SERMON 2/12/12 Epiphany 6B
Throughout my childhood, I spent my afternoons after school working, playing, and studying at my father’s television store. One thing I always looked forward to each day at the TV shop, was the arrival of the local newspaper but of course, I only read the it after my Dad and Mother both had perused he whole thing. One day after reading a particularly intriguing news tidbit, I remember my mother sharing with a customer a quote from Dear Abby which she had read, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”The subsequent conversation about this quote, which she had with that customer was a heated dialogue, because the other person took great offense to it. “How could she write something like that,” she touted. “My church is no museum or a hospital,” she roared. Despite this little debate, there was some wisdom to found in this little passage which if properly applied, means that the Church is a community of healing following the great Healer Jesus Christ.
The lectionary the past few weeks has been filled with stories of the healing activity of Our Lord. Last week we heard about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, this week we hear about a man suffering from leprosy. The lepor lived within a social system that focused on excluding the sick, rather than bringing them close to the community for healing and care. Those suffering from leprosy could not live amongst the rest of the community until they had been healed (made clean). The priest alone was charged with declaring the ritually unclean restored. In order to maintain this social separation, the so called unclean were required to dress in torn clothes, and as they traveled and approached other people, they had to declare their condition by shouting, “unclean.” Can you imagine the shame and pain associated with that social stigma? It would be like a teenager walking the halls of the high school shouting, “I have a big old zit on my face!” The estrangement, the social exclusion, the detachment from being in relation to others, was really at the heart of this man’s suffering. Jesus not only healed his skin ailment, but Jesus entered the dark places of his soul and healed him there as well. Jesus risked his own ritual cleanliness by touching the man as he restored him. Jesus entered his pain, risked his own health and social standing, and brought the man to wholeness. Jesus heals social outcasts, the broken hearted, the estranged and that is our mission as the church.
The metaphor of a hospital to describe the church used by “Dear Abby is quite intriguing and has some merit. A hospital is a place that exists for the purpose of bringing doctors, nurses and caregivers (those who are gifted in the art of healing), together with folks who are ill, hurt, or suffering (those who need healing). Jacques Matthay asserts, “Healing in this encompassing sense includes a spiritual dimension (the experience of God’s presence and of a healing community) . . . a mental dimension (feeling well), a missionary or service dimension (living with and for others), and an ethical/moral dimension (living in obedience and righteousness).1” Experiencing God’s presence, feeling a sense of being well, living with and for others, and living in obedience to and in right relationship with God and with each other, this is the mission of the Church. We are a healing community, the church is a hospital for sinners, for the social outcast, for the brokenhearted. We are a community gathered that engages in a ministry of healing that reflects Jesus’ ministry.
One of my favorite shows in the late 1990’s was the medical dram “ER.” Each week the show usually began with a patient arriving at the hospital in an ambulance, and the doctors and nurses would rush them to a trauma room and with such passion and drama, they began working frantically to save yet another life. The show was a bit surreal though, because everything in this medical center was clean and spotless, every caregiver was handsome, beautiful and emotionally and spiritually whole, and every patient was calm and rational. It was a great television drama, but it was not real life.
If you have been in a hospital lately and you happened to visit the Emergency Room, you may be able to say that your experience was not like the one on television. You may have entered the waiting room and maybe things were a little chaotic, maybe nurses and doctors were impatient and a little stressed out. Maybe the facility was messy and it lacked our expectation of perfection. Maybe it was devoid of what we felt we needed, the care we deserved, or the healing we expected. We may have left this experience and without hesitation we proclaimed freely to our friends just how bad things were. However messy and unruly the hospital, no matter how imperfect it was, the question with which we must wrestle is, “were people actually experiencing healing?” Sometimes we enter places, situations, or communities and at the subconscious level, our minds have a tendency to focus on the optimistic while, at the conscious level, we have a tendency to focus on the negative.
“A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” What has been your experience of healing in the communities of faith where you have lived, worshipped, served? – What was the music like? What were the people like, the church building, the pastor? What made that place, that community, a place of healing for you? Sometimes the experiences of the past come along with us wherever we go, and we tend to bring our own expectations along when we enter a community of healing. Sometimes a healing community is just plain messy. We have to admit our human frailties and despite our best efforts to strive for right relationships with God and each other, we make mistakes, we fail each other, and communal life is not perfect. Even so, healing does take place. There is great freedom in knowing that the healing community, which we call church, really is imperfect. The Body of Christ is unlike the other communities we find throughout human culture. Businesses, social clubs, residential communities, and other human gatherings all operate in unique and different ways. Social engagement is based on expectations, cultural norms, and social systems that are very different from Church. The difference is that we are a hospital for the brokenhearted, the social outcast, the people who need the spiritual healing Jesus brings. We are both those needing healing and at the same time, we are those who are the healers.
In healing communities where those who need healing are the healers, things can get messy, things can be imperfect, and things can often be challenging. We may arrive in the ER on Sunday mornings with certain expectations; expectations that may not be satisfied, but the Spirit is working, the Healer is present, and we will walk away transformed, restored, renewed. We will be healed whether we recognize it or not. The hope we have, the assurance we are given, the promise which is ours, is that our healing is not dependent on anything we ourselves alone can do. We are healed by the grace of God alone. Each of us by virtue of our common connection in community are recipients of a grace that is beyond anything we can imagine.
A young boy asked his mother, “As you enter the church, why do you dip your hand into the baptismal font and touch our head and heart?” The mother replied, “It reminds me of my baptism son.” As she sat down in the pew, she prayerfully pondered the symbolic act of crossing herself and suddenly she realized what it all meant. She thought, “despite my own expectations, failures, disappointments, and transgressions, when I enter this place, I leave the expectations of how things should be, how the world outside sees things, and here I am freed by the love of Jesus. Here in this place among these sisters and brother, I find myself welcome among folks who have passed through the same cleansing waters of baptism. By this shared experience of cleansing, we are made one Body in Christ, one community, one family. We are one with Christ. However messy and unruly the hospital may be, no matter how imperfect it can sometimes be, we can know without a doubt that by God’s grace “people are experiencing God’s presence in this blessed healing community.
1Matthey, Jacques. “Faith, Healing And Mission — Santiago De Chile October 2003: Introduction And Summary Of Process.” International Review Of Mission 93.370-371 (2004): 407-412. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.