Easier Said Than Done
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 6 June 2021 [B/Proper 5]:
Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
From the Collect of the Day [Proper 5]:
O God, from whom all good proceeds:
Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right,
and by your merciful guiding may do them…
In the mid-nineteenth century, in Vienna, Austria, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis became involved with the tragic incidences of what was commonly referred to as “childbed fever”. Dr. Semmelweis noticed that in the two Viennese hospitals where births occurred, the one attended to by the upstanding physicians of the time had a birthing mortality rate that was three times higher than that of the other hospital, which was staffed primarily by midwives. Being a scientist as well as a physician, In Dr. Semmelweis’ investigation, he noted that there was one, simple, and significant difference between the two birthing centers: That being that the midwives washed their hands frequently, while Dr. Semmelweis observed that the male physicians at the more prominent hospital moved directly from exploring cadavers to their obstetrical ministrations with no hand washing.
What Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis discovered was that the incidence of the infectious “puerperal fever” (the formal, medical name for "childbed fever") could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics.
In 1847, having observed the most likely source of the deadly infection being from the handling of the putrefied corpses and then attending to a birthing, Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions. Being slow to absorb what other European physicians of the period were coming to grips with (such as Pasteur’s work on sterilization), the Austrian medical community bashed and dismissed Semmelweis’ discovery. They were outraged and offended at the notion that they and their practices were a central part of the problem. In fact, they hounded Semmelweis so severely that he suffered a mental breakdown, was subsequently committed to an insane asylum, where he was beaten so fiercely that his wounds festered, causing his death.
In the face of such a radical challenge to the common medical practice and the threat that this challenge produced, the doctor who pioneered life-saving, antiseptic procedures and subsequently became known as the “savior of mothers” was banished and killed.
Change that challenges our guarded familiarities and our entrenched routines more often than not threatens us and brings out our worst and our most fearful selves.
Reading today’s gospel seems like an intense episode in a television drama. The story that we heard from the third chapter of Mark’s gospel speaks to the challenging change that Jesus brings to our lives. And if in listening to this lesson and its fearful expressions you began to hear the reverberations of the cross as the world’s answer to who Jesus is and what Jesus brings, you have heard well. For in executing the Lord of life, we thought that we’d be done with his challenge to life as we think it; but the life God knows is stronger than fearful posturing and death.
Mark tells us that Jesus came home, where a crowd again gathered in hopes that he would heal them of their soul’s brokenness and the anxiety of their dis-ease. Mark also tells us that what appears to have been a visit to spend time with his mother and siblings turned out instead to be for Jesus a non-stop, drive-in clinic that precluded even the opportunity to eat. That factual history shows crowds flocking to Jesus because of what he was doing among them speaks to the transforming reality of his life and ministry. That the “experts” of his time reacted so violently to Jesus also speaks to the authenticity of this gospel story. My point being: Why would the early church make up such a notorious picture of Jesus being charged as “crazy” or in league with the demonic, if he were not a real challenge to the familiar? No, the irony present in this story and the situation it describes is that Jesus is expressing a power to heal people who are themselves apparently in the hands of the forces of destruction. Such a life-changing presence inevitably drives the threatened establishment to sideline Jesus with the discrediting lie that he is in league with what is against God.
To this scurrilous charge and typical of his responses to opposition, Jesus does not directly engage but stands back to reveal the flaw in his opponents’ self-reinforcing thinking. “How can Satan cast our Satan?” he rhetorically asks. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So much for the “alternative facts” of his time!
Alcoholics Anonymous, along with its sibling off-shoot gatherings, holds to a saying that describes the thinking of an addict as “stinking thinking”. In an attempt to find a happy life at any price (including losing one’s soul), the Twelve Step program seeks to draw the addict away from a way of thinking that is inevitably a matter of a self-centered bubble. This is something that the Reverend Stephanie Spellers, our Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, refers to in her book, The Church Cracked Open, as “self-centrism”. (By the way, this is a book I have asked the Vestry to read with the hope that all members might read and discuss this book together at a future coffee hour). Spellers’ sense of “self-centrism” means that a person orients the world so that it rotates around the individual or group. Such thinking creates the resistant infection that destroys God’s people because it separates us from God and it separates us from one another.  And I remind you that separation from the Source of life is what “sin” is. And when the center is off-center, then all life is distorted.
“Stinking thinking” reflect thee fundamental “religious” issue because the deep truth is that everyone is religious; our problem is what we worship, what we hold at the center, and , therefore, what drives us to do what we do.
We live in a time and a circumstance where thinking is not held in high regard. I believe this is so because in times of great change, when everything seems to be in transition and what is normative seems to be up for grabs, our thinking brain gets overrun by our emotional brain and the fear that triggers it. And as with Dr. Semmelweis and his ilk, life on God’s terms calls us from our sense of the familiar, our sense of what is “normal” to dare to explore and consider life on God’s terms.
O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them…
We live in a time when, in our country for instance, people who historically have not been given their full constitutional rights now demand them. In the words of the “Declaration of Independence”, “all men are created equal”. What once legally, socially, and morally referred only to white, land owning males now pangs with labor pains to be fulfilled for all. We also see the fear of this shift manifesting itself in politicians offering solutions to problems that don’t exist but gain traction at the repeated expression of lies. Life centered on fear is experienced as a “zero-sum” game: What you gain, I lose because there is only so much life to go around. But from the perspective that God-in-Christ bears, from the perspective of God’s reality of Communion and the “Beloved Community”, there is no need to engage in the violence of grabbing for morsels, when the life we need and cannot provide for ourselves is given to us for the sheer love of God.
Grant that by your inspiration [that is, by your life-giving breath; your Holy Spirit] we may think those things that are right [such as, we all belong to God; therefore, we need to honor the God between us; that living in gratitude for what God gives trumps any and all fearful grabbing] and by your merciful guiding may [we] do [what is right in your sight]. It’s easier said than done.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Amen.
 Spellers, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community. P.7.