The One – February 7, 2021

For a period of time I served as the supervisor of the elder abuse program for McLean and Livingston counties.  And during that time, I encountered people in circumstances which I never knew existed where we live.  People who were enduring unimaginable hardships, living in isolation and heartbreaking conditions.  During one of my most memorable cases, I was contacted by a home health worker who was concerned about one of her patients.  We will call her Mae.  The worker had advised Mae’s family to complete an application for Medicaid so she could receive some needed services.   But Mae’s daughter had never followed through.  The worker didn’t think there was anything serious going on, but asked me to check in on her and possibly help her complete the application.  It sounded like an easy situation to handle, one that wouldn’t take up too much of my time as supervisor, so I decided to take the case myself.

       When I arrived at Mae’s home, everything seemed to be in order.  The house was well kept.  But when Mae and I called the bank to get information to complete her Medicaid application, we found that all of her accounts had been drained.  Nothing remained in her savings or checking accounts.  Upon further investigation, we learned it was her daughter who had drained these accounts.  Mae did not want her daughter to continue to have access to her money, but she also did not want to upset her since she relied on her heavily to provide her care.  Mae had no other living family to support her.  She asked me to help her remove her daughter from the accounts, but she insisted that a police report not be filed.

Even though Mae did everything she could to preserve her relationship with her daughter, it became apparent that the motive behind Mae’s daughter’s care was purely financial.  After Mae’s daughter learned that she had been removed from the bank accounts, her daughter stopped providing her food.  And when I started having food delivered to her house, her daughter took further action.  She threw Mae out of her house, placing everything she owned on the lawn.  What I thought was going to be an easy case turned out to be extremely complicated.  And I wished I had passed it on to someone else.

The text from Luke I read earlier may be a surprising one for me to share.  Few if any of us read this as a literal, historical account of an exorcism.  Demon possession is not a part of most of our theological frameworks.  I share this not as an example of supernatural powers, but but as an example of how Jesus lived his ministry.  The man whom Jesus reached out to was deeply in need of someone.  He likely suffered from mental illness and had been cast out of his community, forced to live in isolation among the tombs.  When he encounters Jesus he is banished, convulsive, being kept under guard.  He has no relationships, no one to offer him help, no one to provide him support.  But after his interaction with Jesus, he is restored.

This man would have been a natural person for Jesus to avoid.  A Gentile who posed a physical danger, living among unclean animals, despised by those around him, Jesus may have wished to turn another way.  But despite the fear this man may have elicited from all around him, Jesus enters Gentile territory, goes among swine keepers, risks his own safety, because he sees this man’s desperation.  Jesus was willing to help this man in need despite the consequences to himself.  Despite the fear this man may have elicited.  Despite the reactions of those who had kept this man under guard who fear the change Jesus could bring to their community, so much that they ask him to leave.

But this man’s life is changed dramatically from one interaction.  He was shown love, shown that he mattered, shown that his needs were not so great that Jesus was unwilling to approach him.  And because Jesus acknowledged his value, he wants to continue with Jesus, to share with others what that experience meant to him.

According to John Dominic Crossan, the healing that Jesus did in cases like this was actually healing in a social sense. He healed by refusing to accept the ideas of ritual uncleanness and social ostracism.  He healed by affirming that man’s value, meeting him where he was.  Marcus Borg writes in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, that “Jesus saw the divinity in all people, and he challenged all men to see the good, the God-self, in all people with whom they associated.”  An essential part of Jesus’ ministry was finding the one in his midst who had been cast out, who was suffering under the oppression of imperialism and religious elites.  Borg writes that “one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ teachings was his pointed attacks on the purity system. This was the dominant theme in the Jewish social world during his time, and it was focused on creating a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.  Jesus deliberately replaced the core value of purity with compassion.”

The reading by Naomi Shihab Nye we heard this morning is to me almost a modern retelling of this story from the ministry of Jesus.  A woman speaking Arabic has become visibly upset at an airport, and she needs help.  It may be our natural inclination in such a circumstance to let someone else handle this situation.  After all, who knows what is going on with this woman?  What can I do?  Will she pose a danger to me?  But in the midst of her crisis, she finds someone who can speak her language, someone who is willing to meet her where she was and hear her.  Someone who was willing to risk being uncomfortable, being put on the spot, having her routine upended, to serve the one in need in her midst.

But she didn’t just hear her and translate what she heard for the airport staff.  She kept talking to her, called her sons, rode next to her on the plane, found connections to her own family, introduced her to her circle of Palestinian poets.  And this woman who was at first a stranger, identified only by her need, is humanized for everyone around her.  She shares her cookies with her fellow passengers, the stewardesses get involved and provide juice for everyone.   A community is formed in a small time among the passengers on that plane.

And when she was willing to do this, to reach out to the one in her midst, she experienced unexpected joy.  She shared in what she experienced as a sacramental meal of mamool cookies and apple juice.  Just as the powdered sugar from those cookies permeated all those around her, a new sense of hope grew as well.  A hope for a shared world, a world in which we are not so apprehensive of each other.

If we think about it, I believe can all identify that one person in our lives, whether now or in the past, that we sought to avoid.  Someone whose beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes challenge us and make us want to avoid them.  Someone in need of help, but whom we either feel incapable of helping or were just unwilling.  Like me when I learned of the work which would be involved in Mae’s case, we may want to pass the work off to someone else.  We may think there is someone else who can deal with it, someone who will be more tolerant than us, someone who has more time, someone who is better able to help.  But in doing so we perpetuate their isolation.

And that unwillingness to reach out to that person in need may inhibit our own growth.  This willingness to reach out to the one in our midst will lead us to grow spiritually as well.  In the Buddhist tradition, many benefits are believed to arise from our generosity to one in need.  Beyond the believed karmic benefits, this generosity serves to train our minds to abandon obstructions or fetters which inhibit us on the path to enlightenment.  It helps diminish our own greed and ill-will creating a more altruistic mindset.

When Mae was thrown out of her house, it felt like all she had in the world had been lost.  She had lost her relationship with her family, her health was not good, and everything she possessed was out in the open to be taken by others. The next week, we got her an apartment with in home care.  Because she had no one to help, I moved her into that apartment.  It had been many years since Mae had a place of her own, a place where she would get the help that she needed, a place where she felt safe.  When we got all of her things moved in and settled, I looked over at her sitting in her chair.  Mae was in tears.  She described how even though she was grateful for her new home, she still felt a deep sadness for what had happened in her relationship with her daughter.  As she continued to cry, I felt compelled to give her a hug.  And when I did, she said “Do you know how long it has been since anyone has hugged me?” Even after I left my job, I continued to visit Mae.  Eventually, her health declined to the point that she had to move into a nursing home.  And each time I visited her, she took my hand and thanked me for not leaving her alone.  And that time I spent with Mae transformed me as well.

In the words of our poet this morning, this community which arises from our willingness to help the one in our midst can happen anywhere.  I can happen here in Bloomington-Normal.  It can happen here at NCC.  All of us will encounter situations like that which existed in that airport terminal, encounter people who are overwhelmed with the circumstances of life.  Opportunities to, as NCC states in its mission statement, “continue in our time what Jesus began in his.”  To put aside fear and to reach out to the one in need in our midst.  To create a sense of community here like that which existed on the airplane.  But we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, to see the one in need and be willing to make some sacrifices to take action.  And when we are willing, even after all we have endured, we will see before us that not everything has been lost.