A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany on January 28, 2018. You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.
Click on the play button below to listen along.
The image on today’s bulletin cover comes from a Finnish artist named Hugo Simberg who painted at the turn of the 20th century.
We see 2 young people carrying a third figure – the angel who has been wounded – The Wounded Angel. The young person at the back gazes directly at us, the viewer, demanding our attention and drawing us into the painting. And just like that, we are no longer innocent bystanders because we see what’s happening.
Today’s gospel reading comes from the beginning of Mark. It’s the first miracle in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel. Mark starts off with John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan and the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness. Immediately. Where he spent 40 days and nights meeting his own demons, coming face to face with the fears that arise in any human experience. As the scripture says, Jesus needed help with this, “angels waited on him…” it says.
When Jesus has done this work with the angels, when he has recovered his own heart and remembers himself as one who carries within him the hope and love that is the Kingdom of God… then, he goes to gather the fishermen as disciples and then off they go to Capernaum. That’s where we are today. In a synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus teaches and casts out demons.
Now, it would be easy for him to ask someone to remove from the synagogue, this person who began shouting. This is, after all, Jesus’ very first-time teaching. And in front of his new followers. Can you imagine the pressure of having someone so disruptive come and mess up your plans on the very first day?
But that’s not how Mark writes the story. Because Jesus’ power is not a worldly power that keeps all the right people in and all the wrong people out. Jesus is teaching his disciples in this very first lesson, that there is no “other.” And there never was.
Because we’ve all been the young person at the back of the painting, carrying our wounded heart, asking for someone to know us and to walk with us.
Mark tell us that Jesus teaches with authority, rather than from the legalistic “who’s in, who’s out” perspective of the scribes. And the amazement of those who watch comes from their disbelief that the demons are silenced, that healing happens rather than judgment, and so, even the demons seem to know this Holy One of God.
How is it that Jesus knows these demons so well that he can silence them?
Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock has done extensive work on the theology of healing, especially those who have been traumatized by war – veterans, soldiers, and civilians – who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She sees in Jesus, not someone who exorcises demons because he is better than everyone else, but someone who is only able to understand what is needed because he’s been there himself.
“The image of Jesus as exorcist is someone who has experienced his own demons. The temptation stories point to the image of a wounded healer, to an image of one who, by his own experience, understands vulnerability and internalized oppression. In having recovered their own hearts, healers have some understanding of the suffering of others.
Naming the demons means knowing the demons… The Gospels imply that anyone who exorcises cannot be a stranger to demons… To have faced our demons is never to forget their power to hurt and never to forget the power to heal that lies in touching brokenness… Jesus hears, below the demon noises, an anguished cry for deliverance. Through… [this] community is co-created as a continuing, liberating, redemptive reality.” (Journeys by Heart, 80-81)
Jesus knew the demons, knew how to help this suffering person, because he had done the work of recovering his own heart in the desert. And, from the abundance that flows from that wiser place, Jesus casts out these demons, he silences them.
This recovery of our own heart is an important part of the ministry we have as Christians. Otherwise, we keep looking to heal ourselves by what we do with and for others.
This healing doesn’t all happen at once, not for most of us. But it’s the steady progression of becoming more and more aware of the haunted places in our lives, our own demons that possess us and drive us far away from ourselves and far away from the Love of God. As we allow the light of Christ to shine in our own shadowlands, we come to know our demons and the shame lifts and melts away. And the wounds they have created are healed.
It’s not the bearing of our wounds that enables us to be a healing presence, but it’s also not the hiding of our scars. Shame offers nothing. Nothing. It only serves to prolong our own healing because its purpose is to cover things up. Our scars are the very conduit through which we are able to offer Christ’s love in this world. When we are willing to show our scars, we are willing to share the evidence of God’s presence in our own lives.
The wise poet Leonard Cohen, who just died a little over a year ago, talks about this in his song, “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
These cracks of imperfection, this is where the Light of Christ finds its way into our hearts, helping us to recover our heart once again. And this, then, is where the light shines forth from us. Not through the cracks but through the scar that is the love of Christ.
When we attempt to heal another from our wounded place, we end up trying to get what we need and we end up projecting all of our anger and hurt and fears onto the other person, insisting we know what they need or, worse, insisting that they need to act as we did or as we wish we had.
We say things like:
pull yourself up by your bootstraps
suck it up
get a job
In other words: I want you to do what I need you to do so that I’m not saddled with your pain in addition to my own…
So we don’t have to pay attention to them so that we are not pulled into the painting and we can remain innocent bystanders.
We end up saying: “Just take care of yourself by doing what I need you to do because I’m too busy holding on to my own pain to offer you any space to deal with yours.”
This is the message of the world, my friends. This is not the message of Christ.
Because in Christ, we are no longer innocent bystanders.
But when we allow ourselves to be healed by the love of Christ, when we begin to see that through Christ there is “no east or west or north or south,” there is no “other.”
When we open our own heart to be healed by that unbounded Love, then all that we offer to another is born of something generative, something life-giving, instead of our own needs.
And healing happens simply from our presence, not from anything we do, but from our willingness to walk with them, journeying alongside them. It’s our heart that is with them, our heart aflame with God’s love.
We offer ourselves to that person and ask what they need or help them discern what they need if they are in that dark of a place.
We walk with them instead of blocking their path.
We accompany instead of prescribe.
We offer friendship instead of knowledge.
This is the heart of welcoming. This is what it means to be welcoming.
If we’re honest, the way Christianity presents itself in America is moralistic and self-righteous. Preachers make their name selling solutions: offering toothy smiles, telling people what is wrong with them and how they need to fix themselves. If we wonder why people don’t come to church anymore, we need look no further than this.
Because the true path of Christ is as a wounded healer.
Someone who accompanies instead of preaches.
Someone who listens instead of tells, who loves instead of judges.
This is the path of the welcoming stranger.
Welcoming and healing are intertwined.
Throughout all of scripture, welcoming the stranger is presented as a gesture of healing – not just the healing of the individual, but the healing of the entire community. And it always comes with the reminder that we, too, have been strangers before.
We welcome the stranger and all that they bring, honoring the whole of who they are as a gift to become known regardless of language or papers or anything else we might put in their way. Because we also want to be known and remembering this enables us to remember that we were once strangers too.
We walk with them, not from a place of needing to belong ourselves, but knowing that we do belong and they too belong. Remembering what it’s like to feel like an outsider or a foreigner – that’s the place we can welcome the stranger from – the healing of the welcoming stranger.
In our painting today, this is the ministry of the young person at the front – journeying with and helping to carry the broken heart of their friend. The one who has given up the right to claim innocent bystander. That’s the path of Christ.
I’d like to end today with an illustration from a common teaching story:
A man falls down a hole, a hole with such steep sides that there is no getting out. He sees a doctor pass by and calls out, “Hey, Doc! I’m down here in this hole. Can you help me out?” The doctor writes out a prescription and throws it down and yells, “Good luck!”
Then he sees a priest walk by and he calls out, “Hey Pastor! I’m down here in this hole. Can you help me out?” And the priest writes out a prayer and throws it down and says, “God be with you.”
Then he sees his friend walk by and he calls out, “Hey, John. I’m down here in this hole. Can you help me out?” And John climbs down in the hole. The man says, “What did you do that for? Now we’re both down here!”
And John replies, “Yeah, but I’ve been here before. And I can be with you in this place.”
My friends, may we come to know ourselves as wounded healer, so that we may offer ourselves as welcoming stranger to all.