Christ’s Non-Judgmental Ministry of Presence

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Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

2 Samuel 1, 17-27

Psalm 130

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Mark 5:21-43

This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez CA on June 28, 2015. 

About a decade ago, I worked as an interfaith chaplain at the San Francisco General Hospital, mostly ministering to patients in the psychiatric wards, the AIDS and Oncology Unit and occasionally the Emergency Room. My chaplain supervisor Bob Walter tried to cultivate in the other chaplains and me what he called a “non-judgmental ministry of presence.” This was not an easy task for Bob since the other chaplains and I had come from a relatively conservative Christian college and had learned to be fairly judgmental, especially concerning the issue of homosexuality. As I began ministering to AIDS patients and openly gay patients in the psychiatric wards, I decided to research and investigate Christian views of homosexuality, which ranged from condemnation to accommodation to affirmation.[1] The more I studied and prayed, the more I found myself moving from a place of judgment and condemnation to acceptance and celebration. I also started attending the Metropolitan Community Church in the city (also known as “the Gay Church”), where I was welcomed warmly and was exposed to new ways of reading Scripture. At the MCC church, the clergy were not afraid to suggest that a romantic relationship may have existed between Jonathan and the great King David, who in our reading today, says of Jonathan, “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). My movement from condemnation to celebration of LGBTQ people has made me immensely proud of my country during these last couple days as the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal nationwide. (Amen to that!) Also, my movement from condemnation to celebration made me a better chaplain by beginning to form my ministry into a genuinely non-judgmental ministry of presence.

As a chaplain, I quickly learned the healing power of this ministry. Many hospital patients, especially in the psychiatric ward, associated clergy and religious people in general with judgment and condemnation. So when I told people that I celebrated their humanity and even their sexuality as a gift from God they were initially baffled and then beamed with incredible joy. And to those who felt guilty about past mistakes, there was still an invitation for me to tap into the non-judgmental ministry of presence by proclaiming forgiveness and grace.

I remember a woman in the psychiatric ward looking downcast and saying to me, “My heart’s rotten. They tell me my heart’s rotten. Do you see it? It’s rotten, isn’t it?” I looked into her eyes and said, “Your heart looks troubled and afraid but not rotten.”

“But I’ve done some bad things…terrible things…I don’t think God will forgive me.”

I said, “God loves you dearly and has forgiven you completely. He loves your heart and thinks it’s beautiful.”

At this, her complexion brightened and her posture rose. She was baffled and then began to beam. I witnessed the healing power of a non-judgmental presence that celebrates rather than condemns.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus also practices a non-judgmental ministry of presence. On his way to lay his healing hands on Jairus’s 12-year-old daughter, Jesus comes to an abrupt halt when a women lays her hands on him instead. Although Jesus is walking through a horde of people trying to touch him like Bono through a crowd of U2 fans, Jesus feels one hand that touches him in such a way that he actually feel power come out of him. He then asks, “Who touched me?” which must sound like a joke to his disciples considering their surroundings, but to the woman who touched him the question arouses fear and trembling. She is profoundly afraid because she knows that by touching Jesus she has committed a serious offense. According to Leviticus 15, if a woman has a discharge of blood for more than a few days, she is considered perpetually unclean and is ostracized from the community. Her bed, her chair and whatever other objects she has touched become instantly defiled with her impurity. If someone were to touch one of these objects they would have to immediately wash their clothes and bathe in a mikvah and even then they would still remain unclean until the end of the day. By touching Jesus’s clothes, this woman defiles Jesus’s body and she knows this full well. However, she risks this in order to be healed of her 12-year-long affliction. As a result, she experiences bodily healing right away and instead of running off after hearing Jesus’s question, she falls down before him and tells him the whole truth, likely expecting severe chastisement from Jesus and his disciples. “How dare you defile our Rabbi with your impurity?” And Jairus must be devastated knowing that Jesus now has to wash his clothes, bathe and wait until sundown before he is clean enough to visit his fatally ill daughter. In fact, everyone who hears her story is likely furious since she must have touched and defiled other people in the bustling crowd on the way to touching and defiling Jesus. As she speaks, she hears people in the crowd hiss and jeer, “You have condemned us to impurity. Your heart must be rotten”—words of condemnation that have been haunting her already for more than a decade.

Hands

However, Jesus, the one whom she has clearly touched and defiled, says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Instead of judgment and condemnation, Jesus speaks words of tender love, affirmation and celebration. He speaks to her as if she is a daughter in whom he is immensely proud. He essentially says, “You are beautiful and your courage and faith in me are so powerful that you are now healed and made whole. You need no longer listen to voices of condemnation. You are clean and you are pure.” With these words, all questions of ritual impurity, defilement and social exclusion vanish. The people whom religion and society condemn are the people whom Jesus affirms and celebrates. The people whom society dismisses as defiled and basically dead to the rest of us are the people whom Jesus honors as beautiful and full of life.

So when Jairus’s companions tell him to leave Jesus alone because his daughter is already dead, Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus invites Jairus to have a faith that does not let him easily dismiss others as defiled or dead, a faith that makes him look closer, makes him see life where others see death. “The child is not dead,” Jesus says, “but sleeping.” When everyone else sees a lifeless corpse, Jesus sees a precious and vivacious little girl who has fallen into a deep sleep. Continuing in his non-judgmental ministry of presence, which sees beauty where others see impurity and life where others see death, Jesus wakes up the little girl who then starts walking around and eating.[2]

According to Paul, some of us have the specific gift of healing sickness and physical maladies and we are called to cultivate this gift in the community.[3] However, all of us are called to participate in and practice Jesus’s non-judgmental ministry of presence, by virtue of our baptism. Sometimes physical maladies are an outer manifestation of an inner sickness, be it emotional or spiritual or psychological. The presence of a loving and non-judgmental person who celebrates us rather than condemns us can sometimes be far more healing than any medicine we receive from the doctor. As followers of Christ, we are invited to see beauty, faith and courage where others see impurity and rottenness. We are invited to see youthful vivacity where others see a lifeless corpse.

The new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry, who was just elected yesterday (Amen to that as well!), says, “The Church is characterized by being a welcoming people, leaving all judgments to God.” By leaving all judgments to the One who sees beauty and life where others see impurity and death, we allow the spirit to move us from a place of condemnation to a place of celebration so that we can bring healing to a sick world through a non-judgmental ministry of presence. Amen.

Bishop Michael Curry, of North Carolina, waves to the crowd after being elected the Episcopal Church's first African-American presiding bishop at the Episcopal General Convention Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Salt Lake City. Curry won the vote in a landslide. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

[1] See L. R. Holben, What Christians Think About Homosexuality: Six Representative  Viewpoints (London: D & F Scott Pub Inc, 1999) for a description of the following viewpoints: Condemnation, A Promise of Healing, A Call to Costly Discipleship, Pastoral Accommodation, Affirmation and Liberation.

[2] Now it is clear that Jesus’s healing ministry involved far more than just reserving judgment and doling out words of affirmation. Jesus was a radical and effective healer of real physical maladies. Even historians with no religious attachment to Christ at all agree that Jesus of Nazareth was a traveling healer who was unique among other healers in that he never charged people a fee for his remedies. Some might argue that Jesus was an first-century proponent of free health care 🙂 Some also think that this is why Jesus often orders people to keep his healings secret (as he does in this morning’s Gospel) in order to curb some of the mob madness that could easily broil around a free healer.

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:28

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