Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Prescription for Spiritual Health

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 2:1-12


The reading of the Scripture places us naked before God. In these few minutes, as Christ walks among us in the Word, we are naked as at birth and naked as at death. It is tempting to read this passage as advice for improved healing, as church growth imperatives, as technical exploration of paralysis, or as support for our own—preconstructed—politics or theology. Rather. Sursum Corda. This is good news. Jesus here is teaching us how to die, by teaching us how to live, and by giving us a prescription for spiritual health. The Gospels open where the rest of life falls silent.

At our golf tournament, I faced a 30 foot putt. “I might do this. It is possible.” To which my friend replied, “I guess it is possible. But it will never happen.” May one find friendship, forgiveness and faith apart from the God of these three graces? May one find such apart from the Lord Christ Jesus, friendship, forgiveness and faith incarnate? I guess it is possible. But today, let us turn over our hearts to Him.


Our paralytic, the embodiment of human mortality, lies prone and silent, outside the community of faith. We notice that it is the devotion of his four friends that brings him to health. They shoulder him up to the roof and lower him down to the feet of the Master.

Before we die, we crave friendship. We need the tutelage that real friendship alone brings.

We are glad to preach about salvation in large moments. In church…by revelation…in emotion…at a moment. Good. Yet salvation comes in small doses, daily, if it comes at all. If we are so tuned to the glory of Easter morning that we miss every winter day grace, we have missed saving experience. One of the real forms of damage done to life by fundamentalist Christianity has been to let large salvation eclipse small salvation. If you are not being saved, and grown, and healed from paralysis every day, to some measure, then what is salvation? The rhythms of friendship, daily and demanding, are forming your soul right now. Before you die, you want to master some measure of friendship. Friendship, like grace, is really a gift. One of life’s best, by the way.

Friendship also makes demands. These four men were out for a walk, saw their chum and a chance for healing, and acted. His healing depended upon his friendship. Why are we so clumsy and parsimonious in our friendships? What else is there to take with you across the river? A bank statement? An annual review? A Ph.D.? Please.

Much of life misses the living soul. It could be that this judgment is mistaken, but the age of technology appears to have muffled the music of friendship. Friendship is mainly conversation. Eased by activity. Fueled by meals. Inspired by birth. Toughened by death. Still, mainly forms of conversation.

Your boss probably will not push you to be a friend. Your family too has its own cloying needs. Your upbringing may or may not have apprised you of the treasure of friendship.

Friendship requires oceans of time. It requires the serious, abject waste of time. It admits no necessary rhyme or reason in its billing systems for time. Nothing about friendship will ever be convenient. There is no good time for it. You will always have something better, more lucrative, to do.

Until the day comes when you need somebody to carry your own body.

As pastors, we hope for your friendship among one another, because we know that in the intimacy of friendship, the soul is healed. Who else will tell you the honest truth? Who else? The friend, the real friend, tells the truth, shames the devil, and risks the friendship for the sake of the friend.

As a congregation, you exude friendship. Eight years ago the Partnership Class, on retreat at Watson Homestead, enacted Plaza Suite. It was full a moment of mirth as ever we have known. Real. Live. Friendship. Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell…This Friday, in our own neighborhood, one AFUMC couple hosted 12 others and children for a Friday fellowship moment. Real. Live. Friendship.

Yet, life is not full of real friendship. In the eighties, four couples became friends in the life of a growing church. Think Reagan, thirty something, trivial pursuit. Over some years, and monthly dinners, the bonds strengthened, particularly for two of the women. Then one of those couples moved, and the searing pain of loss, the departure of one true friend, was palpable. For a while, the pastor lightly said, ‘you will have another friend’. But that was not true. Not to be true, in this case. This had been a lifetime friendship, one that made all others pale. Later, the pastor found this paragraph, and found it helpful:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone, whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first; but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. So like Bonhoeffer.

Before you die, do you want to make some allowance for the rigors of friendship? Some friendships can take four decades to grow. The best time to plant that seed is 40 years ago. The second best is today. It is not too late.

It is not accidental that the church remembered this story (ah, the alto voice of church). It is a beautiful tale. Especially this cameo appearance of four friends. We love it because we know it. Our friends get us through. One real friend in a whole lifetime is a lot. You may not have that fully, or more than that.

Martin Buber taught us, as we had inclination to listen, about friendship. It is a matter of I and Thou, said he. Of relating from heart to heart, soul to soul. How would man exist if God did not need him, and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that is the meaning of your life. A true relationship, with God or with our friend, is one in which the other is met and addressed, I to Thou. For us, this means, in friendship, to be human in a Christian way, and to be Christian in a human way.

Every sermon is a doorway to friendship, in that sense.

Before you die, be a friend. Whether or not you have a friend, you still can be one.


Our paralytic, the embodiment of human mortality, waits for healing under the rain clouds of theological debate.

Friendship depends on the capacity to forgive. There comes a moment in most friendship, when a future of any kind requires forgiveness.

We put it to you, too. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul? Which? The wounds of the flesh do often give way to some steady healing. Not always. Yet even antiquity knew the power of healing. (ah, the soprano voice of history). And thou? The soul? It is a hard question, a devilish one. Matthew, a darker gospel, says not ‘why do you question’ but, ‘why do you think evil’ (ah, the baritone voice of tradition).

Did you ever see Citizen Kane? The depiction of a life, a grand life, rippling for eight decades around the cavernous hurt of childhood. Rosebud. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul?

Gabriel Vahanian, a strange man, when interviewed in his office by a graduate student 20 years ago, opined, all human activity is a cry for forgiveness.

We can speak pretty fast about forgiveness. But the real thing, the shoreline of the real thing, hovers into view when you are completely sure that there is no way to attain it. The thing about friendship that leads straight to forgiveness is that friendship means disappointment. When you love, you hope. No human is able to bear full hope, because we are so human. We fail. You know that and expect it, except for with your friends. So, when betrayal, real or perceived, occurs, the loss is great. If your best friend is your spouse and there is infidelity, you know both the need and the impossibility of forgiveness. If your best friend is your neighbor, and there is gossip…If your best friend is your work partner, and there is phony accounting…If your best friend is your colleague, and there is disloyalty…If your best friend is your subordinate and there is betrayal…We can speak pretty fast about forgiveness. But the real thing, the enormity of the real thing, hovers into view only when, on our own, we probably could not manage it.

Who has power to forgive? Does the ‘son of man’ here mean Jesus, or every man? Or some combination? As one man among many, Jesus has and shows the power to forgive? Grace to receive forgiveness and the glory of sharing what we receive? The early church has placed this matter of forgiveness here because the church wanted and needed to trace back to Jesus its own power to forgive (Bultmann). (ah, alto again). Every community, every church, soon finds the need of forgiveness, a grace that cannot be engineered, for it is not of human origin. To forgive is divine. We have to await its arrival, pray its blessing, hope for its timely intervention.

Ancient Palestine understood sin and sickness to be related as cause to effect (soprano again). We do not believe this today. Even in the New Testament, there is movement away from this older understanding, as in Luke 13, and the Tower of Siloam (baritone of tradition, yes).

As the globe sails into the 21st century, speaking now as an aged near dinosaur of someone whose parishioners began to be assailed by sermons 30 years ago, the profound need for the Forgiving Jesus appears devastatingly paramount. Neither Judaism nor Islam nor Marxism carries the full panorama of forgiveness that the future, in a nuclear age, will require. If we mount up with strength to defend as crusaders the details of our holiness traditions, and will brook no breach of them, our world future is dark indeed. Crusades do not work. ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. There is no reconciliation without the shedding of blood. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul?

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who best expressed the historical, political anatomy of forgiveness. Leave it to the Lutherans to do so, so well. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict? Niebuhr, unlike other so-called realists, did not stop there. He did see a way forward. It is the way of forgiveness, on a grand scale. One can mitigate the cruelties of conflict. One can remember Garrison, and Ghandi. One can recognize that the evil in the foe is also in the self. One can give up the privileged status of victim. One can avoid claims of spiritual superiority. One can work daily to develop a spiritual discipline against resentment. You hear it in Lincoln. You hear it in King. You hear it, every so often, in some unlikely world leader. I heard it on TV last month in the new president of Chile. Michele Bachelete. As a young woman she had been assaulted and tortured. She is a physician. She spoke about healing of body and soul. The way is still there, somewhere out near the truth and the life: Bachelet is a pediatrician by profession. She was, along with her mother, a political prisoner, arrested and tortured during Pinochet's rule. Her father, an air force general, died in prison after being tortured: "You know I have not had an easy life, but then who has? Violence destroyed what I loved. Because I was the victim of hate, I have consecrated my life to converting that hate into understanding, into tolerance, and why not say it, love."

Before you die, feel forgiveness. Even if you feel it by virtue of its absence, a great homesickness for a land of love, still, feel it. And if you are so blessed, offer it.


At last our paralytic is to be healed. The number of sturdy three point sermons preached on this verse would be enough to refill a vacated divinity school library. Rise. Get moving. Take up your pallet. Carry along a memory of your poverty. Walk. Take a step into the unknown.

There is the old issue of whether the call out of sin should be a shout to Wake Up, with say C S Lewis, or to Grow Up, with say Sigmund Freud. Some of us do need to wake up from stupor, and some need to grow up out of naivete. Either may suffice to get you moving. Or both.

It is striking that we spend so little time making our faith lives more joyfully creative. When it comes to rising, and pallet carrying and walking, we scratch the surface. We nurse old grief like dogs with our teeth into pant legs. We peddle old elixirs like some prairie chemist or another. We treat our worship life like a trip to Wegmans. We listen to the Scripture for what we want and expect to hear. To the sermon, we listen with one ear.

Yet with what shall we come before God? How shall we approach our final rest in the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being that is God? (Tillich). How? With our bank accounts and annual reviews and advanced degrees? Please.

We are naked in these 22 minutes.

As friendship forces the need for forgiveness, so forgiveness forces the need for faith. Is this what the writer, Mark, had in mind? (ah, the tenor voice of the evangelist) To trace the delicate interplay, in the life of the soul, between friendship and forgiveness and faith? To show that our daily development of health, salvation, needs all three? To implore you to turn off the TV and rise, take, walk? Truly, I tell you, if the creative imagination of this congregation were fully ambulatory, fully alive, there would be a spiritual blaze across this county.

Paul Tillich called faith the courage to be. It is sad that as Buber is still unsurpassed regarding friendship, and Niebuhr unsurpassed in forgiveness, so Tillich still is unsurpassed, forty years later, in the reflective expression of faith. Where has the theological imagination of the church gone? Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness …Sometimes in that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted’. You know the theological imagination of the fifties and sixties may well be compared, centuries from now, to the explosive power of the fourth and fifth centuries. They were watershed years, from New York to Tubingen to Vatican II. The next forty years, have been like those in the wilderness of old. Where has our imagination gone? There have been wonderful strides in biblical studies, in ethics, in world religion. What has happened to the queen of the sciences, theology herself? Silent as a tomb since 1965. (Yes, there are a few exceptions, in Boston and Montreal and New York). No wonder our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise. No wonder our globe suffocates under the tsunami of a pervasive fear. In those years, as Tillich so frustratingly repeated, the call of faith was to stay open, remain open, be open!

When I list those teachers (present company and family omitted for now) from whom I learned faith, I realize they have almost nothing in common. They shared a methodistic love of strong preaching, beautiful music, and a tasty casserole, to be sure. But otherwise, they were unique, idiosyncratic, idiopathic, sui generis. With this exception: without exception they were open to the future…

Lloyd Easton, Ruth Davies, Bernie Murchland—open
Ann Ulanov, Lou Martyn, Chris Morse, Ray Brown—open.
Philip Potter, George Todd, Paolo Freire, Emilio Castro—open
Al Childs, Dee Wade, Mark Baker, Gordon Knapp—open
Doug Hall, Tom Wright, Fred Wisse, Donna Runnals—open
Nancy Ring, Jim Wiggins, Violet Fisher--open

The complaint is that the 1950’s and early 1960’s were too open. Vatican II is still being reformed in Catholicism. Tillich is still being calvinized in Protestantism. Forty years later. What about this? What if the opposite is true? That we have not been open enough! That we let the trail they had cut go cold, as we went back to Egypt. Theologically, we have been part of a back to Egypt committee. There is always a ‘back to Egypt committee’. Were there no graves in the land of Egypt, that you brought us out here to die…Faith is personal trust in an unverifiable truth and an unforeseen future. A walk in the dark. In a word, the courage to be.

These are three forceful Greek verbs—rise, take, walk Two in the present with a sense of continuous activity (rise, walk). One in the jarring aorist of immediacy (take). Yet, all notably open, even vague. Rise—how? Take—why? Walk—where?

It’s up to you. When I truly think of how authentically different from one another my own pantheon of faith teachers has been, I must conclude that God loves difference. In Spain, we played a game, si fuera. One secretly chooses a person known to the group, and others try to guess his name by asking ‘if he were a….what would he be?’

If faith were a feeling, it would be homesickness.
If faith were a food, it would be broccoli.
If faith were a year, it would be the year of your birth.
If faith were an adjective, it would be long suffering.
If faith were a group, it would be the church
If faith were incarnate, it would be Jesus.
If faith were an attitude, it would be COURAGE.
If faith had a face….it would be yours.
If faith were a person…it would be you.

Tillich memorably wrote, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself.”

Before you die, consider the courage to be. This is faith.


I and Thou. Discipline against Resentment. The courage to be.

Nothing worth having ever came easy. Friendship that is worth having will involve the duress of entering a relationship, I to Thou. Forgiveness that is the real thing will involve the spiritual discipline against resentment. Faith that is death sturdy will mean the hardship of courage. They all came, by this gospel, to a paralytic, who in Christ Jesus found himself basking in the sunlight of spiritual opportunity. And Thou? Said Dr. King, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity”. Let your light shine! Sing in the way you live every day…

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine
Let it shine
Let it shine

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Cleansing Power of a Healing Touch

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 1:40-45

The passages in the Gospels, like our hymns, have four parts. A soprano voice of history. An alto voice, least understood and most potent, of the early church. A tenor voice, of author. A baritone of tradition. What did Jesus do? Why did this matter to the church? How does the writer understand this? What did others make of his work?

1. Soprano: History

Our sister soprano is quiet this week. Other than fitting the general acceptance that Jesus healed, our verses tell us little history. We know not our leper’s name, nor his waist or shirt size, nor his family, nor his medical history, nor his age, nor his condition. We might say something though about being sick, or hurt. There are two maladies in leprosy, as in most illness. One is physical. The other is relational. One is the crusting of the skin, the closing of the eyes, and the debilitation of the body. The other is the isolation, self-imposed or cultural, that attends illness. When we hurt we hide. When we hurt we hide. The lepers lived in caves. For Jesus to have touched one who was so ritually unclean would have been a catastrophic affront to the holiness of the law.

Our colleague David Lubba remembers visiting a leprosarium in the Philippians. The odor, the deformities, the limbs and fingers missing, the pain. And the separation. Here are his words of memory: dark, quiet, enclosed, separated, isolated, searching eyes, furtive glances, lonely, hopelessness, outside, unpleasant odor, disfigurement.

Leprosy meant a wide range of things to both the Hebrews and the Greeks. A skin disease, with the appearance of rough, scaly patches. Psoriasis all the way to true leprosy in our modern sense. Josephus reports, and attacks, the rumor that the Israelites under Moses were expelled from Egypt because they were leprous, and prone to the disease. Caused by infection by a fungus…lumps in the skin, changes in nose and throat, blisters, perforating ulcers, may last 30 years. Namaan, Miriam, even Moses had versions of this malady. Serious leprosy meant banishment from human society.

2. Alto: Church

In the tradition of the prophets before him, Jesus was known as a healer. The alto line tells us two things. Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, and healing erases isolation.

The stylized memory read today of his healing of the unnamed leper places him by more than coincidence in the tradition of Elijah who did the same for Namaan. The prophets healed, and so did Jesus. Hence, Jesus qualifies as a prophet. Israelite? Male? Willing to itinerate? Strong Voice? Hear the Voice? Healed a leper?

Other than shock and awe, we have no ready response to questions about what actually happened. By now, you also will have seen people get well who were already buried, in someone’s mind. You have watched some who appeared on the edge of eternity return to full life and season tickets at the symphony. You have seen your own children spared mortal harm, by no explicable reason. But you also have seen negative miracles. Young people seized and taken, death coming without reason or warning, like a thief in the night. You have seen cures become partial and impermanent. You have had to sit in the circle of those who hear silence in response to pleading prayer.

With the early church, we have no doubt that faith helps and prayer heals. We have nothing but confidence that God loves and desires healing. We particularly trust Jesus, who on the long path to the cross healed many, including a leper. We just do not really understand how some, why others, how here, why there. On a cold night at, 3 A. M. such pondering can bring pain.

One part of this pain is personal, or even physical. It is what you feel. Feelings matter. They matter a great deal in healing. The other part is relational. You are yourself and your circumstances. Your identity is both personal and communal. Europe, older and wiser, knows this better than America, younger and freer.

What makes historical or metaphorical leprosy so fearsome is the separation, the quarantine, the exclusion from regular life. Touching the leper is a sign of Jesus’ increasing willingness to step outside his tradition, to trump holiness with compassion. For gentiles, unclean by definition, ritually excluded from the holy people, the reach and touch mean, as they did last week, inclusion, acceptance, and new life.

3. Tenor: Author

Again, our author has pictured Jesus quieting any report of his power, or his messianic identity. Mark wants to keep his audience in some suspense as the account of Jesus’ ministry unfolds. As Dr. Weeden has remarked:

Mark is an oral text. He creates it to be read and heard orally. It is a performance text, oral and theological and literary. The secret within the story is withheld from everyone up through chapter 8. Until then only the supernatural beings know him, as God knows him at baptism. Those who are let in, do hear it. The secret is let out by the demons. The hearer wants to know why the silence, and why the disciples don’t get it.

Mark is a parable. In a parable, you get the parabolic jolt where a new world view intersects the first (Caesarea Philippi). Here his identity is unmistakably presented. Mark builds the tempo to a climax, but until the climax, Jesus is only a miracle worker. Even at Mark 8, he tells them to be quiet. There he identifies himself as the suffering servant. From this point on, the disciples understand and the story moves to the passion, though the disciples still prefer triumphal discipleship. Jesus does play the role of the Greco-Roman hero, but not as a power oriented figure. He is a self-giving servant. Jesus disowns the powerful saying, the first will be last. In this gospel, the men always fail; the women and children always succeed. Notice the women at the cross, the burial, the empty tomb. And at other places. The secret essentially ceases after Caesarea Philippi.

The first eight chapters present Jesus as a triumphalist being, power oriented, a lion as in Narnia, not suffering or self giving. Yet here is the theme of the gospel: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; he who gains his life will lose it, and those who lose their lives shall save it. Shall we conquer evil by defeating it or transforming it?

Likewise, Robert Neville has recently written: In a nation that puts economic greed before justice, the enforcement of alleged national interest through military invasion before peace, the manipulation of information to support ideologies before the uncovering of truth, and self-deluded self-righteousness before love of enemies, a desperate people calls out for prophetic preaching.

4. Bass: Tradition

The healed man’s disobedience is a typical folk motif: the one thing you must do. Bluebeard: do not go behind that door. Hansel and Gretel: go to any house but one. Genesis: you may eat any fruit, any at all, but one. So, do not do this. He does it. Do not tell. He tells.

Matthew and Luke have a more reverential view of Jesus. They come later. They omit Jesus’ attitude, feeling, indignation or anger (which we may take as evidence of its historicity), and which an earlier editor of Mark in one text had also done. Jesus indignant? Let’s say ‘moved with pity’. And they omit the leper’s disobedience (which is disrespectful of Jesus, and implies Jesus’ powerlessness). Yet with Mark they would affirm a view of God like that rendered by Hans Jonas:

Bound up with the concepts of a suffering and a becoming God is that of a caring God—a God not remote and detached and self-contained but involved with what he cares for. Whatever the primordial condition of the Godhead, he ceased to be self-contained once he let himself in for the existence of a world by creating such or world or letting it come to be…God is not a sorcerer who in the act of caring also provides the fulfillment of his concern: he has left something for other agents to do and thereby has made his care dependent on them. He is therefore also an endangered God, a God who runs a risk. Clearly that must be so, or else the world would be in a condition of permanent perfection. The fact that it is not bespeaks one of two things: that either the one God does not exist (though more than one may), or that the one has given to an agency other than himself, though created by him, a power and a right to act on its own and therewith a scope for at least codetermining that which is a concern of his…Somehow he has, by an act of either inscrutable wisdom or love or whatever else the divine motive may have been, foregone the guaranteeing of his self-satisfaction by his own power, after he has first, by the act of creation itself, forgone being ‘all in all’…This is not an omnipotent God.

5. Applications to our Life

Our quartet has assembled. Each voice has warmed up. Now they are ready to sing. What is their melody? Their message applied to you? How do we translate this tradition into insights for effective living?

The meaning of this passage, for our life, lies in the cleansing power of a healing touch. Estrangement from life and others, spiritual separation, is an infection and illness that most of us have experienced. When someone else names our hurt and wills our wellness, we feel it. The church is that healing touch, in voice and presence. Three examples.

A. When we hurt we hide. You can hide for decades if the hurt is hard enough. When your full being is rejected, laid off, when life has become a harsh winter, you can find yourself in years of hibernation. You may isolate yourself more than others ever intended. Yet they too, supporting as they do a culture of competition not compassion, have indirectly helped to exclude. The sense of bitterness, when it is well cooked, and has hardened into a kind of granite fury, can take your life, your health, and your soul. They reject you, you reject them. They exclude you, you exclude them. Roll the stone across the front of the cave. Let the hibernation begin.

In thirty years in upstate New York we have known many men who have lost their jobs. Unemployment is not leprosy. But it hurts. In our culture, though the balances here are quickly changing (2/3 of divorces for couples over 40 are initiated by women), men still find much identity, and health, in work. When you take that away, you bring pain. Real hurt. Your place on the map is removed, along with your office. Your sense of worth is removed, along with your parking place. Your well being, your health, are attenuated, along with your title.

In New Hope, a farmer going under. In Ithaca, a chemist denied tenure. In the North Country, a factory worker terminated. In Syracuse, an engineer laid off. In Rochester, a secretary let go.

Rev., you need to help me. I was laid off three weeks ago but I haven’t told my wife. I get up and make my lunch and drive off. I spend the day drinking coffee at the mall. Then I go home for supper with her and the kids. Will you come with me to tell her? I am so hurt, and so worried. What will we do?

We do not have any reason to treat one another this way. People should not have to spend their earthly lives wondering if they will have a way to feed their kids, and fearing the next round of cuts. It is demeaning, and it is bad business. We are wasting talent, energy, creativity, and good will with every pink slip. One day, we will wake up and learn to take care of one another. Yes, the holiness of responsibility is crucial. No, that holiness is not more important than compassion.

We are people whom Jesus has touched, somehow. Or we would not be here. We know that no matter what company name adorns our paycheck, or whether there is a regular paycheck, a warm hand has touched our estrangement. You may not need to hear this today. You may be gainfully involved in life. But a day may come when you will need to recall the commanding response of the Lord Jesus Christ, “I will. Be healed.” You may need to recall the touch. God loves you right through, whether you are Donald Trump or his latest victim. More, you are part of a community that dimly remembers together the sense of exclusion epitomized by leprosy. On pink slip morning, behold the cleansing power of a healing touch: You matter, you count, you are beloved, accepted, included. Remember Lincoln, serially defeated, who said, “I feel somehow like the boy in Kentucky who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and too badly hurt to laugh”.

I can’t go back there. I failed. I can’t go in there. I am sick. I will not know how to act, or what to say. So much has changed. They will pity me. They will turn away from me. I will stay home.

This is a pain that is deeper than words. It resides in the gut. Today the Scripture and its interpretation bring healing by naming and caring.

B. Isolation and exclusion framed the prophetic outburst of Betty Friedan in 1963. It is hard to think of a time when women, generally, were not found in medicine, in the ministry, in public leadership, in positions of authority and power. And there still are several leagues to go for us all. She found that a survey of Smith graduates revealed great ranges of real unhappiness in post-war women. One Nebraskan woman with a Ph.D. in anthropology wrote:

A film made of any typical morning in my house would look like an old Marx Brothers comedy. I wash the dishes, rush the older children off to school, dash out in the yard to cultivate the chrysanthemums, run back in to make a phone call about a committee meeting, help the youngest child build a blockhouse, spend fifteen minutes skimming the newspapers so I can be well informed, then scamper down to the washing machines where my thrice-weekly laundry includes enough clothes to keep a primitive village going for an entire year. By noon I’m ready for a padded cell. Very little of what I have done has been really necessary or important. Outside pressures lash me through the day. Yet I look upon myself as one of the more relaxed housewives in the neighborhood.

This nameless, aching dissatisfaction Friedan called ‘the problem that has no name’. Out of her book (The Feminine Mystique) came the women’s movement. In naming the pain, she opened a window of hope. She expanded the circle of freedom. Lincoln said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”

Said St. Augustine, “Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage.” Wrote Emily Dickinson, “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in your soul and sings the tunes without words and never stops at all.”

This is a pain that is deeper than words. It resides in the gut. Today the Scripture and its interpretation bring healing by naming and caring.

C. Isolation breeds exclusion. We grant, fully and happily, the great powers and wonders of the internet. E-mail has helped us communicate better, more quickly, more easily, in one sense. But in the shadows of a word about leprosy, about isolation, we may note a darker reality. We are living in e-hell. E-mail is international, indelible, immediate, irretrievable and inhumane. It is aerial bombardment. It is hit and run driving. It is the thief in the night made into the director of communications. There is a darkness, now, over the world and its handmaiden is e-mail. You may trace, in the experience of this church over a decade, a dozen communal experiences that have been worsened by this medium. E-mail has no body, no touch, no voice, no heart. Be careful. Computers need to have not only reply keys, but do not reply, not only reply all but reply to no one, not only forward but backward, not only send, but return to sender. Return to sender. Address unknown. No such number. No such home. By this Gospel, it is touch, healing touch, humanity at its most fleshly, that brings healing. E-mail may gather a meeting, but it is no way to treat a friend.

The Dutch editor who set off a religious blaze by printing funny but disrespectful images said he would not have done it if he had known the consequences. He acted within a holy tradition we readily affirm, that of freedom of expression, yet in a way that revealed again the distance of that tradition from the holiness tradition of Islam. Ortega said: ‘rancor is an outpouring of a feeling of inferiority.’ Sounds timely. The editor had a right to do what he did, and on another day we might extol that right in another sermon. Today, though, watch his finger, as he decides. He recognized that we have freedom of speech, but not without limits. He was reciting Paul’s warning, ‘all things are lawful but not all things are helpful’. Yet what was staggering was his next confession: “as my finger paused over the reply key, I wondered whether I should give permission to print this material”.

What if the medium of his crucial communication had not been email but the delays of snail mail? Would a cooler mind have prevailed? What if the medium were not email but the telephone, where there is interaction? Would a more sober voice have had a hearing? What if the medium were not email but that most rare of communications, an actual conversation? Would the more excellent way have appeared?

We need to be careful about what habits of being we take on ourselves. Religiously, today, we recall this moment when Jesus moves another step away from holiness and toward compassion. The holiness traditions within Islam and Judaism and Christianity have their place. They have their importance. Yet they are not the fullest expression of God, nor the very best we humans can become. In all of world religion, truly, there is no finer Healer of the rigidities of religions than Jesus who stands ready, should this old world accept Him, to heal our holiness with his cleansing compassion. Once in while, you hear a voice like his, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” (Lincoln)

This is a pain that is deeper than words. It resides in the gut. Today the Scripture and its interpretation bring healing by naming and caring.

6. Coda

Jesus meets us today at the intersection upon the road of life marked by holiness and compassion. He turns down the road to compassion, and invites us to come along. Where holiness would not have touched, compassion has touched and cleansed. May we drive with holiness in the backseat and compassion in the front. There but for the grace of God…

"Twas battered and scared, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
"Who'll start bidding for me?
A dollar, a dollar - now who"ll make it two
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?
"Three dollars once, three dollars twice,
Going for three". . . but no!
From the room far back a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet,
As sweet as an angel sings.
The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bidden for the old violin?"
And he held it up with the bow;
"A thousand dollars - and who'll make it two?
Two thousand - and who'll make it three?
Three thousand once, three thousand twice
And going - and gone," said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,
"We do not quite understand -
What changed its worth?" The man replied:
"The touch of the masters hand."
And any a man with life out of tune,
And battered and torn with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd.
Much like the old violin.
A "mess of pottage," a glass of wine,
A game and he travels on,
He's going once, and going twice -
He's going - and almost gone!
But the MASTER comes, and the foolish crowd,
Never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul, and the change that's wrought
By the touch of the MASTER'S hand.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Morning Prayer

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 1:29-39
Sleepless in Syria

Jesus meets us today in the wee hours, before breakfast. Before dawn, in fact. He has healed. He will preach. Just now, however, he wakes in the dark. Sleepless in Syria. You know that moment, long before the birds begin to sing. You stir, then you rise. You pad your way to the kitchen. You tune the radio for some company. There is the teapot. It is time for a morning prayer. Jesus meets us today in a morning prayer. By grace, four clues to healing prayer lie before us, in the four most intriguing words of our passage: lonely, Galilee, forbade, came out. Like a harmonic quartet, these moments in Scripture may heal and save us yet.

Morning Quiet

Lonely is the place of Jesus’ prayer, such an interesting adjective. For one thing, we may assert, prayer means quiet. It means being quiet. Prayer may simply be a certain sitting silent before God. Pascal said that our problems arise from our inability to sit quietly in our room. You may sit. Or walk. Or read. Or write. In the stark simplicity of the cruciform gospel, our passage says only that he went to a lonely place, and prayed. We could do worse than to set aside a few minutes every morning to be quiet. Is that not what Sunday worship is meant to model? By the still waters…

You need a quiet space to lift the prayers, real prayers, that come with real life. How could she betray me like that? How could she? Who does she think she is? How could I have been so foolish? How could I? What is wrong with me? How could we have made such a blunder? How could we? How will I ever get out of this? How will I?

What did Jesus pray? And how? And for how long? Was his prayer attendant upon his healings? Or caught up only with his pending decision to itinerate? Where was this that he went? What did he wear? Did he kneel? Is this history or theology in Mark 1?

There is a strong argument to be made that we really know very little about Jesus, including about how he prayed in Capernaum. James Sanders gave us a list of 8 things we could know about Jesus, one of which was that he died on a cross, and the others of which were not much more startling. Norman Perrin wrote recently, “This material had a long history of transmission, use and interpretation in the early Christian communities, and when it reached the hand of Mark any element of historical reminiscence had long been lost….The Gospel of Mark is narrative proclamation.” Yet this scholarly sobriety hardly slakes our curious spiritual thirst.

We want to know about Jesus, as much as we can! When you love someone, you want to know them, root and branch, hook, line and sinker. Every Christian at every time has known this desire.

My father at six asked his aunt, hounded his aunt, assaulted his aunt with multiple forms of the question, “where was I before I was born?” To which, after nine inquiries, and shaping a pie crust, she pointed her rolling pin and offered, “Down in Canada, boiling soap.” Sometimes our desire to know outdistances our ability to know.

Regarding the matter of prayer, though, one may suppose, surmise, and speculate a little. That is, there is a pervasive pattern in the Gospels that pictures Jesus in prayer. The church had no marketing motive to remembering him as he is here, sleepless in Syria, awake, brooding, troubled, wrestling with a demon of a decision. Nor had the church any similar motive to recall his bitter garden lament, “Take this cup from me”. Nor his admission of powerlessness, “this kind is driven out only by prayer and fasting”. Nor, especially, his shriek in agony, “My God, why have you forgotten me!” Dr Sanders notwithstanding, it would seem fair to see Jesus in prayer, in quiet, in the wee hours. Even the most cautious among us could affirm this. Listen to this sweet voice from the back roads and rivers of memory: Jesus prayed in silence. You can too. It will do you more good than you ever can predict. Be quiet. Take along some measure of the temperament in Howard Thurman:

"How good it is to center down!
To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!
The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic
What is the end of our doings?
Where are we trying to go?
Our spirits are refreshed and we move back into
The traffic of our daily round
With the peace of the eternal in our step.
How good it is to center down!"

Will your morning prayer be quiet?

Morning Thanks

Galilee is the destination Jesus discerns in prayer--such an intriguing region. Our reading today, and the many passages like it in the Bible, were formed, formed in the life of the early church. Therein lies their greatest power. As our liturgical emphasis this past decade, noted on January 15, has been incarnation, and our homiletical emphasis, noted on January 29, has been transformation, our exegetical emphasis, noted today February 5, has been church formation. Form. These sentences are formed in the life of the church. They speak from faith to faith, from pew to pew. This stylized memory of morning and evening healings, followed by morning prayer, was crystallized in the many decades following the cross, in the life of the primitive church. Imagine a borrowed room, in Rome or Caesarea. There sit Greeks and perhaps some Jews. The profound significance of the New Testament is first that it is composed in Greek, not Hebrew. They listen again for the power, in Jesus, that they have known, a power to heal and make new. They warm to the preacher’s quiet restatement of the good news that brings healing.

Then they listen as Jesus is depicted in the throes of a great decision. In struggle, in hurt. This is what keeps people up at night. Decision. It is meaningful to them, and to us, to hear that Jesus knew this 3am trouble. All the details in the world about where the cave was, in which he prayed, or whether he took along a Psalter, or whether he sang—these mean nothing compared to the great, saving recognition that Jesus was sweating out a hard choice. He chooses.

What does he choose and why is it so meaningful for the early church?

He chooses to leave home, and to go out all through Galilee! And whether Galilee represents the Gentiles, the Greek world, or just a bigger world view, this choice on Jesus’ part meant for the early Greek church that they were included! Jesus left the familiar, and the successful, to go on to other towns. He decided to itinerate, as wrenching as the choice apparently was.

He could have stayed. Healings morning and evening. An adoring home town crowd, hunting him out, finding him and imploring him--all before breakfast. He chooses to leave the success of healing for the foolishness of preaching, the way of glory for the way of the cross.

He went on out to Galilee of the Gentiles. Ah! So the early church is deeply grateful. They are included! Not Jews, still included. Not Jerusalem, still included. Not part of the original family, still included. Different—even, uncircumcised—still included. “He went throughout all Galilee”.

You forget, most of you, what it is like to live without a church family to love, a church home to enjoy, and church gospel to savor, and a church horizon to explore. You forget what is like in the cold. We scouts tented one February, near Eatonbrook at 20 below zero. We came back on Sunday morning, to attend church. That church pew, so warm, never felt anywhere near so good, nor the 50 minute snooze so salvific, as it did after a night in the snow. You forget. Galilee! This is a huge, new horizon! This community is meant to include you! The real church is not only a big church, but also a great church! You can be big without being great. What a tragedy that would be. Our ministry now is an investment for inclusion. Big is physical, great is spiritual. Great includes. It includes difference of view, Jew and Greek, Jerusalem and Galilee. It humbly admits that truth emerges in contest and conversation. How tempting it is to think: I am going to worship only with those who agree with me. I am going to worship only where the preacher says what I think. I am going to gather only those predestined elect who have exactly the right view of personal, social or political issues. You may. But that will still not be great. That may be big, but not great. And over time it is destructive. The Protestant reformation was just that—a reformation not a rejection, a reformation not a repulsion, a reformation not a refusal.

A theology of space ought to consume our theological writing for this generation. The first prayerful decision that the early church remembered of Jesus is one about space. About where. About horizon. About range of motion. About inclusion. About who gets face time with Jesus. You do! You are included, and with you many others! Beware the temptation to avoid the exercise of difference for the coziness of similarity.

Bishop Roy Nichol’s wife died last week in Los Angeles. He presided at our conference some years ago, his dark skin resplendent against his white clerical collar. He quietly talked about a rainbow world for the 21st century. Galilee. All. How grateful we feel to be included!

Will your morning prayer be thankful?

Morning Resolve

Forbade. He did not permit the demons to speak. We do not believe in demons. Not at least in the ancient apocalyptic sense. The African church and some others around the globe are much more at home with the first century worldview of the New Testament than are we. Oh, we do make some admission of reality beyond our understanding or control. Mental illness. The corrosive power of addiction. Systemic exclusion and generational impoverishment. A specter of nuclear holocaust. But demons? No demons.

Why is Jesus forever shushing others in Mark? You can find a dozen places where the writer has Jesus muffle, silence any report about who He is. Here is the first, read today. He did not permit the demons to tell people what was really going on, that he was the Messiah. Why? We really do not know. This may though be a clue for us to the message Mark wants to convey. He is an author writing a certain version of the Gospel that differs from others. There is no shushing in John. What is Mark’s point?

As one great scholar has carefully shown (T. Weeden, Mark: Traditions in Conflict), Mark—not Jesus now, nor the early church now, but Mark---has an axe to grind. Here it is. Jesus was powerful but crucified. Christian life will involve glory but also pain. Jesus was not only a wonder worker whom demons could celebrate or denigrate. Jesus became a Messiah who disappointed his disciples, to the point of their choosing betrayal. Jesus died on a cross, toward which in prayer this morning he chooses to itinerate. Christians suffer. Mark may want firmly to teach his generation that hurt is part of the walk of faith. Nero’s persecution may lie in the background. The Jewish war may lie in the foreground. A strongly competitive version of the gospel may be in his sights. Regardless, this gospel is about resolute discipleship. To be a Christian means to know how, and why, to pull up your socks.

This lack of permission giving on Jesus’ part, confronted by demons, is a hard sell in a culture of leisure and narcissism. Christianity is a hard sell too. (Hence the inversions of it at various points.) Youth do not easily warm to the required reading of this faith. Young adults do not easily warm to the sexual disciplines of this faith. Mature adults do not easily warm to the (required) generosity of this faith. Older adults do not easily warm to the required perseverance of this faith. It is a hard sell. To transform a culture of almost life to a culture of life, prenatal postnatal non natal, this is hard. Sunday morning work. Pulpit work. Prayer work.

We have ancient, good company in Mark. My predecessor has written: The writer’s community finds itself at the beginning of the eighth decade AD faced with a crisis of faith. Forty years have passed since Easter morning. The eschatological age has not dawned…the joys of the kingdom are still only dreams…Mark’s church is beset by suffering…The focus of his spiritual reflection is the suffering life of Jesus (Weeden, MTC, 159).

And some among us are making the case for resolute discipleship. Marian Wright Edelman must pray. Otherwise, how would she have the discipline to stay on the trail for children for so many years? She said at Colgate in May:

"I want to convey a vision to you today, as you graduate into an ethically polluted nation in a world where instant sex without responsibility, instant gratification without effort, instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving, and hoarding rather than sharing are the frequent messages and signals of our mass media popular culture and political life.

"Don’t be afraid of failing, it’s the way you learn to do things right. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, it just matters how many times you get up."

This particular walk, in faith, means that you will not always be appreciated. This walk means that you will be required to be kind to those who do not afford you the same courtesy. This walk means that you will daily get nametags thrust upon you that are misspellings. You may die a Christian hero’s death and have your named misspelled in the paper. Jesus’ morning prayer had one single outcome: a resolve to take a hard path.

Will your morning prayer be resolute?

Morning Wit

Came out: for this reason (to proclaim good news), says Jesus, he came out. The reference of the verb is not clear. Came out of privacy? Came out to pray? Came out to be incarnate in this world? Came out to Messiahship?

There is a fourth way of reading this passage. That is to see how those who first revised Mark did so. Matthew and Luke both change this passage. They use most of Mark, with alterations. Luke, for example, answers the question about ‘coming out’ by saying rather that Jesus was sent to preach, and further to preach the good news of the kingdom. Matthew, for example, instructs that the healings were to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah said. (What Mark might have thought about such improvements in his character by his other younger synoptic siblings is not available to us.) Matthew and Luke did rebuild the gospel for different times and settings.

Rebuilding is hard work. We are watching our church being rebuilt, improved for the new needs of a new day. The process is absorbing, fascinating to watch. New occasions teach new duties. We learn not only to generalize, and to specialize, but also to improvise.

Matthew and Luke pick up Mark’s baton and continue the race. They must improvise along the way and, in prayer, so must we. Perhaps it is this which keeps the narrative proclamation in the life of Corretta Scott King before us, her ability to improvise, to move ahead, to rebuild. Her story holds our hearts.

At first, last week, the lingering power of her life seemed to emanate only from her loving connection to Martin. The stories returned of their Boston courtship, shared ministry, human failings, earnest struggle. His asking her to lunch with the words, “every Napoleon has his Waterloo and you are mine”. And her response, ‘that’s absurd, we haven’t even met.” Then later, still young, in prayer, they made a fateful decision to go south.

Later on in the week, as the nation continued to hold her, it seemed that perhaps her form of leadership held on for us. She was not the minister but the minister’s wife, a role, by the way, she entered, honored, affirmed, and used, in a preeminent fashion. A powerful example. A role that offers no office but that which is earned every day, a position but not a place, a voice but not a pulpit. Uncannily, a role that has not been extinguished.

Later still, as the week passed, and the eulogies were printed, something else, beyond story and role, seemed to emerge. Forgive the hope that she perfectly illustrates this last moment in morning prayer. She improvised. Jesus comes out of prayer with a decision to try something new and different. His morning prayer has the one consequence of his disappointing, dislocating, deserting his family and friends. He sets out. So did she. From youthful work in the open fields of Alabama, to a small private school, to Antioch, to the New England conservatory, to marriage, motherhood, sorrow, sainthood. She decided to move on. To improvise. Two goals: a national day to remember her husband, and a center to remember his teaching. Both done. Not bad.

Will your morning prayer be creative?

A Morning Prayer?

Quiet, thankful, resolute, creative. Will your morning prayer be like that of Jesus?

Every gospel text has four voices singing in harmony: the soprano of Jesus in history; the alto (most important though least understood) of the early church speaking and hearing he passage; the tenor of the author; the bass of later editing. Does your prayer sing in four part harmony?

Let us be specific. Tomorrow morning. Will you find a place and time where you can be still? Tomorrow morning. Will you in that stillness be glad of heart for your inclusion in God? Tomorrow morning. Will you ponder the resolution faith requires? Tomorrow morning. Will you leave a little room to improvise?