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Speaking Differently – Identity

Date: 03/07/2022/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

We continue our sermon series “Speaking Differently,” and today we explore the idea of identity.

Speaking differently requires us first to open ourselves up to another way of perceiving things – listening differently, seeing differently, interpreting differently. And how we perceive things often hinge on our identity – who we are.

Q1: So to start I want to ask you – who are you?
I wonder how many of you felt that 3 entries were not enough, and submitted a few more?

So – we are not defined by just one identity – we hold multiple identities. Some are tied to our social-cultural background, some are tied to our relationships, some are tied to our profession. It isn’t realistic to reduce anyone to just one identity.

And this brings me to the next point – who we are is connected with what we are supposed to do. “Players gonna play, haters gonna hate, fakers gonna fake?” Right?

Wrong. That’s a shorthand way of reducing someone to a caricature. Who exactly are these players? These haters? These fakers?

We reduce them to a single thing because that dehumanises someone we don’t like, we don’t agree with, or just someone who is different from us – so it is easier to ignore, discriminate, vilify, hate and/or harm them.

We need to resist this oversimplification.

When I read about the news of the shooting in Oslo, some news agencies labelled the perpetrator an “Islamist terrorist.” That word is a very biased word. When a Christian extremist killed 77 people in Norway, why wasn’t he labelled a “Christianist?” The word “Islamist” betrays the Islamophobia that is so apparent here.

Every religion has its fair share of extremists – so it is not right to just single out on religion. It is this kind of shorthand and prejudiced writing that sows seeds of discord and fear rather than establish understanding amongst people.

My secondary school teacher, Mrs Albar, played a video for us from CNN years ago about the Gulf war (1990?). i remember it clearly – it was a clip where a group of Arab men (in civilian clothing) were shouting at the camera. About what, we don’t know. Then it cuts to another group of Arab men in military gear brandishing their AK-47s. Then it cuts to another scene of a group of Arab men praying at Sunset.
She asked us – what has this 3 scenes got to do with one another? What has this 3 scenes got to do with the news story? Well, the men in military gear certainly is connected to the Gulf War, but everything else? Not so much.

This is propaganda and brainwashing. CNN was subtly making us think that Arab men = angry = militarised = Islam.

She, in that moment, innoculated me from propaganda against Muslims. And also helped me be critical and aware of how media is used to manipulate how i see things and people.

So as we think about identities – let us also not reduce people into a single identity so we stop seeing them as a fellow human being, deserving of love, deserving of compassion.

We are going to explore the lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 5) through this idea of “identity” (or more accurately, “identities”)

I tried to think of ways to avoid it, but given that this is not exactly a chapter in the Bible that we are familiar with, it is necessary to read the whole thing. But before I start, I want to invite you to pay attention. Pay attention to the small details. Pay attention to what is going on. Pay attention as though you are there – and perhaps imagining yourself to be present with the characters. That change in perception sometimes help us see things we may just gloss over.

As I ask these questions, I am not only inviting you to dig deeper into this narrative, I am also inviting you to use these tools as you approach other passages in the Bible.

The key to this approach is curiosity, instead of trying to arrive at the correct answer. This is how we learn to speak differently.

2 Kings 5:1-19
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.

Who is this Naaman? – Commander of the army of Aram. Given victory by the Lord. Mighty warrior. Suffered from leprosy. How many identities does Naaman have?

Given his identities, what assumptions do we have of him?

One thing that jumped out at me – Aram – located where modern day Syria and southwestern part of Turkey are, and where Aramaic comes from – was an enemy of the Israelites. And the Lord gave him victory?

Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  3  She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’   4  So Naaman  went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  5  And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  6  He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’

The story continues –
8  But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’  9  So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.  10  Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ 
11  But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. 
13  But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’  14  So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
15  Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’  16  But he said, ‘As the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’ He urged him to accept, but he refused.  17  Then Naaman said, ‘If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the LORD. 
18  But may the LORD pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the LORD pardon your servant on this one count.’  19  He said to him, ‘Go in peace.’ Sometimes our identities and what we are expected to do because of who we are come into conflict.

Naaman asked Elisha – when the king goes to worship in the temple of Rimmon (Baal) – he has to accompany the king – and when the king bows, Naaman will also bow. His identity as the commander of the army of Aram, accompanying the king to the temple of Rimmon (Baal) clashes with his new identity as a follower of the LORD / Yahweh.

But contrary to what we normally hear “our God is a jealous God,” Elisha pardons Naaman.

Q Have you experienced times where different aspects of who you are come into conflict?

Sometimes your professional identity comes into conflict with your relationships.

Sometimes your religious identity comes into conflict with your professional identity.

Sometimes it is a matter of ethics – we do what is loving, what is right and just above all.

But sometimes this conflict is rather silly.

Celeste, who was baptised here in FCC in 2020, was told that she cannot be a yoga teacher AND be baptised as a Christian by another church. That is not what we believe here at FCC, and her story echoes Naaman’s story in some way.

What the Naaman’s story reveals is a God who isn’t a jealous God, but a God who knows. A God who knows us deeply, completely and a God who loves us. A God who looks into our hearts, rather than outward appearances.

I have had many people ask me about funeral rituals and rites for our loved ones. “What is going in your heart when you are holding the joss sticks? What is going on in your heart when you are going through the funeral rites and rituals?” I think that’s what God looks at – are you worshiping your grandma? Are you worshipping your dad? It is not the place for anyone else to judge – but between you and God.

Then there are times what we are expected to do / how we are expected to behave because of who we are needs to be re-examined.

So who is this young girl who told Naaman’s wife that the prophet in Samaria would cure him of his leprosy? The text almost turns her into a plot device to move the narrative along. But there is something more here.

She wasn’t just a young servant girl. She was taken captive during a raid. She was a slave. An Israelite. It is not too far off to think that Naaman and his army may have killed people she knew when she was captured.

As a captive slave, as an Israelite, we would expect her to harbour resentment, even hate towards Naaman. Yet, she offered information that would help him with the one thing Naaman struggles with – his leprosy.

There is something to learn here – when we align with God’s ways, we learn to love even our enemies. We don’t see them as single dimensional caricatures, but fellow human beings created in the image of God.

Our identities can sometimes hold us back.

Remember how Naaman reacted when he arrived with his horses and chariots at the entrance of Elisha’s house, only to be greeted by a messenger and told “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored”?

He got angry!

But why? Because of who he was. Naaman was “a great man and in high favour with his master the King of Aram.” He expected to be treated as a VIP. He expected Elisha to come out and perform a miraculous healing then and there!

I could even picture Naaman saying “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

When did Elisha finally step out to meet Naaman? When Naaman let go of his ego, and demonstrated humility. Now, don’t mistaken humility with subservience, or false modesty. Humility is knowing yourself well – to be able to receive affirmation and praise without letting your ego swell.

So as we close I want to ask you again – WHO ARE YOU?

Our identities often give us meaning – they have meaning because our identities connect us to something bigger than ourselves. But ultimately – we remember we are all made in the image of God. Every single human being.

So God created humankind in God’s own image, in God’s image God created them; male and female God created them.

So First Realise Everyone’s Equal.