I find it really helpful to imagine myself in the time and place and skin of the people that the Bible tells us about. It's one way of bringing the ancient stories off the page, so that they live and breathe in my own heart and mind.
There are almost too many people to identify with in today's Scripture reading, as Jesus moves from the house of prayer to that house of healing and sets himself in the midst of those who need him.
In my imagining, I got stuck in the doorway of the house where he was, up close and personal with the whole town, as we stood there becoming witnesses to the work of Jesus, witnesses to the indiscriminate mercy of God. Some of us on the edges-onlookers-others of us staying on after having been brought into the room and touched directly by his hand, some of us waiting to enter. Every single one of us near to his holy work, every single one of us, because of that, more than willing and able to refute a perfectly awful and absolutely untrue notion that has been around for entirely too long, long enough to have gotten a stranglehold on a whole lot of Christian minds, so much so that it is even quoted as Holy Scripture-which it is not.
This is the way that slander goes: The Lord helps those who help themselves. In other words, God's love and mercy are limited and are parceled out in direct proportion to how diligent you are. Just buck up and try harder. Rather than God's loving mercy is limitless and I am totally dependent on that. Period. Not the Lord helps those who help themselves, but, simply, the Lord helps.
We saw that in Capernaum in today's reading from Mark. How do we go about spreading the story? By words only? Or does the telling get us caught up in action? Speaking in abstractions or concretely and visibly? It is the latter, for sure. To simply help. And to help decisively.
I want to tell you about a woman who gave some church people the opportunity to help her decisively, about a woman who came to understand and who led others to understand God's openhandedness.
Some years ago I served on the lay staff of my home parish under the supervision of the priest charged with pastoral care. Barbara took to appearing, first at the door to his office and then mine. She was a member of that very large, very affluent place. She was neither affluent nor large - short enough to be easily overlooked. She told us that the bank was about to take her childhood home, the house in which she and her 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, lived. The treasurer gave her advice and offered to speak to the mortgage people, who went on and foreclosed anyway. And for a time, we heard, she and the boy lived in her tired old blue Chevrolet, eventually moving into the grand sounding Jesse Jackson Townhomes, a public housing project filled with the crack of guns and cocaine, so dangerous that Barbara could not allow her child to go outside to play. The place might as well have had a sign over its entrance: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Or perhaps: Having abandoned hope, enter here. But she did not-abandon hope, that is. Over and over during those long months, I would look up from my desk to find Barbara in the doorway, her short, round body fixed there, often with her taller pasty-faced child looming over her right shoulder.
"Jeffrey needs shoes for school, and I don't have the money to buy them. Will you help?"
"I don't have the money for car insurance."
"I don't have the money for gas."
"Jeffrey's not going to have any Christmas unless you help."
We gave her just exactly what she asked for, layer after layer of Band-Aids as our own selves became overwhelmed by her persistent need and our impotence in the face of that. We just plain came to dread the sound of our normally cheerful receptionist as she announced tiredly, "Barbara's here." Once again on the threshold, until one day a member of the staff came to the pastoral care priest and me and said, "Let's stop messing around and really help her. It's going to take a lot of money, and you know as well as I do who is going to say we're crazy. But we can live through that." He brought us up short. He brought us on into the room where the healing touch of our Lord awaited, reminding us by implication of the pledge that we make when we first stand in the doorway, the baptismal vows that we renew from time to time:
"Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?"
"Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?"
"Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?"
to which we each answered, "I will with God's help."
Those words came back to us, but, now, up close and personal. Barbara enrolled in nursing school, living in a furnished apartment donated for the time it took her to complete her education, driving a car provided by another parishioner, her tuition and day-to-day expenses taken care of.
I don't have the faintest idea where Barbara and her son, Jeffrey, are these days. I do, however, remember how she said she would tell the story called "God Helps," the chapters and chapters of mercy that came by way of her conviction that God would see her desperate need, would care about her, would cause her life to be re-ordered, and in fact, had brought her through the door into the place where God had chosen for that to be done.
A straight-A student and only a step away from receiving her cap, Barbara announced, "I want to come speak to the vestry at its next meeting." She did come and stood there before the church's leaders-the rector and the 12 rich business people and the civic movers and shakers. She stood erect in her white uniform, a stethoscope around her neck and told her story of the eking away of her life and of the miracle of her new life. And most especially of its purpose. These are the words that every person in that room believed then as we wept together, and remembers now-most especially what she said last: "Thank you for helping me when I could not help myself. Because of you, I am going to be able to help others. I want you to know this. Every single time I touch a person for healing, this parish will touch that person with me. You will be right there." That ongoing openhandedness.
Barbara knows what it is to live concretely the words of this prayer, that famous one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Let us pray.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.