Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Continuing Matthew 25: visiting the sick

John 9:1-7
Luke 9:1-6
Matthew 25:31-46

Today we continue our study of Matthew 25, focusing on caring for or visiting the sick.  We, as a community, are very good at this. Through our Deacons and through others do a wonderful job of visiting the sick.  Others in our congregation are constant care-givers for family, for friends.  Others volunteer and work in care-giving professions.  We visit people at home, we visit people in the hospital, we visit people going through rehab.  And we do more than visit.  We pray with people, we care for people, we spend time with them, we give them rides, we listen.  We genuinely care about our people who are struggling, and we offer our presence and anything else we know how to offer.  As much as if not more than any of the other things on Matthew’s list, we do this caring for the sick and we do it well.  That is something you should feel really proud of.  Even if you can’t or don’t do this as an individual, as a community we are amazing in our care for others. 
But we know that others don’t always do this well: I’ve shared this story before, but think it is especially relevant for today: At one of the churches where I served, the congregants were intimately involved with a program that served the homeless.  Through our work and through our time with the homeless people in our community, we developed a very close relationship with one homeless man in particular.  This man was very loving, very giving, very caring.  He began attending our church and when he did so, he offered to run our sound system, he helped with the gardening, and he was always on hand to help us in any way.  He was not unintelligent, but he was a severe alcoholic who could not seem to get through the disease to a place where he could give up drinking.  He would give it up for a week or two and then something would happen and he would be drinking again.  We saw him fight for his life against this disease and we saw him losing the battle.  At one point in our relationship with George, his drinking led him to fall and to hit his head very seriously on the street.  The police found him hours later and took him to the local hospital.  His injuries, especially to his brain, were very serious and he was admitted for long term hospitalization and rehabilitation.  However, when the nurses and doctors at the hospital came to understand that he was a homeless, income-less, resource-less man, they gave up caring for him.  He remained at the hospital for quite a while, because he was unable to walk a straight line, he could not speak clearly and had very little control over his movements.  But in large part he was at the hospital for so long because they would not provide the care to get him to a place where they could discharge him.  The only time that George really received any attention – the only time he would be brought his meals even – was when one of us was there to insist on it.  This was a “Christian” hospital, and the doctors and nurses who were hired to work there were, we were told, people of faith.  But they did not see the contradiction in their faith when they served their charges according to their resources, rather than according to their needs. 
This is NOT how Jesus acted.  And it is not what Jesus calls us to do.  Despite the reaction of those around him, including his disciples, Jesus found time to be present with “the least of these” every time.  He gave of his healing, of his energy, of his attention, even to those who didn’t somehow “rank” or “deserve” it. 
We brought George food.  We sat with him.  We fought for him with the medical personnel.  We cared for him.   Five years ago I learned that he had died.  He was in his 50s, and while he remained a homeless man struggling with alcohol addiction until the end, his funeral was well attended by those of that congregation who had loved him, visited him, provided care for him.  And again, while he did not heal from his struggle with alcoholism, we were helped in our service towards him.
I think the hardest sick people to visit with, using this understanding of “sickness” as simply people who are hurting, broken, injured in body, spirit, mind or soul, are those who are struggling with mental illness or with any other kind of emotional pain.  When people are in emotional pain, we often try to fix it and if we can’t, we struggle to be around it. We don’t know what to say to people in emotional pain.  We want it to go away.  I hope this is improving, but I remember all too well going to the memorial service for a friend whose husband had just died and having another friend say to me, “Well, we need to just tell her to get over it.  Maybe we should ignore it and try to set her up with someone else right away.”  This not only showed a total lack of understanding about grief, I think more importantly, it showed the speaker’s discomfort with another person’s pain when he couldn’t fix it. 
I’m reminded of a Joan of Arcadia episode in which a young man who had been paralyzed through a car accident was being protected by his parents from having to discuss what he had been through.  They kept shielding him from ever needing to talk about it.  At one point he came in on them in a heated discussion about the accident.  They immediately grew quiet and said, ““Kevin, you shouldn’t have to go through this again.”
His response though was wise, brilliant and insightful for all of us.  He said, “But I have to.  Don’t take this away from me.” 
Going through healing is necessary for all of us, whether we are struggling with physical problems, with emotional issues, with a crisis, with whatever it is that we face.  Standing with others going through those experiences, visiting those who are sick or struggling or in pain, just being with others in their hard times… these do not only bring healing for the ones we stand with, these actions bring us healing as well.
This morning I found myself reflecting on a conversation I had had with a member of my previous congregation.  It was over the question of whether or not God ever gives us more than we can handle.  I don’t think God hands us the tragedies and traumas of life.  And I do think that LIFE does sometimes give us more than we can handle.  We know this by the rate of suicides in this country.  But also, we’ve all meant shell people – people who are so bitter, so worn down by life that there is no compassion left within them.  These are the people we are most called to care for, to try to be God’s hands and feet, moving them through and beyond their pain.  But in this particular conversation, I said, “wounds always heal with scars.” To which my parishioner responded, “yes, but scar sites are much stronger than the flesh around them”.  Okay, if healing is done well this is true.  Bones heal much stronger, scars on our skin are made of tougher material.  But when they don’t heal correctly, when scabs are picked at and allowed to fester, healing does not happen.  Again, we have a call to help one another through those times of bad injuries to our body, to our soul.  But we are also called to remember that it is we who are healed through the process of caring for one another.
But today I want to take this a little bit deeper:
Frederick Buechner says this about healing:
The Gospels depict Jesus as having spent a surprising amount of time healing people.  Although, like the author of Job before him, he specifically rejected the theory that sickness was God’s way of getting even with sinners, he nonetheless seems to have suggested a connection between sickness and sin, almost to have seen sin as a kind of sickness.  Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” he said.  “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” … It is significant also that the Greek verb sozo was used in Jesus’ day to mean both to save and to heal, and soter could signify either savior or physician.”
So I want to take a slightly different look at it and instead spend some time focusing on the truth that the sick we care for, when we care for the sick, are, once again, ourselves.  We are the ones in need of healing, we are the ones in need of growth and healing, all of us, and the prescription that we are given for those challenges, for our scars and scabs that won’t heal on their own, for our human illness is to follow Jesus. 
               We see this clearly in today’s passage, but perhaps we see it even more clearly in other passages.  The passage we read from John that talks about Jesus healing the blind man ends with the following chastisement of the Pharisees:  Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”  Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
               A similar thing happens with the man Jesus heals who is deaf and mute.  In the book of Mark, Jesus cures this man and those around him prove themselves instead to be the ones who fail to really hear and fail to speak truth or wisdom.  We all know of people who won’t or can’t see.  Of course, they probably accuse us of the same thing.  And the reality is that because there are always layers and layers of truth, and because we always understand, interpret and see truth from our own perspectives, not one of us has the whole picture.  Not one.  All of us have areas of blindness, areas of deafness.  We all do.  Together we have a much better picture of the truth, but even then, people lie, people hide things.  There will always be areas of blindness.  But the problem is, those areas of blindness create illness within us, as a people, as well as as individuals.  We lose understanding and compassion for the other when we cannot see their perspective.  We lose unity and our ability to grow and work together when we cannot see from their point of view. It creates in our culture, in our world, illness, dis-ease.  But I would say that is true within us as individuals too.  When we are angry, it is we ourselves we are harming (remember – anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other to die).  We are injured and made ill by our refusal or inability to see or hear.
Who are the sick?  Who are the blind?  Who are the deaf?  It is shown again and again through scripture that the blind are often those who will not see.  The deaf are those who refuse to hear.  Our scriptures show us in these passages and others that the sick are often those who physically appear the healthiest, but who live lives that are not godly.  The passage from Matthew, as we read it today, gives us the cure, invites us into the health that Jesus offers.  We find that health by doing what Jesus asks – by caring for one another, by understanding at the deepest level that we are all connected, all one, all so intimately united by God’s love that we literally are healing ourselves and feeding ourselves and caring for ourselves when we care for others.  When we come to understand another person’s point of view, our blindness is listened.  When we can hear other people’s fears, hopes, thoughts and feelings, our deafness is lessened.  As a country we need to hear each other better and see each other more fully.  But this starts with individuals.  Can we hear and see one another?  Can we work on our own healing, by visiting others who are just as blind but who need to be heard, who need to be loved, through that blindness? 
Our challenge, then, is this: to remember we all have areas of blindness, we all are in need of healing.  Not one of us sees or hears with completeness.  Not one of us therefore are completely well.  And so when we care for each other, even those who may not appear to need our care, but need it just as much, we are also doing it for Jesus. 

My prayer for all of you is that as you care and love others, you feel God’s healing hand caring for you as well.  That you experience God’s touch on your heart as you touch the hands and minds of those who are sick.  That you know Jesus love for you, as a person struggling with the human illness, even as you offer love to those who struggle with human diseases around you.  In the name of the one who loves you into being and into wholeness and into healing we pray.  Amen.