Sunday, June 14, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Wholeness"

Matthew 20:29-34 

As Jesus and his disciples were going out of Jericho a large crowd followed him. 30 When two blind men sitting along the road heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Show us mercy, Lord, Son of David!” 

31 Now the crowd scolded them and told them to be quiet. But they shouted even louder, “Show us mercy, Lord, Son of David!” 

 32 Jesus stopped in his tracks and called to them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 33 “Lord, we want to see,” they replied. 

34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they were able to see, and they followed him. (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Movement for Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Three

He’s one of those billions of people who, by definition, you wouldn’t know from Adam—the teeming seas of humanity swell so great now that with over 7 billion souls at present dwelling on this tiny little rock, you’ll never know who the vast, vast majority are.

But we know a few things about James Harrison.  He’s an Australian gentleman with a genuine discomfort for needles and blood, and yet in spite of this phobia, he has donated plasma over 1,000 times in his 78 years of life, because he has an antibody that out of those 7 billion people, perhaps only several hundred are known to have: an antibody that prevents babies from dying in utero as a result of rhesus disease.

Why does that matter to James, and why did he donate to begin with?  And why does that matter in a sermon?  Well, I’ll let the health experts at CNN who know this stuff better than me explain it:

Nearly every week for the past 60 years he has donated blood plasma from his right arm.  The reasons can be traced back to a serious medical procedure he underwent as a child.

“In 1951, I had a chest operation where they removed a lung—and I was 14,” recalls Harrison, who is now aged 78.

“When I came out of the operation, or a couple days after, my father was explaining what had happened.  He said I had (received) 13 units (liters) of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people.  He was a donor himself, so I said when I’m old enough, I’ll become a blood donor.”…

His blood, (doctors) said, could be the answer to a deadly problem…Harrison was discovered to have an unusual antibody in his blood and in the 1960s he worked with doctors to use the antibodies to develop an injection called Anti-D. It prevents women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy…

Harrison’s blood is precious.  He and Anti-D are credited with saving the lives of more than 2 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross blood service.  That’s 2 million lives saved by one man’s blood.

Two freaking million.  To put that in perspective, that’s over three times the population of Portland.  It’s nearly twenty times the population of Cowlitz County.  About the only person whose blood has saved more people is probably Jesus Christ Himself, and I’m only being slightly facetious here.

One man can heal and make whole millions of mothers and babies simply because of one thing his body can do without even trying.  Imagine how many souls you could make whole if you did try.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and to start off with, we talked about the nature of the Lord’s table, before last week, where we moved on to the theme of welcome, and now, today, we will be talking, finally, about wholeness itself, springboarding from this excerpt from the next chapter in Pastor Sharon’s book:

The Hebrew word shalom describes something about God’s best vision for the earth.  English translations often define it as “peace.”  In reality, however, shalom depicts a more complex notion.  It comes from a root word that means “whole,” as in “complete” or “safe”…Shalom does not indicate a passive harmony or a mere absence of conflict, as the word peace sometimes does.  Shalom evokes a situation that is actively good, where the circumstances offer opportunities for individuals and communities to flourish.

Shalom implies that God did not intend life to be a zero-sum game where one person moves forward only at another’s expense…(indeed) the opening scene of the Bible itself shows God weaving wholeness into the original fabric of creation…these very first chapters in the Bible establish the basic assumption for all that follows: humanity is a single family.  The distinctions of race, language, and culture—and the all too frequent attendant dysfunction—come later.

In God’s original intention, humanity is undivided.  Whole.

A vision of wholeness emerges repeatedly throughout scripture.  The prophets who painted the vision of shalom were not blind to a broken world in need of repentance and repair.  They had hope in spite of the world’s fragmentation.

Much like the South African concept of Ubuntu that I talked about last week, shalom is one of those concepts that has no direct English translation or English equivalent—which I maintain still says a lot about what we value as a people, for if we value something, we create a word for it, or several different words for it.

But we haven’t, not for Ubuntu, and not for shalom.  Even though both are entirely a part of a genuine Christian worldview, morality, and ethos.  It isn’t enough for Christians to avoid wrong or evil, we have to actively seek to do good as well.  It isn’t enough for Christians to create, then, an absence of violence that we often refer to as peace, no, Christians are called to make peace themselves.  As Christ Himself says in the Beatitudes which open His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Today’s passage, though, comes from a passage in Matthew 15 chapters later and, at least on the surface, may seem to have little to do with peace.  But it does, because it has everything to do with wholeness.

The men Jesus is healing are blind, and blind in a world where there is no disability insurance, no social security for disabled people, and no real safety net to speak of.  Matthew is gentle here in his characterization of what we find these men doing: sitting at the roadside.  Let’s be clear: they’re beggars, not at all unlike the folks we see at intersections or parking lot entrances.

And they’re begging precisely because they are blind—after all, who back then would hire a blind carpenter, or a blind stonemason, or a blind fisherman?  Even if these are men who were not born blind, but had mastered a trade before becoming blind, their livelihoods were still taken from them.  The peace and balance of their lives was ripped out from underneath them.  They lost any sense of shalom in their lives, of not just an absence of strife, but of a presence of actually thriving.

And Jesus, Matthew says, has compassion upon them for this.  As should we all, although I think we often tend not to.  We all know the stories of people who give to beggars, and that money immediately gets turned around and spent on drink or drugs.  We’ve become hardened by those stories, but it shouldn’t keep us from being willing to offer food, or a hot coffee during the winter months or a cold soda during the summer months.

But what about when someone comes to our church, or to us as Christians, not materially begging, but spiritually begging?  What about the person who is in desperate need of being made whole, only to find themselves damaged by the church instead?  Do we even feel prepared to be able to help them?

Well, we should.  Because even if we are not Christ-like in so, so many ways, we are at least Christ-like in this: we, like Jesus in this passage, are fully capable of showing compassion to another human being.  If we choose not to show that compassion, it is precisely that: a choice.  Nobody is putting a gun to our heads and telling us to be cruel to one another, we choose to be cruel to one another.

James Harrison didn’t have to donate his plasma over 1,000 times—he would have been well within his rights to say, “Sorry, find someone else out of the few dozen people in Australia with my antibody.”  It would have been cruel of him, but he could have chosen that path.

He didn’t.  Nor do we.

Like I said—he’s saving lives and making parenthood whole for hundreds of thousands of moms simply through something his body produces naturally, through no extra effort on his own.

Think of how many people you can make whole by making it your life’s effort, by trying at that as hard as you try at anything else—being a parent, or an employee, or a spouse.  Think of how many chains of strife can be broken, of how many people you know could go from merely an absence of discord to actively flourishing.

God gave us the chance and the choice to break loose our own chains when He gave us Jesus as the freest and greatest of gifts so very long ago.

The very least we can do in return is to duplicate that chance for others, others whom Jesus loved and lived for and died for in equal measure to us, so that they too, one day might be made whole.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 14, 2015

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