Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Coming Clean

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt, 1657-60

2 Kings 5: 1-14; Mark 1: 40-45
****** Congregational Church
February 15, 2009

In the United States between 1976 and 2006 there were 7,166 cases of Hansen’s disease or as it is more commonly known—leprosy. India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Brazil have the highest outbreaks. In 2006 the World Health Organization registered a total of 259,017 new cases worldwide but this represents a drastic reduction from the 500,000 to 700,000 cases reported each year for the past 13 years. However, there are millions of people that, though they have been cured, still suffer from physical disabilities and social injustice.

Of course it is the shame attached to Hansen’s that keeps the disease from being eradicated, among other factors. There is still the belief that one’s bad behavior is somehow responsible, especially in third-world countries. Many do not seek treatment because of fear, ignorance or social stigma. Those with Hansen’s are still shunned from community not only because of fear of contracting the disease but also because of the victim’s supposed lack of morals. Despite our post-modern world, sickness and sin still walk very much hand in hand on this earth.

But we all know from experience that when it comes to sickness, it doesn’t matter who you are. The greatest and least and everyone in between will get sick at some point in their lifetime. It’s the last thing we want to think about: the weakness of our bodies. And Naaman is no exception.

We read that Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram, what would be Syria, that he was a great man, in high favor with his master, that the Lord had given him victory. Yes, it reads that the Lord had given Aram, a foreign nation, victory over Israel. Sin and defeat in battle also went hand in hand.

So we have this mighty warrior, this great man. Yet we can hear the “but…” coming: he suffered from leprosy. The word ‘leprosy’ is used in the Bible to convey any number of skin diseases. It was thought that any imperfection in the body was due to one’s sin and thus, one was considered unclean by the Levitical code of purity. In truth, having a skin disease was the equivalent of saying that one was covered by one’s sin. The psalmist speaks of his face being covered in shame, of his sin being ever before him. Though Naaman was a great man, he had been brought low by this leprosy and needed help in his suffering.

He receives help from the unlikeliest source: his wife’s servant girl, who was taken from Israel in a military raid. Naaman is to go the prophet Elisha who will heal him. To his credit, Naaman heeds this advice, even though it comes from a girl who is a servant and a foreigner. Status and station in society are observed in this communication: the servant girls tells Naaman’s wife, she in turn speaks with her husband; Naaman then goes to the king of Aram who then writes a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

Now here’s where everyone’s egos start getting involved. First off, Naaman brings a treasure trove of gifts, presumably not only for the king of Israel but also for the prophet Elisha. Second, assuming that he is expected to cure Naaman, the king of Israel thinks this foreign king is trying to pick a fight with him. And third, none of this transpires the way Naaman thought it would, that he, being a great man, arriving with his chariot and horses, would be greeted by this great prophet, who would then show forth the great power of God in this great healing. Instead he receives a message from Elisha via a messenger, another servant, to wash in the Jordan, which was like a creek compared to the great rivers of Damascus. All of these unrealistic expectations are a recipe for conflict. Naaman just wanted to be healed; now everyone is ready for a fight.

Then the voice of reason and wisdom enters in from yet another unlikely source, from Naaman’s own servant. Notice that it is the servants, those in a weak position, that bring wise counsel and the key to salvation and healing. Naaman then washes and his skin becomes like that of a young boy, reminding us of Jesus’ instruction that if we want to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like a child, like one who is willing to trust, to put one’s life into the hands of another.

In the gospel reading in Mark we have one who is precisely that: one who is willing to trust, to put his life into the hands of another. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Here is one who has been reduced in every way. Because of his leprosy, he has lost everything. He could not worship in the temple. He could not live with his family or in his village. He had to beg for everything. He had no dignity, no identity except for his disease.

Miracle 28: Leper cured, Ian Pollock, 2000
Author José P. Ramirez Jr. in his latest book Squint: My Journey with Leprosy details his own experiences. He tells a story of when he first returned home for a visit during his treatment for Hansen’s disease. He was one of thirteen children and was concerned for his family, that by sharing meals together he might communicate his disease to them. Early on his first morning home he went into the kitchen and began sorting out dishes, glasses and utensils that he would use, marking them with tape. When his mother saw what he was doing, she became angry and broke the plates, telling him never to do that again, that he was no different than his brothers and sisters.

In other translations of this story from Mark we read that when Jesus was faced with this begging leprous man, that he was not moved by pity but by anger. In Middle Eastern traditions, both pity and anger are emotions that come from the gut. Being begged in public to heal an outcast, which would also make Jesus unclean and an outcast, got Jesus in the gut. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me which emotion moved him, but that Jesus did choose to heal the man.

The verb ‘to choose’ or ‘to be willing’ in Greek is ‘thĕlō’, which means to delight in, to desire, intend, please, love. Jesus delights in healing this man, desires him to trust him. His intentions are to heal him, this man whose sin is ever before him. It pleases Jesus to heal this man who is covered in sin. It is the love of Jesus that compels him to touch this outsider, taking that social stigma upon himself.

It’s a very Jesus-y thing to do. We read countless stories of Jesus associating with sinners and outcasts, thieves and prostitutes, gluttons and drunks. Yet what if we substituted the word ‘Church’ for the characters of Naaman and the leprous man? If we believe that the Bible is still speaking fresh words of God, then what is the Spirit saying to the Church?

There was a great Church that suffered from a debilitating disease, one that covered the Body in shame. The great Church thought that the prophet, the leader, the minister would lay hands upon it, that the power of God would come down, that something great would happen. But it was the servants of the great Church, those in the weakest position, who had the wisdom for the great Church’s healing. Listening to the wisdom of the servants the great Church washed itself and became clean, like a child.

A Church with an unbearable disease, that had lost everything, came begging to Jesus and kneeling before him said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus, moved in his gut with anger and pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean.”

If we believe these stories to be true, then it is the Church that needs to be healed, both the whole community and the individuals that comprise it. We are a week and a half away from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and of our reckoning once again that we are indeed human, that we need help. I believe these readings from today’s lectionary are a way to get our hearts and minds jump started on that Lenten journey.

As much as the world needs to remove the discriminatory, hurtful word ‘leper’ from its lexicon, we the Church need to reclaim the word ‘sinner’. Sin also carries a huge stigma with it but that stigma, that shame, that fear also prevents us from asking for healing. We find it difficult to admit that we are weak, that sin has taken a hold of us, and that we have been brought low. We forget that it was for sinners not the righteous that Jesus came, freely sharing his life and his love.

One of the earliest prayers of the Church is also one of the simplest: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus did not blame those who were sick for their illness, even though sin and disease were thought to be one and the same. Instead, Jesus saw illness as an opportunity for healing, forgiveness, and restoration, rather than guilt, blame or judgment.

Jesus comes to us in our weakness and desires that we be honest and that we trust him, especially with our shame, our fear, and our sin. By healing us, Jesus invites us to be part of his ministry, reaching out to those outside the Church, taking on the social stigma of the poor, the mentally ill, those with disabilities, extending the hand of justice to those still outside the full life of the Church.

How willing are you to let yourselves and your lives be shaped and cleansed and remade so that you might be restored? What ministry of restoration does this church offer to the surrounding neighborhood and community? In what ways do you need to come clean with your past, your identity, and your expectations of what it means to be a church? What areas of church life do you have difficulty trusting with God? When have you experienced the healing hand of Jesus, freely proclaiming that good news?

Admitting we need help is the first step toward healing, both as a church and as individuals. Often it is our pride that gets in our way. We need to come clean with our sinful nature. But Jesus and his healing are waiting for us. We need only to choose to put our lives in his hands. How willing, how delighted are we to trust God?

May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quickie picture meme

I got this from Jan over at Yearning for God.

1. Grab the nearest book - no matter what it is. Textbook, novel, pop-up book, building code study guide, whatever.

2. Turn to page 25.

3. Read the 10th word on that page, or the following if that one is blank.

4. Type that word into Google Image search.

5. Post the third image.

6. Tag 4 people and tell them.

7. Link back to this post - Which I do right here.

The book was Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. The word was "covered".

I tag Suzanne, Andy, MoCat and Will.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happiness is...

One of the books I've been reading lately is The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, an NPR correspondent. He traveled to several countries, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, India, Iceland,and Bhutan, searching for the happiest places in the world.

In Bhutan they actually strive to measure a Gross National Happiness, rather than a Gross Domestic Product, like the U.S. Weiner quotes Karma Ura, director of Bhutan's think tank: "We don't believe in this Robinson Crusoe [personal] happiness. All happiness is relational." Then Weiner writes this:

"A quick quiz. What do the following events have in common? The war in Iraq. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. The rise in America's prison population. The answer: They all contribute to our nation's gross national product, or what's now referred to as gross domestic product, or GDP, and therefore all are considered 'good', at least in the dismal eyes of economists.

"GDP is simply the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. The sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally (assuming the sales price is the same). It's as if we tracked our caloric intake but cared not one whit what kind of calories we consumed. Whole grains or lard--or rat poison, for that matter. Calories are calories.

"GDP doesn't register, as Robert Kennedy put it, 'the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.' GDP measures everything, Kennedy concluded, 'except that which makes life worthwhile.' Nor does GDP take into account unpaid work, the so-called compassionate economy. An elderly person who lives in a nursing home is contributing to the GDP, while one cared for by relatives at home is not. Indeed, he may even be guilty of reducing the GDP if his caregivers are forced to take unpaid leave from work. You have to give economists credit. They have taken a vice--selfishness--and converted it into a virtue."

All happiness is relational. If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. The goal of a leader, of a community, of a church, of a marriage, of a family, is not to make everyone happy but to build relationships, connections, interdependence, the result of which can be a form of happiness. In the church we call it covenant. Those who founded our nation called it the United States Constitution, which provides for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Unfortunately, we have turned it into an individual pursuit rather than a collective one.

You know what makes me happy? Witnessing the happiness of others and being able to participate in some small way in their happiness: baptisms, births, weddings, building a house in a garbage dump, giving money away to a complete stranger, holding a hand at a hospital bedside, singing on a Sunday morning, hugging a friend, junior high kids sharing their talents with each other, cooking a meal for my in-laws, watching my daughters grow, one day seeing my husband
working in the field of his dreams.

What makes you happy?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Yes, Suzanne, it was tripe

Suze and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch in Bridgeport last week. I had been there a handful of times before, ordering the house special, Pho, a beef noodle soup. As I was introducing a friend to the place, I encouraged us both to order the Pho.

But I did not know that the ingredient pictured above was tripe, at least my conscious mind did not want to acknowledge the possibility because I had just put a piece in my mouth, chewed it up and swallowed, with a mixture of ignorance and dread.

So I took a picture of what I hoped was an Asian fungus with my cell phone, went home and Googled images of fungus and tripe. Book tripe as a matter of fact. Also called Bible tripe--how appropos, she said with much chagrin.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A Driveway Moment

Deuteronomy 18: 15-22; Mark 1: 21-28
***** **** United Church of Christ
February 1, 2009

Though there had been other economic depressions in the United States before the crash on October 24, 1929, none had been as severe or as long-lived as what would then be called the Great Depression.

Analysts thought it might have been just a correction of the market, at least that it would be no worse than the recession that occurred after World War I.

Of course we know that this did not prove out. The loss in stock market values came to an estimated $30 billion, which would be about $360 billion by today’s standards. By 1933 unemployment had climbed to 15 million. Though the whole world suffered from the depression, only Germany equaled the percent of unemployed workers in the U.S. Suicide rates rose. Despair, shame and anxiety fought with our better nature. The poor endured the worst of it. Farms were lost, homelessness increased, and funding for public education was severely reduced.

Resentment of immigrant workers increased. Mexican Americans were blamed for lack of jobs for ‘real’ Americans. Over 6,000 were deported in February, 1931.

People around the world looked to their leaders to save them from this economic disaster, in some countries setting the stage for fascism and Communism. In 1933 FDR came to the presidency while many watched, waited and hoped that through his policies, the United States could recover.

It all sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? The recession we are now experiencing is having a similar affect on the mindset of every nation, every economic system, every person who’s worried about their job, their home, their health, their future. It’s pervasive, leading us to thoughts of despair, anxiety, worry, fear, and for some of us, shame. Any one of these can be debilitating, crushing our spirits, capturing and holding our attention to the exclusion of all else. As Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff said in a recent interview, people are starved for some kind of perspective.

In this age of information we cannot escape the ‘bad news’, neither here at home nor abroad. Every morning we can turn on the TV, the radio, the computer, or unfold the newspaper and know what is going on across the country and all over the world. We hear of disaster, war, elections, economies faltering, brutality, violence, death, and the small corner reserved for good deeds, cooperation, sacrifice and valor. We may have free speech in this country, but we use it so freely that it whirls willy-nilly around us and into our minds where it reverberates in an endless tumble of anxiety. And we can become bound inside; bound by our fear not so much of what has happened or what will happen but our fear of what could happen. Our spirits become unclean and bound up, from the Greek word “akarthartos”, meaning the opposite of catharsis. To put it bluntly, we can become full of it: we allow ourselves to become overcome by “stinking thinking” as they say in 12-step groups, and our minds need to be healed.

In the gospel of Mark the people in the synagogue hear of a new teaching, some new information, that which can give release to the unclean spirit. Listen to this unclean spirit. It says “Have you come to destroy us?” Though the people of Capernaum do not instantly recognize Jesus as a prophet, the unclean spirit does. Its response to the very real presence of Jesus is one of fear, destruction, and violence. Resistance.

"Miracle 24: Man with Unclean Spirit", Ian Pollock (2000)
We’re all awfully good at giving Jesus resistance. Especially when we are in group form; you know, Church. Take for example annual meetings. Fear usually raises its head at one point or another in an annual meeting. I heard one church had on its agenda a deficit budget. One member exclaimed in so many words, “You mean you expect us to pass this budget on good faith that we will find the money sometime this year?” And another member responded, “Yes. That’s what we’re all about is faith. All we have are pledge cards. We don’t have any money in hand right now. We always pass a budget on faith: faith that people won’t lose their job or get sick or move away. Every year we have to trust that people will keep their promises.”

As a community of faith we also need to trust that God will keep the promises made in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that is, the promises of forgiveness, mercy, healing, rebirth, and love. When we hear news about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, the latest insurgent attack, about Hamas and Israelis resuming their hatred and violence at one another, about people losing their jobs, losing their homes, about the high cost of health care and prescriptions, about the drastic losses in our retirement funds, about anything that can tempt us toward despair, it can be easy for us to have our imaginations swept up by fear and dread. When our church family murmurs to itself and has difficulty imagining its future we can sometimes lose our attention from Jesus and the promises made to us. Our demons begin to hold our attention in such a way as leaves little room for the healing power of Christ.

I am an avid listener of public radio. One of the news programs, “All Things Considered”, has a phenomenon referred to as a “driveway moment”. It’s when a news feature or interview or story captures the listener in such a way that they are compelled to stay in the car in their driveway for just a few extra minutes to catch the end of the story. Jesus is giving the people in the synagogue just such a driveway moment. He is giving them new teaching, new information that is so compelling that his listeners acknowledge the authority with which he gives this new teaching, this new information. We do not hear what Jesus has said to them but we do hear only a few verses before that he proclaimed that the time is fulfilled, that God’s reign of love has come near, that those who listen and hear are to repent, to return to God and believe the good news.

This would have been quite a gripping driveway moment for the listeners of Mark. Mark is often referred to as a “wartime gospel” in that it was written during the war of revolt between Israel and the Roman occupation when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, around the year 70 CE. Jews who followed the Way of Jesus still thought of themselves at this time as Jews and would have seen the destruction of the temple as a sign of the end of the world.

Having witnessed yet another temple destroyed would call to mind the times of exile in their past and might have led them to despair. The gospel writer of Mark, through the teaching of Jesus, is giving his listeners a message more convincing, more persuasive than that of the Roman lord Caesar’s edict of utter destruction and death: the new authority of Jesus over that of the Roman Empire, the power of God over the power of evil. That authority, that power being love, is the gospel, the truth that can heal our minds, release our unclean spirits, and center our attention on Christ. When our attention is centered on Christ, we are able to accomplish far more than we can possibly imagine.

We may have convinced ourselves that it is our weakness, our powerlessness, our darkness that makes us fearful to be the Church in the world. Marianne Williamson, in her book A Return to Love, writes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In these uncertain times (but really when are they ever certain), when we aren’t thinking clearly, we do not always recognize God’s message of glory within and often it is when we look back on our lives that we then realize when God was speaking to us. As in the reading from Deuteronomy we must trust and commit to heart the words of the prophet that God has promised to us, the teaching of Jesus, that clears our minds, unbinds our spirits and sends our demons packing. We can then tap into that power that God has placed within us that the glory of God can be made manifest, be made visible, in our lives, in the Church and in the world.

Worship is our “driveway moment”. It is our time to be in community and to remember that we are a community, not a crowd. It is a time to confess our lack of attention on Christ and our need to be healed of our fearful thinking. Jesus comes to us as a people; his very real presence commands our attention and says to us: “Be not afraid. I am Lord.” The way of domination, of empire, war, death—these are not lord. The way of injustice, exclusion, strife, shame—these are not lord. The way of scarcity, poverty, slavery, disease—these are not lord. The way of fear is not lord. Jesus is Lord; his Way is love, mercy, forgiveness, peace, justice, and resurrection.

So, ***** **** UCC, in what ways do you need to be healed of fearful thinking? What are your demons of resistance? What are you full of that you need to be emptied of? How do you see yourselves as church? Where do you witness the power of God in your life together? What aspect of the good news of Jesus Christ captures your imagination and moves you to action? How can this faith community be a source of Christ’s authority of love and justice in a frightened world?

Worship is our catharsis, our creative moment to be out of time, to heal us of our “akathartos”, our unclean mind, to let go of all that binds us and to refocus our attention on Christ. So we surround ourselves with music and prayer, gather ourselves about the table, proclaiming the good news and giving praise to God, that we would remember again and again the simplest of confessions, that Jesus is Lord, not only of our lives but of our life together as a people of faith. We have been set free: to serve, to love, to be the very real presence of Christ in a fearful world. Thanks be to God. Amen.