Sermon preached October 17, 2010

Texts: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Mark 5:1-20

This is the second is a series of sermons, and you may think that the theme is meteorological. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon entitled, “Let It Rain” and today the sermon is “hail.” You already know that I am not going to talk about little ice balls. But this is the second sermon in a series of sermons using as their base the book Christianity For the Rest of Us. Part I of the book provides an overall vision and the context, personal and historical, for Diana Butler Bass’ work of checking on mainline Protestant churches that were doing well, bucking the trend among many such congregations. Chapter two might be an especially hard slog for some as the author gets into history and is sometimes a little polemic. Don’t let that chapter get in the way of your moving forward.
The heart of the book is Part II wherein Butler Bass identifies some Christian practices that characterize churches that are finding new life, not as mega-churches, but new life nonetheless. In the next five weeks I am going to preach about those practices, signposts along the Christian way. From the earliest days of the Christian faith, Jesus’ followers, known as people of the Way, were recognized by what they did…. If you act like a Christian by joining its practices, by following its tracings, you may well become one. Being a Christian is not a one-moment miracle of salvation. It takes practice. It is a process of faith and a continuing conversion…. Practices invite weary nomads to join the journey, to find home, to create a different kind of village, to enter the memory of Jesus (74-75)
Today, we are going to discuss the Christian practices of healing and hospitality. But what do they have in common? They both begin with the letter “H.” I also think they have something in common with another “h” word – “hail.” Hail, when not referring to icy precipitation falling during a severe thunderstorm is a form of greeting – “Hail.” It is a greeting, a welcome. It is also a word that at its root refers to being whole, being well, and is linked to the more theological word “salvation.” Healing, hospitality, hail.
Let’s look at the story from Mark for a few moments. Sometimes this is called the story of the Gerasene demoniac. It is fascinating in its strangeness. What do we know about this man? He is hurting. He is filled with an unclean spirit named legion – his problems are many. He howls – communication issues. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. Because of all this he lives in isolation, among the tombs. When Jesus shows up, he heals the man by striking an unusual bargain with the unclean spirits. Notice what happens to the man who is healed. People come to see him clothed and in his right mind. He will no longer be at home in the tombs, but among them. In fact, Jesus sends the man home to tell his story. He will become a part of the community again, and his presence as one who has been healed with help others. Part of the healing process is restoration in the community – – – healing and hospitality.
We may be uncomfortable with the language of healing in mainline Protestant churches. The word “faith-healer” probably does not conjure up positive images. Yet the idea of healing is central to Christian faith and practice. I concur with Diana Butler Bass. Healing has become a metaphor for salvation. For mainline pilgrims, salvation entails several levels of healing: emotions and psyche, physical wellness, human reconciliation, and cosmic restoration…. Longing for healing is not flaky, idiosyncratic, or New Age – it is an inchoate human desire to experience shalom, God’s dream of created wholeness. (108, 111)
Maybe as difficult as getting over our negative stereotypes of the word healing in relation to faith is the difficulty of admitting our need for healing, admitting our woundedness, admitting that we inflict wounds on our own lives, admitting that the vision of a new heart we read in Jeremiah has relevance of us – that we need a new heart. But I think of the words of psychologist Michael Eigen – “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life” (Conversations, 116). I think of the words of psychologist D. W. Winnicott: ‘Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning” (in Winnicott, Adam Phillips, 51). We get hurt, and maybe we respond by building up layers of defense so we won’t get hurt again, choking off something essential about our lives, and the defenses become legion. Maybe we strike out of our hurt, wounding others, and the wounds we leave are legion. Maybe we beat others to the punch, wounding ourselves – denying our giftedness or lacking the ability to forgive ourselves. Legion are the ways we damage our own lives.
But the church has often been the last place for honestly admitting our need for healing, admitting our capacity to wound others or ourselves. We bandage ourselves up in our Sunday best, hiding the wounded souls in need of forgiveness, in need of healing, in need of community. Growing up I remember hearing someone say that she did not appreciate preachers talking about sin to their congregations – after all, they were the ones in church. We need the language of sin and salvation, of hurt, pain and healing. If we cannot use the word “sin” because it has been so abused, we cannot lose the idea that we are sometimes less than our best, that we miss the mark, and that we are sometimes people who wound others. The church is not just a place for those who have it all together. It is a place for those of us trying to get it together, even when our problems are legion.
In a book that shares some of the same themes and emphases as Christianity For the Rest of Us, Anthony Robinson writes: In the civic-faith era, church was a place where we went to give and where we were expected to give to others. Less often were we taught to receive, to see our own needs, which may not be material but are every bit as real. Not only can a one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver be a power trip, but it can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God. (Transforming Congregational Culture, 66) Robinson believes we need to learn to be receivers who give.
Community often plays a role in healing. The welcoming word is often a healing word. So many of our wounds are wounds of exclusion. We have all been painfully reminded recently of the effects of teenage and youth bullying, as schools see children, youth and young adults take their lives rather than live them confined to the tombs of loneliness and ostracism. Hospitality – welcoming, and healing are deeply interconnected.
In a time of hate-filled extremism, some Christians still long for a word of nonviolent love, or reconciling peace. Of human wholeness, of true brother and sisterhood, in God’s compassion. For them hospitality opens the way to practicing peace, doing a tangible thing that can change the world. (86)
Over the past many years, I begin confirmation with a session on community-building. We do some fun things to get to know one another, but I emphasize that this is not just to have fun or get to know each other. The purpose runs deeper, and I share these words: Christian community practices hospitality, creating a safe space where different people can feel welcomed, affirmed, visible and valuable (Thomas Hawkins).
Hospitality that provides healing. Healing that leads to reincorporation into community. Hail – a welcoming word, a word of healing and well-being.
I am a Christian because I know my wounds and feel them deeply and I find healing in Jesus. I am a Christian because I know my own ability to would, even wound myself and I find forgiveness and new beginnings in Jesus and in Christian community. I am a Christian because I need a home along the way and I find a word of “hail” in Jesus and among Jesus’ people – a word of welcome and well-being. I am a Christian because sometimes my problems or wounds are legion and life feels as if it is being lived wandering among the tombs and I need someone who will help me find my right mind – and Jesus does that. I am a Christian who believes maybe others hurt, feel wounded, need forgiveness, long for hospitality and home, and maybe Jesus can help them too. Maybe Jesus wants to help them through us. Maybe Jesus wants this to be one hail of a church. Amen.