Audio service, May 17, 2020

The full text of the service follows, and low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Download: Lower-quality audio file (MP3) (1.5 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 17, 2020, the Fifth Sunday after Easter

Sentence and Votum

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. [Matthew 7:7, NRSV]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:8, NRSV]

Collect for the Day

O Lord, from whom all good things come; grant to us your humble servants, good things by your holy inspiration, that by your merciful guidance we may perform the same, as true followers of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 20: [NRSV]

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!

May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.

May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.

May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.

May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners. May the Lord fulfill all your petitions.

Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.

They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.

Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of John [NRSV]

Jesus said to his disciples:

Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

Here ends the reading.

Address

We have inherited problematic ideas from today’s passage from the gospel of John, particularly the phrase, “if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” Too many Christians have take this as a license to desire anything, claim anything, want anything, expect anything. If you have entertained a variety of television evangelists, or their hearers, you will have run across this line of thinking. But when you consider the person of Jesus Christ and the promises of the Gospel, it is a strange attitude and devastating both to the hope of the Gospel, and the spiritual health of the believer. Be on guard against it, even when it tempts you in subtle ways.

First, it runs against the commandment, repeated by Jesus in the wilderness, that you shall not tempt the Lord, your God. God is God, and not some particularly well-connected benefactor. And in the wilderness, it wasn’t God who promised Jesus all things, but the Tempter. Lord: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”! Second, if this was the chief benefit of Christianity, then Jesus Christ is himself a bad example. There’s little evidence he owned much, not even having a place to lay his head. He and his disciples relied on the support of their hearers. He had no tomb of his own, but was lain in one given to him. There’s nothing in Jesus’ ministry that suggests his blessing will provide you earthly riches. He could not spare himself the betrayal of friends, the jeering of the crowds or a painful, public execution. This is not the path to a big house, a luxury car or even a quiet life.

But the passage means something. I suspect it’s a call to learn what is truly valuable, and to rely on Jesus Christ to receive that call. We are, by this same passage, to call on God in his name to receive what we ask. But what then ought we to ask for, dare to ask for? And this isn’t just my bourgeois aesthetic sensibility speaking. The thinnest fraction of Christians who have ever lived have known opulence and wealth, many knew no peace, and there’s no just reason for thinking that these are false and unfaithful believers. Which makes me think that the deepest prayers and desires of the Christian faithful lie somewhere else. Again, this makes demands on God, when God makes demands on us. What then to ask of God, in Jesus’ name? That’s a lifetime’s meditation, but there are some hints.

Christian faith, well practiced and — even more — well lived, redirects our desires. We might want and not simply obey that commandment that Jesus gave his disciples: that you shall love one another, as he loved them, and he loves us. We might want the fulfillment of the Golden Rule: trusting in God’s will “on earth as it in is heaven.”

Such things last when fortunes fall, when passions cease, when wishes end, and God will be with you. Friends, think on these things.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Prayer

Let us pray:

Almighty God, we bless and praise you: we have awakened to the light of another earthly day; and now we will think of what a day should be. Our days are yours, let them be spent for you. Our days are few, let them be spent with care. There are dark days behind us, forgive their sinfulness; there may be dark days before us, strengthen us for their trials. We pray that you shine on this day — the day which we may call our own. Lord, we go to our daily work; help us to take pleasure therein. Show us clearly what our duty is; help us to be faithful in doing it. Let all we do be well done, fit for your eye to see. Give us strength to do, patience to bear; let our courage never fail. When we cannot love our work, let us think of it as your task; and, by our true love to you, make unlovely things shine in the light of your great love. Amen. [George Dawson]

O God, who puts into our hearts such deep desires that we cannot be at peace until we rest in you: mercifully grant that the longing of our souls may not go unsatisfied because of any unrighteousness of life that may separate us from you. Open our minds to the counsels of eternal wisdom; breathe into our souls the peace which passes understanding. Let our hunger and thirst be for righteousness, that we may be filled with the bread of heaven. O Lord, give us grace to seek first your kingdom; and we know that you will add unto us all needful things. Amen. [Services for Congregational Worship]

Almighty and ever living God, who has taught us to make prayers and supplications and to give thanks for all persons, we pray that you would inspire the universal church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord; that all they who do confess the name of Christ may live in peace and in godly love. Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all ministers of the gospel, that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth your true and living word. And to all your people give your heavenly grace, that with meek heart and due reverence they may serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life. Comfort and succor in your infinite goodness, all those who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any adversity. And we also bless your holy name for all your servants departed this life in your faith and fear; praying you to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of your heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O God, for your infinite mercy’s sake. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer]

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Notices

For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Audio service, May 5, 2020

This is the first of seven audio services; as you will see, I'm still getting used to the software and the microphone, but I hope it's a blessing for you.  (Onward and upward, right?) The full text follows, and low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Download: Lower-quality audio file (MP3) (1.3 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 10, 2020, the Fourth Sunday after Easter

Sentence and Votum (Psalm 124:8)

This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:

Almighty God, who unites the minds of all the faithful: grant your people love for what you command, and desire for what you promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely be pointed to where true joys are to be found, the kingdom and promises of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 34 (1-7, NRSV)

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from the first chapter of the letter of James (1:17-21, NRSV)

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

Here ends the reading.

Address

Our passage from the letter of James ends on a hopeful note: “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” The same power which saves us, and all persons, in the span of creation comes to help us in the trials of our daily life. As in fact it must. We don’t profess a faith that only has benefits in an unseen future state. God implants a desire to hope, not just for a string of “perhaps tomorrow, perhaps tomorrow” but also that we might live fully today. Spiritually deep living proves the value of faith more than any turn of logic or theological dispute. From it comes the gift of God “from above” granting us power to be generous givers ourselves, to enjoy good times and to bear up with hard times.

While the virus sickens and kills many people, threatens livelihoods and inconveniences everyone, it is not correct to say that the days before the outbreak were good and today is bad. For many people, perhaps most people on Earth, life was hard before and is harder now. There was death, loss, hunger, sickness and violence then and now. But the burden is lighter on those with more resources. Typically, we speak of these resources as financial or material: money to not worry about lost work or medical bills, a bigger house to shelter in or the means to have food and resources delivered to you. There are other, intangible resources, say, taking comfort in the company of family and friends, but these too are limited, and the pandemic is a special burden for those who live alone. And we also have spiritual resources that give us a context and response to that crisis. Spiritual resources, unlike material resources, can be re-charged by their use. How often do we feel refreshed by being kind, and see that kindness returned, but weary from demanding indulgences from others. Don’t think it comes automatically, or that’s it’s a fraud to put yourselves in an attitude valuing goodness, service and care over, as James puts it, sordidness and wickedness.

This particular pandemic will some day pass, but other challenges will come instead. Prepare yourself — not just with canned food and toilet paper — but with an approach to life that values goodness, and “has the power to save your souls.”

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Collects

For peace

Let us pray for peace:

O God, who is the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom stands our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Grant us, your servants, we humbly ask you, that peace which the world can neither give nor take away; that we, who in all our dangers rely on your goodness, may under your parental protection be defended against all adversities, and rejoice evermore in your blessed service, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

For grace

Let us pray for grace:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us with your mighty power; and grant that we fall into no sin, nor run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by your governance, to do always that which is righteous in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For healers and caretakers

Let us pray for healers and caretakers

Almighty God, who inspires the hearts of all who would serve you, we ask you to give your special blessing to all healers and caretakers who attend to the sick and afflicted. Give faithfulness and skill to their work, efficiency to the means they employ, and guide them to the understanding that in their best service, they also serve you. In the name of the Divine Physician, Christ our Lord. Amen.

For all conditions of humankind

Let us pray for all people

O God, the Creator and Preserver of all humankind, we humbly ask that you would make your ways known unto the breath and width of the human family, your saving health to all nations. More especially we pray for the good estate of the Church Universal; that it may be so guided and governed by your Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to your tender goodness all those who are any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate (particularly sick people and those close to death); that you would comfort and relieve them according to their various needs, giving them patience under their condition, and a happy result from all their afflictions. And this we ask for your mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. (attributed to St. John Chrysostom)

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Notices

For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Common Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Audio services to begin

Update: I'm planning for a May 10 launch. Details to follow.

For six weeks, plus Ascension Thursday, I will be creating short audio services of worship and posting them here. I will start this Sunday (May 3) or the Sunday following, depending on how quickly I can work through the logistics.

Why? As always, I think Universalist Christianity is a word of comfort, sorely needed now. In part to share an expression of Universalist Christian worship at time when other expressions of Christian faith are being distributed through internet-published video, audio and text. Also, I want to offer something to readers, a couple of whom wished aloud that the services of my home church, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington (UNMC) could be available. In fact, they may be in time (that’s not my decision), but for now they can only be experienced live. Six weeks is all I’m ready to commit to, and that also may see us through this wave of the shutdown. (I hope.)

Even if UNMC starts broadcasting, surely there’s room for two Universalist Christian services. But keeping that possibility in mind, I want to distinguish my efforts in several ways:

  1. The services will be rooted in the now little-known Universalist prayer book tradition. It’s close to my heart and I want it to be better appreciated. I hope to show that it’s approachable enough to learn and adopt where there is no Universalist Christian church nearby.
  2. The profession of faith I will use is the one I turn to the most: the Winchester Profession of 1803. UNMC uses a local declaration of faith based on the 1899 Chicago “Five Principles” Declaration.
  3. I will use the older one-year lectionary rather than the Revised Common Lectionary that I almost always use in my preaching.
  4. There will be no sung or choral music; it’s past my ability.
  5. The services will be pre-produced, not live.
  6. The services will serve more a supplement than as a principle worship service, though that may not be an important distinction for many.
  7. The services will be audio only, probably with a text option. This should make them more available for persons with limited internet access. The digital divide is real, and even in the United States, many people live with no internet or a poor connection; streaming or recorded video is not an option for many people.

Pray for me as I take the first steps into a different mode of ministry.

Non-Subscribing Presbyterians have new website, services online

I was watching some Holy Week and Easter videos from Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland. I have known about them for decades but have never seen one of their services. Be sure to see and the several videos by the Rev. David Steers, including his effective use of a litany to create a moment of worship, here for Good Friday, and the Easter service from Killinchy, led by the Rev. Philip Reain-Adair.

Killinchy, where is that? I went to the website of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and saw that it had been completely revamped. Congratulations!

Sermon: Good Friday 2020

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020.  The text was the passion of St. Matthew.  (Matthew 27:11-54)


Friends, we turn to the difficult fact of Good Friday. Here, God's beloved dies before the jeering crowd. Betrayal, cruelty and falsehood triumph. Hope burns to ashes, and light and color drain from the world. We are left with questions, grief and silence.

Good Friday so becomes a spiritual challenge. In good times, we might have to specially direct our spirits to be receptive to this horror and grimness; so when the sun shines and the air is warm, it can seem a strange thing to try and be sad. And when times are bad, well, who needs more sadness? That's this year, and I’m sad and anxious enough, and don’t like it. The trope, well-shared in social media, is that this Lent has been far more Lenty than anyone expected, perhaps too much to bear. Nevertheless, Good Friday prepares us for hard times, at least giving us familiar concepts to interpret them.

Perhaps we can identify the losses that come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and try to set them directly in a framework that Good Friday presents. It is a natural thing to do: tying Good Friday to the suffering we're experiencing collectively. There’s a risk, though. It's a collective hardship, but not an even or fair one. It is not a leveler. Those who suffered before, will suffer more — including the loss of health and life, and anxiety and depression, not to mention the economic impact. Millions of people will be pushed beyond breaking, into lasting or deeper poverty and unemployment. Its results will follow us for many years, perhaps for the rest of our life. Most hardships don’t end in redemption.

Instead of comparing the pandemic to the crucifixion directly, I think about what the disciples must have asked themselves that Friday when all their hope died: where do we go from here?

If Easter's resurrection brightness is hard for us to conceptualize now, after centuries of meditation and interpretation, it surely must have been unthinkable for the disciples: not even an option to consider, much less weighing the up pros or cons of its likelihood. But Easter did come, and those who survive this crisis will have to decide what we will do next.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is remarkable for any number of reasons. We know so little of individuals from that period, and what little we know of Pilate is that he crucified a lot of people. I’m not prone to read him as the antihero, swayed by the mob. (Passages which have been used for centuries to justify violence against Jews, I should add. And this scene from Matthew is less troubling that the one from John.) And another odd thing was the choice of the crowd in letting one condemned man go, a practice that has no independent confirmation. So what follows is not an original thought, but one I picked up in college (I was a religion major) about thirty years ago. Consider that there were not two criminals, one of whom might be set free, but one man with two names, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and Jesus Barabbas, Jesus “son of the Father.” The first tinged with triumph and the power of the governance; the other pointing to mystical connection with God. Which seems backwards, doesn’t it? Because Barabbas is described as a bandit, but well, we know not to take one-sided charges too seriously. After all, the man who died on the cross told us, “they know not what they do.” We know he was innocent.

We might have two names, too. Which will we chose? We must seek the good impulse, and live into it, but that won’t protect us. We may not escape hardship, but might, just maybe, choose what we suffer for. For goodness and for the common good. To defend the helpless, and to overcome domination. To chose life in its fullness, rather than to concede to bitterness.

How will we be known? And will that name be a blessing to those who come after us? Challenged by the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples went out to ends of the world, to share the gospel that the world might not despair, because on the cross we saw that all is not as it seems and that God’s purpose and blessing come to those, however grieved and confused, do what is good, and right and true.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, before the cross we stand in awe and trembling. Comfort and console the mourners this day. Confirm in us that mind and spirit you put within Jesus, our comfort and our strength. And lead us from this place, to go forth with your blessing, and to live without fear, waiting in hope.

Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options

So, communion. I'd better start writing down these thoughts before the pandemic chips all the options away. I'd like to show there are options for regular, Maundy Thursday and Easter communion services.

My thinking has gone from we can be especially hygienic, to perhaps we can hold the service outside, to perhaps we can have walk-by distribution with social distancing and now I don't think any public, in-person service is likely to be safe by Easter. Safety in distribution has long been a communion ethical concern, especially among Protestants, so this isn't exactly a new thought. And even if we (collectively) don't refrain, it's possible civil authorities might stop any meaningful gathering.

If I can, I'll show some of my influences later, but as of March 26, 2020, I think these are the best options for a communion service to minimize risk for communicants and presiding ministers. Please comment, because I'll spell out the effective conduct for those options that grab your attention.

There are four likely options:

  1. The pastor, and perhaps any other ordained ministers of the church, presiding over communion at home, praying for the congregation and informing them of this.
  2. The church having a service of spiritual communion by phone or video conference; that is, a guided visualization which expresses the desire for communion, using the rite (text) for communion, but without the elements or any physical artifacts. It may also take on elements of a eucharistic fast, paradoxically, to stir desire and make the consummation (the return to normal communion practice) that much richer.
  3. The church having a "purely symbolic" communion service, by video conference where participation by the laity in by observation and prayer. The presiding minister (who might broadcast from home or church) might or might not commune by mouth.
  4. The church having a distributed service where communicants provide their own bread and wine, and are led remotely by the minister. More akin to some prayer breakfasts, but with people at home. This assumes the "lowest" ecclesiology of any option.

#1 needs no special technology as such. Only #3 absolutely requires a video broadcast. #3 and #4 are not mutually exclusive.

I can hear you saying "I don't like any of those." Fine, but these are the options I can think of, unless you count "don't do it" or "risk infecting your people" as good options, and I don't.

Please comment and, as I said above, we can work though the details. (Don't comment minimizing the pandemic because I will delete those.)

Sermon: on healing

mosaic
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.