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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Sunday Sermon

2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7B

Several years ago, my family and I lived in Illinois, not too far from what was once the largest mental health facility in the state. It's not, anymore. In the 1970's and early 80's, the laws regarding the institutionalization of the mentally ill were reformed; it was no longer legal to keep someone who was not deemed "a danger to him/herself, or to society." And so, many of the people who had been living there were released; the population of the facility dropped by 90% in only a few years.

Like many of our society's laws, this one had both positive and negative effects. Some of the people released were the folks the reformers had in mind. They did not need the institutional setting to function; they found support, and fared well. Others did not. They were unable to cope with standards and expectations for daily living in our culture-- maintaining a home, holding down a job, even simple social interaction. Many of these became part of the homeless population in the area.

One of these was a woman named Rita, whom I got to know when I volunteered at the local shelter there. Rita was, in many ways, typical of the mentally ill people we saw at the shelter. Her sojourns with us followed a cyclical pattern. When she was in the hospital, taking medication and receiving counseling, she seemed to be able to cope; and so she'd be released. But after a while, she would stop the meds ("too expensive"), and miss her counseling appointments ("unnecessary"), and spiral downward into her own world, unable to deal with society in any appropriate fashion and uninterested in trying. So then she would be picked up, put back in the hospital, and the cycle would start again.

Rita was also, sometimes, one of our parishioners. As you might probably imagine, this could be difficult for other parishioners to deal with, because both her conversation and her behavior could be-- well, odd. Sometimes she was hard to understand; and sometimes, quite frankly, she was a pain in the neck-- especially from the ushers' point of view. She had this habit of picking up several bulletins on her way into worship. Over the course of the service, she would methodically shred them into tiny pieces. Sometimes she'd stack the pieces in tidy piles; but other days, she'd scatter them like confetti across her pew.

Fortunately, she was not as deeply disturbed as the possessed man in this morning's gospel. By our contemporary standards, he would certainly be classed as dangerous to himself, and kept in the hospital. However, the population around A.D. 30 was not so... well... enlightened; so he was sent out to live among the tombs, where at least he wouldn't hurt anyone else. No one wanted anything to do with him-- he was not only unclean, but unsafe.

But Jesus saw him differently. Not only saw him, but spoke to him; recognized "from a distance" that this man was more than the spirit that controlled him. He was a child of God who needed healing. He loved him enough to reach out, into a dangerous place, to accomplish that. From Jesus' point of view, he was worth it.

Point of view makes a difference, doesn't it? Just as God reminds Job that God looks at the world from a very different perspective, so Jesus teaches us that we need to look beyond human standards of value and acceptability. This is vital to keep in mind if we are going to follow as disciples. If we only see one another with what Paul calls "a human point of view," we’re missing the very core of what it means to live a life in Christ.

So, what does that mean-- to look at things from God's point of view? Well, there's a question that folks have been debating for millennia, so I won't even pretend to have a complete answer to that question; but I think that we start by looking at God.

Sounds so simple, doesn't it? Easier said than done, I know. I mean, look at the struggle the apostles had-- and Jesus was right there with them.

Of course, it's hard not to sympathize with them. The storm is raging, the boat is rocking wildly, and there lies Jesus-- snuggled up and snoozing in a corner. Can't you just hear the conversation?

"What's with him?"

"Doesn't he understand the gravity of the situation?"

"He obviously doesn't have a clue about dealing with real life!"

So they wake him up, in a panic; and he calms the storm, and tries to show them that they were looking at it all wrong-- through the eyes of human fear, instead of godly faith.

You can hardly blame the apostles. This is a picture, a point of view, that is really hard to comprehend: that the Creator of the Universe, the One who "laid the foundations of the earth," and the guy sawing logs in the back of the boat are one in the same.

And yet, that's the lesson that Jesus came to share with us. In spite of our sins, and clueless squabbles, and blind misunderstandings, God sees us as incredibly precious sons and daughters. So much so that, as scripture says, "He gave his only begotten Son." To die for us, yes; but also to live with us-- eating meals, and swapping stories, and taking walks, and napping in the corner of the boat. To help us see God from a better point of view; and one another as well.

Seeing one another from God's point of view can also be incredibly difficult. I'm spending my summer as a chaplain intern-- part of the Clinical Pastoral Education required for my seminary degree. Mother Tina's done this several times, and is currently in the middle of a similar CPE program here in South Bend; you've probably heard her speak of it. My CPE program is at the University of Chicago Hospitals, located on Chicago's South Side. I've been working at the UCH for only a few weeks, and have already seen some horrific things- men, women and children suffering horrendously as a result of abuse, and neglect, and evil. I think of the people who have inflicted this harm; and some days it would be easy to say, "Why bother? How can people who behave so atrociously be worth saving?"

But to God, and for God's own reasons, they are. We all are. I don't know how, and I certainly don't believe this means that violent perpetrators should not suffer the consequences of their behavior; but I also believe that no one is irredeemable. Again, Paul says it better than I can: "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself." The whole world, not just my preferred piece of it.

Reconciliation. That's what we're about, here. In looking up the word, my dictionary sends me to the verb form, reconcile, which means "to reestablish a close relationship between."

There's the key. We are not asked to create something from nothing. The relationship is already there, established as part of creation, "in the beginning." It is made available again in the life of Jesus, and in His death and resurrection. What we are asked to do is to look for it. To point it out. To be aware, and to make others aware. We are sinners, yes-- but beloved, nonetheless. Hear that, brothers and sisters. God already sees something valuable in all of us. You... me... Rita... the homemaker at the grocery store; and the prisoner on death row. The abused, and the oppressed-- as well as the abuser and the oppressor. God wants to reconcile the whole world to himself. And here’s the amazing part-- He is "entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

Reconciliation. "We are ambassadors for Christ," Paul says, "since God is making his appeal through us." Because we are disciples, we have the responsibility to share that joy, that relationship, in any way we can.

No one says that it will be easy. There will always be those who refuse to listen; and, even without the extreme examples, we all have people in our lives who are hard to love. So far as I know, Rita's paper shredding still irritates the ushers on Sunday morning. But my brothers and sisters, the effort is ours to make.

Starting now.


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