Here’s my sermon from today at the Church of the Epiphany in Wilbraham. Close readers will notice that I don’t take any cheap shots at Yale but I did wind up and take a great big one during Diocesan Convention on Saturday. The opportunity was ripe and I couldn’t pass it up.
25 October 2009
Church of the Epiphany, Wilbraham, MA
Let us pray.
Dear God. Why is it so easy for you to perform miracles and so difficult for us? And how can we be more like you? Amen.
Some of you may know that for the last two years I was a missionary of the Episcopal church in a town called Mthatha in South Africa. I worked in a clinic that served a shantytown called Itipini. Itipini is a word that means “at the dump” because this shantytown was built on the site of the municipal garbage dump so people could scavenge off the garbage. Their homes are made out of old pieces of tin, tarp, old car parts, milk cartons, beer bottles, literally whatever will work. Although it was a difficult place to work, I love talking about my experience there. But instead of talking about Itipini, I want to begin this morning somewhere else: the movie theatre.
How many of you saw the newest “Star Trek” movie this past summer? I did. Twice. I loved it. What stayed with me after the last explosion was the dialogue, especially on board the space ship Enterprise. Have you ever noticed how Captain Kirk gives commands? “Alert the sick bay to prepare to receive injured crewmen.” “Fire on enemy ships!” “Energize!” “Enterprise, get us out of here!” or my favourite, “Mr. Scott, maximum warp!” He just says what he wants. And the shocking thing is that he gets it, every time. The injured crewmen are treated, the enemy ship is fired upon, Kirk is transported into or out of whatever danger zone he chooses, and the Enterprise does go into warp speed.
It reminds me a bit of how Jesus acts in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Blind Bartimaeus asks Jesus to make him able to see again? Jesus simply says, “Go, your faith has made you well” and all of a sudden he can see again. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the Gospels. Jesus is able to perform miracles simply by visiting and speaking to sick people.
Let me just say that after two years in South Africa where I knew countless sick people and watched helplessly as many of them died, despite my best efforts to prevent it, this Captain Kirk/Jesus Christ way of looking at the world seems improbable, impossible, out of touch, unrealistic, and, quite frankly, downright insensitive and rude. South Africa has the greatest number of HIV-positive people in the world and all the health indicators in Mthatha and Itipini are among the worst in the country. There are plenty of sick people in Itipini and when I sat in a tumble-down shack next to people about to die, no matter what I said, no matter what I did, they were just never able to get up. Miracles are for Jesus. That connection between word and deed epitomized by Captain Kirk is imaginary and represents a point none of us will ever attain.
That’s what I thought at least. And then one day in South Africa I performed a miracle of my own.
I first met a woman named Pakama after I had been in Itipini a year or so. She was in her mid-30s and when we met she was very sick. Her HIV infection had turned into AIDS and she had tuberculosis as well. She had just started taking the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs that combat AIDS but for a variety of reasons she still needed to make numerous trips to a local clinic and the doctor to change her ARV prescription so it would be compatible with her TB treatment.
The trouble was that Pakama was quite weak. The clinic she needed to visit was a 15-minute walk away, uphill. Actually I should say, it was 15 minutes away for someone like me, a young healthy person unaffected by HIV. For Pakama, it was impossible. She couldn’t even make it to our clinic under her own steam and we were only 200 meters or so away from her home. When she talked, she had to take frequent pauses to catch her breath between words. She had severe gastro-intestinal problems, likely brought about by the HIV, so she couldn’t eat, which just made her weaker. By the time I met Pakama, I had known lots of other people in similar situations and virtually all of them had died. I didn’t have a lot of hope Pakama would be any different.
In Itipini, they speak a language called Xhosa and in Xhosa the word pakama means get up. It’s the imperative form of the word so it means “get up!” When I would find Pakama lying in her bed in her shack, I wanted nothing more to tell her what Jesus tells some of his patients in the Gospel healing accounts – “Get up, stand up.” Of course, she couldn’t.
Over the course of several weeks, I drove Pakama and her mother to appointment after appointment, in a seemingly never-ending quest through the bureaucratic maze of the health-care system to change her ARV prescription. There were numerous hurdles but day by day we knocked them down, only to be confronted by new and different ones on the other side. Pakama’s health got worse. She could no longer walk at all and had to be lifted into the car and then wheeled around the clinic. I was hopeful but a gnawing voice in the back of head told me not to be surprised if I showed up one morning and learned she had died the night before.
I’ll spare you all the details but eventually Pakama got a new ARV prescription and began taking the right pills. We didn’t have to go to so many appointments anymore but she was still too weak to come to the clinic for her TB treatment so I visited her every day to give her that. Progress, if it was visible at all, came slowly. She spent most days under a pile of blankets on her bed, complaining about the cold.
It was about that point that I took a break from South Africa and returned to the U.S. to raise some more money to support myself. Pakama was on my mind while I travelled and when I returned to Itipini one of the first things I did was seek her out. I found her in her shack, standing up and doing the laundry. After I asked how she was, I had one question, “Uyakwazi ukuzihambela? Can you walk by yourself?”
She glanced away as if embarrassed to remember her previous condition. But she nodded slightly.
“Ndibonise,” I said. “Show me.”
And so on that warm, spring day, I made Pakama walk back and forth in front of her shack. It had been obvious to me from the moment I saw her doing her laundry that she was much better. But watching her sashay back and forth unassisted like that convinced me that she was well on the path to recovery. But I didn’t think of it as a miracle.
A few months after that, Pakama finished her eight months of TB treatment. As I filled out the paperwork to formally discharge her from treatment, I mentioned to Jenny, the missionary I worked with, that Pakama was finally done. Jenny smiled and looked at me. “You know,” she said. “You saved her life.”
Me? I had saved a life? Impossible! Saving a life is a miracle. I couldn’t do that! The idea made me uncomfortable and Jenny could tell so she dropped the subject. We didn’t mention it again.
I think what made me most uncomfortable about Jenny’s assertion that I had saved Pakama’s life is that it gave me too much credit. What did I do? I drove the car. I lifted Pakama in and out of the passenger seat and in and out of a wheelchair. Surely such simple acts can not lead to such tremendous results?
But as time passed, Pakama gained weight – always a good sign when you have AIDS – and kept improving. I moved on to other patients and she carried on with her treatment and the normal course of her life. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think back to my early doubts that some morning I would arrive in Itipini and see the hearse in front of Pakama’s shack. And I had to acknowledge that somehow my efforts had helped prolong her life. There was never a “go, your faith has made you well” moment like with Bartimaeus but a miracle had occurred. Somehow I had found myself accidentally stumbling along a path that Jesus intentionally followed in his ministry.
It’s tempting to look at the miracle in this morning’s Gospel passage as an isolated event. But we shouldn’t ignore what precedes it. Immediately preceding the healing of Bartimaeus was a journey. Jesus’ ministry was not stationary. This morning’s Gospel passage begins with “They came to Jericho” then “As they were leaving Jericho” and at the end of the passage, they are all on the road again. This is not an uncommon thing. Gospel passages are always beginning with phrases like “Jesus had crossed to the other side” of the sea or “Then he went among the villages” or “He left that place.” Jesus’ ministry was a journey, ranging far and wide over the Holy Land.
I went on a journey with Pakama. It was an actual physical journey of countless car rides to and from clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, and so on. If there was anything I did, it was simply to help her find the way on this journey, to point out where she had to go when she didn’t know, to follow her when she knew the destination, and to help her along when she was too weak to go herself. Mission is a journey. Our task is to accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ on their journeys and let them shape ours.
So Jesus didn’t heal people, like Bartimaeus, from a distance. Before he spoke to them and healed them, he went to them. And Jesus’ decision to go to sick people wasn’t made, say, when he decided to go to another town or decided to cross the sea. Preceding the journey part of the healing was a much more basic – and also much more consequential – decision, the decision to be Incarnate among humans, to take flesh as one of us, and be Emmanuel, “God with us.” This is the obvious point but Jesus would never have healed anyone if he had stayed in heaven at the right hand of the Father. If I had stayed in North America, I never would have been able to accompany Pakama on the journey that led to her healing. I chose to share an existence with her.
Jesus’ command to Bartimaeus is simple – Go. This is a phrase that is heard time and again in the Bible. God says this to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah, to Jonah, to name just a few of the people who learned they couldn’t serve God where they were but had to move someplace else to do it. Jesus’ healing words to Bartimaeus are as much meant for us as they are for the blind beggar he is healing on that particular day. We need to get up and go to the people who are different than us, to share an existence with them and begin a journey.
The healing of Pakama and the healing of Bartimaeus share common antecedents – a decision to share an existence, a decision to being a journey. The analogy begins to break down in the actual healing itself. That’s because unlike Bartimaeus, Pakama had an imperfect and sinful human accompanying her – me. There was never a moment when someone said to Pakama “be healed.” Healing does not come in a moment, as it did with Bartimaeus, but over a lengthy journey. Our job is to choose to take that journey – by faith and with thanksgiving – and pray that we are headed in the right direction.
I know that sometimes when I start talking about people living with HIV in a far corner of the world, it can seem pretty remote from Wilbraham and this congregation. It is. The tendency – and I’ve seen this in many other congregations – is to pat me on the back, congratulate me on the difference I’ve made, and then blithely forget everything else I’ve said.
But there is a way to unite what goes on in Western Massachusetts with what happens in Itipini. And the way to do that is to go back to a word I used earlier to describe myself. I was a missionary of the Episcopal Church. That word missionary can be so contested and difficult to hear sometimes. It certainly has a mixed history. Pakama’s recent ancestors could no doubt tell us stories of missionaries of the church in Africa who did not embody a message of grace and love but one of sin and law and who did a lot of damage as a result. I know all about missionaries who count their success by the number of people they baptized and how many churches they established. That has never appealed to me and yet I still cheerfully and proudly describe myself as a missionary.
A missionary, to state the obvious, has a mission. And who does that mission belong to? Does it belong to the missionary? To the missionary’s church? It is none of these, I think. Mission belongs to God. And God’s mission, throughout the course of history, has been the same: the restoration of right relationship between people and God and between people and each other so that together we may journey together towards the righteousness and wholeness that God longs for us to have. In a word, God yearns for reconciliation.
The questions a missionary needs to ask, then, are these: Where is God’s mission around me and what role am I privileged to play in that mission? To ask it another way: Where is reconciliation needed and how can I help make it happen? And if we ask the question in this way, it becomes clear that missionaries are not only the people who move to Africa for a time. Not everyone or even most people are called to work overseas. The great South African Desmond Tutu says, “We are all missionaries or we are nothing.” We become missionaries by virtue of our belief in Christ, not by our decision to move across the world. The need for reconciliation is as strong and urgent in Wilbraham and western Massachusetts as it is in a shantytown in Africa. The need takes a different shape but the question remains the same: what role are we privileged to play in God’s mission here and now?
So when we think about where God is calling us, let us begin by asking this question: how can I be incarnate among these people I want to serve? This may seem obvious – well, I live in western Massachusets and there are people suffering here. But is that really incarnation? Incarnation is going someplace and choosing to share an existence. Just because we know somebody is suffering doesn’t mean we’re sharing that existence. How do we enter more fully into a shared existence with the wild diversity of the members of the Body of Christ instead of retreating to our familiar groupings?
And after we share that existence, let us ask this: where is this journey going? Is it headed in a direction towards peace and righteousness? Or do we need to redirect its trajectory in a new direction? Martin Luther King Jr. often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Indeed. But maybe we need to pull on that arc so it bends a bit quicker towards that righteousness we yearn for.
None of this is easy. Being incarnate among a people can be difficult. It’s worth noting that Jesus’ decision to be Incarnate led to his death on the cross, the same place many of Jesus’ followers ended up. Moses followed God’s call and ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years. Working on a dump gave me countless illnesses I would have avoided if I had never gone to Itipini. There are countless speed bumps and road blocks we encounter on our journeys, some brought about by the failings of the world and some by our own failings.
So incarnation brings risks, both from without and from within. But neither would Jesus have saved the world if he had never been Incarnate. And neither would I have experienced a transcendent journey in mission had I stayed here. Incarnation requires a certain willingness to open oneself to what may come, a willingness to be vulnerable, that is not common in this world of ours that seeks to control everything. But I think we’ll find that the benefits of the decision to be incarnate, to share an existence far outweigh the costs.
Jesus did not come to heal the world. If he did, he would have made a beeline for the leper colonies and gone to work. Jesus came to teach and to save. He left the healing up to us. It is our job to heal the brokenness of the world and work towards peace. That’s what mission is all about. It can seem like a tall order and it is. But miracles happen every day in this world. And they are performed by people like you and me. It’s simple and straightforward. It begins in the decision to get up and go, to go to where there is hurt and suffering in the world, and then to choose to accompany these brothers and sisters of ours on a journey into mission, poking and prodding that journey in the direction of righteousness and peace. We may not know where the path leads or when the journey will end. But it is our calling to set out on that journey nonetheless.