14 Pentecost—Proper 17-B
August 30, 2015
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Jesus Christ, it is rightly said, is our way to the Father. But this is true only because of the deeper mystery that Jesus Christ is the Father’s way to us. In the Song of Solomon this morning God comes to us as the Beloved in search of the one he loves: God calls out: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
A number of years ago Brennan Manning, at that time a Franciscan priest, before he became a famous writer, alcoholic, and a lover of the poor, was serving as a chaplain at the last hospital left in the country treating those with Hansen’s disease or leprosy. One day a nurse called him to visit a Mexican-American woman named Yolanda, who was dying.
Brennan describe that visit:
“… I went up to Yolanda’s room on the second floor and sat on the edge of the bed. Yolanda is a woman thirty-seven years old. Five years ago, before the leprosy began to ravage, she must have been one of the most stunningly beautiful creatures God ever made. . . . But that was then.
Now her nose is pressed into her face. Her mouth is severely contorted. Both ears are distended. She has no fingers on either hand, just two little stumps.
Two years earlier, her husband divorced her because of the social stigma attached to leprosy, and he had forbidden their two sons, boys fourteen and sixteen, from ever visiting their mother. . . . As a result, Yolanda was dying an abandoned, forsaken woman.
I… prayed with her. . . . [T]he room was filled with a brilliant light. It had been raining when I came in; I didn’t even look up, but said, “Thanks, Abba, for the sunshine. I bet that’ll cheer her up.”
As I turned to look back at Yolanda – and if I live to be three hundred years old I’ll never be able to find the words to describe what I saw – her face was like a sunburst over the mountains, like one thousand sunbeams streaming out of her face literally so brilliant I had to shield my eyes.
I said, ‘Yolanda, you appear to be very happy.’
With her slight Mexican-American accent she said, ‘Oh, Father, I am so happy.’
I then asked her, ‘Will you tell me why you’re so happy?’
She said, ‘Yes, the Abba of Jesus just told me that He would take me home today.’
I vividly remember the hot tears that began rolling down my cheeks. After a lengthy pause, I asked just what the Abba of Jesus said.
Yolanda said: ‘Come now, My love. My lovely one, come. For you, the winter has passed, the snows are over and gone, the flowers appear in the land, the season of joyful songs has come. The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. Come now, My love. My Yolanda, come. Let Me see your face. And let Me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful. Come now, My love, My lovely one, come.’
Six hours later her little leprous body was swept up into the furious love of her Abba. Later that same day, I learned from the staff that Yolanda was illiterate. She had never read the Bible, or any book for that matter, in her entire life. I surely had never repeated those words to her in any of my visits. I was, as they say, a man undone” I first hear this story in a recorded talk of his but you can find it also in The Furious Longing of God, by Brennan Manning.
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
This is Jesus Christ call to you, to me, and to the whole human race. This is the only call that can save us from being run by the ego’s software that seeks to protect us from catching the shame and failure of others. We naturally assume that shame and failure come from others who must be avoided at all costs, but Jesus says it is what comes from the inside that defiles us.
You’ve noticed that very young children will engage with anyone, even someone like Yolanda, because they don’t have this software fully running yet. But when we get older we develop a strong revulsion to certain types of people unless God intervenes.
I did my Clinical Pastoral Education during the summer after my first year of seminary at the Georgia Retardation Center in northeast Atlanta and I was assigned as a chaplain to two units—one for infants and toddlers who were horribly deformed and the other for teenagers who looked normal, but were incapable of acting normally. I was deeply uncomfortable around both groups, but I noticed there were so-called “volunteer grandparents” on these units who had strong faith in Christ and who had no trouble engaging and enjoying these kids.
Who do you find repulsive? –The sick, the old, the dying, the homeless, illegal immigrants, the dirty poor, or maybe even the filthy rich?
James today says that true religion, which we asked God to give us in our Collect of the Day, is to embrace and care for just these types of people—in his case it was orphans and widows living on the garbage dump outside the city. But in order to reach out to these people we have to face our fears and learn how to go against the inner grain that tells us not to go.
And how do we do that? Only by grace.
The first step of grace is when we realize that in spite of our unloveliness God embraces us in Jesus Christ.
The second step of grace is to drop the ego’s self-protection project and intentionally take up Christ’s “embrace the stranger” project.
Saint Francis said, “this is how God inspired me, Brother Francis…. When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I had once become acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became a source of spiritual and physical consolation for me. After that, I did not wait long before leaving the world….” Quoted in The Ecstasies of Saint Francis, John Haule, page 30
Leaving the world, for Francis, does not mean dying and going to heaven or even leaving his father and living in poverty. As Jungian Analyst John Haule puts it, embracing the lepers meant that Francis is “no longer thinking primarily of himself and his own safety and comfort….[and] All [that] left-over energy is immediately converted to joy and exaltation” and this experience transports Francis into the sacred cosmos, or what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Francis doesn’t embrace the repulsive to earn God’s love, but to experience peace, God’s joy, and connection with all things in Christ. Ibid page31
Living in the sacred cosmos Francis is free to embrace not only the poor, but also the Pope; not only Christians, but also Muslims when he goes to Jerusalem to talk to the Sultan of Egypt about finding a peaceful solution to one of the crusades.”
James says “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Richard Rohr puts it this way, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
This day Jesus is calling to us, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” with me into the sacred cosmos where we practice the furious longing of God for God’s special people.