Sunday, September 6, 2015

Receiving Love and Giving It

This is St. George, but you get the point
The readings today proclaim to us that God loves us, he cares for us, and then they send us out on a mission to love and care for others. So that's what we have to talk about today, we have to talk about love. But this love that God has for us isn't a soft and cuddly love, it isn't gentle and passive. It's more akin to the love a knight has for his beloved that makes him go off and slay a dragon.Apparently this love includes sticking his fingers in a man's ear and touching his tongue, that doesn't sound gentle to me. Our God loves us and so he fights for us, he fights to save us from our sins and to save us from ourselves. Our first reading is trying to prepare us for this love: be strong, fear not. Isaiah proclaims to us that God comes with vindication, with divine recompense. That means he comes to justify us, to fill up what is lacking in us with his holiness and his love.

Let's clarify how God loves us. These readings show us that God doesn't love humanity in a generic, anonymous way. God loves individual persons. John 3:16 tells us that "God so loved the world...", but we want to make sure we keep in mind that he doesn't love the world as the world, he loves individuals in the world. Did you catch that? He doesn't love humanity generically, he loves each of you individually, with everything that is unique about you.

This is important because it helps us to understand this gospel passage. This is one of those healing stories that kind of offends our sensibilities. He sticks his fingers in the guy's ears, touches the guy's tongue, and groans as he heals him. This isn't what we normally associate with Jesus, this is just...weird. At other times somebody can approach Jesus and say, "Master, my servant is at home sick," and Jesus can just say, "Go in peace, your servant is healed." He can heal just by saying the word. And here it's clear he's not trying to impress anybody because it says he took the man off my himself.

This Jesus is afraid to get his hands dirty
I think this story bothers us because it's very earthy, it's very physical. We're much more comfortable with Jesus when he heals just by speaking, but not so much when he touches somebody's ears and tongue. We like Jesus when he's neat and clean. We like the Jesus of the holy cards, you know the ones where he sometimes looks like he's wearing makeup, but not the Jesus who was a first century carpenter in the Middle East. But God the Father made us as physical creatures, the body matters, and when Jesus became man, he raised mankind to a new level of dignity. So it should not surprise us to see Jesus touching in this way. Jesus goes straight to the problem and heals it. The fact that he loves each person individually and not collectively means that when he meets someone with a unique problem, he'll provide a unique solution.

In many ways, this man represents well our relationship with God. When Jesus walks into our lives, we want to respond. We want to hear his words and we want to respond. But look at this man in the gospel today.  He met Jesus and he was deaf and had a speech impediment. So when Jesus walked into his life, he couldn't hear his words and he was unable to respond. That sounds like us who, in our brokenness, can't hardly hear Jesus's words and if we do we certainly seem unable to respond.

But Jesus knows this, and he can handle it. For this man today, who can't hear and can't speak, Jesus uses touch. He takes him off by himself, away from the judgment and the stares of the crowds, and he heals this man's brokenness in a physical way by touching his ears and tongue. Jesus certainly could have healed this man by just speaking to him, but the man wouldn't have understood what he experienced because he wouldn't have heard the words, so Jesus touched him.

Similarly for us, Jesus can to us that I love you and I care for you, but we're as broken as this deaf man with the speech impediment, so Jesus has to use a different means. To reach us in our deafness and our brokenness, Jesus uses the Eucharist. The Eucharist is how Jesus reaches out to touch each one of us in order to grasp our hand in the darkness and to bring us into the light of his love, the Eucharist is how Jesus touches us the way he touched this deaf man today.

So we say that Jesus is really present when we celebrate the Eucharist, that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus. But if we understand that the wrong way, even our Protestant brothers and sisters would agree with us because Jesus told us that, "where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them." And that's true, so even apart from the Eucharist, Jesus is really present here simply because we Christians are gathered together, so what's unique about the Eucharist?

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Mass
The Eucharist is different than all other ways Jesus is present to us because in the Eucharist, Jesus is substantially present, and by that we mean is physically present. In the other ways Jesus is present to us like in the scriptures or in our community, we might say he is spiritually or mystically present, but in the Eucharist he is physically present. The ordinary bread and wine are changed into the very body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic prayer through a process called transubstantiation, where the very substance, what this thing is at its core, changes from just bread and wine to be the body and blood, while still maintaining the surface appearance of bread and wine. This is how Jesus reaches out to touch us in our darkness and our brokenness.

And if Jesus reaches out to us physically in our brokenness, then that's what we have to do for others as well. James is telling us today in our second reading to show no partiality. At this point, there had started to be divisions whenever they gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, where the rich would be treated better than the poor. But James is working to remind them that since Jesus loves each one of them and reaches out to each one of them the same way, so they have to treat everyone in the assembly the same way.

We don't struggle so much with seating in our churches by income level like James's audience did, but we guard our hearts in ways that cause divisions anyway. If you look around you, there's more brokenness and pain than you would believe, people just hide it. And we don't like to reach out to heal the brokenness in those around us, we don't like to risk our own hearts, because it's much easier to just donate to charity and to love anonymously from a distance. But Jesus sought those who were hurting and relieved their pain, he reaches out to heal our pain, whatever it is. And just as Jesus reaches out to heal us, so he is equips us to reach out and heal others.

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