Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Ragged Edge of the Crowd

Cities are crowded. Where is God in the crowds? This is the question for our Sunday worship. I'm not the speaker, but I read through a few of the scripture lessons to get a feel for the topic. (Luke 8:43-48, Mark 10:46-52, Matt. 25: 31-46)

I don't like crowds. I am impatient waiting in line, I don't like full campgrounds because they feel like I haven't left the city, and I like to visit restaurants mid-week. My discomfort likely has less to do with convenience than it does with a fear of the unknown and an accompanying feeling of a lack of control over what might happen to me in a crowd.

The increasing number of terrorist attacks at crowded bars, restaurants, and festivals have made crowds seem even scarier. I use the word "seem" because I have no real evidence to say that crowds are more dangerous now than at any other time. It could simply be that our ubiquitous, instant, and repetitive media coverage makes everything seem worse than it used to be when we had to wait for the 6 pm news. For instance, this past week when there was an attack in Madrid, I heard about it at least 7 times in few hours immediately after it happened. Plus it was reported in papers the next day and has been mentioned many times in the news since. Add to this coverage that everyone has a recording device now, so there is video record of every bit of bad news. No wonder crowds feel scary.

Jesus is constantly pursued by crowds. Some people are genuinely seeking faith and learning, some are gawking, some are desperate for healing, and some are plotting against him. The crowd is also composed of the "less desirable", those people who are on the streets. The cripples, the mentally ill, those without work, foreigners, and the poor have the time and reasons to follow the crowds. The scripture stories I read were striking in that they all feature . these outsider people as main characters who receive blessings.

In Luke 8 Jesus is touched by the woman with a hemorrhage and she is healed. According to Jewish law, her bleeding made her unclean. She should not have even been in the crowd. She definitely should not have touched an important person, touching him made Jesus ritually unclean as well. He and the crowd could have legitimately condemned her. Instead, she is healed. And more than that, Jesus commends her faith and blesses her in front of those she was afraid to face. Her illness does not make her unacceptable in God's sight. Her illness is no longer something silent and hidden.

The setting of this story is important. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus was ministering and healing among the pig-feeding, demon-possessed, Gentiles. The story of the woman is surrounded by the story of the synagogue leader's daughter. She dies, but Jesus touches and reanimates her. Touching a dead body would also make Jesus unclean. A clear point is being made through the setting; Jesus crosses boundaries and the outsiders become insiders.

Jesus touches the ragged edges of the crowd. The Gentile outsiders who were unacceptable to the Jewish religious leaders and the unacceptable insiders (bleeding and dead women) were all touched and blessed by Jesus. When crowds try to shush blind Bartemaus, Jesus makes sure to single him out for healing. Those who were in positions of religious power and working hard to be righteous in the traditional way must have been getting more and more frustrated with Jesus' improper contacts. When we read the old stories, we have to be careful not to "tame" Jesus. He was a radical, a trouble-maker, and a person who was not afraid to associate with those who were outcast or unclean or foreign.

Where is Jesus today in our crowded city? I think he is likely still inhabiting the ragged edges, touching lives that others cannot or do not consider worthy. Jesus loved crowds, or at least we know he loved the individuals that make up the crowds.

Can we see those individuals too? Can we see past our fear of the unknown to allow a ragged woman to touch us and tell her story? Can we reach out of our fears of rejection and touch the hem of Jesus' robe? What illnesses might be freely spoken of so that those who suffer can be blessed instead of pushed aside?

Note: From July 31 to August 22 I will be on holiday and most likely not posting a blog. I'll get back at it for the worship service on August 28!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Healing in the city

As part of our summer series; 'God in the City", this Sunday will focus on thinking about where God is in our health care systems. Here is the list of passages that will help get your thinking going on the topic:  Rev. 2:1-5, Mark 2:1-12, Psalm 103: 1-5, Luke 6: 17-19, John 5: 1-18.

This morning a man came to our church doors to ask for help. He is a middle aged AISH (assured income for the severely handicapped) recipient who lives with his mother. He is divorced and has two adult sons, one lives on the streets in another city, and one is always far from the city and working on oil rigs. This son sometimes helps out, but is largely unavailable by choice.. The man was diagnosed with diabetes a year ago, and is struggling to develop healthy habits.

He came to the door almost in tears. His first words were something like; "I feel so ashamed to ask for help, but it is so difficult." Over and over he expressed shame and guilt as he apologized for asking for a grocery voucher.

We sat down and talked for awhile. I feel a lot of empathy for this man. My husband was a case worker for AISH about 17 years ago. Even back then, the $800.00 or so dollars was not enough to pay for rent and food, let alone phone bills, transportation, and entertainment. If recipients earned a bit of money on the side, it was clawed back from their AISH. Caseloads were so high, that caseworkers had minimal ability to help clients, people who by definition, could not adequately help themselves. It doesn't sound like anything has improved in 17 years, perhaps it has even gotten more difficult.

I could easily see this man as one of the crowd in Luke 6, pushing to touch Jesus in a quest for healing, except he is not physically able to get to the front of the line. He is more like the paralytic in John 5 who needs help into the healing waters of the Bethsaida pool, but he is terribly reluctant to ask for that. He certainly doesn't have friends, like those in Mark 2, to lower him through a roof and into the presence of a healer. What he does have is ill health, special needs, an elderly mother, broken family relationships, and insufficient money.

The stories of Jesus healing people are wonderful, yet frustrating to me as I search for an understanding of how an individual Christian or a church is supposed to be part of the healing ministry. Jesus healed with a touch, then moved on to the next town. What happened to the healed people? What ongoing help did the former paralytic require to adapt to a new life? Job training? Housing? Community connections? We can't just heal with a touch and move on. Very few healings are instant or complete.

Jesus also did something much bigger than physical healing. He forgives sin, which is a harder thing to do than to heal a body. Jesus said, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, "stand up and take your mat and walk?" Mark 2:9

We, in both the singular and plural senses, are called to be a part of the ministry of Jesus. To reach out with physical touch and healing, and with forgiveness to one another. It's not easy. It's not instant. It is important.

I tried to listen compassionately, acknowledging the difficulty the man had in asking for help. I was able to give a grocery voucher to help with his immediate need for food. I prayed for him. He seemed to be less distraught, he was smiling when he left our church. I hope this was a small touch of healing and hope, but it will take more for him to be healed. Maybe I, and the church I represented today, managed to give him a band-aid. What would it be like to offer a more complete healing?

What is our healing ministry in our city? How can it be more than responding to symptoms, but offer complete healing?