Harrowing Of Hell
October 13, 2019

Ushering in the Kingdom of God

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

As you walked in this morning, you probably walked by members of Epiphany who serve as ushers. We sometimes think of ushers just as the folks who hand us our bulletins. But, in my experience they are much more important than we realize. Our ushers were probably the first faces we saw when we first came to Epiphany. And the ushers were probably also the ones who first welcomed us and who let us know that there is, indeed, a place for us here at Epiphany.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a note from an old friend and parishioner, Debbie, which got me thinking ushers because her father, William, was an usher at Grace Church City Island for over thirty years. Bill was a great usher. He certainly was more than just the guy who handed you the program. He welcomed each and every person with a big smile and when he wished you a good morning—you knew he meant it and he would care if you weren’t having one. Sometimes we think of ushers as being particular kind of person – an extrovert—a person with a gift for gab. But while Bill wished folks a mean good morning, he almost never said anything else. In fact, after tidying up the pews at the end of service, he immediately left church to walk home. And it wasn’t because he didn’t love the church, he just didn’t do know how to make coffee hour chat — which was odd because he was such a beloved part of the City Island community. And City Island was all about small talk.

A tiny island in the middle of the Long Island Sound which measures just a mile long and at, its widest point, four city blocks wide, City Island is more reminiscent of a New England fishing village rather than a part of NYC and the Bronx where it is situated. While New York City has over 8.6 million people, City Island’s population is under five thousand. And according to the local folks not all of that population actually belongs there. City Island is all about belonging – about who knows who and who is welcome and who is not. This is evidenced by the fact that they have names for those who were born and raised on the island; the clam-diggers. And those who were not; the mussel-suckers.  Bill definitely belonged. While not, strictly speaking, a clam digger, but he was an integral part of the island and its history. Beginning after the Civil Warm, the island had become a boating center with commercial yacht and boat yards. And Bill and his partner drove the piles that anchored many of the piers and marinas in the area. And he became a “real’ member of the community by marrying a hometown “girl” upon whom he doted until her death. Bill also married into fatherhood. My friend Debbie was technically his stepdaughter, but she loved him and doted on him all his life too. She loved him not just because he loved her and her brother so much – but because he never faltered in his love for her mother who struggled through decades of alcohol addiction.  She loved him because it was Bill, her stepfather, who really raised and cared for her and her brother. He cooked for them, put them to bed, woke them, and took them to school.

Bill also married into his wife’s church – Grace Episcopal. And it was he who brought the kids to church and he who would take over his wife’s usher duties and continue in that capacity long after she and the kids stopped coming. So, I met Bill my first Sunday at Grace and began mornings with Bill all the Sundays thereafter until he could no longer do so. The first setback came after carrying an armload of two-by-fours from the Home Depot to his truck in the parking lot and down into his basement. Bill, in his late eighties, found out his long-term medication had caused his ribs to fracture under the weight. What a low blowf or such a strong man. It was through Bill’s injury, however, that his daughter and I came to know each other. And through our shared deep respect and love for this tall, quiet man that Debbie found her way back at Grace Church.

As I began looking at today’s text, Bill’s daughter messaged me to let me know that she and her husband were a couple seasons into watching the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. Anyone here watched Game of Thrones? Well for those who have not, this series centers on the battles fought by royals from the seven kingdoms who all see themselves as the legitimate heir to the coveted Iron Throne. A second plot line has to do with a war against armies of the dead who, because they seek to extinguish all life, allow the warring kingdoms to unite, at least temporarily, against a common foe.

Anyway, Bill’s daughter Debbie told me that as she was watching, she couldn’t stop thinking of me because I reminded her so much of Daenerys Targaryen, one of the claimants to the Iron Throne. A couple of seasons into this series, this a HUGE compliment. Daenerys overcomes  severe hardship and suffering to take command over a powerful army and to overthrow oppressive rulers and free slaves. It is also a great compliment because the British actor playing Daenerys is extremely beautiful and quite a bit younger than I am. Truthfully, I am not sure we share more in common than our obviously dyed blonde hair and rather prominent eyebrows. Yet Debbie wrote, “Daenerys continually reminds me so much of you. Besides looking like you, she is fair but fierce, with unmatched quiet strength. Had to tell you.” As I said before, a couple of seasons into the series, this is the most wonderful and rather undeserved compliment I can imagine. And it is one I will not soon forget. Isn’t it wonderful how our love changes the way we see folks? It can make Mother Ruth Anne, as my folks called me, into the Mother of Dragons.

In fact, I was so honored by Debbie’s lovely note that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that likening me to Daenerys wouldn’t seem nearly so complimentary in the final season when, spoiler alert, Daenerys turns vengeful and lays to waste to almost everyone and everything in the very kingdom she seeks to rule. I am praying mightily that I will never remind her or anyone else of that Daenerys.

In any case, I found this note from my friend interesting juxtaposed as it was with today’s gospel about the healing of the lepers. Because Game of Thrones highlights all-too-well the difference between earthly kingdoms and the Kingdom of God that Jesus the Messiah came to bring. For example, in sharp contrast the rulers of the 7 Kingdoms, Jesus came not to gain and legitimize his own claim to the kingdom of Israel. Rather Jesus sought to restore the inheritance given to each and every child of God. In today’s healing, Jesus reveals that in his father’s kingdom loving and caring for all of God’s children is of utmost importance. Jesus is surely the rightful heir to the throne of God’s kingdom, and yet he uses his power, to welcome and to love all –even though it seemingly goes against the law –even when though it threatens his own life.

In today’s reading for example, Jesus seemingly flouts both purity and cultural laws that separated folks. In Jesus’ time, lepers were considered ‘dead’ to the rest of their society and were to remain at least four cubits, or six feet, away from others—and 100 cubits away if the wind was blowing. While it is uncertain if ancient lepers suffered from Hansen’s disease, the name given to today’s leprous disease, Jewish law saw leprosy not only as an illness the priests. to but as a sign of God’s punishment. It is for this reason that Jesus sent those whom he healed. According to Leviticus 13 and 14, the priests were to check and monitor lesions or rashes that appeared on people to determine if they were ‘clean’ or ‘unclean.’ If found to be unclean, the person was separated from their community and forced to live in isolation away from their homes and families. In Leviticus 13:45 we read, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease… He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The historian Josephus records that lepers were also required to wear bells to warn people they were approaching.  

Can you even imagine that? Not just being forced to live in isolation or suffer the hunger and poverty that living on the edges of society entails but also having to cry out whenever anyone came near “I am unclean! I am unclean!”

Jesus does not countenance such treatment. In Chapter 5, when a leper bowed down and begged Jesus to heal him saying “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus immediately reached out, touched his hand, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Again today, Jesus heals the lepers who cry out for mercy and allows the returning leper—and a Samaritan at that—to approach him and kneel at his feet. And while in both cases he tells those he heals to go to the priests and, explicitly in one case, to observe the offerings Moses commanded, Jesus refuses to enforce the separation and isolation of lepers.  He chooses helping them. He chooses healing them and loving them over the dictates of the law. Instead of deeming them unclean, he cries out,” You are welcome! You are loved!” And it is this that the powers that be feared so much.

We often talk about how Jesus’ ministry was far from the expectations that the majority of Jews had held for the messiah. Jesus was not interested in leading an army or a revolution to regain political control over the nation of Israel. Jesus came to overthrow oppressors and to release captives, prisoners and slaves—and help them reclaim the powers that they possess as the children of God. He was not interested in an earthly kingdom either. Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of God and to remind each and every one of us that we are the rightful heirs and inheritors of God’s Kingdom. Whether we are Samaritans or Jews—clam diggers or mussel-suckers – immigrants or citizens – healthy or suffering from addiction. We are beloved of God.

While Jesus’ way of love might not seem as thrilling as Daenerys Targaryen’s raising and commanding dragons—the power of love given to us as heirs to God’s kingdom is stronger than death. It is what truly builds up and holds together families and communities.  Jesus tells us our faith can make us well—whole —complete. Love changes both the way we see people and the people we become. Love made Bill a husband and a father –  an usher and a friend. And for over thirty years, Bill’s love made Grace Church a more welcoming place. May the power of love so rule our hearts and in our minds that we may also be truly inspired to help usher in the Kingdom of God.