Rev. Cliff Frasier, First Congregational Church, UCC
June 21, 2009 (Healthcare Sunday)
Available online at: http://www.health-ministries.org/article.php?story=20091029144206923
Text: Mark 4:35-41
I. Good morning, First Congregational Church. What a blessing it has been to worship with you this Spring and to be here with you this third Sunday after Pentecost, this Health Care Sunday, this birthday of the UCC, this Father’s Day, and this first day of Summer. Today is the day the Lord has made. We can rejoice for the cycle of the seasons. We can acknowledge we are a part of God’s season-of-life, encouraging the practice of giving-thanks for those who nurture and have nurtured us within the rotation of seasons, including adopted or biological fathers, including mentors (perhaps) in their stead. And as we acknowledge the cycles and forces and people that give shape to us and in which we move and grow, we can acknowledge today — on this Health Care Sunday — the ways God calls us to not only be aware of how we are formed but how God calls us to actively engage and participate in shaping ourselves, as co-creators, keeping ourselves and each other healthy and in fact improving our minds, bodies and spirits to the degree possible.
Last week, in these final days of preparation for the Interfaith Healthcare-for-All mobilization, in which the UCC has provided great leadership, I came down with acute bronchitis, as if to remind me of the need for healthcare, it started with a cough, and then fever, and then came the discomfort with breathing deeply. And these illnesses make us aware, that even though the natural world around us supports us with the elements for life – water, air, sun, the inheritance of life’s pattern in our DNA – this same created order isn’t quite enough to support us, it requires we intervene and organize in such a way to keep forces of chaos at bay. It requires that we engage.
Illnesses often require our intervention, so I pushed back and went to the doctor. God calls us to take care of ourselves and each other, so that, to the degree possible, we may have life and have life abundantly, calling us to lengthen our days within reason, while also calling us to number our days so that we may gain hearts of wisdom.
In the policy-making reform-world, we may talk about health care as a “right.” In the economic world we may talk about health care as a cost or even as a profit. [“p-r-o-f-i-t]. In the health-care-delivery world, the social-work-world, we may talk about health care as a need.
But in our faith world, let us also talk about health care as a responsibility. As a moral responsibility. To care for God’s creation — for ourselves, for each other. Let us talk about not-providing-health-care as a failure in the realm of moral-responsibility. In other words, to the degree we allow within moral reasoning the category of . . . . “sin” . . . let us allow the failure to provide healthcare to be understood in just that way.
II. Today’s lectionary Gospel reading is from Mark chapter 4. The well-known story of Jesus and his disciples in a flotilla of boats crossing the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the back of his vessel, strangely, just as a storm approaches. His friends haven’t figured out yet that they are in the company of the One who calms storms; and who is the calm in the midst of the storm. And as the waves start to swamp the boat, they react as we would expect, becoming alarmed.
The scene in some ways is the Christian scripture equivalent of the Red Sea crossing, passing through troubled waters, a story that strengthens faith.
In this case, waters don’t part. Rather, disciples wake Jesus up, scolding him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
And I’m struck by this very real question: “don’t you care?” There’s indignation in it; fear both in the possibility that everyone’s going down and in the possibility that they have lost the care of their leader. If the waves and wind care nothing for them, then please, won’t you at least care?!
Have any of us ever been in the midst of one of life’s storms? Have any of us ever turned to someone who, even if they may not fix the situation, we hope will at least care?
In the first congregation I served, a seminary intern asked me: “When you pray, when do you pray to Jesus and when do you pray to God?” Which I thought was an interesting question, and I had to confess, and I still confess, “It’s usually when things get really bad I pray to Jesus, when I wake him up; the rest of the time, when things are good or just foreboding I turn my thoughts towards God.” And that’s the kind of theology I grew up in. God is normal, Jesus when desperate.
In this story, things are desperate, and disciples wake Jesus up, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And here begins the good news: he cares. The good news gets better: their expectations are exceeded. The One-who-remains-calm in the midst of the storm goes further than caring and actually shares the gift of calmness and pushes back on what threatens them.
Have any of us had an experience like this? Praying and having the answer exceed our expectations? Or turning to a friend and asking for help, and having the help exceed our expectations? Have any of us ever had an experience like that — that increases our capacity for faith?
III. So far, in this Gospel reading, it’s all good news. But in the troubled waters of this story, there’s something that doesn’t fit quite so nicely on a Hallmark card that I’d like to pay some attention to, an action that appears here in other parts of the gospels, a conflict of sorts, a challenge.
What I’d like to find in Mark chapter 4 is that Jesus turns to the wind and calms the wind. And then I’d like to read that the disciples respond by comprehending in-whose-company they are traveling.
But instead, between waking-Jesus-up and calming the waves down and the fears of the disciples down, there is an intermediary action, an engagement, where the text says, “Jesus rebuked the wind.” And instead of embracing his friends, says to them, “Have you still no faith,” rebuking them too; it’s an ornery moment, an admonishing moment, when Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets – rebuking may not be his usual modus operandi., but occasionally it is.
And is this necessary ? Can’t we take the admonishing moment out of the Gospel? Or attribute it to one quality in the personality of this particular person. What can we get from these ornery moments?
In struggling, I turned to Dorothy Day, that great social justice activist and pacifist, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and with as many compassion-credentials to her name as anyone, and social justice credentials, hoping she can be helpful here. Throughout her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she refers to the “works of mercy” from the “old fashioned prayer books” as the rule for Christian living. And these works of mercy are the hallmark of Catholic Workers today. She reminds us of the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; ransom the captive; visit the sick; bury the dead. And we would all agree. And then she lifts up another category of the works of mercy, spiritual works, so that when you cannot perform with your hands, you can deliver with your heart: to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offenses willingly; to comfort the afflicted; to admonish sinners; to pray for the living and the dead.
My problem again: admonishing, is this not tricky? Who is the sinner, and who are we to judge? Wouldn’t I be elevating myself into a morally superior position? And isn’t to do so problematic, and even a form of sin?
It’s one thing for me to see God’s Beloved, who is the calm in the midst of the storm, turning occasionally to the powers-that-be – natural or political – and rebuking them, for surely the moral authority to do so is not in question here; But it’s quite another thing to see the ministry of admonishment extending from prophets outward into mere disciples, into us, and into the church today.
Isn’t the church at its worst, and aren’t individual Christians at our worst, usually, when we admonish? Isn’t the church at its best, and aren’t individual Christians at our best, usually, when we avoid that, but rather when we perform the other merciful works: counseling the doubtful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead? Who could find fault with us for any of those? But fault-finding is possible when we enter into the ministry of admonishment., the ornery moment, requiring moral authority, and even discernment between right and wrong. Are we best leaving that to our ancestors in faith, and to those more righteous than we?
IV. Begging another question: What if we do wash our hands, leaving the admonishment to others and to our ancestors in faith? Would we become less engaged? God calls us to engage, to take care of ourselves and each other, to work for justice and peace, so that, to the degree possible, we may have life abundantly.
Begging the question: If we study scripture, if we prayerfully dialogue with people of faith from a wide range of religious and moral traditions; and if the heart of our faith, if the heart of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American traditions, if we all share the belief that human kind is sacred, and if conditions are mounting that degrade our common humanity, robbing us and our neighbors and the earth of dignity? If our traditions agree that war degrades us, and the failure to pay workers with living wages degrades us, and, on this Healthcare Sunday, if our traditions agree that profit-driven healthcare has, over time, produced conditions that degrade all of us, what then?
V. Returning to the reading for today, friends, believe the Good News: the heart of the Gospel is that God’s Beloved cares for God’s people, and engages on our behalf, and builds our faith. The ornery moment is a part of this story, but quickly gives way. The good news, is that the ministry of admonishment is just one theme in the list of the works of mercy. If we engage in demonstrating for health care reform, we should do so with humility, even with fear and trembling.
As denominational offices of the churches in the nation come together this Spring and Summer to coordinate their message on healthcare, on expanding healthcare, and as they do so in coordination with Jewish and Muslim leaders, and with leaders from non-Abrahamic traditions, and as they scold the chaos of the healthcare non-system of the uninsured and underinsured, to scold the waves of opposition against healthcare reform, we need other spiritual works of mercy from all of us: our prayers for guidance; for instruction; our prayers for forbearance should the message ever misplace; our prayers that this kind of engagement is just a momentary action giving way quickly to counseling the doubtful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead. Amen.
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