Sunday, August 26, 2001

L'Etranger 1: "Get Well Soon"

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 13: 10-17


You are courageous people, you who have come today to hear the Word of God. You have braved the summer heat, and you have risen above the warm summer temptation to sit a little longer by the pool, or to browse a little longer through the paper. You have chosen again to place yourself within earshot, at least, of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so to give praise to Almighty God. To do so, you have sailed out between the Scyla of the sacrament alone and the Charybdis of the spirit alone. This is no small achievement. Most Christians in our region are Roman Catholic, and most new Christian churches are Anabaptist. Still, you have come here to worship in the broad tradition of the great church, fully catholic and fully reformed and fully ecumenical, and, perhaps, to wait for the Word of God, even from a mere Methodist pulpit.

Perhaps the breath of the Spirit will whisper to you this morning: "You count. You matter. You are real and really beloved. I love you. Get well soon."

Perhaps the Risen Christ this morning will whisper to you, if you are sick, and especially if you have suffered in ailment for 18 years: "Get well soon." Or maybe the voice will rise to much more of a whisper, and you will walk home, sensing, after two decades, "I am well. It is well." Get well soon.

Your courage is further to be acknowledged, because you come to listen with curiosity to the Scripture, and you reflect with respect upon the Church, and you judge honestly about life as you have experienced all of life. Curiosity about Scripture, respect for the Church, honesty about life - these are your own gifts of interpretation for the morning. You know that one requires the scholar's imagination, and the other requires the pastor's heart, and the third requires the preacher's guts. You have been given reason to trust, over generations, that somewhere the three will meet again before the noon hour strikes. So, as a loving and addressable assembly, you do not fear. You do not fear…not the strange world of the Scripture, with its spirits, angels, demons, and divinity…. Not the community of strangers that is the church, with its wheat, tares, heroes, villains, friends, opponents and its troubling capacity both to represent and to distort the divine, the church where we pretend, intend and contend to know one another, with a baseball slugger's level of success (30%)… Nor even the estrangement of your own daily life, with its betrayals, ambiguities, losses of meaning, inexplicable horrors, random hurts and just plain boredom. You fear neither God nor man. Upon the strange world of the Bible you radiate curiosity. Toward the community of strangers in church you radiate respect. Into the estrangement of experience you send a glimmer, a gleam, a glistening honesty that is to be prized far above much pious hooting. To church you dare to come. In this, I salute you. For your courageous curiosity, respect, and honesty are themselves, curiously enough, and quite honestly, to be fully respected. There is Good News awaiting behind all that is so very strange today.

For today we celebrate the mysterious presence of Christ, the Healer. He stands among us, this perennially young man, knowing our own ailments and like a feudal baron placing and unfurling his flag for battle, and announces: "Get well soon!"


In the reading of his Word and the preaching of his Gospel, Jesus discloses himself to us today, though his person, it seems, is never quite devoid of that shrouding, that misty, mystical aplomb that is never fully to be had, to be captured, to be held. He stands above us, high as a lifted pulpit. He waits above us, high upon a raised altar. He moves before us, and whether or not we are worthy to touch the hem of his garment or to gather the crumbs from his table, neither motion holds him. He comes, he speaks, he heals, he judges, and he leaves, pushing us against the wall with a question -"ought not one so ill be set free?"

Strange is the world he inhabits. I picture Luke retelling this story in a house, perhaps in Antioch. There are thirty or forty in the room, gathering to pray, to commune, and to listen. "Now he was teaching…" Did Luke find it stunning, as we do, that the worship service into which Jesus had been invited, is toppled by the appearance (the apocalypse) of a sick woman? Years ago, Lily Tomlin, opening a one woman Broadway show, had her act disrupted by an unruly street woman, who had a spirit that had crippled her for at least 18 years. The ticket buying customers in the front row had had enough and were about to throw her out, bodily. Tomlin came on stage, halted the proceedings, ushered the vagabond to center stage, and addressed the house: "Let me introduce you to…a fellow human being." We learn so much from the dreams of drama, as my own daughter has taught me and as our new Christian Educator, Jennifer Martin, with a degree in ministry and theater, will further show us.

Jesus speaks among us from atop his Lukan stage, in a voice of command. I suppose you could call it a voice of compassionate command. He notices hurt. He cares about individual ailment. He cares enough about sickness to make its healing more important than organized religion. And most dramatically of all, in a word of exorcism, he eternally launches into our life the potential for healing. As striking, for century one, as is Luke's recollection of Jesus' notice of women - of this woman and countless others in the Lukan record - more striking still is the fundamental Good News of the reading, that Jesus Christ cares to heal. We celebrate the elusive presence, the mystery of a strange healer. Nature brings healing. Time brings healing. Medicine brings healing. Prayer brings healing. There is a conspiracy of healing at work in the universe.

I cannot answer at all to my own satisfaction why some and not others. In the air my breath touches I see a friend's brother, a colleague's sibling, a sister-in-law, a youth, a close friend, none of whom apparently are going to be healed. I am angry as well as frightened as well as sad. Yet Luke the Physician must have known as many or more. But he reminds us of the main thing: there is healing, there is healing. And Jesus has shouted healing into the very core of being: "you are set free." The very tragedy of sickness, which we rightly hate and fight, takes its full outline and design as shadow from another truth: the Mysterious Lord desires healing. Its lack, its absence is the moon, but its presence the sun. How healthy it is to pause, once this week, to be greeted by the healing voice of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes, not often, in the languid long history of theology, one meets a paragraph full of courage. I remember reading St. Augustine on sickness and health. He was whistling past the graveyard, a little, it is true, but his defiance, his courage stay with me. "Why sickness wouldn't exist, if it weren't for health. In fact, sickness does not exist. It has no being. It is only a corruption of being."

He said what we feel. Sickness sickens us because we know that healing is primary, and we chafe at those unhealed hurts. No, we more than chafe. We howl, we moan, we lament, we shake our fists and curse.

More, let us say, we cannot say.


Speaking of endless contention and intractable difference, we reflect now with respect on the community of faith. Do you find it humorous (and did Luke?), to notice that the immediate response to a miraculous, physical act of healing, performed by the way, in public, upon the aisle of the synagogue no less, is - doctrinal bickering? There is a conspiracy of healing moving through the universe, and the immediate response erupts as cultural disputation. It makes us wonder how best to proceed with our common life, including our life in the church. It is the kind of thing that gives religious wrangling a bad name.

As strange us the setting in Scripture seems for the Person of Christ, the collection of strangers in the church of every age seems stranger still. What good news, for us, for you who have given your time and money and prayer and good will and forgiveness to the church, to hear again the reminder that the church is the Body of Christ, the physical expression of his life in our world. Jesus reproves his opponents. Notice. Jesus has opponents. There is conflict. There is difference of view, culminating in a short term victory for one side but a resurrectional victory for the other. Jesus connects even this woman, even this cripple, even this ritual outsider, to the main project of the community. Healing. His fight this morning is to make space in the church for those who appear and hunt for healing. I still find it funny, though, that for the community the main gift of healing is immediately forgotten in the ensuing debate about Sabbath. There is a little humor here, like that which gently mocks the despondent prophet Jonah, gloomy under the fig tree.

The Gospel which is given into the hands of the stewards of the mysteries of Christ - the Church - celebrates healing on the grand scale. There is ever a corporate consequence to the intrusion of Jesus' voice. Eighteen years is a long time. So long that sometimes we forget to celebrate when the time has changed.

Think of AIDS. Twenty years ago, AIDS was an immediate death sentence. Today much healing is possible, and much prolonged life. Because the change has come incrementally, we have not paused to praise God. Of course the scourge and the plague continue, and of course our battle against it continues. But look. Bound for 18 years, this set of children of Abraham have partial freedom. This is good news.

Think of stem cell research. Twenty years ago, most of the debate now occurring did not exist. Yet today, potential further healing, with all the potential risks to the fundamental sanctity of life, is on the move. I for one think the President handled this issue quite well. But even if he did not, the rising sun of new potential healing is waxing, not waning, in this new area. Silent for 18 years, other daughters of Abraham may find health.Luke the Physician has had spiritual siblings throughout the ages. Elizabeth Blackwell, Florence Nightengale, the Mayo Brothers, and many others. Our church today is supported by the kind and intelligent ministry and presence of many fine physicians, nurses, and other health care providers. What gifts they offer, on a daily basis, to many who have had crippled spirits for 18 years! In this community of strangers, as well as friends, the Lord Jesus Christ is present in the healing voices of the real community and order of St. Luke - the healing professions.


You though may wonder whether any of this finally touches your eighteen years of pain. The Christ of Scripture, whose Body is the Church, meets us for healing in the prisons of estrangement we know in life, when we are honest. The Gospel, if nothing else, gives us the freedom to be honest about what we experience. For once, today, let the word go forth. Your life is now within earshot of the Master Healer.

It may not seem so after 18 years of addiction. Alcohol addiction can come on slowly, insidiously over a decade or two. One night a week becomes five and two beers become ten. Spirits cripple. I mean literally. We have four AA groups in this church which begin with a recognition that one is powerless, alone, to healed. One turns to a Higher Authority. You need not suffer, endlessly bound to drink. 18 years is plenty. There are ways and there are programs and there is every possibility for healing. Get well soon.

Nor may it seem that Jesus is close when one is fighting a culture of obesity. In fact, our culture is under daily attack from diets that come at us as if we had spent every day milking at 4 am, in the hay mow for 10 hours, and milking at 4 pm. Do so, and you do need 5000 calories a day. But how many of us do so? Our kitchens, our cooking, our cuisine come from 2 generations ago. We need a new way of eating, and the church is the place to start. Nobody likes food more than I do. I like only two kinds of pie (hot and cold) and only two kinds of ice cream (vanilla and non-vanilla). But as a people we are drowning in a sea of fat. High blood pressure, diabetes, hardened arteries, heart disease - all traceable back to the kitchens, cooking, cuisine of our culture. We eat like farmers. Once we were farmers. No longer. 18 years is a long time, but things can change even after decades. There are ways and there are programs and there is every possibility for healing. Get well soon.

Nor may it seem like Jesus knows the spirit that cripples you in the soul, the dark depression that takes life. We lost a boy in Brighton this week. How I wish we as a people were more versed and more sensitive regarding depression. Like the spirit that crippled for 18 years, it is a powerful enemy. It would not be Sunday, at least on this green earth, if someone were not wrestling again and mightily with depression. It is healthy just to name our ailment, our malady. Even if healing does not come immediately, naming and recognition and honesty help. It may seem that the church with all its celebration and hymnody and affirmation of faith does not get it. Today's Gospel does. 18 years is a long time, but things can change even after decades. Jesus sees you, crippled underneath an ailing spirit. He speaks. He speaks in order to free you, at the very least by announcing the irremediable presence of the potential for healing. There are ways and there are programs. Get well soon.


Here is Good News, a reason for affirmation and celebration! The Lord Jesus Christ meets us mysteriously out the strange world of the Bible, in the midst of the community of strangers in the church, and right in the heart of our existential estrangement. Our Lord is a Healer, the Healer in whom we trust. And his healing has a further purpose, as Luke, the Physician, would want remembered. You are set free to set others free. You are healed to become a healer. You are blessed to a blessing. So get well soon. I mean: get well… Soon! We've got work to do.

Sunday, August 05, 2001

Have a Good Summer

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Hosea 11, Psalm 107", Colossians 3, Luke 18


"Have a good summer!" Has someone said this to you recently? Or, something similar? "Are you having a good summer?" "How's the summer?" "What a great summer!"

For soon to become obvious, selfish, homiletical reasons, I listened, yesterday, all day, through a beautiful Trustees' picnic meeting and luncheon on Keuka Lake, and through a wonderful Stewardship Committee dinner and pool party, for this question, or its variants. Nine hits. Listen and count, tomorrow: "Have a good summer."

It is such a simple phrase, but to the needy, reflective ear, it raises a mortal question, a singular and, perhaps shattering, perhaps justifying question: What is a good summer?

Before addressing this question, I digress to offer a story*. You perhaps know it. Or perhaps you have told it. A farmer had an odd habit of feeding his only pig in a distinctive way. He would hold the pig in his arms, and carry him under an apple tree. There the pig would happily eat his fill as the farmer, arms aching, waited. At last a neighbor asked: "John, that is one way to feed a pig, but, in addition to straining your back and arms, it must take a whole lot of time. Aren't you worried about that lost time?" "Oh", said the farmer, "Of course you are right, it is a lot of time, but, then…what's time to a pig?"

It is a warning to those of us, like me, who raise such questions, and those of us, like you, who chew on them. A mortal question, to be understood, and a saving truth, to be told, depend on hearing. Faith, that is, comes by right hearing, and such hearing by the word of God.

Thus the simple sentence, "Have a good summer," is, like much in life, a very thin ordinary veneer covering a deep, existential interrogative: just what is a good summer? What constitutes a good, a godly summer? Perhaps with your help, and under the shadow of the Holy Scripture, which towers over our experience like a steeple towers over our communion today, we can respond by raising other questions. One good question deserves another.

1. Interruption

Has your summer allowed an interruption? Of what? Of routine, of the usual of set patterns, of your own plotting and planning, of comfort, of discomfort, of what has been. Has summer provided a pause?

The parable of the Rich Fool, read today, is a warning word from Jesus for the followers of Jesus. "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

Wait, stop, think, heal write.

A Hindu proverb says: During its lifetime, the lordly goose looks down upon the humble mushroom. But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter.

Life is meant to become a rich offering toward God, not a laying up of treasure on earth where moth and rust consume, and thieves break in and steal. And speaking of thieves breaking in, please allow this brief digressive interruption. After all, it is summer…

It reminds us of the ostensibly humorous story of the burglar, speaking of greed and covetousness, who slipped with his flashlight into a dark suburban home. He took jewelry and cash. Then in the dark he heard a voice: "Jesus is watching. I'm warning you." The burglar trembled, wondering who had spoken. Turning on the light, he saw a parrot in a cage, who said, "My name is Moses, and I warn you, Jesus is watching." Relieved, for the moment, the burglar smiled and said, "What kind of silly suburban people name their parrot Moses?" The parrot replied, "The same kind of silly people who name their longtoothed, ferocious dog, Jesus. I warned you, Jesus is watching."

Life is more than security. The best things about life are free. Travel light.

2. Inflammation

Has your summer involved some inflammation? Has the season brought spirit to a fever pitch? Is there around now any love on fire? The mid-west is scorching hot. Mt. Aetna in Sicily is flowing with lava. And in your heart? Where is the fire? What is it that you love so much that it makes you…now nostalgic, now tender, now torrid, now angry, now remorseful, now hot, now vengeful, now envious, now determined, now happy?

The Bible readers among us are right to suspect that Hosea 11, another of today's readings, smolders here. Listen to this loveliest of passages again: "When Israel was a child I loved him…"

I am not talking about passion only, eros only, the body only, feeling only. Though I mean all that. I mean, rather, something beyond mere 'sloppy agape'. I mean the heart. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Julia Kristeva, French philosopher, who recently, and categorically and stridently rejected the 'political correctness' once labeled as her offspring, said this summer that there are "three great things in life: to think, to heal, and to write." A Schweitzer would have agreed, and said, "There are three great instruments—the Bible, the pipe organ, and the stethescope." I say: find a way, your way, every day, to preach and to sing and to love.

Somewhere in every life there is a hot, scorched, midwestern summer. Remember it. Somewhere in every life there is a potent lava flow, about to burst, bursting, having burst. Seek it. Somewhere in every life there is the love of Hosea 11, God like a mother holding an infant to the cheek. Recover it.

Has your summer involved some inflamation?

3. Institution

Has your summer included the care and feeding of an institution? Yes, I could have used another word like 'incarnation', more theological and perhaps more accurate. But then we all would have gone home unclear, unconflicted, unconfronted, and unhelped. Operational incarnation means insitution. Life does not give ground before individuals apart from institutions. Transformation, lasting good change, in history, happens not through individuals only, nor through movements only. Real traction in history involves institutions. Like corporations, governments, businesses, schools, parties, associations, cities, and, yes, churches. In this, as in most things, the radicals have it wrong. A movement is not superior to an institution. A movement is an institution that has not grown up.

Today's Psalm the 107th, recites the tradition of deliverance, liberation, rescue, redemption, that is your birthright…"Until they reached a city in which to dwell." The Lord has redeemed us from trouble.

Marguerite Brown, whom we buried this week, knew this. Hers is a story of a woman who made space for a very worthy institution, Asbury First UMC.

Has your summer involved an institution?


Has this summer brought inspiration? Something? Something fine and true? Something sensual? Something grand and loving? I truly hope so. "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." This very night one's soul may be required.

The last lesson, today's epistle, Colossians 3 ( I commend to you this wonderful chapter) tells us to "set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth."" Rid your life of immorality and lying, so that Christ, your lips, Christ, your reward, Christ, your glory, Christ, your new person, Christ, your Lord may truly be revealed in and through you.

I saw an eagle soaring over our lake last Tuesday. Barth, I recalled, said that "the gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight". And I remembered the proverb: "Three things are too wonderful for me, and four I cannot understand. The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a ship upon the high sea, the way of a serpent on a rock, and the way of a man with a woman."

Has the summer brought inspiration?


Have a good summer
A summer that allows interruption
A summer that involves inflammation
A summer that includes an institution
A summer that brings some inspiration

(And, as you probably suspect that the sermon more deeply intends, in the same ways, have a good life).