“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart….”
On Friday, Beloved, I got a phone call from our daughter Meg who was teaching at SPASH. She was calling to see if I might be able to pick up our grandson Gus, if needed, since all schools in the District were in a “lockdown.” A threat had been received, so in lockdown mode nobody can come in or go out---for the safety of students and staff.
My heart began to race a bit, and of course, I became distracted by the thought that Meg, our granddaughter Annahleah, and all the lovely folks I know from the Beloved Community who are students and staff in the School District were in a position of possible danger.
And I know you can’t keep your loved ones completely safe. When I left teaching in 2008, we were already beginning to practice lockdowns and drills for if a shooter entered the school building. And I also know there are some folks who would rather I not talk about gun violence because it often leads to a conversation about gun legislation and we don’t all agree on that issue. And that’s okay; we do not need to agree on it in order to remain in community. We can disagree about what should or shouldn’t happen; we can disagree on what will or won’t help. But I would hope that we can find a way to agree on the Gospel: that Jesus came so that all might have life and have it abundantly, that God is the creator of life and calls us to be co-creators and co-sustainers of life in God’s realm.
So Friday, distracted by the threat at Stevens Point schools, I was haunted by the many interviews I have seen of residents who live in places where there have been one of the many school shootings, and those interviewed usually say: “I never thought it would happen here.”
Because most often, it’s not until it touches us that it becomes our problem to solve. And while we haven’t had a mass shooting at Stevens Point schools, or the schools in our area, and Friday’s threat was merely a hoax, thanks be to God, and we are probably saying to ourselves: “it won’t happen here,” that doesn’t mean it isn’t already touching us.
Beloved, I am so thankful for the soldiers and police officers, past and present, who have chosen to defend and protect---and by choosing that route, they know they may face AK-47s and weapons that can shoot multiple bullets before ever reloading. What a sacrifice they choose for others’ safety. God bless them. But here’s the thing, as a teacher, I never made that choice; I did not sign up for that. Our teachers today haven’t made that choice, nor have our students. This possibility of a shooting in a school building from a weapon that can wound and kill many people in mere minutes shouldn’t be possible. Simply having to go through a shooter drill, having to experience a lockdown, having to hear about students and teachers dealing with colleagues and friends murdered simply because they went to school----this alone is traumatizing. And these drills are not something we should have to practice. It isn’t something one just shakes off, and I pray to God, it doesn’t become our new “normal.”
On Friday, I was thinking of the other school shootings in just this past year where students and adults have died, and how a common response is “You are in our thoughts and prayers.” And that led me to today’s Gospel. Because I think Jesus is saying something to us today about “thoughts and prayers.”
Jesus tells us about our need to pray always and, as today’s translation puts it: not to lose heart. The Greek here can also be translated as not to have a loss of hope-----or a loss of courage (because of course courage and heart come from the same word). Another fun translation is not to be remiss or not to be slothful, idle or inactive.
So, what exactly do we promise when we say: You will be in our thoughts and prayers? Does it mean anything more than “I’ll think good thoughts and ask God to take care of you?” I think Jesus is telling us: Yes, Yes, it means more. Jesus tells us not to have a loss of courage…..not to be remiss or negligent….not to be idle and inactive. Instead, our prayer should help us to have the courage…..the courage to take the action or actions needed to not only heal the wounded, but to end the injustice.
Let’s look at this parable Jesus tells today. One way to “listen” to the Word is to ask: where is God in the story? Where am I…where is humanity in this story?
What if this judge---who doesn’t revere or obey God and who doesn’t have respect for others…..what if this judge is us---humanity? What if we are the ones who sit in judgment of others, the ones whose lives do not show reverence to God, the ones who do not have respect for others? Jesus goes even further and says this judge is “unjust” using the Greek word: adikias which means unjust, unrighteous, vicious, deceitful…..” Maybe the simplest way to think of unrighteousness and injustice is any way of being or acting which opposes or works against God’s plan for abundant living for all of Creation. And then, friends, then I think we can safely say that all too often humanity fits this description.
And if humanity is this unjust judge….what if that persistent widow is God. God who repeatedly and persistently comes and knocks on the judge’s heart saying: Get justice for me! Get justice for me.
Get justice and enact righteousness on the issues of gun violence and school shootings. God knocks persistently, asking us to grant justice against God’s opponents of poverty, homelessness, warfare, refugees and immigrants being kept in cages, racism, white supremacy, our climate crisis and the disappearance of entire animal species, incarceration for profit, bullying, and the genocide of indigenous peoples…..Beloved, the list is far too long. And God is knocking; God is calling out: Grant me justice against my opponent!”
Beloved, do not lose heart for as the Talmud states, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Jesus promises us that God hears our cries, day and night, and God works for justice with swiftness.
And today, Beloved, Jesus asks us, we who are God’s living agents of justice in the world today, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
2 Kings 5:1-15; Luke 17:11-19
A foreign, slave girl helps her master and for her kindness---what does she receive? We don’t know. That’s all we are told about her. She sends Naaman in the right direction for healing.
And it’s Naaman’s connection to the King (who sends him to another King who isn’t the answer, but at least this King has a wise prophet healer in his land) that eventually affords Naaman the ability to be connected to the healer. The healer who is connected to God.
Of course, Naaman thought money could buy his healing, so he brought a lot of it. But, not as helpful as he had hoped. However, his connections were helpful. Naaman’s connection to the King led to the invitation to be seen by the healer in Samaria.
If Naaman had not been connected, what would have happened? If it was the young, foreign, slave girl with the disease--would she have been allowed to go to the healer? While it seems this healer would have seen her no matter what---Elisha doesn’t seem to be moved by power or by money, but seemingly by God’s vision of wholeness and wellness for all of Creation, Elisha probably would have met with and worked toward the healing of this young, foreign, slave girl. Even without the connection, without the money, without the power.
But that girl would never have gotten there. She is oppressed. She is owned. She is a slave, a possession. There are systemic obstacles in her way that do not afford her the privilege to meet with the healer.
This story of healing, of the path to wholeness---this story, to me, sounds much like our world. Where it often takes power, privilege, position and money to be able to access the means to wholeness and wellness.
It reminds me of our world today because there was a bit of a Facebook viral firestorm this week---all surrounding a short video of Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen attended the Packers-Cowboys game and was sitting in the same stadium box seats as George W. Bush. And they were laughing. So people started to say: Why is a liberal gay democrat sitting next to a conservative Republican President? The video on Facebook was a clip Ellen on her show explaining that Bush is her friend and that she has more than one friend with whom she disagrees. She thinks people can be friends even if they have different beliefs. And she said she takes her show-ending motto: Be kind pretty seriously. She believes being kind to one another is important—even despite our difference of beliefs. A very Kingdom living declaration---and thus I shared the video on Facebook.
And then the day after this video went viral, many folks who are in, or who are allies of, the LGBTQ community voiced their opposition to Ellen’s statements. They stated it was spoken from a position of privilege and wealth. More than a few folks I know quoted a Black American author who wrote about the oppression of Racism, James Baldwin, as a response to Ellen’s description of being friends with George Bush and to being friends with people of differing beliefs. Baldwin’s quote says: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and my right to exist.”
And, Beloved, I gotta tell you that I love that quote….I do. I have posted it myself in the past. I don’t believe anyone has the right to oppress others and to deny another’s humanity and right to exist. But, now, I also don’t know what to do with that quote. One of my dearest friends posted that quote, and for the first time I thought: And then what? You’re right, Mr. Baldwin….if one’s disagreement is rooted in oppression and denial of a person’s humanity and right to exist---then that disagreement should be silenced. But, then what? Where does that leave us? What do we do with the person?
I think Ellen is right that we need to be kind to one another---treat people as we wish to be treated----even if we think they are abhorrent idiots. Because our kindness is about who we are, not who they are. That’s grace.
But, I hear my LGBTQ siblings who do not have the power and the position of Ellen, and who, like the young, foreign slave girl—who still have a lot of systemic obstacles in their way and are not afforded the invitation to healing. Who will have to fight and claw and find a way to break out of the oppression they are under in order to move toward healing---freedom---to be made whole. Frankly, the oppression they experience in their lives often doesn’t leave room enough to take the deep breath needed to offer grace to someone who is oppressing them. Because in this story, Ellen is Naaman. She may have once been more like the young girl, but she finds herself in a different position now. She has a place at the table (or perhaps we should say in the stadium box seats). She is connected. And that’s privilege.
And so while I agree with James Baldwin-----I still wanna know: And then what? When we refuse to associate with the oppressors---then what? Do we stay on the margins? Do we all keep to our own kind? What does love require of us? Does the victim always have to be the one to “make nice?”
And then we have the healing story in the Gospel. 10 dudes who are ostracized because of a contagious skin disease. It’s illegal for them to come into the community. In some times, they had to wear bells around their necks to warn folks they were walking nearby. It’s illegal to touch them. Talk about oppression.
They have no privilege, no power, no status, no connection to a King who leads them toward healing. What’s a leper going to do? Go directly to the source.
But, here’s the thing: in the Gospel the source is out and about, making himself available. Jesus isn’t in a clinic or a synagogue. Jesus is out walking---on the border----as Jesus does. Crossing borders. And so these outcasts can approach the Messiah, the Anointed One, and ask for mercy. No obstacles to wholeness here. Jesus is walking and working outside of the system. Breaking laws and touching lepers.
The Kingdom of God has come near.
Those who are oppressed---like our LGBTQ siblings whose right to be protected as human beings was actually up for debate in the Supreme Court this week---again, talk about oppression---those who are oppressed need this kind of Gospel scenario----no obstacles to wellness and wholeness. They need the weight of oppression to be removed from them. They need, and deserve, the sources of healing and freedom to be readily available.
Beloved, we all do. That’s the point. Not just those with connections or power or money. The ones acting as God’s agent in each story---Elisha and Jesus---they each were freely willing to heal, to touch, to restore. In the Gospel, by moving out and about and crossing borders, Jesus removes the systemic obstacles.
But that oppressed, enslaved, young foreign girl? She might know the answer (and bless her she shares that answer with her oppressor), but she wouldn’t have the same clear pathway as Naaman.
So Ellen is like Naaman with his wealth and connections, and she no longer has the same obstacles to seeking wholeness as the young, foreign, slave girl does.
But, come to think of it, Ellen is like the young, foreign slave girl too. She shares the answer with her oppressor. She affords him a grace he does not particularly deserve. After all, George W. Bush backed a constitutional amendment to forbid marriage between two people of the same gender. Bush has been one of Ellen’s oppressors.
I don’t know where he stands now on this issue. I don’t know what he thinks. But, here’s what I do believe: Relationships change things. Relationships can dismantle ignorance and prejudice. Relationships can remove the scales from our hearts and our eyes. I hope that’s what Ellen’s relationship with George Bush is doing. But I don’t know. Does Ellen have privilege? Oh yes. She does. Does that privilege afford her some space to take breaths that many of her LGBTQ siblings don’t have. Yes it does.
I don’t know what the answer is. I think it may be a balance of both. After all, Jesus not only turned over tables in righteous anger in order to overturn the system, he also sat down to dinner with the Pharisees. But I don’t think we can ask both of each person involved in the struggle. Some have the capacity to overturn tables, and only some have the capacity to take the deep breath to offer grace. But both things can lead to healing.
We are not living the Gospel in its fullness yet. There are still obstacles between the lepers and Jesus in our world and in our systems. Ours is more like the story from the Old Testament. Where knowing the right folks, having the right connections, and having silver in our pockets gives us confidence that we will get what we are seeking. But, let’s not forget the grace of that young, foreign, slave girl. Who pointed her oppressor in the right direction---a merciful act of kindness.
None of this is simple. I don’t have any answers. But let’s keep listening. And seeking. Following this life-giving, loving, and liberating God. And always, always, turn our eyes upon Jesus, knowing that healing is continuously offered by this God who loves us unceasingly and unreservedly. And let us remember: we are the living Body of Christ in this world, called and Anointed to bring healing to the Nations. This is who we are, Beloved.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.