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March 10, 2015, 3:00 PM

The Word Made Flesh

  I have a friend for whom I would like you to pray.  She is going through a difficult time, battling clinical depression.

   She does not live near here, so my only means of contact are the internet and phone.

   Recently, she was hospitalized twice for her depression.  It took an enormous amount of courage for her to willingly go into a psychiatric unit.  She has had what she would admit was a deep and irrational fear of hospitals.  A previous stay, several years ago, in a psych unit in another community had not done anything to ease her anxiety.  She has described what certainly seems to have been a very poorly run place which did nothing to help her.

   Fortunately, her recent experiences were much better.

   But, there was one thing lacking...pastoral care.

   She is a Christian and active in her rather large Episcopal church.  She likes the Episcopal emphasis on liturgy, and takes comfort in receiving the Sacrament of Communion as a tangible reminder of God's presence and grace.  She asked, more than once, for  the church to send a priest (there is more than one on staff) to visit her on the psych unit, and to bring her Communion.

   She received no response to her pleas and no one visited.

   So, I served as her priest.  Each night, just before she went to bed, she would  call me, and we would go through the Communion litany.  She didn't have any wine or grape juice or bread.  Occasionally, she had some peanut butter crackers and water, which served as the elements.

   By the standards of her church, it wasn't  a terribly "orthodox" Communion, but she noted that it felt more real, using water and peanut butter crackers, with us connected only by a long distance phone line, than it did when she was in her church with all the proper elements and pomp and panoply of a High Church Communion.

   That's because it reminded her of Jesus' loving presence in a place and time in which she felt afraid and alone.  Jesus was never big on ceremony.  He believed in worship and attended synagogue.  But, he didn't place a lot of importance on formality.  He WAS big on compassion.

   When Jesus violated ritual purity rules and pious propriety by eating with sinners, he responded to his critics by quoting the prophet Hosea... Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.' For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."

  I would submit that he would say the same about people who feel alone, afraid, and hopeless.

  When my friend was released from the hospital, she contacted the senior priest, expressing her desire for more pastoral care.  He responded that he preferred to limit their contacts to the phone and e-mails.

   She is deeply hurt by this.  And I am frankly baffled and appalled.

   She is not asking him to cure her illness, or offer psychiatric treatment.  She is asking for him to pray with her and offer the Sacraments for her comfort and strength.  She is asking for some human contact and compassion with a face on it.

   People like to describe the Bible as the "Word of God."

   That's actually incorrect.

   We can describe the Bible as words from and about God.  But, the Bible itself says the Word of God is something else.

   Actually, it is someONE else.

   "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us..." declares the Gospel of John.  The Word is not a book, or a letter.  It is a person.  When God wanted to communicate most profoundly, intimately and powerfully, God came in the flesh and blood of Jesus.

   Following the example of Jesus calls us to step into the messiness of other people's lives, and not just stand at a safe distance and tell people in pain that we're praying for them.  The word "compassion" literally means "to suffer with" someone.  That is difficult, that is demanding, it is sometimes even dangerous.

   When my friend was struggling with feelings of guilt, that often accompany depression, she asked for the ritual of absolution...which is a liturgy of prayers seeking and offering God's forgiveness and grace.  It can be a powerful thing to have someone pray with you and to utter words of forgiveness which you have difficulty expressing yourself.  A depressed person can no more pull forgiveness out of themselves, than they can just summon joy on their own.  They need help.  They need someone who is willing to plunge into the darkness after them, and help pull them into the light.

   But, her priest responded by telling her there was a book with the prayers she wanted, and that was all.  No offer to come and share in those prayers, or to bring absolution and the solace of a caring soul. Words, instead of the Word.  Paper in place of flesh.

   Jesus once told a story about a man who was mugged and left for dead.  A lawyer, and then a priest passed him by.  They were both busy.  Actually, if the priest had tried to help the bloody man, he would have been rendered ritually impure if any had wiped off on him.  Apparently, he felt it was more important for him to fulfill his ritual duties than to sully himself with the bodily fluids of a suffering stranger.  Those duties focused on performing the ritual sacrifices that were the center of Temple life in Jerusalem.

   "I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices," said the prophet.

   Jesus went on to make a Samaritan the hero of the story. despite the fact that Jews despised Samaritans as heretics.  Even his Jewish audience had to admit that he had behaved more compassionately than the priest.

   It's not easy to suffer with and for others.  But that is what Jesus did.  It is what he called his disciples to do.

   And if the suffering scares you (and it scares any reasonable person) just remember this.  It is in those moments that you also meet the One who is the Word.  And having him in your life, and passing through you into the lives of others, is a blessing that is worth the price.

   Because he will be there for you, in your dark places and broken times.

   This is the Good News.

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