October 9 | Antiracism Sunday

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859. Copyrights for songs given after the sermon text.


Healing, feeling | 9 October 2022      
1 Kings 5:1-3,9-14; Luke 17:11-19
Speaker: Joel Miller

Resmaa Menakem begins his book My Grandmother’s Hands by telling a story about just that – the hands of his maternal grandmother.  When he was young, he and his grandma would curl up together on the couch when they watched TV.  Because she often felt pain in her hands, she would ask Resmaa to massage her hands in his.  As he did this, he would notice how broad her fingers were on her small body, with thick callouses on each thumb.  One day he asked her why her hands were like this.  She replied that when she was his age the family was sharecroppers and she had picked cotton.  The sharp cotton burr would tear the skin on her hands.  But the more years she picked, the thicker her hands became until she could pull out the cotton without bleeding.  It had been a while since she had brushed her hands up against those burrs, but the body’s response to their sharp edges remained, right there in her hands, held within the hands of young Resmaa (p. 4).  

The subtitle of the book is “Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” and the image of his grandmother’s hands serves the message Menakem returns to time and again: Racialized trauma and the myth of White supremacy is held not so much in our minds as a collection of ideas that can be reasoned through, but in our bodies. 

Menakem writes this: “Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains.  This knowledge is typically experienced as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness.  Often this knowledge is stored in our bodies as wordless stories about what is safe and what is dangerous.  The body is where we fear, hope, and react; where we constrict and release; and where we reflexively fight, flee, or freeze.  If we are to upend the status quo of white-body supremacy, we must begin with our bodies” (p. 5).

The Ohio Council of Churches has designated today as Antiracism Sunday.  This is not a new topic for us, but it is a good time for a check-in and perhaps a check-up regarding this long and necessary road of antiracism.  A community check in.  A heart and mind check.  A body check in.  How are we doing?  What are we learning?  What have we seen and heard?  What stories do we need to tell and keep telling each other? 

In their resources for today the Council went a different direction than the lectionary but I found the lectionary passages fairly spot on.  Both the Hebrew Bible and Gospel reading deal with the dreaded skin disease leprosy.  In both stories there is a healer, Elisha and Jesus, who prescribe a path toward healing.  And in both stories, the healing carries a message beyond simply a cure. 

To have leprosy in ancient Palestine was to have not only a medical condition, but a social condition.  The book of Leviticus gave diseases that produce scaly skin a unique status.  All these separate diseases fell under the category leprosy.  Not only did it cause the person to be ritually unclean, unfit to enter the holy sanctuary of the temple, it also brought uncleanness on anyone under the same roof as that person.  The solution was social isolation – something Covid has taught us more about than we would like.  Leviticus 13:45 instructed that the leprous person “shall remain unclean as long as they have the disease; they shall live alone; their dwelling shall be outside the camp.”  It was the duty of the priest to keep examining the person’s condition and eventually pronounce them clean, able to re-enter the life of the community.   

Leprosy is not physically contagious.  The best commentary I’ve read on why it was believed to be so ritually dangerous observes that “the common denominator of all the skin ailments described in Leviticus 13 is that the body appears to be wasting away” (Jacob Milgrom, 2004, p. 129).  The visible peeling off of the skin looked like the body was disintegrating, like the forces of death at work.  Not coincidentally, the only other thing that brought uncleanness to all under the same roof was a corpse, and the priestly rituals for purification for the person healed from leprosy and the person who had come into contact with a corpse are strikingly similar.  And so the forces of death and disintegration at work in the leprous person were to be kept apart and separate in order to prevent that contagion – to preserve the integrity and life force sustaining the community.

One interpretive option would be to compare ancient society’s beliefs about leprosy with the racism of modern society, people of color unjustly seen as a threat to the forces that keep dominant society moving forward and in charge.  People of color viewed suspiciously, leading to outsider status and isolation.  Like a leprosy on the body politic.  One could explore those comparisons.

But I’m more inclined these days to believe that people in the ancient world were on to something.  That their ways of upholding the wellbeing of the community have more merit than we’re ready to give them.  That the forces of disintegration and death are indeed contagious and ought to be approached with ritual care.

So what if the leprous and threatening ones aren’t people of color, but the persistent myth lodged deep within all of us that this made up thing called Whiteness makes one superior, more fully human, even more divine, than other forms of humanity.  As James Baldwin, Robin DeAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others have reminded us, this is the real danger, and not until we go to the roots of this myth, not until, as Resmaa Menakem urges, we recognize its patterns ingrained in the preconscious features of our nervous system, will any of us be free.

And so what if we imagine Naaman, the mighty Aramean army commander of 2 Kings chapter 5, seeking healing not just for leprosy, but for another skin-based death-adjacent threat to the integrity of the community, the inherent superiority and worthiness of white bodies.  Naaman knows he has the affliction, knows he can’t heal himself, and seeks out the great healer Elisha – the prophet of Israel — the very people Naaman has just conquered, taking one of their young women as a household slave.  It is through this enslaved young woman that Naaman first hears of Elisha.  Naaman packs silver and gold and high end garments, all gifts for the prophet, the only currency with which Naaman is familiar.  He seeks the best health care money can buy, the best soul care and therapy available.  Cost is no issue. 

And so it comes as quite a shock when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, with his entourage of horses and chariots – armored vehicles and several helicopters hovering overhead to surveil the area – and Elisha sends out a messenger to Naaman – doesn’t even come out to greet him – sends a messenger out who tells Naaman that if he wants to be healed of this contagion he should go to the little, muddy, shallow Jordan River and dip his full body not once, but seven times.  

Not shockingly, this enrages Naaman.  He didn’t come here to get dirty.  He didn’t come here to humiliate himself.  He didn’t come here for a process that takes time and repetition.  In the telling line of the whole story, Naaman says, “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!”

Nope.  It’s going to take time Naaman.  It’s going to be messy.  It’s going to take persistence.  And just because you’ve got the dough doesn’t mean Elisha owes you his time. 

After almost skipping out, Naaman goes through with it.  He goes down to the Jordan River and comes out, however much later, oozing mud and dripping wet, no greater than and no less than any other person who would do the same.  It’s what he needed to do to be healed.  His affliction is no longer a threat to himself or the community. 

In the Gospel story there are ten who seek healing when Jesus passes through town.  As would have been the prescribed, they keep their distance.  No gold or silver or garments to offer here.  Just a cry across the distance for Jesus to have mercy on them.  In the text there is no indication that Jesus approaches them.  Rather, in Elisha-like fashion, he sends them out on a task.  “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Like Leviticus required.  The priests aren’t healers, they’re the certifiers that healing has happened, kind of like that person you Zoomed with who certified that your Covid test was negative.  They make it official. 

Jesus is simply asking them to follow protocol, no Jordan dipping necessary for those already humbled, and it’s up to them to have the faith that from the time they leave there to the time they arrive to the priest, the results will switch from positive to negative.

This is indeed what happens to all ten, but only one turns back, when he realizes he has been healed, to express gratitude to Jesus.

What’s referred to as leprosy today is also known as Hansen’s disease.  It affects the skin, but only as a secondary effect.  This form of leprosy is caused by a bacteria that attacks the nerves.  It can lead to swelling and flaking of skin, but more dangerously it leads to loss of feeling.  An affected person loses their ability to sense pain.  Which sounds kind of nice, until you consider how important pain is for keeping us safe.  Like touching things that are sharp or abrasive or very hot.  No pain, no signal that something harmful is happening to your body.  And so people with leprosy, or internalized white supremacy as we all have in some form, often injure themselves and sometimes others due to this malfunctioning nervous system that has become desensitized, numbed, cut off, from detecting pain. 

And so, what if we imagine these ten afflicted persons making their journey across miles and miles to the priests.  How do they know they’ve been healed?  Sure, maybe their skin clears up.  Or maybe, for the first time in years, they feel a sharp rock press into their foot along the path.  Maybe they know they’re healed when they feel pain.  Or maybe they feel that long forgotton sensation of their hand coming into contact with another human hand as they walk the road. 

It’s a hard thing to be thankful for, feeling pain.  Being aware of that which harms, and being newly entrusted with the ability to steer clear of that which brings injury to oneself or the community.  Only one returns to thank Jesus for this gift. 

Luke writes: Then one of them, when he saw (and felt) that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.

The journey of antiracism goes through our bodies.  It is muddy and humbling, and it can be painful.  For which we give praise and thanksgiving to the great Healer.

Resmaa Menakem spoke of his grandmother’s hands and so I’d like to end this meditation by inviting us to extend our own hands in front of us.  To look for the stories that our hands hold.  Calluses, creases, colorations, strength and injury.

And finally, to put our hands together, in one another, and to simply feel.  To feel that we can feel. Feel the warmth they generate when pressed together.  Feel the softness and flexibility of the skin, the hardness and structure of the bone.  Feel at the wrist the steady pulse of life.  We give thanks for the ability to feel, even to feel pain.


O Worship Our God, All Glorious Above – Voices Together #74. Text: based on Psalm 104; Robert H. Grant (England); Christian Psalmody, 1833, alt. Music: Sacred Melodies (England), vol. 2, 1815.  Public domain.

Healer of Our Every Ill – Voices Together #644.  Text & Music: Marty Haugen (USA), 1986, Gather, 1988 © 1987 GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

God, We Pause This Moment – Voices Together #756.  Text: Merle Good (USA), © 2018 Merle Good.  All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.  Music: Friedrich Filitz (Germany), Vierstimmiges Choralbuch, 1847. Public domain.

Healing River of the Spirit – Voices Together #642.  Text: Ruth Duck (USA), 1994, © 1996 The Pilgrim Press. Music: Sally Ann Morris (USA), 1991, © 1997 The Pilgrim Press. All rights reserved.  Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.

Hey ney yana (I Walk in Beauty) – Voices Together #836.  Text & Music: Ute children’s song; (First Nations, USA), as taught by Brooke Medicine Eagle (First Nations, USA).  Public domain.