Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop preaches in Brisbane, Australia
Greetings from around The Episcopal Church. Today is the day Americans celebrate the beginning of their struggle for independence from England â 234 years of it, to be exact. This annual Independence Day celebration is our reminder of civic freedom. Itâs also a prayer book feast, a holy day, born out of the awareness that the gospel is most fundamentally about the liberation that God works in Jesus â liberation from slavery to all sorts of sin and bondage.
I gather that Australia doesnât really have anything comparable. The release of transported convicts after their sentences were served, however, must have been met with a measure of rejoicing and a sense that life now held more promise. A ticket of leave was an invitation to cross into freedom. Other kinds of liberation must surely have attended the end of wars in which Australians fought, and the return of soldiers and sailors released from service.
In Elishaâs day, the Jordan River would have had a resonance with all those sorts of liberation or release from imperial control, occupation, slavery, prison, or wartime service. The Jordan River marked the border of the promised land, where Egyptâs former slaves crossed over into safety and the promise of plenty. The Red Sea crossing began their liberation, but it wasnât finished until they crossed the Jordan into their new home. Naamanâs search for healing from leprosy is also a search for freedom from what his skin disease means. In his leprous state, he is unfit for office or leadership â his social freedom is severely restricted.
In the ancient world illness was often understood to be a curse. Healthy people avoided those who were sick, out of fear that they too might be infected or contaminated. Lepers became outcasts, unfit for human society. Throughout the existence of the disease, lepers have almost always been isolated and forced to keep apart from the rest of the community. In Europe in the Middle Ages lepers were so feared that they had to ring a bell and shout, âunclean, uncleanâ so that others could know and stay away. Itâs very much like the way in which people with HIV or AIDS are still treated in many parts of the world.
When the bishops of the Anglican Communion and their spouses gathered at Lambeth two years ago, we spent one morning divided by gender â men on one side of the tent and women on the other. The organizers recognized that many of the women present would be unable to speak freely in the presence of their husbands or other men. Indeed, in the small group I was part of, bishopsâ wives from Africa spoke about women in their own churches whose husbands had died of AIDS. Those widows, even if uninfected themselves, would be pressured by their cultures to return to their husbandâs village and marry one of his brothers, even if he already had a wife. It was an almost certain sentence of death by HIV. If the widow refused, the husbandâs family would come and take her children and any land, house, and possessions she might have. If she resisted, they would simply put her out on the street. She had no legal recourse, and the church would not support her in either case â either in becoming a second or third wife or in resisting the cultural pressure to keep her children as a newly single woman. That position of being damned if you do and damned if you donât is a pretty good definition of slavery, and AIDS makes many sorts of slaves.
Naaman goes looking for healing and escape from his sort of slavery when he hears that a prophet in Israel might be able to fix his isolation. He makes a big withdrawal from his bank account, and goes off to find Elisha, expecting that the prophet will be able to heal the great general of Aram, for a price. But Elisha wonât even come out to talk to him. The prophet sends a servant to tell the soldier to go wash in the Jordan. Naaman is sorely insulted and turns for home, but his servants gently challenge him â âif heâd asked you to do something difficult, wouldnât you have done your best to take the cure?â So Naaman goes down to the riverside and takes a bath. That river of freedom becomes his release from social slavery.
Would that curing AIDS were so easy. Yet curing the isolation of the leper or the one with HIV is that easy â but itâs the supposedly healthy ones who have to wash away their uncleanness. It may take seven repetitions or more, but weâre the only ones who can fix the isolation of the leper or the different one â the other. That sort of social isolation or cultural imprisonment is a disease that comes from the supposedly healthy, from those who donât want to be contaminated. Our communities are still pretty well divided up between the haves and the have nots, the white and those of darker hue, the straight and those who arenât. Yet weâre all meant to cross over those boundaries that keep some enslaved to othersâ definitions. We are all invited to bathe in the river of freedom, to be washed clean of the shame of thinking that some are different enough to be pushed out of the community, away from the feast God has set from the beginning of creation.
Thatâs at least partly what Jesus is telling his followers when he sends them out. Travel light â donât bother with all that other baggage. Let go of all the impedimenta that want to tie you down to pre-conceptions, cultural taboos and expectations. Go and proclaim peace. Eat with anybody who offers to share a meal, offer healing to anyone whoâs hurting, and tell them that God is near. And if you arenât accepted, donât fuss, just move on and try the next person. Healing and reconciling need our active labor and participation. Disciples are supposed to build bridges wherever possible.
Who or what needs healing around here? Whoâs still enslaved, who needs cleansing, release, and restoration to community? Immigrants? Aboriginal peoples? Those with AIDS or the mentally ill? Who isnât welcome at our tables â atheists? People who come from the other end of the theological spectrum?
There is at least one sort of division that your context and mine share â between the inside and the outside of the church. There are growing numbers of people who think that Christians are bigots, hypocrites, and uninterested in those who differ from them. The only real way to cross over that boundary is to leave these communities of safety and go on out there to find those who think weâre unclean. Weâre going to have to wade into the river, even if, like the Brisbane, it does have a few bull sharks in it. There are far more dangerous creatures walking around on both banks. Itâs past time to go swimming.
Will you let go of the extra sandals, bags, and preconceptions we so love to haul around? That river of life is filled with healing and freedom â thanks be to God!