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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Healing in the Temple

A Sermon preached by the Rev Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
Epiphany IV B - Januarly 28, 2018

Contemplative theologian Richard Rohr says Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

So, let’s take a deeper look into this morning’s Gospel to see what it is we once thought about God and God's ability to heal, and what it is that is new about God that Jesus came to change our minds concerning the healing power of God.

I’m always fascinated by the healing stories of Jesus. They are always so graphic and often include "unclean spirits" or demons. Talking demons. The demons always recognize Jesus even when the person he is about to heal – or, the people around him – doesn’t know Jesus or anything about Jesus.

Sometimes, the person doesn’t speak to Jesus much less ask him for healing. But the unclean spirits/demons know Jesus. They recognize him immediately.

And, they always seem to know precisely what he is capable of doing.

So, let’s spend just a minute or so inside that temple in Capernaum where we find Jesus this morning. Capernaum was reportedly the hometown of his disciple Peter. Indeed, there’s a church there, in Capernaum, built over the excavated remains of what was reportedly his home. The disciples Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were also from that town, as was the tax collector Matthew.

Jesus did several acts of healing there, in Capernaum. In addition to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the servant of a Roman centurion, as well as the paralytic man who was so desperate for help his friends lowered him through the roof so Jesus could heal him.

But, this particular morning, no one has sought out Jesus for healing. This particular morning, Jesus was in the synagogue where he will teach and preach. It’s early in his ministry, and he has just started to round up his ministry team. It’s the Sabbath so Jesus leads them to the temple.

Frederick Buechner says that the most hopeful part of the church service is the moment the preacher walks to the pulpit and pulls the little chain on the lectern.  It’s in that moment that the congregation waits for a word from God…  maybe, there might be a word for them today.  Maybe, they will hear something to deliver them from whatever they may be facing for that day, that week, that year. 

Maybe that was the atmosphere in the temple that morning. Maybe that’s why, when Jesus did start to speak, they were “amazed by it” and, scripture says, they started talking among themselves. 

I can hear them saying, “Hey, he’s pretty good, isn’t he? He really knows what he’s talking about.” (Scripture tells us they said, “He speaks with authority”.)

Just then, a man ‘with an unclean spirit’ starts to call out, interrupting Jesus. He starts yelling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

You know, that actually happened to me, once. Well, the man didn’t say exactly that but I was once interrupted by a man – a vagabond, a street person – in the midst of a sermon I was giving in a church.
I was a seminarian at the then Mission Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street, a high Anglo-Catholic Church in the middle of Beacon Hill and Government Center (the old Scollay Square) in Boston. 

A man in filthy tatters for clothing came walking up the middle aisle of the church. 

He was smoking a cigarette. 

Which was fine, I suppose, because we used a lot of incense.

I could smell him all the way from the pulpit – a powerfully pungent mixture of body odor and cigarettes and whiskey. He was sweaty and covered with soot. His face was puffy, his eyes two small slits under a dirty woolen cap, and he had huge bleeding knots on his eyebrows and chin.

I don’t remember what he said, exactly. For all I know, he might have been saying, “We know who you are! Have you come to destroy us?” Whatever it was, I only remember that it was slurred and loud. Very loud.

He made his way up to the crossing when he stopped and looked up to gaze at the image of Jesus on the cross hanging above the altar. 

I heard myself gasp just then, along with several others in the congregation, as we suddenly realized how much they looked like each other – Jesus and the vagabond street person. 

He squinted his eyes and moved the greasy strands of hair from in front of his face as his body began to sway.

“Oh God. Oh, Jesus, help me,” he cried out as his knees buckled and he fell to the floor with a loud thud. As some of us raced to help him, his body began to writhe in uncontrollable seizures. 

We gathered around him but it seemed that an invisible force-field-shield had come up between his body and the congregation. We were driven by our desire to help, but simultaneously repulsed by his foul smell and his filth. 

The church was silent except for and occasional primal-sounding grunt and the sound of his head hitting the hard floor every time he seized.

It was just then that Emmett, the rector, seemed to swoop in from seemingly nowhere, silently parting the sea of bodies. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he had on his magnificently embroidered vestments. 

He knelt down in front of the man as if he were one of the wise men, kneeling before the manger where the infant Jesus was laid. Carefully, and ever so gently, he cradled the man in his arms and laid his head in his lap.

Softly, softly, he whispered, “I’ve got you. It’s going to be all right. I’ve got you.” And then, he looked up and quietly asked, “Has anyone called an ambulance? Please call an ambulance for this child of God.”

And then, Emmett did something I’ll never forget. Ever. He looked down again at the man and, cradling him in his arms, he gently, sweetly, kissed his forehead. That sooty, filthy, bloody, smelly forehead.

And, here’s the thing: I don’t know about that vagabond man and his epilepsy but I felt the demons of judgment and condemnation leave my body. 

I realized that this was a man whose illness drove him to insanity. Perhaps his illness made it impossible for him to work. Perhaps he got depressed. Perhaps his family couldn’t deal with him any more and sent him to live on the street. Perhaps he could not afford the medication he needed. Perhaps he medicated himself with alcohol.

As each possibility of his story unfolded before me, I could feel my own demons being cast out. 

Someone in the church started singing “Amazing Grace”. 

Pretty soon, the whole church was filled with the harmony of that amazing song. We sang it as the ambulance arrived to take him to Mass General Hospital. We sang the last verse as Emmett took off his vestments, placed them on the back pew and climbed into the ambulance with the man to accompany him to the hospital.

The congregation heard the gospel that day but they didn’t hear it from me. They listened to it and watched it unfold right before their very eyes as a man with a debilitating illness was tended to by a priest in the church. 

And, they also saw the casting out of the demons of others as well as their own demons and we were all healed.

I also leaned that Richard Rohr was right. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

And, when we follow the teaching of Jesus, our human minds are also changed about our own humanity – as well as the humanity of others.


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