Sermon: on healing

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UNMC chancel mosaic

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

The anxious presence

A few days ago I experimented with my Facebook and Twitter feeds. This was about when the crisis in Baltimore was getting hot, and I could already see the signs. Unitarian Universalists -- I'm thinking of ministers particularly, because that's who I know mostly, but I see lay persons do this, too -- would bring a particular intensity to, well, I can't rightly call it a discussion.

It's more like a frantic, often doctrinaire, echo chamber.

So I started muting people, leaving ministers who are close personal friends, old college mates, former co-workers and the like. Rather than falling into an insulated world of cat videos, the quality of discourse about Baltimore's situation improved. Deep analysis and more varied voices, particularly from people who live or have lived there. (I do live an hour away by train, so this is also a regional story.)

What vanished was the anxiousness, the agita and the dubious logic of borrowed framing.

There's a bad lesson in that. And I'm not sure I'm going to unmute the anxious presence. More importantly, who would seek it out?

Old models and new media

Before turning to the practical, following up on yesterday's post about Unitarian Universalist functional discomfort with political power to effect good outcomes for people in hard situations. As before, I'll keep this brief.

First, we give too much weight to "golden age" models of public witness. By which, of course, I mean demonstrations and opportunities for arrest. (Memorial vigils are a different thing, and I don't include them here.) There seems to be something more than solidarity or justice-seeking going; something more akin to "anti-war re-enacting."

The early to mid 1960s must have been a heady, perhaps a, frightening time to demonstrate. (I say "must have been" because like everyone else under fifty, I have no direct knowledge of any of it.) These demonstrations speak to a time of hope before it withered in the embitterment of the late 60s. Also when churches were influential and full. But those days are over and cannot return. Not only do "new occasions teach new duties" but the old idiom of social change looks quaint to younger progressives, and arthritic to the reluctant or hostile. The post-Ferguson demonstrations are the exception that prove the rule: it was the thing to do, as there was nothing else that could be done. But it doesn't last, and without an action to follow, nothing changes and bitterness ensues. If the Occupy phenomenon shows us anything it's that organization is hard, and all those in opposition have to do is wait for the fissures develop.

Sometimes people speak of the late 50s and the decade that followed as the "civil rights era" as if the strides made in the next two generations for women; persons with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities; and lesbians and gay men don't have to do with civil rights. Or, to put it another way, if this isn't the civil rights era now, what the hell are you bothering with?

The important part is something actionable. Seeking legislation, regulatory or procedural changes, public works adopted or abandoned, sincere apologies and so forth. How you gather the power to prepare and implement the plans is secondary.To paraphase: "without an endgame, the people perish."

And that brings up social media: the new model. It's helpful, but I'll not praise it much, and I'll be shorter here. Twitter and Facebook -- each run by corporations that don't give a damn about your revolution -- can easily create an echo chamber. The number of heart-sick posts on each post-Ferguson told me people were spinning themselves straight from anger to despair, burning off any righteous energy that might have been applied to change. And we can't afford that.

I've said enough for now; feel free to comment.

Me, in other social media outlets

There has been some buzz online about Ello.co, another in the would-be world of anti-Facebooks. Yes, I signed up for it; no, I don't think it'll kill Facebook. I'll be happy if it survives. (Also, I've given away all my invites.)

I'd rather people flock to one of the notes of the distributed Disapora network -- it's technologically more mature -- but after a flurry of activity three years ago, it's largely gone dark. (Anecdotally, the Ello launch has revived interest, if some Twitterers are to be belived.)

A problem that each service has is finding your friends, even if they are subscribed. So these are my accounts; say hello:

Click this to join Diaspora. The schtick is that it's decentralized, without a Big Bad Corporation at the top, so you can also pick a node from this list; it seems some people chose based on what country the host is in -- to take advantage of privacy laws -- or by the quality of service. That's all I know.

I also use Newsblur to manage my RSS (blog and news) feeds, and I have a single follower. (Hello.) If you want to see what I'm reading and promoting, follow me here.

Regular readers: feel free to use the comments to promote your accounts on lessor-known social networks.

Signs of life at UUCF-MIN

[Later. Title fixed.]

One of the oldest Internet communities for Unitarian Universalist Christians is the UUCF-MIN list. But as email has lost some of its cachet, and Facebook and Twitter have taken over some of its utility, the list has had less and less traffic, and now is more often quiet than not.

I sent an email to check in: to see if the mailing list is live, and to see if its former participants were still present and interested. They are. Some people, after all, just don't like Facebook or Twitter or any other social network.

If you are interested, and are a Unitarian Universalist and kindred Christian ministers or seminarians,in the United States or anywhere in the world, you are welcome to ask the moderators to join. (I think there was a provision for non-fellowshipped ministers who served denominational churches, but I cannot find any note of that now.) But don't ask me: I'm not one of them now!

Revisiting the Disapora* distributed social network

I don't have much love for Facebook, so why do I use it so much? Because other people use it, and I use it to attract people to this blog. But revelations about post manipulation and human social experimentation is coaxing me to try alternatives. I could use some, er, independence.

I'm revisiting the Disapora* social network, a decentralized and more privacy focused alternative. But its strength is its weakness. Personal privacy means its hard to find your friends, and if your friends aren't there, you be back to Facebook to find them. It would be hopeless and dispiriting, unless you remember that AOL was once king of the hill…

So, I'll use both and encourage you to reach out to me there.

Later. See https://joindiaspora.com/ to learn more. To sign up: You'll need a "pod" -- a node on the decentralized network -- and the link I previously shared may not work, since it seem in the time I drafted this post, my pod has stopped taking registrations.

Here is a list of other nodes. Some people choose them based on the country they're hosted in; others favor uptime or the version of Diaspora used.

I'm bitb on the joindiaspora.com node.

Now, which churches have dead sites?

The flip side of churches with an unreported web presence is those church sites, as congregations report to the Unitarian Universalist Association for uua.org, that no longer exist. But that's not the same as saying they don't have one.

Seven congregational websites have thrown a 404 or other error on three occasions in recent days, and have never worked. In two cases, it was as simple as the servers don't support secure HTTPS, but use HTTP. One letter difference. I found Facebook pages for others. That leaves two congregations unaccounted for.

[table]

Website on recond,Congregation,City,State,Use this one
"http://uufellowship. homestead.com/ UUFellowship.html",UU Fellowship of Porterville Inc.,Porterville,CA,https://www.facebook.com/ pages /Unitarian-Universalist-Fellowship-of-Porterville/ 162339087121352
http://macomb.com/~uuf,UU Fellowship of Macomb ,Macomb,IL,
http://www.uubrockton.org/,UU Church ,Brockton,MA,http://uubrockton.com/
"http://www.uuum.org/ 567683",UU Congregation at First Church in Roxbury,Roxbury,MA,
https://www.littlefallsuu.org/,St Paul's Universalist Church,Little Falls,NY,http://www.littlefallsuu.org/
http://www.nfuuf.org/,North Fork UU Fellowship,Jamesport,NY,https://www.facebook.com/ pages /North-Fork-Unitarian-Universalist-Fellowship-NFUUF /89653344099
https://www.newriveruu.org/,New River UU Fellowship,Beckley,WV,http://www.newriveruu.org/
[/table]

If not a website, then what?

In my post yesterday, I said that there are 36 Unitarian Universalist Association-member congregations that reported no website.

  1. But some do have one, including a couple of WordPress.com blogs, but it isn't noted at uua.org (for whatever reason)
  2. And others use a Facebook like a church site, which I count as long as it's reasonably up to date and has details that a visitor would want to see.
  3. I looked for Google+ and other like paces, but didn't find any. Facebook has a lock on this.
  4. One church uses a Google Sites site primarily as a data store for its newsletters.

That leaves 17 churches on this list that have no website or like. (NA means I couldn't find a site.) Interestingly, the median size is still 11. Next time: dead sites.

[table]
Church ID,Name,City,State,UU Members,URL
9012,The Unitarian Church of South Australia Inc.,NORWOOD,SA,111,http://www.adelaideunitarians.org.au/
8912,Brussels UU Fellowship ,Brussels,,20,http://uupuertorico.org/E/belgium/contact.htm
2036,UU Fellowship of Mountain Home AR,Mountain Home,AR,12,http://www.uufmtnhome.org/
2022,UU Fellowship of Yuma,Yuma,AZ,20,http://yuma-unitarian.org/
2535,UU Congregation of Whittier,Whittier,CA,11,na
2911,UU Congregation of Cocoa,Cocoa,FL,10,http://www.uucocoa.org/
3211,The Federated Church,Avon,IL,11,na
3215,UU Fellowship Eastern Illinois,Charleston,IL,6,https://www.facebook.com/uueasternillinois
3223,All Souls Free Religious Fellowship,Chicago,IL,14,https://www.facebook.com/pages/All-Souls-Free-Religious-Fellowship/316985258439
3517,Circle UU Fellowship,Indianapolis,IN,10,https://www.facebook.com/pages/Circle-UU-Fellowship-of-Indianapolis/509816002382146
4531,First Universalist Church of Hardwick Preservation Trust,Hardwick,MA,12,na
4833,Congregational Parish in Norton (Unitarian),Norton,MA,13,na
4835,First Universalist Church of Assinippi,Norwell,MA,8,na
4911,First Universalist Church,Orange,MA,15,na
5113,First Church of Templeton,Templeton,MA,10,https://www.facebook.com/pages/First-Church-of-Templeton/231571968510
3924,All Souls Universalist Church,Belgrade,ME,10,na
3833,First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of Eastport,Eastport,ME,6,https://www.facebook.com/pages/Unitarian-Meetinghouse-of-Eastport-Maine/131265246901834
3911,First Universalist Society,Hiram,ME,4,na
4018,The UU Church of Sangerville & Dover Foxcroft,Sangerville,ME,26,https://www.facebook.com/pages/First-Universalist-Church-of-Sangerville-Dover-Foxcroft/130890050306834
4013,First Universalist Church of South Paris,South Paris,ME,30,na
4022,First Universalist Church ,West Paris,ME,24,https://www.facebook.com/FirstUniversalistChurchOfWestParis
5236,Ann Arbor Unitarian Fellowship,Ann Arbor,MI,10,na
5514,Unitarian Fellowship of Grand Rapids,Grand Rapids,MN,22,na
5735,Kearney UU Fellowship,Kearney,NE,10,https://www.facebook.com/UnitarianUniversalistKearneyNE
5811,South Parish Unitarian Church,Charlestown,NH,26,na
5911,Newfields Community Church,Newfields,NH,1,http://newfieldscommunitychurch.wordpress.com/
6129,Hornell Alfred UU Society,Hornell,NY,13,http://hauus.wordpress.com/
6524,First Universalist Society,Salisbury Center,NY,14,na
7022,UU Fellowship ,Warren,OH,7,na
7214,First Universalist Church,Kingsley,PA,68,https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-First-Universalist-Church/1443588049208622
7435,First Universalist Church of Burrillville,Harrisville,RI,6,na
7512,Church of the Mediator,Providence,RI,11,https://www.facebook.com/Mediatorfellowship
8012,First Universalist Society ,Northfield,VT,6,http://www.unitedchurchofnorthfield.org/
8026,Universalist Society of West Burke,West Burke,VT,7,https://www.facebook.com/pages/Universalist-Society-of-West-Burke/121850654556564
8413,UU Fellowship,Marshfield,WI,8,na
8416,Unitarian Fellowship of Milwaukee,Milwaukee,WI,9,na
[/table]

 

Churches without websites: the (small) problem

Unitarian Universalists were early adopters of websites, and even in the late 90s I remember more than 300 or 400 congregations hosting their own site. These earliest available archive is from 1996, with 234 sites and more coming on line all the time.

I also recall -- and thinking it wrong then -- that someone-in-the-know opined that it was unlikely that many more churches would bother with one. That must have been around 1998 or 1999. (I wish I had written these predictions down. It was, of course, pre-blog.)

Today, only 36 of the 1045 member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association report no website. Most of these are very small (median membership = 11) and are overwhelmingly in New England.

The largest one listed (111 members) is The Unitarian Church of South Australia, but it does have a site, apparently for years.

But that's not to say these other congregations don't have a web presence, and that their choice isn't the best one. But that -- and a table! -- is for next time.