Sunday, February 5, 2012

Epiphany 5B 2012: Be willing to be connected

Sermon by the Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector, Redeemer, Shelby

Lectionary: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Many of you know that the time I spent as a hospital chaplain was very formative for me. My experiences then shaped the way I understand and do pastoral care even now. I served on the oncology-hematology unit of a regional hospital deep in the heart of the Bible belt in south GA,

All of my patients on the oncology unit died. Most of the hematology patients survived, though they returned regularly – sickle cell is a persistent and painful disease.

The people I served needed God to be bigger and more powerful than the diseases destroying their bodies. They needed the God described in Isaiah who is “mighty in power.”

They also needed God to care about them as insignificant as they felt they were. They cried out to the God of Isaiah who “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.”

Julian of Norwich once said that prayer “unites the soul to God.” Yet with so much diversity in belief (and non-belief) among the people I served as chaplain, prayer was a complicated thing.

During a typical visit, I would spend a great deal of time listening. There were times that I knew I should only listen and pray quietly, within the secrecy of my own heart. Other times I was compelled to speak and to act – inviting them to pray and engage the God they feared – the God they feared because they were angry at God or were carrying the burden of past sins.

Either way, I had to trust my own prayerful preparation and the movement of the Holy Spirit within me. It took a long time before I felt comfortable with that, but when I trusted, it never failed to be exactly right.

When family or friends were present, I would listen as they talked or prayed together. I made note of the words and phrases they used – especially the ones they repeated.

I would listen for the song of their prayers, that is, the way they used their voices. I learned the cadence and language of their prayers so that I when I spoke the good news to them they could hear and understand it.

For the Pentecostals, I learned to pray as a Pentecostal: “Thank you, Jesus. We just thank you Jesus that we can come to you right now and give you praise. [Editorial note from the preacher] We call upon you, Lord, in the name of Jesus to lift the burdens of our hearts. Here is your child, Father God. Take him home now – home to glory-land. Thank you, Jesus. Glory halleluiah!”

For the Jews, I prayed like a Jew: “Hear, O Adonai, and answer the prayers of your faithful servants. Look upon the suffering of this your righteous one and be merciful to her. Protect her with the strength of your right arm, for you are steadfast in love and mighty in power, and to you we give thanks and sing our praise forever.”

To the wounded Christian, I prayed as one also wounded: “Holy God, you are gracious and full of compassion. Hear our prayers for this beloved child of yours. Fill him with your Holy Spirit and hold him close in the warm embrace of your healing love.”

Praying like this didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical to me. Was it hypocritical of God to become Incarnate – to become like us – so that we could understand and believe? By seeking to serve in this way, I came to realize that there is within me the free and open heart of a Pentecostal, the deep and faithful heart of a Jew, and the willing and hopeful heart of the wounded ones.

My purpose, as a witness of Christ’s love, was to let God’s presence be the priority, not to analyze their theology or teach them mine. All I had to do was let God show me the connection between them and me, then be willing to be connected. Religious laws and theological perspectives become so unimportant in the face of the Love that connects us.

When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, he violated religious law. Jewish men never touched women who were not their family, and worse yet, he did it on the Sabbath. But for Jesus, compassion overruled the law – and it was the first of many times he would model such behavior.

Mark tells us that Jesus created quite a buzz when he healed the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue (the story we heard last week). And the next day the whole city showed up at Peter’s house, and Jesus cured many of them.

Giving freely of his divine compassion and comfort, Jesus released those who came to him from whatever sin held them bound. Jesus was also generous with his proclamation, preaching beyond the limits of acceptability. He came out, as he said, to proclaim the good news to all regardless of the divisions culture imposes – divisions like class or race or gender or nationality.

We who carry on the ministry of proclaiming the good news must be willing, as Jesus was, to go to the people who need to hear the message of salvation, and like St. Paul, give it to them in ways they can understand so they can receive it.

Elizabethan English, which is found in the King James Bible and in the Rite I services in our Prayer Book,is the language of a past world, and it isn’t very useful in ‘the hood’ or with 20-somethings. And how many of you have seen this translation of the Prayer Book. It’s called “The Hip Hop Prayer Book.” It is not a version, it’s a translation of our Prayer Book.

So how many of you are fans of rap and hip hop? I admit, that for years I hated rap and hip hop. And I had lots of good reasons for putting up a barrier against it – and that was my sin. God had a connection to make and I was refusing to be connected.

Now, one of my favorite music artists is Tupac Shakur, a rapper who died at the young age of 25. I commend to you his video, Ghetto Gospel. Here’s a bit of Tupac’s message:

there's no need for you to fear me
if you take the time to hear me,
maybe you can learn to cheer me
it aint about black or white, cuz we're human
I hope we see the light before its ruined
my ghetto gospel

The beauty of our Anglican tradition is that we can pray in Elizabethan English, preach about a rapper, pray from the Hip Hop Prayer Book, and chant our Eucharistic prayers – all in the same service. We are and we can be, as St. Paul says, all things to all people – reflecting the character and the purpose of God.

All we have to do is trust God to show us the connections we are called to make, and then be willing to be connected.

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