The Miracle of Material Aid

The Miracle of Material Aid

The emotional climate in Jerusalem was hot. Peter, John, Andrew and James had been going to the Temple daily, preaching against the authorities, and praying for those brought to them for healing. The disciples had been arrested on several occasions in a bid to intimidate and silence them. Then a young Deacon in the church named Stephen, began engaging members of the synagogue of the freedmen, Jews from Asia Minor, in debate over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Stephen argued in the affirmative and a certain young Jew from Tarsus, one Saul was arguing in the negative.

The young men from the Freedman’s synagogue became so incensed over Stephen’s arguments, they laid hands upon him and dragged him before the Sanhedrin accusing him of blasphemy. The hearing before the Council became so acrimonious the High Priest recessed the meeting in order to allow tempers to cool. But Saul and the other young men of the Freedman’s synagogue broke Stephen out of jail, dragged him outside of the City and stoned him to death. Peter and several other leaders among the followers of Jesus decided to get out of town to allow Jerusalem to cool down.

Peter left through the Joppa gate heading west along the road to the Sea. His first stop would be the village of Emmaus, where he could stay with Cleopas and hear more news about the Jesus communities in the towns and villages in western Judea. Emmaus was the place where on Easter Day the Risen Christ had blessed and broken the bread and Cleopas and his companion had recognized him as Jesus.

Peter, however, did not stay long in Emmaus – too close to Jerusalem. So after a day or two he left for the town of Lydda, where according to Cleopas there was an active group of Jesus followers. Lydda was on the coastal plain surrounded by rich farmland. Today the main airport for Israel is located there.

The little group of Jesus followers in Lydda welcomed Peter and asked him to tell stories about Jesus, and share news about the church in Jerusalem. When Peter told them about the lame man at the Temple Gate who had been healed, Jacob asked him to visit Aeneas, a lame shut-in.

When Peter prayed with the shut-in he said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” Aeneas rose. News like that travels fast, and when the Jesus followers in Joppa heard it, they sent for Peter to come right away, because Tabitha, a much beloved member of their community was gravely ill. When Peter arrived, the community was already in morning. Tabitha had stopped visibly breathing and they had washed her body and laid it out in an upper room to be ready for burial. The other widows were sharing stories about their friend’s legendary charity – taking casseroles to families who were sick, sewing clothes for orphans, knitting blankets for new babies.

Peter remembered how Jesus had raised Jairus’ daughter from a coma, and he asked the widows club to leave him alone for a few minutes. Peter knelt down and prayed, and then said, “Tabitha rise.” And just like in Capernaum, Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up – a miracle. 

As I thought about this story I remembered another miracle from long ago in Galesburg. We had a lady there who devoted herself to what was then called material aid. Mary Alice collected blankets for Church World Service. She organized the women to cut and sew leper bandages. She sewed dresses for orphan girls. She made up layettes for poverty stricken new mothers complete with belly bands. She organized the whole congregation to put together school bags to send off to church world service for poverty stricken children overseas. One year we brought all of the school bags, blankets, layettes and dresses to the church to dedicate them before they were sent off, and the piles and piles of material aid filled the whole front of the sanctuary. It was a miracle.

Now one reason I am sharing the story of Mary Alice is because now only was she a wonder because of her industriousness, she was also a miracle, because she was severely mentally ill. Every so often she would begin hallucinating and would have to go to the hospital for a while, until her medications could be adjusted. One time when I was visiting her, she threw a cup of coffee on me, because she thought I was the devil. Of course that is not the first or last time someone has thought that.

I lift up the example of Mary Alice, because she reminds me that even though she was severely disabled by her mental illness, she still had a good heart. So often we are afraid of people who have illnesses that affect cognition. As our Monday Bible Study is discussing the book Still Alice, about a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease I see how we often dehumanize people who have mental illnesses. (After reading Still Alice, I keep checking myself. Like when I walk into the pantry and forget what I walked in there to get. I realize my own tenuous hold on cognition makes me more sympathetic out of fear for myself.)

Mary Alice in her own way was far more compassionate than many of us well ever think of being. She did not judge other people, because she had suffered judgment at the hands of others. She opened her heart to the poor, because she had found so many hearts closed to her, because of her mental illness. And not only was Mary Alice compassionate, she had purpose. By God she was going to get those dresses sown for those orphans. And not only did she have purpose for herself, she encouraged her faith community to join her in putting together school bags, and sewing leper bandages. She was an encourager of the faith of others. And for a little church that didn’t think it could do very much, the faith of Mary Alice was an incredible gift.

In the First Century symptoms of mental illness were treated as demon possession. I don’t know how Jesus healed demon possession, but then his spiritual gifts were pretty incredible. John Dominic Crossan suggests that many of the healings of Jesus, however, were not so much a cure, but a change in the way the community viewed, accepted and treated a person with an illness. Sometimes people who are mentally ill can be restored to fellowship with the community through compassion and understanding, and that is healing.

As the Monday Bible Study is discussing Still Alice, I begin to see, for instance, that there may not be a cure for dementia, but how the community and the family, treat the person with dementia as a human being of dignity and worth, that is a form of healing for an otherwise incurable disease. And I want to thank Barbara Rice for her excellent presentation to the Women’s Fellowship last month and the excellent example of faith and courage she and Larry are providing for all of us.

We still treat many forms of mental illness, especially addictions, as a kind of demon possession. We are too often unwilling to spend the money on treating mental illness, and so we end up criminalizing the victims of mental illness. We sort of double victimize the mentally ill. Your behavior is out of control and we don’t want to spend the money to hospitalize you and treat you, so we will lock you up in jail.

I believe United Church, with our commitment to openness and acceptance of all people, is uniquely suited for a ministry for and with the mentally ill. We support the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many of our families have members who are mentally ill. As one person says, this is one of the only churches where you can walk into the kitchen on Sunday morning and listen to people openly discussing what anti-depressants they are taking. We can advocate for and support mentally ill people. We can insist on respect for the basic humanity of all people regardless of who they are, where they are on life’s journey or what disability or mental illness they might suffer. We can even help persons with disabilities to express their compassion and claim a purpose in life by partnering with us in mission helping others like Mary Alice and her material aid. Some illnesses may be incurable, but if there is a community of faith that is understanding, caring, treating individuals as persons of dignity and worth there may still be healing.

Whenever I read the story of Tabitha, I am reminded of Mary Alice and her dedication to material aid. Looking back now, I am also struck by how a woman of good heart suffering serious mental illness encouraged and led her little community of faith into mission they never would have had the courage to attempt without Mary Alice’s prodding and her faithful example. And I am not sure which was the greater miracle, Tabitha’s recovery or MaryAlice’s good heart.


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