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Sunday, September 30, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Coretta Scott King
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.” James covers just about everyone with those instructions, the final words from his short letter near the end of the New Testament. The Epistle of James is probably most famous for drawing the ire of Martin Luther as he and other Reformers developed the doctrine of “faith alone.” (Luther allegedly considered removing James from the Bible entirely.) But if you take this letter on its own and study it closely, James captures the practical side of Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospels, insisting over and over that one’s faith isn’t just esoteric but should meet real, tangible needs and concerns in the here and now. James warns against temptation, selfish ambition, and judging others for how they look or dress—effectively channeling the angry voice of the Old Testament prophets—before transitioning into celebrating all those who give and take the time and effort to meet the physical and spiritual needs of everyone in the community.
These words of praise jump off the page after the tongue-lashing that James has just unleashed on the reader, but it is clear that these words are part of an argument that he’s making to individual Christians to get off the sidelines and get into their communities. If our faith does not change the way that we give or how we see others or treat others, then what’s the point of learning it, James asks. Instead, our faith calls us into places of connection and community—of being able to support one another, celebrate with one another, mourn with one another, and lift each other up through daily struggles. In these closing words to his letter that we just read, James lays out the power of prayer, but even more, he lays out the power of presence: of being actively involved in the lives of others and experiencing faith through those relationships, not just in church buildings.
Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the early church were built on those relationships, often just simple one-on-one interactions between individuals. When we think of Jesus in the Gospels, we tend to think of his preaching and teaching by the thousands, on hilltops and in the countryside, but just as often, if not more so, Jesus’ teaching and healing happens with individuals or within a small band of disciples: the Syrophoenician Woman, the Blind Man at Bethsaida, or Jesus’ discussions with Peter and a few others. This type of connection is certainly powerful, but it is also much slower, and in our first lesson from Mark, we see Jesus starting to use the disciples as a way of spreading his message to a wider audience.
We have been spending time in the Gospel of Mark these past several weeks as a way to uncover some of Mark’s particular emphases in recounting Jesus’ ministry and mission, and one of Mark’s main interests is on the disciples. His portrayal of the disciples is somewhat unique among the other Gospel writers. More than in any other Gospel, in Mark the disciples are frequently confused, bewildered, and misunderstanding the work that Jesus does in their presence. It’s not hard to empathize with them, of course: from calming storms to healing the sick to contradicting the teachings of the religious authorities, Jesus is like nothing that they had ever seen before. But in passages like the one on which Lucy preached last week—in which the disciples spend time arguing about who among them is the greatest—Mark reminds us over and over that the disciples often fixated on the wrong things or had their own ideas of how things should be or were just flat out wrong about what Jesus was teaching.
So why exactly does Jesus choose them to be his emissaries? It was one thing to have the disciples sent out after the day of Pentecost in the book of the Acts of the Apostles when Jesus had already left, being empowered and inspired to serve. But in our First Lesson today, we see that this practice is taking place even in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, even while Jesus is teaching and healing too.
The text lets us know that Jesus gives the disciples authority when sending them out, but it also comically lays out how underprepared they are in every other regard: Jesus tells them to take nothing for their journey except for a walking staff and sandals; no bread, no bag, no money, and no change of clothes. This was not the norm for itinerant preachers in those days, nor frankly was it a smart way to travel: they were out there with no safety net, forced to rely entirely on the hospitality and kindness of strangers. Matthew’s Gospel even adds extra instructions to this scene, telling the disciples that they are not to accept payment for anything that they do. This was a mission of humility and vulnerability, with the disciples being woefully underprepared as they entered peoples’ homes and lives to share this message of good news.
We’re told little about what might have been going through the disciples’ minds as they were tasked with mission, but I can’t imagine that many of them felt confident or ready for this type of responsibility. Listening to Jesus’ teachings is easy, but “becoming doers of the word, not merely hearers”—to use a phrase from James—required them to be willing to take a risk, to put themselves out there in ways that were both uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and to interact with a wide variety of people uncertain of the tone, tenor, and outcome of that conversation. All they had was a seal of approval from Jesus, a desire to help others, and a certain earnestness that trusted that God could work through them, even if they barely knew what they were doing.
Reading this passage about underprepared but earnest disciples making their way from place to place to talk with others brought back memories for me of my summer working as a hospital chaplain. CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education, is a requirement of any seminarian ordained within our denomination. So during my second year in seminary I was accepted to MacNeal Hospital out in Berwyn. Each week, we would be assigned to a different wing of the hospital, and we’d do “rounds,” knocking on every single door on the floor and asking patients if they’d like to speak to a chaplain. As an introvert in an extrovert’s profession, walking from room to room “cold-calling” was about as awkward of an experience as I’ve ever had. I was twenty-three, had barely ever spent any time in a hospital setting, and was terrified that I’d be asked a question that I had no answer to. I wanted to empathize with the patients and hear their stories—to try and be of help in whatever small way that I could—but too often I just felt frozen, overwhelmed, and underprepared. I stammered through answers and felt like I could never find the right words for my prayers. I struggled to dig below the surface of what patients were saying and felt like I kept having cocktail party conversations. After a few weeks, I dreaded going on rounds, grateful for the days that we were assigned to group projects or other case studies.
Halfway through, though, my CPE Director helped me understand why it was that I was so afraid about these visits: I felt like I had to fix people, rather than meeting the patient where they were. I wanted every conversation to be life-changing or meaningful, and ultimately I was making those conversations all about me and my imagined role. Being with people—truly being with them—is trying to let go of our needs and agenda and hearing their story.
This wasn’t some sort of magic switch that was flipped for me, but those conversations did start to become a lot easier once I stopped trying to steer them so much. I remember being in a room with a patient who talked for almost twenty minutes straight—not even really looking at me most of the time—but at the end thanked me for being such a help. Part of my brain was screaming out, “I didn’t do anything! I literally just sat there while you talked!” But part of me began to realize why Jesus was pushing his disciples out into homes, even without any training, or James was imploring his community to hold one another in prayer and to attend to the sick and the suffering. There is a power in presence, even if we feel ill-equipped, even if we don’t have the right words to say. Our presence means that we care, that we want to listen, that that person is valued.
The power of presence is an increasingly important thing in our world, I think, as so many of us live with minds divided between those we’re around and the digital world at our fingertips. Later on this morning, some parents here at church are going to be gathering to talk about a TED Talk called “Connected, but Alone” that posits that so many of us are paradoxically more connected to others than at any point in human history and yet are plagued by loneliness because those connections are surface level, distracted, and nothing more than a series of one-way announcements rather than true conversation and listening. Now, I’m not a Luddite. I’m more or less addicted to my phone. But these passages from Mark and James remind and challenge me to live my life in a way that prioritizes presence—to not just open myself up to receive other people’s stories but to intentionally seek them out as an act of discipleship.
Most of us are all too aware that our world is unfortunately full of stories of hurt, pain, and brokenness, and often those stories become overwhelming. It’s why so many of us choose to avoid the nightly news. It’s why so many of us feel conflicted when we hear these stories in the first place, because we feel either powerless or underequipped to make a difference. I had that experience this past week as I scrolled through Twitter during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and was overwhelmed and heartbroken by the number of women recounting their stories of trauma and sexual abuse, wishing that I could do something more than just lending a word of support. It’s the same sentiment I feel watching coverage of hurricane victims or hearing stories of families working multiple jobs and still not being able to make ends meet or reading about children and teenagers caught in the crossfire of gang warfare. I want to help heal that hurt, but I just don’t know how.
But it was in a context that was broken in ways that were both different and yet all too similar to our own that Jesus sent his disciples to visit people in their homes and everyday lives as a way to heal. It was in that context of hurt and pain that James encouraged followers to visit the sick and the suffering—to be present with them as the first step of trying to heal the world. The Greek word for those earliest Christian communities was koinonia, a word meaning an equal sharing, partnership, and unity. Those earliest Christians saw the role of the church as creating that sort of intimate bond in which “if one member suffered, all suffered with them and if one member rejoiced, then all rejoiced with them,” to use the words of the Apostle Paul.
That type of community sounds so wonderful in theory, but in practice it’s a bit frightening and vulnerable. The world is filled with hurt, but so many of us come into this space with our own hurts as well—broken hearts, uncertainty, loneliness, or much more. Why is God choosing us in our brokenness to be creators of this type of community? I believe it is because our brokenness makes each of us gifted in our ability to be compassionate, to be present, to value someone else for who they are and not who we want them to be. We are each pieces of something larger, and we only make sense when our stories are knit together with one another. We can help someone else, even as we need to be helped; we can be underprepared and ill equipped and yet be exactly what someone else needs in a given moment. Even though we are ministers, not messiahs, we can help heal this world whenever we take the time to create true community with someone else.
So, who might you feel called to reach out to in the week ahead? Is there a conversation you’ve been sidestepping because you don’t feel prepared? Is there anyone that you’ve been avoiding because you’re not sure how to help them? These could be with friends, family, or even strangers. After all, Jesus’ disciples had no idea whom they would be meeting when they were sent out. But if we want to be a part of healing the hurt in this world, then perhaps we are being called deeper into each other’s stories—to share in each other’s hurts—in order to find healing together as community. May it indeed be so. Amen.