an old diagnosis has reappeared with a vengeance. prayers are requested for your humble host…
an old diagnosis has reappeared with a vengeance. prayers are requested for your humble host…
Sunday, February 12, 2012 BCP lectionary
Her name was Susan. She’d left home and college in Ohio to move to Minnesota and marry “an artist”: a man twice her age, twice divorced, with a history of joblessness and alcoholism. It went swimmingly for the first few months and then when the routine settled in, he began drinking again. That’s when the abuse started. She thought, as many think, that a child would help. 9 months later she gave birth, alone in the hospital, to a baby girl. She was more alone than not over the next year, and that wasn’t all bad, since when he came home he took advantage of her and hurt her. She cobbled together odd jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. She thought she would survive.
But one day, her daughter wouldn’t nurse from her right breast. The left side was fine. This went on for a month and she took her daughter to pediatricians and clinics and they couldn’t find anything wrong. Finally she went to the doctor herself.
Fourth stage breast cancer.
She left Minnesota and moved back in with her parents. She went to the Cleveland Clinic and they tried one treatment after another. They ran out of options. Finally they told her that the last recourse was to do a complete bone marrow transfusion. It would require complete isolation for months in the hospital. She prayed about it with her parents. Their assistance was critical. The church rotated bringing food and making sure her parents had all the support they needed in the caring for the granddaughter. The rector of the first parish where I served and I visited her every other day. I remember having to scrub in and the isolation suit I had to wear to be near her. I remember her crying once and I asked her if she was in pain. She said what was worse than the pain was how utterly alone she felt. That is the feeling that Naaman and the leper in the gospel must have felt. Utterly alone.
We live in a highly medical culture, a culture that tends to see illness as the presence of a disease. In our quest for control and perfection, we want to be able to identify a “bad spot” in someone’s body or mind so we can cut it out or cure it. But sickness and suffering are usually much more complex than that. How illness manifests itself depends on many factors, some historical and some relational. Just like salvation, suffering is personal; it has to do with the meaning that an illness (and a treatment) holds—for this person. A key ingredient of suffering and illness that we’re beginning to rediscover is how a person’s whole world changes with the onset or protracted nature of certain problems. That is critical to understand in hearing today’s gospel.
From a medical perspective, when Jesus heals the leper today, He’s simply ‘the great physician’ who breaks into our lives and miraculously removes the bad spot—in this case leprosy—in order to return a person to health… Of course, the healing was a compassionate act that freed a man from his disease—and at this level we can compare contemporary medicine to Jesus’ action. But there’s more to it; Jesus doesn’t stop at merely curing. The man’s illness didn’t just make him sick, it made him “unclean;” as a pariah, he was unable to participate in life. By touching him, Jesus doesn’t merely cure the man’s sickness; He heals him as He enters into and transforms the man’s stigma and social isolation. By ignoring the social exclusion of those whom society had marginalized, Jesus shifts the margins: those previously marginalized people come to form the heart of God’s Kingdom. When Jesus enters into a relationship with the marginalized and shares in their ‘social death,’ He initiates a whole cloth process of healing for people like this man with leprosy. Because of Jesus they become full persons and are reintegrated into the community. And when they reenter the community, the community is transformed.
Diseases still marginalize people today. Last night two people felt under the weather and they didn’t feel they could come to the new-comer dinner. Imagine that condition, first not being voluntary and then extending over a period of years. People with mental health problems are alienated, stigmatized, often friendless, and, interestingly, often prevented from expressing their spirituality. They’re often not welcomed in churches. Bipolar disorders, alcoholism, AIDS, leprosy: someone with the flu or the measles is tolerated if we know they’re not contagious. But a person with a diagnosis often loses their identity because people associate them with their illness: we have a tendency to label. We see them, even their spiritual experiences, through the lens of our cultural assumptions about their illness. Couple that with the fact that many mental health professionals exclude spiritual expression as pathological and so they actively seek to disengage spirituality from the therapeutic process and we not only isolate people, we actually encourage their dis-integration.
In the midst of this chaos that sickness brings on, our parish can become a place of healing. Besides praying with and for people, we can stand with people who’ve been isolated from others by mental or physical diseases. Forming friendships with people who are marginalized and different isn’t easy (e.g., the children from St Jude’s). Yet, if we can be a community where there is a ‘safe space’ for them to develop such friendships, even if these friendships are fleeting, then we will have moved towards faithfulness and Christ-likeness.
Naaman was a powerful man who suffered from leprosy; through his healing he came to joyful faith in God. The leper in the gospel was made clean and was able to rejoin society. Some say that he is the same Simon the Leper of Bethany who will host Jesus at a dinner in Mark 14. My friend Susan was healed of her breast cancer. She celebrated 20 years of being cancer free a while back; and she remembers how her parish swept her and her family up in their collective embrace and cared for her. But what she remembers most is how she was visited and helped through the awful isolation. She experienced true healing in the communion of the Body of Christ.
Let me begin by saying the translation here in the NRSV is bad. John doesn’t use the word “doubt” here. The word Jesus uses in talking to Thomas is faithless. But the thinking that lies behind the NRSV committee’s choice of words here is what has contributed to Thomas having been given short shrift by the world with respect to so often being remembered as “Doubting Thomas.” He deserves to be respected for his faith. He was concerned to not be duped and if that’s what it means to doubt: then his doubts had a purpose—he really wanted to know the truth. Thomas didn’t idolize his doubts as some do. He gladly believed when given reason to do so. He expressed his doubt fully and therefore he was answered completely. Doubting was his way of responding, rather than his way of life.
But let’s turn to Scripture and see if we can bring Thomas to life. We meet him first in Jn 11:7–16. Jesus says, “Let us go back to Judea.” The other disciples immediately warn against it, reminding Him of the great danger of returning to the area of Jerusalem where His enemies were ready to kill Him. Only Thomas, demonstrating unselfish courage and unquestioning loyalty to Jesus, said, “We’d better go too, so that we may die with him.” Then in Jn 14:4–7 we find an inquiring Thomas. After listening to Jesus, but not understanding His words – “Where I’m going, you know the way.” – Thomas asks, as quite many of us might well have, “Master we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Thanks to Thomas, we get the answer, “I am the way and the truth and life.” Thomas didn’t hesitate to follow Jesus. Although he doesn’t appear in any of the arrest or crucifixion passages, he doesn’t disown Jesus like Peter, and he didn’t betray Jesus like Judas. But he’s not mentioned until his absence is noticed today in John’s gospel.
We don’t know why Thomas was absent the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, but we do know he was reluctant to believe them. Not even ten friends could get him to change his mind! He wanted to be sure. Jesus isn’t saying that this was wrong: Jesus is saying that being faithless is wrong. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith and can lead to faith. Fear and indecision that lead to a failure to follow God: that is the opposite of faith.
We can doubt without having to live a doubting way of life. Doubt encourages rethinking—which is absolutely ok. Its purpose is more to sharpen the mind than to change it. Doubt can be used to pose the question, get an answer, and push for a decision. But doubt was never meant to be a permanent condition. Doubt is one foot lifted and poised to step forward or backward. There is no motion until the foot comes down.
When you experience doubt be encouraged by Thomas. He didn’t stay in his doubt, he allowed himself to believe. Be encouraged by the fact that countless other followers of Jesus have struggled with doubts. The answers God gave them may help you, too. Don’t settle into your doubts, but move on from them to decision and belief. Find a compassionate priest with whom you can share your doubts. Thomas expressed his concern and look what happened. Silent doubts rarely find answers.
Look at the other doubters in the bible: Abraham doubted God in his old age about being a father. Sarah doubted God in her old age about being a mother. Moses doubted God when the Lord told him to return to Egypt to lead the Hebrews. The entire Israelite people doubted God when they were faced with difficulties in the wilderness. Gideon doubted God when told he would be the judge and leader of the people. Zechariah doubted God when he was told he would a father in his old age. John the Baptist doubted while he was in prison. All of the disciples doubted in Matthew 28.17. And Thomas doubted when he was told Jesus had risen from the dead. So, if you doubt, you’re in good company.
As to the life of Thomas after what is recorded in Scripture, I learned that of all of the other Apostles, his ministry was the most active and that most of it took place beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The Tradition says that he evangelized what became part of Eastern Turkey, as well as Armenia, India, Iran and Southeast Asia. He was even given the title, “Apostle to the Orient.” It is believed that the Apostle arrived in India in AD 52 and was martyred in AD 72.
Finally I remind you of the summation of the entire Theology of Anselm (April 21, 1109): Anselm wrote that he did not understand so that he could believe. He said that he believed so that he might understand. Dear friends, believe. Have faith. Take courage. Be not afraid and live the life of faith that God wants for you.
 ἄπιστος 1) unfaithful, faithless, (not to be trusted, perfidious) 2) incredible 2a) of things 3) unbelieving, incredulous 3a) without trust (in God)
In today’s lessons love and faith precede obedience and miracles. We don’t like that, but that’s the way of God. We would prefer to have to do something and then we get something; but that isn’t the way it is.
First, Jesus says, we love and have faith. Then, Jesus says, the Holy Spirit will lead us and guide us and teach us all that He said. Then the Father and the Son will take up in us. Then we will do greater things than Jesus. Then the world will know that we’re His disciples. Then we will see miracles. But that’s a mature faith. That’s a faith that hopes in unseen things, that the faith that hopes for all things.
And here’s the kicker: we’re the group that will help the world to see. We’re the body of believers that Jesus is using to help the world grow in faith. We’re the ones to whom He has entrusted Knowledge, Power and, most of all, Love. Incomplete? Of course. We’re always growing, always learning, always on the way. But it is His way. This is why He reveals Himself to the disciples, but not to the world.
An interesting article with much to (continue to) think and pray about…
half the country away (only two states separate me from southern california) there are people meeting. the genital general convention of the episcopal church is meeting near disney land. it is a train wreck happening. the engine is off the track. the conductor is still sounding the “all clear.” many of the passengers are delighted at the menu items they’re seeing in the club car. they imagine they will arrive at their destination and that, besides believing they are being faithful, “all is well.”
in remembering my emotional and spiritual responses to the general conventions of 2003 and 2006, i have discerned that to follow the goings-on of this meeting is injurious to me. however, i will pray (and i invite all to pray) for those in attendance: the very few orthodox, the many heterodox, the scores of heretics, and the heresiarchs whose diverse penchants lead the unwitting astray.
may God have mercy on us. may we hear His mercy.