Fullness of Life

13th Sunday Ordinary Time, 7-1-18

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm: 30:2-6, 11-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Often I look for a theme word or idea that ties the readings together. It seemed relatively easy to find that unifying word today – the word is “life”.  Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written only about 100 years before Christ, would seem to use the idea of “life” very literally.  Our writer says, “God formed man to be imperishable…we were made in the image of God’s own nature”.   Now that sounds familiar, from Genesis 1: 26, that we are made in God’s image, after God’s likeness.  But it clearly doesn’t mean that we have share God’s nose or eye color.  The writer of Wisdom takes it to mean that we, like God, were meant to be eternal beings, not just to be a dot on the landscape for a moment in time.  Jesus told us the same thing in Luke 12:27 when he said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  If God creates flowers of great beauty for only a day or two, how much more does God, who loves us so very deeply, create us to be eternal!  There are voices in our culture that tell us life is just hard and we have to plod along until it’s over, that life is cheap, and certain people are expendable, that lives of some are without value.  The author of Wisdom makes clear that those voices are absolutely wrong and come from darkness and evil.  Life is a precious gift of God.

Psalm 30 was written as a song of joy and thanksgiving to God for an escape from enemies. It was later used to celebrate the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC after the Maccabean Revolt for Jewish independence.  Think of it as an ancient 4th of July-type song.  It is a celebration of life; first there was weeping when life and liberty were lost, and then came dancing for the joy of freedom.

But then we have the Gospel, where the concept of life becomes much broader. We find the stories of a dying girl and a desperate woman wrapped around each other.  We’ve seen these “sandwich stories”, or “stories within stories” in Mark before.  They are meant to work together to explain each other and to act as “surround sound”, with the message coming at us from multiple directions.  Jesus obviously knows a great deal about love.  He knows that love is powerful – so powerful it is stronger than death.  For Jesus himself is life – both life and light to us.  In Him there is no darkness. For God created light to end the darkness.

So what do the woman and the girl have in common? The woman has been dying a slow death.  She has died a social death – she has been shut out of the temple and separated from her community and social supports because the religious authorities declared her “unclean”. To this day, some Christian churches have continued to declare all women as unable to be priests – perhaps unwittingly following an ancient misunderstanding about women’s bodies.  Still, around the world women are blocked from leadership positions.

The woman in the story has also been financially dying as her money has all been spent on medical treatments that have not worked, and her hope has been dying as her health has deteriorated. Jesus, frankly, is a last-chance option, and it is not entirely clear, given her “fear” after she touches his clothes, if she understands who Jesus is.  But Jesus is very clear about who he is.  It is her faith, not magic or chance, he tells her, which saved her.  She is to live in God’s peace now; it is not that she just kept looking until she found the “right cure”, but that God has cured her.

The girl is dying a sudden death. She had not been ill long.  Her death was probably caused by a bacterial infection, or a virus, and nearly half of all children at that time died before they were 18.  There simply was little that could be done, and little or no time to try to help her.   To both the woman and the girl, Jesus gives a second chance at life – a full life, with hope and love and peace.

But why does Mark keep these stories alive for us, so long afterwards, and what do they have to do with us? Surely this is not about preventing every death or about every sick child being resurrected.  We know better.  Christians who do not understand Mark’s story have cruelly broken many people’s hearts and created great anguish and anger by insisting that prayers will save every life or cure every disease.  Meanwhile, every human still dies.

There are many people whom we love or work with or pass on the sidewalks, who have parts of their souls and their psyches dying. An estimated 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs, about 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12.  89% of them do not receive treatment – and the high cost and lack of availability of treatment are the primary reasons.  Add to those numbers the number of Americans who are born with disabilities, those seriously injured in automobile crashes and those who are suffering with chronic health issues and you begin to understand the real America.  And consider the numbers of people in 3rd world countries who have no access to heath care, those trapped in the middle of wars and those who are unwilling immigrants from other kinds of violence, and you have the beginnings of a realistic picture of the life of the majority of the people in our world.  Some of us live, for the most part, my friends, in a bubble.

We must remember the great efforts expended by both the woman and the girl’s father to seek healing. They did not sit at home and say, “Ain’t it awful!”   They acted in a brave and heroic way, in front of a huge crowd, and were willing to face shame and ridicule for their efforts. Why did their communities make it so hard?  Perhaps Mark would like us to consider that.

Perhaps healing comes best when there is grace – the love of God -freely demonstrated by believers, and community – when there is support and openness and inclusiveness.  Healing is a type of thing where if “you aren’t with us, you’re against us.”  People who need medical care need to access it at affordable rates, provided by well-trained professionals and volunteers who will offer transportation, moral support, gentleness and kindness.  People seldom heal themselves without good information, quality food, and encouragement.  Power to give life comes from grace and community, for the strength of community is greater than the strength of individuals.  The hems of our garments are the clothes that people are reaching for.

These stories in Mark are not just stories made up to enhance the image of Jesus. They are not just historical stories to take up space on a shelf.   They are stories about what God continues even now to do through faith – faith that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that death and hatred and prejudice and violence are no longer necessary in our world – and our actions and our behavior do make a difference.  When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” or “Do not be afraid, just have faith,” he is looking at us who call ourselves Christians.

When we feel those small parts of ourselves die when we are repeatedly disappointed by those we care about, or the sexual harassment we experience at work, or the inability to control our finances, or the covert prejudice we face, do we hesitate to take them to Jesus for healing, and to our community for support? Do we “put on a brave face” and bury our feelings so that our family and friends don’t know about our suffering?  How do we react when someone else tells us of their struggles?

Finally, the Greek word for healing (sozo) in Mark’s Gospel is the very same word which he also uses for what we call salvation. Salvation is forgiveness of our sins, a type of healing, which opens the way to God for us. There is a real and clear link between physical healing and spiritual healing.  It’s not science vs religion, but just two parts of the unity of life.  In other words, healing and a full life are offered to all in many difference ways.  Each of us can describe in our own unique way what “fullness of life” means to us.

This week, spend some time in prayer; tell Jesus the healing you need, from things you have done, or things you have failed to do, or things which have been done to you.  Make a plan to change one thing in your life, with God’s help, which will make your life – or the lives of those around you – fuller, richer, more meaningful.  Find another believer to walk this journey with you. Let this change grow in you, nurture it as it becomes more mature and natural to you, and find the joy which comes from reaching out to touch Jesus and find life.

 

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The Weed Problem

16th Sunday, 7-23-17

Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-44

 

It couldn’t wait any longer. My hair had grown out, and was on the verge of going completely wild.  It was time to go see my favorite stylist.  She’s in her thirties, rather conservative in her dress and behavior.  We don’t discuss religion or politics.  Somehow though, she slipped single sentence into our carefully benign conversation about her brother who was a heroin addict, and now in prison.  “We won’t go into that”, she said softly.

But suddenly, with great need to tell the story, she was sharing with me the details of her brother’s descent into darkness. Nice guy with the usual amount of youthful immortality and desire for a social group.  He was a highly trained and skillful pastry chef. Tried drugs along with most the other people he worked with.  Arrest. Rehab. Overdose…. 2nd Arrest…retraining to be away from the drug infestation in the food industry.  One semester away from a Master’s Degree.  Slipped.  Needed money, sold drugs, used drugs, arrested and convicted for his third felony drug charge.  Now he must attend classes every day for 18 months in prison.  Then be in impatient rehab for 3 years.  Then half-way house for 2 more years and find employment.  Then parole, never allowed a single bad drug test or one missed appointment.  Failure means a 25 year prison sentence – losing most of his adult life.

If Jesus was here today, he might tell this sad story instead of using an agricultural example of wheat and weeds. Weeds, Jesus said, were planted by the evil one.   Illegal drugs are, no pun intended, one of the weeds of our time.  When evil entered our world, the problem was not just with one woman and one man and one tree with apples on it.  The problem was that people began to disobey, to choose badly, to do what was wrong while still knowing and wanting what was right.  Drugs, those fiercely invasive and destructive weeds, make the apple incident look like forgetting to pay the electric bill on time and facing a small late charge.

Oddly enough, self monitoring has never worked well.  We ignore or excuse our own bad behavior and loudly proclaim and condemn the wrong others do. We spend billions on weapons and guns and rockets and ammunition to kill and destroy, and yet manage to find reasons, which I don’t quite get, why God should bless us for this.  Politicians and press of all stripes work to convince us who is an enemy and who is our friend.  Most of us, in return, say we have too little time to verify their statements and moan about our “helplessness” in changing things.

Maybe you have had the same experiences as I have. I watch the evening news or read a newspaper or an on-line news article and wonder.   I wish I could stop this insanity.  I wish I could stop Christianity from being an excuse or even a silent bystander to this evil.  I wish I could make my own little life clean and pure or even brave enough to make changes in my own little garden of weeds growing in my heart.  I would get right in there with a hoe, I would yank those weeds out so fast, that garden would be clean and I would plant good seed to feed the needy!  But that is not reality.  That is a fantasy that leads right back to where we started, for evil is still here, with weeds and drugs and lots of other bad things that look pretty desirable sometimes.

What does this parable suggest we do? Well, Jesus, like the wise man who sowed the wheat, seems amazingly patient with us weedy-garden-hearted people.  Don’t tear out the weeds, for if you do, you will damage the crop that you rely on for food.  Be gentle as possible with those who are struggling with evil. Start with yourself and forgive yourself for the times a little meanness comes out of your mouth, or a little greed seizes your check book.  Then move onto the addicts.  It takes money, it takes –dare I say it- health insurance to get help with addictions, it takes lots of dedicated practitioners, of which we have far too few.  It takes employers with zero tolerance for drugs in the work place but willingness to employ those who are rebuilding their lives.  It takes treatment facilities, maybe in our own neighborhoods.  In short it takes a commitment to focus on re-building a gentler world, and we need to love and forgive our selves and our churches and our society for pretending the causes of addiction can be fixed by just saying “no”.

Where to start? By proclaiming the love and faithfulness of God, the forgiveness of God? There is enormous power in the Gospel and the Christian story.  By the courage to realize our own wheat crops aren’t in very good shape, either?  By acknowledging that there is no us (holy) and them (evil)?  By admitting that judgmental assumptions are bad behavior?  If I read this Gospel correctly, the harvesters are God’s angels, and they will sort the good and the bad correctly.  Good news: we can take judging people off our to-do list!  Yes!

I learned a hard lesson once, many years ago.  I had a minor car accident, and was unable to get my car back on the road.  I had been ill, and I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment.   I was stuck and had no resources to help myself.  Who helped me?  A young immigrant man who spoke no English, who had no job, who I had seen loitering around a business of bad reputation- he helped me.  I would not have spoken to him in other circumstances.  For all I know, he was an angle, sent by God to open my eyes.  It made me think of Jesus, close to death on the cross, offering eternal life to the men on either side of him, who admitted to “deserving” their terrible death.  And I knew then that I too am capable of the bitingly sarcastic response of the one who jeered Jesus.

So, what’s the take-away? First, I am so very proud of everyone who has been part of the effort to supply food for the children at our local Elementary School.  I get tingles down my spine when I think of the extra effort the fine people of Holy Trinity made to supply treats for the end-of-school-celebration there in June.  I smile when I remember the gift cards you purchased to reward the children.  Well Done.  Those kids may live in weedy circumstances, and you offered them love without judgment.

Last, there are those who will never choose God, it would seem. I might be wrong about that.  I suspect I’m pretty blind to my own weedy-ness at times. But I think that most people would like to live good lives. I’m sure the power of Love is always and drastically underrated.  I am absolutely positive that God is always ready to forgive us for being weedy, either a little or a lot, and that Love, not Round-up herbicide, is the way of God.