On this rarely experienced lectionary week (only when Easter is its
very latest in Year B) I share simply my 2000 sermon from these texts.
THE JOY OF BEING SICK
[Sing verse 1 of "O Day of Peace.] "O Day of Peace." That is truly what we long for the most, isn't it? And I think we can shed light on this theme of peace by joining it with the most prominent theme in today's Gospel, that of sickness vs. wholeness.
Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. He hangs around with the wrong crowd. So he gets flack from the religious leaders. "What kind of example are you trying to set?" they no doubt want to know. "Doesn't his fraternizing with the wrong folks signal some sort of approval, or at least to great a tolerance?" Jesus' answer: "Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick.
Let's combine these two themes by asking: when it comes to that longing for the Day of Peace, do we really know how sick we are? Or we might first turn that question around a bit by asking: when it comes to our being sick, do we know how much it's connected to our lack of peace? I think this might be a major drawback of modern medicine. Despite all the truly wonderful advances, we focus so much on treating diseased parts of the body that we can lose sight of the person as a whole. And even more so, we lose sight of the whole person in relationship to others and to the rest of God's creation.
The Hebrew word for "peace," "shalom" (one of Pastor Mary's favorites!), has that bigger picture in mind. When a Jewish person greets the other with the word "Shalom!" it didn't just mean "Peace!", it also means "Be well!" "Have wholeness, well-being!" "Shalom!" presumes that a person's well-being is tied to their experience of peace, that is, to how well they do or don't live in harmony with others and with nature. When we are out of harmony in our relationships, we are more prone to being sick, right? Does our modern health care system really understand this? Or, in getting so focused on diseased parts of the body, have we lost the importance of the bigger picture of peace?
In last week's Gospel, we saw that Jesus hadn't lost the big picture. When those amazing friends lowered the paralyzed man through the ceiling, the first thing he did was bestow forgiveness, which is an act of bestowing peace, an act of reconciliation in our relationships. Then, Jesus healed the man's bodily disease. "You are forgiven, now get up and walk." Yes, peace and wholeness are intimately related. That's the first thing we need to notice.
But let's go back to that first question: when it comes to that longing for the Day of Peace, do we really know how sick we are? Or, to turn it around a bit again: if peace is the state of being well, then what's the sickness? Isn't the sickness, conflict? If peace is being well, then being in a state of rivalry, conflict, and violence is the sickness. And Jesus says that he came for those who know they are sick. Do we know how sick we are when it comes to having peace?
What has captured me in these past several years is to come across something that has helped me better understand how sick we are. Not as a morbid thing, mind you. The Good News in today's Gospel is that Jesus came for the sick. It shouldn't be a morbid thing. We should be able to take a closer look at just how deeply sick we are because we know Jesus came to make us whole.
As Christians, we talk about our sickness in terms of "original sin." I think its crucial that we better understand this. We have tended to see this in hurtful terms that says we are somehow sick down to the core of who we are. But this is that individualistic way of looking at things that we talked about with modern medicine. Our sickness is one of relationship, a lack of peace, not some individualistic thing.
The term "original" has more to do with "origins." Our sickness goes back all the way to our origins in human community (again, relational, not individualistic). The issue of rivalry, conflict, and violence goes to the origins of who we are as human beings who strive to live in peace with each other, and not being able to find that peace. Look again at the wonderfully clear story of those origins in Genesis. It's all there: the rivalry, conflict, blaming, and then violence: the first man and woman are convinced by the serpent that they can rival God, that they can know what God knows. When God comes looking for them after they eat of the forbidden fruit, they blame one another. Adam even goes so far as to blame God: "I got the fruit from that woman you gave me." The situation of blame and rivalry breaks their peace with God, with each other, and with nature: the woman will labor in childbirth and the man at tilling the ground. Finally, the seeds of their sin blossom into the terrible tragedy of one son killing the other, violence.
But there's one more point that sometimes is overlooked: Human civilization descends from the brother who remained, Cain, the one who murdered. Yes, our sickness goes all the way back to our origins. That's what these stories tell us. Our sickness, our inability to live in peace with one another, and with nature, runs deep into our foundations of human community. In other words, it infects all our institutions, everything about our cultures.
The Good News is that Jesus came for the sick! But the catch you see is that you have to see that you are sick. And that's another way in this goes all the back to our origins. Since the beginning of human community, religion has been our main way of trying to live together in peace. Communities have stayed bound together around their mutual religious practices and beliefs. But religion is another of those institutions that's infected with the sickness! That's how deep to our origins this goes! Who is Jesus talking to when he says, "I came for the sick, not the healthy"? Jesus is talking to the religious leaders! Religion is supposed to help us toward peace. But what does religion end up doing? In some way, in some fashion, it falls into the very sickness of rivalry, conflict, and violence. How? Precisely by separating the between the sick and well, the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinners, the insiders and the outsiders, those going to heaven and those going to hell. Do you see the irony in Jesus' words? He's answering their question about why he hangs with the wrong crowd. But implied in his words is the fact that they are the most sick of all precisely because they deny that they are sick. Jesus came to help those who recognize that they are sick. As long as someone thinks they are well, Jesus can't help them -- which ends up being the deepest, the most untreatable, sickness of all. And it's the sickness most often found among religions, because the religious tend to divide the world between sick and well, thinking themselves well.
And before we are too critical of those religious leaders of Jesus' day, we better seriously ask ourselves if Christianity, as a religion, has done any better. What's our track record for dividing the world into sick and well, thinking ourselves well? One of the first assignments I gave my class at Carthage was to write an essay describing their religious experience thus far. And I bet that over half had negative things to say about growing up in the church, where either they or someone close to them had been hurt. And I dare say that hurt had been caused precisely in this category of being judgmental, of somehow deciding who's sick and who's well, who's good and who's bad, who's in and who's out, who's going to heaven and who's going to hell. Many of those young people have quit going to church, and either they've just set aside their spirituality for the time being and they're searching for it elsewhere.
You know who I think has done a better job than the established churches on this score? I think that Alcoholics Anonymous, with their Twelve Steps tradition, has been profound on this matter. For one thing, they've been careful to say that they are not a religion. But the key to their success has been to never let the participants say they are well. The best they can say is that they are recovering. The first, most important, most essential step in A.A. is simply to admit you're sick. You can't get anywhere without admitting that. Isn't that what Jesus is saying in today's gospel? I'm not for you, he's saying, unless you can see that you're sick. I didn't come for you unless you're sick.
And Jesus' message can go further because it doesn't just relate to alcohol or drugs. It goes to the heart of this theme of peace. When it comes to the sickness of sin, admitting that we are sick is the first and greatest step to peace. The biggest obstacle to peace usually ends of being some form of thinking that some of us are well and its those other folks over there who are sick. That's what drove alcoholics into A.A., for example. They got tired of people in church making them feel like they were the only sick ones. The wisdom of A.A. -- and, I propose, the wisdom of the Christian Gospel (as opposed to religion?) -- is that the only way in which we're all ultimately going to be in the same boat together, the only ultimate way to peace, is when we see that we all have this sickness of sin together. As soon as we begin to think that we have this thing beat, it throws us right back into the sickness again because we've now lost our peace. We've divided the world into two groups and lost our peace.
We have to end with the best news of all. Forgiveness. This is the most unique part of the Gospel, because it says that God is so gracious that God gives us the forgiveness first. That's the argument Jesus had last week with the religious leaders. He forgave the paralyzed man's sins before he did anything else. And the religious leaders were like, "Hey, you can't just go around forgiving people's sins before they do anything to deserve it. They have to preform the right ritual first. Or they at least they have to say they're sorry, repent." But this is what made Jesus message from God really different. Forgiveness comes first. Why? So that we can begin to hear that we're sick! And that's Good news because Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy! The first big problem, especially if we're religious types is to admit we're sick. But can we really admit to how deep our sickness goes if we don't first hear that we're forgiven, that we're already on the road to recovery? If we had a Twelve Step tradition in church, in other words, the first step would be forgiveness, then admitting we're sin-sick, because we can't fully admit that unless we're forgiven first.
Quick example: think of being told that you are seriously ill, like cancer. When you hear news like that, the first reaction is denial. You can't hear it, in other words. What could help you finally hear news like that? A doctor who begins to outline a very positive treatment. Forgiveness from Jesus is like that. It helps us to hear how sick we are because the treatment is already underway. Forgiveness is already the first step to peace, shalom, being well.
A friend of mine wrote a book on original sin which he titled The
Joy of Being Wrong. I think I finally understand that title. It's like
the joy of being sick, because it means we are already forgiven! When we
find out we're sick, we already are finding out that God is making us well!
And this wellness is true shalom! True peace! That's something to sing
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