Proper 16C, 2013
The propers (readings from scripture appointed for today) can be found here
The Same Goal
My first call following seminary was as the chaplain at a level 1 pediatric trauma center. It was, and is, the most prestigious children’s hospital in Northeast Ohio and people from all over the world would arrive seeking care for their children. I had the opportunity to work with people of all faiths--all of whom were centered on, and praying for the same thing, the healing and comfort of their children.
Because of my experience at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, I have developed an uncomfortable relationship with the healing narratives in scripture--and whenever I read or hear one of these stories I can’t help but remember the broken hearted young mother who hurled a Bible at the resident--adamant that if Jesus could heal in scripture, certainly Jesus could literally heal her son.
It was heart breaking, and there were times I was angered at how these literal renderings of healing inspired what so often seemed to be a false hope--based in a kind of magical thinking, “If I pray hard enough, if I am good enough, my child will be well”.
I walked gently through this theological understanding, expressing again and again that healing can take many forms, in comfort, in forgiveness, in reconciliation. In providing comfort and presence, in learning that love too shall endure and that, and painfully so, some things are too much to carry on our own. In my time there, I found my own comfort in the image of Mary holding the body of her broken son--God’s intimate knowledge of the depth of human suffering became a comfort.
It was often horrific, often heart breaking, often just too much and too awful. And, in the midst of it all I found fellowship with the staff, all working towards the same goal--bringing healing when possible, providing comfort at every turn and accompanying everyone on the journey, no matter how that journey might end.
The same goal. No matter the path we walked in faith, no matter the clothes we wore, no matter...we shared the same goal.
So often in our day to day lives, we are distracted by trivialities. As a supply priest serving parishes throughout the greater metro, (“substitute preacher” I quip) I find it fairly easy to adapt to the peculiarities of place--customs differing from place to place and community to community. When folks wonder at my preferences (which I do have) I am honest, but also clear...as long as everyone is still alive at the end of the liturgy I am thrilled. Working on the cusp of death does that to a person.
But, really, aren’t we all just on the edge...the edge of finding ourselves and everything we know upended. The edge of pain, the edge of death--but also life and creation. Now, this isn’t some great nod to moral relativism...rather it is seeing ourselves and God’s love for all creation in those surrounding us. It is breaking out of the tempting dichotomy that sets up the Pharisees and Sadducees as somehow “evil” and the followers of Jesus (those folk who came to call themselves Christians, those folk who generally identify with Jesus and his disciples in this narrative) as somehow “good”.
It is seeing the truth that we walk this journey through life together, holding life and hope and fear and worry in our hands. Holding the power to destroy and the power to create...it’s a tenuous balance.
I can only wonder that the religious authorities held the same balance in hand. As they served their people, they used the law and the prophets as a means by which to give form and structure to a world that was so often broken and chaotic. So, the mandate to observe the Sabbath wasn’t just an arbitrary law...it was a commandment founded in the very origin of creation.
After God’s creation of the world, when it was all good and bathed in the perfection of the unbroken vision of God, God rested.
And when we rest, we are called to observe and honor the holy work that has been done. Work that we have done in mission and ministry those other six days. Sabbath becomes a creative act and affirmation all at once and completes the circle of the creative energies of the divine. Sabbath completes creation.
So, when Jesus healed the woman broken and bent--making her physically whole in a culture that saw deformity and illness as a sign of both spiritual and physical degradation--the religious authorities saw a tenuous balance upset. Perhaps their question was “she’s been broken for 18 years, why did you wait for the Sabbath to bring healing?” Perhaps they wondered, “is it about the healing or proving some point, what are your motivations?” Or, I wonder, were they afraid that if this one work was performed that others would quickly follow until there was no Sabbath and the circle of creation would be rent beyond repair?
But, I wonder as well, if they were stuck in a definition that was wrought by human hands. If perhaps their concern with the “liturgy” of the week’s cycle had blinded them to their own deep concern for healing.
Because, their business was about ensuring the wholeness of the community and the continuation of the faith. Their business was the rituals that restored the ill, infirm and those considered impure to the community following acts of healing. Their business, like Jesus’, could be described as making the broken whole and lifting up praise to a God whose fire consumes not in any act of destruction but in an act of creation as the broken pieces are refined and the remainder reflects God’s original intention in creation.
Now, in reflecting on the Gospel today, I remember a conversation I had with one of the interns. A person of devout and public faith, he and I could clearly identify each other as followers of God in any gathering--his kippah capped head and my clerical collar publicly marked our devotion. And, we worked together, walking in what we called “other people’s nightmares”. After sharing in one particularly awful death bed moment we found that we could wrestle together with some of the questions and challenges that we faced as people of faith, people trusting in a good and loving God, who witnessed death after death and suffering tempered by the touch of what felt like helpless hands. On one late friday afternoon I encountered him in the hallway--wishing him “shabbat shalom” I asked, “so you’re on call in house tonight, what about the Shabbat?” He paused and related that it wasn’t fair to the other interns to never have to work weekends--but that he focused on the fact that saving lives and providing care would always trump the mandate not to work. Life saving activities, and the alleviation of suffering were to take priority. Jewish law, as it has developed over the centuries is adamant “we violate Shabbat to save any human life; that's the Halacha, that's the practice, that's what we do.”
Isn’t that what we are all called to do? To let go of the trivial, to let those things burn away, to participate in creation and liberate those trapped--even if it means violating the truths and the laws we thought we knew?