Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 • Psalm 19 • 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a • Luke 4:14-21
I want to start by telling you three things about which I am persistently angry.
I am angry that people living with mental illness and developmental disabilities cannot expect to live in the same quality of housing, or to participate in meaningful work, regardless of their family’s wealth.
I am angry that Jews around the world still live in fear of genocide, and that heads of state can claim that the Holocaust never happened.
And I am angry that there are 1.3 million youth sleeping on the streets of the United States tonight.
Now let me tell you why:
I am heartbroken about the ways people with mental illness and developmental disabilities are regarded in life, because my sister lives with both of those labels. My sister – my beautiful, generous, kind-hearted sister – like many other people, requires a lot of assistance in order for her life to run smoothly, or kind of smoothly. She needs adult supervision to keep her organized, and to keep her safe. She needs medications to keep her mind and body healthy. She will never be financially self-sufficient, and because of this she has to rely on government programs for housing, job training, and health care. And because she cannot provide for herself, something that is valued above almost everything else in this culture, she can’t expect the same quality of housing many of you would insist on, or the same kind of work many of you take for granted. And that breaks my heart.
I am heartbroken that Jews around the world still live in fear of genocide, because my friend Jonna, an Arab Jew, can tell me a hundred ways she is affected by anti-Semitism in her everyday life. My friend – who is intelligent, resourceful, and committed to the healing of the world – like many other people, knows in her bones that her people were carried in boxcars to incineration chambers, were pulled away from their families, and were humiliated ritually and regularly in public. She, who grew up on the streets of New York and now lives in Minnesota, the heart of Lutheranism, knows that people routinely assume that she, as all Jews are presumed to be, is wealthy when she is not. She can expect to be wished a Happy Easter as she prepares to celebrate Passover, or to have the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah completely ignored. And that breaks my heart.
I am heartbroken that there are 1.3 million runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth living on the streets of the United States because I spent years of my life before and after seminary working with and for and alongside these children. Because I can tell you about Bailey, who at fifteen was living on the streets, with teeth that were already almost completely decayed by malnutrition, poor dental hygiene and drug use. I can tell you about Brian, who was born to a drug addicted mother on the streets and didn’t have a home to call his own until he was in his late teens. I know Tasha’s story, who became a street prostitute after her family kicked her out of the house because they suspected she was gay, when in reality she was transgender. These children – these amazing, resilient, tenacious children – like so many other children, are forced to beg or to sell – drugs, stolen goods, their bodies – just to survive another day. That breaks my heart.
These people – siblings, friends, children – I carry their stories in my heart. They are as close to me as my skin. They are that much a part of me. They are of my body. You have stories like these as well, and some of you have told me your stories. Stories of children and grandchildren. Young people abandoned and rescued. Work restoring communities, here in Chicago and oversees. Parents and siblings. Addictions. Tragedies. Illnesses. Poverty. Rejection. Imprisonment. Oppression. Death. You have told me some of your stories. You carry them with you, in your heart, in your skin, in your language, in your memory, in your music. They are a part of you.
It’s only natural that we are drawn in to the suffering of the world through personal connections. We learn to love what is close by, what is familiar and constant. We learn to see the world through the eyes of loved ones. It was very hard for me to think about racism clearly until I had a brown-skinned sister, and felt – vicariously – the insults and humiliations that she encounters. But there are other schisms, other tears in the human family, that I do not feel as angry about, that do not break my heart, and this is often, mainly, because I have yet to put a human face on it. I saw the face of AIDS in my uncle Jerry, and it became personal – but the fact that millions of people don’t have access to clean water, while I know this is true, it doesn’t strike me as real.
And so each of us carries our own personal pains and oppressions, our most cherished causes, and our campaigns for justice – while we leave others unexamined. It is the limit of our humanity: we cannot be all things for all people at all times, which is not a very consoling answer if it’s all you have to offer to the one who is living with his or her back to the wall; the one who is waiting for a word of liberation, a promise that relief, that healing, that freedom is on the way.
These limits that we rub up against, the limits of our own humanity, our ability to know what to do, to respond to human need, are the beginnings of our anger, our despair, our resignation about life. They are the seeds of our hopelessness. We see that the world is set up to take care of the pains and inconveniences in some people’s lives – but not necessarily our own. We notice that there seems to be enough attention and assistance for some people’s concerns – but not the concerns of the people that we love the most. Over time, we may take those experiences and internalize them, interpreting them as an indicator of our actual worth. “I must not mean very much, in the larger scheme of things, if this is how I – and people like me – are treated.” We begin to discount our own lives, to imagine that we are somehow living in the margins and not at the very center of our own, one very precious life.
“[However] the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”
This is the first lesson the scriptures offer us this morning – that the reality of our membership in the body of God does not rely on us believing it is so. And that is a good thing. Our human sin, our inability to correct patterns of thinking and systems of oppression, leads to a situation where people hear one message in church and experience another reality in the world and so come to believe that the good news proclaimed in the pulpit is not for them. People perceive that there are those who are valued, those who are not – and finding themselves in the latter category, they assume that there is no place for them. Like a foot saying, “because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.”
Of course, on the other side, we encounter those – and sometimes thi
s is we ourselves, who will affirm that sense of non-belonging. “That’s right,” comes the response, “you DON’T belong” to this community, to this body. We are head people, and you are simply too much of a foot to get along here. We are traditionalists and you are too contemporary. We are real Americans and you talk funny. We are normal, and you are deviates. We are hard-workers and you are just lazy. Never mind that if we knew this other person’s story from the inside out they would become for us like so many others that we love, whose stories we carry in our hearts. For now, they remain outsiders and they are treated that way.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”
And this is the second lesson in this week’s scriptures: that just as we cannot excuse ourselves from the body, we cannot dismiss others from it either.
These words of Paul’s are beautiful, and impossible. This long passage from 1 Corinthians, which we began reading in worship last week with the descriptions of the many gifts of the spirit continues this week with a call for radical inclusion, for radical equality – not based on honor or prestige or membership, but simply on being alive – being a living member of the body. Paul says these things as though they are truths for the Christian communities he ministered to, yet we know from reading the full text of his letters that this couldn’t have been further from the truth. The communities Paul ministered to were full of dissention and strife and factions and in fights. But he says, “the member of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.”
How can he say this as if it were already happening, when in reality it was not?
Because Paul has encountered the living Christ, the same Christ who announces that in him the words of the prophet Isaiah have been fulfilled today. Christ who announces that God comes to us with good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
Jesus comes proclaiming that everyone who might imagine herself or himself less desirable, less honored, less loved, less noticed, less important is – in reality – the direct object of God’s infinite love. Like you and I, God has a list of things that make God angry, that break God’s heart. But God’s goes on much, much, longer… and each cause for complaint ends with “because I know Dea,” “because I know Dale,” “because I know Dave,” “because I know Christa” and on, and on… because God knows YOU, because God knows each of us, God proclaims that things can no longer be as they have been.
This is, for you and me, both good news and a direct challenge. It is good news that despite all the efforts of the world to convince us otherwise, we cannot be cast of the body. We are members of one another; we carry each other’s stories in our hearts, in our skin, in our prayers. And it is a challenge; we can no longer dismiss one another. We cannot turn our backs on each other. We will not be able to say, “the time wasn’t right,” or “they just make me feel uncomfortable.” Because, and this is the hardest part, finally, to understand: there is no THEY – in Christ Jesus, there is only WE.
After generations in exile, the nation of Israel returns to its homeland to rebuild the temple and gathers to hear the book of law read to them. The book of Nehemiah describes a worship service not so very different from our own. They gather before the Water Gate, a place where those who were ritually unclean were allowed to be, so that the entire community can hear the scriptures. Ezra, the priest and scribe, finds a place to stand and speak that is elevated above where the people are standing so that people can see and hear him, and as he reads the scriptures he, and others, provide interpretation and a sense of the meaning of the texts.
When the people hear the word of God, alive and speaking to them through their sacred stories, then begin to weep. They weep because they are finally home, finally free to worship as one people. They weep because they hear the distance between life as they have been living and life as God intends it to be. But Ezra and Nehemiah, the priest and the governor, tell them not to weep, but to take the rich food and sweet wine that they have brought to this worship service and to share it with those who had nothing of their own to offer. The nation of Israel is taught, through their worship, how to reconstitute their nation, how to rebuild their body. They are no longer clean and unclean, rich or poor. There is no longer any THEY – they are all WE.
This conundrum is so plain to see, and still so hidden, that we must constantly find ways to remind ourselves of its deep truth. Here, in worship, we do it through baptism, passing through the waters of this font as we are joined to the dying and rising of Christ. We do it in this meal, where we share in one loaf, bread in which God is truly present, to make us living parts of one another. One bread, one body. One life to share with all the world. During this season of Epiphany we are challenged over and over again to let our worship transform the way we live our lives – to fill these rituals up with meaning for the sake of the life of the world. The revelation of God in word and sacrament transforms our hopelessness and our anger into joy and strength for the work that lies ahead.