October 8, 2017 – Upside Down

Text: Luke 17:11-19

This is my 11th Thanksgiving, and I have lived in Canada long enough to appreciate turkey dinner. I was told that how much I enjoy turkey tells how much I have adopted to a life in Canada. If that is true, I think I have great adaptability. Not only does it taste good to me, but also I have enjoyed roasting it and sharing with others. I used to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner, but now I find myself hosting it. Ha Na and I have developed our own Thanksgiving tradition that we invite those we don’t know well, but hope to be friends with. We used to receive hospitality, but now we provide it. We used to be outsiders – my official status was a temporary foreign worker, and Ha Na was an international student – but now we are insiders – we have been given permanent resident status. We used to rent apartment or house – being kicked out a couple of times because of the decisions the landlords made against our will – but now we own and live in a decent house. We used to rely on public transportation to move around in the city but now we have two cars. We used to earn just enough money to pay the bills, but now both of us work fulltime.

On this Thanksgiving I reflect on my journey, this dramatic change I have experienced, and what it brings to me. We all belong to a certain group because of our place or position in history and society. That’s called social location. It’s defined by our gender, age, race, social class, ability, religion, sexual orientation and geographic location. My social location changed over the years because my economic status changed. And because of that, I have a certain privilege that others don’t have. We first have to be aware of our own privileges that others don’t have. Such realization – understanding our own locations in the grand scheme of things – is the beginning of the meaningful change our society needs.

That is crucial especially for us Christians as we try to live the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The problem of the privileged in Jesus’ time was not the privileges they had, but their lack of self-awareness. They couldn’t see themselves in relation to those who didn’t belong to their group. The way the privileged lived made the underprivileged necessary. Sadly that’s still true today. The homeless are created by the way the rest of the society lives. How the world functions in its power imbalances creates unnecessary tensions between nations. You might say it’s an individual choice that creates a lifestyle, and that at least Canada is a free country. But how can we enjoy our own freedom while there are others in the same country who are not free?

Our indigenous sisters and brothers have been struggling to gain the basic human rights that most of us take for granted. The recent TRC has called all sectors of Canadian society, including the church, to adopt and comply with the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. The Declaration identifies: the right to self-determination, participate in decision-making, cultural and spiritual identity, lands and resources, free, prior, and informed consent, and freedom from discrimination. Bill C-262, a private member’s bill that is expected to come up for second reading in this month, offers a legislative framework that will protect the basic rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. While it is absolutely critical to have the legislative framework for reconciliation, we as people of faith need more than that. It has come from our hearts. We must hear God’s voice in the cries of our Indigenous sisters and brothers in this
country. It takes our broken hearts to participate in the work of reconciliation. Guilt and shame don’t change us. The needed change is born out of our faith in God who is about to heal this country with new relationships based on mutuality, equity and respect.

Sister Teresa Forcades, Benedictine nun, physician and feminist theologian from Catalonia, Spain talks about the fallacy of capitalist freedom in the interview with the United Church Observer. ‘If freedom is something you can choose over equality, that has to be a false freedom. Freedom and equality or social justice cannot go against each other. What capitalism calls freedom, if you look at history, is in fact privilege. It’s freedom of the few.’

The painful truth I have to admit is that I have become a beneficiary of the system which has often discriminated against our Indigenous sisters and brothers. When I was an outsider it was easy for me to identify with the marginalized; I had almost nothing to lose. As I have become an insider, I find it hard to truly stand in solidarity with those who don’t have the same privileges that I have; I have gained so much to lose. Economic inequality is the hardest barrier to break because those of us who are privileged don’t want to lose the life as we have known. Individualism strongly supports our belief that we have absolute freedom to earn and spend. We choose personal comfort and convenience at the expense of communal wellbeing.

Ten people who have skin diseases approach Jesus. Keeping their distance, they call out, saying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They know well the system that excludes them as outsiders, for the sake of the comfort and convenience of the villagers, the insiders. They have been shunned, completely cut off from their families and communities. That’s what the law says. The priests have a final say on whether they are clean or not. Only if they are declared to be clean, can they re-join their families and communities. Jesus sends them out to the priests. As they go, they are made clean. And the following is what stands out from the passage. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” The other nine, we can presume from the story, are Galileans, so they probably head off to see a priest. The nine do what they are expected to do – go and see a priest, because they can. The one doesn’t do what he is told to do because he can’t as a Samaritan. While the nine, who were outsiders, can benefit from the system and become insiders, the one, who was and still is an outsider, can’t benefit from the system. Ironically, it is the outsider who knows where the real power comes from.

That must have surprised Jesus, and those around him. That must surprise us, shaking up our status quo. This story invites us to examine the system we have benefited from, again and again until we know where the real power comes from. What comes as a barrier for an outsider comes as a privilege for an insider. What comes as a good news for an outsider comes as a confusion for an insider. That is just the beginning of our ongoing work to transform ourselves and our communities, and ultimately to bring shalom, the wellbeing for all.

This Thanksgiving I invite those I don’t know well to the Thanksgiving table, hoping to make new friends beyond the circle I have become used to. This is my prayer that every unlikely encounter will turn our world upside down and inside out until we know where the real power comes from. Along the way we may find ourselves turning back, praising God with a loud voice, like never before.