SERMON ON THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
St. James Episcopal Church San Francisco, California
July 22, 2012
By Elizabeth Nelson
Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I’ve been asked to preach about healing today, and I’ll do my best. But before I do, there’s another theme wandering through these readings that we need to maybe pat on the nose and herd out of the way.
How do you feel about a set of Biblical metaphors that compare you to a sheep? I have mixed feelings about it, myself. On the one hand, I have great respect and affection for ruminants, especially the woolly ones; they’re peaceful, and productive, and cooperative. On the other hand, it doesn’t thrill me to be described as part of a herd – a herd that, by reputation, is not all that bright, that for its own good needs to be tended and led by somebody smarter. And that somebody is ... who, now? The Lord is my shepherd – that, I have no problem with; Jesus can call me a sheep whenever he wants to. But human shepherds of human sheep? I’ve lived too long in a democracy to sit easy with that image for leadership and community – even, especially, for the community of the church. Maybe I’d feel different if I’d spent more time with actual sheep, and actual shepherds. Maybe we all could have a conversation some time about what images of community and leadership could work better in a 21st-century city church like St. James.
But today I’ve been asked to preach about healing ... and I’m going to start, unusually for me, by asking you to look at your service bulletins. Turn, if you would, to the Gospel reading, and look at the scripture citation, where the chapter and verses are listed; read that over. Anything strike you as odd? ... like that nineteen-verse gap in the middle? Anybody notice that gap before we went looking for it just now?
There’s nothing sinister in those nineteen verses. If you go home and look them up – and I hope you will – you’ll find two miracle stories: Jesus feeding the five thousand, and Jesus calming a storm. If you’ve been coming to church on a regular basis recently, you’ll realize that we’ve heard both of those stories in the last few weeks. In fact, if you sit down and read all of chapter 6 in Mark’s Gospel – and I hope you will – you’ll realize that we’ve heard most of it on Sundays over the past couple of months; it’s just been cut up in bite-sized pieces, and rearranged. Mother Church, like the good shepherdess she is, has been hand-feeding her lambs.
And that’s not bad. Ruminating on bite-size pieces of Scripture can help us digest the message, and it definitely makes liturgy more manageable. Sometimes, though, it’s important to take the book in your own hands and read through an whole chapter – or more – to see how all the bite-size stories fit together. It’s important this morning to situate today’s patchwork Gospel reading inside the big story that Mark’s Gospel is telling. Jesus’ disciples have just come back from their first ventures out on their own as teachers and healers. Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, a holy and fearless truth-teller, has just died a horrible, sordid death at the command of Herod the king. Jesus badly wants some quiet time for himself and for his disciples, and the crowds will not leave him alone – and when he sees the crowds following him, he can’t leave them alone either. He has to teach them, he has to feed them. He’s so tired on the way back in the boat that he falls asleep in the middle of a storm. Wherever he shows up, word spreads, and people come carrying their sick relatives and friends, trying to get them close enough to Jesus to touch him and be healed. As the story goes on he’s going to continue teaching, and healing, and feeding. He’s also going to start arguing – loudly – with the Pharisees and lawyers. Before long he’s going to start talking to his disciples about Jerusalem, and the death that’s waiting for him there.
Why is this big-picture story important today? It’s important because I’ve been asked to preach about healing, and the one thing I know for sure about healing is that it happens right in the middle of everything else – in the midst of joy, and horror, and politics, and grief, and hunger, and storms, and exhilaration, and exhaustion. When you and I join hands and pray for healing, everything that’s going on in your heart and in mine, in your life and in mine, is part of that prayer. We come as we are, in the midst of whatever kind of day we’re having. And God meets us there.
And that’s the only general truth that I’m prepared to proclaim about healing, because I don’t actually understand much about it. How it works, why it works differently at different times for different people, I can’t begin to explain. So the rest of what I have to say this morning is not a sermon, it’s a story – my story, the most direct and personal experience I’ve had with healing prayer.
Some of you know that my father died a few years ago, at the end of 2007. A few of you know that for months before that – especially during the year before he died – I showed up Sunday after Sunday at the healing ministry in the side-chapel during Communion, asking for prayers for my father. I had some pretty specific ideas about what I wanted God to do for him – ideas that weren’t really that remarkable or miraculous, unless you happened to know my dad. For example, I wanted him to see a doctor – to get a medical evaluation, and maybe some treatment, for the physical troubles that were making him more and more miserable; this, for a man who’d prided himself his whole life on staying away from doctors. I wanted him to get some help to ease up on his drinking – this, for a man who’d been self-medicating with wine and bourbon for years. I wanted him to accept a little more assistance, and a little more company, from his family and his community – this, for a man who had never much enjoyed the company of other people unless he could be outside with them, doing chores. Most urgently, I wanted my father not to take his own life, which he’d started talking about doing and which he had the means to do – this, for a man convinced to his core that death on his own terms was infinitely preferable to helplessness and hospitalization.
So, I prayed – in great and specific detail. The community offered up more opened-ended prayers, for strength and guidance and healing. And what happened? Well, Dad never did see a doctor. He never did stop drinking. He wanted no more company and no more help than one of my sisters could give him on the weekends. Those things didn’t happen. Here’s what did: he found one reason after another to postpone ending his life. He spent time with all of his daughters, for the first time in a while, and his daughters developed some new lines of communication with each other. And when he died, it was at home, of natural causes – not a suicide, and not in the hospital.
This is not a story about the remission of illness and suffering; it’s not a story about the flowering of peace and joy in the midst of pain. That last year of his life was a hard time for my father, and a hard time for the people around him. But some love soaked into the hardness of that time, and some light found its way into the darkness of that time, and as time goes on I understand more and more clearly that God is nowhere near finished healing my father. That love, that light, that understanding ... are not the healing that I prayed for. But they’re healing even so. And this community’s prayers helped to create the space for that healing to happen.
That’s my story. Other people have their own. I don’t know why the stories are so different; I don’t understand how this works. I do know that Jesus tells us to pray for each other – to carry each other’s pain and neediness to God, to let others carry our neediness and pain. We come just as we are, in the midst of whatever kind of life we’re having. And God meets us there. Amen.