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Sunday, February 11, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
I Do Choose
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Divine love is incessantly restless until
it turns all woundedness into health,
all deformity into beauty,
all embarrassment into laughter.
Belden C. Lane
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality
At first Stephen didn’t even realize he was afflicted. He felt aching in his joints but hoped it was a passing thing. Maybe he strained some muscles from walking too much on hard ground. He didn’t realize that, soon after, discolored patches started to appear on his back. Small nodules grew that then got bigger and spread, going from pink to brown. But since he couldn’t see them, he didn’t know to hide them, which he definitely would have done, for as long as possible, if he’d known, because what he was afraid would have happened once others found out he had leprosy is in fact what happened. As soon as his brother saw the splotches on his back, Stephen was banished, not only from his own home but from his family, his friends, his neighborhood. He became an outcast, totally shunned, forced to live alone outside the community. If another person did come within sight, he had to cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” However lonely he felt, Stephen actually had to ward others away from interacting with him.
Medical knowledge was quite primitive. No one knew where leprosy came from, and no one knew what, if anything, cured it or why some people seemed to recover while others faced continuing decay, both physical and mental. Stephen didn’t know if he would get better or not, but his heart was broken with the anguish. Not only did his physical pain and disfigurement increase week by week, but he suffered deeply from his isolation from loved ones, ostracized as an outcast. He knew he had done nothing wrong and had no control over his disease. The prospect that this may go on for another nine years or so, living and eventually dying alone, almost crushed him.
Stephen had heard stories about a man named Jesus from Nazareth, who had healed some people, including lepers. Word spread fast. When he found out Jesus was nearby, he broke with convention as he intently moved toward Jesus, knelt before him like a beggar, and exclaimed, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
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At first Olivia didn’t realize she lived in poverty. She didn’t know other families didn’t wear their coats inside the house to keep warm in the winter. She thought everyone felt really hungry and sometimes had to skip meals. But then she and her younger sister started going to school. They shared one pair of socks between them, which Olivia let her sister wear, so Olivia would be teased by kids at school for walking through the snow without any socks on. Her alcoholic father began to beat her mother and sometimes her. This went on for several years, until one day, seeing her father beat her mother yet again, Olivia snapped. She took a big kitchen knife and stabbed her father. He lived, but he went to prison—for a few years. When he got out, he beat her mother again, but he didn’t beat her. From that experience Olivia learned that it paid to make other people afraid of her. She acted out her trauma in ways that got her in trouble. She became the girlfriend of a drug dealer, because people were afraid of him. She did some things that landed her in prison, more than once. Even though Olivia was terribly lonely and yearned for a new life, she was stuck behind bars. She saw herself as others saw her—as bad, unclean, internalizing the social stigma of being seen only as a criminal. Prospects of a future with a fresh start, a secure job, and a loving home seemed totally out of reach. Having little hope or forgiveness almost crushed her.
Olivia, still in prison, heard stories about St. Leonard’s Ministries—how they helped men and women who had been incarcerated overcome the stigma of being behind bars, heal from their traumatic experiences, and get help earning a degree, gaining job skills, recovering from substance abuse, and securing stable housing. Once she was released from prison, she went straight to St. Leonard’s and, almost begging, exclaimed to the staff, “If you choose, you can make me whole.”
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Jesus was moved by Stephen. Jesus’ heart was full of both pity and anger. Jesus was angry that Stephen had been shunned. Disease should not cause anyone to be taunted, blamed, feared, and marginalized. Jesus felt compassion upon seeing Stephen’s physical decay, imagining his pain and loneliness and hearing how much Stephen wanted to be made whole. Jesus was moved by the fact that there was never a doubt in Stephen’s mind that Jesus had the ability to heal him. It was a matter of whether Jesus would choose to do so. Jesus responded to Stephen, “I do choose.” Jesus then breaks the law, too. By touching Stephen, he made himself unclean. Jesus deliberately took upon himself Stephen’s condition, his isolation, his illness. He restores the formerly excluded man—a man the religious institutions kept out—to full participation in the community. Restoration happened, and new life came.
St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago was founded in the mid-1950s and shaped by the efforts of Father James Jones and Father Robert Taylor, both Episcopal priests, and by many interested members of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Father Jones was chaplain at Chicago’s Bridewell Jail, and his interactions with the prisoners moved him in anger and compassion: Anger at how people, once incarcerated, are forever after seen as no more than the worst mistake they made. Anger that people who, upon completing their time, continue to be punished in society because they cannot get hired, cannot not live in public housing, do not get trained in job skills to make a living wage. Father Jones also was moved in compassion for people like Olivia, whose life had been constant hardship. It wasn’t a second chance she needed, it was a first one.
There was never a doubt in Olivia’s mind that St. Leonard’s Ministries had the ability to heal her. It was a matter of whether they would choose to do so. St. Leonard’s Ministries responded, “We do choose.” They choose to support not just Olivia but hundreds of other men and women through holistic services that include housing, mental and physical health care, substance abuse treatment, education, employment and life skills training, and transitional jobs. People who participate in St. Leonard’s Ministries achieve successful reentry into the community and experience a substantially lower rate of recidivism. Restoration happens, and new life comes.
Jesus Christ, and his followers who founded St. Leonard’s Ministries, reveal what kind of God we have. We worship a God who gets angry when institutions, religious and otherwise, target, keep out, send away, exclude, and marginalize others who are different. In our day that isn’t so much people who suffer from leprosy. There are others. Stop and think. Whom do you cross the street to avoid? Whom do not sit by on the bus? From whom do you keep your distance? Not that they are contagious. You just don’t want to be near them. Our society’s outcasts include those who once were or now are in prison. Those who fled to our country as refugees or immigrants to escape violence and poverty. Those whose skin tones are darker. Muslims who are wrongly feared as terrorists. Those who suffer from substance addiction. Those who act out from traumatic experiences. Those who suffer from mental illness. Those who live on the streets. Even those who are aging and dying. They are anyone we see as a threat, for whatever reason. God gets angry when they are targeted and treated as “less than,” as unworthy, undeserving, un-American, unclean. The God we know through Jesus Christ is angered by any actions that close off possibilities for loving oneself and others, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for reparations and restoration in the community, for a new start and full life.
We worship a God of compassion, who is drawn especially to those whom society isolates. God touches those in pain and takes on their suffering. God not only has the ability to heal people but chooses to do so. God not only has the power to transform us but chooses to do so. The God we know through Jesus Christ is a God of compassion, who is on our side, who calls us beloved, who is the Source of Life and Love, who embraces us and makes us whole.
Let’s not miss the significance that our God is a God of acceptance and inclusion, who moves toward us and meets us wherever we are. It could be otherwise. Just think how often we ourselves try to deny suffering and limitations. Think how often we avoid people who are different from us or people who are too much like us, whose aging, illness, and dying remind us of our own.
The mother of theologian Belden Lane was slowly dying of breast cancer. She was staying in a nursing home, which he visited daily. There he met a woman by the elevator, every day, whose mouth was always open wide, as if uttering a silent scream. In a bed down the hall lay a scarcely recognizable body, twisted by crippling arthritis. Another woman cried out every few moments, desperately calling for help in an “emergency” that never ebbed. Belden thought, “Who were these people?”
Then Belden realized,
They represented the God from whom I repeatedly flee. Hidden in the grave clothes of death, this God remains unavailable to me in my anxious denial of aging and pain. [God] is good news only to those who are broken. But to them [God] is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, lurking in the shadows beyond the nurses’ desk, promising life in the presence of death. This is the last place I might have sought [God]. I found myself wanting often to run from that gaping mouth, the twisted body, the cries that echoed through the halls. I resisted going to the nursing home. Yet, at the same time, I was drawn there.
Belden Lane continues, “I know why Francis of Assisi had to kiss the leper, why Mother Teresa reached out to those dying on the streets of Calcutta, why Jean Vanier [who founded the L’Arche community] gives himself without restraint to the handicapped. It has nothing to do with charity. It’s a concern to touch—and to be touched by—the hidden Christ, the one found nowhere else so clearly” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 35).
The hidden Christ comes to us particularly in the places we are hiding. It is especially in the midst of brokenness, in the places of our vulnerability and need, that God meets us. There how much we need God comes crashing in on us. Our dependency on God opens us to receive God’s healing. Our need for God emboldens us to approach Christ as a beggar, to proclaim he can make us clean, if he chooses.
And God responds, “I do choose.” “Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter,” writes Belden Lane. Theologian Paul Tillich described it this way:
Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “you are accepted by that which is greater than you.” . . . We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say “yes” to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us. (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations)
May the God of grace bring you hope. May the Christ of compassion open your heart to others. May the Spirit of inclusive love break down all barriers among us.