Saturday, September 21, 2013

When you live in a crazy time, it can drive you crazy

Proper 7-C;June 23, 2013
Laura Austin plays Lady Macbeth, and
and Tyler Spicer (behind her) plays one
of the witches, in the RedHouse free summer
outdoor production of Macbeth.
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Ps. 42 & 43
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

DRAMA came right to our front door, yesterday. An audience of churchy and non-churchy people saw a production of Macbeth. Why, I wondered, are we seeing Macbeth on a midsummer afternoon, when any number of other Shakespeare plays spring to mind, for an afternoon’s entertainment. This story of evil, ambition and greed, of political intrigue and bloodthirsty vengeance – but this is a Saturday in June; what does any of THAT have to do with us?

Macbeth and his wife hatch their wicked plot to kill the king – and they succeed, although they leave a few more bodies in their wake then they had planned. But by the time Macbeth is made king, they are beginning to fall apart. The world has gone awry, and even though it was their evil deeds that caused it to happen, Macbeth and his lady are going mad. Macbeth sees the bloody ghosts of the men he has killed. Lady Macbeth cannot rest but dream of blood. The doctor her husband sends to heal her answers, She is

Not so sick, my lord,
as she is troubled with thick coming fancies,
that keep her from her rest.

Macbeth replies with the anguish of a husband, but with words tainted by the guilt that their actions have caused such madness:

Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
raze out the written troubles of the brain
and with some sweet oblivious antidote
cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
which weighs upon the heart?

Macbeth is not pleased when the doctor responds, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”

The doctor, and Shakespeare, and Macbeth, even, know that when you live in a crazy time, it can drive you crazy. When the society around you is crumbling, you can feel yourself coming apart. When there are conflicting voices and threats and challenges and fears, outside of you, you can feel them inside yourself, possessing yourself, almost taking your real self away from you. The world might be mad, but that madness is manifested one person at a time.

We have lessons today about naming the demons and confronting your fears. We have God taking a direct hand in the righting of some individuals. Elijah, caught up on a deadly conflict with King Ahab and his powerful wife, Jezebel, runs into the wilderness, prepared to die – willfully to die. But God intervenes, makes him eat and drink, sends him to a mountain cave. After all the noise of earthquake, wind and fire, it is in the sheer silence, the solitude, the absolute aloneness that Elijah hears the voice of God. God restores him to his right mind, to his mission, to his life. Now go back to Damascus, God says; right those wrongs.

In the story of the person filled with so many demons their name is “legion,” we hear great noise as well. The poor soul screams and hollers and breaks his bonds. When Jesus commands the demons to come out of him, they jump into a herd of squealing pigs and hurl themselves off a cliff. And here, too, as in the story of Elijah, all the drama is followed by silence and stillness: the man sitting clothed and in his right mind. He wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back to his home, to tell this story of God’s power.

That’s the thing about all these stories of healing in the bible. Yes, an individual is healed, but it is always an individual in a social context, in a setting, a person with a mission. The healing is to right a wrong, to get someone back on track, and then to get that person back into the community. There is not the sense that the person is at fault alone for his predicament. It’s the demons, it’s the persecution by the king – something from the outside is causing the trouble here. And when the person is healed, back he or she goes to work. The healing itself is proof that God is in charge of the world, not those demons who throw individuals out of whack, not power-hungry kings. There are no HIPAA laws in the bible, no medical privacy acts. When God heals you, it is your job to get back out there, and tell the Good News.

There are a lot of stories of healing in the Gospel of Luke, so many that Luke gets nick-named “the
physician.” These healings are signs, Luke tells us in this version of the story of Jesus, that the kingdom of God is breaking in all over. The reign of God is happening. God is in charge here, God is healing the world. God’s spirit and God’s goodness cannot be contained. They are specific incidents: Jesus healing that man in that place, and that man is living in a Jewish country occupied by a massive Roman military force – by the Roman military legions. The Gospels are pinpoint specific to that time and place.

And yet if we would but hear it, we can hear how these stories of healing apply to us, and to our time as well. God is breaking through in our lives, and in our time and place – God moves in to any situation where things have gotten out of whack, and if God has ever restored us to our rightful minds, then we should get out there and spread that Good News that the world is dying – literally dying – to hear.

Let’s remember this where we are, here in this church, in this garden, in this town and community, that the treasure we have is the treasure of the Good News. Like the man healed, wouldn’t we love to get into that boat with Jesus and sail away, but Jesus speaks these words to us, too: "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So let us then proclaim throughout our city how much Jesus has done for us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Whose hungry do we feed?

Proper 5C; June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

Many years ago, when we lived in a house from which, if we stood on one corner of the porch and got up on your tiptoes, we could see Onondaga Lake. In the 1990s, the county was beginning to get it together to clean up Onondaga Lake, and a campaign was launched: “Salmon 2000.” Clean the lake up enough that once again salmon would swim in it in abundance. My husband, Tim, who likes Florida, took it a bit further. Reports of the evidence of global warming were also in the news, and he was thinking a little of this climate change might not be such a bad thing for Central New York. “Manatee 2000!” he proclaimed. “Let’s have palm trees on Salina Street!”

As we know, the rain (or snow) fall on the just and the unjust, and so you could say that all of us will feel the effects of global warming. But some of us are more equal than others. Maybe we have the resources to absorb the effects of those changes, here in moderate Central New York, but millions of people around the world, who live by the seaside, or in flood plains, or in places which used to be dry and are now desert, can’t. Too much rain, or too little, and millions of people suffer. And we now know that global warming didn’t “just happen.”

The widow of Zarephath is suffering from the effects of an induced climate change. Desertification is already happening. God is punishing the evil king, Ahab, who is worshipping the false god, Baal, by bringing a drought to his kingdom. The mighty prophet Elijah tells Ahab and Jezebel that the power of only the one true God will bring rain and refreshment, and Ahab, who thinks his power comes from Baal, is very angry. Elijah leaves town, and God sends him to Sidon, to the home of this desperately poor widow.

If this widow lived in, say, DeWitt, she would pay $2.59 for a bottle of cooking oil. I don’t know what kind of meal she uses to make this cake, but if she used flour, it would cost her $1.99 – for five pounds. She is down to her last few tablespoons of oil, and last cup of flour. This woman is very, very poor. She is not just desperately poor; she is desolate, empty, without hope. We can assume that, like her king, Ahab, Baal is her god – Baal, who in this time of drought and famine has failed her. She is so poor that Elijah’s request seems an extraordinary imposition, but from some equally extraordinary reserve of hospitality, she uses her last bit of oil and last smidgen of meal to make a cake for this stranger. “Do not be afraid,” he says – you can see the incredulous look in her eyes – “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

And indeed, it happens just as the prophet said. The widow and her son are provided with food to last. But because famine and poverty take a devastating toll on the human body, even this sustenance is not enough to save the life of the widow’s son. She is now one step above desperation; she has enough energy to be angry, with the prophet and with God, the God who mustered enough grace to save her but not her child. Elijah then does the unthinkable, the unimaginable: he brings the child back to life. 

When I read this story I cannot get images out of my mind: images from our world, of people in war-torn regions, in places of drought and famine, earthquake and flood. Who are the Elijahs today, who save even a few women and children today? Can any of them, with their skill and resources, be as confident as Elijah, that God will give them the power to do what they say, to bring food, and hope and healing to these people living on the edge of desolation?

When Luke the evangelist writes his account of the life of Jesus, these are just the stories he finds, and uses. When Luke’s audience reads the story of Jesus bringing back to life the son of the widow of Nain, they would remember the power of Elijah, bringing to life the son of the widow of Zarephath. For Luke, the “usual suspects” are not who are interested in Jesus. They are too full of their own assurances, their own blessings, they are too secure in the belief that because they are well off, God has blessed them. Over and over again, Luke brings up these stories about Elijah, about the people he heals and helps – people outside of Israel, outside of the covenant, outside of expectations – people so desperate and desolate that they have nothing to believe in. Luke emphasizes that it is to these people that Jesus comes, and that it is these people who understand that the kingdom of God means new life for everybody, them included.

Think about how much you spend on groceries for one week. When I looked back, I was shocked to see that our family spent $9000 on food last year – not restaurants, but food. That is $750 a month. $175 a week.

The Springfield Gardens Food Pantry is about to re-open. There are people who live in the Town of DeWitt who depend on these groceries to make it through their month, people whose food income is well under $750 a month. Perhaps they are not as poor as the widow of Zarephath, but the disparity of income, in our own community, is shocking.

By the end of June, we have to come up with $3000 in order to open the food pantry. This money is used to buy food – Tary Simizon who is on the new board of the food pantry can tell you how it is budgeted, and how many people will benefit. The Food Bank of Central New York is remarkably efficient in getting groceries to the people who need them, and our cash donations go a lot farther with their food than what we could buy at Wegman’s and donate. $2500 has already been committed. Let’s pledge at St. David’s that by the end of June, we will get the pantry over the top. We will come up with $500.

Think about the widow of Zarephath, and that $2.59 she would need for oil, and the $1.99 she would need for flour. Think of what you spend on groceries. If your family of four, like ours in 2012, spent $9000, then maybe you could tithe a month’s worth of groceries, say, $75. Maybe you could donate ten percent of the cost of a week’s worth of groceries, say, $17.50. Or one percent: the cost of a cup of coffee. Whatever we can give, I know we can give, by the end of the month, $500 to support the emergency food needs of our neighbors, the families of the children who go to school with our children, the widows who might be living alone, anybody who needs help to make ends meet. If we do this, it will be a sign. The kingdom of God is at hand.

ENDNOTE: After not too many days had gone past, the congregation raised and donated over $1,000 to the DeWitt Food Pantry. Though us, as through Elijah, God works miracles. Let's keep it up!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Believe in miracles

Proper 4 C       June 2, 2013
1 Kings 18:20-21,30-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

In April, we had three groups of people talk to us during coffee hour – people doing, for lack of a better term, “global mission.” These were three groups of people working in, to say the least, difficult circumstances. 
  • The Sisters of St. Margaret respond to the daily needs of Haitian people still trying to recover from the earthquake. 
  • The Brackett Refugee Education Fund finds and supports the educational efforts of refugees fleeing strife-torn Burma. 
  • Dr. David Reed works with a medical clinic in South Sudan where, with medical interventions both simple and complex, this team of Africans and Americans performs miracles daily.

In order to get their work done, all three of the groups have to collaborate with the enemy. The Sisters were invited to Haiti by the elites around the Duvaliers, whose rapacious policies stripped the country bare and left people lives of violence and poverty. Accomplishing anything in that land of civil and geographical chaos is a miracle in itself. The Bracketts found, in their work with people living on the Burmese border, that that is a very dangerous place in deed; even the progressive Burmese, trying to democratize a dictatorship, would just as soon kill as look at the Muslim minority group that lives there. David Reed talked about one of the ways they keep their clinic safe: they invited enemy warlords – both sides – to receive medical treatment – eye surgery, I think. The clinic became common ground for these modern-day equivalents of the Roman centurion, a safe place where miracles could happen for anybody, on any side, in any condition.
So our gospel story today is full of things that do not make sense to us. Miracle healings. Working with and even praising the enemy. Reprehensible social relationships, like slavery. Acknowledgement of a military social structure that seems anathema to Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

This territory of contradiction is the place we are entering for the next several months, as we work our way through the Gospel of Luke. We will read many stories of miraculous healing. We will encounter many non-Jews, Roman and otherwise, who seem to understand what Jesus is talking about better than those people who would be his traditional followers. Social boundaries are crossed right and left, and all sorts of “disreputable” people – demon-possessed, leprous, women, even, are healed, included, empowered, employed, as servants of the Good News, the vanguard of the Basilea: the kingdom of God, the reign of God, even, as one scholar puts it, the Empire of God.

Jesus in the Gospel of Luke doesn’t care that he upsets people, that he shocks people by breaking the standard operating procedure. Our lesson today, of the healing of the Centurion’s slave, echoes back to a story Jesus told in his very first sermon – we read it in chapter 4 – in his home synagogue of Nazareth. He talked about a story from 1 Kings, where the prophet Elisha healed Naaman, the enemy commander, who then turns and praises God. This story got the Nazareth crowd so angry they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. And here he is again, not only telling the story of “healing the enemy” but doing it, but in front of a friendlier crowd. The Good News breaks all bounds, Jesus says. The power of God is recognized in the most surprising places. Human power structures, even those as powerful and vast as a Roman legion, are only human; the power of God to rule the world with justice and mercy and abundance and hope upends even all that.

What is a miracle? David Reed described the relatively simple eye surgeries that are routinely performed at the medical clinic in South Sudan. To those with those crippling conditions, who can never work or be productive members of their community or family, who must always be taken from place to place and cared for by other people who themselves cannot work or go to school because they have to care for these blinded people, people who cannot see the faces of those they love – for those people to have their sight restored is a miracle. It doesn’t matter if it comes with an “abracadabra” incantation, or mud and spittle rubbed in the eyes like Jesus did, or with a surgical scalpel in a sterile field: it is still a miracle. With an eye given sight, a whole community is healed.

Two thousand years ago people believed in miracles. We believe in miracles today. We believe in the people who restored us to full life, just as Jesus restored the lives of countless people he came in contact with. The Good News is not the technical aspects of what happened. The Good News is that none of us have to live like THAT any more, in fear and trembling, in darkness and despair. Those are the daily miracles that David Reed’s clinic, and the Brackett Foundation scholarships, and the patient work of the Sisters of St. Margaret accomplish. Like them, we are God’s hands, working those miracles.

At the offertory, we will add to our collection our gifts to the United Thank Offering, gifts of thanksgiving for the daily miracles in our lives. Give generously, give often. Like the Centurion, be part of the vanguard of the Empire of God.