Summit Presbyterian Church
July 4, 2010
2 Kings 5: 1-19a
Our Waters and Their Waters
When I lived in Brazil, I would sometimes have the opportunity to sing their national anthem. Like ours, the lyrics are a bit obscure, but there's one line that always jumped out at me and made me smile: "Nossas bosques tem mais vida," or, roughly translated, "Our Woodlands Have More Life" (another line said, "our prairies have more flowers.") It's a common form of national pride to think that even nature is better within the boundaries of our own country. I like the lyrics of "America, the Beautiful," because it doesn't make that claim, but when we sing it, especially on the fourth of July, I'll bet many of us are secretly or subconsciously thinking "Our skies have more spaciousness" or "Our plains have more fruit." Praising God for the beauty and goodness of one's country is a good thing; but there is a fine and easily crossed line between gratitude and pride. A pride that may lead us to believe God has given us a special blessing.
"Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?" This is the question that Naaman asks, in anger, when Elisha, the prophet who was supposed to cure him, told him to wash in the Jordan. Naaman knew the Jordan couldn't have any healing powers: Naaman was the commander of the Army that defeated Israel not long before in it's battle with Syria. His country had a superior army -- surely it had superior waters. Naaman had been hoping that Elisha had a special relationship with his God that would allow him to cure Naaman. But Elisha didn't even come out to meet him. Even though Naaman was the commander of Syria's army. Even though he had arrived at Elisha's doorstep only after visiting Elisha's King. Even though he had arrived with horses and chariots, bearing many gifts. It's no wonder he was angry when Elisha merely sent a messenger. It's no wonder he fell back on some good patriotic outrage -- a refuge not only of scoundrels but of all of us -- and said, "Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?"
But fortunately for Namaan, he didn't let his national pride get the better of him. Naaman was a listener: he had listened to an Israeli slave girl in his household, and now he listened to his servants. "If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult," they said, "would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, "Wash, and be clean?" So Nathan went to the Jordan and dipped in seven times, and he was clean. And since Nathan was also a humble and generous man, he returned to Elisha, the man of God. He offered Elisha a gift, and made a confession of faith: "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel." Israel may have been an enemy nation, a two-bit country that Aram had conquered, but Naaman could see beyond that, and recognize holiness when he encountered it. Now, Naaman was a concrete thinker. He also shared the ancient understanding that Gods belonged to places, so he asks Elisha if he may have two mule-loads of Samarian earth, to worship the God of Israel at home. Naaman was also political, so he asks for pardon in advance: he knows that he will need to accompany his master, the King of Aram, to the temple of the God of Rimmon. Elisha tells him: "Go in Peace," and Naaman does.
So here we have it: the God of Israel is also the God who healed the commander of the army of Israel's enemy. And - at least in this story - the God of Israel is not a jealous God. Naaman may go in peace, even if he'll need to go to the temple of Rimmon with his master. Now, there are many places in the Bible - old and new testament (esp. Revelation) - where God is portrayed as a warrior God. But here the God of Israel is a God of all peoples who reaches out beyond Israel, a God of grace and compassion. Jesus will refer to this miracle when he preaches his first sermon at Capernaum. He'll point out that at the time of Elisha there were plenty of lepers in Israel, but God healed Naaman the Syrian. He'll get folks hopping mad for saying this -- some will try and throw him off a cliff! Then and now, we don't always like to be reminded that God is the God of all peoples. We may say we believe it, but our songs asks God to shed his grace on us. We ask God to bless America -- and often don't add, "and other nations, too."
And we must confess that national pride does more than get in the way of healing, or odd lyrics in our national anthems. It can lead to greater evils of war and conquest -- and no country is exempt. It's not just pride in the nation state which can lead to trouble -- so can the related prides of race and religion. When we think that our waters are better than their waters, or when we think our people are better than theirs -- violence and war often follows . In fact, we may like their waters -- and think we deserve to have them!
"America the Beautiful," was written by a woman named Katherine Lee Bates, a professor of English literature at Wellesley College. According to Wikipedia, the first draft of "America the Beautiful" was written the summer of 1893; she wrote it after going on a trip to "Pike's Peak" in the Rockies of Colorado, where she was teaching that summer. This is what she says:
One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.
The sea length expanse she saw was, "America," but it had only recently become so. Until the 1860s, much of what became Colorado state still belonged to the Native Americans; many had already been pushed from their ancestral homes, but by treaty with the United States, it was still Indian land. But in 1858 Gold was discovered near Pike's Peak, and people from all over invaded the Colorado territory to seek gold and silver. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians living there were pushed off even further. Some of them continued fighting in the hills; others sued for peace. Among those seeking to settle were a group that camped at Sand Creek, not far from Pike's Peak. But the fact they had surrendered didn't matter. On November 29th, 1864, under orders of the Colorado governor, a Colonel John Covington -- who was also a Methodist minister, he was called the "fighting preacher" - led 700 men of the Colorado Regiment into the settlement where they slaughtered about 150 people, many of the women and children. This massacre -- which was investigated by Congress - led to even more violence. It was an "incident" in one of the last of the Indian wars which allowed America to stretch from sea to shining sea. In this case, it was not a matter of "my waters are better than your waters." It was a matter of "my people are better than your people," and Christian God is better than your heathen gods, so we can take your waters. And the people who thought that were not especially evil or greedy or privileged. But national pride led Americans -- mostly white Christians - to believe they had a manifest destiny to take over the land. It's hard to imagine what would have happened if those Christians had really understood God to be the God of all peoples. It's hard to imagine if what would have happened if they had truly understood God as the God of all nations -- but that's the world we're called to imagine.
The fourth of July is a day to remember, with gratitude, the founding of the nation and the gifts that our forbears gave us and that have been blessings to the world -- and there are many. It's also a day to remember - with both gratitude and sadness - the sacrifices, and the courage, of men and women who have fought for liberty in this country -- not just in wars, but in the civil rights and labor and other liberation movements. But it's also good to remember that Independence Day is not a Christian holiday, especially in it's more prideful expressions. Our God is the God of all people, including those who worship differently: in the Christian faith, there's no room for national pride. Our waters are not better than their waters. They're all God's waters.
I'd like to end with a prayer, a hymn, called "This Is My Song." It was written by a young man named Lloyd Stone (1912-1993) using the Finlandia melody composed by Jean Sibelius. Finlandia was a patriotic symphony and patriotic Finnish words have been written for it, but these words were written in 1934, just before that giant bloodletting, east and west, fueled by national and racial pride of all kinds.
This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.