In today’s passage from chapter 1 of Mark, we are right at the beginning of Jesus’ healing ministry. He has spent time in the wilderness, wrestling with the devil; he has called his first disciples, and now, beginning with Mark 1:29, we read that Jesus is preaching in the synagogue, maybe his first time ever preaching. During the service, a man with a demon interrupts him, and Jesus reveals that he has this extraordinary power—the power to heal.
My, people must have been surprised! And hopeful. If Jesus could cast out this one man’s demons, could he do it for others? And if he could cast out other peoples’ demons, too, could he also heal a person doubled over with back pain? Could he cure leprosy? Could he mend a withered hand? Maybe. Hope quickly diffuses throughout the gathering of worshipers and then beyond. We read that, “The news traveled fast all over Galilee.” After that first healing, when Jesus visits Peter’s house, hoards of people follow him. They line up at Peter’s front door—wanting, begging to be healed.
It is an awesome coincidence, happy serendipity, a mini miracle, or as a friend says, a wink from God, (serendipity is a wink from God—don’t you love it?) that this healing story, which is part of our lectionary, comes at the beginning of OUR new healing ministry—you know Helping our Neighbor. That new initiative for our church was introduced by Brian LaFontaine at our congregational meeting just a few weeks back. Surely, giving money to people in need, which is what the initiative is about, IS a kind of healing. A check we write could help pay a medical or dental bill. A check we write could pay plumbing expenses—say, to fix a burst pipe. By writing checks to pay medical or plumbing bills or whatever, we may be casting out spiritual demons of desperation and defeat.
As I listened to you, at that meeting though, and some, after, I heard some unease. No one is against this mission project. But I did hear concerns. Legitimate concerns. We are entering unchartered waters, after all. The main concern I heard and appreciated was that like Jesus, we could soon have lines out our doors—imagine that! But, not because of our faithfulness, or friendliness, but only because we offer a temporary fix for the mess that desperate souls find themselves in. And we are worried that those imaginary others could become our fair weather friends—here today, gone tomorrow. Maybe some will even pride themselves and spread the word, that this church can be played for fools.
Over the years I have been involved in several start-up mission projects. Inspiring mission projects, just like the one we are about to undertake. In every case, I am aware of, there was fear and foreboding at the beginning. That’s because you want to plan for what may be coming down the pike. You set up policies and procedures to that end. But, of course, it’s impossible to predict every fork, every twist and turn in the road. People, as life in general, are UNpredictable. Then, too, God is always doing a new thing. If God would just let things BE. But no. God is forever challenging us to grow our hearts. Darn it all!
When I was new to ministry and working as an associate pastor, a man came to our church asking for help. He met with our head pastor. It occurred to me then, that one day I myself might be the pastor being asked for help. Sobering, I tell you! Later, I asked that head pastor: “Do we have some policies for dealing with this sort of thing?” He laughed, a bold, loud laugh, like I had actually said something funny. “Policies? Policies? Sorry, you are on your own here.” It’s true. Giving to others is mostly a subjective undertaking. My potato, is your potahto, my tomato is your tomahto, and my pajama is your pajahma—You know, Fred Astaire? But we can’t call the whole thing off--ignoring the needs of the hungry, the naked and the homeless is not an option for us who are Christ’s followers. So, it’s pray as you go in our giving—we step out in faith—one faltering footstep in front of the other. We hope to find that sweet balance between honoring fiduciary responsibilities to our fellow church members and living as responsible Christ-followers to those outside these historic church walls.
I used to serve Cove Church. It has a Child Development Center in its education building. The church doesn’t run the Center, though. The two are separate, shall we say, separate enterprises—not that a church is an enterprise, but you get my meaning. The Child Care Center was founded, a couple of decades before I came. The original plan was that the Center would pay the church a modest rent. By the time I got there, though, money was going in the other direction—the church was keeping the Center solvent—a few hundred dollars here, a few more hundred dollars there.
As pastor, I served on the Center’s board. With my arrival at the church, we got some more new blood on the board, too. We newbies asked some hard questions. It soon became clear to us, the reason the school had so much trouble making ends meet. The director and assistant director who were also two of the Center’s teachers, served as the once-a-month tuition-collectors. Those two women loved, with a capital L, loved, the children they cared for.
My, I could tell you stories about Miss Yvonne, and Miss Donna! Just one here. During nap time, when the children lay on their mats in the one big basement, everything room, Miss Yvonne and Miss Donna would lie on the floor between and beside the little ones. These sainted teachers did NOT lie on mats. They lay on cold, hard linoleum. My office was upstairs. Sometimes I would sneak down the stairs just to catch the scene: Miss Yvonne and Miss Donna, lying on the floor, patting backs, rubbing heads and whispering words of calm, until finally, finally, all was quiet. Some days when things got contentious at the church, I wished EYE had a mat! “Will one of you please rub MY head?!”
Those teachers with the humongous hearts? Well, they weren’t going to put pressure on THEIR children’s families—to pay up or get out. And they didn’t. And that’s why the Center could not pay its rent and why the church had to sometimes help the Center make its payroll.
So, we board members stepped in. We took over tuition collection. If their tuition was in arrears, parents would get a letter from the board. If the family STILL didn’t pay, board members would make a home visit—find out the reason. Sometimes we worked out a payment plan. Once or twice the board felt that a family was simply living beyond its means. Several children did, in fact, leave the Center. Word got out. We were serious!
But then. One late fall, at the monthly Board meeting, held in the church fellowship hall-- Miss Donna announced: “Jesú will be leaving the Center.” Jesú? We knew Jesú. Delightful child. Small for his one-and-half years--just beginning to speak English. I found a picture of him, among my collection of cell phone photos. I printed it off for you. It’s on the back table. Hands down cute, you’ll see.
Jesú’s family spoke Spanish at home. His mother worked as a hotel maid in Charlottesville.
During the winter months, though, when tourism was down, the hotel didn’t need so many domestic employees. Jesú’s mother was laid off. The family couldn’t make tuition payments anymore. That’s what Miss Donna reported.
The board demurred. Love that word. Demurred. It’s from the French word demeurrer. It means to stay put. To not do anything. That’s what we did. We just sat there in silence. We DEMURRED. Of all the children at the Center, we knew that Jesú needed the Center most of all. Of all the families associated with the Center, his family could least afford the tuition, even when Jesú’s mother WAS employed, which now she wasn’t. If Jesú entered kindergarten without a mastery of English, God help him! His education would be over, before it started.
Hey, but a rule’s a rule, right? A policy’s a policy? The school was solvent for the first time in a lot of years. And, if we let Jesú stay, where would we draw the line?
Finally, one of our members, blesséd Crystal, broke through the quiet. “For heaven’s sake, this is Jesus we’re talking about.” You know right, that Jesú is Spanish for Jesus? Don’t know what would have happened if Jesú’s name had been José or Miguel.
As it was, because of Jesú, we initiated the Center’s first-ever scholarship program. One more instance where Jesus saves!
Jesú stayed at the Center. In the several years that followed, at least until I left, don’t know what’s going on now, “WE” (meaning I and two others on the board) wrote grant proposals and more grant proposals. We succeeded in getting money to fund tuitions for other children like Jesú. God doing a new thing. Stepping out in faith. Pray as you go. Finding that line between helping and enabling; between being compassionate or just naïve.
This week, I have been reading a book by Gregory Boyle. It’s called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest. He’s been in ministry for 30 plus years. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries—an organization that offers jobs to former gang members in and around Los Angeles. I say jobs. That was the original plan, to create and offer jobs--but other ministries have grown out of that.
One former gang member who had applied for a job at Homeboy Industries, had a vile, four letter word tattooed in big letters across his forehead. No one other than Homeboys would hire him. Go figure! Tattoo removal, is now part of Homeboy’s ministries. It removes thousands of tattoos a year.
So it goes. We get involved in others’ lives, and we wait for those others to show or tell us what they need from us.
I will end this sermon with a quote from Gregory Boyle. He says this about ministry:
“Hubris, or pride, tells people who live at the margins—people who are suffering from demons and all else, Hubris tells people “Here’s what you need.” On the other hand, Humility asks people who are suffering, “What is it that you need?”
So, we remain flexible, we keep our eyes and ears open. We keep our hearts open, too. And I predict that we are in for a lot more instances of God winking at us, as we continue to do God’s work in the world. Let everyone say, Amen