Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sermon: "Take Heart"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 28, 2018 – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:7-9; Mark 10:46-52

“Take Heart”

Last year, during my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to fly to Spain on a pilgrimage/study tour. 
I took an overnight 7-hour flight, direct from Boston to Madrid.
I booked a window seat so I could read or sleep in peace without having to get up, and even splurged for one of the airline’s “extra” legroom seats -  
so I could stretch out a bit…and so when the person in front of me reclined, their seat back came to about here (4" away from my nose)….rather than here (2" away).
After I boarded the plane, I was surprised to find a pile of complimentary items on my seat all wrapped in individual plastic bags.
A thick blanket, a large pillow, a pair of headphones, and a travel case with an eyemask, earplugs, and personal care items.
I noticed that every seat had the same.
Having flown mostly domestic flights in my lifetime, I was unaccustomed to such luxuries.
Of course, once I sat down I had no idea where to put all this stuff.  
So I shoved it under the seat in front me.
And there went my extra legroom.

As soon as I got myself situated, a middle-aged woman carrying multiple carry-on bags squeezed her way into the middle seat next to me.
To help her out I reached into her seat and picked up her pillow, blanket, headphones, and complimentary personal care items, and held them in my lap while she got herself settled.
For the next 15 minutes, she fiddled with her carry-ons, fumbled with her seatbelt, and called the stewardess over several times to complain about being assigned a middle seat.
When I finally handed her the items I was holding for her and said, “Here these are for you,” she looked at me as if I was asking her to carry illegal contraband.
After I explained that these were items the airlines provided to each passenger she begrudgingly took them and piled them on her lap.
Then she reached into her carry-on and pulled out a pair of long compression socks and proceeded to put them on….in the middle seat, with her bags, pillow, blanket, headphones, and personal care items piled all around her.
Let’s just say, her feet, knees, and elbows were way outside the authorized zone of middle seat space.
She said she had read somewhere that it was important to wear compression socks on airplanes so you wouldn’t die.
Then she said this was her first time flying.

My heart went out to her.
She was obviously not familiar with the routine or etiquette of airline travel, and she was carrying a good deal of anxiety about flying.

But I found my sympathy waning as she spent the next hour flipping through the movies and news programs on the seatback TV while providing a running commentary on all that was wrong with the entertainment industry, our nation, the world, and anyone who didn’t look or think like her.
I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get much reading or sleeping done on the flight.  

It was then that I remembered that I had the ability to put a stop to this flood of anxiety and negativity.
I’d been equipped to handle situations like this and I had the necessary tools to defuse this increasingly uncomfortable situation.
So I reached under my seat, pulled out the complimentary travel items, and did this….. 

For the remainder of the flight, I was in heaven.

Tuning out the world is one way to cut down on the negativity in our lives and lower our stress levels.
If you can’t see or hear what’s going on than there’s nothing to react to.
It is tempting to do this.
Especially in our 24-hour news cycle world.
We’re built to handle only so much stress, so much personal trauma, so much bad news about other people’s trauma, before it begins to weigh us down,
and crush our spirits, and split us at the seams.
Compassion fatigue is a real thing.
We only have so much bandwidth for feeling and responding to the pain of others before we feel overwhelmed or become indifferent to that pain.

But this was true even before there were 24-hour news channels.
Before we invited the horrors of the world and the darkness of the human heart into our living rooms on a daily basis.

In Jesus’ time, unless you happened to be royalty and were sequestered away in a secure and sanitized palace, there was no escaping the pain of others.

The blind man begging outside the gates of Jericho was likely one of hundreds who were there that day.
Camped out on his mat, sitting in his own filth, reaching out and calling out to anyone who might hear.
Our gospels are full of them.
The lame, the leprous, the lost.
We hear about withered limbs, and hemorrhaging bodies, and diseased minds that cause the afflicted to push through crowds and call out in desperation and orchestrate outbursts and social faux pas that even the disciples feel compelled to dampen. 
“Stay back.” “Be quiet.” “Leave us be.” They say.

But time after time Jesus says the opposite.
“Let her through.” “Call him here.” “Let them come.”

It had to be overwhelming at times for the disciples.
All those people pushing at them, trying to get to Jesus through them,
always wanting something he had – a healing, a word of hope,
to get close to the one who promised them so much when they had so little.

And still Jesus pushed his followers to keep opening their arms,
to keep opening their hearts, to keep letting people in,
when their instinct was to hold them back,
to keep them at bay, to tune them out when they got to be too loud,
or too demanding, or just too much.
Sometimes we NEED to tune it all out because it hits too close home.
When someone else’s pain reminds us too much of our own.
And it wounds us all over again.

But sometimes having the ability to turn our back - or turn off the TV
and tune out the trauma - is a privilege in itself…
When we’re not the one living it.
But for children living in war zones, and families living in refugee camps, and for anyone living in nations, neighborhoods, or households besieged by violence, drugs, poverty or oppression there is no switching off the TV, there is no tuning out the terror. 

If we’re going to own the promise of our Christian baptism and do our best to minister to this hurting world, and do what we can to seek healing, for ourselves and others, then we can’t tune it out either.
As much as we may want to.

“Take heart,” Jesus says.
This is something he says over and over again in the gospels.

“Take heart, do not be afraid.”  (Mark 6:50)
“Take heart, you have been forgiven.” (Matt. 9:2)
“Take heart, your faith has made you well.” (Matt 9:22)
“Take heart, I will overcome the troubles of the world.” (John 16:33)

“Take heart” is another way of saying “have courage” – “have hope” –   in the midst of pain allow it to seep into the core of your being and sustain you, until restoration comes.

Eleven people died yesterday while worshiping God.
In yet another mass shooting. This time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

And as we weep over their senseless loss we find ourselves on the merry-go-round of outrage and blame all over again.
It’s the easy availability of weapons.
It’s the failings of our mental health care systems.
It’s the media’s obsession with violence, sensationalism, and fame.
It’s the breakdown of the family and the marginalization of God and religion.
It’s the ingrained and systemic evil of anti-Semitism, racism, nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia, and toxic-masculinity, which equates violence with dominance and power.
It’s the current cultural and political climate that cultivates and encourages all of the above – feeding terrorists, and hate groups, and lone wolfs who are destined to die for a cause, and take as many people with them as they can. 

But pointing fingers and arguing over who or what is to blame doesn’t seem to be helping, does it?
It just seems to divide us and hurt us even more.

If anyone had reason to point fingers it was Jesus.
He was familiar with all the ways that we human beings manage to build and sustain systems and states of mind that reward the few and fail the many, over and over again.
In the Beatitudes, and in his teachings and parables he named those systems and attitudes and talked about God’s plan to turn the world on its head, causing the last to be first, and the first to be last.

Yet each time Jesus was approached by someone who was seeking healing, in that moment he didn’t seem interested in blaming or naming the particular person or entity or system that that put them there.
He didn’t blame the limited availability of adequate health care.
He didn’t blame parental upbringing or lack of exposure to religion.
He didn’t blame the corruption and greed which kept so many under the thumb of poverty and oppression.
He didn’t blame the person in need of healing for not overcoming their affliction, or for making bad decisions and allowing their life to spiral out of control.

Not because some or all of these things weren’t to blame for the person’s predicament, but because in the moment placing blame was not helpful.
It did nothing to facilitate healing for the one who was seeking it.

We have to ask ourselves, in the wake of mass shootings, and gang violence, and tribal wars, and sanctioned genocide, how do we begin to seek healing?

How do we resist the urge to rush in and try to fix a horrific situation by naming the cause and shouting at those who disagree with our diagnosis?
How do we “Take Heart”, and have hope that in the midst of unspeakable violence and pain God is pulling us towards restoration?

It begins with recognizing the person in pain.
Acknowledging them, hearing them, calling them to us instead of pushing them back, turning them away, or tuning them out.

Whether it’s a beggar calling to us from the side of the road,
a woman revealing her anxieties as she sits next to us on a plane,
or a man who feels so powerless and is so full of fear that he lashes out, sending his pain out in waves so that others may feel it as well.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out against injustice and violence when we see it, and offer solutions to address the root causes when we can name them.
But restoration doesn’t begin with our need to fix.
It beings with our need to heal.

It’s worth noting that in this healing story from the gospel of Mark
that comes near the end of Jesus’ ministry,
the disciples have learned to mirror their teacher.
When the crowd tries to silence Bartimaeus, the disciples say to him,
“Take heart! Get up, he has called you.”

“Take heart” is the beginning of restoration and reformation.

It opens our heart just a crack, 
and allows the healing light to flow in.
It acknowledges that God is at work here, 
in ways that we cannot see.

This is the Good News that Jesus asks us to bring to the world.
May we take heart, 
and get up, 
for he is calling us to heal.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.