Saturday, June 27, 2009

Touching the Holy and Holy Touch

The Importance of Human Touch in Ministry

A sermon preached in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), June 28, 2009.

Mark 5:21-43

Madeleine L’Engle, author and theologian, once said that evil is great good gone awry. Good things have a way of getting twisted. Many times human beings start out with a good idea that we turn into a good reality and proceed to make the reality into a system. First news you know, the good idea has become infected with systemic blight. Education systems, health care systems, welfare systems, economic systems, legal systems, and religious systems are just a few of those we can readily point to as having started out as good ideas and have ended up corrupted to one degree or another.

Holiness is such an idea. It has its roots in a primal human experience which we could call awe. Human beings encounter aspects of nature or dimensions of interpersonal relationships and sometimes, without any warning, we strike a vein of profound mystery. It shakes us to the core. Sometimes we are wounded, sometimes we are healed. Sometimes we are crazy with fear, sometimes we sink into unsurpassed peace. Out of such primal experiences we encounter a Reality far above and beyond us, too big for our imaginations, and certainly too great for us to control. Although it might look a little primitive to us on some days, on other days we can see clearly that ancient human beings responded appropriately to these experiences of transcendence with respect, reverence, awe, and even fear. Such experiences led our ancestors to mark off certain things as too live to touch—like so many high voltage wires or third rails that simply were too powerful to play with. Sometimes those perilous things they observed as connected to disease or relationship-destroying behavior. So they began to compile lists of things that were taboo. Every culture has its taboos. Almost no taboo is universal, but no society is without its own.

The good idea of holiness and its corollary taboos developed into the holiness code in the Book of Leviticus. Jesus inherited that, as did his whole society. It would be highly incorrect to say that Jesus dismissed all ideas of holiness. Clearly he did not, as the Lord’s Prayer attests: “Hallowed [holy] be your Name.” Moral and spiritual holiness are distinct from ritual holiness, however. Two of the many taboos in place to protect ritual holiness were the taboo against having contact with a woman who was bleeding and the taboo against contact with a corpse. If you don’t understand the strength of those two taboos, there is little way that you can understand today’s gospel, in which both taboos figure.

You can imagine what is going on in the mind of this woman in Mark’s story. Not only is she sick; she has a condition that alienates her from the rest of society and taints her as ritually impure. Even menstruating women had to undergo purification. For her, however, there was no let-up, nor had there been for twelve years. By this time, no longer is she merely sick, she is bankrupt, having spent all her money on doctors who have not helped her. Sick and poor (did you ever here of that combination?), she has heard about Jesus. She comes, anonymously, untouchable as she is, desperate for healing. She reasons that if she only touches his clothes, she will be made well. It is easy to do, so many are crowding around him. She reaches out, touches him, feels in her body the hemorrhage stop, and quickly slinks into the throng. He stops. “Who touched me?” he asks. He has felt power leave him. He looks around. Perhaps he spots her, catches her eye. She knows she is caught. Trembling in fear, she comes, falls down before him, confesses the whole thing. Usually it is his touch that heals. This time it is her touch that has brought forth the healing power. It was an act of hope, trust, faith. And it worked. Her faith had made her well. Touching him, she was healed of her disease. He says so.

It has all been an interruption. Jesus is off to the house of Jairus, synagogue leader and father. His twelve-year-old daughter is sick and at the point of death. Jairus has come up, pleading, “Please, please, please, Master, please come and lay your hand on her. I know that if you do she can make it.” By the time the nameless woman has intruded herself into his journey, what takes only a minute or two in the story is long enough in reality for Jairus’ little girl to die and for messengers to come announcing the sad news to him.

“Why trouble the rabbi any further?” There is a world of difference between a sick body and a corpse. Not only from the point of view of Jairus and any others who loved her, but from the point of view of the holiness code. Don’t you dare touch a dead body, else you will be contaminated. And until you are ritually cleansed you will be as a corpse yourself, an alien to your community, untouchable. Jesus tells Jairus not to fear, only to believe. When he arrives at the house, the mourners have started the funeral rites. Perhaps defensive and embarrassed at what seems like his silly remark—she is not dead, only sleeping—they laugh. Nuts! He puts them all outside, takes his in circle with him along with Jairus and his wife. He touches the untouchable corpse and says, “Talitha, cum.” “Little girl, get up.” She breathes again! She gets up, walks. He tells them to give her some food.

Ministry is about reaching across boundaries and chasms and touching. Sometimes it is literal. Sometimes it is metaphorical. But if we get nothing else from the stories of Jesus in the gospels, we are bound to see that he paid no attention to all the prohibitions that the holiness code set up, largely erecting barriers to keep people from polluting the religious cult. He cared enormously about ethical decisions, and profoundly about spiritual holiness. In Matthew’s gospel he enjoins his followers to participate in the very life of God by being all goodness, all righteousness. But if it is a matter of keeping the Sabbath instead of healing; if it is a decision between eating corn or going hungry; if it is a matter of observing the purity regulations or healing a leper; if it is a matter of steering clear of a corpse or raising an only daughter to life; if it is a matter of reprimanding a ritually isolated woman for “stealing” his power or confirming her healing, there is no issue for Jesus. Down come the barriers as he reaches across them. To him, nobody is untouchable. And no regulation takes priority over human need.
It is not the things which go into the body that defile a person, he says in one place. It is rather the things—the words, the behaviors, the acts—that come out of the heart of a person that defile.

For some time now I have been thinking with you about ministry, looking at the scripture through the lens of ministry. Jesus’ example teaches us something of singular importance about ministry: you can’t do much of it without touch. And you surely can’t do ministry if your notions about holiness are all mixed up. Because ministry, which in a real way is the expression of God’s holiness in the sphere of human activity and relationships, creates and restores community. We can never subordinate it to ritual purity. To do so is to take a great good and make it just the opposite. For nothing is further from the Reign of God than the depreciation of God’s children, or for that matter, anything that God has made.

Do we need even to point out that the very regulations that Jesus ignores in the holiness code are frequently those things that religious people pull out to cause or to extend alienation among people? You have eaten the wrong kind of food, taken the wrong kind of lover, had the wrong kind of sex, worn the wrong kind of clothes, gotten yourself tattooed or pierced, looked at the wrong things or read the wrong books, they shake fingers and warn. But you will never hear him saying any of that, as strong as some of his denunciations can be.

Ministry is about reaching out and touching. It is laying a hand on bread and blessing it to be the Body of Messiah. It is laying a hand on wine and touching the cup to be as his blood. And it is about taking the bread and wine into one’s own person and being transformed into the one whose body and blood it is. Ministry is laying hands on the sick and praying for the power of the Holy Spirit to possess them and heal them. It is about washing those who come to Christ in the laver of baptism and touching them with the cross of his death and resurrection. There is little place in Christian practice for stinginess with touch, though there is a large place in Christian practice for ensuring that that touch always be loving and respectful. We at least touch hands at the time of the Peace. Lovers take each other by the hand in holy matrimony, and give each other their bodies as the sacramental meeting place of human flesh and divine reality.

A young priest once went to his first parish, located somewhere near the Bowery in New York City. On his first night in the parish’s shelter for the homeless drunks, he found himself disgusted, sick with the filth of the guests. Nervously he fidgeted with the buttons taking off the shirt of a man who had thrown up all over himself. A presence beside him whispered. “Let me help you. Don’t be afraid to touch,” counseled his mentor. “That’s how they know we care.”

When Abraham took little Isaac to the foggy land of Moriah to be sacrificed, how did he take him? By the hand. And when he found that God wanted life, not sacrifice, and he brought his living son back down the mountain, how did he take him? By the other hand. Touch. In the realm of God, there are no untouchables. In Messiah’s ministry, nothing can separate us from the love of God. And whenever something threatens to, that is the very moment that an unseen but sure Presence takes us by the hand. Or, at the very least, we can reach out our hands believing that if we could only brush his garment, we would be as good as new.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Not So Fast in Dispensing With Doctrine!

Theology and Ministry

A sermon preached in St. Stephen and The Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2009

Anglican Christians, generally speaking, are not stirred by doctrine as much as we are by worship. Sometimes we are accused of not even having any doctrines. I hope that by the time we have finished with the liturgy today you will know better. Today is the one day in the whole year that we focus on a doctrine. We call this Sunday “Trinity Sunday,” falling always a week after Pentecost Day. But we have no other feasts—not officially, at any rate—that celebrate doctrines or teachings.

When we do focus on the Trinity, it is sometimes not in the most helpful way. I don’t even want to count the number of sermons I have heard on Trinity Sunday that either lamely try to explain the Trinity or that declare exasperation with the complexity of Trinity. Today, I want to draw back a step or two and look with you at the issue of why having a theology is important to ministry.

As I continue to look with you at ministry as fundamentally the way we live our lives in the light of God’s Truth, offering all that we are and do to God for the sake of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, I am struck by the way theology shapes action and behavior. You may think you don’t know what theology is, and you may be convinced that you not only don’t own one or even care to. But trust me: theology is the, or a, or your “word about God,” your understanding of God, whatever that is. Even if you aren’t too sure about God, your very uncertainty impacts (and not necessarily negatively) your actions and behavior. Even the atheist has a kind of a-theology—an understanding of the God not to be believed in.

Theology is essentially a story. Whether or not it is a good story depends partly on how well it is told, and partly on the storyteller. Limiting the focus just to Christian theology, we can survey the field and fairly readily see that there have been (and are) some pretty awful theologies floating around. For example, there are all the theologies that see God as essentially at war with creation. Matter is opposed to spirit. Therefore do not trust anything material. Very strange. Then there are theologies that emphasize the afterlife to the point that everything is judged by whether or not a belief or action will help or hurt your chances of getting into heaven. And there are other theologies that only take the positive aspects of existence into account, without dealing with negative, dark, shadow-side of reality. These are just three possibilities out of dozens of really bad theological possibilities.

What difference does any of this make? Let me illustrate with a couple of cases. Suppose, let us say, that you have a theology in which you view the human race as the central feature of the natural world. God, you might think, really created the world principally for the enjoyment of the human race. It has no intrinsic value. Such a theology acts not only to validate, but to encourage the destruction of the natural world. Climate change is of no importance, except as a matter of concern and convenience for the human species. Other species can live or die. God is uninvolved and unconcerned. God, rather, is concerned only about narrow choices of personal morality. Now, almost no one really believes that hook, line, and sinker. But you can readily see that, if a person or group tells such a story consistently, they come out at a very different place from the person or group that holds a theology which sees humans as being accountable to God for the way they tend to the natural world.

Take another example. If your conception of God is that of a being that metes out judgment according to strict standards, it is quite likely that you will develop a theology that creates not a little anxiety about how well a person measures up to God’s standards. If “heaven” is contingent on meeting those standards, the thrust of that theology is likely to inspire behavior in accordance with God’s perceived will. If, on the other hand, your understanding is that God’s judgment has already been issued and that humanity has already been saved, clearly what motivates you to behave ethically is not your struggle to achieve an afterlife in heaven, but rather thanksgiving for what God has already given you.

So, if theology is important, what kind of theology is actually helpful? In a word, a Trinitarian theology. And what is that? It is an understanding of God that holds three important dynamics in equilibrium. One is the notion of God as a supremely transcendent Being, at the core of the universe, the creator of all. The second is the experience that God has been revealed most thoroughly in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The third is that God is present and active here and now in all people, but especially in the community of faith centered in Jesus. We traditionally speak of the Trinity as one God in three persons. Although the language is not necessarily orthodox, I would suggest that we can get at the central idea by speaking of God as the Truth manifesting itself in at least three distinct but interdependent ways. God is transcendent. God is also revealed in human life, especially in that of Jesus. And God is accessible and real in the present. To emphasize any one of these things over the other two is to create a story that inevitably leads to a lop-sided theology that is apt to produce or at least encourage lop-sided behavior.

What would it look like if we were to have a Trinitarian theology undergirding our ministries? First, we would likely live with the understanding that not all truth can be squeezed into rational categories. We would hold that God is greater than any of us. We would accept the fact that there is a “givenness” to the universe: limitations and laws and even the irrational are part and parcel of the reality we live in and live with. Life is not all about human beings. We are a part of creation, certainly not the only part, and dubiously the most important part, despite our powers and possibilities. We would see that there is an overarching Benevolence which spans all life.

We would begin to feel more comfortable with Jesus, realizing that, for Christians, Jesus is indeed what makes us unique. Rather than debating about whether Jesus is the only way to God (which is a poor way to spend time), we would see rather that, for us, Jesus is the connecting link between divinity and humanity, so much so that we say he fully embodies both. Divinity and humanity live together in him at peace and in harmony. We would see Jesus as our model, and that his life, death, resurrection and ascension form a story that is the pattern or our own stories. We would find ourselves living, breathing, eating, drinking Jesus, forming our minds and hearts in him, until we reflect his his life to the point that people would know him because they knew us.

And we would have a pneumatology, a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which understands God as not only transcendent and other, not only as historically located in Jesus of Nazareth, but every bit as real and as present with us here and now. We would understand that God did not stop with Jesus, but continues to unfold Truth through us. We would reckon with the fact that Jesus said, “I have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now. I will send to you the Spirit, who will guide you into all truth.” We would see ourselves caught up in an ongoing revelation in which our lives and our experiences became the vehicles through which God is discovered and known as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009