Epiphany 5, Year B
“The secret is not to allow the fact that you can’t do everything
to keep you from doing something.
Something, then rest. Something then rest.”
One of the hardest lessons you learn in ministry is that you can’t do it all. I say ministry, but I’m sure the same goes for teachers and caregivers, doctors and nurses, activists and civil servants, social workers and police officers.
Come to think of it, I’m sure all parents feel this way, especially when it comes to caring for their children and most children feel this way when it comes time to care for their parents.
So maybe what I should say is that one of the hardest lessons you learn in life, is that no one can do it all. You just can’t.
You can’t do it all.
No matter who you are or how much you try or care or know, you can’t help everyone. You can’t protect everyone. You can’t fix or save everyone. Some people sometimes, yes, but everyone, all of the time… no.
It’s a reality that hurts, as well it should, because every last person, so matter how far gone, is still a child of God. It’s a reality that hurts. Full stop.
It’s a reality that some of us rail at. We push the boundaries as hard as we can, especially for the people we love, and yet, even then, we can’t do it all, so we learn to make do with what we can.
One of the things I say, when people are reticent to accept financial help from the church – you know a grocery card here or help with rent there – is “look, there is so much we can’t do. We can’t cure cancer. We can’t change the past or raise the dead. We can’t bring back your old job, but we can do this – we can help you keep the heat on this month – so please, let us do what we can. And then we’ll figure out the next right thing together.”
It’s humbling…and frustrating…and heartbreaking. I often wish we could do more. I read stories like this one of Jesus at the bed side of Simon’s mother-in-law and you know what I feel?
How many times have I sat at the bedside of someone who was sick and wished with all my heart that I could raise them up?
How many times have I stared into the eyes of an addict and wished I could get them clean?
How often have I looked into the face of grief or depression or deep, deep despair and wished I could take the pain away?
But I can’t. I have never miraculously cured anyone. And not for lack of trying. I was raised Baptist, so trust me when I say, I know how to pray. But prayer is not enough. Nor, for that matter, is faith or hope… or even love.
Actually, can we all just take a beat and acknowledge that not even Jesus was enough. It’s a tiny little moment in the midst of a miraculous story, but notice that Mark says that after he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, people came from all over the city and, “he cured many.”
Not all. Many.
Not even Jesus could do it all.
But he could cure many and so he did.
I can’t, and so I don’t.
But you know what people like you and me can do for others? We can heal…at least a little. It’s not the same thing and it’s not enough, but it’s something. And remember the words from Glennon Doyle we began worship with today: we don’t want to “let the fact that we can’t do everything keep us from doing something. Do something,” she said, “and then rest. Something, then rest.”
Friends, the something we can do, is heal. Maybe not to the point of curing people, but even a little healing is a powerful thing. And one of the most important things ministry has taught me…or maybe life… is that there is something healing about just showing up.
If you can physically get to a person or a family in their time of need, it’s amazing how healing your presence can be. And this is a learned skill for most of us. At least it was for me. It is, in many ways, counter-intuitive. Instinctively most of us are more apt to avoid such situations because they are painful and stressful and scary.
We avoid people in distress lest whatever happened to them happen to us. Sometimes we’re rationally afraid of, say, biological contagion – like with covid, and sometimes we’re irrationally afraid that their misfortune will rub off on us. But I’m pretty sure that kind of fear is hardwired in.
And, not for nothing, but a lot of us were taught to respect people’s privacy in the midst of grief and tragedy. We were told not to cry in front of others lest we upset them, and we don’t want people to cry in front of us because it’s true. It’s upsetting. And finally, if there’s nothing we can do to reverse the situation or cure the patient, there’s the fear that we’ll just get in the way.
Which is why a big part of a minister’s training is to ignore all that fear and show up anyway. We fetch water and make coffee. We just show up, and if people are comfortable, we reach out and safely and appropriately touch them to let them know we are there. We might hug or hold people if that’s what they need. Lend a shoulder to cry on or even just be a quiet presence in the room letting people know they are not alone.
We offer to pray and whenever possible we lay our hands on people – not because we as pastors have a special extra dose of holiness running through our fingers, but because touch is healing.
When a body is under duress, the touch of another human being alerts their nervous system to the good news that they are not alone. It lets the body know there is an ally present, another human to bear the load, confront the threat, or guard the door. When you feel like you’re coming apart at the seams, the touch of another person can help you hold it together, or even better, create a safe space for you to fall apart.
I’ve learned that there is something healing about touch even if a person is actively dying. I remember being at the bedside of a woman whose addiction to alcohol had driven off every last person in her life but her mom’s best friend and me. She was beyond help in every way imaginable and when I arrived at her hospital bed, I had no idea what to do.
I was still fairly new to the ministry and I think the other woman who was there could see that. She was at the foot of the bed rubbing her dying friends feet very gently and telling her she loved her. She invited me over and invited me to do it too. So there we were, touching the only part of her body that wasn’t in agony, and as we rubbed her feet, we watched as her breathing eased and then slowed and then finally stopped.
After a life marked by so much pain, she was at least able to pass peacefully. I learned in that moment that touching, even a dying person, can help them so much.
Not long after, I was called to the house of a family who had just lost their father. They had cared for him at home until he died and now they were all standing around not knowing what to do, so I went up and touched his body. I did exactly what the woman in the hospital taught me to do. I held the tops of his feet in my hands as I talked with his wife and his children.
And then I moved up to his head, I placed my hands on ether side, and I blessed him. I told them it was okay to come closer. It was okay to lean down and hug him, or squeeze his shoulder, or even kiss him goodbye. That this body, though empty of his soul, was still precious. My touch couldn’t bring him back from the dead. My touch wasn’t enough to heal him. But touching the man who had died was a way to help heal the ones who lived and loved him still.
There is something healing about touch, which is one reason why this pandemic is so unbelievably hard for all of us. Touch, even for all its benefits, has never been enough, but it was something. Showing up and just being present has never been enough, but it was something. It didn’t cure, but it did heal and I hate that it has been taken away.
It hurts. Full stop. We rail against it. We push the boundaries as far as we dare. But just because we can’t do those things doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.
I have a friend whose been going through a lot lately, and when it gets overwhelming she writes it all out in a text, sends it off to and says, “thank you for witnessing.” She knows I can’t fix it. She knows I can’t come over and give her a hug or meet her for tea, or even be a shoulder to cry on. But she lets me hold the pain with her through her texts, and in some small way, just knowing that I see her in her struggle, that I’m aware of her pain, helps to lighten her load.
I think many of you know that last week was a hard week at our church and by Sunday afternoon I was pretty down. So I called my mom to check in and let her know all that had happened. She couldn’t help me in any practical sense. She couldn’t make it all better. But she listened to me with love.
I was still really tired and sad and overwhelmed when I got off the phone. In truth, nothing was better, not even me. But a few minutes after I hung up I felt a surge of gratitude and I texted my mom: “Sometimes you just need to hear your mom’s voice and tell her what happened. Sometimes you just need a soft place to land. Thanks for being there”
It wasn’t enough, but it was something. And then all of you began to write and text and call and pull together, and somehow, everyone reaching out and doing the little bit they can adds up and even if it’s not all better, I have the sense that it’s all going to be okay. Our church is going to be okay.
Friends, texting, calling, sending a note through the mail, none of it’s enough, but being able to reach out and touch one another and be present with one another wasn’t always enough either. We can’t cure people like Jesus did. I wish we could. But we can still heal…we can still witness one another in our pain and distress, we can still “reach out,” like the old phone ads used to say, “and touch someone,” even when we can’t touch them at all.
Does it take the hurt away? No. But like a hand on the shoulder it takes a little bit of the stress off our backs, it lets us know we are not alone. We can’t make it all better, but we can make it some better. Not even Jesus healed them all. He healed many and then, like Glennon, Jesus went off to a deserted place to pray and rest. We can’t do it all but we can do something. Do something, and then rest. Something and then rest.