Lent 2: Community
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2015
Mark 1: 40-45
God of Grace, we are provided today with a seemingly simple narrative in our Scripture. Help us to hear it with some of its complexity and challenge, that this story may be your word to us. Amen.
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Our scripture reading this morning addresses hurting and healing. It is embedded with controversy, though it may not appear so at first. Jesus’ healings were dangerous because they empowered people who had been left out of the community.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that when Jesus heals a leper there is more than a “medical miracle” happening. It is an example of how God restores the community and its members to wholeness. Listen for the word of God: Mark 1: 40-45.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
We are used to thinking of ourselves in the role of Christ, those who bring healing to the world. After all, we are called to be imitators of Christ. But what if we are the leper; the ones in need of healing? How do we do that?
How do we as hurt and broken people, pastors, leaders, congregations, seek the healing of Christ for ourselves and for one another?
When I used to act out this story of the leper’s healing with confirmation classes, every year the social miracle astound would astound us more than the medical one. To be made whole by being welcomed, included, by belonging – physically healed or not – would amaze us. To be embraced, not on any terms or conditions, but as we are.
I remember when my mother-in-law was undergoing radiation after her breast cancer surgery in 1993. She stopped going to church. Not because she stopped needing church. She needed it more than ever. But because as she was losing weight and losing her hair and developing a sallow complexion, she thought her presence would ‘bring down’ others; that her presence would make uncomfortable the people who came to church to be ‘lifted up’ and inspired. A colleague of mine tells a story about a friend who, after leaving the doctor’s office upon hearing his positive diagnosis for HIV, walked down Madison Avenue in a daze; the only word he could think of was “unclean.” And he comments, “It was bad enough to know he was ill, but quite another to feel the social ostracism he might suffer, not only from people who didn’t understand his illness, but also from his friend who he believed would now look down on him.”
Though my title is “Community,” this is not a ‘church membership’ sermon, or ‘go get those lost ones’ or a ‘notice who is missing and call them’ message. Of course, people who have been away for a while from the church need welcoming too. Rather this is a “let’s look at ourselves honestly” sermon and consider what it might mean for us as individuals and as a congregation to come before God for our own healing. No games – not trying to be the martyr that inspires others. No conditions – not self-righteously demanding that others change if they want to be truly part of the body of Christ.
What if being here meant opening ourselves to pain, to hearing about pain, to hearing about brokenness, mistakes, the ugly stuff we often want to be clean of. The stuff some of us, frankly, come to church to escape from.
Jesus didn’t just walk up to this man with leprosy and heal him. The man came before Jesus and asked him to make him clean. Jesus made him clean. Jesus restored him to community because he asked. What might we be able to be for one another? What might we be able to be and do for the world? What might we discover about God? If we asked Jesus to make us clean – to restore us to community?
Let’s be honest. Some of us are really angry, we may be angry about our job or things in our family and act out of that anger here in the church. Other times we’re angry at the church and let it be known. But when a member is angry, we don’t stop loving them. Someone’s being angry doesn’t make them any less a part of Christ’s body. And as the body of Christ we seek ways to listen for what is true in the midst of that anger and to support our friends as they learn to hold and use their anger in ways that don’t harm others or themselves.
Let’s be honest. Some of us here are really depressed. We may be depressed about our lives, about a relationship, about our future. We may be depressed because we are running through savings with health care bills – or lost our jobs and there’s very little on the horizon. Some of us have lost the sense that God loves us more deeply than we could ever imagine. And some of us desperately need to know and experience that love from the folks in this room. But too often our depression is dressed up with a smile, or a joke, or a platitude, because we fear telling others how terrible the pain really is. We even fear telling others – hey, I’ve been seeing a therapist about this. And we worry – can we be vulnerable? If people know that I’m depressed, will it be used against me? Will someone think I’m crazy or not fit to serve on the church council or to teach our children? But someone’s being depressed doesn’t make them any less a part of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we support one another when we feel desperate and alone, knowing that these feelings happen to most of us at some time. And sometimes depression can be so deeply devastating that we need one another to believe for us, to help us get help, and to believe in us. So we refuse to lose hope and continue to love even and especially when others cannot love themselves.
Let’s be honest. Some of us are in relationships that are broken beyond repair or straining under weight that they cannot bear. Some of us feel like our marriage, a friendship, the nurture of our children has become a burden that we can no longer carry – and that there’s no help and no hope. Others of us are addicted – to alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling – or we’ve really screwed things up, we’ve had an affair, we’ve deeply hurt another, we’ve committed a crime. And we are ashamed. We worry that church is the place where “families” go or “good people” go and that, because of what we’re going through, we no longer belong in church. But being in broken relationships does not mean you are no longer a part of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we reach out to one another…
Let’s be honest. Some of us are mourning. Some of us miss loved ones who have died so much we don’t know where to turn. Some of us have had miscarriages. Some of us feel that a part of ourselves has died and that we’ll never ever be able to love or hope again as we did. Some of us cry, long and hard. Some of us just feel hard inside and out. And so we come to church straining for some real sense of resurrection – some experience of God’s beloved care for us in life and beyond. Yet grieving and longing for a sense of resurrection that we may not yet experience does not make anyone less a part of the body of Christ. And as we as the body of Christ share our memories, our hopes, our experiences, we share in the communion meal together with the saints in heaven and we long together for the full presence of Christ.
Now I’m not suggesting that we have no distinctions between the private and the public. That beginning immediately we indiscriminately walk around baring our souls to anyone and everyone. No. I’m not advocating “exhibitionism,” I’m advocating healthy risk. I’m asking us to share honestly about ourselves– about not only the difficult things but the truly amazing things – because sharing both involves risk. Each of us must make decisions about what to share, when to share, and with whom – a small group? A prayer minister? A pastor? A friend in choir? A member of the bible study? A youth leader? Part of the role of a pastor is to support members of a congregation in taking as much risk as is appropriate so that we can build a trusting, caring community, capable of receiving and sharing God’s healing.
I invite you to join me in making our church a place of welcome, a place where we can ask to be healed; to be restored to community, that all who belong and all who are or feel exiled may experience and share God’s transforming love.
Just look who gathers at this table!
Following the sermon we sang Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table! by Tom Troeger, which includes the lines:
Look who gathers at Christ’s table! Hear the stories that they bring.
Some are weeping; some are laughing; some have songs they want to sing.
Others ask why they’re invited, burdened by the wrong they’ve done.
Christ insists they all are welcome. There is room for everyone.