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Being a Healing Community

Rev. Dr. Kenneth Orth
Aug 9 2009

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable unto you, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

What is your favorite fragrance? The first hint of the magnolia blossoms opening on Commonwealth Avenue in the spring? The sweetness of the rose garden in full bloom in June on the Fenway? The glorious scents of the varied flowers and now herbs and vegetables growing in our garden right outside the church in the most unlikely setting of the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth Streets here in Boston?

In this season of the fullness of summer is it the peaches or cherries, the grapes or bananas, the papaya or key limes that sit on our kitchen counters? Is it the aroma of freshly baked bread, of sweet potato pie, of a delicious blueberry buckle with freshly picked wild Maine berries? What about the scent of pinewood, a roaring campfire, a crisp mountain breeze, the ocean’s salt-kissed air? What about freshly brewed coffee, a cup of mint tea, a glass of just-squeezed orange juice, a raspberry-lime rickey?

The fragrance of your baby just after her bath? The sweetness of the smell of your lover’s hair? The aroma of your father’s after-shave, your mother’s powder, or even your best friend’s homemade salsa?

What smells excite you and draw you toward them? What fragrance makes you stop dead in your tracks, look around you, and even move in a new direction? Paul tells us in our lectionary epistle passage for today that Christ’s offering of himself to us is a fragrant one, so fragrant that it draws us toward him in awe, in anticipation, in love, in gratitude. It is a healing fragrance, reminding us that we are known, we are accepted, we are loved. Christ offers himself to us as friend, as advocate, as one who challenges us to speak truth to power, as our defender, as one who forgives and reconciles, as compassion itself, as healer of our body, mind and spirit.

As Bernard of Clairvaux put it: “He gave sight to the blind, set captives free, led wanderers back, reconciled sinners. Who would not run spontaneously and eagerly after the one who sets us free from error and overlooks our blundering? What excuse can anyone have for not running (after) the fragrance of Christ except that the fragrance has not yet reached him?”

Has the fragrance of Christ reached you? You may have heard his name, know something of the story, but have you experienced the delicious sweetness of him, inviting us to healing and joy? You are the beloved child of God, in whom God delights. Each and every one of you. Each and every one of us is beloved of God, a child of God, in whom God delights in our very creation.

How often have you heard this, the baptismal vow of God, sealed with the Holy Spirit breathing through every one of us? How often have you believed it in your bones and let its message heal you and bring you joy? How often have you seen this? How often have you felt this? How often have you tasted this? How often have you touched this? How often have you let the smell of this bathe you in its aroma of love?

Being a child of God lets me know who we are and whose we are. We no longer need desperately to try to establish our worthiness, our place in the family of things. We no longer need to scurry about, making sure we are doing the right things to be acceptable. Our doing grows out of our very being as children of God, doing the things that make for peace, imitating God’s love for us in Christ to one another. My doing shifts from justifying myself to being able to share myself and who I am with others, as Christ shared himself with us.

John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, our Puritan ancestor here at Old South, controversial as he might be, did get some things right. One is his vision of community. Listen to his words: “We must delight in each other. Make others conditions our own. Laugh together. Mourn together. Always having before our eyes our community, as members of the same body.”

We have been called into community to be one body, to remind each other of our place, to declare honestly our own being, to honor and listen to the beings of one another. So it is through this one larger body that we are healed. Not in spite of the body, not ignoring the body, but accepting it and bringing its rich diversity to fulfillment through each of us.

Thomas Merton puts it this way: “Simple gestures of love given to people around you change the world. To save the world, we must serve the people around us—often those with whom we initially feel most at odds. The reality of personal relationships lived out in kindness and care saves everything and transforms the world we live in.”

Community also allows us to be shaken loose from our making the world in our own image. As Anais Nin reminds us: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” The temptation to make the world in our image is a great one. But we need many eyes and ears to see the fullness of God’s vision for our lives. The difficult lessons of community help shape us into a larger being with room for differences and uniqueness that God has created. Our vision of who God is will never conform to our idea of God. God transforms us beyond that idea into coming face to face with mystery and that which we cannot control.

In our Healing Prayer Service each month here at Old South, we begin with a simple prayer. “Let us be still and know that God is. God was also in the beginning. And when all our human striving has ceased, God will still be. From everlasting to everlasting only God is God. The one who holds our beginnings and our endings. The one who is love itself. The one from whom nothing can separate us.” It helps us set the tone to invite the healing power of God into our midst as we wait upon God’s wisdom, strength, love, and hope.”

Community helps us see our part which is important, but which is not the whole. I am reminded of this invitation to humility when a pastor was expressing what he thought was humility in an exchange with a parishioner. The woman greeted the pastor after a service saying, “I really liked your sermon this morning, pastor.” To which the minister replied, “Oh, it’s all God. It’s all God.” The woman spoke her truth in saying, “Well, it wasn’t that good.” Ah, being reminded of our place in the whole! While we try to imitate God, we must remember we are not God.

Faith communities need to be large places, with room for all. Throughout the ages, faith communities at their most noble and most healing have been courageous places, holding the tension of the opposites, the paradoxes of truth. Hope in the midst of despair. Light in the reality of shadows. Love revealed through the most painful of circumstances. Pain and suffering intersected by grace. They have embodied Tagore’s great verse: “Faith is the bird that feels the light. And sings when the dawn is still dark.”

But how do we do this? We pray, we take on the mind of Christ, we listen for the Holy Spirit. We imitate God. Children are great imitators of their parents. How often have you smiled as little Jacob puts shaving crème on his face and uses a cardboard razor to shave just like daddy? How often have we grinned with inner delight as little Isabel carefully makes cookies out of play dough and bakes them just to perfection in her E-Z bake oven just like mommy? Do we also delight when little Andrew plays house and little Natalie works on her 4 X 4 play truck? Imitating those they love and from whom they have received care. I hope so! To be a healing community is to allow diversity and interests to run the gamut in the creative, open, transforming realm of God’s unlimited possibilities.

To imitate God, we are to live with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness at our center. Sounds good, but how are we to do this? Paul has some ideas. “Put away falsehood. Let all of us speak truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ah, speaking truth! Emily Dickenson has some ideas on this:

Tell all the truth, yet tell it slant.

Success in circuit lies.

Too bright for our infirm delight.

The truth’s superb surprise.

As lightning to the children eased

With explanation kind.

The truth must dazzle gradually

Or everyone be blind!

It is not for us to blind each other with our truth, or we will be blinded in return. Paul knew firsthand God’s blinding Truth. He, himself, was struck blind on the road to Damascus as God turned him around saying: “Why persecutest thou me?” Only later, he recovered his sight and was healed to stop persecuting Christians and start preaching the good news of God’s love.

And Paul tells us that while it is certainly within God’s realm and power to blind us with Truth, we are to speak the truth to one another in love. And Paul has reminded us in I Corinthians 13: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not irritable or resentful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way!” We are to illumine each other with the kindness of a truthful light, dawning slowly in circuit, over time, for all of us as we turn our glaring gaze from one another to the Holy Spirit in whose direction all of us are being drawn. Here we travel together, speaking our truth in love, called in the direction of God’s future where all children of God have a place at the table.

One of my favorite CPE supervisors once told me, “The truth will set you free. But first it will make you miserable.” Yes, as we tell each other our truth, there will be anger that comes forward. Anger is a strong emotion that occurs when we are threatened because we feel we have been treated unfairly or external events do not conform to our idealized image of how things are supposed to be. Let me say that again: anger is a strong emotion that occurs when we are threatened because we feel we have been treated unfairly or external events do not conform to our idealized image of how things are supposed to be. Anger is important. But sorting out WHY we are angry is even more important.

Paul tells us, “Be angry but do not sin.” Here Paul is quoting a Greek translation of Psalm 4. Interestingly, he speaks of a modern psychological truth. It is not the anger that is the problem; it is what I do with it! Speak it. Express it. But do not sin. Do not harm another with your anger. Writer Anne LaMotte puts it this way: “Maybe grace is not so much about forgiving it all. Maybe grace is more about just not hitting back.” Just not hitting back. A hard lesson to learn.

“Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Paul is wise here. Anger unexpressed or released does not just go away. It returns ten-fold in bitterness, resentments that we rehearse day after day, in slander and malice, in passive ways of withholding acceptance or care. The release of our anger allows us to be fully present with one another. In community we try to finish our old business so we can be open to God’s leading into a future of justice and peace.

How in the world can we do this? God guides us. Perhaps the words of the great scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, help us here also. He says:

“ Three great themes of the world’s wisdom traditions are: The unity of all things. The worth of all things. The mystery of being.

Prayer and meditation share: The discipline of stillness. The aspiration of surrender. The longing for wholeness.

How do we comport ourselves in a pluralistic world that is riven by ideologies, sacred and profane? We listen.”

The discipline of listening to one another. Most of us can get ourselves caught up in converting and healing on another to our way of thinking and being. There is little room then for listening to one another. But the chaos that breaks out when we do not listen leads us to a place where we begin to realize that we must surrender our corner of the truth to make room for the larger truth breaking into our world and calling us to God’s realm. In the silence, we begin to hear another voice that speaks. But in order to listen, perhaps need to remind myself:

“I will not shame, blame, criticize, embarrass or even given my own “advice” to you when you tell me the truth of your feelings and experience.” And Jesus was clear on this: widows and orphans first. The most vulnerable and defenseless in our community need our protection and not our exploitation. We must hear from them, those whose voices have been silenced and forgotten in order for us to even attempt to become a community of Christ.

It is not easy task to be tenderhearted, kind to one another and forgiving. Theologian Henri Nouwen puts it this way: “Whenever, contrary to the world’s vindictiveness, we love our enemy, we exhibit something of the love of God, whose will is to bring all human beings together as children of one Creator, offspring of one wellspring. Whenever we forgive instead of letting fly at one another, bless instead of cursing one another, tend one another’s wounds instead of rubbing salt into them hearten instead of discouraging one another, give hope instead of driving one another to despair, hug instead of harassing one another, welcome instead of cold-shouldering one another, thank instead of criticizing one another, praise instead of maligning one another…in short, whenever we opt for and not against one another, we make God’s unconditional love visible; we are diminishing violence and giving birth to a new community.”

This is Christ’s fragrant offering in which we recognize love at our center offering us a new life that is richer, fuller, more diverse and inclusive that we can imagine on our own. This is the new community that is free of expectations of who counts and who doesn’t. This is the new life where all are in the family and are children of God. This is the new life where another’s being and experience is a doorway rather than a threat. Where my perceived enemy is a path to the healing of my own heart of exclusion. This is the new life where we are all included at the banquet table and the fragrances of the meal set before us invites us to share with one another the rich and diverse offerings of our hearts.

Is this the fragrance we are offering to one another and to the world? Breath deep. Dare you smell its cacophony of aromas? Can they smell it outside on Boylston Street with our windows open and doors ajar? Will it draw them in to experience just what it is that cooking in here?

Can we smell the fragrance wafting back to us from God’s own future, which we dare to imagine and long for with all our hearts? We are to breathe deeply in the Holy Spirit allows us to recognize the sweet fragrant love of God in Christ. Then we can imitate what we have heard and seen and tasted and touched and smelled of Christ’s forgiveness and kindness and outrageous love that know no bounds and that death itself cannot contain.

We are to be that healing place where anger is expressed and then released, where forgiveness is lived out in love, where kindness is a way of life, where tenderheartedness is our daily practice.

There was a spiritual teacher who once asked his disciples the question: “When will you know when the realm of God has dawned?”

One tried an answer: “Is it when I can see in the distance if the figure I am just making out is a dog or a sheep?”

“Not quite,” replied the teacher.

Another offered: “Is it when in the distance I can see if the tree I am looking at is a cherry tree or an apple tree?

“No,” said the teacher. “When you look into the face of another human being and you see that he or she is your brother or sister, then you will know that the realm of God has dawned.”

This is the fragrance of Christ’s love drawing us toward him into a healing community whose scent knows no bounds and who can draw the whole world of creation into its body, learning how to love all its parts, to love each other as ourselves, and to love God, who is our only richness. Ah, the aroma! The fragrance! Can you smell it?


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