“Healing All Around: Stories from Nicaragua”
A paraphrased reading from Mark Chapter 2: As we heard in our earlier reading Jesus is in a crowded house teaching in his hometown. As the word spreads through town – more and more people pile in to hear Jesus. After a few more people arrive, they settle in for Jesus’ teaching and out of nowhere, the ceiling starts to crumble, clods of dirt fall on faces as the people look up with a mixture of confusion & curiosity. Then, the sunlight breaks through and squints to see four heads peering down. Four friends paw at the hole in the roof making it wider and wider. Before the owner of the house can find his way out of the crowd to protest this apparent vandalism, again to everyone’s surprise, the four friends lower a man down on a mat into the middle of the room. Perhaps the people in the center reach up to help lower the man safely. And then people jostle to and fro to make room for the paralytic man at Jesus’ feet. And here we pick up the scripture:
“When Jesus saw the faith of the four friends, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son your sins are forgiven!” Now some of the scribes & religious leaders were questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing such questions among themselves, and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” Jesus said to the man—“Stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” And the man stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them, so that all were amazed and glorified God saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”
Let us pray: God of Love, bind us together this day. Connect us with you and with each other that we might draw upon the healing and strength that your provide through our gathered church body. Give us hope and courage for the journey. Open our hearts to your love this day. By the power of your Spirit and in the Name of your Son we pray, Amen.
Like that modern paparazzi, drawn as moths to a celebrity flame, Jesus’ ministry was blessed and haunted by the crowd, (which at times slipped from a curious crowd into something more “mob-like”). Early in Jesus’ ministry, a crowd gathers to hear him teach, he says something controversial and they threaten to throw him off of a cliff! Later, Jesus comes to another town and Zacchaeus, a small man has to climb a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus because the crowd is so big. Then there is the infamous story of Jesus feeding 5,000 men, not even counting the women and children gathered by the lake that day. During Holy Week Jesus and his friendly donkey ride into Jerusalem and they are greeted by a cheering crowd. And at the end of that same week Jesus stands before a crowd that shouts “Crucify Him!” For better or worse, one thing is for certain, Jesus draws a crowd. Which is why the gospels say over and over that Jesus goes off to pray, alone, which models for us a beautiful contemplative spiritual practice (and we all know he needed the break!).
Usually, Jesus draws a crowd that is pretty benign. But from the perspective of our four friends and their paralytic neighbor, the crowd gathered around Jesus that day presents a major obstacle. Here they have a friend who cannot even walk, much less push through a crowd. And I love imagining the response of the friends when someone comes up with a backup plan. Is there dissent or discussion? Or is there consensus, “hey they have nothing to lose,” someone says, “this is pretty crazy to begin with, why not take it up a notch and dig a hole through a stranger’s roof!” Perhaps for these five friends this is not an act of spiritual heroism, it is just a “plan B.” But to Jesus, the commitment of the four friends is brilliant, a beautiful expression of faith and love. Jesus is moved by the friendship of the four and he forgives the paralytic, heals the man, the man picks up his mat and walks home. And this time around he is able to weave through the packed crowd with grace. I also love to imagine the reactions of the friends jumping off the roof to greet their now ambulatory friend. There is such relief, tears of joy, hugs, and laughter. And the crowd, which turns facing the friends as they walk away says to one other, “We have never seen anything like this!”
In Nicaragua, there are many people on the fringe of the gathered crowd outside the door, waiting to get access to healing. And it sometimes seems, no matter how hard they try, they cannot get inside. The obstacles are many: extreme poverty, domestic, sexual, and drug abuse, big business ruining the land with chemicals and monoculture, international developers taking advantage of cheap labor only to take the all of the profit back to the developed world, natural disasters, machismo and the list goes on…
One of the toughest parts of the Nicaragua trip is our task to witness people struggling with these obstacles first hand. It’s tough to hear the testimonies of street kids who have been abused & abandoned at such a young age. To hear the stories of the young ones who bear the weight of deciding whether protect or betray their abusive parents. We hear how the women of Axayacatl, a women’s collective advocating for women’s rights, put their own lives at risk to fight for justice for women who file claims against abusive husbands. It is difficult hear the beautiful struggle of teenage boys trying to pull their lives together after struggling with addiction – all of these things symptoms of the extreme poverty that wages war in so many homes… It is tough to leave at the end of the day after playing games with children living with disability in the midst poverty, with limited resources. On our delegations to Nicaragua, we see their struggle, the fight in their eyes and we know that some of them will not make it through the doorway that provides access to healing and an equitable way of life.
And yet on our Nicaragua trip we are also privileged to witness seeds of hope taking root in Nicaragua. There are many friends who are banging on roofs asking to lower down their relative or loved one who is in need. Many of our friends and partners, mostly Nicaraguan, but some North American & European, are working away to chip at the hole in the ceiling to provide more access for those in need. Mirna, the Nicaraguan director of Inhijambia who works with street kids and develops mentors for them, sits next to her boys, beaming with pride as they share their stories. Later Mirna shares that this is their first time sharing their “testimonios” with a wider group. She shares that this storytelling process has so much healing power for the kids in the program. Oh and to see a beautiful child with a brilliant smile, who lives gracefully with her disability, riding on a horse with an adult aid to strengthen her core muscles and give her a boost spiritually & psychologically. The horses and these children have found a second home through the generosity of Paulette and her team at La Mariposa – the Eco-Lodge that was our home base. The resources may seem slim sometimes but the “Nicaraguan plan B” is just as beautiful and miraculous as the resourcefulness of the four friends tearing open the roof that day. There is so much hope for the bright future of Nicaragua. We walk away after witnessing miracles saying, “Wow, we have never seen anything like this before!”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes the Southern African philosophy of “Ubuntu” as “the essence of being human, (the truth that) my humanity is caught up in your humanity.”* Mark Nepo author of “The Book of Awakening” tells a story about his recovery from cancer. He writes, “I remember years after Robert helped me survive cancer, and after I helped him survive alcohol—I remember the two of us in a small park eating sandwiches…and Robert raised his head suddenly and said, ‘I have cancer,’ and I took his hand and offered in return, ‘And I have been an alcoholic.’” “Ubuntu,” Mark Nepo writes, “is how we need each other to be complete.”**
That day when Jesus heals the paralytic man, perhaps Jesus looks deep into the man’s eyes and he sees the pain and struggle that has marked his life. The isolation from his social & religious community – who, during that time, would have assumed that his affliction was the result of some unnamable sin that he has committed. Perhaps Jesus sees the physical struggle to get by and the weight of feeling like such a burden to his caretakers for so long. And perhaps when Jesus looks in the paralytic man’s eyes, Jesus also sees joy & strength. Jesus sees the friendships that have carried this man from the edge of despair into this very place. Jesus sees the kindness of his friends who would go to such lengths, take such a risk, for a man that they would call their brother. Perhaps Jesus sees the truth that this man’s humanity is connected so deeply with his friends, and that Jesus too is connected to these men and their plight. And when Jesus sees the faith & commitment of the friends he says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.” “Get up, take your mat, and walk.”
Did you catch that? Jesus doesn’t wait for the paralytic man to repent, or somehow prove his faith. The paralytic man’s faith is bound up in the courage and perseverance of his friends. Jesus sees this communal act of faith and he is moved to forgive and heal the man. Jesus sees faith all around and he grants healing all around. Just as Mark Nepo and his friend Robert suffer with each other and find healing in each other’s healing, so the four friends find wholeness & forgiveness in the healing of their friend.
So what is the opposite of living a life grounded in “Ubuntu,” this sacred connectedness with God, with each other and with all of the natural realm? The opposite of Ubuntu connection -- would be separation or segregation. The harsh reality of our time is that so much suffering is created because we are blocked from each other by barriers of socio-economic class, race, prejudice and systemic injustice. We are blocked privilege, patriarchy, and the list goes on and on… These barriers block us from hearing the beautiful “testimonios” of pain and hope from of our brothers and sisters.
In Nicaragua we reconnect with the philosophy of “Ubuntu” – we are reminded that our own humanity is connected to our sisters & brothers in Nicaragua. We remember that we are all beloved children of God. We are reminded that we live in bubbles. We rarely cross boundaries that our society creates between those who are privileged with great access to resources and those who live on the underside of our privilege. On our trip, we see with new eyes that we are divided from each other – segregated from the poor, from folks of different races, backgrounds and abilities. We see the tragic truth that because of this condition, we are missing a piece of our own humanity.
But the good news is that on our trip to Nicaragua there is also healing all around. There is healing when our friends share their stories and feel a bit less alone. There is healing and forgiveness when we offer financial support to help those who are digging through the roof to provide resources to those in need.
Jesus says, take care of the “least of these” – “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted.” And when we sit at the feet of the marginalized on our trips to Nicaragua, some of that blessing rubs off on us. When we go to Nicaragua, yes, we are trying to help plant seeds of hope, but we are also the ones lowered at Jesus’ feet in need of healing & transformation. During our time there we ask for forgiveness for being so blind to such suffering for so long. And here is the miracle, when we witness the healing of our brothers and sisters there we are also healed. We find strength to share our own stories of suffering and hope. And we find a connectedness that we had been missing in our own lives, our lives which are so often scarred and numb with privilege and isolation.
Now I want to be careful here, I don’t mean to romanticize the plight of the poor or set up the poor as some sort of idol, mediating our relationship with God. But the truth is that there is something sacred and unique that is offered in the gifts shared in these kinds of encounters. In the book of Galatians, chapter 5, Paul writes “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When we are connected to God and each other, we are connected to the source of life and we bear fruit. Paul writes that we can see this fruit in our lives. These street kids in recovery, our friends living in poverty with disability, women fighting for justice, and all of their mentors and friends, these are the people who teach us how to live a life marked by the Fruit of the Spirit.
I want to close with one specific story from our time in Nicaragua. At Los Pipitos, a school for children with disabilities, Brantley and I connected with a student named Brian. Brian, our new 9 year old friend, has Cerebral Palsy and he does not have the use of his lower body. He is bright, he is learning English and loves to greet gringos, showing off his skills. “Hello my name is Brian – what is your name?” He has a library of 6 books – a great wealth in his context. His grandmother takes care of him and shows him off with pride. He loves maps of Nicaragua & stories in the Bible. He is charming and he has a good sense of humor. He recently has had eye surgery and he is seeking surgery for his legs to give him more mobility.
I cannot fully express in words, but there is something profound about Brian’s charisma, humor and intellect. There is something courageous about him simply being himself. And so I hesitate here, to say more because it seems overly sentimental to use Brian as a sermon illustration – our time with Brian was somehow more profound than any sermon could capture. But I will say there is something in me that aches for friends like Brian in my life. And I can say without reservation that having people like Brian in my life makes me more whole. It brings me closer to God and to my true self. Having a friend like Brian releases some part of me that is often paralyzed and ignored.
And so just as Brantley and I commit to support and befriend Brian on his journey, we also know that there is just as much healing in store for us as there is for Brian. And that on this crowded & sacred journey together - practicing our shared humanity – we know that we are not the source of all of this healing and neither is Brian. God alone is our healer, and our source of forgiveness & wholeness. It is God’s love that I see in the spark in Brian’s eyes. And it is in God that I trust to take care of him & to care for all of us on our journeys of struggle and hope.
So what healing do you need today? What forgiveness do you need this morning? What ways can you reconnect with God and with “the least of these?” What healing and forgiveness can you offer the world? Let us close in prayer,
God of Love, today we pray for Brian, we pray that he would have access to the surgery that he needs and that you would grant him hope & courage this day. We pray for his teachers, and for the other students in his program. We pray for all of the students at Inhijambia who courageously shared their testimonies, for continued healing and wholeness in their difficult journey ahead. We pray for our Nicaraguan Heroes, for Mirna, her staff, the Jubilee House, Axayacatl, and for Paulette & the staff at La Mariposa. We pray that our strength and love will lift them up this day. And we leave them in your care oh God, even as we ask for the courage and faith to support them on their journey. And we pray most of all that we might always be attuned the healing and forgiveness that we also need, continually seeking the boundless grace & love that you offer. In Jesus name, and by the power of your Spirit we pray – Amen.
*from a foreward by Desmond Tutu in “Exploring Forgiveness” (by Enright & North)
The super power babies
**from Mark Nepo’s “The Book of Awakening” July 22nd, Ubuntu