October 13: Then what.....?
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.
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Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.