Sunday, February 7, 2021

5 Epiphany, 2021-B: All things to all people

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

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. (In the name of God who is Trinity in Unity) Amen.

Long ago and far away, I spent a year as a hospital chaplain on the oncology-hematology unit of a regional hospital deep in the heart of the Bible belt in south GA. All of my cancer patients died and my sickle cell patients returned regularly with painful recurrences of their disease. 

These people needed God to be bigger and more powerful than the diseases destroying their bodies. They needed the God described in Isaiah who is “great in strength [and] mighty in power.” As insignificant and undeserving as they often said they felt, they needed to believe that God cared about them and would, as Isaiah said, “give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless.”

During a typical hospital visit, I would spend a great deal of time listening. I often heard them say they feared God - not because God was so great but because they were upset with God for not caring enough to cure them. Then they felt guilty, which made them afraid that God might be mad at them for being angry. It’s a terrible spiral.

As their chaplain, I had to trust that my prayer would unite us to God, as Julian of Norwich said it would. It also meant putting aside my way of being a child of God and entering their way. For example, 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 when I spoke the good news to them they could hear and understand it. I also noticed their posture so I could mirror it.

For the Pentecostal patients, 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. 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 Jewish patients, 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 Christians, I prayed as one also wounded: “Holy God, you are gracious and full of compassion. Hear our prayers for this beloved child of yours. Hold him close in the warm embrace of your healing love. Smile upon him and comfort him in body, mind, and spirit.”

Praying like this was meaningful for them and 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 fiery heart of a Pentecostal, the deep and faithful heart of a Jew, and the cautious but hopeful heart of the wounded ones.

My purpose, as a witness of Christ’s love, was 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 beside the point in the face of the Love that connects us - especially in times of suffering or at death.

When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, he violated religious law. Jewish men were not to touch women who were not their family, and worse yet, this healing happened on the Sabbath. But for Jesus, compassion overruled the law – and it was the first of many times he would model such behavior.

Jesus proclaimed the good news to all regardless of the divisions imposed by culture – 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 teaches, give it to them in ways they can understand so that 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 when talking to “yutes” in ‘the hood.’ It is, however, the deep spiritual language of many over the age of 50 and a growing number of Millenials, so it continues to have value.

Then there is the “The Hip Hop Prayer Book” a translation of our Prayer Book by my good friend and colleague The Rev. Timothy Holder, or “Poppa T” as he is known. I admit - I was not always a fan of rap or hip hop and I had lots of valid reasons for putting up a wall against that kind of music - but that was my sin. God had a connection to make and I was refusing to be connected.

Now, one of my favorite 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. St. Paul couldn’t have said it better: 

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                                         (Source: Tupac Shakur, Ghetto Gospel.)

The beauty of our Episcopal tradition is that we can pray in Elizabethan English, preach about a rapper, and chant our Gloria – all in the same service. We are and we can be, as St. Paul says, all things to all people, as we proclaim the good news that the all-mighty God who is great in power, who stretches out the heavens, is also a tender, compassionate God who notices the suffering, lifts up the lowly, and renews their strength - because we all matter to God. 

 Like Tupac, “I [too] hope we see the light…” and speak it out there to all who need to hear it. Amen.

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