“Persistent Healing”

How is it with your spirit? How is it with the Holy Spirit? These are the theme questions for this summer’s worship at First Church. In this sermon I will speak to each question, with the aid of words from the biblical books of Lamentations and Mark.

My own spirit, during this past year, has been one of persistent healing, hence the title for this sermon. Undergoing four surgeries—one planned, one emergency, and two routine—made me aware of the persistent healing at work in my body, even in a time of widespread disease. I have been blessed to live in a controlled, safe environment called assisted living. While the pandemic raged all around, while gun violence, police violence and insurrectional violence made their media presence felt, they did not touch me in the same ways many of you were touched. In my safe and secure world, I was able to work at my own persistent healing, fearing only that I might fall, not fearing I might be shot.

That’s my report on my spirit. To report on the Spirit requires a confidence and a clarity I do not possess. But my calling as a minister and theology professor, as well as the preacher of this sermon, require me to say something about the Spirit. To do that I turn to the words of Jeremiah and Mark in the biblical books bearing their names.

The book of Lamentations is by the prophet, Jeremiah, or so the tradition has held. Most of its verses lament the death and destruction in Jerusalem inflicted by Babylonian armies in 586 BCE. The city’s walls were breached, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, along with the palace. The monarch, the royal family and entourage, and all the leading people were carried off into captivity, leaving behind only the people of no account.

The writer attributes all the death and destruction to God’s punishment for the sins of the people. I could not theologically agree. To attribute bad things to God is a dangerous move. However, in the verses read today from chapter three, a word of hope breaks through. An affirmation of God’s restorative love dispels the gloom of death and destruction.

I take two lessons from these verses. First, we need to lament the destruction in our days. There is much to lament: the pandemic, racism, white supremacy, African slavery, Native Peoples’ genocide, and the slow destruction of the environment. Surrounding all that, we need to lament our own denial. Not me! I didn’t do any of that! I’m doing everything in my power to repair all that! Real lament is called for here, deeply felt, emotional. Comforting ourselves with the mantra, this too will pass, is not sufficient.

My second lesson from Lamentations: hope is an active verb. It is a decision, not a passive emotion. When we truly lament hope breaks forth. We can decide to have hope because of the Holy One in whom we trust. Hope is like love. It is something we decide to do. We do not wait for hope. We take action. We decide to hope.

I turn now to the healing stories from Mark’s gospel. What do they tell us about the Spirit? A woman’s bleeding disease is healed by touching Jesus’s cloak. No, Jesus says, it is your faith that healed you. Next the young daughter of the synagogue president has died. Official mourners have gathered. Don’t bother, Jesus, she is dead. No, Jesus said, she only seems dead. She’s just sleeping. Taking her hand, Jesus commands her to get up, which she does. Give her some food, he commands. Then a final command: don’t tell anybody about this.

Throughout Christian history the prevailing interpretive tradition explained Jesus’s healing miracles as signs of his power as the Son of God, as the Messiah, who can suspend the laws of nature to demonstrate his divine authority. An understandable interpretation, but too problematic for today.

A more contemporary interpretive tradition identifies the risks taken by Jesus’s touch risking becoming unclean, as the laws of the book of Leviticus specify. The touch of a menstruating woman makes one liturgically unclean, as does touching a corpse. Both happened to Jesus in these stories. Jesus breaks the law for a higher law, the law of compassion, the law of love. Surely this is a better interpretation than viewing Jesus as a disrupter of the natural order.

Let me suggest, however, a totally different implication of these healing stories for us today. It’s a stretch, but bear with me. Let us imagine that the dead girl is American democracy. Too late, the mourners proclaim, democracy is dead. The learned pundits and columnists remind us that democracies around the world are dead or dying. They remind us that people are afraid and angry, that people want an authoritarian regime that will keep them safe, that a strong leader is better than a weak government.

Our calling, as followers of Jesus Christ, is to extend his healing ministry by announcing that democracy is not dead, it is only asleep. To say to democracy, stand up, move around, take some nourishment. And to say to the official mourners, give us a hand here, don’t just wring your hands over democracy’s demise.

The nourishment democracy needs is citizen participation, not apathy. Participation presupposes voting and voting rights, but is much more than voting. Participation includes writing, calling, and petitioning elected officials. More than that participation includes taking time to study issues and go to meetings.

Wait a minute, here, I’ve got this movie this evening on Netflix. And my new smart phone occupies me constantly. I don’t have time to participate in democracy. If you make that choice, you may inherit an autocrat who will decide what you can watch and hear. Part of the healing ministry of Jesus Christ is not just advocating participation, but also advocating denial, turning off all those devices that entertain, that lull us into a false sense of happy security, or, at least, to use them judiciously, mot letting them use us.

Please understand, I’m not saying American democracy is the realm of God on earth. But I do believe that a Christian moral advocacy should privilege a form of government where the people rule, not a monarchy, not an oligarchy, and not a dictatorship. While the Christian religion has survived all these polities and while the Christian religion has been coopted by them, the vision of a blessed community where justice, peace and compassion can flourish seems more possible where the people rule.

My last word is this: we are not alone when we work for the healing of democracy. There is a persistent healing at work in human affairs. Jesus proclaimed and relied on that healing Spirit. And so can we. One modest but important piece of evidence: in the calendar of the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is observed as Open and Affirming Sunday. This congregation, First Church, this old, small church, was the very first Minnesota Conference UCC church to declare itself Open and Affirming. Some worried it would be the death of us, but miracle of miracles, it has become the life of us. Persistent healing at work in our midst! Thanks be to God!

That is my take on how it is with the Spirit. Amen.