Last week, I spent most of my evenings at the Parish of St. Mark and St. Paul on the Mountain for their multigenerational vacation bible school. “Bread in the Wilderness'' was the theme. The kids built forts in the woods, cooked batches of homemade bread, and tie-dyed t-shirts. I’m not sure how the tie-dye connected to the theme, but I’ll take it on faith that it did somehow.
The grown folk who weren’t leading the kids got to hear guest speakers lecture on the theme. One night a biblical scholar, one night an exploration of poetry about bread and struggle and God. One night, representatives from Love’s Arm, a Chattanooga nonprofit that supports women as they escape lives of trauma, trafficking, and addiction.
The founder of Love’s Arm is one of these amazing people who has the ability to tell her own story - of abuse, of loss, of incarceration, of healing - with astonishing candor, a matter-of-factness, and a humor...that as you listen to her, the problems of the world feel solvable. You have the sense that humanity’s constant falling from grace does not dispirit her because...she has known a grace that transcends.
In one aside, she looked at us and said, “You know...God loves hurt people. God loves people...whose lives are a mess.”
In the gospel passage appointed for today, Jesus is surrounded by hurting people.
Matthew sits alone in his little kiosk, withering under the looks people give him. Folks who were his neighbors, could have been his family, should have been his friends. Who instead, rightly saw him...as part of the extortion that is empire. So alone, scorned he sits, extracting money from his people. Hurting. Until Jesus says, “Follow me.”
At dinner...as if to make the point that Matthew is not the exception but the rule...Jesus sits with more tax collectors. Plural. And sinners. People whose lives are such a mess of their own making, the mess is what they’re known for. And Jesus says to the do-rights looking askance, “I desire mercy.”
A short while later, Jesus has a hard time getting where he’s going because hurting people keep interrupting his progress.
There’s a respected elder, falling to his knees as his life falls apart, his teenage daughter lying dead at home, the mourners already assembling. Jesus scatters them. Takes the hand of the girl and pulls her back into the land of the living.
There’s a woman, with a chronic illness that has consumed her life for more than a decade. She presses in from behind, content to brush the fringe of God’s grace. And Jesus says, “Daughter, take heart.”
God loves hurting people.
Thank God, because left on our own, we who hurt have a tendency to make things worse. As the saying goes, “Hurting people...hurt people.”
Our own griefs, our own pain, our own history can be too much to bear and so we take it out somewhere else. On someone else.
I think about Matthew, the tax collector. Who knows what circumstances led him to that line of work. I don’t expect they were happy. But then he takes the job, over the objections and the scorn he is sure to receive collecting taxes for an oppressor. And he gets a little power. And when you feel rejected and scorned already, why not wield that thimble full of power. Take a little extra from the people who look down their noses at you. Which only adds to the misery of those people, adds to their resentment.
Hurting people...hurt people. Until something or someone interrupts it.
And by some thing what I really mean is love. And by some one who I really mean is God. Or you. Or me. Or any of us capable of interrupting another’s hurt...with love.
I mean, the good news of this gospel is that Jesus loves people whose lives are a mess. Loves them enough to enter that mess. And when that love enters, patterns that are not serving us, cycles of hurt that seem unbreakable...get broken, get changed. Some amount of healing follows.
And not only that...ministry follows.
Take Matthew, he goes from sitting at his tax booth alone to sitting around a table with Jesus. That’s healing.
But he also leaves behind his tax booth in order to follow. That place where he hurt and was hurt is left behind. And when Jesus sends folks out two by two to heal, to cleanse, to raise...to gather the people of Israel like lost sheep. Matthew is one of the ones who goes. When 4000 hungry folks are milling about on the hillside and Jesus gives them bread in the wilderness, Matthew is there...distributing the bread.
How’s that for healing? He goes from extracting wealth...to distributing bread. See what love does?
Among the many staff members and volunteers who work at Love’s Arm, are folks who themselves have escaped cycles of trauma, trafficking, and addiction. Or whose histories have if not all of those elements, some of them. Having had their hurt interrupted, having had some healing enter in, there comes a strength, a commitment, an energy.
The current executive director said it this way. She said, “[These women] are able to turn their misery...into their ministry.”
Which, if you think about it, is the opposite of hurting people hurting. Misery turned into ministry.
No, the truth is, when love enters our messes, our hurts...an astonishing thing can happen. Our places of deepest need can become the places of deep healing. But having lived the hurt, having lived to tell the tale and having
experienced a life and a love that transcends it, we get equipped to love others...as we have been loved.
It sometimes happens...that the place of need is the place of healing is the place of power.
This is not only true for the women of Love’s Arm. You see it all over the place. Where folks’ individual histories get stitched up into a sense of mission, a sense of purpose, a vocation for their lives.
It’s the woman who, by the grace of God, recovers from opioid addiction and five years in recovery, goes to work in a treatment center serving others.
It’s the woman who was separated from her mother for the first two years of her life, dependent on the kindness of distant relatives. Who...has a habit of welcoming strangers in need of a home - in particular children - into hers.
In April, All Saints’ Chapel hosted the funeral of Eric Benjamin, one of Sewanee’s earliest black graduates and its first director of multicultural affairs. He was a mentor and a caregiver and a space-clearer for generations of students, especially students of color. And as we celebrated his life, his struggle, his ministry, the preacher looked out at the congregation filled with former students, colleagues, neighbors of every race, color, and creed and said, “This gathering, all of you here, are Eric’s offering back to God.”
Misery turned to ministry. The place of hurt, transformed by love, into the place of strength.
Wednesday night at Vacation Bible School, we heard Evelyn Underhill’s poem, “Corpus Christi,” a meditation on the Body of Christ, on bread from heaven, on our resemblance to it.
The first stanza, she watches as grain is harvested, likens it to a cross. Then the second stanza begins,
From far horizons came a Voice that said,
‘Lo! from the hand of Death take thou thy daily bread.’
That is, from the place of hurt comes life. She awakens to the great
mystery of death and life of the transformation of pain to blessing, concluding at the end:
“How all things are one great oblation made”
Or at least, they can be. When love interrupts. When love heals. When
we allow it to. The pain of our lives can become not pointless, but purposeful. Like grain cut down, gathered, offered back, giving life to the world.
In Underhill’s words, “a living Eucharist.”
God loves hurt people. And in the mystery of God, nothing is lost, not even the hurt. In God, hurt turns to healing, struggle turns to strength, death turns to life. And all of it becomes bread for folks in the wilderness, love for a world that is hurting.