Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Question of Power

II Samuel 11:1-15 (Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21)
July 29, 2012

            In the spring of 1993 I was privy to a prediction.  I was attending a required conference at my seminary on Clergy Sexual Misconduct.  The key speaker and leader of the conference was Elizabeth Stellas, who was at that time a key person at the Institute for Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, Washington. 
            In her introduction Elizabeth told us that statistics predicted that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church would pay over a billion dollars in lawsuits due to sexual misconduct and abuse by priests.
            Over the last twelve years, it seems that every time I open a newspaper or tune into the news this prediction I heard in seminary appears to be coming true.  Everyday brings a new headline about yet another priest charged with abuse.  Sadly, the headlines don't seem to change much as the years go by.  In just the last month or two I’ve been reading about another priest who has been charged for sexual abuse. 
            I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking on the Roman Catholics.  I’m not.  No one particular denomination or expression of faith alone is guilty of this problem.  The reason the school coordinated and designed this conference for our campus and required attendance by both faculty and students alike was because this issue was coming to light in every mainline denomination – including the Presbyterians.  It was literally being uncovered.  And the more uncovering that was done, the more people – the clergy and laity alike – were realizing how prevalent a problem it was and still is.
            This conference was one means of educating pastors and pastors-to-be about clergy sexual misconduct – what it is and how to prevent it.  In a nutshell, clergy cannot be “involved” with their parishioners.  That’s the bottom line.  Certainly it is more complicated and more layered than just romance.  It involves secrecy and shame and guilt.  Some of what has happened within Catholicism involves pedophilia.  And though it seems to be about sexuality, it’s really an issue of power.
            The one thing that was drilled into my head over and over again in seminary – in this conference and in countless other classes as well – is that as a pastor I have a certain amount of power.  I may not feel like I have any power.  I may not believe it about myself or believe that I have any real authority, but whether I believe it or not is not the issue.  My power rests in the perception of my parishioners.  In my calling as a minister I hold a sacred trust.  I am called to serve a congregation, to care for them, to be their shepherd.  It is an abuse of my position, my authority, my call to draw anyone from my congregation into a relationship that is less than ethical.  Clergy misconduct is an issue of power.
            Other professions, other positions and offices are not immune to the abuse of power.  As I was making my way home to Oklahoma last week, I watched the press conference held by the president of the NCAA and its decision concerning Penn State.  In my opinion, if you want a case study in egregious abuses of power at all levels, look at what’s happened at Penn State.  And to use a clichéd example, like a stone thrown into a pool of water, the ripples, the consequences of what’s happened there are going to expand outward for a long time. 
This makes the story of David and Bathsheba sound like it’s been ripped from today’s headlines, doesn’t it?  Certainly David’s relationship with Bathsheba was a question of power.  I realize that there are many different opinions about what really happened between the two of them and which person was actually to blame for their affair. 
But let’s remember this: David wasn’t just some guy who looked over and saw a woman bathing on her roof.  He was the KING.  At that time he held the ultimate religious and political power.  Of course there were and probably always will be kings, rulers, dictators who abuse their power in a variety of ways.  But we have to hold David up to the light of who he was and who called him.  He was the King of Israel, a people whose national identity was based on the belief that they were the chosen people of the one true God.  What happened between David and Bathsheba and between David and her husband Uriah was a question of power, an abuse of a king’s power.  And how does the expression go?  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
            It is unfair to say that David was absolutely corrupt, because there are many other instances where he wasn’t.  I don’t believe that David was some sort of evil tyrant.  In many ways he was a good king.  But in this case King David had absolute power.  Women in that society, in that time, in that culture did not.  Bathsheba’s only power was through her husband, Uriah.  When the king beckoned her to come to him, she had to go.  Knowing this makes me question how much control or choice she had in what came next.  I doubt that she had much choice, but even if she did, even if she acted somewhat of her own accord, David was the King.  David held all of the power in that situation.  And David used it, not only to have Bathsheba for himself, but also to have Uriah put in harm’s way to cover up the scandal David's abuses created.  When David cannot convince Uriah to go against his duty and lie with his wife, the king, without any sense of remorse or regret, then acts to put Uriah at the front, in the sure line of fire.
            Clearly David abuses his power.  Instead of using his power as King to protect and benevolently lead the people he ruled, he used it instead to serve his own needs, to get what he wanted.  And the consequences of his actions are only beginning to be realized in this first part of the story.
            David’s use and misuse of his power provides a striking contrast to the power Jesus uses in today’s passage from John’s gospel.  Jesus proves his power in the feeding of thousands of people from the meager offering of one boy.  He proves his power by walking on the water toward his disciples caught in a strong wind on a rough sea.
            Neither act of power was for show.  They were done for the nourishment of the people, for the reassurance of his closest followers, and these acts of power were proven not by what he did, but by what he didn’t do.  He didn’t stop his own death.
            Here was a man who could heal with a touch.  People went to Jesus believing they would be healed if only they touched his garments.  And they were!  He fed thousands!  He walked on water!  He preached with an authority that had never been witnessed before.  He frequently got the better of the religious professionals of the day.  He knew what was coming, he knew how his life on earth would end, and with all of his power, it is not hard to believe that he could have found a way to change the ending, but he didn’t.
            It’s significant that Jesus withdrew from the large crowds because they wanted to make him king.  He wasn’t about to be forced into that kind of position, and it wasn’t the kind of power he wanted.  Jesus knew that his greatest power came not from what he could do, but from what he didn’t do.  Jesus’ greatest power was his willingness, even his determination to be the suffering servant, to lay down his life so that countless others might live.
            Jesus held the power of the suffering servant, and that was his greatest power.  And if Jesus was a living testament to the nature of God, doesn’t it follow that God’s power is not the kind of power that hits us like a lightning bolt from the heavens, zapping us when we’re out of line.  God’s power is God’s eternal capacity for love, for mercy and for grace.
            When Paul in his letter to the Ephesians prays for the church in Ephesus and for us to be “strengthened in our inner beings with power through his Spirit” maybe this kind of power is the power that Paul prays for us to feel and to know.
            The power of God isn’t about position or politics.  It isn’t about having license to do whatever we want to do, to serve our own needs while flaunting or abusing the needs of others.  Being filled with God’s power gives us the power to love as God loves.  Being filled with God’s power gives us the power to show mercy when we are wronged, to show grace to someone who has hurt us.  Being filled with God’s power gives us the power not only to show these qualities of character but to live them.
            How wonderful if everyday I could live loving others the way God loves me.  If I could live as mercifully toward others the way God has shown me mercy.  If I could live as graciously toward others the way God has offered me grace.  How wonderful it would be, how much strength and true power would my life really hold?  But I am very far away from this goal.  Maybe some of you are too.  So then, Paul’s prayer still holds true for all of us.  May all of us find the power, the true power of God, may we be filled with it, strengthened by it, live according to its call, and may this power, this real and true power, root us and ground us in the love of God.  Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Silver Platter

Mark 6:14-29
July 15, 2012

            Sometimes being a prophet means getting your head handed to you on a silver platter.
            Bishop Oscar Romero was an El Salvadoran priest.  He is considered a saint of the church, and we often hear his name in connection with All Saint’s Day.  Bishop Romero was made Archbishop of San Salvador to the disappointment of many of El Salvador’s priests who were working for the liberation of the poor and promoting the work of liberation theology. 
            Romero was a conservative choice; the powers that be in the El Salvadoran government saw him as a safe choice.  He wouldn’t shake things up or cause any kinds of problems for them.  I’m sure that certain people in that government saw him as an easy, malleable mouthpiece for their ideology.  In other words he wouldn’t get in their way.
            But then another Jesuit priest, a good friend of Romero’s, was assassinated for his work with the poor and his stand against the government.  This was a defining moment in Romero’s life.  When he saw his friend’s dead body, he knew that was being called to walk that same path. 
            So he took up the cause of the poor.  He spoke against the government.  He was unafraid to call into question the injustice of those in power and with privilege.  In March of 1980 Romero was assassinated as he presided over mass.  The gun shots were fired as he raised the chalice during the Eucharist. 
            Sometimes being a prophet means getting your head handed back to you on a silver platter.  Sometimes being a prophet costs you your life.
            I don’t say that lightly or in jest.  Being a prophet, speaking prophetically to the powers that be, especially when you are speaking against the powers that be, is a dangerous thing to do.  Bishop Romero is just one example.  Certainly there are many, many others.  Answering the prophetic call is a dangerous thing to do. 
            Studying our passage today and studying the verses around it, I wonder if the twelve disciples didn’t feel at least a little hesitant about going out on their own when Jesus sent them.  Were they being called to suffer the same fate as John the Baptizer?  Would they have to sacrifice their very lives for the message of good news that they shared?
            At the end of the passage we read last week Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples to go out two by two into villages and towns.  He gave them the authority to cast out unclean spirits and heal the sick and the lame.  And this is what King Herod heard about in our passage today.  Jesus’ name and fame had been spreading.  Now even his disciples were going out into the countryside, healing and proclaiming repentance.
            That made Herod nervous.  He was scared.  Because maybe this fellow doing all these things was actually John raised from the dead.  And if it was John, would he be coming after Herod?
            King Herod imprisoned John because John told Herod that he was wrong in marrying his brother Phillip’s wife, Herodias.  John never hesitated to proclaim to Herod that his marriage was unlawful.
            Surprisingly enough, Herod wasn’t angered by this as much as he was frightened.  Herod was actually scared of John.  He knew that John was righteous and holy.  Maybe he was scared of John’s authority or strangeness or complete conviction that he spoke the truth of God.  Maybe he was scared because he knew that John was right in what he was saying about Herod’s marriage.  Whatever the reason, Herod protected John.  He protected John probably as a way of protecting himself.
            But Herod’s wife, Herodias, felt differently.  Her grudge against John ran deep.  She wanted to see him dead but was thwarted in her desire because of Herod’s protection. Her chance finally came, however, during Herod’s birthday party.  The dance that her daughter, often called Salome, did for Herod and his companions pleased him so much that he promised her anything she wished.  When she asked her mother’s advice on how to have Herod fulfill that promise, the response was instant, “the head of John the Baptizer.”
            This story sounds like something out of a crime story, doesn’t it?  A little Law and Order in the gospel.  And it seems more than a little strange that Mark goes into such great detail about it.  Matthew’s gospel tells the story, but it doesn’t seem to have as much emphasis placed on it.  Luke’s gospel mentions it in only a few verses and then moves on. But Mark seems to find it very important.
            It certainly presents a pattern as to what happens to prophets.  John’s story parallels in some ways the story of Jesus.  And this story also serves as a cautionary tale that discipleship is not easy.  It’s not always pleasant and it certainly wont’ be profitable.  The twelve disciples, heading out in different directions, certainly had to realize this and we have to realize it as well.  Discipleship isn’t easy because we are called to do difficult things and speak difficult truths.  We’re called to love and care for difficult people.  We’re called to reach out to others, to step outside of our comfort zones.  And we’re called to speak the truth to the powers and principalities – even if speaking that truth means great risk to ourselves.  Even though speaking that truth and calling people and institutions to accountability may mean that we literally or figuratively receive the same fate as John – our head on a platter.
            The telling of the story of John’s beheading is done through flashback.  Mark writes that the reason Herod is nervous about Jesus and his disciples is that he fears a return from John.  The use of flashback means the disciples probably knew John’s story.  They knew what happened to him.  They knew that what they were doing carried great risk and danger.  John’s story is a reminder about what can happen when someone steps outside of the status quo.  Teaching and preaching outside of the social, cultural and religious lines was a dangerous and risky thing to do.  It cost John his very life, and we, the readers and the hearers of this gospel can see that John’s story is also a foreshadowing of another death yet to come.
            I have long been fascinated with John the Baptist, the baptizer.  The prophet who one day appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming the need for a baptism of repentance.  He was a strange and charismatic man.  His clothes were strange, his words were strange, even his diet was strange.  He stood out.  And he never shirked from saying what he believed God was calling him to say.  Just before Jesus begins his public ministry, we hear of John’s arrest.  Now we know the rest of the story. 
            But what does it mean for us?  What does it mean to hear about this terrible death of a prophet?  Maybe we read this story so that we can answer a question.  When the time comes for us to stand up, to speak the truth, to act prophetically, what will we do?  What will we risk? 
            A few years ago, I heard about a woman named Leymah Gbowee.  Leymah is a woman from the African country, Liberia.  Her work for peace in her country has gained her international recognition, including winning the Nobel Prize. 
            Describing her work in that way doesn’t really do justice to what this woman, along with hundreds and hundreds of other women, did to bring peace to their troubled country.  Liberia had lingered in a civil war for many years under the dictatorship of President Charles Taylor.  In that civil war, children were forced into being soldiers, women and children were raped and tortured and thousands of innocents were killed.  Leymah said in an interview that from the time she was 18 until she was 31, she lived in fear.  She admits that she never wanted to put herself at risk.  She never wanted to put her family at risk.  But she felt that she was called, as a Christian, to speak out against the violence that was happening all around her.  Along with other Christian women, she began a peace movement.  They began to protest with sit-ins, sitting in a field on a route that the president would have to pass by twice  a day.  Their sit-ins brought attention to the atrocities that were happening to their children and their country. 
            Like any movement it started slowly, but it gained momentum.  Leymah and the women who stood with her even had a chance to confront President Taylor in front of the other leaders of the government and a large assembled crowd.  It was Leymah and the other women who kept the peace talks going between the differing groups at a peace summit in Ghana. 
            Leymah, this woman who had once been so afraid and so scared to speak up and speak out, become a prophet.  Her story ends well.  But it could have been much different, and I suspect that she is still in danger because of her willingness to confront the evil in the powers and principalities around her.  I suspect that she could still wind up with her head on a platter.  But she did it anyway.  Just like John.  Just like the disciples.  Just like Jesus. 
            We know that what we are called to do will not be easy.  We know that being a disciple is about taking risks.  We know that at some point we all may be called to be prophetic.  But we also know that no matter what, we are not alone.  We stand on the shoulders of all those who have gone before us.  And through faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, we know that when our time comes we will have the courage to stand up and be counted.  Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

This Was Our First Rodeo!

                My son Zach and I went to our first rodeo last night.  What I’m about to write next will sound like a contradiction at best, definitely paradoxical.  It was fun.  We were bored. 

            A word of introduction; Shawnee, Oklahoma plays host to the International Finals Youth Rodeo.  This is a great event for our city.  Young people from all over the world know about Shawnee.  It obviously brings people together.  The rodeo is a good thing for Shawnee and for the people who participate.  Going to it was fun.  It was fun to shop for our cowboy hats at the trade show before the evening events kicked off.  It was fun to see the different people who attended.  I saw one of my parishioners on the way in, and chatted.  Two of my other parishioners were honored for their long time volunteering for the rodeo.  I know absolutely nothing about horses, but they were beautiful.  It was fun!

            At the same time, it was boring. Those were Zach’s words.  “I’m bored.”  When we left and were walking out to our car, he explained to me why he thought it was boring.  He liked the events.  He liked watching the cowgirls and cowboys ride their horses, rope calves, and race around the poles.  Definitely the bucking broncos were exciting.  But he didn’t understand it.  He didn’t get it, so he was bored.  So was I.

            What I didn’t know about rodeos is that there is a whole culture built up around this.  It has its own lingo.  Clothing lines that I’d never heard of, like Cinch, Justin and Cruel, are huge at the rodeo!  I figured out that they were going for the best times in the competitions.  How long can you stay on a bucking horse?  How fast can you rope a calf?  How quickly can you race your horse around poles and not knock any of them down?  The competitors and their families and it seemed like most of the folks who were there seemed to have been immersed in this life their whole lives.  But what about Zach and I?  We were clueless. 

            You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?  What about the church?  Do you think the people who visit our churches leave as confused and bewildered as Zach and I were at the rodeo?  I bet they do.  And I bet the complaint that church is boring to some may in fact stem from feeling clueless, and worse, excluded. 

            It’s overly simplistic to say that all the antagonism I see in our larger culture against the church comes from merely being bored by a Sunday service.  But what about feeling excluded?  Ignored?  Unwelcomed?  I don’t think those of us who grew up immersed in the language of church realize that there are many other people who just don’t understand what we’re saying.  They may have a genuine interest in being part of a community of faith, but they come to church and don’t get it.  So they leave bored, frustrated and disinclined to visit again. 

            Let’s not forget the power of being welcomed either.  In today’s typical church, any church, we assume we’re friendly and welcoming because we’re friendly and welcoming to one another.  That doesn’t necessarily translate or transfer to someone new. 

            In the summer of 2006 my family went on a sabbatical to Michigan.  After we'd returned to our home in Iowa, one sunny Sunday morning the kids and I decided to visit the large church across the street from our house.  We had no other church commitments that morning and it seemed like a good time to try something new.  As I said, this was our neighbor church.  Across the street from the home we lived in for 11 years.  This was a relatively small town.  Neighbors knew one another.  In spite of this no one, except one of the three pastors, said hello to us.  No one welcomed us.  No one offered their hand.  No one invited us to stay for fellowship or asked our name or greeted us in anyway.  We were that church’s neighbors!  And we were excluded.  Although that church was a different denomination, the language wasn’t a barrier, because we are church goers.  But the lack of welcome was. 

            My point is a simple one.  We bemoan the decline in membership in every mainline denomination in this country.  But what is it about church that really attracts people?  I don’t write this as a way of saying that churches need to jump on the do-any-kind-of-worship-or-program-there-is-in-the-desperate-hope-we’ll-get-new-members bandwagon.  However I do believe that we have to welcome critique about the welcome we give people.  I believe we have to talk about the language we use.  I think we have to think about what we do or don’t do that makes people get it or just leave bored. 

            I realized that had someone who spoke rodeo sat with Zach and I last night and taken the time to explain the events, what was happening, what was at stake, it would have contributed exponentially to our experience and fun.  Maybe being willing to do the same thing during worship or fellowship or in a phone call or over a cup of coffee with someone seeking God might help them go from clueless to curious.  Maybe if we shared the love and joy and passion we find in our faith in everyday terms, a life or two just might be transformed.  Maybe it will be our own.  
We do look cool in our hats!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Different Kind of Jesus

Mark 6:1-13
July 8, 2012

            A few years ago, before I started the call process that lead me here, I went looking for a new pastoral call.  However my heart wasn’t really in the search.  I wasn’t sure I was ready to move or take a full-time call yet.  So I got my paperwork together, limited my geographical search and didn’t have a lot of confidence that anything would come from it.
            I did talk with a few churches, but the most interesting query I received actually was from the Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Maryland.  It was interesting because this church was my first call out of seminary.  I went there as an Associate Pastor.  In the e-mail correspondence I had with the chair of the search committee, whose name I did not recognize, I told him that I had already served there.  His response was that he knew that, and there were members of the search committee who remembered me and were eager for me to come back. 
            I’m not immune to flattery and this was flattering, so I told him I’d really think and pray about it.  And I did.  The conclusion I came to was that even if I’d felt compelled to pursue that call, going back to where I’d once been was too fraught with problems.  I realized that there’d be a lot of people who would be glad to have me back, but they’d expect the young, naïve pastor I’d once been.  I’d grown as a pastor and as a person in the years since I’d left Rockville.  But I believe it is human nature to forget that fact.  I wasn’t sure that I could pastor that church, not in the way I would want.  So I respectfully declined.
            It wasn’t all that hard to make that decision when it came to going back to Rockville.   But had a call come from a church in Nashville, Tennessee, that would have been a different story altogether.  Nashville is my hometown, and I often say that had I known when I moved away from there that I would never go back, I’m not sure I would have ever left. 
            Had a call come from Nashville, I would have been tempted to take it whether or not it was a real call, a good match or anything else.  That’s because there’s a part of me that will always long to go home again.  Nashville maintains a rosy glow in my mind. 
            The problem though is that there is a disconnect between my rosy image and Nashville as it actually is.  It’s not that Nashville isn’t a great city.  It is.  It’s just that it’s not the city I grew up in.  It has grown and changed and evolved, in ways that I think are both good and bad.  So whenever I make a visit, it is somewhat disorienting.  I have to relearn my way around and figure out what makes my city tick all over again. 
            If I’m disoriented by the changes I encounter in my hometown, I can only imagine how disoriented the people of Jesus’ hometown must have been encountering him. 
            Jesus and the disciples came into town.  As soon as the Sabbath arrives, Jesus did what he does, which is not only to attend services at the local synagogue, but to teach and interpret the Word of God to all who will listen.  But that’s where the trouble started.    
            The people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching with authority, as people often are when it comes to Jesus, but these are the people who knew him when.  These are the folks who remember him when he was a kid.  These are the people who know his family.  These are the ones who hold the stories of his childhood.  So when the man that Jesus had become stood up and preached and taught and did all of it with the authority of not just a really talented preacher and teacher, but as the One with the authority of the divine, they can’t hear it.  They cannot get past their memories of him as the carpenter’s son and see him for who and for what he really is. 
            Not only could they NOT get past their memories of Jesus, who Jesus had become offended them.  Jesus realized what was happening and said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 
            From that point on, Jesus couldn’t do anything for them.  He couldn’t do any deeds of power.  Sure, he was able to heal a few people with the laying on of hands, but considering how many he’d been able to heal before, this was pretty much nothing. Then we leave this part of our passage with these words, “and he was amazed at their unbelief.”
            He could do no deeds of power and he was amazed at their unbelief.
            This is not the kind of Jesus we’re used to hearing.  This is a different kind of Jesus.  A Jesus whose ability to heal and perform deeds of power was stymied by the unbelief of the people around him. 
            This is such a remarkably different kind of Jesus that when Matthew and Luke take on this story in their gospels they change this part.  In Matthew’s gospel Jesus chooses not to do anything.  The people’s unbelief doesn’t thwart him.  He makes a conscious choice not to heal.  And Luke just leaves this bit out altogether. 
            Yet this is one of the main reasons why I love the gospel of Mark.  As challenging as Mark can be, it is in this gospel more than any other where Jesus’ humanity rises to the top.  But that’s what is both frustrating and a little frightening about this gospel, especially this passage.  We see Jesus as very, very human.  And with his humanity comes human limitations.  He can’t do any deeds of power.  This is not a choice he makes.  He can’t do it. 
            This makes sense in light of last week’s story as well.  The woman who has bled for twelve years doesn’t ask Jesus to heal her.  She touches his clothing and his power leaves him.  It is a completely passive healing on Jesus’ part.  He has no control over it.  The power leaves him without his willing it or doing something to make it happen.  He has power but he has no power over how it is used in that particular moment.  And in today’s story, whatever power he has used in other places is useless here.  He can’t do any deeds of power in his hometown.
            A Jesus who can’t do something is definitely a different kind of Jesus, isn’t he?  I suspect that many people don’t want this kind of Jesus.  They want a Jesus who has absolute power.  They want a Jesus, they want a God, who is in absolute control over all things, all events, all places, all people at all times.  So to hear that Jesus can’t do something is scary.  I think it’s scary because it presents an image of Jesus as powerless.  Whether I like to admit it aloud or not, I feel powerless most of the time.  The last thing I want is the God I worship to be powerless too.
            But here’s where I think we have to parse out the word power.  As I see it, our human way of understanding power is to equate it with control.  I am powerful if I am in control.  If I can maneuver and manipulate all the aspects of my life then I have control, and subsequently I have power. 
            Yet when we read the gospel, not just Mark’s gospel but all the gospels carefully, this is not the power that is portrayed.  Jesus’ power, his real power, comes from being the suffering servant.  It comes from his weakness, from his obedience.  He heals and preaches and teaches and does great deeds but it’s not through control or manipulative power.  It’s through love.
            That’s where Jesus’ power really comes from, isn’t it?  It’s through love.   
            The people who experience that love, that power, are transformed by Jesus.  Whether they are healed of a physical ailment or their hearts are softened, they experience the power of Jesus when they experience his love. 
            And therein lies the rub of this passage.  The burden of responsibility is placed on the people.  Jesus can’t do great deeds of power because the people are not receptive to him.  They close their minds and their hearts to him.  They refuse to see him as anything but Mary and Joseph’s kid.  So he can’t do for them all the things he’s done for others.  Their lack of belief limits Jesus.
            So here is the question I think we all must ask ourselves.  How are we limiting Jesus?  How are we being unreceptive?  Are we keeping Jesus’ ability to heal us at bay because of a wound we won’t acknowledge or a grudge we won’t let go of?  Are there ways in which we’re making it impossible for Jesus to do any deeds of power in our lives because of our unbelief? 
            This is a different kind of Jesus to be sure.  But the reality of Jesus’ humanity does not lessen the good news of love.  Jesus’s power is the power of love.  And I believe that it is love that can break down every wall we construct to keep Jesus and one another out.  The people of Jesus’ hometown may have thwarted his ability to heal or do great deeds of power.  But they did not limit his love. Let’s not limit ours.  Alleluia.  Amen.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Great Interruption

Mark 5:21-43
July 1, 2012

            When I was a young teenager, 13 and 14, I volunteered for two summers at Outlook Nashville. Outlook Nashville was a daycare facility for infants and children with special needs.  The staff cared for children who had cerebral palsy, mental retardation, Down’s Syndrome and other physical and mental challenges.
            I was intimidated by it all at first, but I loved kids.  So I threw myself into working with them.  This was in the ancient times when you didn’t have to have background checks and references, etc.  I just called and asked if they needed volunteers, they said “yes,” and my mother dropped me off on her way to work.
            One of the little girls we cared for was named Autumn.  I believe she had cerebral palsy, but my memory is a little dim on that point anymore.  She was a darling little girl, no more than three, and even though Autumn couldn’t walk or talk, she had no problem making her needs known.
            Autumn was the happiest little girl ever.  To describe her disposition as sunny is an understatement.  She loved all the people at the daycare.  She was always glad to be there and she got along well with the other kids and the teachers.  But the person Autumn really, truly deeply loved was her mom.  I’m sure she loved the rest of her family too, but as it was always her mother who dropped her off and picked her up, we only saw that particular interaction. 
            Autumn didn’t just love her mother.  She had an extra sense about her.  That sweet little girl knew in the depths of her being when her mother was about to arrive to pick her up.
            The staff always knew when Autumn’s mama had pulled into the parking lot because Autumn would literally start to tremble with excitement.  Her mom would come into the outer office, and even before Autumn heard the sound of her mother’s voice, she would be wiggling and squeaking with excitement.  If you were working in the room with Autumn that day, you didn’t need a clock to know it was Autumn’s pick up time.  You just watched Autumn.  Everyone who worked there, teachers, staff and volunteers like me watched for this phenomenon, because it never ceased to be amazing.
            If somehow Autumn’s mother managed to sneak into the classroom without Autumn seeing her – and believe me this didn’t happen very often – Autumn would start to look around wildly, because she knew, just knew that mommy was close by.  Autumn had more than her share of mental and physical issues, but there was another kind of sense going on there.  Autumn could perceive her mother’s love on a different level than most so-called “normal” people.  All of us who had the opportunity to witness this sense in action were blessed because of it.
            Autumn had a different sense, a different kind of knowing and perception than most people when it came to her mother.  In this passage from Mark, we read stories about two people who seem to know on a different level that Jesus will help them, and where Jesus put his own ability to sense, to know, to perceive into action as well. 
            Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, was in the crowd who had gathered by the sea awaiting Jesus’ arrival.  He was probably putting his reputation and religious career on the line by being there.  But his little daughter was deathly ill, and what parent among us wouldn’t sacrifice everything we had to save our child?  Jairus was completely vulnerable and made himself more vulnerable still by rushing to Jesus for help.  Jairus knew, he just knew that if Jesus would come and lay his hands on his daughter, she would be made well.  So as soon as he sees Jesus he falls at his feet and begs him to come and heal his little girl. 
            As Jesus is making his way toward Jairus’ house, there is another person who just knew that Jesus could help her.  The woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years.  Twelve years!  There is no reason given for why this woman bled for so long, but we do know that she spent every last cent she had on physicians and doctors.  But none of them could make her well.  None of their treatments worked.  The text tells us that she had “endured much under many physicians.”  I suspect that means that she had been given every test, every treatment, every cure known to a doctor of that time.  Still nothing worked.  She had only grown steadily worse.
            Yet now Jesus has come, and this unnamed woman knows.  She just knows that if she can only touch him, if she can just grasp his clothing for a fleeting second, she’ll be cured.  All will be well.
            The woman does this.  Her determination must have been great because the crowd was large and she had been ill for a long time.  I doubt she was strong.  But she pushed her way through that crowd and touched Jesus’ cloak before the crowd could surge against her or her own courage failed.  As soon as she did this, as soon as she touched his robe her bleeding stopped.  She knew that something was different.  She could feel it in her body.  The bleeding had stopped and she was finally, finally healed.
            All of this in itself is amazing.  We could stop the story right here and know that a miracle had happened.  Outside of knowing the fate of Jairus’ daughter, nothing more would need to be said.  It is a miracle!  But the amazing events continue.  Jesus knows something has happened as well.  He perceives that power has left him.  He realizes something out of the ordinary has happened.
            So he stops where he is and calls out, “Who touched me?”  My reaction to this is much like the disciples.  What do you mean, “Who touched you?”  Have you seen the size of this crowd?  There are about a gazillion people trying to touch you, reach you.  Folks are coming at you from all sides, how can you possibly know that one person touched you in the midst of all these others?
            But Jesus knew.  He knew something was different.  He knew something had happened.  He felt the woman’s healing just as she did.  The poor woman must have been terrified beyond belief.  Certainly she must have felt a thrill of fear that Jesus could sense the power that had moved between the two of them.  But beyond that she was ritually unclean.  Not only had she touched Jesus, she had touched a whole lot of other people in her push to get to Jesus.  For twelve years she would have gone without a normal family life, and without participating fully in the life of the synagogue because to come into contact with her would have contaminated others.  She should have been nowhere near a great crowd such as this, and certainly nowhere near a teacher such as Jesus.  Her very presence there was a violation of the Law.
            So I’m sure she was afraid, very afraid.  Afraid of potential punishment and the consequences that would come because of her desperate need to touch Jesus.  She occupied a much lower place in society than Jairus did, but their need for Jesus was an equalizer, wasn’t it?  They were both willing to be completely vulnerable in order to receive the healing they so desperately needed. 
            For this woman the consequences to her actions could be very great indeed.  But in spite of her fear and dread, she owns up to what she did.  She steps out from the others, out from hiding, falls down before Jesus and confesses what she has done.  However instead of reprimands and rebukes, Jesus says to her, “Daughter your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be healed of your disease.”
            This woman believed.  She sensed, she knew that she could be healed by Jesus.  She knew that all she had to do was touch his robe and her cure would come.  She was right.
            But Jesus’ healing doesn’t stop with this woman.  Lest we forget, her healing was an interruption to Jesus’ original purpose.  He was on his way to Jairus’ house to heal his daughter.  Without meaning to, the woman interrupted Jesus.  She seemingly distracted him from his initial intent.  In fact as Jesus once more moves ahead to Jairus’ house, some folks who had been waiting come to him and inform him that Jairus’ daughter has died.  There’s no point in bothering Jesus any longer.
            Jesus overhears them and tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Only believe.  He and just a few of the disciples go to Jairus’ house.  The mourners have gathered.  In spite of their wailing and weeping, they can’t contain their laughter when Jesus announces that the little girl is only sleeping.  Their laughter doesn’t stop Jesus.  He takes the girl’s hand and says, “Talitha cum.”  As the text tells us this means, “Little girl, get up.”  She does what she’s told.  She gets up.  She walks about the room.  She is healed!
            Jairus knew.  Jairus believed that Jesus could heal his daughter.  And his deep sense, his absolute belief in Jesus’ healing ability was fulfilled.  The woman who bled for twelve years knew as well.  She believed without hesitation that merely touching the clothes Jesus wore would give the healing she sought. 
I wish I knew like they did.  I wish I felt the same urgency to reach Jesus, to fall on my knees before him, to believe that even just grasping his robes would give me the healing I desire.  I do believe.  I believe that God through Christ has a power to change hearts and minds, and that how that happens is most often beyond my understanding.  But I take my belief for granted.  I’ve done my seeking.  Even if I weren’t a pastor, I’d still be here, in church, participating in worship. 
            But I think that sometimes our faith grows complacent.  Our urgency to seek Jesus only surfaces in crisis.  It was desperation that made both Jairus and the woman willingly make themselves vulnerable and turn to Jesus for help.  Perhaps the one thing we can take from this passage is the understanding that seeking Jesus is a lifelong pursuit.  Jesus told Jairus, “do not fear, only believe.”  So fear must give way to belief.  Worries must give way to trust.  Each day we are called to make our way towards Jesus, determined, unafraid, vulnerable, and willing to accept whatever consequences may come from reaching him.  Every day we need to repeat Jesus’ words over and over again – do not fear, only believe.  From this we know, we know and we believe and we hope that miracles are possible, for all of us, for all of God’s children.  Amen.