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United Church of Jaffrey
In the middle of last week, I received a text, informing me that there was a young man sitting alone in our sanctuary.
No one had ever seen before
When someone approached him, the young man said that he needed to pray.
So we left him to pray.
Later, another one of us brought him a sandwich.
After a while, he was gone.
Last Tuesday night was “literary night” at the library at Northfield Mount Hermon – the school where I teach. There were three of us — two of my colleagues in the English department – a crime fiction writer and a memoirist, read from their works-in-progress, and I read a selection of poems that I gathered together for the occasion.
A few days later, a student approached me. I had never seen him before.
“How do you write a poem?” he asked.
I love this about high school students. If they care about something, they aren’t going to mess around. Apparently, he’d been there on Tuesday night, and something had moved inside of him.
I managed to find out his name and a little about him, but he wasn’t very interested in this small talk. He wanted me to tell him how to write a poem.
“A word,” I said, “is like a seed. If you allow it, it will grow in your mind. You don’t know where it will take you. You play with it, and see where it goes.”
“But how do you make it beautiful?” he asked.
It was a good question.
About noon on Friday I received another text.
Another man – not the one from earlier in the week – had been discovered sleeping in the parlor.
I guess the appearance of this fellow gave June a little bit of a fright when she found him, first thing in the morning. Jerry spoke to him, and he left, as mysteriously as he’d come.
I’m not sure I had a good answer for the inquisitive student. It was hard, in the moment, to answer. I think mumbled something about allowing oneself to be playful with words.
But, in the fashion of a poet, I didn’t stop thinking about his question. Now that I’ve had some time to think it over, I think I can share with you what I might have shared with him, if I’d had my wits about me. The beauty, that we gather from poetry, comes, I think from the spaciousness of words.
What do you mean by that?
Numbers are effective because they are rigidly defined and consistent across time. “One plus one will always equal two” means the same thing today as it did yesterday – and with any luck – will still be the same tomorrow, or God help us, all our bridges collapse and global finance will implode.
But language is effective because it is flawed.
Each word contains multiple nuances of meaning.
Phrases and sentences are vastly complicated creatures.
And while this just sounds confusing, the amazing thing is that the confusion can be both beautiful and effective. This spaciousness of words can open us up to whole new vistas of imagination – whole new realms of meaning.
As a poet, an English teacher, and a minister, my existence is a kind of living celebration of this spaciousness.
Unpredictable, like the spirit, this uncertainty at the core of language feels to me like a kind of spiritual spaciousness.
Our minds, and more importantly, our hearts, can fill this spaciousness with our empathy.
And so, this spiritual spaciousness of words to which I refer, is, perhaps, another way of talking about the emotional resonances that we find in words – those sympathetic vibrations that words evoke in our hearts.
Yesterday, I got word that there was a shooting going on in a church in Pelham New Hampshire.
The details are confusing. A 37-year old man came into the New England Pentecostal church in Pelham, during a wedding, and shot the minister and the bride. The minister is now in serious condition, the bride, who was shot in the arm, is recovering.
Pelham Police Chief Joseph Roark said: “”This does not seem to be a random event.”
In today’s gospel reading from the gospel of Luke, Jesus encounters a group of lepers – ten of them, to be exact. He sends the lepers away, telling them to “Go and show yourselves to the priests” and as they go, the lepers discover that they have been “made clean.” Of the ten lepers, only one returns to Jesus to praise him. The leper who returned was a Samaritan. Jesus calls him a “foreigner.” Jesus wonders – and the rest of us are also wondering – what happened to the other nine lepers?
The story paints a pretty stark moral picture.
One leper does the right thing. The other nine lepers don’t.
The story bashes you over the head with its conclusion. Hearing the story, you can’t help feeling both proud of the one good leper, and indignant at the nine ungrateful ones.
Jesus himself acts this way. “But the other nine,” says he, “where are they?”
The story, read this way, is a kind of cautionary fable – and like every good fable, it asks a question of those hearing the story. And the question, of course is: which kind of leper are you?
But I’m not sure, in the end, how useful this question is. Each of us will want to be the good leper, and each of us will secretly suspect that we are probably one of the nine.
So let’s set aside the interpretation that bashes us over the head, and look, instead, for the words, in this story, that are spacious – the places in the story that help us practice empathy – the words that call out to our hearts.
And for this I want to go back to the beginning of the story. Listen to what the text says when the 10 lepers first appear.
Keeping their distance, the lepers called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Can you picture it? Since this story took place thousands of years before medical science came to understand the nature of leprosy – Jesus, the spiritual healer, was the only hope that these ten men had.
And yet they kept their distance.
My heart feels the desperate hope that is fighting with the punishing social reality that demanded that they – these unclean people “keep their distance.”
And how, in their desperation hope, did the ten lepers overcome fear and social pressure to “keep their distance?”
They “called out.”
They could not speak to Jesus, as other people did – they had to “call out” from a distance.
Last night I received another text.
A Conant student was found dead in his house. He died of a gunshot wound. The details remain under investigation, but it appears as if he killed himself.
Did you know that, according to the center for disease control, an average of 22 thousand people commit suicide each year using a gun.
22 thousand people.
The population of Jaffrey is roughly 5 thousand 400.
So, spread all over this country, there are people who are “keeping their distance.”
Occasionally, maybe they wander into our churches to pray…
Or maybe they need a place to sleep.
Maybe they call out, across the distance, desperately wanting to find hope.
To call out –
Can you feel this, with your heart?
The call of hope that defies all the conventions of social expectation.
Jesus heard the call.
All ten were healed.
The good and the bad. Christ healed them because they called.
There is a spaciousness to these words – “they called out” – we recognize the deep humanity in them, the spiritual urgency.
When we need to we too should have the faith to call out – whether we have been good or if, maybe, we have been bad.
And when we hear another call, we can respond, whether the person deserves it, or not.
When you call, or you hear a call…
Respond in faith, and in love.
As Jesus did.