Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Epiphany 6-B
February 15, 2009

2 Kings 5:1-14;
Psalm 30; I Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Leprosy, which today we call Hansen’s Disease, is treatable. So treatable that it can be considered curable. People with leprosy can live normal lives, if the disease is caught and treated on time.

But when the Bible says someone has leprosy, think of if as something really, really bad. It is nearly a death
sentence. The person with leprosy moves to the margins of society, not only shunned but feared; not merely sick, but unclean, untouchable, unfit for human companionship.

Naaman was a really powerful man. He was the general of a conquering army. The Bible says that even God thought well enough of Naaman and his skill as a general
that God gave victory to this enemy of Israel. It would be like Syria marching in and taking over Israel – as earth-shattering today as it was thousands of years ago. Naaman was the conqueror. The Spanish conquistadores to the Aztecs. The U.S. Cavalry to the Plains Indians. The Roman legions dividing Gaul into three parts.

Astounding, but Naaman has a flaw, which could be fatal. He has leprosy. This apparently not a secret; even the conquered slaves knew this, and one of them, this unnamed girl, dares to speak up and offer a solution. Naaman could be cured, she says, by a prophet in conquered Israel.

So look what Naaman does: the powerful King of Aram sends a negotiator to the King of Israel, to plead for his friend. This approach of power-broker to power-broker does not work. The king of Israel does not trust this request to help
his enemy.

Like the unnamed captive girl, who offers her solution through the back door, Elisha, the man of God – not the man of “the king” – similarly breaks through the official denials. “Let him in,” he says. “Let him learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So with his display of power and privilege and wealth and pride, Naaman marches over to Elisha. What happens then? So what do we learn from this story about how God works? Who has power? Who heals? And how? Who makes a difference – who changes the world
? Who are we in this story?

Think of who we are, in this church, in this community, at St. Paul’s Table, on Pleasant and Green streets? Where are we in this story of Naaman the Syrian? What needs healing?

The Gospel gives us another story about Jesus healing someone – this time, a leper, like Naaman the Syrian. Jesus says that curious thing: don’t talk about this, he tells the former leper. It’s very curious, isn’t it: why would Jesus want to keep all this good news, these healings and restorations and wonderful things, secret? I think Jesus realizes that there is somethin
g about the power of healing that upsets the apple cart – it upsets the balance of power. Jesus knows the power of healing. Some people like things the way they are: some people on top, some people sick, some people on the inside track, some people marginal outsiders. For some people this is OK.

Listen to these verses from the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Je
sus had just taught a lesson from the Torah in his hometown synagogue. All were astounded at his wisdom – “at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Acknowledging their praise, Jesus then said, "‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. …There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way."

Like it or not, God worms God’s way into our midst. Captive girls speak words of wisdom. Oddball prophets say, sure, let in your enemy; give him a chance. When we ask God to heal us, we have no idea what to expect. We might think things will be the way they used to be, and all of a sudden we are in completely new territory. Someone is healed, someone else is threatened, and all of a sudden the whole world changes before our very eyes.

What will it take to be healed? What will it take for this community to be restored and whole? I think these lessons tell us that that healing will never happen if we wait for the people in power. Look at how God works: from beneath, below, around the corner, from the outside, from the place that surprises us. We may be like that girl who whispers in Naaman’s wife’s ear, or like Elisha who says, sure, let the enemy leader in. We too might be like that former leper, befriended by Jesus along the road, who, despite the risks that somebody powerful might be unhappy, finds it impossible to keep all this good news to ourselves.

Restored to wholeness

Epiphany 5-B

February 8, 2008

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who had no arms. He had been born with a birth defect, and over the course of his life had learned to do with his feet many of the things that the rest of us do with our hands. After a while you didn’t notice much different about him, even when he’d sit at the lunch table and pick up his fork with his toes.

I went to seminary in New York City. There was a woman who used to stand on the sidewalk in front of Bloomingdale’s, a rather fancy department story, and shout, “Help me. I’ve got cerebral palsy. Help me. I’ve got cerebral palsy,” over and over again. I think she was asking for money, but since I never stopped to ask her what kind of help she wanted, I don’t really know.

Also, when I was in seminary, I went to a service commemorating “disability awareness week” or something like that. It was at the Chapel of the Church Center for All Nations – an expansive place, which welcomes all kinds of worshippers. The celebrant was an Episcopal priest who served the deaf community. One young man stands out in my memory – he was the preacher, I think, a disability rights advocate. He was an amputee, I think. I know he refused to wear prosthesis – artificial limbs – because he had no interest in making those of us who were “fully abled” feel more comfortable with his disability. He also refused to use those metal crutches with arm holders that many people use – again on the grounds that they served to make “able-bodied” people feel more comfortable because they could categorize him as “disabled.” He preferred using wooden crutches, like anyone would use.

All these stories, along with today’s Gospel story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, raise these questions: what is sickness? What is health? What does it mean to be healed?

Last week, we read of how Jesus cast the demons out of a man possessed by what we today might call mental illness. In the words of the old hymn, Jesus “reclothed him in his rightful mind.” He restored him to wholeness. He cast out those outside forces which had invaded the man, and gave him back himself. No longer was he possessed by those alien forces; he could return to the rest of society, to his community and his family, as himself, restored, healed.

Whatever fever Simon’s mother-in-law has, it must be serious. The normal remedies must not be working. They way she is isolated and alone, even in the house, makes us think that perhaps they had given her up for dead. When Jesus touches her, healing happens, but not healing like we would think of a doctor making a house call. Jesus doesn’t administer an antibiotic, or apply leeches, or mix a poultice, or shake a magic rattle. Jesus touches her, and yes, she is relieved of the fever, but look what happens then: she is restored to her family. She joins the party. She gets up and helps serve. She regains her place of honor and dignity. She is no longer a patient; she is a person. She is restored, healed.

In those three stories of my seminary days, I think I learned that “healing” is not just about an individual who “gets better.” I don’t think there is a “cure” for cerebral palsy, nor can someone without limbs grow them back. Healing, for those people, challenges our definitions – OUR definitions – of wholeness. Wholeness is not perfection. Wholeness is not some idealized state of no flaws. Wholeness is about being human, fully human, being a full member of the human race. The sick person is isolated; the healed person, no matter what his or her state of disability may be, is restored from that isolation to wholeness, to community, to family and friends. The healed person is a productive and needed and loved member of society. This is what Jesus means by healing: those who were outcast, who were suffering and alone, are brought back inside the fold. Healing is not just “fixing an illness;” it is restoring a person to being, once again, a whole human being who has meaning and value and a place in the community.

Many of us wonder, and I know I have felt this way, when we are sick or in trouble, why me, why I am sick? What have I done to deserve this? Why can’t Jesus help me? Where is the healing in my life?

It is hard to climb out of those pits; no doubt about it, and there certainly are some things about our lives – all of our lives – that we don’t like, and like it or not, that will never change. We can stay there, carrying all those grudges, nursing all those hurts. We can perpetuate our isolation, thinking we are all alone in our troubles, and no, Jesus isn’t going to walk through that door and make everything better – or at least “better” in the way we think “better” ought to be defined.

But listen to this: we have what Jesus had. We have the promise from God that things will be better, that they are better. “Have you not known,” Isaiah writes. “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” We have the same promise from God that Jesus knew, that God gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless – that God calls all – all of us – by name, and not one is missing: not the woman with cerebral palsy, shouting outside of Bloomingdale’s, not my professor who ate with his feet, not the disability activist who refused to hide his amputated limbs. Simon’s mother-in-law is there, and the man possessed by demons, and you, and, you and you, and you, and me. Everybody who is home sick today; everybody who is just too tired to get out of bed. We’re all there, called by God, called by hope, pulled out of our isolation and aloneness. This is what God promises us: with wings like eagles, we shall run and not be weary; we shall walk, every one of us, we shall walk and never grow faint.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Pleasant and Green Neighborhood

Epiphany 4b February 1, 2009
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1: 21-28

I know you won’t believe this, but church sometimes brings out the crazy in people.

Do religious institutions attract crazy people, or does just something happen to us once we get in here? Is it because places like these hold all our hopes and dreams? Because they speak of promises of a better life for the world God has created? Do we get angry because these are promises denied, or delayed?

Do these places make us crazy because our hopes are so high for them, and then so frequently dashed to the ground? Or are these places of safety, of refuge, where the troubled and angry and possessed know that they can come and be allowed to vent and rage and fume and act out. Quiet havens, broken dreams, unfulfilled promises: why do you come to this sacred space?

The Gospel of Mark tells us nothing about the neighborhood around the synagogue in today’s story. It’s in Capernaum, which was a city in Galilee – not a fancy town, but a town of fishermen, of traders, of people from all across the Roman Empire. A hardscrabble town.

It would not be a stretch to imagine the neighborhood around that synagogue to be something like the neighborhood around here. And it is not any kind of a stretch to imagine
someone walking in here, as angry and as loud and as possessed by any number of demons as the man in today’s story.

A couple of hundred years ago another crazy man walked into a church. The demons that haunted this man were, it can be said, coming at him from the outside. He lived in England during the early industrial revolution. He saw all the dark sides of those days – the ruined country-sides, the overcrowded cities, the soot-filled air, the overworked children, the lavish homes and lives of the rich. This is not what God intended for England, ranted William Blake:

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

New England as well as Old England knows what happened to those false promises of the industrial revolution. This church now owns a parsonage in what used to be a shoe factory. This city is now no closer to the centers of power – to Beacon Hill, say – than rough andtumble Capernaum, in hardscrabble Galilee, was from Jerusalem. Promises were made when this church was built, promises to be here, in this place, in this community, for a long, long time.

This community has changed – changed enough to make some people really, really crazy – and this church is still here, still opening our doors for whoever comes in, happy, sad, troubled, young, old, clothed and in their right minds, or ripping their shirts off and possessed by demons. This church is still here.

What makes us crazy, here between Pleasant and Green Streets? What gives us hope, here between Pleasant and Green, or should we call them, “not-so-pleasant” and “anything-but-green”?

Long ago, in that far-away synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus stopped the demon in his tracks. When we read in the Gospel of Mark about “demonic possession,” it is a metaphor for alien ownership. The person who is possessed by the unclean spirit is owned by someone other than God, just as Galilee and Judea were owned by the Roman Empire and not by the people who actually lived there, just as the very earth under the disciples feet and the sea in which they fished were owned by interests which put their profit ahead of people’s lives.

So much of Brockton is owned by somebody else. It’s enough to make you crazy. We are third in the state in the number of foreclosed homes. If you’ve lost your home, or can’t afford a home, or don’t live in MainSpring, then you rent: your home is owned by somebody else, and if it’s not heated, or maintained, or safe – well, it’s enough to make you crazy.

This church is still here. Can we live up to the promises we made over 100 years ago? Can we be the church God is calling us to be?

William Blake’s response to what he saw as the broken promises of England was to shake
his fist in anger:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

And so what about Brockton’s green and pleasant streets? Some remarkable things have happened this year – we have made great strides toward that mission to which God calls us, to be the church – the place of safety, refuge, hospitality, hope, transformation – in this place and at this time.