Something odd happened in November of 1805 on what is now the Oregon Coast. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean. They needed to settle in somewhere for a long, wet winter. But the two leaders couldn’t agree on where to make camp. Lewis wanted to be closer to the shore and Clark wanted to be further upstream. Here’s the surprise. This military expedition took a vote. A straight up, democratic process. That’s surprising enough, because the military doesn’t usually work that way -- but here is the absolutely astonishing thing: York, Clark’s slave and Sacagawea also each had a vote. Just like everyone else. Historian Stephen Ambrose comments, “This was the first vote (that we know of) ever held in the Pacific Northwest. It was the first time in American history that a black slave had voted, the first time a woman had voted.”[i] It definitely didn’t follow military protocol. It would have been contrary to expectations. It was also definitely a new model of leadership and group process. Something strange and brilliant happened on the Oregon Coast in 1805. People on the margins were given voice and vote.[ii]
I. God has a way of widening the circle. We see it in both of today’s stories – and we see it throughout faith history. There are also times when we DON’T see it -- because we don’t understand the groups named in the Bible—so we DON’T see how truly extraordinary their inclusion in the stories is. We don’t want to miss this – God is inviting people into the kindom that we might not expect!
Naaman is the commander of the army of Aram. In our usual way of dividing people into good guys and bad guys – Naaman plays on the opposing team. Aram just defeated Israel in a big battle. If we are on Israel’s side, he’s one of the guys we DON’T like. In fact, he has a captive Israelite slave in his house – victim of a raiding party. AND he has a problem. Naaman has leprosy – a disease with a social stigma and associated with death. But there’s something strange happening in the story. The slave wants him healed. She doesn’t hate him. And apparently God doesn’t either.
The prophet Elisha is working in Samaria – that’s part of the Northern Kingdom – Israel, rather than Judah after the split. And Elisha can heal. Now for a commander of a foreign army to travel in a land that he has fought takes some diplomatic finesse – so he tells his king, and his king writes a letter to the King of Israel, likely Jehoram, saying that this man must be healed. Naaman shows up, this enemy commander – with extravagant gifts and a letter commanding that he be healed. Oddly, the King of Aram doesn’t mention Elisha in the letter – and the King of Israel thinks he is responsible to heal Naaman. Word travels fast and Elisha sends a note saying to send Naaman to him. When Naaman shows up outside Elisha’s cave, he expects a bit of a show. He definitely expects Elisha to treat him with the respect he thinks he deserves. And when a message comes back to wash in the Jordan 7 times – no prophet, no magic words – Naaman is angry. His pride shows up. He expects to be treated better than this – and his country has better rivers than this pitiful, dirty little Jordan. He is ready to head home, still with leprosy, which would certainly not have improved diplomatic relations between the two countries! But his servants (!) convince him to follow Elisha’s instructions, and his act of obedience heals him.
Cornelius’s story is another one where God shows grace and opens doors for someone we don’t expect. Cornelius is a Roman Centurion in the Italian regiment. He was a good man – righteous and God-fearing, generous to the poor and prayed regularly. Apparently, God was less interested in his day job than in his character and behavior. Through complicated messages, God brings Cornelius and Peter together and Cornelius and his family become baptized Christians – and Peter experiences a huge shift in his understanding of who can be included in the church.
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” Peter declares. (Acts 10.34 NRSV) News Flash! God sees people differently than we do. Our labels don’t matter with God! Not “elect” or “saved,” not “conservative” or “progressive,” and not any denominational labels we throw around. God continues to reach out to people we do not expect. God widens the circle of who is acceptable, chosen, and saved no matter how we try to shrink it to suit our purposes. We might as well accept each other the way Jesus accepts us – because God keeps drawing that circle of who is accepted wider.
II. There is blessing when we listen to the voices on the margins. Health, insight, and compassion come from places outside the mainstream and we will miss it if we aren’t paying attention. Folks on the margins know things that we haven’t yet realized – especially when it comes to adapting to a changing culture.
Our churches today are facing some real challenges. Our culture has shifted away from religious values. The cultural influence of churches has been steadily waning, except for sudden drops, ever since the 1970s. Many of our churches haven’t accommodated that reality yet. We’re still grieving for what was, and talks of vision for the future tend to focus on recovering what was lost. We want to go back to being strong, prosperous, and growing. Declarations of how the world SHOULD be, or complaining about our secular culture, won’t get us anywhere. We need a new tool set to connect with our CURRENT culture, and new understandings of how to offer what we have – love and an alternative community – to the world around us.
The leaders and faith communities who have been working without resources and cross-culturally have a lot to teach us. After all, they’ve been doing the kind of ministry for years that we are now facing! They can teach us the adaptations necessary to carry the message of God’s love to people in our own time.[iii]
Pride is a real danger here. We think we know how to do church. We think we know how it is supposed to go. Like Naaman. He almost missed his blessing, his healing, because he thought he knew what was supposed to happen. His slave girl and his servants had to help him bend enough to receive it. Peter went to Cornelius’ house because he had a clear message to do so. But it was Cornelius who showed Peter what was needed – not Peter in charge. To Peter’s credit, he did get the idea – and when he had to defend his actions to the church community – he DID! He accepted the new insight that came from his experience of a Roman Centurion and his family – that God wanted them as a part of the faith community too. Moment of thrust! There is no clean and unclean, as Peter had divided the world before this experience.
Dr. Christena Cleveland suggests that this is an important part of following Jesus. “People can meet God in their cultural context, but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is cross-cultural.”[iv] We learn and grow more when we work cross-culturally.[v]This is why we take impressionable youth on mission trips – they leave their comfort zone and enter another context where not only can they SEE God at work, but they can SERVE God and know that they are doing so.
Cultural diversity is also one of the health markers for churches. Churches that are more diverse tend to be faster growing. The fastest growing church I have served didn’t start out diverse at all. In fact, they had a sign out front that said that 14 families had been worshipping on that site for over 150 years. It was a Methodist Historic site – a preaching post on the circuit that Peter Cartwright preached beginning in 1802. Of course, the sign needed to come down. That was the first step – and the first two and a half years that we were there included a series of difficult adjustments. But then people new started coming, and growth started to snowball. More than half of the church took a year to read through the Bible – to get the whole sweep of scripture. We became an interethnic and international congregation all at once. Soldiers and their families had experience living all over the world. People from very different denominational backgrounds found their way to our doors. The snowball kept growing. And there were challenges that came with that. We had to develop new models of church leadership. You can’t plan worship the same way when the co-chairs are former Catholic and former Pentecostal – or approach evangelism the same way when the co-chairs are former Southern Baptist and former Mormon. There was no way a single-story approach to church worked in that setting. There was no universally-accepted narrative to be agreed on. And there was no comfort-zone to find. That snowball changed the boundaries and the margins became the center. Everyone’s stereotypes were annihilated in our experience of what God was doing among us.
We saw something different here with the showing of “America to Me.” The dominant narrative of Oak Park: of being a progressive and inclusive community, wasn’t the only story. There was shock, outrage and denial as results of hearing other narratives. We don’t like to rethink our worldview. It is hard to hear that we aren’t as open-minded and inclusive as we thought we were. The conversation shifted. Now we are talking about racial equity more. There have been huge changes in the staffing and procedures at OPRF. It’s not perfect – but it’s been improved by having heard voices that formerly were marginalized, even silenced.
We learn a lot when we listen to voices on the margins. We gain insights – but it’s more than just those. Todd Bolsinger says, “We need the new models of thinking and problem solving that come from those who live on the margins between different social systems or cultures and bring their practices and insights into, as one person said to me, the “dead center.”[vi]
If we aren’t listening to the voices on the margins, we may miss the very wisdom, insight, and skills that we need to be the followers of Jesus, the disciple-making team, that we are called to be in our moment in time.
CONCLUSION: God is at work in our time. If we are missing it, we may not be looking in the right place! Let’s listen for the unexpected voices. God is widening the circle, drawing new people in. God is recruiting people we might not expect to serve God’s kindom and do the work of building a world-transforming community. We don’t want to miss it! We want to be a part of it! Are we ready for a new adventure with God?
[i]Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Merriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), loc. 6489-92. Quoted in CTM, 198. [ii]Todd Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, 197-8. [iii]Todd Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, 192-3. [iv]Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013) 21. Quoted in CTM, 194. [v]Ibid. [vi]Bolsinger, CTM, 198.