Tag Archive for: Albert Schweitzer

The Festival of St. Luke

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For the festival of St. Luke, on which we celebrate the relation between faith and health, let me begin with a story.  In the beginning, God was like an unhappy farmer. The world looked like Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. The earth, covered with red dust (in Hebrew Adamah), was not fertile or hospitable, because there was “no one to till the ground.” So, God caused springs of water to come up from the earth itself, made a clay, and formed a man (adam) from the ground. God breathed into him, and gave life to this “soil creature,” this “earth-man.” God placed Adam in the garden, to grow it, and to care for the rivers, and plants, and animals, and eventually drew Eve (havah, meaning “to become,” “to breathe,” or “life”) from Adam’s body to be his partner.  Thus Adam and Eve, not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life (their “names” from Hebrew words) marry, and their union produces the human race. (Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, p. 42)

“God fashions the first humans by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life.  It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life—along with the life of trees and animals and birds—is possible at all.  God draws near to the earth and then animates if from within.” (Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation, p. 16)

“God’s love is the power that moves the galaxies and the breathes in our bodies. One way to imagine this relationship between God and the world is with the metaphor of the world as God’s body.”  The world, the universe, is the “body of God:” all matter, all flesh, all myriad beings, things, and processes that constitute physical reality are in and of God.  God is not just spirit, but also body.  Hence, God can be thought of in organic terms, as the vast interrelated network of beings that compose our universe.  The “glory” of God, then is not just heavenly, but earthly.”  (Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology)

What we call health, or wellness, therefore, begins with the alignment of body and spirit. Faith is not a cure for finitude or death but the ground-spring of well-being. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself or you have heard the stories of famous examples. People like

Professor Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old father of three who died of pancreatic cancer some years ago.  Professor Pausch, an unknown computer science expert, gave one last lecture to summarize his life’s learning to students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Lecture Sept 2007). Thanks to the internet, it became a national sensation. The theme of Professor Pausch’s “Last Lecture” was “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  He didn’t discuss spirituality or religion, but he spoke with the simple authority of a man looking death in the face and assessing what’s most important about life.  One of the most memorable things about him was his undying enthusiasm for life.  “Never lose the childlike wonder,” he advised. “Show gratitude… Don’t complain; just work harder… Never give up.”

“Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble…You are my witnesses, says the LORD…” (Isaiah 43:8-9a) Whether in a hospital room, a board room, a church sanctuary, a hotel room, or your living room, it’s all the same. The bible is a profound interpreter of real life.  By the grace of God, even occasions of illness and injury may become times of peace and shalom, an opportunity to gain new insight into our life.  Illness does not have the power to rob us of dignity.  By faith, we may be made well without ever being cured. Conversely, there are many who are cured without ever being healed.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “It’s supposed to be a professional secret, but I’ll tell you anyway. We doctors do nothing. We only help and encourage the doctor within.” Fully one-fifth of the gospels relate to Jesus’ ministry of healing.  It is a misconception to say that Jesus came to save “sin-sick” souls.  Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus brought both psychical and mental health to those whom he healed.  He restored balance and vitality to community. His mission was to defeat the powers of evil that permeate our world and fracture the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. This kind of balance and wholeness, the bible calls shalom.

Because God is body and spirit, we may look to everyday life to find examples of a more holistic health. One study examined survivors of heart attacks. These were people who had had triple and quadruple bypass surgery.  They had all shared a life changing event. They each came home from the hospital with arm loads of information and training about how to change their lives. Yet, twelve months later, nine out of ten heart patients were eating the same foods as they did before their surgery and doing the same amount of exercise. Did the 10% who were doing better have more will power? Did they have a scarier experience to set them straight?

No, nothing was different except that they had forged an alliance –they had an exercise buddy.  They had met someone in the hospital or down the street in the same situation and made a pact.  So, when the alarm went off at 6:30 in the morning, Bill don’t hit the snooze bar because he knew Joe would be out on the corner waiting for him –and Joe was out there only because he knew Bill would be there.

Because God is body and soul transformation of health, faith, and life comes through relationships of mutual accountability. It comes as we learn to trust each other.  It comes through forgiving one another. It comes through listening and speaking and praying.  Shalom is a by-product of healthy communities with Christ at the center.

Our gospel proclaims this healing Spirit of the Lord is upon you. The spirit of shalom is upon us at Immanuel. Where there is any weariness, we are called and strengthened to be present as God is present.  Where people are hungry, we are called and strengthened to be bread.  Where there is bitterness and strife, we are called and strengthened to be peacemakers. Where there is illness and despair, we are called and strengthened to share God’s shalom—a ray of light and air so that God’s in-depth healing process can begin.

‘Then water shall appear over the burning sand.  Waters shall break forth in the desert and the thirsty ground shall become a pool.  The tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy and the lame shall leap like a deer’  (Isaiah 35:6-7).

Proper 18B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The gospel is an English translation of a Greek text written about a man who never wrote down anything but who spoke and taught in a third language called, Aramaic. We have here, in our scriptures, what they remembered, what they could not forget, about Jesus. Only a few precious untranslated words remain in his native tongue. They are sprinkled throughout Mark’s gospel like icons. Did these words evoke something particular and essential about what it was like to be with Jesus? He addressed God as “Abba,” or ‘daddy.’ He had said, “Talitha cum,” ‘little girl, get up’ to Jairus’ daughter. They remember he cried out from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

We have another one of these original Aramaic word-icons of Jesus in our gospel today, “Ephatha,” ‘be opened.’ Ephatha, the gospel of Jesus opens hands, hearts, and minds to grace. Ephatha, last Sunday Jesus opened the eyes of the Pharisees to the cancer of religious legalism. Ephatha, today Jesus opened the ears and speech of a man who could not hear or speak from birth. Ephatha, sometimes this power to open and awaken even worked in the other direction—as when Jesus’ mind was opened to the radical inclusiveness of God’s kingdom by the faith of the unnamed Syrophoenician woman in our gospel today.

It is shocking, but here, we confront Jesus in his full humanity—and give thanks for this moment in which the Kingdom of Heaven broke wide open for Jesus. Personally, I am thankful for Mark’s candor. This unnamed woman became a preacher to Jesus. Jesus’ own consciousness was raised about his ministry and mission. No one is outside the embrace of God. Ephatha. We shall all be opened, changed, transformed in the image of God.

The psalmist says, “The Lord lifts up all who are bowed down” (146:8). Yet Jesus puts this woman down. She is a double outsider. She is not Jewish, and she is a woman. He essentially calls her a dog. I don’t know, maybe Jesus had a lot on his mind. Maybe he was having a bad week. Soon, he will tell the disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…” (Mark 9:31). Soon, he must say goodbye to everyone he loves in Galilee. Soon he will turn toward Jerusalem. Perhaps he wanted to focus on preparing the disciples for what was coming.

‘It is not fitting’, Jesus said, ‘to take the food that belongs to the little children, and through it to the dogs.’ Nevertheless, she persisted. She reminded him, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (verse 28). Ephatha, something in Jesus opened. Her daughter is healed.

Ephatha. We are being opened. Yet, how often is this transformation in us painfully slow? It can seem like it will never happen at all. Historically, women have been conditioned to remain silent, to be subservient to men. Even now, two thousand years later, we understand very well the expected response from this woman would have been for her to accept Jesus’ insult and turn away. But she does not. She speaks up; she stands her ground. And Jesus takes notice. What a powerful lesson for women and all those who have suffered oppression because of their gender. God does not ask us to keep silent. Instead, God lifts up those who are bowed down. Take courage, God is with you when we raise our voices in the struggle for justice. (Pearl Maria Barros, Sojourners, Santa Clara University in California)

Jesus was open to learning –and now—with his help—we pray so are we. God has no favorites. No favored people, no favored nation, no favored religion, even, but every person is beloved in the eyes of God. We who are marked with the cross of Christ are living signs of this most gracious God. Ephatha, our words and deeds must be brought into line with grace through faith.

The set of readings we have each week for worship take us through the letter of James for five weeks. Some of you remember Martin Luther called this book “an epistle of straw.” Yet I argue this short book offers timely wisdom. James provokes us to wrestle with the question “What do my words and deeds say about my faith and about me?” I invite you to read it yourself. I’m curious what you think. James doesn’t advocate for earning one’s righteousness through works as Luther thought, but instead focuses on the importance of our character in Christ. Character is our identity reflected in what we say or do. (adapted from Aaron Fuller, “Cultivate Character, Living Lutheran, September issue, 2021)

People of God the times call upon us now to open again to grace, to expand our vision, to widen our understanding, to better align our character with the God of our ancestors, the living God of grace who urges us to step forward now. This week, we are on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of 911. What have we learned? Even as he brought the war in Afghanistan to an end, President Joe Biden said, “We will not forgive, we will not forget.” in response to attacks at the Kabul airport (President Joe Biden, 8/26/21). Are we ready to turn from our trust in war and military strength, are we ready to listen to our enemies as Jesus was and to pray for them? Can we be wise as Jesus was wise to know “…forgiveness and justice aren’t mutually exclusive. They may be both/and. We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable. Isn’t that what God’s justice requires of us?” (Angela Khabeb, “Grounds for Forgiveness, Living Lutheran, September issue 2021).

I pray Jesus would take us aside and put his fingers in our ears. I pray he would spit and touch our tongue. Time is running out on the idea we can survive by making a world full of enemies. Time is running out on the belief in whiteness. Time is running out on the idea that this nation’s great wealth was not purchased on the back of slave labor and genocide of native peoples. Time is running out on the idea we can ignore mother nature. On this last one, in particular, scientists plead that we have about a decade to make a difference.

Ephatha. Be opened. Our lord Jesus opened his heart to the unnamed women by responding to her needs in words and deeds. How are we, this church, and our nation being called today to align our character to grace?

I have Richard Anderson to thank for reminding me that yesterday, September 4th, was the day of commemoration for Albert Schweitzer, pastor, theologian, musician, musicologist, philosopher, physician, educator, advocate of ‘reverence for life’, opponent of colonialism, anti-war activist, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. (There is a stained-glass window dedicated to Schweitzer in the church in the east stairway leading to the choir loft.) Albert Schweitzer was the author of famous aphorisms. I’ll read just two of them now. May they be an occasion for Ephatha, for increased openness in us.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”

Amen.