Failing to thrive. In prison and everywhere else.

Chaplaincy, Sermon

“Blessed is he who considers the poor.” This might also be said, “blessed is the one who cares for the weak.” Being poor is a bad thing in our paradigm. It’s a sign of failure, a sign that somehow, whether through some calamity not of their making, some character flaw that causes them to not seek to better themselves (though just what “bettering one’s self might look like is up for considerable debate), or just weak – being poor and needing help is a sign that one is failing to thrive.

When I worked on the mother/baby ward during my year of CPE, there were babies whose diagnosis was “failure to thrive.” It seemed to me to be something of a catch all for babies that just struggled to make it, struggled to gain weight, struggled for life. In any other world, they would have just died but through the amazing advances in medical technology, nutrition, and medicine, they are able sometimes to recover and thrive.

I wonder what “failure to thrive” might look like in prison?

I wonder what “failure to thrive” might look like in a marriage?

In a professional career?

In a one’s personal life etc.?

The psalmist in Ps. 41 declares that the one who considers that one who is “failing to thrive” is blessed! The one writing the psalm is so sick, so in need that they seem despairing of their life. This psalm is often identified as a prayer of individual thanksgiving but it reads more as a plea for help. The prayer comes from one so sick that his continued survival is in jeopardy.  Reading the Psalm makes me wonder if the writer is so sick they are getting a little paranoid?

If the writer is David, it would have been written during a time in his life that he was running. Running from Saul, running from his past, running from death which is always nipping at his heals. David, in the story of his running, takes huge risks. He takes on huge responsibilities, does things that one the one hand are courageous and on the other, frankly stupid. He struggles as I have experienced America’s warrior struggling, with life.

Listen to what his enemies say:

I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die and his name perish?”
When one of them comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
then he goes out and spreads it around.

All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,
“A vile disease has afflicted him;
he will never get up from the place where he lies.”
Even my close friend,
someone I trusted,
one who shared my bread,
has turned[b] against me.

Ever feels like someone is just waiting for you to die? Waiting for you to fail? Waiting for you to struggle, fall, give up? Ever feel like there are those around you whispering about you? Imagining the worst for you? A close friend, someone you trusted, your spouse, your loved one, your confidant – turned against you? Just when you needed them the most, just when it would have been so important for them to stand by you – they walk away, leave you in your failure to thrive?

Ever feel like this might be God?

Have you ever felt like the old Yiddish proverb, “Thou hast chosen us from among the nations – what , O Lord, did you have against us?”

I believe that it is reasonable to feel this way in chaos. If you experienced this, are experiencing this, or are wondering if your feelings about this in the time of your struggle are valid, I can say emphatically that I’ve been down that road myself and they are valid.

Saints, what holds the Psalmist together here is the confidence that they are acting in integrity. They are doing what is right. Though around them is scandal and pain – they are confident that this too shall pass and moving to a place of integrity will carry them through.

“You shall know the truth,

And the truth will set you free.” – Jesus

I read this as a promise that when we get honest with ourselves and move to a place of integrity, we will experience true freedom. It will hurt, it will be painful, it might even give those who have spoken against you cause to triumph but know that in the long run you are better, you are healthier, you are stronger because you no longer care what they say about you! You are no longer dependant on “them” for affirmation and strength. Your day is your responsibility! Your health is your responsibility! YOU are your responsibility!

How freeing would it be for verses 5-9 to not even matter?

Blessed is he who takes care of the weak.”  Once we have cared for ourselves, we can care for others. It is given to us to be authentic, be real, get to the truth and acting with integrity  – then, when we care for others, we do so from a place of love.

I wonder what world’s view of the church would be if, instead of lashing out against perceived ills and confessing grandly the sins of others, we got real with ourselves and spent our energy on what we could control , namely “considering the weak?”

Luke 10:Jesus stood in a field. Around him were his disciples and among them were the “72.” These were disciples that had gone out to spread the news of the coming kingdom. They had returned and were ecstatic! They were bubbling with news of what they had seen and experienced. With joy they relayed what they had seen. A crowd gathered.

Lord! Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus smiled and replied that he had seen Satan fall from heaven and that he had given them power to tread on serpents and scorpions – over all the power of the enemy. The crowd around Jesus were in awe of the stories they heard.

Of course, not everyone was all that impressed. Some were quite cynical. Cynicism always follows the miraculous. As is should with reasonable people. Doubt can be a good thing.

Jesus praises God –  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

He then says to his disciples quietly (but remember, people are quite close so they can hear), “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Jesus says to his uneducated, unlearned, unread, unstudied grubby, blue-collar, emotions-bleed-all-over-the-place disciples that they are seeing things that many prophets begged God to see and did not. Things that kings, in all their power and wealth could not see – something that might be just a little annoying to someone standing close by, a lawyer, a theologian, a learned and holy man.

He jumps to his feet and challenges Jesus. “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Immediately, all the air is sucked out of the space. It gets silent. People look to see how Jesus is going to respond to this challenge.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, questions are rarely perceived as requests for information. They are almost always viewed with suspicion as a challenge to personal honor. The hope is that the person who is asking the question will not know the answer and be shamed by ignorance. This is absolutely the case since Luke points out that the intent of the questions is to “test” Jesus.

Here, Jesus responds (as he does in other passages) by insulting the questioner back. Jesus asks the lawyer – a man who has spent his entire life becoming an expert in the law, a specialist in the Torah ,the written Word of God – “well, how do you read?”

What we have here is what is affectionately referred to in my military career as a “sharpshooter.” It’s that Soldier who knows Army Regulations and Field Manuals from back to front. They can quote paragraph and line number to contradict whatever point you are making and they do it in such a way as to make a fool out of you and make themselves look good. If they outrank me, I ignore them or say something like, “thanks for your input Sir. That is a good point.” Or if it’s not going to be disrespectful, I just call it out. “Help me understand why you needed to make that point???” Awkward silence ensues.

Jesus calls him out. “Ok smarty pants, how do you read it?”

The Lawyer, now on the spot, regurgitates the catechism answer. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 thereby revealing that he knew the answer all along. He question wasn’t just a test of Jesus, it was a lie. He pretended to be ignorant though he wasn’t. Instead of shaming Jesus, the lawyer shames himself and Jesus emerges – once again – as the honorable victor in the contest. I can see the gentle (and maybe a just a little condescending, trying not to laugh because the disciples are chortling off to the side) smile as Jesus answers, “You have answered correctly, do this and live.” By now, people are laughing out loud. The lawyer needs to save face. He retorts, “Ok, then, who is my neighbor?”

Now that is a good question. Its really the question. No one argues the point that God requires us to help the “other” what we argue about is just who the “other” is and how much help we have to give them. We don’t argue about the need to holiness, but oh the legalese that comes out when we get into just what that look like and who gets to say what holiness is. Soooo, yeeahhh…

Jesus tells a story.

“There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

It’s a parable in 7 scenes.

Scene 1 – Robbers strip their victim and leave him for dead. Now, no one can identify his ethnicity. This is important. Remember, this is a small place. Everyone looks the same. You distinguish your tribe, money, status by your clothing but now, that’s all gone. Helping this guy carries a risk. No one knows anything about him. If I help him, what does that say about me? What might others say about me, what might I be risking, I don’t know his charges, I don’t know his preferences, I don’t know if he’s weird or not, I don’t know if he can help me back – I just don’t know!!

Scene 2 – The priest comes, riding his donkey which highlights his own status as an elite. He sees the victim and ponders helping him. If the victim is dead or is a non-Judean, he runs the risk of defiling himself by helping him. Then, he would have to return to Jerusalem in shame in front of those for whom he had just performed, gloriously, his priestly duties! His shame stemming from the reality that now, he would have to seek purification rites. The risk is too great and who has the time for all that. No one will even know he didn’t help the “other.” Note: Sirach 12:1-7

Scene 3 – The Levite comes. He might have come a little closer to examine the victim since the road was not straight and it’s possible he even saw the priest pass by before. If the priest did not give first aid, why should the Levite? I mean, if someone else ignores the plight of the weak, should I put myself out there? This would be a challenge to the priest, an insult, and God forbid I insult a preacher! Moreover, if the victim lived in Shechem, that would make him a Samaritan and we all know what that would do to my rep! The Levite passes on.

Scene 4 – The Samaritan shows up. We talked last week all about how Samaritans (Northern Jews) were viewed by Southern Judeans. The fact that Jesus highlights this is shocking and controversial in this tale. Allow me to demonstrate. What if we read the story as this, “the Preacher passed by, not wanting to get his suite dirty – what if the man was a criminal or an addict?? He clearly has nothing for me. The deacon passed by, the director of the men’s ministry who has been a Christian all his life and always is there first thing on Sunday morning in his best three-piece praising God with practiced hand motions. Can speak tongues on command. This guy saw the preacher pass by and thought better of putting that guy into his car. After all, he had another marriage retreat to plan for. Then, an atheist comes. A person unwelcome in their church comes upon the man in the street. He is filled with compassion and reaches out to help.

Scandal.

Scene 5 – The Samaritan offers first aid (wine, oil and bandages), which the Levite could have done but neglected to do. This is risky. The victim could hate him once he regained consciousness since, after all, he was being treated with Samarian wine and oil – impurity. In this story, the Samaritan is “damned if he does and damned if his doesn’t.”

Scene 6 – The Samaritan does what the priest could have done but didn’t: he places the victim on his own animal (by the way, very, very risky – who knows if the robbers are not close by) and takes him to an inn and continues to care for him.

Scene 7 – Finally, the Samaritan, in contrast to the Robbers leaves money and promises to pay what else would be needed in the care of the victim. This is perhaps the most risky part of the story – if the robbers find out that this guy has a soft heart and helped a witness who was supposed to die (tying up loose ends right?) they might come for the Samaritan and his family. Or, if the victim survives, he might rage at the Samaritan for helping him. I cannot express effectively how much these two groups hated one another. Purity matters. Read Leviticus.

The story is not lost on the lawyer. Red with shame and anger, he cannot even bring himself to utter the word, “Samaritan”  when Jesus asks, “Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?” The lawyer’s question was, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus question was, “To whom must you become a neighbor.” The obvious answer is anyone and everyone in need.

The victim is laying on the ground like the psalmist, failing to thrive, his life passing before him. Naked, his exposed skin (his shame) feels every pain and agony on that ground. He sees his commander, his NCO come near him. At last!! They will help me!! Then they pass by. He sees his Chaplain come near. “He’ll help me. He has to. He’s the chaplain!” The chaplain follows the commander’s lead and passes by on the other side. Then, in shame, he goes to prison. He deepest, darkest secrets known to the world. His career gone. His family gone. His success gone. He is failing to thrive when an inmate, a sex offender, reaches out to him and says, “come, be healed.”

Oh saints!! What stops up from helping? What stops us from healing? What stops us from receiving the blessing of God for “considering the weak?” What keeps up from becoming the neighbor of those who need us? Is it pride? Anger? Is it others? Men of God, this will never go away. You will not get some special dispensation from God once you leave here to help others. There will ALWAYS be a good reason to not help. There will always be a good reason, a solid justification why you can’t “get your hands dirty” if you will not help now, if you will not be a part of God’s healing in someone’s life here, when will you?

When will you?

 

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