– Nehemiah 8:1-4a,5-6 , I Corinthians 12:12-30, Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
Nobody has yet been able to reduce caring to a science. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tried, but nobody has been yet able to do it. When I was in Seminary , for example, they taught us about non-directive counseling. The point of all that was sometimes people who try to help other people end up by only giving advice or that people who visit in hospitals talk too much or stay too long. The idea in non-directive counseling was and is that the counselor listens and not try to guide the conversation. He or she responds by simply repeating what the other person says. So a parody of that method appeared a few years ago:
A person comes to be counseled and says, “Doc, I feel awful today.” Counselor: “You feel awful today.” Patient: “Yes, I do, in fact, sometimes I think I will just walk over and jump out that window.” Counselor: “You want to jump out that window.” Patient: “In fact, I am going to do it.” Counselor: “You are going to do it.” Whereupon he jumps and screams on the way down… The counselor looks after him and repeats his scream.
I suppose that I would want to say that counselor was so committed to his method that he was not free to care.
On the other hand there was Jesus. One Sabbath day, in the beginning,
really, he came to Nazareth to the synagogue where he was brought up. When they handed him the scroll to read he found the place in Isaiah which would best announce who he really was, about preaching the gospel to the poor, giving sight to the blind, setting the prisoners free. I mean to say that this occasion was not just an announcement of his program, what he intended to do. It was in fact an announcement of his person, who he was.
The church has always understood that this Jesus was, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “very God of very God,” that there is nothing more to say about God than Jesus Christ. But at the same time the church has also taught that he was very man of very man, that his Godhood did not in any way compromise or condition his manhood. That means, of course, that in Jesus… God became one of us, like us, but it means more than that, it means that Jesus is the one who is truly human, he is the one who is truly free.
And so we read what Paul said about the church this morning. He said you, the church, are the Body of Christ and individually parts of members of it.
I Corinthians 12:12-30 12For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14For the body is not one member, but many. 15If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20But now there are many members, but one body. 21And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?
And in this place and others he seems to mean, “You are literally Christ’s body on earth”. That means on the one hand that what you do when you are gathered here and when you are scattered out there… Christ does. On the other hand it means you are heirs to all the promises to which he is heir. You participate in the fullness of his humanity. You have been made part of his body in baptism; you are free as he is free to care as he cared.
If we are going to be the caring congregation it will not be because we have screwed up our courage. It will not be because we have tapped the wells of sentiment. It will not be because we have worked out a plan. It will be because we have in fact been made part of his body and shared in his humanity. It will be because we are free to care. I want to talk with you about Jesus this morning and what it means to be free to care.
It means first of all to be free from the need to do everything perfectly or completely. Jesus announced in Nazareth that he had come to proclaim release to the captives, and he did. He set people free from the prison of sin and disease. He set them free from hatred and violence. But not all of them. On this very day hostages are being held in Iran, whole countries are being held hostage as in Afghanistan, and who knows what sort of hostages will be held in the draft. Even children are sometimes held hostage to the desires and wishes of their parents. Jesus did not complete that work and all the prisoners have not been set free.
But the freedom from the need always to get it right is very important to our humanity. I mean first of all the freedom to fail, of course. I remember this little boy who was in our kindergarten program once in Garland. That was in the days before we had public school kindergarten, so we had one in the church. One day our teacher, Mrs. Williams, was telling me about him. He was a bright little boy, who always made a hundred on all his papers. She said that one day, after some sort of test; he brought a paper to her. It was not his own, it was a paper his friend Gary had done. Now, Gary had not made a hundred, but he wanted to explain that Gary had really meant the right answer not the wrong one. He not only had to get everything right he had to have friends who got it all right, too. The problem was he could do most anything, but he often wouldn’t try unless he knew he could get it right. I really do mean to say that real humanity means the freedom to fail.
But I also mean that it includes the freedom to care and not control. This last week The Christian Century magazine carried a remarkably sensitive article written by a pediatrician called “Morals, Medicine and Monasticism.” In it this doctor tells his own story, the story of a man who worked in ghettos and anti-poverty programs, who served in hospitals and cared for children in many ways over many years, who time after time found his best efforts frustrated by bureaucracies and bundling, until he came to two depressing conclusions. 1) What one accomplishes, if anything, is lost in the actions of the rest of society and 2) One’s personal life goes to put in the struggle. He finally came to the conclusion, “when I’ve done what I can, my power in the world ceases.” He quoted Marcus Aurelius: “Consider that men will do the same things, nevertheless, even though thou shouldst burst.”
Isn’t it true that a lot of our caring is frustrated because we can’t control the outcome? Parents can’t really control how their children turn out, though sometimes we would like to try. The church cannot force conversion on anyone. Good deeds may have no final effect, but the freedom to care, as Jesus was free to care, means the freedom from the need to make everything turn out right. And that’s what it is to be the Body of Christ.
And it means to be free to do what we can. My doctor friend in this article also quoted Epicetus in the same breathe that he quoted Marcus Aurelius: “Not in our power are whatever are not our own acts.” You and I know that. We have said it to ourselves a hundred times. The only acts we can control are our own. But the positive side of that rather negative statement is that we can control our own. Jesus came to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. That was surely not a program to do away with blindness, but some blind men received their sight. The ethics of Jesus, if I may say it that way, always seemed to be responsive not programmatic. He always seemed ready to go with him who asked him to go, to stop for him who called to him from alongside the road, to touch the one who needed to be touched. He was free to do what he could do.
And you are the Body of Christ, free to do what you can do. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest, who has written so much about caring, tells in one of his books about the professor at Notre Dame who lived most of his life resenting the fact that students and colleagues and people were always interrupting his work until one day he discovered, “ the interruptions are my work.” I don’t know about you, but I need to hear that. I am a list maker, and I can make a list of all the things I am going to get done, but if I am serious, I better make a short list, for there will be other things that insert themselves into my list, and I must be free not to get around to everything. Because I am a list maker that’s hard for me to take, but only when I grasp that freedom… do I become human. Jesus seemed to have the freedom to respond, to care for and to love this blind man who stood before him as if he were the only one in all the world. He was never kept from caring about a blind man just because he had no program to do away with blindness. He was free to do what he could do. And so are you, for you are the Body of Christ.
And one more thing, and this may sound strange, Jesus was free to need. He came to proclaim the good news to the poor, he said. Now the poor were in the first century, maybe what the poor have always been. They were those who were left out. They were called the people of the land, not beggars, but people whose every effort was consumed in scratching out of the land their bare existence. They clung to life with their finger nails. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they would have liked to be religious, but there was no time. When Jesus came proclaiming good news to these poor he did not set up a pulpit near some collection of the hovels they called homes and shout at them, “why don’t you stop being poor.” He became one of them. He willingly admitted that he needed to be cared for too. He was free to need, and to say so.
Caring, I am convinced, means that somebody must be willing to tell their needs. Sometimes, maybe not all the time but sometimes, we must be willing to say to our neighbor, “I can’t do it by myself; you are going to have to help me.” And sometimes we must, like the poor, insist on being helped. Oh, that’s hard for ministers; just ask any one of us. We are here because we think of ourselves as helpers. We chaff at thinking of ourselves as helpless.
Nouwen in another place says that Christians, and that simply means human beings, people, sometimes we are healers and sometimes we are wounded, as was Jesus, and sometimes you can’t tell who is the wounded and who is the healer for finally only the wounded can be healers. And if you want to know where that came from, it came from the Bible, for Jesus is not some isolated and lonely macho figure who never needed anybody. He was free to need, and so are you, for you are the Body of Christ.
Nobody has been able to reduce caring to a science. There is no way to reduce caring to necessity. Instead, caring is a matter of being free, free from the need to do everything right, free to do what we can do, free to admit that we need to be cared for. Jesus was free, he was everything it means to be human, not because he cared but because he loved God. Last week I read to you four sentences from this remarkable book “The Cloud of Unknowing“*. I want to read just these three more: “God shows that time is precious, for he never gives two moments of time side by side, but always in succession. To do other side he would have to alter the whole course of creation. Time is made for man, not man for time.”
All you have to do to be free to care is to love God in this one moment. Christ did, and you are the Body of Christ.
Let us love God with our prayers.
The invitation to Christian discipleship is the invitation to love God. Will you love him and stand only on his promises?
Bill Crouch preached this sermon at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas on January 27, 1980. This sermon was the 3rd part of a 4 part series on caring.
*The book “The Cloud of Unknowing” was described the previous week as”… a classic of Christian mysticism, written by an anonymous English monk in the 14th century.” The lines referenced were:
“Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him. In deed, hate to think of anything but God himself, so that nothing occupies your mind or will but only God.However, the whole of mankind is wonderfully helped by what you are doing, in ways you do not understand. Yes, the very souls in purgatory find their pain eased by virtue of your work.”
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Daryl Stephens says:
This sermon had a classic Bill Crouch line in it, or at least something I seem to remember him saying many times in his sermons: “I want to talk to you today about …” somewhere about a third of the way into the sermon. Funny how I remember that a few decades later.