A curious incident on the road to Jerusalem

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

In the story for all ages this morning, I told you about how Jesus came to Jerusalem, and about how for some people he may have symbolized the hope of spiritual leadership against the occupation of Judea by the foreign Roman Empire.

Now I would like to tell you story of a curious incident that happened while Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem. We Unitarian Universalists are quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a religious leader who fought for social justice, like Martin Luther King. We are much less comfortable with the story of this curious incident. But since I am a Unitarian Universalist, I feel we should look carefully at that which makes us uncomfortable.

So here’s the story of the curious incident:

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Of course he knew he was taking a risk by traveling to Jerusalem: that his visit could be perceived as defiance to the Roman empire, and that his visit could be perceived as challenging the religious leaders at the Temple of Jerusalem. When we remember that we Unitarians insist on the full humanity of Jesus, and when we remember that the we just recognized the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march to Selma, you and I will be tempted to draw parallels between Dr. King’s religiously-inspired social justice movement, and whatever it was that Jesus was doing.

But —

According to the old stories, Jesus was also a faith healer.

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his many followers traveled through the city of Jericho. As they were leaving Jericho, according the book of Christian scriptures called the Gospel of Mark, a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road called out to Jesus. When you imagine this blind beggar, call to mind someone who is wearing cast-off clothing, someone who is dirty, someone who lives on the streets because there is no other place for him to live, someone who is as low in the social hierarchy as you can go. If you’re thinking about a street person that you might see in the city, go lower still: there were no social services in Judea, there was a much wider divide between the haves and the have-nots, and physical disabilities were most often perceived as the result of a person being taken over by a demon. No, this blind beggar that called out to Jesus was lower in the social hierarchy than a street person is in the United States — and that’s saying something.

This blind beggar calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many among the followers of Jesus tried to hush him up. Here’s how I imagine the conversation: “Dude, what are you doing, we’re on our way to JERUSALEM! Jesus doesn’t have TIME for this right now. Look, here’s a piece of silver [that would be a lot of money to give a beggar!] — here’s a piece of silver, now hush up.”

Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. were on the march to Selma, doing that arm-in-arm social justice walking thing with some heavyweight social justice leaders — as in that famous photograph that shows Dr. King with John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — imagine if Dr. King were walking along like that, when up pops this homeless disabled guy and says, “Dr. King, heal me!” All the organizers of the march are going to converge on that homeless guy, slip him twenty bucks, and get him to shut up so that Dr. King can proceed to Selma without being delayed.

But whatever Jesus’s followers said to the blind guy, he wouldn’t shut up. He shouts out: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Son of David, indeed! Here’s this blind beggar shouting out his feeling that Jesus is descended from the line of kings of Jerusalem. Talk about deliberately provoking the Roman authorities!

And what does Jesus do? He stops, and tells his followers to bring the blind guy over. The blind beggar makes his way through the crowd to Jesus, and Jesus says to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

To which Jesus responds: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Upon which, the blind man regained his sight and… (1)

 

Upon which — my Unitarian Universalist skepticism kicks in. (Did you notice the same thing in yourself? Did you notice your skepticism kicking in?) The blind man regained his sight? — I don’t think so! Modern medical science would not be able to cure someone of blindness just by saying “Your faith has healed you”; so there’s no way some wandering, semi-literate Judean religious teacher could cure blindness in this way.

And here we might get into arguments with our conservative Christian neighbors. There are many conservative Christians in the Bay Area who do believe that Jesus made it so that this blind man could see again. We might also get into arguments with some of our more liberal neighbors, people inspired by the New Age, who are not conservative Christians, but who do believe that such miracles happen. We might also get into arguments with our liberal Christian neighbors who don’t believe in the literal truth of such miracles but who see miracles as metaphorically true, or who choose not to impose anachronistic twenty-first century Western worldviews on first century Middle Eastern stories. Being Unitarian Universalists, we find it easy to get into arguments with lots of different people!

But personally, I’m not particularly interested in getting into such arguments. I am especially not interested in arguments that aim to debunk this story of healing because it is unscientific. I am not interested in such arguments because from my point of view, there’s a big difference between curing someone, and healing someone. In a perfect example of what I mean, I can point to hospice programs. A hospice program cares for people as they are dying. Hospice programs do not cure people, nor keep people from dying. But I can tell you from personal observation that hospice programs do provide some sort of healing benefit to people. My mother was in hospice before she died; my partner’s mother was in hospice before she died; my father is currently in hospice. In each case, from the point of view of the dying person, hospice helped them to become more whole as persons, to be healed even as they moved towards death.

There is a difference between what dying feels like to the person who is dying, and what an objective scientific observer would report from the outside. An objective scientific observer who is confronted with a terminally ill person is going to conclude that death is — let’s say — 99% likely. That’s the objective viewpoint. From an objective viewpoint, we might say that if there is a one percent chance that the person might actually recover, then we should keep that person in a scientifically-run hospital with all the latest technology, hoping to prolong their life as much as possible. But the dying person might have another viewpoint; they might prefer the quality of life they get in hospice care, avoiding what appears to them to be intrusive medical procedures.

There is a difference between curing and healing. The science of medicine now has a great deal of technical know-how, and medicine can cure many ailments that would have baffled the people of Jesus’s time. Thank God for that! I for one am glad that we can cure so many ailments.

But healing is a different matter. If you are healed, as opposed to cured, the final result will be different. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you another brief story from early on in Jesus’ ministry. Here is how the story is translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told [Jesus] about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (2)

Feminist Bible scholars have pointed this translation is wrong. Instead of saying, “she began to serve them,” the translation should read, “she ministered to them.” In the original text, the word used for what the woman does is “ministered” — the same word that is used to describe what the male followers of Jesus get to do. In other words, this woman engages in the same kind of religious leadership that the male followers of Jesus do. Unfortunately, the sexism that pervades our modern culture always tends to obscure the religious leadership of women. In fact, this woman does more than many of Jesus’s male followers: her house becomes the place where Jesus does even more healing. (3)

(And if I were in a snarky mood — OK, OK, I am in a snarky mood! — since I am in a snarky mood, I could go on to point out that, like Biblical scholarship, supposedly-objective science is also pervaded by sexism. We all know that science is sexist, we all know that women are underrepresented in the hard sciences, we all know how medical science is more likely to research specifically male medical problems than specifically female problems. All this can be objectively proven. And beyond sexism, we know that science is pervaded by racism, beginning with the Enlightenment attempts to provide scientific “proof” for race and racism, proceeding through the twentieth century with scientific eugenics, up to the present day is ways we may only dimly recognize but which will no doubt embarrass us when the next generation points it out to us. That’s enough snark for now, and so I’ll return to the sermon.)

Of course, ancient Judea was also pervaded by sexism and racism, and Jesus himself certainly appears sexist by my standards (though he seems to me to be less racist than anyone living in the United States today). But the feminist interpretation of the story makes the point that when the woman was healed of her fever by Jesus, she immediately turned around to engage in ministry herself. She was healed, and then she became a religious leader; and the way she became a religious leader was to minister to others, to even heal them of their weariness and their hurts and their self doubts.

This I believe is really the point of Jesus’s healing ministry. Did he actually cure people of physical ailments? We have no way of objectively answering this question two thousand years after the fact. Many of us skeptical Unitarian Universalists would say — no, he didn’t actually cure people.

But did he heal people? Oh yes. Yes indeed. I think Jesus healed people in much the same way hospice heals people who are dying: they are still going to die, but instead of being emotionally overwhelmed by death, they are healed to that they can more fully experience the love that surrounds them. So it is that when Jesus heals the blind beggar, Jesus may not cure his eyesight, but Jesus does heal his soul. And so the blind beggar “followed Jesus in the way” — he followed in the way of love and kindness, and by so doing he both loved and experienced the love of others. When Jesus healed the woman with the fever, she in her turn took on religious leadership, and in her turn helped to heal others; and that makes two miracles: a woman in religious leadership, and a person following in the way of love and kindness.

When we can see this difference between curing and healing — where curing can be objectively measured and subject to scientific rigor, while healing must be judged by the subjective viewpoint — when we can see this, we might better understand some otherwise intractable problems.

Let’s take for example the problem of racism in the United States. We can provide cures for racism through laws and regulations, through addressing objective mechanisms that perpetuate racial bias; we can even provide cures for racism through physical actions like marching on Selma and protesting Ferguson and writing letters to elected representatives. But we also need healing, and therein lay the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr.: he not only worked toward a cure for racial bias, he helped heal people of racism.

Let’s go on to the problem of death and dying. In the end, medical science cannot cure death: my father is in hospice, and he will not be cured. But he is in hospice care, and that has helped to bring him some healing — not a cure, but healing.

We could go on to many other problems that face us. For some of the problems that face us, it is not enough to cure the problem by finding a rational, scientific solution — we also need healing. And for some of the problems that face us, a cure may not impossible — but healing may be possible.

As a skeptic, I do not believe that the blind beggar was cured by Jesus. Jesus did not repair whatever physical ailment afflicted his eyes or his nervous system. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says only: “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” His faith made him well; he was healed, not cured. As a blind beggar, he had been kicked to the margins of society; but Jesus helped heal his soul, so that he could once again see love and kindness. No wonder he followed Jesus in the way. No wonder he joined a religious movement that promised to spread love and kindness throughout Judea, even to Jerusalem, even to the place that embodied oppressive foreign rule.

And we may all hope for this kind of healing in our own lives. Each one of us probably has problems or pain or sorrow that we wish could be cured, but where we know a cure is difficult or impossible. Yet even when a cure is impossible, we may still be healed. And if we are healed — even if we get just a little bit of healing — we may find ourselves like the blind beggar, getting up off the side of the road, and following in the way of love and kindness. We may find ourselves like the woman with a fever, who was healed, who got up, and who continued her healing by ministering to others. For this is how healing works: when we begin to be healed, we are no longer isolated in pain or difficulties, we are returned to the web of interdependence of all beings, we are returned to love.

 

Notes

(1) Retold from Mark 20.46-52, New Revised Standard Version translation.

(2) NRSV, Mark 1.29-34

(3) For a concise statement of this viewpoint, see Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” The Woman’s Bible Companion, ed. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1992), p. 267.

Remembering at Memorial Day

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading this morning is a poem by the English poet Seigfried Sassoon, who fought in the trenches in the First World War. The poem is titled, “Suicide in the Trenches”:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of run,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again….

The second reading was a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled “One Art.” Unfortunately, copyright laws do not permit us to reproduce complete poems that are still protected under copyright.

SERMON — “Remembering”

Religions are pretty good at remembering. You might say that the central act of religion is to keep memories alive. In the Western tradition, Christianity has, for the past two thousand years, managed to keep the memory of a certain rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus; and for perhaps three thousand years Judaism has managed to keep alive the memory of the exodus from Egypt, when Moses led his people out of bondage and into the Promised Land. In Persia, the Parsees or Zoroastrians have kept alive the memory of the prophet Zarathustra for three thousand years. In India and the Far East, Buddhists have kept alive the memory of Siddhartha Gotama for some twenty-five hundred years. So religions are adept at keeping ancient memories alive.

Religions are also good at helping us keep more recent memories alive. I don’t mean just remembering our own narrow religious tradition, or the ways we remember the tiny little histories of our local congregations. I’m thinking more of the ways in which our religious communities help us to remember our own lives; to remember what is past and done but still lives on in our hearts.

We keep alive the memories of people whom we loved, whom we still love, but who are now dead; or who have otherwise passed out of our lives. I will say from my own experience that such memories are rarely without pain: it is only human to feel pain when you remember someone who has died. Our religious communities can give us a way to deal with that pain, perhaps even to make sense out of that pain. Most obviously, when someone dies, you hold a memorial service for that person. I know when my mother died several years ago, her memorial service helped me to deal with the pain and the grief. Not that such a religious service lessens the pain and the grief, but we human beings seem to welcome such ritual actions. Belonging to a religious community doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain and the grief either. But there is something about being part of a group of people who are willing to talk about death and pain and loss, especially where some or most of the people in that group have gone through their own pain and grief and loss. Being part of such a group helps you make sense out of death; not because the tenets of that religious community can adequately explain death; but because you are with a group of people who are willing to face death together.

One result of all this is that the buildings which house religious communities can wind up holding lots of memories. This church building in which we sit this morning has seen four memorial services in the past year, and hundreds of others in the 168 years during which it has stood here. These walls hold so many memories. In fact, these walls quite literally hold memories: the Tiffany mosaic behind me was given in 1911 as a memorial to Judge and Mrs. Oliver Prescott, by their three children, Oliver Prescott, Jr., Mrs. Frederick Stetson and Miss Mary R. Prescott. On the back wall of this room is a memorial, where families have put up plaques with the names of members and friends of this church who have died. We are literally and metaphorically the repository of memories; the memories of the generations.

I cannot help but add that one of the best reasons for supporting this church is to keep it as a repository for such memories. Obviously, a church building is far more than a repository of memories; it is first and foremost a home for a living community. But the members of that living community have their memories, and there is almost nowhere else in our society where we have a physical space where we can remember; the only other place I can think of would be cemeteries, but cemeteries lack the vitality that churches get from also housing a living community. In churches memories can remain as living memories; churches look backwards in memory, but also forwards to the next generations; and of course churches remain above concerned with the present.

I’ll say something else about this church. Here in this place, we make an effort to come face-to-face with the truth, even if that truth is less than comfortable. When it comes to memories, we remember, yes; but we don’t feel we have to sugar-coat our memories. Thus when we look back at our Christian heritage, we remember what is good about that heritage; but we also try to look unflinchingly on what it less than good about that heritage; we are willing to acknowledge that our Christian heritage has some unsavory episodes in its long history. This same attitude guides us when we look back at the past of our own church: we remember what is good about our church’s past, but we acknowledge that both good and bad things have happened here. And if you choose to do so, this church will support you if you choose to apply this same attitude when you look back at your own past: because we know that no human being is wholly good, we know that it’s acceptable to remember both the good and the bad things about the dead. In our faith tradition, we try to remain open to the whole truth of the world around us.

By remaining open in this way to the whole of truth, by accepting the wholeness of our memories, we are performing something of a counter-cultural act. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the society around us sometimes tries to mold the past into a more comfortable image. I see this tendency in people’s personal lives; when, for example, people blame a personal weakness on their parents instead of taking personal responsibility for their own actions. Or when, for example, rather than apologizing and saying “I’m sorry,” we see people hiding behind lawyers and law suits. We see this tendency at a national level as well; when, for example, any critical statement about United States foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East is said to be unpatriotic and even treasonous. And we see this in our own religious institutions; when, for example, people refuse to acknowledge past problems and misdeeds in religious institutions, preferring instead to remain silent or to deny that anything bad ever happens in a church.

Our society seems to encourage an attitude of refusing to accept responsiblity for oneself; and I see this in part as a failure of memory. When I carefully search my own memory of my own actions, I find many examples of times when I was less than a good person; and I find that the society around me offers me too many ways to excuse myself. When I look back at the history of my beloved Unitarian Universalist religion, I find instances of racially segregated churches, instances of sexism, instances of misconduct on the part of ministers, and — my personal pet peeve — instances of bias on the basis of socio-economic status. And when I look back at the history of my country, a country in which I have pride, a country which I love, I find less-than-savory episodes: I could start with killing native Americans, work my way up through the slavery of Africans, and so on up to the present day. All these things represent in part a failure of memory: if you forget that 95% of the Indians in New England died within 20 years of the arrival of European settlers, you can forget about any possible problem.

I don’t mean to imply that we each have to take all the burdens of the world on our shoulders; nor do I mean to imply that any one person has to bear the full burden of responsibility for, let us say, slavery. Nor am I saying that I want you to go out and remember only the worst things about yourself, or to remember only the worst things about someone you love who is now dead. But what I am saying is that we need to remember as honestly as we possibly can.

The first reading this morning gives an example of what I mean. The poet Siegfried Sassoon served with the English military in the trench warfare in the First World War, and he writes of a young soldier who, while initially carefree, gets worn down by the trench warfare and commits suicide. Sassoon writes: “He put a bullet through his brain. / No one spoke of him again.” That, my friends, is a failure of memory.

Which brings us to our second reading, the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, which says:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, faster:
places, names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

None of these will bring disaster. And what Elizabeth Bishop is telling us is quite simple: you can’t cling tightly to everything. Indeed, in this life of ours, we had better master the art of losing, for there is much to lose, as Elizabeth Bishop says at the end of the poem:

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Say it!) like disaster.

The art of remembering is an art of holding on; and it has to be coupled with the art of losing, or the art of letting go. We need them both. We need to be able to hold on to memories; but at times in our lives, we need to be able to let go again.

There is a difference between the failure of memory, of which I spoke a moment ago, and the art of letting go. The failure of memory in the way I’m talking about it is really a refusal to remember things correctly; it’s an attempt to create a past that never was.

The trick is to learn how to balance the art of remembering, of holding on; over against the art of losing, or of letting go. You can watch this happen inside yourself when someone you love dies. Elizabeth Bishop tells us that even when you lose someone you love, “the art of losing’s not to hard to master”; for when someone you love dies, you may feel at first as if you can’t possibly let go, and yet somehow you do, for you don’t really have a choice. And when you love is dying, or has just died, it surely does feel like disaster. And then you have to be careful to find the right balance: by not succumbing to that sense of disaster on the one hand, and by continuing to remember on the other hand.

I started out by saying that religions are pretty good at remembering, and I said that perhaps the central act of religion is keeping memory alive. A religious community gives each person in that community a context in which to hold memories; and a healthy religious community gives each person in that community assistance in letting go of memories when the time is right. To say this is merely to affirm a great human truth. When we human beings lose some person, or even some thing like an ideal or a place, when we lose that which we care for deeply, we are struck with grief. Yet we manage to move on, we manage to keep on living; and that means that some measure of grief has to slip away. Being part of a religious community is a way to help that very human process move forward in its course; because a religious community has seen this process happen over and over again, always with starkly individual differences, but always in the same grand human pattern.

And a religious community can help us keep that balance between holding on and letting go. The reason we want to keep that balance is so that we can move forward in our lives — so that we can move forward together in our communal life as a church, as a community, and a country. We don’t want to get stuck. When someone you love dies, it’s easy to get stuck in grieving; and while perhaps we never stop grieving, we must also find a way to live out our lives, to live out what was best in the life of whomever it was who died. I’d say that’s the truest expression of grief.

So, too we must keep the balance between remembering, and letting go; so that we might move forward in our communal life, in our political life. On Memorial Day, we remember all those who died in military service of our great country; we remember them, and we recall the ideals they fought and died for. And by remembering, we can commit ourselves to work for the highest of those ideals — some of the old ideals may no longer apply in today’s world, and those we can let go of — but we remember the highest ideals.

In the Unitarian Universalist church of my childhood, I learned early on what those highest ideals were, and I learned them as religious ideals. Those ideals were, and are:– the ideal of humankind learning to live together as one interconnected, interdependent community;– the ideal of each and every human being having a voice in how he or she is governed;– the ideal of a world where a person’s essential humanity means more than their race or creed or national origin.

Our religion exists in part to keep those highest ideals of humanity alive. Our liberal faith has long upheld the ideal of democratic process, and the ideal that all persons are important and of worth, and most importantly the ideal that each and every human being is worthy of respect, and of love. We have not always lived up to our ideals, both in our own religious community, and in our lives in the wider world. But we hold on to those ideals, and we remain open to new and deeper understandings of those ideals. And on this Memorial Day, we commit ourselves once again to a world where all persons shall be known as our brothers and sisters.

May it be so.