Sunday Night Worship – 2/15/09

Mark 1: 40-45

People do peculiar things when they are in need of healing. One of my friends lost her partner a few years back. It was an abrupt and completely unexpected death at a very young age and we were all reeling. My friend knew she was in danger of spiraling out of control into an overwhelming grief and, in fact, she was soaked in grief. But she made some rituals for herself, some ground rules. The day after her partner died neighbors saw my friend walking around and around, doing laps in the park behind their houses. She had to keep moving. She had to doing something constructive and healthy with her body as it heaved with grief.

I suffered a hard break-up once and felt completely bewildered. I had trouble sleeping and eating and, sometimes, just breathing. I didn’t know where to start living on my own again outside of that relationship and for a while music was the place I could best release all the emotion and longing. I spent nights limp on my living room floor, listening to sad, soulful Patti Griffin songs over and over while I cried.

Another friend of mine is recovering right now from a traumatic car accident and needs healing in body and mind. He spends five days a week in demanding physical therapy and when he’s back home he works on re-training his mind. He is a writer and part of his healing will come through struggling to write again, to see what he is thinking take shape on the page.

And here we are tonight with Mark’s story about a man who comes looking for healing. He is suffering with leprosy, a disease that not only caused him physical pain but also isolated him from the larger community, since some forms of the disease were contagious. His physical suffering was echoed in his spiritual and social isolation from the worshipping community and, indeed, once Jesus heals the man he’s ordered to go show himself to the priest (v.44) “and make the appropriate sacrifice in thanksgiving to God for [his] cleansing and obtain the certificate of wholeness [or] holiness” so that he can rejoin the community (Hearing Mark, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, p. 20).

Have you noticed that when Jesus heals people, there is almost always some physical problem as well as emotional and spiritual problems? Sometimes we over-spiritualize the healing stories. Sometimes we’ll say, Sure the man had leprosy, but what Jesus really healed was his soul. True enough, as far as it goes.

But have you noticed that Jesus seems to take people as a whole? He doesn’t seem to think you can heal a body while leaving a soul unclean. Remember the Gerasene man possessed by demons (Mark 5: 1-20)? This is the man who lived in the “tombs and on the mountains…always howling and bruising himself with stones” (v. 5). Everything about his life was affected by the spirits living in him – mind, body, and soul. After Jesus sends the legions of unclean spirits into a herd of pigs to die, people are amazed to see the former “demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind” (v. 15). Everything about the man was changed – body, mind, and soul – and it was apparent to everyone.

Do you remember the paralyzed man whose friends were so desperate to heal his body that they lowered him through the roof in the house where Jesus was speaking to a crowd (Mark 2: 1-12)? Everyone was convinced that his body needed to be healed and they went to great lengths to get him to Jesus for just this purpose. But what did Jesus do? Witnessing their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (v. 5). Perhaps that would have been the end of the healing, if the scribes hadn’t started their grumbling. Only after the scribes started questioning his authority to forgive and heal like that, did Jesus say, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” – and then he healed the man’s body so he that he could indeed stand up and take his mat and walk away healed (v.9-10).

We offer a lot of prayers for physical healings. United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon has commented that if we omitted all our requests for Aunt Bertha’s corn and cousin Henry’s hernia operation we would have no prayers left. Often Sunday mornings – or Sunday nights – are a litany of concerns for people in need of bodily healing.

What if the paralyzed man’s friends had gotten only what they came for, only what they’d been hoping and praying for? What if the scribes hadn’t said anything? Would the friends have carried away a healed but still paralyzed man? We don’t know. But surely we can say that what they thought needed healing was not the only thing in need of healing. What if we are the same way? Are we leaving out something vital and necessary when we focus only on her corn and leave out the rest of Aunt Bertha?

I suspect that for many of us, the prayers we offer privately to God focus less often on corns and more often on spiritual and emotional and mental healing – at least when it comes to praying for ourselves… God, please give me the strength to support my friend. Jesus, give me courage to confront my brother… Send your Holy Spirit to comfort me and calm me down – I can’t fit everything in and I am afraid I might fail this class… Good Shepherd, guide me to the path you want for me – I don’t know where I am going and it seems like everyone else has a map… Prince of Peace, why am I so consumed with jealously and self-doubt when I profess you as Lord of my Life?

I’m not arguing for one prayer topic over another. I’m pointing out that we often separate ourselves into “spiritual” and “physical” parts – as if we aren’t always both. As if these do not influence or depend upon one another. As if Jesus was not also both at once. That’s what the incarnation was all about, right?

Episcopal priest, college professor, and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, says, “The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the Gospels….We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God” (The Christian Century, 1/27/09, pp. 24 & 25). Barbara Brown Taylor recently contributed an article to The Christian Century on practicing incarnation in which she describes her spiritual practice of doing laundry (pp. 24-29).

Listen to what she writes about her spiritual practice:

“Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life, I describe hanging laundry on the line. After a day of too much information about almost everything, there is such blessed relief in the weight of wet clothes, causing the wicker basket to creak as I carry it out to the clothesline. Every time I bend down to shake loose a piece of laundry, I smell the grass. I smell the sun. Above all, I smell clean laundry. This is something concrete that I have accomplished, a rarity in my brainy life of largely abstract accomplishments.
Most of the laundry belongs to my husband, Ed, who can go through more clothes in a week than most toddlers. Hanging his laundry on the line becomes a labor of love. I hang each T-shirt like a prayer flag, shaking it first to get the wrinkles out and then pinning it to the line with two wooden clothespins. Even the clothespins give me pleasure. I add a prayer for the trees from which these clothespins came, along with the Penley Corporation of West Paris, Maine, which is still willing to make them from wood instead of colored plastic.
Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, downward scale. The socks go all in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”

I love this description because it reminds me of how close and immediate God’s presence is in every moment. Did you notice how attentive she is during her laundry practice? She loves the weight of wet clothes. She smells the air and the sun and the scent of clean clothes, really taking them in and giving thanks. She appreciates the feel of the wooden clothes pins and the people who still choose to make them. When is the last time you got that spiritual about the physical practice of laundry?

The thing is, you don’t have to contain it to laundry. Maybe for you, it’s about dishes, or making your bed, or going for a run, or preparing a meal, or walking to class, or even studying for class… The thing is, you don’t have to contain it at all.

Barbara Brown Taylor could slap wet clothes on the line in a hurry, getting her “chore” done so she could move on to something entertaining or restful. She could resent that she has so much laundry to do or that she is the one doing it. She could simply see it as necessary and useful but not particularly profound.

But she chooses to explore incarnation. She chooses to meet God in the details – physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental – all the details of her daily life.

Duke professor Stanley Hauerwas claims that Christianity “is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian…but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable” (quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in The Christian Century, p. 24).

Every week around this table we handle bread and cup. We drink the wine and eat the bread. We don’t sit in a circle and theologize and what it would be like to actually eat and drink together. We do it. Jesus gave us ways to live as incarnate people. He gave us water, bread, wine. On that last night, he stooped to wash the disciples’ feet. He did tell them things – which they mostly didn’t understand at the time – but the main thing he did that last night was show them how to behave and what to do with their bodies (Century, p. 24).

Barbara Brown Taylor makes this final observation: “The practice of wearing skin is so obvious that almost no one engages it as spiritual practice, yet here is a place to begin: with tears, aches, moans, gooseflesh, heat” (p.29).

How are you managing your “practice of wearing skin”? How are you planning for that practice as we head into Lent a week from Wednesday? Is there a place in your body, mind, or spirit in need of healing? What chore or daily task might you engage more deeply as both a physical and spiritual practice in the coming weeks? Where are the tears, aches, moans, gooseflesh, and heat? What are the smells and tastes and textures calling you to meet God there?

If you choose, you can make me clean. God makes that promise and that choice for each of us. What’s your peculiar reaction? How does “wearing skin” make you a more spiritual Christian? How does being Christian make you a more embodied person in the world? What are you doing with your whole self to make worshipping God absolutely unavoidable?

Thanks be to God!

© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis