May 5, 2013
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
In seminary, people were training to go out and save the world in myriad locations. Some were headed to the big steeple churches in the suburbs. Others saw ministry as the chance to make a difference in the inner city. For others, it was hospital chaplaincy or an even less traditional setting.
One thing I remember of those days was the subtle pressure that said the more urgent the ministry, the better the soul and faith of the minister. Where the need was greatest, the ministry was most important. Those heading into the inner city were often viewed like heroes going into battle.
I think this was a romanticized view of ministry. But it raises an important question, one raised by Jonathan Kozol’s book, “Amazing Grace,” written about a neighborhood in the Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in urban America. The question Kozol raises about the work of the church in such a place boils down to “if your good news is not good news here, is it really good news?”
If the Gospel is only good news for those who have a home and enough food on the table, is it really good news? If it is only good news for the able-bodied, or the college educated, or the well-employed, is it really good news?
Sometimes we really get it. We really understand that the love of God is for one such as us, that forgiveness is given for one such as us, that grace is real and true and can be trusted for one such as us. That is good news. Better news is that it is not just for one such as us, or even just those like us.
Today we heard two stories of good news.
Lydia, a woman who is the head of a household, a business owner, selling high end cloth to the 1%, is a success beyond the means of many in her day, far surpassing our expectations of a woman in such a patriarchal society. And she is a God-fearer, one of the Gentiles who has been attracted by the covenant of God, but not yet converted to Judaism.
The other is an unnamed man in Jerusalem, a follower of God, who has been ill for 38 years. It does not tell us what his infirmity is; we just know he is with the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. He has suffered this illness for most of his life and it has nearly done him in.
These two examples could not be much further apart. Lydia is able to provide for a household, conduct business, go and hear an itinerant preacher from Jerusalem. The man by the pool cannot even get to the pool where healing takes place when God troubles the water. Someone else always gets in first. He cannot even outpace the blind, the lame or the paralyzed.
It would seem that such diverse places would need very different good news.
For the man, the healthcare system of his day does not work. There is limited access and he cannot get in. Jesus does not ask if he wants to move to the head of the line, he asks if he wants to be healed. The man lays out his problem to Jesus, and he listens. And then Jesus offers a word of wholeness. He says, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”
Maybe the disruption of life-as-it-has-always-been is one similarity between the man healed by Jesus and Lydia converted by Paul. Such moments of healing are disruptive. They mess with the system.
Anthony Robinson remiinds us that such healing messes up life-as-usual and day to day expectations. He says it is like the story of the guy whose brother-in-law thought he was a chicken. He pecked and clucked and built nests all over the house. Finally, the home owner is fed up with his brother-in-law’s craziness and so goes to see a shrink and explain the problem. The doc says, “Sounds like a simple neurosis. Bring you brother-in-law in. I think we can cure him.” To which the home owner says, “Oh no, Doc, we can’t do that — we need the eggs.”
Walter Brueggemann points out that within the Bible, God’s Shalom takes two forms. Shalom is one of those words in Hebrew with multiple meanings. It is used to mean hello, goodbye, and peace. A better understanding for its Biblical usage is wholeness. Uncle Walt writes that one form this wholeness takes is when the Hebrew slaves in Egypt cry out to God and God hears their cries and remembers them and saves them. It is when people in the wilderness cry out for bread and God supplies them with manna.
The other form Shalom takes is when those who have the means share with their neighbor. It is the care for the widow and the orphan and the least of these in our midst. It is the sharing by all that means scarcity for none, as we remember in our communion liturgy. It is not simply reliance on divine intervention, but human faithfulness to the covenant that loves neighbor as a part of loving God.
Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” To that we can add another definition of poverty: when one has plenty, and cannot share.
The good news is that the good news can be good news for both Lydia and the man healed by Jesus, and everyone in between. The wholeness found in the love of God and love for our neighbor is freely available to both ends of the spectrum, and everyone in between. For this we can truly say…
Thanks be to God. Amen.