April 2, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
A minister once quipped, “We start every one of our church services with an organ recital: we list the hearts, livers, colons, lungs, and various body parts of our congregation that are in need of prayer.”
Today I am going to talk about the fourth “category” in Matthew 25’s litany of concerns, care of the sick. As we have thought about Matthew 25 during the weeks of Lent, I have noted that not all churches pay attention to all of the categories of needs Jesus discusses here — not every church feeds the hungry, or cares for the poor, or welcomes the stranger — but it is hard for me to imagine a church that does not pay attention to the sick. Most churches, in fact, build visitation of the sick right into their institutional structure with a board or a committee charged with caring for the needs of the congregation. In our church, the Board of Diaconate represents our congregation’s concern for the sick: it sends cards, arranges for meals, and checks regularly with the members of the church to make sure that those who are ill know that we are present with them in their need. Caring for the sick is so much a part of our understanding of the function of a church that it’s hard even to imagine a church which ignored the health concerns of its members. Can you imagine asking a congregation to pray for your uncle who is having heart surgery only to be told, “I’m sorry. We don’t do that kind of thing here?” Could a church even be called a church if it told its members, “If you’re sick, don’t bother us with it. You’re on your own.” The Christian church has gotten a lot of things wrong in its history but one thing it has done right — one thing it been known for since the very beginning — is its care for the sick.
The second century Christian author Tertullian said that when the Romans saw the young church’s concern for its members’ physical well being, the Romans would exclaim in surprise, “See how these Christians love one another!”
It’s hard for us to today to understand just how unique an idea it was in the first century to provide care for the sick. In ancient Rome, there was no government health care program, there were no hospitals or drug stores, and the state of medical knowledge was so poor that doctors were sometimes as dangerous as the disease. Gary Ferngren, a professor of history at Oregon State University says, “Compassion was not a well-developed virtue among the pagan Romans; mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society. In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help. Perhaps a family member would come to their aid, but sometimes even close relatives would leave their own to die.”
Christians, however, were taught by their church to view one another as brothers and sisters who were all part of the family of Christ and as such, abandoning a fellow church member in his or her need was seen as the same as abandoning Christ himself. Consequently, the early church shared their resources with one another and ensured that even their weakest members had access to food, shelter, and comfort when they were ill. Fergren says that “Church leaders encouraged all Christians to visit the sick… and each congregation established an organized ministry of mercy…. Despite persecution and their small numbers, Christians maintained an extensive ministry to those in need.”
In fact, scholars believe that this call to care for the sick may have been an important factor in Christianity’s amazing growth over the first few centuries. In only three hundred years, the church went from a handful of apostles and Jesus-followers that were all able to fit in one room in Jerusalem to becoming the official religion of the entire Roman empire, and in analyzing the cause for this growth, some scholars have pointed to a wave of devastating epidemics in the second and third centuries that hit northern Africa, Italy, and Asia Minor. These plagues were so severe that at one point 5,000 people died in one day in the city of Rome. The Roman government took no official action to assist those affected by the plague, and so those who contracted the disease had to fend for themselves. The dead were piled in the streets, left to rot, and the healthy abandoned sick family members and fled the cities, often unknowingly spreading the epidemic. In 251, the plague was so severe that the Emperor Decius believed the Roman gods had turned against the Empire angered by those who refused to worship them, so Decius declared that Christians must recant their belief in Christ or be imprisoned and executed. In response, the church instead stepped up its care of the ill. The bishop of Carthage for the first time even extended the church’s care of the sick to non-Christians: he hired grave diggers to bury the dead, formed an ambulance corps, and organized congregations to take food to anyone in the city too ill to leave their beds. The bishop was eventually exiled by Rome as part of the persecution but his example remained, and throughout the plagues that followed over the next century, churches continued to care for the sick, Christian and pagan alike, seeing it as the embodiment of their charge to love others. This unique ministry led to the growth of the church because the simple attentiveness of the Christians to the sick, ensuring that the sick had food, water, blankets, and a human presence, decreased the death rate by as much as 2/3 and the grateful survivors and their families often converted to Christianity. Moreover, their neighbors and community couldn’t help but be impressed by the courage and dedication of those Christians who cared for the ill while everyone else was running away from the ill. As Tertullian said, they looked at the church and said, “See how those Christians love one another.” 1 2
From the very beginning of the church, then, care for the sick has been central to the church’s identity. It is our unique mission, it is a testimony of our faith, and it is the means by which we demonstrate to others the love we ourselves have known in Christ. With such a long and important heritage, it is then with some embarrassment that many of us have to admit that while we know we are called to care for the sick, it’s not something we feel comfortable doing. In one church, the Elders all agreed on this truth when it comes to visitation: “A ministry of visitation is trepidation followed by relief.” 3
There are some people in a church who are naturals when it comes to comforting the sick — they do it readily and easily and they always seem to know exactly what to say to bring comfort to the ill. They are the Loretta Smiths of the church who make people feel better just by walking into the room. Most of us, though, don’t have that natural gift of comfort and we are more likely to feel bumbling and tongue-tied around people who are sick. Hospitals fill us with anxiety; sick beds make us too uncomfortably aware of our own mortality. We want to speak words of comfort but instead we end up talking about the weather because we don’t know what to say, or we just stay away all together, afraid our awkwardness will do more harm than good. It’s not that we don’t feel compassion for those who are ill; it’s that we just don’t know how to express it, and so we are caught in a stalemate between our desire to help and our fear that we’ll say the wrong thing. We know that we are called upon to comfort the sick, but we’re not sure how and we are left secretly guilt-ridden, afraid that we are failing in this most central calling of Christ.
Matthew 25, however, comes to our rescue and not only tells us that we are called to care for the sick but it also shows us how.
I want you to imagine for a moment a hospital room, and lying in the bed is a man struggling with a life threatening disease. Another person enters the room — it is a member of the church, who has come to bring comfort to the ill man. In your mind, picture that room. It’s a small room, maybe with a window looking out onto the hospital parking lot. The man is lying in a bed in one corner with a monitor on the right side of the bed and IV bags stretching from a stand on its left. The church member has approached the bed and stands at its foot. Get the picture firmly in your mind. Now, as you imagine that picture, imagine also that Christ is present in the room: put Christ in the picture in your mind.
Now, let me ask you: where did you put Christ? Maybe you imagined a sort of nebulous spiritual presence all around the room, but what if I insisted that you imagined Christ in a very specific way — as a more physical presence. Where would he be in that room?
This may seem like a childish exercise of “let’s pretend” but I think most of our discomfort about comforting the ill comes from the fact that we usually put Christ in the wrong place in that picture. We usually see Christ as standing next to the church member because we have been taught that we as Christians are called to carry Christ to a world in need. We are called to love others with the love of Christ, to heal as Christ healed, to comfort as Christ comforted, and in all things to be Christ for others. I myself have preached that theology and as a kind of generalized theology, it gets the point across, urging us to develop a more Christ-like character in our dealings with others. When we try to embody that theology for someone who is sick, however, we take on an impossible burden with often terrible results. Feeling that we need to teach as Christ taught, we stand at the bedside of the sick and use it as an opportunity to instruct, saying things like, “God never gives you more than you can bear.” Or feeling that we need to heal as Christ healed, we search for just the right words “to fix” the person. We give them advice; we tell them about all of the other people who have had their particular disease and survived; we assure them, “It’ll be ok, everything will work out;” or we look for silver linings, “At least they got it early.”
When we see ourselves as the ones bringing Christ into that room, we are overwhelmed by our own sense of inadequacy. We either go into “healer mode,” trying to fix the person’s problem or we shut down, unable to imagine how we as fallible imperfect human beings can bring the comfort of Christ to those in need. In Matthew 25, however, Christ says, “I was sick and you cared for me,” and then explains, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Christ isn’t standing by the church member in that hospital room: Christ is in the bed. We, the members of the church, are not Christ — the person who is sick is Christ; the person who is in need of comfort and attention and love is Christ.
When we picture Christ as the one who is suffering, caring for the ill becomes easy. Not one of us would think of lecturing Christ on the meaning of his disease — who are we to presume that we know more about God’s will than Christ himself; who would dare to tell Christ that he just needs to have faith? The platitudes that come too easily to our lips when we think of ourselves as the healers, the platitudes that often disturb rather than comfort, fall away when we minister to Christ himself and we are humbled before him. We stop talking and simply hold his hand. We ask, “What can I do for you? What do you need?” instead of trying to fix it all. We cry honest tears with this dearly beloved man who is ill and promise that we will stay with him because after all, it is all we can give this Savior who is so much more than we ever could be.
And that is all we ever need to do to bring comfort to the ill. Show up and shut-up. Be present, be attentive, listen, ask what they need, cry with them, laugh with them, be honest, be humble. Comforting the sick isn’t really heard at all if you think of it as caring for Christ. You know that all he wants is that you show up, stay with him, and pray with him in the Garden of his dark night.