“you are set free from your ailment”

How awesome would it be if we could all hear the words “you are set free from your ailment.” Ailments come in many forms, some are obvious, such as the one afflicting the woman in today’s gospel passage, but many ailments are not obvious, and it is those that I want to focus our attention on. When I first read today’s gospel, I immediately thought that the woman who is healed could very well have been suffering from a mental or emotional ailment and that her inability to stand straight is a possible metaphor for her feeling depressed and Jesus was able to help her shake off her depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability among people ages 15-44 in the United States and can be so mild that it goes undetected or so severe that a person can lose the ability to function normally. Most of the time our sermons, our writings, and our discussions of Christianity center around obvious problems in the world, such as poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and how as followers of Christ we are called to respond to those problems, but rarely do we talk about the internal poverty and hunger that can go along with the tangible problems humanity is facing. Rarely do we talk about hidden illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Rarely do we talk about how we can, and should, rely on God to heal our emotional wounds and how we can help God’s healing love reach others through our actions.

I have a good friend, whose name is Steve, who regularly walks the streets of Greenfield to check in with the people who live on what we might call the margins. Some are homeless, some are drug addicts, some are alcoholics, some are parents who have lost custody of their children, some work, and some panhandle. Steve is very upfront with the fact that he cannot solve their problems, he is not there to find them work, to give them money, or to find them a treatment program, what he is there to do is to talk to them, to listen to them, and to accompany them. Steve believes that his calling from God is to be a companion for people who are otherwise forgotten by the rest of us and by being their companion he is bringing the healing power of God to them, not in a way that is taking away the hardship in their lives, but in a way that might help them to take the first step towards ending those hardships. Often when people are in a difficult situation and are ignored, they give up because they assume that no one would even notice if they were dead. Steve’s actions bring his companion’s hope, it brings them hope that there are people in the world that care about them, it brings them hope that their lives can improve and it introduces them to the idea that God is a loving creator. It introduces them to that because Steve does not hide the fact that he is there because he believes God has called him to be. So, through him, many people get to experience what it means to be in a relationship with God, they get to experience the healing love and compassion of God through Steve’s willingness to simply talk to them. When Steve goes for his walks he goes armed with knowledge, he knows where people can get a hot meal on any day of the week, he knows where they can get a hot shower, he knows where they can go if they want to go into a recovery program. You see, even though his main purpose is to be a companion, he makes sure that knows about the things that may be useful to the people he is interacting with. Over the past few years Steve has built relationships with many people who live on the margins, he has given people the information that he knows, but most importantly he has been and continues to be a friendly presence to them, he has become a person that they know they can rely on and when they see him coming, they stop what they are doing and say hello. Because Steve answered God’s call to this particular ministry, the people Steve works with can walk a little more upright as they begin to heal from the pain of the stigmas that have been placed on them by the rest of us.

Bringing God’s love to the world is not always easy, mainly because either we get in the way or the people we are trying to reach are not receptive. There is a movement across the church to bring about racial healing and reconciliation within the United States, which is something our nation needs desperately if we are going to move forward in positive ways. When it comes to race, our nation is broken, I used to have the usual white male reaction when discussions of race occurred, I would actually think to myself “my ancestors didn’t own slaves, they weren’t even here when slavery happened and my family is from the north and the north is not racist.” Well, like many people, I was wrong! Whether anyone I know was directly involved in slavery is irrelevant, what matters is that I, as a white person, have benefited because of the color of my skin and other people have been forced to live with an ailment that has crippled them all their lives. It was my love of God that opened my eyes to how wrong I was and for the need for racial reconciliation. As a part of my training to be a deacon I had to participate in race training, and since then I have completely changed my thinking and spent a great deal of time trying to learn more. For 500 years an entire group of people have been plagued by a disease that has crippled their ability to reach their full potential as God’s children and the name of that disease is systemic racism. Systemic racism has caused deep, deep wounds for millions of people. I believe God has the power to heal these wounds, and I believe that God is working on it, one stubborn person at a time. Last weekend the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia held a two day Pilgrimage of Racial Justice that followed the Slavery Trail of Tears, at one of the stops the walkers participated in a “responsive litany that traced the long history of systemic racism in America, from slavery to the Ku Klux Klan to Jim Crow to present-day voter suppression and unequal policing of neighborhoods. After each prompt, the people responded in a loud, clear voice, ‘We remember, and we repent.’” These are powerful words and they are words that can lead to the healing of the very deep wounds, but they are only the first step in a very long process. Through the power of Christ the people of Southwestern Virginia have begun the healing process by their willingness to change the way they think about race, and the people who live on the margins in Greenfield have learned of God’s love through Steve’s willingness to share his time with them. We too can be agents of God’s love in the world and bring healing to many people, and many of us already do so. Every time a meal is delivered and every time a family picks up some food from the community center God’s healing love is being shared. A part of having an active relationship with God is seeking opportunities to share our good fortune with others, and since school starts this week, I decided to give you homework. Over the course of the week I want you to answer two questions: Have I contributed to anyone’s pain in my life?  How do I bring God’s love to the world? Once you think you have identified your answer, spend some time in prayer. Thank God for all that you have and all that you are, ask God for forgiveness for the pain you may have caused and ask for guidance as to how you can be most effective.

Set aside the distractions

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…”

I think these are wise words and if the rich man in Luke’s parable had heard them maybe he wouldn’t have been such an idiot. If you want to know how to NOT live like a disciple of Jesus, then follow the example of the rich man. I draw our attention to what, I believe, is the most important passage in today’s Gospel. “I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.’” In this exchange the rich man is congratulating himself for all the things he has accumulated and accomplished, and God basically calls him an idiot. So how does the parable of the rich man jive with what Paul says in his letter to the Colossians?

Well, in both cases the message is, don’t get distracted by earthly things. Don’t get distract by wealth; don’t get distracted by getting your way; don’t get distracted by your desire to win; don’t get distracted by making sure everyone else is happy at the expense of yourself. It is obviously easy for me to say don’t get distracted, but it is important and because it is important, I refer us back to Paul’s letter, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” While I love this passage, I think it misleads us, it perpetuates the false idea that all things of God are somewhere else. God is not up in the sky somewhere; God is not in some mythical kingdom called heaven. God is here, God’s kingdom is here, and we are a part of it. Both Paul and Luke are telling us that we need to not be distracted by human made things, and focus on what it means to live a life after resurrection, because we have already been resurrected through our baptisms and our acceptance of Jesus as the son of God. This whole thing that we do, (waves hands around the church) is not about some distant future, it is about now. It’s about praising God for life itself and for the things that sustain us, this is the point the rich man forgot. He was so focused on congratulating himself and figuring out how to keep all that he had, that he forgot about God’s role in his life. Our faith is about being in relationship with God and one another, it is about treating people with dignity and respect because they are children of God. One of the topics that has dominated the news lately is the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. Hundreds of thousands of people have walked thousands of miles with the hope of finding a better life. They could have tried to cross the border without permission, but most of them did not do that, instead they presented themselves in accordance with both US and international law and asked for asylum. The US immigration authorities have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have asked for asylum and they are doing their best to deal with the situation, hence the camps. Are the camps perfect? Definitely not! Could the US government do better? Absolutely! Are the ICE agents evil? Of course not. Has our nation’s response to this crisis been a Christian response? Probably not, instead our nation’s response has been distracted by earthly and human made distractions such as cost, politics, and nationalism. A Christian response would focus on the commandment to love our neighbors. When we do that, when we focus on the love of neighbor, we are then setting our minds on the things that are above. Political arguments, arguments about the cost of giving every person in the camps a toothbrush and the fear that the US is somehow being invaded are all earthly based things and should be irrelevant to how we treat our brothers, sisters, and siblings from other places. If I were to die tomorrow, what good would my political views, my concern about the cost to taxpayers, and my fear of strangers do anyone? Those questions are exactly what Luke and Paul are getting at in today’s readings. If we want to experience God’s kingdom, then we must resist being like the rich man, we must set aside the distractions, focus on God, and discern the way forward.