Epiphany 5B

I started out this week reading the Gospel for today and immediately found myself both amused and annoyed

Here’s the situation. Last week we heard Jesus make his public teaching debut in the synagogue at Capernaum. He also performs his first public healing – casting a demon out of a man.

The crowd in the synagogue is impressed. In fact, scripture describes them as both astounded and amazed at Jesus’ teaching and authority.

So we can imagine that when Jesus leaves the synagogue with the four disciples he has called so far – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – that they are in a pretty good mood. They’re probably ready to relax a little, talk about how the day has gone, unwind over a glass of wine and a good meal.

It’s the Sabbath, which means that what few market stalls or open-air restaurants there might have been in Capernaum in those days are closed. So Simon invites the gang over to his house for dinner, noting that his mother-in-law, who lives with him, is a good cook.

Now remember, there’s no calling ahead to warn the women that he is bringing the guys over for a meal. They just show up, unannounced and hungry.

But when they get to Simon’s house there is a problem. His mother-in-law, the one who is such a good cook, is ill – very ill, in bed with a fever.

“I’ve got this,” Jesus says to his new friends.

He goes to the bedroom, takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, and lifts her up, And she is healed, the fever instantly gone.

That’s wonderful. But here comes the amusing and annoying part – as it says in the reading, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

The poor woman doesn’t get a cup of tea, a chance to rest, a few minutes to sit by the fire and relax. She gets up from her sickbed and immediately goes to work – serving the men who have showed up unannounced at her house.

Now I realize I am putting 21st century sensibilities on a first century story. But really, the chauvinism in the Gospel was enough to make me go seek solace from Paul, who is not exactly known in our times as a paragon of feminist ideals.

Many excerpts from Paul’s writings make me roll my eyes, but this time his advice to the young Christian church in Corinth on how best to proclaim the gospel of Christ seems especially appropriate for our times.

“To the Jews, I became as. Jew, to win Jews,” Paul says. “To those under the law, I became as one under the law…To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel.”

What Paul is saying in a rather convoluted way is that the best way to proclaim the gospel is to meet people where they are, and then to model the love of Christ to them.

It seems to me that we live in an age – both in our national and religious lives – when Paul’s advice has gone largely unheeded.

His advice reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Ugly American, a novel based in the 1950s in a fictional town in Southeast Asia. The towns and characters in the book are made up, but the events are all true.

The Ugly American is a searing indictment of Americans abroad – diplomats, business people, and military personnel who make no efforts to learn local languages or customs, who arrogantly assume that the American way is the only way, and who look down on the “natives” of the country they are in as ignorant and unimportant.

More than a half-century after its publication, The Ugly American still stands as a warning against the often lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance.

That combination can be as lethal in religion as it is in foreign policy. We often seem to be living in the age of the ‘ugly Christian.”

The same attitudes apply – an arrogant belief that Christianity is the only way to God, an ignorance about other faiths, a black and white view of morality, and a dehumanizing of people who are different or on the margins.

We can probably all think of examples of ugly Christians. I still shudder when I remember the stories of Cambodians who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge by escaping to refugee camps in Thailand, including one where I worked.

There many of them were greeted by Christian relief workers, who frequently told them the reason their country had suffered such atrocities was because it was not a Christian nation.

Ugly Christians are no strangers to our own soil, too, of course, Joe and I have left the Sandy Springs town festival in disgust after an evangelical group was aggressively handing out literature and asking people if they had been saved.

I later talked to a teenager who had been at the same festival with a Jewish friend, who was told by the proselytizers that he would be condemned to hell if he did not convert to Christianity.

It seems at times as if it’s the ugly Americans and ugly Christians who get the most press, but blessedly they do not speak for all of us.

The most moving story in The Ugly American is about an American couple, an engineer named Homer and his wife Emma, who live in the remote village of Chang Dong. They do their best to learn the language and live as their hosts did.

Emma soon notices that all the older people in the village are bent over, and walk as if their backs hurt all the time.

“That’s the natural thing that happens to older people,” she is told, but this answer does not satisfy her.

So she watches and soon realizes that the elderly people in the village, those who are too old to work in the rice fields, all have the jobs of sweeping – their homes, the paths leading from their homes to the road, and finally the road itself.

They use brooms made of palm fronds, with handles only two feet long – handles that require them to bend over when they sweep.

When Emma asks why they use these brooms, the reply is that this is how brooms have always been made, and that even if wood were available to make longer handles, it would be too expensive.

On a drive in the country, Emma notices a reed growing along the road similar to the reeds her villagers use to make brooms. But this reed has a stalk that is five feet long. She quickly stops and digs up some of the reeds, then plants them outside her home.

One day Emma cuts one of the reeds, binds its fronds and begins to sweep outside her home. “Look, she sweeps with her back straight,” a neighbor says. “I have never seen such a thing.”

Over the next few days, crowds gather to watch Emma sweep. Finally, an elderly man asks where he, too, might get such a broom. Soon a group goes to gather enough reeds to grow for the entire village.

Four years later, when Emma is back in the United States, she receives a letter from the headman of Chang Dong.

“I am writing to thank you for a thing you did for the old people of Chang Dong,” the letter says. “For many centuries, we had always had old people with bent backs in this village. We had always thought that this was part of growing old, and it was one of the reasons we dreaded old age.

“But with your long-handled brooms you showed us a new way to sweep. It is a small thing, but it has changed the lives of our old people.

“You will be happy to know that now there are few bent backs in the village of Chang Dong. Today the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful.

“That is a small thing, I know, but for our people it is an important thing.

“I know that you are not of our religion, but perhaps you will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of our village we have constructed a shrine in your memory.

“It is a simple affair; at the foot of the altar are these words: ‘In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.’ And in front of the shrine there is a stack of the old short reeds we used to use.”

Emma is the antithesis of the ugly American. The strategy she uses to help the people in a remote Southeast Asian village is not unlike the advice Paul gives on how to proclaim the gospel.

Who do you think is a better witness for Christ – the relief workers who tell people they have suffered unimaginable atrocities because they aren’t Christian, or the doctors and nurses from Catholic Charities who ran the refugee camp’s clinic, motivated by their faith to be there but offering Christ’s healing presence without condemnation or judgment to all who needed it?

Who do you think teenagers are more likely to listen to – someone who tries to scare them into faith with threats of eternal damnation, or someone who takes the time to get to know them, and models for them a faith of compassion and acceptance?

Scripture says of the Church in its earliest days: “Look at those Christians, how they love one another.” Today I am afraid a more likely observation is: “Look at those Christians, how they condemn everyone.”

St. Francis of Assisi had an antidote to the ugly Christian, one that still serves as a useful reminder for us today.

“Preach the gospel at all times,” he said. “And when necessary, use words.”

Amen.

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