Sunday, October 25, 2009

What 'Good is Faith?

Sermon preached October 25, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:46-52

What do poetry and quiche have in common? Real men avoid both! I came up a little dry this week on humor, and I thought that was better than, “How does a poet sneeze?” “Haiku!”
I am going to begin this morning with a poem, and yes, it is too late to schedule that Sunday morning root canal. For those present at Wednesday’s UMW meeting, this is a repeat.

"Otherwise" Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Sadly for those of us who appreciate her work, Jane Kenyon’s “otherwise day” came in 1995 when she died of leukemia just shy of her 48th birthday.
When I was twenty-one, I began experiencing medical symptoms that needed further exploration. After undergoing diagnostic testing and a course of medication it was determined that I had chronic ulcerative colitis. The inner lining of my colon acted up from time to time, and the best theory now around is that my immune system attacks that inner lining. For the most part the disease has been well controlled for these past twenty-nine years, with some significant exceptions. The most concerning issue with ulcerative colitis is the increased risk of colon cancer, especially after one has had the disease for twenty years or more. The kind of colon cancer associated with ulcerative colitis tends to be more aggressive than other kinds of colon cancer, so I get my colon scoped every year. This year was in late September, and I spent the next couple of weeks concerned about a new development.
My doctor discovered a polyp, a suspicious looking polyp and he was concerned that it was pre-cancerous. He told Julie and I that he was sending in biopsies and depending on the result I would either need to come in for a follow-up colonoscopy in six months or be referred to Rochester for further testing, likely leading to surgery for the removal of my colon next summer. So we waited – and the end of our waiting was unexpected good news. The polyp over which he was concerned was not related to cancer. I am guessing I am one of the few people in the world looking forward to having his next colonoscopy in a year.
It was good news, very good news, but someday, it will be otherwise. Some day we will all face difficult medical news. For some it will come later in life. In a recent week, I officiated at two funerals and the combined ages of the women whose lives we celebrated was 190. In these past few weeks, though, I have also been touched by more untimely deaths: Gregg Marquardt, age 62; Diane Nickila, age 58; Lynn (Wittich) Bergquist, teacher at Laura MacArthur, age 50 – a high school classmate of mine.
Short of that kind of tragedy, life has more than its share of smaller disappointments, hurts and tragedies – jobs not offered, dates refused, promotions not given, unkind remarks, invitations that never arrive, unexpected home or car repairs. Life’s disappointments, hurts and tragedies are not limited to our personal lives. Our world, too, has many. How can one not be disappointed that the human community fights senseless wars, that we allow so many of our fellow human beings to go hungry, that women are still brutalized, that children get sold into slavery, that skin color or place of birth gets in the way of recognizing the humanity of another? I am disappointed that our country cannot seem to muster the will and intelligence to come up with some way to provide medical insurance for all its citizens. I am often disappointed at the inflammatory rhetoric that passes for political discourse these days. Someone once wrote, “life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (Wilfred Bion, quoted by Michael Eigen in The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134). That is too stark and strong, but there are days when life feels like that.
So who put lemon juice in my coffee this morning? How do I get from this nice story about the healing of Bartimaeus to this discussion? The story of Bartimaeus is a nice story. Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho, heading toward Jerusalem, and they come upon Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. He shouts out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd tried to quiet him down, but he cried out even more loudly. Jesus calls Bartimaeus, asks what he would like. “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said, “Go; your faith has made you well.” The story has a happy ending.
But here’s the puzzle – we all know that at some point in time healing does not happen. Something gets us all. Faith will not always make us well. Our “otherwise day” will come. So what good is faith? What good is faith when life still disappoints, when we still get hurt, when an otherwise day awaits us all?
Here is where reading this story more closely helps. I would argue that there are multiple dimensions of healing in this story, and that the physical healing is only one, and not even the most significant healing that happens to Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus cannot see, but beyond that, his life if filled with discouragement and lack of direction. He sits by the side of the road hoping for handouts. The minute Jesus invites him, the crowd tells Bartimaeus to “take heart.” That is a healing in itself – the healing of the heart. With a healed heart, Bartimaeus begins to take some action in his life. He springs up, throwing off his cloak. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well – his faith. Bartimaeus hears Jesus speak words about his strength – “your faith” has made you well. With heart and courage, Bartimaeus is also given sight. He could use his heart and courage any way he would like. He chooses to follow Jesus – another healing.
The most significant kinds of healing in our lives occur when Jesus summons our inner strength and we hear the Spirit speak to us – “take heart.” Faith will not resolve all our difficulties or prevent all our hurt and illness. What good is faith? Faith gives us the capacity to take heart amidst the pain and discouragement of life. Faith gives us the courage to weave all our experiences in life together so that we are stronger, more compassionate, more loving. In a recent interview in Ode, Karen Armstrong says, “Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease. But it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.” (September/October 2009: 36) Not everything in life will get cured, but the heart can always grow in care, and that is the good of faith.
Faith also gives us eyes to see the good and beautiful that is in the world, alongside the hurtful and tragic. It gives us eyes to see the rich resources of grace and strength that are there for us. Faith plus Jesus equals wellness, wholeness, healing, heart. Faith in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love opens us to rich resources for life that are just there for us. They are there. Theologian Bernard Meland writes in an essay about the relationships which form our existence, and they do. None of us chose to be born or when or to whom. It just happened. It just is. Meland writes: We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from [these] come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining…. [There is a] goodness in existence which we do not create, but which creates and save us. (Fallible Forms and Symbols, 151) What faith opens up to us is an experience of One whose very nature is goodness and love and who is always at work to bring the possible good out of any situation, to “One who does understand, accept, and love even when the world seems to have turned completely against us” in the words of theologian John Cobb (Mesle, Process Theology, 141). Faith opens us up to this one we call “God” and we affirm that we know this God best in Jesus Christ, a Jesus who pays attention to the blind beggar on the side of the road, gives him the courage to take heart, recognizes that a healing faith is at work in even this unlikely character, welcomes him to the way.
Wednesday at the UMW gathering I shared a favorite story of mine written by Annie Dillard. She tells of a time when she rounded a corner to watch a mockingbird in free fall, and then watched as it remarkably spread its magnificent wings just before crashing head long into the ground. She reflects: Cruelty is a mystery; and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump up against another mystery: the inrush of power and light…. Unless all ages and races of [humans] have been deluded… there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitious…. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard Reader, 286, 287). Faith helps us be there.
Life is full of surprises, some of them, at least, are bad. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. These are both truths about life. What good is faith? In faith we have access to resources which give us strength, courage and heart to weave difficulty into our lives and be more compassionate and caring. This is healing. Faith helps us see that we are loved and cared about, deeply. This is healing. Faith helps us see that life’s surprises include beauty and wonder and grace. This is healing. Faith helps us act to create beauty and grace, to follow Jesus along the way, to bring healing to the world. That is the good of faith. Amen.

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