From the Inside Out

From the Inside Out  |  Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

Where are the miracle workers when you need them?

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1, NRSV)

If Christians went around with the ability to cure every disease and every sickness, people would pay attention. More people would become Christian, some because they had seen a miracle and it stirred their faith, others because they had seen a miracle and wanted one.

Instead, miracles are as scarce as they ever were, and fewer people are interested in Christianity.

The decline of Christianity may be due to the lack of miracles, but it is more likely due to the abundance of Christians, the loudest and meanest ones anyway. Every day I hear someone condemning other people—usually people who are different, in upbringing, orientation, geography, politics—in the name of Jesus. Forget the fringe groups who would hate everyone else regardless of their own religion. There’s plenty of hate and fear in the mainstream, and only the television charlatans claim to heal in the name of Jesus.

It’s enough to make me want to call myself anything but Christian. Most days Buddhism is looking pretty good. I can imagine Jesus embracing it.

So what do we do with passages like the one from Matthew’s Gospel, claiming that the followers of Jesus will work miracles? It says that Jesus gave his disciples the power to throw out “unclean spirits”—however we might understand that phrase today—and to heal every disease. Imagine it. Imagine being able to stroll through a children’s hospital and heal every kid in there.

Be healed in the name of Jesus. Regardless of your disease. Regardless of your sexual orientation, or faith background, or country of origin. Of all the people Jesus encounters in the gospel stories, he only questions the nationality of one—the gentile woman whose daughter is ill or possessed. It seems his question is pointed outside the gospel, pointed at us, we who listen to the story today, because he goes ahead and heals her daughter anyway.

So did the disciples have the ability to heal people? The gospels say so. The early Church reports it as so. (For example, see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 2.32.4, written in the second century.) How do we understand the stories? Is it true, literally true, that they could heal the sick? Could Jesus? Did they perform these miracles? If so, why was there not a Pied Piper effect, a daily triumphant-entry-Palm-Sunday kind of parade?

Some people say our lack of miracles is due to our lack of faith. They may be right. I can’t contradict them, certainly not with the pitiful amount of faith I myself possess.

There are plenty of religious people eager to point to the modern lack of faith, or to some temporary dispensation of power to the early Christians not shared with us, we later poorer children, but we’re left feeling that the explanations don’t hold water or that we’d have to wear blinders to buy into them.

In the meanwhile, there are other ways to think about it.

Could these be symbolic stories, disease and unclean spirits as a metaphor? Fables or allegories? Simply stories with a meaning? Does that work? Could we think of them that way, and remain among the faithful?

Otherwise, we have no good explanations, but even without an explanation, there may be an application.

Albert Camus said this, though he wasn’t speaking to miracles—

We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century.

The prophets put it this way:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Maybe we lack the power to walk into hospitals and heal the sick. That is a God-thing, and maybe it always was.

Maybe our work is the lesser miracles—mending what we have torn, restoring justice where we have failed, giving happiness to a child who has known nothing but war and hunger and fear. A home for the homeless. Food for the hungry. Clothes and education and peace for the poor. And medicines for the sick.

Those are pretty good miracles. We already know how to perform them. What is holding us back? Where are the miracle workers when you need them?

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UNICEF – A Good Place to Start Working Some Miracles

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Contending with Contempt

Children and families trying to reach a UNHCR camp for refugees. Image from https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/

Luke 18:9-14  |  Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

Well, that really says it all, doesn’t it? Except we still have the notion that the words are aimed at other people. Like Trump supporters. Or Hillary people. Or even Bernie folk.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as being right, unless it is the certainty that other people are wrong. That’s particularly true when we think we have God on our side.

Except that God doesn’t take sides. Not yours, not mine. Not the side of those people over there.

That seems to be the point of the gospel message, that God takes no one’s side, or maybe takes everyone’s side, but most of all that God invites us, expects us, to take God’s side. Not that we are to be right. Not that we tell others that they are wrong.

The point of the gospel is that we are all instruments of grace, which isn’t ours to keep or give away.

When we see people hungry, we are supposed to feed them.
When we see people without a home or clothes, we are supposed to find homes for them. We’re supposed to clothe them.
When we see people ignorant and without skills or opportunity, we are supposed to teach them and prop open the door.
When we see them sick, we’re to bring them balm. And doctors. And clean water and mosquito nets. We’re supposed to make sure their children don’t die of a disease we’re not even exposed to anymore. We’re supposed to make sure their children don’t get shot trying to walk to school.
When we forgive others, we’re supposed to do it the way we’d like to be forgiven.

Hey, that’s pure gospel. Blame Jesus. And no, we don’t get an escape clause if the hungry people are part of a different religion, or have a different skin color, or don’t conjugate their verbs well because of poor education, or don’t speak English at all.

A health worker with a woman. Image from www.gatesfoundation.org
A health worker with a woman. Image from http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are — click on the link or on the photo to visit their website and learn more about what they are doing in the world.

The only thing the overwhelming majority of needy people ever did was to get themselves born in the wrong place. Let’s think about that. When we see needy people, we might consider what brave and brilliant and wondrous things we did to be born to a better life.

Yes, work is important. And responsibility. And making something of yourself. And ‘God helps those who help themselves’ must be written somewhere, just nowhere in scripture.

So is grace important. And opportunity. And human decency, let alone Christian compassion.

“I thank you God that I am not like other people,” said one fellow, the one Jesus held up to ridicule.

Admit it. We think the same way as that fellow. On some level, when we see the homeless or the poor or the dispossessed, we think something like the same thought, and we think we are being grateful. We think we are being faithful and humble. The last thing we think is that we are precisely the people Jesus was talking to.

I’m afraid that this is genuine gospel stuff. It’s not the popular kind, but it is the kind Jesus taught. It’s the kind of thing that made people want to crucify him. If we Christians don’t like it, maybe we should try a different religion.

If we’re tired of just being right, and want to do right, there are plenty of opportunities, probably starting in our own homes and neighborhoods. Faith isn’t what we say. It’s what we do.

Here’s a great place to start: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/

Children and families trying to reach a UNHCR camp for refugees. Image from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/
Children and families outside a UNHCR camp for refugees. Image from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/  Click on the link or on the photo to visit the website and find out more, including ways you can help people whom you may not even have known existed.

 

On Ordinary Days

UNICEF' s website - Children of Syria

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 13:10-17

[Note: There is a link below to the UNICEF website, or you may reach it here. ]

An odd thing happens when you bend to help a child, or reach out to the disadvantaged, the weak , the disenfranchised, the poor, the victims and objects of prejudice and oppression. In the eyes of the oppressors and the prejudiced, you become one of the people you are trying to help. You are labeled, circumscribed, tossed into a category. Objectified.

Bigots always give themselves away, revealing their prejudices by the labels they place on others. They cannot fathom the idea that a person might support, admire, and befriend people who are unlike herself. Insidious, quiet, even otherwise unrecognized bigotry, in oneself or in someone else, can always be identified by the brush used to apply hatred and fear and by the labels applied to other people.

It works like this. Suppose you speak up about helping refugees from Syria or Africa. People who dislike the refugees will paint you either as someone with ties to people from those regions or as someone with a liberal political agenda. Those things might be true or they might not, but it is just as likely that you saw people who needed help, children who lacked proper places to sleep and food to eat, places to be safe, and you decided to help. It doesn’t make you a refugee, though it does make you a decent human being.

Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter
Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter

Suppose you speak up about discrimination against the LGBTQ community. People who discriminate against or dislike or disapprove of LGBTQ people will decide that you must be part of that community, though you may simply respect them as people, with the same rights and privileges and dignity as yourself, gay or not. While it is an honor to be accepted by the LGBTQ community, supporting gay rights does not make you gay, any more than helping the poor makes you poor, any more than feeding a starving child makes you a starving child, any more than listening to Mozart or reading Einstein makes you brilliant (although it doesn’t hurt.)

A very important point goes along with these ideas, and it is that there is nothing wrong with being a member of any of these groups — except for being one of the group who hate. That is the essential insanity of the response of oppression and bigotry. If you are a refugee, or poor, or a gay person experiencing discrimination, or a child needing food and shelter, you are still, of course and without question, a person with inalienable worth, value, and dignity. Neither my help nor the lack of it can change someone else’s inherent worth and value as a human being.

Identifying that a person’s circumstance needs to be changed—whether it is due to poverty, displacement, discrimination, natural disaster, or even plain bad choices—is a process of recognizing that each person suffering those needs is at least as valued and of at least as much worth in the eyes of God as those people who are able to help change these circumstances.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, Paolo Veronese, c1548. National Gallery
The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, Paolo Veronese, c1548. National Gallery

A woman came to the synagogue on the sabbath. She had been bent over, unable to stand up straight (something basic to humanity) for many years. Jesus called her over, touched her, and healed her. The leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had worked a miracle on the day of rest.

Religion is what happens when we try to control the wildfire of faith.

We might wonder about Jesus interrupting his teaching to talk to a woman, even touch a woman and a sick woman at that, in the middle of a first century male-dominated religious gathering. By the simple fact of being a woman, her standing was questionable. By her being sick, a likewise sick religion would see her as judged by God. Both she and the community around her need healing. Jesus not only does not mind whether anyone takes offense, whether what he does follows the rules and etiquette of the synagogue, he goes out of his way to describe the woman’s ailment as a thing of evil rather than a judgment from God.

The gospels repeatedly tell stories of Jesus reaching out to the less fortunate, of associating with people who were victims of prejudice and discrimination. He befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, simple workers, poor people, housewives, as well and as easily as he associated with Nicodemus, a wealthy member of Jewish society. The prejudices and opinions of any of these people, rich or poor or respected or despised, had no bearing on the worth and dignity Jesus saw in each of them. He did not care what brush they might use to paint him or what labels his critics might use to slander him. The labels and the prejudices they represented remained the problem of the people who used them. Jesus only ever labeled one group—the hypocrites.

Come back on ordinary days, the leader of that synagogue tried to tell everyone. Come back and be healed on a day that is not the sabbath. Jesus thought differently. So long as we see people in need, every day is the sabbath. There is no such thing as an ordinary person, and there is no such thing as an ordinary day.

Link to UNICEF' s website - Children of Syria
Link to UNICEF’ s website – Children of Syria