Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23C) October 13, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c||2 Timothy 2:8-15|
|Psalm 111||Luke 17:11-19|
Healing and being healed
Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart. (Psalm 111:1)
It’s all about healing. That’s the word from this morning’s readings. From the Second Book of Kings we have the marvelous story of Elisha the prophet healing Naaman, the “mighty warrior” (2 Kings 5:1) who suffered from leprosy, a debilitating disease that in ancient times was incurable. My favorite moment in the story is when Elisha sends a messenger to Naaman with very simple instructions: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” And Naaman throws a fit. He wants a more complicated cure. After all, he’s important; he’s a big shot. He has traveled all the way to this foreign country with his horses and chariots and his whole entourage, and now he wants some recognition. He wants the prophet to come out and greet him, and to carry out a special ritual that’s impressively drawn out and dramatic. A big man deserves a big ceremony, right? But instead what he gets is the simplest of invitations, “Wash and be clean.” Naaman turns away in a rage, and there is a brief moment of suspense. Will he go home with his anger and self-righteousness intact, taking his leprosy with him? Will he walk away from his own healing? Luckily for him, his servants persuade him to go down to the Jordan and wash, and after immersing himself seven times in those healing waters he emerges with “his flesh restored like the flesh of a young boy,” and is “clean” (2 Kings 5:14).
Our first reading is paired with a Gospel passage from Luke that tells another story of healing. While keeping their distance from Jesus which is what Jewish law required of people suffering from leprosy ten lepers cry out for mercy. The text tells us that Jesus sees them (Luke 17:14). He sees them: he sees their suffering, sees their need, sees above all their basic, deep-down, never-ending preciousness in God’s sight, and, as the law requires, he tells them to present themselves to the priest so that the priest can confirm if their health has been restored. Sure enough, along the way all of them are “made clean,” and one of them a foreigner turns back to praise God. He gives thanks.
I am glad that today’s readings are all about healing and being healed, for some of us can use a little healing right around now at least I can, anyway, for I will soon say goodbye to this community and already I feel the ache in my heart. By now most of you have heard the news that I have decided to leave parish ministry so that I can focus my energies on tackling climate change. At the end of November I will leave Grace Church, and soon thereafter will take up a new position in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts as a missioner for creation care. Actually I’m not sure what my title will be the bishop and I are still figuring that out but I like the term “missioner,” which refers to a person of faith who is heading outside the four walls of a church building and into new territory in order to bear witness to God’s power to heal and give life. And I like the term “creation care,” for right now, creation needs more of us to care.
I don’t know why God placed caring for creation so firmly on my heart. Maybe it’s partly because my personal journey of healing began with making peace with my body thirty-some years ago, as I did the work I needed to do so that my Higher Power God could heal me from a food addiction a day at a time. The same divine love that showed me how to live peacefully inside this body of mine drew me out to care for the larger body of the Earth upon which all life depends. Just as one human being can learn to make peace with her own body, is it not possible that all human beings can learn to make peace with what some people call the body of God, with the fish and trees and wind and waters of this shining creation that is lit up with God’s glory whenever we have eyes to see? The sheer grace of living in this beautiful Pioneer Valley, so alive with nature’s wonders, reminds us day by day of God’s presence in all creation. The urgency of that call to praise God and to protect God’s creation is what spurs me to write and speak and organize around slowing climate change.
Some of you may know that I was ordained twenty-five years ago, in 1988, just when American newspapers first broke the news that scientists were concerned about the effects on the planet’s climate and ecosystems of burning fossil fuels. At that point, Christians in my neck of the woods heard next to nothing in sermons or Sunday School or adult education about the connection between faith in God and care for God’s creation. A year later, on Good Friday of 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker struck a reef in Alaska and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil across hundreds of miles of sea. That’s when I stepped into the pulpit of my suburban church and launched into the first sermon I’d ever preached, or ever heard, about the environment. Into that sermon I poured my outrage and sorrow about our disturbed relationship with the Earth, and made an ardent appeal for eco-conversion, for a transformation of consciousness and behavior as radical as the conversion that St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. When I sat down, I thought rather smugly that I had done a pretty good job, but after the service, a baffled parishioner came up and said, “I don’t get it. What does religion have to do with ecology?”
I’ve spent the years since then trying to answer that question, searching Scripture, tradition, and my own life of prayer. Those of you who’ve been at Grace Church for a while know maybe only too well how deeply I am convinced that our Creator God loves the Earth and wants us to share in God’s mission of restoring all people and all creation to unity with God and each other in Christ. I have such gratitude for all the people in this Valley, some of whom are in this room, who give such heartfelt attention to saving our farmland and wildlife habitat and who do everything you can to safeguard the life-giving quality of our air and water. I give thanks for the local land trusts that use every means at their disposal to legally protect our Valley from total domination by human commerce and dwellings.
I trust that you will continue this work. And now my sights are on the big picture, beyond our Valley. So I am leaving parish ministry in order to do what I hope will be healing work. I hope that it will be justice work, too. There is no healing without justice. Healing the climate is closely connected with securing racial justice, and environmental justice, and economic justice. The front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color.1 So we have a battle on our hands. Fossil fuel companies and the politicians they have bought seem to be completely willing to push the climate past certain tipping points beyond which life as it has evolved on this planet will be impossible to sustain. Just this week we read about the alarming study that shows that by around 2047, greenhouse gas pollution, if it continues unchecked, will raise global temperatures to such an extent that in any given geographical area, “the coldest year in the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past.”2
The fossil fuel industry does not want you to know this. Big Coal and Big Oil are spending a fortune to lobby against scientific fact and to spread disinformation. Last year I was invited to preach about climate change in a Boston-area church, and when I got to the part about Jesus calling us to transform the social and economic systems that propel climate change, two people walked out. A sympathetic friend of mine suggested that maybe the two people who walked out of my sermon were overcome with sorrow for planet Earth and needed a place to weep in private. But of course that wasn’t the case: as folks who knew them were quick to tell me, the two were climate skeptics. And it’s true. Many Americans believe that the natural world is here for only one purpose: human consumption.
So there is work to be done, a battle to fight, an Earth to heal, and a God to praise. I look ahead with excitement, and with resolve, but as I gaze at your faces, I also feel a pang of loss and a surge of gratitude. For it’s all about healing that’s what you and I have been up to for these past nine years. Every time we walk into this sanctuary to pray, every time we receive Holy Communion, every time we are sent out into the world to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart, we make ourselves available again to be healed, and we allow God to make us instruments of healing. Every single one of us is a missioner for God, a person chosen by God to offer whatever gifts we’ve been given to serve the common good.
And I’ve seen a lot of healing take place in this community, a lot of healing given and received. Whenever someone feels like Naaman, too proud or too ashamed to ask for God’s help, I’ve seen people coax each other back down to the River Jordan to admit their need for God and to be immersed again in God’s healing love. We have helped each other to find that river, and to put our trust in the baptism by which we were united forever with God in Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever. And, just as Jesus saw deeply into the suffering and the beauty of the lepers who cried out to him, I have seen you look deeply into each other’s lives, seeing not only the brokenness or the woundedness of the other person, but also the person’s basic beauty, the invincible preciousness of the person’s being. There is healing in a gaze like that, for everyone longs to be seen and known and loved. And like the single leper who turned back to give thanks, I’ve seen us help each other to remember the power of giving thanks, the healing power of looking at life with eyes of gratitude, not with eyes of cynicism, despair, or scorn.
I have never been as happy as a parish priest as I’ve been at Grace Church. I have never served as long in a parish as I’ve served here. I have never been as engaged in a congregation’s life as I’ve been in the life of this congregation. I am glad that that we have a good seven weeks ahead in which to say goodbye. As I stand here this morning, I am grateful beyond words for the healing and the blessings given and received, grateful that each of us has a call from God, grateful that Tom is the new rector and that he will guide this congregation into the next chapter of its life together, grateful to the God who gives us life, and grateful to the Christ who meets us in every Eucharist and whose Spirit renews the face of the Earth.
Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart. Amen.
1. See: Wen Stephenson, “The Grassroots Battle Against Big Oil,” The Nation, October 28, 2013.
2. Camilo Mora, quoted in “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” The New York Times, Thursday, October 10, 2013, p. A9.