Monday, February 27, 2012

Lent: The Little Covenant

Readers, some sermons are best understood in the context of the community. This sermon is situated in my congregation's immediate concern for a member recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, for immigrants in our city being harmed by an unjust state law, and for our commitments to ecological justice. Our denominational and congregational polity and needs also have shaped this sermon. --Ellen Sims

Texts:  Genesis 9: 8-16;  Psalm 25;  Mark 1: 11-13

The 40 days of Lent imitate the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, which corresponds to the 40 days of rain that created the Great Flood.  For those of us trying to follow in Jesus’s hopeful way, here’s a heads up: his way is not without challenges. Mark’s Gospel tells us that immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the desert to face Satan and wild beasts: spiritual and physical threats (Mark 1:13).  We, too, sometimes move directly from the Jordan River to the desert, from the mountaintop to the valley, from baptism to temptation, from the heavenly dove to wild beasts.  Like Jesus, we are trying for this Lenten season to follow as the Spirit leads us out of our comfort zone.  Like Jenni, who voluntarily and quite inexplicably spent a week with the US Marines recently, some of us have willingly signed up for spiritual boot camp called Lent--to test our mettle, to discover more about ourselves, to strengthen our faith commitments, to grow in hope and in love. 

For those of us who want to experience the benefits of Lent, we’ve entered a tacit and temporary covenant with God and with one another.  We’re saying that for these 40 days we intend to kick our spirituality up a notch, to be a bit more dedicated to our current spiritual disciplines or maybe to try out a new spiritual practice.  Usually this is a private pact—unless we decide to give up Facebook for the next 6 weeks and owe our FB friends an explanation—or unless we must decline a brownie because we’ve given up chocolate.   But mostly our Lenten commitment is private.  And short term.  In a way, Lent is a way to enter into a short-term covenant with God. For some of us, that’s all we can sign on for at this time.

Covenant is a word used throughout the Bible and in various ways.  Its first use occurs in this very story of Noah when God pledges never to destroy the earth again by flood.  In some respects, God does not come off looking very magnanimous in this agreement.  God vows, “I promise never again to destroy the earth . . . by flood.”  Sounds like a contract that stipulates, in very fine print, “Offer does not cover destruction of the earth by fire, ice, plague, nuclear war, asteroids, invaders from another galaxy, or giant mutant hamsters.” Such a stipulation does not set my mind at ease.  After all, we in coastal Alabama know our homeowners’ insurance might cover flooding from a hurricane without covering wind damage.  Makes you wonder if our insurance companies took that little trick straight from the insurance policy God wrote for Noah.  Even so, the possibility of another Great Flood still lives in the human imagination. One of the most recent disaster films, set in the current year and titled 2012, tells yet another version of a flood that destroys most of humanity.  

However, to be quite serious now, I feel better about Noah’s God and that less-than-airtight covenant when I consider what might have influenced the Genesis writers’ concept of God.  The people who told this version of the Great Flood—and, by the way, virtually all cultures have a Great Flood story—likely patterned their image of God after the earthly rulers and powers that held sway over them.  Those rulers might have had moments of mercy, but their power was probably more impressive than their compassion.

But two features of that first covenant in the Bible do impress me. 
1)    This pledge is one that God initiates and that God offers with no strings attached.  Most covenants the Genesis writers knew about were political treaties between a king and his subjects or between a powerful nation and a vassal state.  Often the Israelites were obligated to more powerful nations through what was called a suzerainty treaty, and this typical Ancient Near East agreement between unequal parties colored their understanding of their relationship to the Lord God.  These political covenants were conditional:  IF you are loyal to me, pay tribute to me, fight my wars, etc., THEN I will protect you, give you land, etc. So, for instance, if Abraham’s descendants are circumcised, then God will make of them a great nation. 

But the covenant in today’s story is unconditional. God makes a promise that does not obligate Noah in any way. This kind of graciousness from a powerful party to a powerless party must have been as rare then as it is today.  If those who wrote Noah’s story had few if any examples of an unconditional promise of care from a superior power, then this kind of covenant represents an amazing evolutionary leap of moral imagination.  Here is a glimpse of a powerful God who would choose to offer mercy with no demands for loyalty or tribute.  Christians have wrongly characterized the God of the Hebrew Bible as a God of law and have wrongly argued that the idea of grace is unknown until the New Testament.  But we see that grace is right here—in the first book of the Torah.  The Powerful One makes a pledge of graciousness to the weaker one with no expectations, no requirements.
2)    The second striking feature of Noah’s covenant is its inclusiveness.  God covenants with every living creature.  God is concerned about every living creature.  The parties named in this contract also include every living creature on into the future.  God, in effect, included us in that covenant, according to today’s story. And this contract has an inherent logic to it. We join God in protecting the planet by recognizing our creaturely oneness, our interdependence as living beings.  It would be impossible for the Creative Force, the Lord of Life, to protect only human beings. Modern science concurs: we’re all in this together.  Our fates are tied up together.  Therefore, we participate in this godly covenant that binds together parakeets and porpoises and palm trees and people—when we live with an awareness of that common covenant.  If we forget this covenant that unites our fates, we have only ourselves to blame.  It is not God the Creator who is the Destroyer of our planet.  And the beauty of the rainbow calls us to hold out hope and to remember our interdependence.  Some in our denomination are going on a “carbon fast” this Lent to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment.  I think the God of Noah would approve.

With Noah’s covenant as backdrop, let’s now consider other kinds of covenants that are binding upon us.  Obviously some are legal and others are relational and often unstated, like the implicit covenants we make with friends when we stand by them through thick and thin. Like the implicit covenant you and I can make with immigrants in our state who are feeling targeted for political purposes.  We as Christians must always stand in an implicit covenantal solidarity with those on the margins.

Our own denomination’s governance is founded on covenantal relationships.  Individual congregations within the UCC[i] are in covenantal relationships that assume mutual support, equality, respect, and care as well as accountability.  “Covenant” in the United Church of Christ requires a willingness to remain in relationship, even when we disagree.  Open Table operates within a governing structure that is neither hierarchical nor independent. We do not take orders from anyone at the denominational level, yet we highly value the opinions and concerns of others in our UCC family.  Somewhere between the extremes of authoritarianism and isolationism lies covenantal polity based on mutual commitments within trustful relationships.

Those same expectations hold true at the congregational level. Some of you now considering membership at Open Table may want to hear a brief excerpt from our new member covenant, and current members may periodically need to renew those commitments. Our new members agree to try to “follow Jesus’ hopeful way” and answer the biblical call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” This covenant continues as the congregation promises “to bear one another's burdens, hear one another’s stories, support one another in spiritual growth, and serve God by serving one another and our world.”  Friends, now is a time for us to remember we have made this pledge to Rosemarie and Linda.

Renewing our commitments to this congregation this Lent is another way we can deepen our spiritual commitments. But in case that membership covenant is too abstract, let me offer three concrete ways you might “practice” your faith life, in the context of this church, in a new or more intensive way this Lent:

First, you might practice the spiritual discipline of worship attendance.  If you generally attend once a month, try twice a month.  If you attend twice a month, try three times a month. Many of us returned to the church-going life after many, many years of NOT attending worship services.  And it may seem that even a monthly appearance at Open Table is something of a stretch for you.  But I’m going to ask you to stretch a bit more, at least for the next six weeks.  Because you will find that scriptures and sermons and songs get layered onto each other over time.  If you attend only occasionally, you will miss out on so much, including a richness of relationships that can grow only through consistent interactions.  And you will BE missed.  Your unique presence changes our worship experience, silent though you may seem in your pew with your own private thoughts.  Your presence also is vital to our growth and sustainability as a new church.  Many of our “regulars” worship on a pretty irregular basis, so when first-time visitors come, we seem a much smaller congregation than we are and therefore may seem a less viable congregation.  Certainly demands of family and work require us to miss services sometimes. But for this Lenten season I challenge you to consider your worship here at Open Table as an essential part of your commitments to kick spiritual discipline up a notch.  There is probably no greater way you can strengthen the vitality and ensure the future of Open Table than by lending us your presence each week.

Second, I ask you to consider increasing your financial giving this year—by 1%.  Yes, many churches recommend giving a tithe, 10% of your income.  Some even require that level of giving.  Some of you are doing that.  But the UCC is recommending this year that we all simply look at what we gave to our church last year, and increase that amount by a mere 1%.  The idea is to stretch a bit from wherever we are right now.  Your offerings represent a spiritual practice of generosity that enriches the giver even as it serves others.

Finally, I hope you will consider lending us your leadership and talents.  Speak to me or a member of the church council if you have ideas to offer or talents to share.  We have many opportunities for service.  Right now we need at least an additional person or two who can work with our children.  We would love someone to do web design for us. Someone who can head our marketing team.  Someone with photography skills.  Someone who can coordinate meals and ministry for our sick. Additional folks to help set up and clean up on Sundays. Others who can lead and participate in acts of social justice.  Think about your gifts and Open Table’s needs.  Come talk with me.

Traditionally Lent was a time to prepare catechumens for baptism on Easter Sunday.  Although here we make no big distinction between members and nonmembers, we believe membership kicks that commitment up a notch.  Lent is an ideal time to consider becoming a member at Open Table.  I would be happy to talk with you about that possibility. I would love to celebrate some new members on Easter Sunday.

Lent is the church’s “little covenant” when we try out, for 40 days, a new level of commitment—to prayer or Bible study or life within a community of faith. Sometimes we create a wilderness period for ourselves in order to find in that spaciousness new strength for the journey ahead.  Other times, life’s wilderness periods are thrust upon us.  Our dear Rosemarie has found herself suddenly in the desert where she may feel threatened by the wild beast in the form of a brain tumor.  We will do our best to make sure she and Linda are not alone in the wilderness. 

I pray that your Lent brings you a new level of commitment and new experiences of God’s loving presence.  

O God, our hope is in you and in your great compassion—our hope for the world that bears the stains of our carelessness, our hope for a community riven by racism, our hope for our church that aspires to serve you, our hope for all who are undergoing physical and spiritual challenges.  Especially we pray for Rosemarie’s healing.  Bless Linda as she stands with her and bless us as we stand beside them.  Keep your rainbow before us. Amen


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Meditation on Transfiguration

II Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-10

          There are two religious poles we regularly navigate between: the ordinary and the extraordinary.  The women of Open Table will have a chance to visit the ordinary pole this Saturday in a half-day retreat focusing on experiencing God in the everydayness of life.  Words of songwriter Carrie Newcomer come to mind when I think of ordinary sacredness.  She sings:
                Holy is the dish and drain
                The soap and sink, the cup and plate
                Warm wool socks, and cold white tile
                Showerheads and good dry towels
                . . . 
                Holy is the place I stand
                to give whatever small good I can. 
                The empty page, the open book,
                Redemption everywhere I look. . . .  (from Holy as a Day is Spent)

          Ah, redemption—God’s gracious and ongoing enterprise—everywhere I look!  In warm wool sock and frying eggs? I first experienced God in the ordinary as a child on a swing set pointing toes beyond green treetops toward the clouds as the summer air shimmered.  In my backyard sanctuary, I would sing and sing, pumping my swing higher and higher. I’d sing “Oh what a beautiful morning” from the musical Oklahoma because my heart was so full of—of what I didn’t know—of some limitless joy for the shade tree and the blue sky and the smell of freshly cut grass—of everyday holiness.

          But there is the other religious pole: the extraordinary.  It is, by definition, rarer.  Some special events and times and places and people are lightning rods of God’s grace. They seem to conduct the sacred right to us in especially intense ways.  I hope that—when you enter this space or sit amongst these friends or hear holy words or sing and sing—it is easier for you to point your soul toward the treetops, to put aside all that distracts you from God’s beauty and loving kindness.  I hope it is easier in this setting to tune your ear to some sacred whisper that you need to hear in the core of your being, that speaks directly and declares YOU to be God’s beloved child.  We declare this day and hour and place and people to be holy.  But even holiness of the extraordinary kind is not always perceived, and what is a holy moment for you might not be for me.

          Even before the Transfiguration, Jesus was himself a lightning rod for the Holy—just as, for the Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem had been the epicenter of God’s presence on earth.  In fact, the Gospel of Mark compares the two, presenting Jesus as the new Temple, a new site of God’s holiness.  Little wonder this comparison developed, since the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, about the same time Jesus’ followers started writing down the oral stories circulating about his luminous life.  After the foundation of their religious life, the Temple, was demolished, Jesus’s followers claimed he was a replacement for the Temple—and a fulfillment of Jewish scriptures.  So when stories of Jesus became crafted into the literary work we now call the Gospel of Mark, details were carefully chosen to make this very point, to intertwine the story of Jesus with the stories of the Hebrew holy scriptures.  As John Shelby Spong writes, “Stories about events in the lives of Jewish heroes like Moses and Elijah . . .  show up [in Mark’s gospel] vaguely disguised as stories about Jesus.” (Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World).  In writing the story of the Transfiguration, for instance, Jews who’d been transformed by the life and ministry of Jesus—and who were beginning, after a couple of generations, to distinguish themselves from others Jews who were not Jesus followers—cast Jesus as the successor to Moses and Elijah. 

          The Transfiguration Story and other stories in Mark developed to show that Jesus was connected to the Jewish tradition that included Elijah and Moses.  In Mark 9 both Elijah and Moses essentially pass the mantle on to Jesus, and the voice of God approves.  Jesus is part of this religious trajectory, and the Jews following Jesus and developing an increasingly distinctive form of Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem were saying they thought of Jesus as the prophesied Messiah who was continuous with their traditions but who ushered in a new era of hope and a new path toward God.  That is how they had experienced him: an extraordinary religious figure whose very self (like sacred scripture, like the holy Temple) revealed God.  Their encounters with Jesus were extraordinary, unparalleled, mountaintop experiences that changed THEM.

          But Jesus was not only the site of the extraordinary; he was also the image of the ordinary.  The Jesus Story of Incarnation tells us that the Sacred One was born in a manger and lived among the poor and died on the ignoble cross—even though the Spirit of God was in him in a special way.  Christian teachings interpret this story to mean that Jesus is, for Christians, the mediator between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between earth and heaven.  Jesus is, in fact, the way Christians navigate back and forth between the poles of transcendence and immanence, between the God “out there” who is totally Other and unknowable and beyond us,  and the God “in here” who dwells within us and walks with us and with whom we have a loving relationship.

          What you and I may need to guard against is staying too long at one pole or the other.  If we steer too far toward the religion of the ordinary, we create God in our own image and presume to be buddies with the Source of All and pretend to know the unknowable and fool ourselves into thinking we’re God.  However, if we steer too far toward the religious pole of extraordinariness, we keep God so very far away that the sacred has little effect upon us, or we breathe in such a rarefied atmosphere that our spirituality prevents us from putting our faith into practice and doing God’s work in the real world and we never come down that mountain to heal and love and serve.

          Let us look to Jesus. Jesus moves us from pole to pole.  As he did with the disciples of old, Jesus walks us up the mountain to rare and lofty moments of transfiguration, and then he guides us back down again to real life.  And God can be experienced in all of that.   Thanks be to God!

Instructions for Guided Prayer

          We’re now going to try to practice this spiritual movement up the Mount of Transfiguration.  Spiritual mountain climbing sounds difficult, even dangerous. But it really requires discipline, which is an effort of a different sort.  As Henri Nouwen said, “In the spiritual life, the word 'discipline' means 'the effort to create some space in which God can act'. Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you're not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied… to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on."   We’re setting aside some time right now to make space.  Get comfortable.  Get up and move around quietly if you wish to let your body mimic the movement of images we’ll use within this prayer.  We’re going to figuratively and prayerfully climb a mountain to gain a more-than-ordinary perspective with this guided meditation.

1.    Image what little you can see of your world from the “ground level” of your immediate time, location, and experience.  Call to mind recent joys.  Hold onto one of those images with a feeling of delight. . . .  Call to mind immediate needs that are in the forefront of your daily vision; people and situations close to you in terms of relationship or physical proximity.  Hold onto one or more these images with a sense of tenderness and care. . . .
2.    Imagine yourself next moving to a higher vantage point.  Image the world as you gain a “higher” perspective: look down and “see” from your store of memories the more distant joys of your past. Or imagine some future happiness and just smile inwardly. . . .That appreciation or anticipation welling up is a prayer of thanksgiving.  From this same vantage, glimpse the needs of people you know about but with whom you’re not in close relationship. From this vantage you can take in whole groups of people with a single glance, so focus on a group of people who live different lives than you do. Now, with expanded compassion, hold onto that image. . . .
3.    We move a third time.  Now image the world from the peak of a mountain.  See the world’s beauty and connectedness.  Look down and find yourself, your own life, if you can. Do you feel differently about your own self from this vantage point?  If you were really on the top of this mountain, would you feel less attached to things and schedules and other priorities that now dictate your movements?  And look at the world below. What movements or patterns are you seeing in the overall social landscape, in the ecosystems below?  Are you praying for different things in different ways from this distance where national boundaries disappear and even distinctions among species fade?  . . . .

4.    Image earth finally from a great distance in time and space.  Rather than seeing yourself as small and insignificant, see yourself as part of something vast, ongoing, eternal. Can you feel love for that tiny planet and its creatures—and all beyond its gravitational pull?  Can you imagine a Sacred Compassion embracing all that is throughout all Time?  At this pinnacle of perspective, you might even glimpse--as did Peter, James and John--the Cosmic Christ, the Christ who is our all in all, the Spirit that pervades all things, the human Jesus united with Divine Love, the Light of Lights.  To attain this perspective in a real and lasting way is what some call “enlightenment.”  Of course Jesus shone on the Mount of Transfiguration!  Of course the disciples noticed his change.  Of course he was then ready to set his face toward Jerusalem and the requirements of pure LOVE.

As we move prayerfully back down the mountain with Jesus, we sing the "Kyrie Eleison" for each place along the way —our final prayer.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Another Healing Story

Text: Mark 1:40-45

God forgive me. For the second Sunday in a row and maybe for only the second time in my life, I’m going to mention football. But this week when Leonard Pitts, syndicated columnist and fellow UCC member, commented on the Tim Tebow phenomenon, it seemed that Pitts, as I, had been meditating on the story of Jesus healing the leper.  For those who didn’t catch Wednesday’s column, Pitts defended a quarterback’s right to express his religious faith with a touchdown ritual, but respectfully questioned the depth of that kind of faith.[i]  For those who don’t see the influence of Mark 1: 40-45 in Pitts’ commentary, let’s return to today’s text.

In a story that raises many questions, the conclusion of today’s reading seems especially puzzling. Why does Jesus heal a man and then tell him NOT to tell anyone? And, mind you, this man is not the last person Jesus will pinky swear to silence.

I’ve started to wonder if Jesus tried to muzzle the leper man because Jesus was worried the man would go all Tebow on him.

Surely Jesus considered practical matters of ministry.  The lepers and blind men and sick women Jesus was healing attracted ever larger crowds when they shared stories of their dramatic healings.  Jesus must have wondered how he could keep up with the demand of those in need.  We’re not even through the first chapter of Mark and we see how beleaguered is Jesus the miracle worker. He knew there were limits to what he alone could do, that he’d have to equip his disciples before his healing ministry could be expanded and maximized.
But I also suspect Jesus tried to hush those he healed because he wanted to encourage their growth in faith.  As a church planter, I’m as interested in the depth of our congregation’s spiritual foundation as I am in the breadth of our influence.  For the blind man’s own sake, Jesus may have cautioned: “Wait awhile before you tell it, my brother.  Maybe there’s ‘yet more light and truth to break forth.’[ii] Spend some time reflecting on what has happened to you and what God is showing you."

Let’s try to imagine—as Jesus might have—the kind of story the newly healed were likely to share.  “I once was blind but now I see” is powerful testimony.  But what happens to us and through us in the days and years after we open our eyes? Maybe Jesus sensed the leprous man didn’t know Jesus well enough, hadn’t had time to ponder long enough on that life-changing experience.  Maybe Jesus thought the man would emphasize the impressive but surface changes to his life without having yet experienced the deeper changes that would come as the former leper re-entered his community, as he regained his true identity apart from the disease that had totally defined him. 
Perhaps Jesus simply wanted those who were healed to have time to grow into their truest selves before they let untransformed language shape an elusive experience into something superficial.  Scholars think the Messianic secret we discussed last week is a literary device used in Mark to build up to the revelation of Jesus’ full identity on the cross.  His self-giving love could not have been fully known nor his mission apprehended by any of Mark’s clueless characters—not even the disciples—until then.

Besides, have you ever noticed that the faith stories we tell can become more about our own egos or our own culture and prejudices than about God?

Back to Leonard Pitts’ column—which speaks to the difficulty of telling stories of our spiritual transformation, especially in the public arena. “Faith,” he says, can become “a thing to be brayed . . . for political gain.  It becomes a crowd gathering on courthouse steps to bemoan the removal of a rock bearing the Ten Commandments, becomes a school board trying to use the Book of Genesis in high school science classes, becomes a justification to abuse Muslims and gays.  It becomes license for regrettable behavior. Moreover, it becomes a whirl of God talk and God iconography, a cross as fashion statement . . . a football player kneeling on the field. 
“But that is faith externalized for public consumption, faith that runs the risk of being shiny and superficial.  It doesn’t speak to the decisions we make, the people we are, when despair comes creeping into the midnight hour. Nor does it speak to any obligation toward the scabrous, the lost, the unwashed, the impoverished, the disgusted, the detested, the detestable.”

In case your ear did not catch the word scabrous in Pitts’ descriptors of the folks the faithful are obligated to care about—let me call your attention to it and remind you that scabrous and leprous are synonyms here.  People of faith are obligated to care for the leprous, Pitts is saying.  I think he has been reading Mark’s gospel.

The columnist concludes: “Those whose faith is most loudly externalized are often the ones most silent on that obligation. . . . There is . . . a tension between faith externalized for public consumption—and that which wrestles despair in the midnight hour.  Each has its place.  But only one will see you through till the morning comes.”

Because Jesus did not prevent the leper from sharing superficial testimony, he, like Leonard Pitts, apparently felt individuals have the right to express their faith as they wish.  And let's never wait to share from our hearts.  But as Pitts cautions, the transforming power of faith is not all about me and my experience.  Jesus leads people to encounter a God who cares for our emotional, physical, mental well-being—and who heals not only individuals but communities. In fact, healing, as we saw in last week’s story, involves restoring one to the community so that one then can serve the community. 

The leprous man was the detested of his day, more like an AIDS victim than a Tim Tebow, someone whose physical ailment ostracized him.  Lepers—those with any number of skin conditions that made people ritually “unclean” according to Jewish purity law—were barred from the community.  If the skin condition healed, a priest had to authorize the former leper’s return to the community.  No wonder this man was eager to tell others his healing story. 

But the deepest faith stories are told by the lives we live.  As St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Faith stories are best shared, not in stadiums with strangers, but in communities among friends; not to the cheers of the crowd but often through the tears of the faithful.

The life of faith is not about a list of beliefs I claim but about a community in which we grow, together.  We belong to a faith community partly to share our faith stories and hear others’ stories as they continue to evolve, partly to create a shared story together.  The story I tell you today about my faith journey is an unfinished story.  I’ll tell you a different story tomorrow.  My story doesn’t merely express my faith; it shapes it.

I have permission to tell you a story about one young man who was for a short time part of our faith community and who may soon be restored to us, a young man now in prison. . . . 

(My sermon next included a story I had permission to share with our congregation but not with others.  I concluded the sermon with some guided reflection to help us discern how Open Table might support this young man as he starts composing a new story. Thanks be to God for a congregation sharing in the process of discerning God’s ongoing call upon our lives.)

O Christ, the healer, we have come
to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored
when reached by love that never ends?

Grant that we all, made one in faith
in your community may find
the wholeness that, enriching us
shall reach and prosper humankind.[iii]  Amen

[i] Pitts, Leonard.  “It Speaks Volumes When ‘God Talk’ Sparks Jitters” Mobile Press-Register (8 Feb. 2012) 10A.
[ii] Quoting anachronistically here from United Church of Christ forebear, John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrims.
[iii] Words from the hymn “O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come” by Fred Pratt Green.  @ 1969 Hope Publishing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Healing Hands

TEXT:  Mark 1: 29-39

We’ve been reading through the first chapter of Mark these past few weeks.  The shortest and the oldest of the Gospels, Mark’s spare biography of Jesus starts with the launching of Jesus’s ministry.  After Jesus has taught in the synagogue and exorcised a demon, he heals the first in a long succession of people who will be healed in a ministry that Mark defines largely as a healing one.

Later Gospel writers added their own details to Mark’s account, shaping the story in ways to emphasize their theological concerns.  But an important key to understanding Mark’s Jesus is to notice Mark’s emphasis on Jesus as a healer.  Because healing is so important to Mark’s gospel, and because the New Testament concept of healing differs greatly from our own, I’m going to take some time to share what anthropologists and biblical scholars understand about the concepts of sickness and health in the ancient Near East culture. 
Sickness, in Jesus’s day, was thought to be caused by a “who,” not a “what.” Jesus knew nothing of germs and genes.  His contemporaries didn’t know a virus could make you ill; they thought demons did that. [i]  Many in Jesus’s day also believed infirmity could be a result of God’s punishment for evil done by you or even your parents. Interestingly, Jesus rejected that last idea.  But he saw sin as at least analogous to sickness when he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician . . . .  I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2: 17).  Certainly his Jewish tradition appreciated the body-spirit connection, viewing the body and soul as indivisible.  “No wonder the Greek verb sozo in Jesus’ day meant both to save and to heal, and so-ter meant both savior and physician”. [ii]   Appreciation for the body-mind-spirit connection has not always been important to Western medical practice, but that may be changing.   

So how were people healed in Jesus’ day—prior to antibiotics and chemotherapy?  They were healed, not by a “what” (a pill or surgery),  but by a “who” (a miracle worker—and there were many such miracle workers or healers in that culture).[iii]

Even the concept of health itself meant something different to Jesus’s contemporaries.  Health was “a state of complete well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Pilch 72).Someone was “healed” when she or he returned to a state of well-being.  That’s because the ancient Mediterranean culture emphasized “the value of simply living or being rather than of achieving or doing” (Pilch 72).  You had health if you could live with a sense wholeness and connection and meaning in your life.  We in our culture do not claim to be “healed” as long as some injury or disease prevents us from going back to work and being a productive member of society.   

But in the New Testament, “Jesus heal[ed] people by restoring them to a proper state”--by restoring their relationships, not their level of productivity.  Being healed is different from being cured.  People whom Jesus healed regained their place in their community and their relatedness in their families.  You and I tend to think about the problem Jesus the healer addressed as medical; but his peers saw it as communal.  Being healed is when people are restored to the community and ultimately find meaning in life, whether they are “cured” of a disease or not.  Jesus “restored meaning and joy to the lives of individuals” (Pilch 78).   

If you think I’m trying to downgrade Jesus’s healing powers, I promise I am not.  No serious biblical scholar minimizes Jesus’s role as a healer.  Healing was central to his ministry.  Even today the healing done in the name of Jesus can and should be life-changing.  But let us not impose our cultural understandings of healing onto another culture.

So with an awareness of those cultural differences, we’re ready to look at Mark’s scant story of Jesus’s first healing. In the sparse details of this 3-verse narrative (Mark 1:29-31) we might discover something about the circumstances in which healing takes place—and the purposes and effects of healing in the Jesus community. 

Let’s begin with the story’s setting.  Jesus and his disciples have just left a Sabbath service in the local synagogue and have walked to Simon’s house.  It is significant that the writer sets this first healing story on the Sabbath, and it will not be the last time Jesus violates Jewish law to heal someone on a day in which all work is forbidden.  In fact, the next time he’ll heal on the Sabbath, he will be IN the synagogue itself (Mark 3: 1-6), an infraction so flagrant that some start plotting against him.  Jesus’s propensity for Sabbath healings, attested to in the other synoptic gospels, is not aimed at disrespecting religious law but in exposing religion’s ills. Yes, religion can be sick. All religions.  Perhaps it’s a more impressive miracle to reconnect the work of the Sabbath with its healing aims than it is to heal a sick woman.

Jesus did not simply heal ON the Sabbath.  He healed the Sabbath.  If our worship anesthetizes us to the pain of others, if our prayers drown out the cries of those who are hurting, if our theology paralyzes people with guilt for being who God created them to be or prevents them from using the minds God gave them-- our religion is sick.  If our worship does not bring us rest and rejuvenation and restoration, then we are not genuinely engaged in the aims of Sabbath.  Sabbath, Jesus says through his enacted sermons, is for healing.  If you don’t leave here this evening having experienced at least some small measure of healing in your life—and some renewed commitment to join in God’s healing of the world –then you need to ask for a refund!

And whom does Jesus heal first as he launches his healing ministry?  Significantly, it’s someone of little significance: the unnamed mother-in-law of Simon.  As one who has become a mother-in-law fairly recently, I am a little touchier than I used to be about the bad rap given women whose daughters have married.  Simon’s mother-in-law is in an especially vulnerable state.  We can assume the sick woman is widowed since she’s not living with her husband.  Widows and orphans were, in that culture, the most vulnerable of all in that society since women, like children, depended upon a male member of their family.  This sick woman is also apparently without sons, or she’d have been living with a son in her widowhood.  And because Simon’s wife is never mentioned, some speculate that she, too, has died.  So this widow, connected to society only by the thin thread of her dead daughter’s husband, faces another indignity and diminishment: her illness prevents her from performing the household duties that would give her an acceptable role in society.  Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, singles out someone on the farthest margins of society.  And he heals her. 

How?  He took her by the hand—though it was a taboo in his culture for a male to touch an unrelated female.  He took her by the hand.  As Frederick Buechner says, “Sometimes just the touch of another human being is enough to save the day.”  We, too, need a deep sense of belonging and worth.
You and I heal one another by touch: just the ordinary magic of human kindness we all carry within us and transmit with a hand extended in friendship, with an arm around a shoulder bowed in grief, with a connecting gaze that says, “We’re in this together.” 

Jesus demonstrated by his touch that this sick woman was worthy of being connected again to others.  She deserved—not by dint of her efforts nor by degree of blood relationship but simply by her humanness—to be reintegrated into community.  He touched her.  And he lifted her up.  I wonder if those strong hands supporting her reminded her of the passage we read earlier from Isaiah, where those who are tired and weary feel the Spirit of God raising them up as if on eagle’s wings. 

Mark tells the story as if the healing happened instantly.  But Mark telescopes every event.  Deep healing takes a long time. So I wonder if Jesus had been staying in Simon’s house for awhile.  I wonder if he’d had many talks with her.  I wonder if he’d learned she’d taken to her bed because she was grieving the death of her spouse or child.  Grief or stress or hurt or exhaustion will do that, you know.  I wonder if Jesus listened to her heartache, finally shared in feverish bursts.  I wonder if one day, when Jesus held out his hand, she found the will to live again, and so she took his hand, and her spirit lifted. 

Unfortunately, the final detail of an otherwise poignant story is ripe for spoofing.  Verse 31 ends the story this way: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  No sooner is the fever gone than this poor woman leaves her sickbed to wait on the men her son-in-law brought home!  It’s Sunday night, and she’s probably rustling up supper for her son-in-law and the guys he’s brought over to watch the Super Bowl.  Simon calls into the kitchen, “Hey, can we get some more buffalo wings out here?” as Andrew spills his beer on her new sofa. 

But in that Ancient Near East culture, this woman’s restoration was tied not to her productivity but to her role, her place in that household. 

You and I are healed in order to find our place of service because by serving, the healing continues. 
I’ve accompanied a friend as he moved from alcoholism to sobriety.  One way he continues his healthy sobriety now is by sharing his story with others.  If the hurts of your life are being healed, if your spiritual journey is being deepened, if places in your life are being transformed, you can lift up others. 
And anyone can serve.  People with less energy or fewer resources are not less valued or less needed in the Christian community.  Those who are differently abled might serve in different ways.  Sometimes those whose abilities are diminished by disease or age serve us by allowing us to learn to serve them.  There are many ways we serve.  But serve we must.  For our own sake.  For the sake of others.  Sometimes even while we’re healing, we serve as wounded healers. 

Today’s story doesn’t help us to know how Simon’s mother-in-law felt about serving.  But I hope she did not drag herself from her sickbed to make nachos for the boys.  I hope Mark’s gospel instead emphasizes her immediate serving in order to signal that the proof of her healing is found in her service to others.  If we’ve been healed, strengthened, in some way touched by the love of Jesus, the evidence will be in our service to others.

And now we turn our attention to the epilogue, which is far longer than the story itself.  Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Jesus soon is inundated with other sick people wanting to be healed.  The whole city is at Simon’s front door clamoring to see the new miracle worker.  Jesus keeps at it until night comes on, and in the wee hours of the morning, he slips away in the darkness to a deserted place for prayer.  Soon the disciples hunt him down and draw him back into serving others.  But a rhythm continues for Jesus: he serves—and then retreats in prayer—and serves and then finds time to be alone and in prayer.  The healer heals through connection.  But the healer also needs quiet reflection.

I hope we at Open Table can find that healthy rhythm.  I hope we can attend to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  I hope we as a community can realize that we affect one another’s habits and so we can together practice healthier ways of eating and exercising, of meditating and praying, of sharpening our minds, of reducing the stress in our lives, of restoring others to a supportive, grace-filled community.

I hope we can also work together to heal our planet.  We have a role to play in tending the garden God gave us.  We can’t be healthy if our home isn’t. 

Perhaps the best way to begin tending our spirit is by cultivating a heart of gratitude.  Gratitude teaches us to pay attention to the beautiful and the good.  Paying attention opens us to the God who comes to us disguised as our own lives, says Paula D’arcy.  God takes it from there.

PRAYER: In gratitude, O God, we open ourselves to your healing touch.  Amen

[i] Pilch, John J.  The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible.  Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999 (72). See also the Handbook of Biblical Social Values, John Pilch and Bruce Malina, editors, as well as The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina.
[ii] Buechner, Frederick.  “Healing” in Wishful Thinking.  Harper One, 1993.
[iii] Pilch 72.