Monday, July 8, 2019

Sermon: “Unearned, Unasked-for, Undeserved”, 2 Kings 5:1-14/Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 (July 7, 2019)


Let’s talk about privilege.

For some, it’s a dirty word. It immediately puts us on the defensive, and we feel like our struggles and challenges are being ignored. We feel like it minimizes the hard work that we put in to get where we are. We feel like we’re being told that we’re a bad person. But interestingly, there’s another word that means almost exactly the same thing which for some reason doesn’t have the same distressing connotation to us, one that we Christians are often comfortable with and even eager to apply to ourselves

That term is “blessing”.

“Blessing” and “Privilege” are essentially the same thing. Think about that for a moment. Both make life easier for you than for others. Neither is asked for. Neither is earned. Having either one doesn’t automatically mean that you’re a “good” or “bad” person. The only real difference between these two ideas is that we perceive them as having come from different sources: a blessing comes from God, while privilege is conferred by society. In fact, these two concepts are so closely related that they sometimes overlap: the blessings that God bestows upon you often lead to societal privilege. Both blessings and privilege are unearned, unasked-for, and undeserved. And yet, we still usually interpret a blessing as being a “good” thing, and privilege as being a “bad” one.

Naaman had been given both blessings and privilege. The very first verse in our first reading today explains how God had blessed him with victory, even though he wasn’t an Israelite. Unearned, unasked-for, undeserved—just because God wanted to. And because of this blessing from God, the king thought highly of Naaman and was willing to personally help him in his hour of need. Unearned, unasked-for, undeserved—just because the king liked him.

Between these blessings and privilege, Naaman actually had it pretty good. Of course, he’d probably worked hard as a soldier—no one’s calling him lazy—but he couldn’t personally take full credit for everything that he had. God had given him victory, and the king had given him status. And that’s okay. He didn’t do anything wrong in accepting and appreciating these benefits. But the fact remains that because of them, he was in a better position than others in his society were—others like, say, the young servant girl that had been captured from Israel. Maybe she was a hard worker, too…but her life circumstances meant that she was at a disadvantage compared to someone like Naaman.

Now, neither blessing nor privilege means that life is a bed of roses, for us or for Naaman. All the benefits in the world couldn’t take away the burden of dealing with a terrible skin disease. Suffering from leprosy would have meant that Naaman was excluded from many parts of society as one who was “unclean”. It may have been physically painful; it might have even kept him from being able to serve his king as the “mighty warrior” that he was. Without a doubt, Naaman’s skin disease would have represented an enormous struggle for him.

No one could say that his blessings or privilege meant that he wasn’t suffering. He absolutely was, which is why he went to such lengths in the mere hope that he could possibly be cured: he had the king of Aram appeal to the king of Israel on his behalf; he brought along extravagant gifts of silver and gold to offer for a cure, and he travelled for miles and miles into a foreign land just for the chance to see Elisha. He was desperate to do anything he could to relieve his affliction.

But I wonder if, in the midst of his suffering, he was able to see how his extensive efforts were only even possible because of his blessings and privilege. Can you see it? He was only able to count on the king’s support because of the success that God had granted him. He only had such exorbitant wealth to spend on a cure because soldiers happened to be especially valued in his society, and because the king had taken a particular interest in him. He only had the ability and freedom to travel across the country because he didn’t have the misfortune to have been born or captured as a slave. Unearned, un-asked for, undeserved.

This is what privilege often looks like. It’s not a villain who intentionally tramples on others to get what he wants. It’s not a lazy freeloader who doesn’t work a day in her life. It’s not someone who believes that they’re superior to everyone else. It’s simply a person who happens to have advantages arising from something outside of themselves. Unearned, unasked-for, undeserved—but nothing to be ashamed of. Just something to be aware of.

This awareness, however, is a crucial part of being blessed or privileged. Without awareness, we’re incapable of using these gifts to further God’s kingdom—which, as Christians, should always be our primary goal. And make no mistake; that’s what God is calling us to do with them. God’s vision for the world doesn’t involve a hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots”. We hear that again and again in scripture—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[1] God doesn’t give blessings because some are more worthy than others (remember: unearned, unasked-for, undeserved). God gives blessings so that we might use them to be blessings to others. From the very beginning, even as God set aside the Hebrews as a chosen people, God told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[2] That hasn’t changed between then and now.

When we’re aware of our privilege and our blessings, we can choose not to use them as leverage to lift ourselves up at the expense of others (which is the tempting thing to do), but instead as a powerful tool to bring about God’s kingdom. Just like blessing, privilege isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; it’s how we use it that gives it value.

We all have to make this choice for ourselves. Even Jesus’ followers were confronted with this same decision. Their lives were overflowing with privilege and blessings, too. First of all, they’d been born in a time and place where they had direct access to the Messiah, so, you know, they were already ahead of the game. They had the religious background and intelligence to understand what Jesus taught, and God had opened their hearts so that they could embrace the Good News. They were able to accept Jesus’ message because of the context that they had been dropped in—unearned, unasked-for, undeserved.

But Jesus insisted that their journey didn’t end with their acceptance. He made it clear that if they wanted to follow him, they MUST use their advantages on behalf of others—in fact, any financial resources they had were to be given away, and they shouldn’t even pack anything for themselves when they went out into the world. Their blessings and privilege made it possible for them to go out and evangelize, but they were clearly instructed to use it for the benefit of those they encountered, NOT for their own comfort or prosperity—not even for their own security and safety! In a way, they were asked to give up their privilege, to let go of their blessings, so that they might give others the chance to experience it themselves.

This isn’t an easy thing to ask. Remember, blessings and privilege make our lives better, more comfortable, and being asked to give up ANY of it, even temporarily, can frighten and unnerve us. Look at Naaman’s response to Elisha’s instructions. He was OUTRAGED that he had traveled all that way, brought all that money, gone before the king, and was now being asked to bathe in the Jordan River. Surely, if that was all he had to do, he could have preserved his social and financial capital by staying safely at home (where, of course, the waters were far superior). Naaman was angry that he had been inconvenienced and humbled. It wasn’t until his servants—the least privileged people that he knew—pointed out the flaw in this perspective that he was able to understand. There was value in letting go of his pride and his sense of entitlement in order to let God do something better in his life.

It takes humility and a certain amount of personal risk to turn our privilege from a weapon we use for self-preservation into a tool that we use in service to God’s work. It requires a far-sighted view, focusing not on our immediate desires but on the big picture of God’s kingdom. It takes standing up for things that don’t always feel like they’re in our best interest, and it involves standing firm even when things get difficult. In giving up the privilege of their possessions, the 72 that Jesus commissioned took a risk: they were bound to run into those who didn’t welcome them, so there would likely be times that their lack of resources made them vulnerable. But instead of falling back on the comfort of their privilege, they were to call out the behavior of those who rejected them and carry on. Which meant still proclaiming God’s kingdom to everyone, no matter what.

Privilege and blessings are gifts. Unearned, unasked-for, undeserved. But they’re not gifts that are meant to be kept for our own benefit. They’re “pay-it-forward” kind of gifts. That’s what God wants us to use them for, anyway, and I’m not inclined to argue. It’s not easy to share the gifts that we’ve been given, but when we do, we all benefit. The 72 returned to Jesus, not recounting their failures and rejections, but rejoicing in their success. And of course, we’re here today because of those who went before us, willing to share the Good News at great personal risk.

So what will you do with everything that you’ve been given, unearned, unasked-for, and undeserved? Will you keep it to yourself, or offer it to others in God’s name? Think especially of the blessings and privileges that we often take for granted. The ability to take care of our bodies, like Naaman. The ability to have our voices heard and listened to, like the 72. The ability to be loved and respected and valued, like God desires for all of humanity. These are things that everyone deserves. God is challenging us to figure out how to use our own advantages to lift up those without them.

It’s not a zero-sum game. God is a god of abundance and plenty. When we use our privilege to help others, God multiplies the blessings so that there’s enough for everyone (and then some). It can be a daunting task, but we can trust that God stands behind us and before us and around us as we stand with others. God’s smiling as we work to build God’s kingdom here and now, in this world, today, with the gifts that God has given us—unearned, unasked-for, and undeserved. Amen.


[1] Galatians 3:28, NRSV.
[2] Genesis 12:2, NRSV.

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