I sat down to write this sermon about fifteen times this week. Not because I was avoiding it, but because I kept getting interrupted by the little people in my life who, shockingly, expect me to pay attention to them. Every time I sit down with my laptop, my three-year-old, Martin, asks, “you done working, mama?” Often he asks before 9 am. I say no and he usually responds physically. He’s constantly trying to hold my hand, or both hands if he’s lucky. He crawls over the side of the couch, jumping into my lap yelling, “cannon ball!” He nuzzles his head into my shoulder, as if there is no end to just how close we can be sitting next to each other. I know it sounds sweet. I know I am lucky. I know I am not lonely, or sick, or unemployed, or poor, or hungry, or grieving. But, many, many things about this whole situation, going on for five weeks now, seem thoroughly broken. There is no real end in sight, and now that I know my six-year-old isn’t going back to kindergarten this year, I find myself vacillating between determined, optimistic forbearance, and anger at how all the cracks in the system are now affecting me personally. Of course, there are different degrees, here- varying levels of pain for each of us, depending on our starting points and privilege. But, to deny my own suffering would indicate that there is nothing in me that needs healing, that I am not human. And, I am desperately human. We are coming to the realization, in a very stark and rare moment in human history, that the privileged are also hurting right now because we have ignored our own wounds for far too long.
I was texting with a mom friend the other day who has an important corporate job, and she is extremely good at it. Her husband has a similar job, and they have two small children. They are trying to do homeschool and work from home without any indication to their respective companies that they are quietly coming unglued. The thing is, I remember having conversations with my friend before all this happened. She couldn’t keep up when she had full time childcare, a cleaning person, and plenty of vacation time. She shared that sometimes at night she would rush through bedtime routines so she could either get a moment to her herself or go back to work on her laptop. She would ask, me: Why are we working so hard? What’s the point of this non-stop grind?
Even my neighbor was telling me the other day, from six feet away, that her parents are bored out of their minds. They are retired and used to volunteering, staying active, and busy. They’ve lamented they feel so unproductive and useless.
It made me wonder, what does it say about us that unless we are striving, achieving, dynamic, profitable, or prolific, we feel powerless? What a load to bear, and in retirement, no less.
In not so recent months, I would have come at all of this by suggesting the God-given remedy to this is sabbath. “We need to practice better sabbath,” I would have preached, “take a day off from work to worship and rest, unplug, and everything else will fall into place.” But, there’s really no way to do this, especially not now. If we take sabbath we will be letting someone down by not responding to an email or text, or not taking that extra shift when there are loans to pay off. Then, if we do manage a day, or even half a day, we feel guilt and laziness for not getting anything done, or exercising, or at least eating a salad. You can take a day off, but you’ll pay for it later. Maybe you too can hear the old church words about a Calvinist work ethic ringing in your ears. But, rooted in the commandment to take sabbath is a larger, humbling notion: that we are not the center of the universe. That, in fact, the world can go on without us for a day. What happens, when we don’t take this seriously, though, is that there isn’t enough work to go around. What the privileged create when we never step away is a broken system where some of us have far too much to do, and those who are not just unemployed, but underemployed, live in poverty- financial poverty, yes, but also the devastating reality of not having the dignity and pride of a solid day’s work.
But, there is more at stake here then sabbath. Sabbath doesn’t get at the underlying issue that we are wounded and in need of healing. We can’t rest our way out of this one. We are at home, yearning for a deeper Easter message. An Easter imperative. Resurrection happened, then what?
In our text today, we find Peter and John coming down from the high of Pentecost. In Acts Chapter 2 they were given the post-Resurrection gift of the Holy Spirit, and they saw it in action, bringing together people from all over the world as they knew it. The Spirit allowed them to preach the Gospel to people who didn’t speak their language or understand where they were coming from- and miraculously they understood each other. The Spirit turned Peter and John into truth-tellers and healers and empowered them to get past all the mistakes they had made, like betraying their friend Jesus before he died. After Pentecost they headed out from the celebration to get to work in the real world, and on their way they stopped in a synagogue to pray. The folks who had been coming to this temple their whole lives were used to bringing their friend to the gate so he could beg, because he had been born without the ability to walk. I’m sure they saw nothing wrong or ironic with this practice, laying this person, day after day, in front of the temple so he could try and get money, while they went inside and prayed for the restoration of the world. When Peter and John walk by, though, they actually look at him- the story is pretty clear about it actually, saying that they stared at each other. It was maybe the first time in this man’s life someone stopped to engage him as a person rather than a beggar. Peter and John don’t have any money to give him, and while the man doesn’t ask for this healing, Peter launches into it anyways. “In the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!” It’s a little problematic. Peter just decides this is what the man needs without talking it through with him first, but hopefully there is some exchange here left out of the text. It seems like it works out, though- he is healed and clings to them for more good news. A crowd then forms, wondering how Peter and John did such a thing. But Peter takes none of the credit- pointing to God and reminding all of them what they did with the crucifixion of the Messiah. Greg Carey (workingpreacher.org article on this text) says that this scene with Peter looks very much like the ministry of Jesus. There’s healing, but there’s also proclamation, and confrontation.
I think our normal impulse is to isolate what happens to the man, here. To focus on the healing. But it’s not really the centerpiece of the story. The healing is a portal into all the larger issues at stake. Peter jumps at the opportunity to confront those who so eagerly gather round to get a piece of what he has. “It’s not about me,” he says, “you know as well as I do we all messed up in this regard. We killed the very author of life.” Just like us, these early church folks maybe didn’t even realize they were part of the problem, nor could they go back and change or fix what had happened. But, with Peter’s help, part of their healing was confronting their past, and recognizing only God has the power to truly heal us. I’m guessing it’s not what they wanted to hear, that there would be no quick fix for them. But they also didn’t run away. Maybe it means, if you’re really ready to receive healing, you’re also ready to hear the truth about yourself.
Dr. Rachel Remen speaks (from her On Being show) often about the difference between curing and healing. She has lived most of her life with Crohn’s disease, something that can never be cured. As a young woman she went to medical school, inspired to try and help others like her. She learned over the years, though, her original assumptions were wrong. She says, “We thought we could cure everything, but it turns out that we can only cure a small amount of human suffering. The rest of it needs to be healed, and that’s different. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. The world to which you have proximity. That’s where our power is.” I think we often imagine that our striving will fix everything around us- that if we have some sort of elusive sense of control that will be the cure. But, Dr. Remen reminds us of the importance of healing, which means loosening our grips, confronting our brokenness, and focusing on the lifelong work of caring for our own wounds.
In my last church, there was a member who was a physician, but she had left her practice years before to focus on medical journalism. One day I asked Cindy why she didn’t work with patients anymore- it was obvious she would have been so good with them. She was empathetic, emotionally intelligent, and I’m sure had wonderful bedside manner. Cindy said she left practicing medicine because her patients would blame her for not being able to cure them. They didn’t want to be confronted about their own woundedness, that their lifestyle was contributing to their sickness, that they needed to heal something deeper, and not just fix the presenting symptom. She said she couldn’t take it anymore, this denial of the underlying truth. In the midst of our conversations Cindy also introduced me to the Hippocratic oath. This is the covenant doctors make when they graduate medical school, and it has been around since before Jesus’ time. It’s been updated over the centuries, but some things about it have not changed. The modern version says this, in part, “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug. I will not be ashamed to say “I do not know,” nor will I fail to call on my colleagues when the skills of another are needed. It may be within my power to take a life; and this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play God. I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being. I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.”
I found these words so reassuring and hopeful. They’re so uncomplicated and honest. This covenant reminds me as much as anything that we already know what we need to heal- we’ve known it all along. Physicians are called to approach healing holistically, truthfully, in community, and with humility. Of course they are! And, what if we did that in our own lives? What if we took the striving of our privilege and deconstructed it with this oath in mind? With Peter’s words in mind? It seems to me that in order to heal we must not do anything, but undo all those things that are like a bandaid on a gaping open wound. In order for resurrection to come during this painful post-Easter season, we must first die to everything that is keeping us so sick. As Dr. Remen says, we are not powerless. But we have to undo the idea that we don’t have wounds, and that we alone can cure the whole world.
As Peter and John made their own way in the post-Easter world their work was not primarily curing and controlling, but engaging with what was wounded. After this scene in Acts they are arrested for healing in Jesus’ name, and it happens more than once. It seems like Peter never forgets what he did to Jesus, that he denied the God who loved him in an act of brief self-protection. But, the resurrection made him strong, covering his shame and giving him courage in the face of adversity. He risked being misunderstood in order to reveal real brokenness. Maybe to be healed, we also must risk being misunderstood.
In the spirit of being a wounded healer (Nenri Nouwen gets credit for this phrase) and not someone who cures, I don’t have answers for you today. Preachers are not problem solvers. What’s ironic is that my biggest fear lately has been what to say to you, as though my words could heal you. I was reminded by Peter, however, only God has the power to heal. My job, our job, is see ourselves in the crowd on Solomon’s porch. We must speak the truth about our brokenness, and our collective wounds. That’s the first step in helping us undo, instead of do. Heal, instead of cure. I will not deny this is hard work, but even in these last five weeks of facing so many disturbing realities I have not wished that everything would go back to how it was, because nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).
And this is the good news of the Gospel. This is our Easter Imperative. God loves each and every one of us, all the wounded healers (Henri Nouwen) of the world. And God won’t leave us alone until we too are resurrected to a new, and healed way of life.
Thanks be to God.
Hear these words written by Wendell Berry:
“The grace that is the health of creatures can only be held in common.
In healing the scattered members come together.
In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world.”