentioned missionaries. Each time, we were deaf to the Jesus who sought to speak to us through the outsider, to the Jesus who praised the faith of Samaritan but never sought to make him a Jew.
So nine years into the Afghan war, at a time when an Al Quaeda attack again seems possible, at a time when the Real IRA is threatening a return to the bomb and the bullet, what can we say?
We can say that we must love our enemies. That doesn’t mean a soppy love which does not resist evil, nor does it mean a love which leaves no room for justice. But it does mean a love which regards them and their lives as of equal value to us and our own.
We can say that before we condemn we must seek to understand, and that when we name as evil something in the mindset of those who attack us, we must listen to what they name as evil in our own.
We can say that if we want to hear God speak to us in our insecurity, we must listen not just to the voices of those who are “one of us”, but most carefully to the voices of those who are not.
But why do we find such a response so difficult? One reason we find it difficult to come to terms with the stranger without is because we have not come to terms with the stranger within.
All of us have strangers lurking with it – facets of our character whose existence we try to deny. I have a vivid memory of the day I had a stand-up row with a builder who wanted to charge me for work I had never asked him to do. I don’t do anger; that’s not me. So why did I quite enjoy it? Because somewhere in me there is an angry David, whose existence I try to suppress. At the time of the Falklands War – a memory which shows my age – I was very unhappy about the military campaign, launched when a UN settlement still seemed a possibility. So why did tears come to my eyes and my chest swell with pride as I watched the fleet sail away? Because somewhere in me there is a tribal David, metaphorically singing land of hope and glory, whose existence I seek not to acknowledge.
If I want Christ to make me whole, to transform my attitudes to his own, so that I see enemies as he sees them, see nations as he sees them, and break free from the cultural constraints of my own tribe, then I have to acknowledge these other Davids and let Christ engage with them. But I don’t want to acknowledge them, because I am ashamed of them or even afraid of them. And so they go on shaping my attitudes. They go on preventing me from being secure enough in Christ to be open to the stranger, to have my world challenged, to hear the voice of God speaking through the stranger.
The good news is that Christ can speak through these strangers, these other Davids, too, if I will listen. The stranger without; the stranger within. Until we are open to both, we will never really be open to the Jesus who walks the borderlands and comes to everyone as a stranger.
new page 10th October 2010