Caring for the Sick

Sermon series: Becoming a Good Samaritan

When I moved to Boston after college, I did what many young adults did at the time- I moved into a house with a group of other young adults. That way, you were able to live in a house, have your own room, share expenses, etc. It made enormous sense.

 I was the second one to move into this particular house on Jason Street (up the street from Bill MacLean’s grandmother, although I didn’t know it...). Lisa and I then continued the interviewing process until all five bedrooms were accounted for...

 One of the people who moved in was a woman named Peggy. Peggy was gorgeous- beautiful, long black hair, stunning blue eyes, truly a striking young woman...She was an artist- painter, sculptor who supported herself working in an office. She was also, although we didn’t know it, at the very beginning of a terrifying journey of schizophrenia, a mental illness (of which the cause is still unknown) that most often strikes young adults between the ages of 18 and 25) and which causes both visual and audio hallucinations (people see things that aren’t there, and hear things- voices, most often, that no one else can hear.). It can cause paranoia and violence, and without treatment, finally results in complete disability, if not death...

Over the next several months, we watched in horror (and some fear) as Peggy came unglued. She left her job. She stopped caring for herself- her beautiful, flowing hair was unwashed and matted. She loudly talked about her fantastic artistic plans- but was no longer able to work. And she showed signs of being dangerous to us- she would pick up the phone and listen to our phone calls, wondering if the one on the phone might be talking about her... She would walk into conversations the same way... “Talking about me, are you???” in an accusatory voice...

 For our part, the rest of us had no idea what to do. Indeed, the easiest thing was to try and ignore- or stay away from the house completely. For reasons I still don’t know (or understand), Peggy’s parents refused to get involved. That left us and Rick, her incredibly loving boyfriend to try and figure it out...

 It all came to a head one morning when we all knew something had to be done- she was ranting unintelligibly in the kitchen. I called Rick, and said I was about to call the police- and had no sooner said the words when the phone clicked and Peggy raged. I fled, I’m sad to say, but she was waving a large knife. Rick arrived soon after, and convinced her to go with him, and he took her to Maclean Hospital- where she would spend much of the next year...

 Now I begin with that story as we are in week two of our fall series- Becoming the Good Samaritan- Jesus’ instruction to you and me (and all who follow him) to be neighbor to the people around us- which he illustrated so wonderfully in the famous story  that was our text last week.  

 Today our focus is on showing love for our neighbor by caring for the sick who are among us. I began with that story about an old roommate because there are some illnesses that can manifest themselves in ways that are terrifying- and which can cause us to try and avoid their victims- to “pass by on the other side,” as it were, like the priest and the Levite had done when they saw the man who had fallen among robbers in Jesus’ parable.

 And without trying to explain or justify their behavior, when you see someone in trouble, it can be a risk- frightening to show care- in their instance, what if the robbers were still around? Bleeding wounds are really hard to look at... and what DO you do? HOW do you show caring if you’re not trained to do so...

 There are illnesses that present in ways that can cause the same effect- in the old days it was leprosy- folks knew it was contagious, but weren’t sure how it was passed on. The effects of the disease were devastating and disfiguring, and the response was to remove the victim from the community...

Today, of course, there is AIDS, which has killed millions around the world- in parts of Africa a whole generation has been left without parents who have died of this disease. I know about a small church in South Africa- 75 people- where 25 adults are caring for 50 AIDS orphans... The stigma of AIDS continues- in some communities around the world, people are afraid even to touch people with AIDS. And because it is sexually transmitted, in many places, people refuse to talk about it- and how it can be prevented. 

Mental illness then, as now, was frightening, and those who suffered from it- or from epilepsy, and the seizures it caused, were described as “demon possessed,” and again, removed from the community, or ignored, if possible.

 And one other thing about these illnesses- there was often the question of cause: “What had the victim done to get this...” In John’s Gospel, the question was raised specifically about a man born blind: “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”

 With AIDS, of course, the question was/is about homosexuality: the folks who got it with transfusions or women who got it from their husbands were ok, but the ones who were gay, well...

 And it goes beyond that- someone gets lung cancer and what’s the first question? Did they smoke?

 It’s a good one-two punch: it’s gross and the person suffering likely deserved it. Therefore, I am justified in not seeing it- I mean, the human being, made in God’s image, who is suffering...

With all that as (a long) prologue, we can return first to the parable and note that the Samaritan did NOT ignore the man who had fallen among robbers; he went straight to him. And he did NOT ask the man, “What’s wrong with you- didn’t you know you had to be careful on this stretch of road? Or, “were you wearing expensive jewelry- you didn’t flash a Rolex or something, did you???”

He was moved with pity- with compassion- and cared for his wounds, took him to an inn and paid for his care. There was a need; the Samaritan filled it. The more I study both the parable and the life and ministry of Jesus, I see incredible parallels:

 Jesus is, like the Samaritan, an outsider- he is not of the political, social or economic elite... (Indeed, in some ways, he is the ultimate outsider- fully human, to be sure, but also the Son of God- fully divine, as well.)

 And unlike the priests and the Levites- the well to do, educated, and those who should have known God’s will, but who care only for themselves, and despise those unable to reach their “high standards” of keeping the Law, and who, therefore, ignore the vast majority of the people- figuratively and literally passing the people by on the other side of the road,

 Jesus sees needs, and he meets them! He has “compassion,”- the same word, essentially, as the one translated “pity” in the parable!

 The people need to know how God would have them live- fully- caring for each other, not because they can offer each other something- there is no transaction- but because they are human and loved by God- THAT’S what makes them valuable, and so he teaches them.

He cures them of diseases and sickness, because sickness divides, it separates, it hurts... In God’s Kingdom, there will be no more illness or disease, and so Jesus gives us a glance of how that will look...

Jesus will have none of the shunning or blaming that accompanies illnesses- lepers who come to him are embraced and healed. A man so violently afflicted with mental illness that he broke the chains used to bind him and who lived among the dead- in a cemetery, utterly alone- feared- is cured by Jesus and rejoins his community.

Jesus’ response to the question about the man born blind is “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made known in him...” There are many, many examples...

In God’s Kingdom, death and crying will be no more. When Jesus was condemned unjustly- was put to death on a Roman cross, his response is not to blame, but to forgive... In death- this end of earthly life that we all face, but which we all do as individuals- Jesus shares, and then is raised from the dead by God on the third day, so that nothing- not illness, not even death itself can come between you and Jesus’ compassion!

In Jesus, you and I see a glimpse of life eternal in God’s Kingdom! And in the risen Jesus, you- yes, you, are given Jesus’ Spirit- his power and strength- to be his compassion- to live his mission out wherever you live!

Look at the Gospel again! It says “Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness...”

I can hear you say, “Chris, that was the twelve- the disciples- the leaders, not me...It’s the pastors’ job to do all this visiting and healing...”

But let me remind you- “disciples” means followers- those who follow Jesus. And there were no pastors when he said it- there were no clergy in the Christian church until well after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the one time the word “pastor”  is used in the New Testament- in Ephesians 4, Paul says plainly that the pastors’ job is NOT to do the ministry, but “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the Body of Christ...”

You are given Jesus’ eyes to see the needs around you and you were given Jesus’ authority to begin to meet them! Your pastors are responsible for helping you learn to do this, and we promise to do so! But if we do your ministry, we are taking the opportunity for you to serve as the minister of Jesus that you have been called to be!

There are so many places to get involved in this mission to care for the sick that we have been given by Jesus, himself... First, there is simply the matter of being aware: are there people living near you who are struggling with illness? Maybe simply shopping for them- or going to sit with them in their loneliness...

At Bethlehem, we have a large and growing caring ministry- led by Diane Waarvik, there are opportunities to serve as a befriender- sharing with people who would otherwise spend their time alone... There are places to serve in our recovery ministry, offering those first steps of healing to those suffering from all kinds of addictions...

There are places to serve in NAMI- the National Association of Mental Illness- again, often just being present for someone for whom daily life is so difficult... By the way, I’m sure you’re wondering what became of my roommate Peggy: I saw her once more, selling her artwork in an exhibit on the Boston Commons nearly two years later. She was living in a group home, and trying to make her life work. To this day I am sorry I did not try and reach out to her sooner. And I have not heard a word about her since... Lord, have mercy...

 The Aliveness Project works with people who are HIV positive or living with AIDS...

 We have doctors and nurses who travel the world, working with the poorest of the poor- and curing them of cataracts, or cleft palates, or other health issues. I know of a hospital serving as primary care for a quarter of a million people with two docs in South India, and if you have a month or two, they could sure use you!

 It’s a long list, but my point is that there is something each of us can do- each of us is being called to do!

There’s a story about Fulton Sheen, the famous Catholic bishop, who was visiting in a leper colony in Africa, and he was repulsed by these open cancerous, cankerous sores on the bodies of everybody laying there in the dirt.  And he walked by one man who not only had leprosy, but  had other skin diseases too, with open, puss-filled wounds on his legs.  And as Bishop Sheen leaned over to talk to him, the cross that he was wearing on a chain around his neck broke.  The chain broke and it fell into that open wound. He said, “You know, for a minute I was just repulsed.  I wanted to just kind of step back.  And then all of a sudden I was filled. I was overcome for this love for this person who had nothing.” He said, “I reached into the sore and I took up the cross.”

That, brothers and sisters, is what following Jesus is all about.  It is about the healing of broken lives.  If we're not doing that, we can never become the Good Samaritan, and I even doubt if we’re Christian!

 The business of our faith is about meeting needs and caring for the sick. It's love; it’s compassion; it is being the Body of Christ.  Now, I’m not going to kid you, if you get involved, it is going to cost you.  It will.  It is going to break you out of self-centeredness and comfortable things, and it is going to cost you time and energy and effort and money and maybe even your privacy sometimes; but you have the assurance of God’s presence- God’s power and God’s love working in your life! The Samaritan was moved with pity, and he went to the man, bandaged his wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him...

 Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? He said, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him- and to you, and me, “Go and do likewise!”