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First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: August 11, 2019
Scripture: Mark 5:21-24, 35-43, Rumi
Sermon: “The Light”
Sermon on Mystics – Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Mark 5:21-24, 35-43
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.
[Just then] some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Do not run away from grief, o’ soul. Look for the remedy inside the pain, because the rose came from the thorn, and the ruby came from a stone.
One of my favorite author theologians is Frederick Buechner. He speaks to this story of Jesus and the little girl. He writes of the ways we journey through grief, sorrow, death, and heartache. In the midst of that struggle he shares that often the best we can do is “get up.” I think of that in terms of my own journey and the times I have encountered death, loss, and grief. I think about that in terms of connection and those around me who have offered a hand to “get up.” Those connections with the Divine and the profound experiences I have had myself.
I believe it connects well with our new sermon series on the Mystics. Today we work with a contemporary mystic in Rachel Naomi Remen. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCalSanFran School of Medicine and the Founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonwealth. She is one of the pioneers of Relationship Centered Care and Integrative Medicine. US News and World Report Best Graduate Schools has called The Healer’s Art, her groundbreaking curriculum for medical students “A profoundly innovative curriculum on reintegrating the heart and soul into contemporary medicine and restoring medicine to its integrity as a calling and a work of healing.” The Healers’ Art is now taught yearly in more than half of American medical schools and in medical schools in seven countries abroad.
I am not sure Dr. Remen would refer to herself as a mystic, however she was profoundly impacted by her grandfather, an Orthodox Rabbi in the Jewish faith and a scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism. Raised in an immediate family of what she describes, socialists with little to no interest in religion, her parents and aunts and uncles took a dim view of his study, some seeing it as an embarrassment, a paternal idiosyncrasy, and others as something highly suspect, a sort of dabbling in magic. She shares that when he died, the old handwritten leather-covered books he had studied simply disappeared, and she never discovered what had happened to them.
She had a deep relationship with her grandfather, who I would identify as a mystic, and likewise because of that influence, her work with those who are struggling with chronic and terminal illness, her experiences, and writings, she herself falls within that realm of mystic.
One of the first stories she shares in her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, involves a gift he brought her. She said he always brought her a gift when he visited, most commonly an unusual gift. This gift was a small paper cup filled with dirt. He told her she could not play with the dirt but she had to add water to it every day. She shared at the age of four this was not the kind of gift she appreciated at first. However, she dutifully added water to the cup everyday as was his instruction. She struggled through the weeks remembering to add the water. And then one morning there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before, she was astonished! Her grandfather, on his next visit, explained life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. She responded, “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” He gently touched the top of her head and said, “No, Neshume-le, All it needs is your faithfulness.”
According to the Kabbalah, she relates, at some point in the beginning of things, the Holy was broken up into countless sparks, which were scattered throughout the universe. There is a god spark in everyone and in everything, a sort of diaspora of goodness. God’s immanent presence among us is encountered daily in the most simple, humble, and ordinary ways. The Kabbalah teaches that the Holy may speak to you from its many places at any time. The world may whisper in your ear, or the spark of God may whisper in your heart. Her grandfather, she says, showed her how to listen. There is, she learned, a Divine Spark within everyone, no matter how dim.
I have so deeply appreciated Dr. Remen’s writings and stories in both of her books. There is a common thread that connects to Cynthia’s message last week on Marabai Starr, in terms of the brokenness we encounter in life, those places where the light enters in… the grief we carry with us, that can help us see the beauty and blessing of life. This connection as well as the thought that we are all mystics. Our encounter and experience with the Divine may be very different, however, no less the mystical connection with God. The depth of what I glean from Remen is the importance of and sacredness of relationship.
In last week’s message Cynthia asked us to consider the question, “What is our connection to the Divine?” Mine is relationship. Sitting at a table sharing a cup of coffee and conversation…is prayer for me. Being in a diverse crowd of strangers, listening to various languages, seeing a plethora of races and cultures, sharing a meal together…is meditation for me. Listening to the stories of others is contemplation for me. Story, relationship, and often times sitting at the bedside of one who is making that last journey toward death are some of the most sacred moments and where I often have experienced the Light, find the mystics in my life, and presence of the Divine a palpable experience.
Rachel tells stories that normalize the processes we go through as we grieve, care for our loved ones as they are dying, and help them make sense of the normalcy of the experience. One story she shares is of a family who expressed their gratitude for her calming words as they cared for their dying family member and the reassurance that the things they were seeing and experiencing were, “normal.” It brought them great relief. Too often I think we humans, especially in our culture shy away from the reality and normalcy of death. We speak of passing away, or transitioning, or other language and shy away from saying someone has died. When we visit our loved ones who are terminal, we can find ourselves talking about everything except the reality of what they are going through.
I remember my first talk with someone after I had started the process of going into the ministry. I had been appointed to a small church in western Kansas, I was not there as pastor yet, but everyone knew I would be on the first of July. I would preach my first sermon and leave that afternoon to attend License to Preach School, or as we called it “Preaching Bootcamp, everything you need to know about being a clergy in two weeks.” Ha! Anyway, in our small town everyone knew I had been appointed. I ran into Arlene one day at the grocery store and she said she was glad I was coming to the church. She knew I would be gone for two weeks, but when I returned, she said, would I be willing to come out and visit with her and her husband, Harold (though everyone in the county knew him as “Fuzzy” … I don’t remember why…) He had been on dialysis for years and was probably not going to live much longer and she wanted me to come and talk with them… this rookie preacher.
When I returned, I called and set a time to come and visit. I took my bible where I had marked a couple of favorite passages, I might read… mostly though, I was anxious, well…terrified… I had not a clue what to say or what to do… but I went. Arlene was an active member and attender at the church, Fuzzy not so much. They had a small farm, I had known him for years as I sold him John Deere parts in my previous life, mostly he was known for his cooking… he had a huge smoker and would cater meals. We sat at the kitchen table… started out talking about the farm, the cooking, his dialysis and disease, the kids and grandkids…. Arlene finally said something about my bible that I was probably nervously fiddling with…. and so, I opened it and read the couple of passages I had marked… and then just sat, uncomfortably. Arlene finally asked if we would like some coffee, I said “Sure” anything to break the silence. She rose from her chair and walked across the kitchen to start a pot. I looked at Fuzzy and he looked at me…. I finally just said, “You know Fuzzy, I’ve never done this before.” He looked deep in my eyes, smiled, reached out his bruised and bandaged hand and laid it on my arm and said, “It’s okay Kent, neither have I.”
The anxiety and burden of the moment fell away and we talked about fullness of life, death, and dying, of expectation, the mystery of the beyond, of relationship, and family. There was something in that moment, as I look back now 27 years ago, not only about the reality of death, but about the blessing of life and authenticity, and a willingness to be real, and honest, and present. I did not have those words then…but I carry them with me now.
The Blessing of Life, Remen referred to this often when she spoke of her grandfather, the practice of blessing life was important to him. He once gave her a small silver wine goblet. The goblet was so small it held no more than a thimbleful of wine. He taught her to toast, a single Hebrew word, L’Chiam, he told her it meant, “To Life!” She tells she asked him if it was to a happy life, a long life? He had just shaken his head and said, “It is just to Life!” Rachel relates that it took her years, long after her grandfather died, to realize the depths of what this “To Life,” this “Blessing of Life,” was about. She writes, “Perhaps such a ‘toast’ can only be said by such people, and only those who have lost an suffered can truly understand its power.’
I remember an elderly man and his wife, Ralph (Barney) and Thelma Barnhart. Now and again I would bring them communion as they were not able to get out of the house much by then, as age had taken its toll. We would sit in the living room and visit about their kids, their lives, what was going on in town and at the church. Usually as the conversation would begin to end, I would mention communion and get out my little portable communion set… a little cubed bread, a small bottle of juice, and those little communion cups… which held perhaps a little more than a thimble but not much more. We would share the words of the tradition and when it came time for the juice Barney would hold it up, throw it back like a shot, and say… “AHHH!!!”
When I read of Rachel’s grandfather and her tiny goblet and “L’Chiam!” I think of Barney… teaching me about the blessing of life… I am pretty sure Barney would not have thought of himself as a mystic, however, the presence of the Divine was palpable in that moment of “Ahhhh!”
Rachel relates the one time she and her grandfather disagreed. He was telling her about the Orthodox Judaism teaching of the nature of “minyan” … He said while anyone could pray at any time, before an official prayer service can be held, there must be at least ten men present. This group of men is called a minyan and when the minyan, ten men, were present, God was immanent and present. She was persistent in her “Why Grandpa?” … to which he would respond “The law says ten men.” She would have none of it and asked… “If something is old, does it have to be true?” “Certainly not!” he replied. “Well then I think God is there in the room when ten women gather too, she proclaimed.” He nodded and told her, “This is not what the law says.” She shares they had never disagreed before and she was shaken, however her grandfather seemed quite comfortable with the distance between their beliefs. She writes a few years later her grandfather became very sick and her visits were shortened, so as to not tire him. When she did, at seven years old, she would read to him from his books or just sit quietly holding his hand. And she wrote of one of those times, “Once after a nap he opened his eyes and looked at me lovingly for a long while, “You are a minyan, all by yourself, Neshume-le.”
We are all mystics. We may not realize it in a particular moment, or be awake to it, however, we are all mystics and they are around us every day if we are aware, listening, and watching. I believe in her work with the terminally ill, and the writings in her book, and her presence to the community, Rachel Remen is a mystic, though she may not refer to herself as such. There is a Divine Spark within all of us…no matter how dim.
Fuzzy, Arlene, and I had many conversations after that initial visit and one day, several months after that first visit I received a call that Fuzzy would most likely not make it through the night and he was in the hospital in Wichita. I made the 4 ½ hour drive, parked, got on the elevator where Arlene met me on the right floor. She led me to his room, I walked in and stood at the foot of his bed. Arlene told him I was there. He opened his eyes, and without a word… looked at his son, his daughter, his grandkids, he looked at his wife…and then turned his eyes on me. With that, he closed his eyes and died. I suspect Fuzzy would have been the last person to tell you he was a mystic. At that point in my journey I couldn’t have told you what a mystic was, however I can say the presence of the Divine was palpable in the room that night…something beyond words… in hindsight, for me, I was in the presence of a mystic.
We are all mystics, immersed in the very presence of the Divine… be awake to the encounter and embrace the Spirit… fanning the Light, the Divine Spark into flames of compassion and love. Our world needs more of that. Perhaps now more than ever. Amen.