"Being the Fringe" Pentecost 8B (July 22, 2012)
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Creator. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Holy One in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Will you pray with me? You who are, bless each of us today; open our hearts and spirits to your healing grace, so that we in turn may share that grace with others. Give us courage and wisdom and understanding, that we may be present with others in their time of struggle, be with them as they seek healing, and stay by their side as they become whole again—and may we teach them, and ourselves, how to not only live as whole people again but to reach out to others, offering them this life beyond healing. In all your names, amen.
I have some questions about some of the healings and others stories we read about Jesus. What happened to the man whom Jesus told to take up his bed and walk? The man who had been blind from birth before Jesus cured him—what did he do for a living? That little girl Jesus cured—did she ever have children of her own? In other words, what happened next? What was the next chapter in their lives? What did they do once they were healed?
We don’t know, do we? We aren’t told what the rest of their lives were like, these people whom Jesus cured. Very rarely, we can catch a glimpse—for example, Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross, is referred to as the father of Rufus—so presumably Rufus was someone known to the early church, and therefore we can guess that Simon became a Christian and so did his son. But mostly we don’t know. And I think that’s disappointing.
We don’t really see any models in the Bible for just “being church,” do we? We read about crises—the persecution, the conflicts over whether gentiles had to follow Jewish dietary laws and what should be done with donations from other churches—but apart from a couple passages about gathering together to read Scripture, to pray and sing songs and share a special meal, we don’t really know what their worship was like, or the church structure or even their buildings. We can make some guesses, but that’s all.
So we don’t know what happened after those dramatic events were over. We don’t know what “just church” looked like. We don’t have a model for that.
What happens in our churches after someone is “healed,” or becomes comfortable, settles in to church? Do they drift away, ready to face the world again? Do they become part of us, a member of our community? Do they go away, and then return later?
Someone once described our denomination in general and this congregation in particular as being like a MASH unit—a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, as in the TV series from the 1970s—yes, I know some of you weren’t even born then, but I am sure you’ve seen it in reruns. We take in the wounded, the ones hurt by marginalisation and the hatred of the world, and we offer them the healing love of Christ. Some people recover and we don’t ever see them again. Some of them go to other hospitals after the crisis is over—they are on their way to healing, comfortable with church again; they often end up in another denomination, usually the one they grew up in, but now healed. Some of them cycle through—they’re in the forefront of the battle and so we see them back here periodically. And there are some who stay after they are healed, and become part of the staff, so to speak. I am not talking about the clergy or the Board, really—although this indeed applies to them, to us. But each one of us here is a minister of Christ—not only those of us who have had hands laid on us in ordination or consecration or who have chosen by you to lead the church.
Each member of the church, each baptised person here today, from the newest and youngest member on up, is a minister of God. We represent Christ to the world. When people who don’t go to church, the “unchurched,” in church jargon, when they are looking for Christ’s image, where do they look? Not to politicians, not to teachers, not to the sky—they look to the church, capital C church—they look to the Christians they know; and that image we project, we share, of Christ, is what they think of as Christ.
Why would they be looking for the church? People say the church is irrelevant these days, most people don’t want that kind of commitment. Maybe we have it wrong, though. Maybe people need more commitment—perhaps they are hungry for more of a call on their lives, a continuing presence even after they are on the road to spiritual recovery.
I am not talking about working in the church—we need people to care for our finances and make sure we have communion wafers and lead Bible study—those are all important. But what we need just as much are people who pray; people who read and study the Bible and other writings about God; people who think hard and long about what God is calling them to do, here in this place. People who are looking not just for healing, but for a life beyond that healing.
Someone who is hurting spiritually, who yearns for a place to experience God with others, in community, is seeking to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, just as those people did when Jesus was here on earth. They look for the places where they can touch Christ’s presence in their lives, through community and mutual support and love.
Paul tells us in Ephesians that all Christians are one community—no matter how we pray or order our service, what language we use or what we use for Communion, what colour our skin or what hymns we use, we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, a community based on the love of Christ for the world, that great foundation stone. So when people find that healing, the fringe of Christ’s cloak, in our churches, they come to us and they find, I hope, comfort and healing. But then what?
There is a life beyond our healed hurts. That renewed life, that healed life, brings us to new places, offers new hope. And it offers new work, too. Here’s an interesting thing—living that new life helps us to continue to heal; and as we heal, we can live that new life even more fully.
To continue our medical metaphor, it’s like physical therapy. When a knee, for example, is injured and needs surgery and is operated on, and the torn tendon is repaired, the healing is not done, is it? Not only must the tendon heal and grow back together, not only must the skin heal from the incision, but the patient has to learn how to walk again. It’s hard at first—it hurts and the healing from the surgery isn’t done. But as the person walks and exercises the knee a bit more every day, that very exercise helps the blood flow, works towards the healing of the knee. So it is a process—the exercise that was impossible before is now not only possible, but by increasing blood flow, hastens the healing process. More healing, more exercise; more exercise, more healing.
It’s true in our spiritual lives, too. No one expects that we will able to run a spiritual marathon the first week we attend church; nor the first month or even year. But what we can do, that is what we do. As an athlete comes back from an injury by first walking, then running short distances and then longer ones, so too do we heal from spiritual pain one step at a time. The important thing is to keep moving.
So here is the challenge for us, church. When people look at us, at the church, not only this congregation, but capitol C church—do they see a place of healing and growth? Are they inspired to hope that here they can touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak and be healed, and—here’s the important part—then live a new life?
A church is a place of healing, most certainly. Every one of us is testimony to that. But it should also be a place of continued recovery and growth and hope. Each of us is, or should be, continuing to grow in our faith, to become more than we are, more than we think we can be. We are healed not to simply be healed, but to live more fully the new life we have been given.
Are we doing that, church? Are we using these new lives, this new hope, our healed selves fully? Do people see the fringe of Christ’s cloak in us? Do we, as a church and as individuals, offer them a glimpse of a new life, a healed and hopeful life and a way to move forward? How do we take that next step—how do we offer that next step?
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jesus and the disciples were planning to go on a retreat—to a “desert place”—just before the crowds came to them. They were preparing to withdraw to “rest a while.” A time of retreat is crucial to all of us. It might be a physical retreat, a time away at a camp or cabin or even just a hotel room for a few days. It might also be a focused time at home, when all the distractions are put away for a while—no TV, facebook ignored, cellphone silent—to focus on God and God’s presence with you. Not trying to hear God’s call or to hear what God has next for you to do—but simply resting in God. You’re not there to get your next set of marching orders, but to renew a relationship and rest.
I recently went on retreat—and I want to thank those who made it possible for me to go on that retreat. I had no revelations, no life-changing experiences. I read: I spent a lovely hour in their bookstore and spent too much money; I walked by the river and found a hawk’s wing feather; I slept late; I listened to my favourite music and had some of my favourite foods; I thought; I daydreamed; I wrote; I prayed. I rested.
It can be so easy for us who are committed Christians, who are active in our church, to think we must always be doing, must always have a plan in motion or a task to do. I think we would do well to learn from the contemplative monks and nuns, who understand that quiet prayer in a secluded place is as important as storming the barricades when it comes to changing the world. I know many of us have trouble, for various reasons, with being still. Physical movement and action are visible ways of doing something in the world—but times of silent contemplation and prayer, of “doing nothing” are crucial too.
When we take those times of quiet, we are not only healing ourselves, but we are preparing to lead others to healing. Jesus withdrew and rested in order to have the resources to heal. When you fly, you are told, in that pre-flight lecture no one listens to anymore, that “in the unlikely event that the cabin loses pressure, your oxygen mask will drop from the panel above you. Secure it about your face, then assist small children or the elderly who may be travelling with you.” Secure your mask first. You can’t help others until you have your mask on.
I am not saying that only people who are 100% perfect can help others. But we must be aware of our need for healing and working on it. Those who think they don’t need help can’t help others. It is in our very need of help that we recognise other people’s need.
As we heal, as we rest with God, we are given the resources, the courage, the strength, the grace, to continue to do God’s work of reaching out, of offering healing and hope—of being the fringe of Christ’s cloak.
In the many names of the one God, amen.