Beyond Binaries

Beyond Binaries

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42 for Pentecost +9, July 17, 2016

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”

The story of Mary and Martha gives us a perfect moment in which to discuss a hugely Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.38.14 PMimportant issue in our day.  That is the natural human tendency to think in binary categories.  We tend to think in terms of black and white, good or bad, us or them, friend or foe, all or nothing.  We learn to think in these ways because they seem to work; they help explain the world.  You are either alive or dead.  You are part of my family, a relative, or you are not.

We will have an election this November, and one will be the winner, the other the looser.  There are a lot of binaries that explain the world of our everyday experience.

The Gender Binary

Another binary we use is gender: there are men and women.  In every culture, including Jesus’ culture and our culture, there are gender-specific roles.  Men do some kinds of things, women do others.

What we are going to see is that Jesus frequently rejects binaries.  They are simply inadequate.  He does this a lot.  And he does it in a double sense in this story we read.

Jesus and his followers go to the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha.  There is no man mentioned, and no explanation for why not, so we will suspend speculation and just run with the story as it has been given by Luke.Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.46.51 PM

Martha does the culturally-expected thing to do: she provides hospitality to them.  With no word about what an enormous burden it must have been to suddenly host a dozen or so guests, she welcomes them in.

In her culture, she expects to do what women should do: the kitchen work.  But in this story, we see that Jesus rejects that binary gender-role tradition.  When Martha asks Jesus to help him get Mary back into the kitchen where she belongs, Jesus refuses.

He does so gently.  He knows that binary categories are deeply entrenched.  If it is hard to feel normal about driving on the left when you visit London, it is all the more difficult to feel good about overturning the habit of thousands of years of human social structuring.  So Jesus says, with compassion,

“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.”

Mary as a Disciple

Notice that there is another level of binary gender-roles that Jesus is rejecting here also.  It is not just that Mary does not have to stay in the kitchen, what is more, Mary can take her place with the men as a learner, a disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet, the way students sat at the feet of their teacher.  Mary is being respected, intellectually, on the level of men.

So, not only did Jesus take time for women, not only did he heal sick women, not only did he reach out to excluded women (like the woman at the well), Jesus went further.  Jesus invited women into the inner-circle of disciples.

It took us many years, after Jesus, to open the door to women in ordained ministry, but finally we did.  The fact that it is still difficult for women to receive a call as pastor shows how pernicious binary thinking is.

Physical-Spiritual Binary

There is yet another level of binary thinking that this story dismantles: the binary distinction between the material and spiritual.  Jesus had to eat.  So did the others.  So, someone had to be in the kitchen.   But it is also important to feed the spirit.  It is important to take time out to fill your soul.

For years this story of Mary and Martha has been read as a story about practical work and the contemplative life, as if Jesus were holding up one above the other.  But the fact is, they came to the house for food and shelter.  People do not live by bread alone; neither do we live long without it.  The binary of physical versus spiritual work is a false dichotomy.

Both sisters were doing good work; but Mary had the priorities right.  Nurture the soul by attending to Jesus first.  Then you will have the motivation to go out and serve.  Then you will know how to direct your efforts according to Jesus’ agenda.

Jesus: Rejecting BinariesScreen Shot 2016-07-16 at 8.39.16 PM

Now let us take a step back from this story and look at the wider question of Jesus and binary thinking.  It is clear that Jesus rejected all kinds of binaries, not just gender, male-female binaries.

Jesus also rejected the pure-impure binary.  He touched impure lepers and allowed himself to be touched by sick people.

Jesus rejected the good-person, bad-person binary.  He ate at table with known “sinners.”  He kept company with hookers and notoriously not-good people.

Jesus rejected the binary of blessed or cursed people.  He did not believe that blindness or premature death was evidence of God’s punishment.  He made the categorial statement that God causes his sun to shine and rain to fall on the fields of the evil and the good, without distinction.

Jesus even rejected the us-them binary of Jew vs. Gentile, which entails a rejection of friend vs. enemy.  He even went so far as to tell his followers to love their enemies.  He traveled to Gentile places intentionally.  He healed Gentiles.  Even a Roman soldier’s servant.  He fed them.  He told parables in which non-Jews were the heroes and Israelites, even priests were the anti-heroes (remember the Good Samaritan).   And he demanded that his followers put away their swords instead of taking up arms against their enemies.  From the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them.”

The Inadequacy of Binaries

The problem with binary categories is that they simply do not account for real life.  Binary categories work great for us when we are children, but we are called as adults to put away childish ways.

Think, for example, about how fuzzy the border is between who is a part of your family and who is not.  There are half-brothers and sisters, 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins, great aunts and uncles, and eventually we stop having names for people in our family tree, but the idea that there is a fixed line between family and not family is clearly a device of convenience, not a concrete reality.

Today, we know that there are many binaries that are simply inadequate to accept for real life.  Let us start with the central binary of the Mary and Martha story: male and female.

We now know that between one in 1500 and 2000 babies are born in which gender Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.48.39 PMdifferentiation at birth is so ambiguous that a specialist is called in.  And physical manifestation of gender ambiguity is just the tip of the iceberg.  (see

We know that chromosomal ambiguity, in other words, not XX or YY occurs in one in 1600 births.  There are XXY chromosomes in one is 1,000 births, according to a Brown University study.

The list of medically defined non-standard conditions is long.  The male-female binary simply does not adequately account for reality.  It is a conventional way of looking at the world, but an inadequate one.

I had a philosophy professor in college who pointed out to us that everything in the world is either a chair, or it is not a chair.  That is true, but completely unhelpful.   That is how binaries work.  They are totally inadequate.

Romance: Binaries are Inadequate

We now are aware also that the binary category of romantic attraction is grossly inadequate to account for human experience (I am intentionally using family-friendly language, appropriate for a mixed group).  It is not just that the world is comprised of straight or gay people.   There is a huge variety of ways people are attracted to each other.

I know this is unsettling for some of us, but if we are to think clearly about gender and orientation issues, we must think like adults; adults who are willing to look at all the data we can find.

Other Inadequate BinariesScreen Shot 2016-07-16 at 1.32.35 PM

We live in difficult and complex times.  We live in a world in which so many people think that shooting other persons is allowable that we have a terrible problem in our nation.  Think of how profound the binary categories that are at work in our discussions: black and white people, us and them, the right to bear arms in the 2nd amendment vs. human lives.

It is precisely that kind of either-or thinking that has led, on the one hand, to racial discrimination, inner cities of poverty and despair, and on the other hand hair-trigger fear.  Binary thinking shuts down conversation and rules out compromise.  It makes finding solutions impossible.

On a world scale, we have grown comfortable with religious binaries of Muslim and Christian.  Some lump all Muslims into one group, as if that binary thinking could possibly reflect reality.   To live as if that binary was adequate is simply to have a child’s level of awareness of the world.  We are called to be adults.

Let us go even further, since Jesus himself calls us to go to this next step: as followers of Jesus we are called to reject the binary of friend vs. enemy.  This is as hard as it gets.  When people blow up other people or drive trucks through crowds of families to inflict death by scores at a time, everything in us wants to react with equivalent violent force against them.

Our Calling

So then, what does it mean for us that Jesus called us to love our enemies and to pray for Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.42.37 PMthose who persecute us?   We start by rejecting the binary of friend vs. enemy.  We pray for the redemption of all who follow the path of hatred and violence.  We are aware that the biggest recruiting tool the terrorists have is the propaganda value of deaths by collateral damage that happens as we respond with violence to their violence.

It was not just at Mary and Martha’s house that Jesus rejected binary categories.  Jesus practiced what is called “non-dual thinking.”  Non-dual thinking means being open to mystery, which often entails being open to paradox.

Mystics from many traditions, not just Jesus in the Jewish tradition, have arrived at the same conclusion: that either-or thinking is inadequate.  Mysticism itself, including practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, and other mindfulness practices open the door of our hearts to non-dual ways of thinking.

Perhaps it was those frequent times when Jesus would break away from the crowds and spend time in meditation and silence that opened his heart to women, to the impure, to notorious sinners and to foreigners.

And once his heart was open, he could be a source of healing for them.  He could communicate God’s loving embrace of them by his loving embrace.

This is our calling today: to be followers of Jesus.  To be people who practice the practices of a Christian, including daily prayer and meditation, and who bear the fruit of the Spirit of love and compassion.  The world needs us to be these kinds of people now more than ever!

The One and the Many

The One and the Many

Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-16 & uke 4:16-30 for Pentecost +7, July 3, 2016
2 Kings 5:1-16
[unless you know the story already, it’d be a good idea to follow the link and read it first]

Luke 4:16-30

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
     “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
        because he has anointed me
            to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
        and recovery of sight to the blind,
            to let the oppressed go free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I predicted the “Brexit” vote – the vote on whether Britan should exit from the European Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 5.57.53 PMUnion, only, I predicted that Britain would not vote to leave the union.  I was wrong.  It just seemed impossible to me.  After the horrors of World Wars I and II, and after all these decades of peace and prosperity, why would anyone want to risk a return to the bad old days?

I guess they have their reasons, but it strikes me that it is always easier to undo unity than it is to create and maintain it.  It is far easier to take you ball and go home than to hang in there, and struggle for a compromise over the rules; ask any 10 year old.

Tomorrow is the fourth of July, the celebration of our nation’s independence.  I guess you could call it our original Brexit – we were exiting from the British crown.  We had our reasons that we all know well.

And we all know how difficult it was for us to create a new union out of those 13 original Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.43.11 AMcolonies.  But we did.  We put the motto on our coins, e pluribus unum; out of the many, one.   It is a fragile unity.  We almost came apart.  We had a terrible civil war.  But our unity survived.  At least, so far.

The American Experiment

Some have spoken of our country as the American Experiment.  In many ways, we are an experiment.  The nations of Europe are ethnic-majority nations.  Spain is majority Spanish.  Germany is majority German.  America, by contrast has been, from the beginning, a voluntary amalgam of different ethnicities.  Unlike the forced unions of empires, who gobbled up their neighbors and colonies, merely to exploit them, we came together based on a common vision of our common good.

Wave after wave of immigrants have come to our country over the years.  The Irish came, Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.48.30 AMthe Italians, the Poles, the Chinese.  Each wave was met with both welcome, by some, and resistance by others.  Plenty of resistance.  There were riots and violence.  People got killed.

Now, however, we hardly remember many of the struggles of the past.  Most of us have so many ethnicities in our bloodlines we have no sense of ethnic “purity.”  Most of us also have enough education to know that speaking of “bloodlines” is simply a metaphor; a fiction; a social construct.  In the hospitals, blood is blood; type matters, not race nor ethnicity.

The American impulse has been to keep adding, and stirring, and mixing different ingredients into this one gumbo unity.  We are all free to celebrate our ethnic origins, if they  are still important to us. No one minds a Scottish bagpipe parade or a Greek festival.  We feel obliged to respect each others’ heritages.  But the impulse we share is to participate in this common union, this American experiment.

Where does this impulse towards unity in diversity come from?  Any number of sources, surely, but we, in this faith community, receive added energy for this impulse from our theological tradition.  We begin with a singularity: God, as the common Source of everything.  And from that monotheistic foundation, we build narratives that work it out in flesh and blood.

Elijah and a Trans-national God

That is what we have in the Elijah story we read.  On the surface level, it is a healing story. Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.52.00 AM Naaman has leprosy; he is healed by doing what the prophet Elijah tells him to do; dip in the Jordan River.  But of course, to say only that is to miss major motifs in the narrative.

Naaman is not an Israelite.  He is a Syrian, in fact a Syrian commander.  He has conducted raids on Israelite territory.  So, he is an enemy.  He has captured and taken slaves.  He is an outsider to Israel in almost every sense imaginable.  Foreign, enemy, and diseased in a particular way, such that Israel’s law considers him impure; he is a leper.

So, when the captured Israelite slave girl suggests to her mistress that there is a prophet in Israel who has access to God’s power, a significant theological claim is being made. Israel’s God is not a local deity; not Israel’s pet.  Israel’s God is the world’s God, and so has the power to act outside the bounds of ethnic Israel.

Another profound theological claim is made by the very assumption that Israel’s God is approachable in the interests of healing.  Israel’s God, as every Israelite knows, characteristically “hears the cries of his people” and heals them, liberates them, sets them free; in other words, cares for them, loves them – and not only them, but also the stranger, the resident alien in their midst.  What about non-Israelites outside the borders?  This story answers that question.

So Naaman goes to see if it is true.  He takes with him an enormous amount of money.  In the ancient world, gods could be helpful and they could answer our pleas and prayers, but maybe not.  You never knew.  They could be coaxed, if not coerced, by providing what they wanted – which was primarily sacrifices – food for the gods.  The cash Naaman brought could provide a life-time’s supply.

But, when the offer is made, Elijah rejects the cash.  Another theological claim is being made.  Yahweh, Israel’s God is radically free.  Yahweh cannot be coerced.  There is no one rich or poor who has an advantage or disadvantage, except that God does tend to be on the side of the poor, as God is always against oppression.

The Letter Scene: Prophets and Kings

In the middle of the story is the almost comical scene in which the king of Israel  receives the letter from Naaman’s king, along with the money and gifts of clothing, asking the king to heal Naaman of his leprosy.  Why he got confused about who was supposed to have the power to heal, the king or the prophet, we do not know.

But this letter and its request terrifies the King of Israel.  He cannot heal anyone, but to refuse would be to risk giving offense, possibly leading to armed conflict.  So he tears his royal clothing, in an act of humility, and says the famous words:

“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?”

Again another powerful theological claim is being made in bold letters.  The prophets of Israel are far superior to the kings of Israel because they speak not from political or military power, but from God.  In contests between prophets and kings, and there are many conflicts, lots of prophets suffer and die.  But in the end, their words prevail.  Political power is never the last word.

By the way, whoever wrote this story and the others with it concluded with the story of the king of rump Israel (Judah) being killed in Babylon, as the prophets  had warned.

So, in this story, it is the foreigner, Naaman, the enemy, the impure diseased one who gets to announce the narrator’s primary theological point (albeit in a slant way, appropriate to his theologically foreign perspective).  After he sees that he is cured of his leprosy he says:

“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”

Jesus and the Naaman & Elijah Story

This story is important for us.  It is one of the two stories that Jesus references in his Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 12.24.47 PMinaugural sermon in Nazareth, according to Luke 4.  After reading from the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue gathering, Jesus said that today, they were witnessing the fulfillment of the hope Isaiah had given them: that Israel’s God would once again work for the liberation of his people.

God would announce the good news of Jubilee, the forgiveness of [monetary] debts, the restoration of land, sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression.  The Spirit of the Lord was anointing Jesus, so this would be good news to the poor.

And then, after that wonderful and welcomed news, Jesus said something that spoiled the party and made them all angry.  He referenced two stories, one of them was the one about the healing of Naaman, the Syrian leper. Jesus implicitly asks the question: why did God heal that man; a foreigner?

“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

In other words, Israelites do not have an exclusive claim on God’s grace and goodness.  God is not Israel’s pet.  It is not the healing and the common good of Israel alone that God is concerned with, but humanity’s healing and common good.

So, expect God’s project not to be identical with a nationalist project.  God’s project is much bigger.  In fact it is global.  From God’s perspective, humanity is one.

Well, for people whose project really is national and no more, this is the rhetoric of treason.  And traitors must die.  In this bizarre little story we read that after Jesus said that,

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

How Jesus escapes getting killed, before he barely had a chance to begin is a mystery, not explained.  This text is probably a Lucan creation, but it has been created to make theological claims that matter.

Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God is good news only to those who want the kind of kingdom that Jesus believes God runs: a world-wide kingdom.  The God who wills healing and liberation for people is the Creator-God of all people.  The God who wills the common good wills the common good for all.  From God’s perspective, humanity is one.  Not knowing that is part of the sickness he can heal.

The Oneness Goal: God’s Endgame

Oneness is not only the original condition of creation, it is also the biblical vision of the Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 6.06.13 PMultimate goal of creation.   From the admittedly parochial Jewish perspective of the first century, there could be no greater disunity than that between Jews and  Gentiles.  And that is what Paul says is completely overcome by God’s messiah, the Christ.  In Christ, the dividing wall of hostility has been demolished, according to Ephesians (2:14).

In fact, the end vision, God’s endgame, let’s say, is a final complete and universal  unity in which God will:

“gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10)

How can we not hear, in that vision, a call to work towards that end?  Our vision must be of a reconciled humanity in which the enmity has been erased.  It is not at all that Jews have become Greeks nor that Greeks have become Jews, but that the wall of hostility has been eliminated.  Jews and Greeks stand for all such animosities.

Celebrate the 4th

What does that mean for us?  Tomorrow, on the forth of July, let us celebrate this American experiment.  Let us celebrate that from the many, one nation has emerged, large-hearted enough to embrace great diversity.

And let us have eyes wide open to the struggles of our days, that mirror the struggles of former generations of Americans, to live fully into that vision of openness to strangers.  The work is not finished.

In every conversation about “people coming into our country” let us stand up for the newcomers who are different so that we do not replay the hostilities that put an ugly blotch on the record of our past.

Let us rather be people who live into the vision of Torah, that God’s healing is for all people.  Let us live into the vision of Jesus whose work extended beyond the borders of ethnic Israel, and whose kingdom knows no walls of hostility.

The theological and very personal question to reflect on this weekend is this: if our source and our final destination is union, then what kind of way of relating to others am I called to – both as an individual person, and as a part of this American experiment?