Scripture Reading - Psalm 139
Psalm 139 (The Message)
139 1-6 God, investigate my life;
get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too--
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful--
I can’t take it all in!
7-12 Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute--
you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
13-16 Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.
17-22 Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them--
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!--
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!
23-24 Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong--
then guide me on the road to eternal life.
When we lived in Haverhill, there was this wonderful gallery that sold art from all over the world. I don’t remember the name of the store even though it was a place we visited several times a year - it has since closed - but I remember Margot who owned the shop. She traveled everywhere and formed relationships with artists, sculptors, craftspeople - and would purchase their goods to bring to her shop to sell. Some of my favorite work was done by an Israeli artist who works in ceramics and one year for our anniversary, Ben purchased some bowls and a plate that I had had my eye on for forever. I loved the colors and the design - they were definitely items that - as organizing consultant Marie Kondo would say - sparked joy. Whenever I looked at them.
We’d bring these bowls out whenever we had dinner parties or large gatherings - and one day, a couple years ago - it might have even been during my clumsy phase when I was pregnant with Michael - I went to put the bowl away and it slipped out of my hand and broke on the counter into two neat pieces.
Easy enough to fix - so I put it away in a drawer until I had the time and energy to fix it...but it became one of those little projects that I just never got around to, until one day, I was looking for something in the drawer and I pulled the drawer out too far and...everything came spilling out, including the bowl, now split into several pieces - and now most likely beyond repair.
I’ve kept it wondering - should I try to fix it? It seems like I could glue it back together, but for a big missing piece out of the top. Or - is it time to let it go - offer it to the mercy of the winds and waves and beachcombers, and hope that a precious fragment or two might make its way back to me as a momento?
We begin this season of Lent with this worship series called Holy Vessels: God’s Healing and Wholeness, using the image and journey of seaglass as a metaphor for understanding our own journey with God. We here in the West, when we think about Lent and this season of “penance”, we often associate it with suffering. Deprivation. Denying ourselves as a way of turning away from what is wrong and turning more fully toward what is right, turning more fully toward God.
However, in the Eastern Orthodox church, penance is less about suffering and more about restoration and reconciliation - allowing God to heal what has been hurt and broken within us. It is about preparing to live an Easter life - a life where death has no hold over us.
Each of us has been created as a precious vessel of God’s love. Uniquely gifted, infinitely valued, fashioned and treasured by God. And yet - each of us has experienced hurt and brokenness in our lives -- some of us have had the pieces of our lives shatter on the floor in one big traumatic event...some of us have had experienced the hurts and pains of hundreds of small chips flaking from our souls. Some of us have felt it all.
We live with brokenness. It is part of our reality as human beings - even as it is also true that God created us as whole beings and yearns to bring us once again back to wholeness - and holiness.
The beauty of Psalm 139 is that God sees us and knows us. God knows what is in our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our bodies down to the number of hairs on our head, knows our deepest inner longings and fears, is intimately familiar with what brings us joy, what gets us angry, what wounds we carry. There are no surprises - God’s presence surrounds us at every stage of our life, no matter if we are aware of it or not, no matter if we try to hide from God or not.
God knows every hairline fracture, every jagged edge, every missing shard, every chip and crack we carry - and God loves us...and desires to heal us.
The response of the psalmist to such utter intimate knowledge is one of trust - “Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong--
then guide me on the road to eternal life.”
Guide me on your healing path - bring me to that place of healing and wholeness and life in your love. That is the prayer of the psalmist - and it is our prayer as well.
You’ll find scattered around the sanctuary pieces of seaglass that are still in process - there are smooth edges and edges that are still unformed. Each piece of this seaglass began as something discarded. Thrown away. Carelessly discarded and forgotten and broken. A beer bottle. An old vase, no longer useful. A chipped plate. An empty jar. When we find ourselves up against the challenges in life - the loss of a job, the betrayal of a friend, the devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the project that failed, the struggle with addiction or mental illness, facing our own insecurities and shortcomings - it can feel a lot like being broken apart and tossed to the side.
And yet - when pain comes and we feel discarded and worthless, when we feel lost and forgotten about - it’s not the end of the story. The glass began its journey as something thrown away, but as it found its way to the waters, tossed about by sand and sea, refined and worked and transformed by the wind and the waves - it becomes a mineral gem, something beautiful, sought after, and treasured. In the same way, when suffering comes, God can work in us and restore us, transforming those broken, jagged edges into places of beauty, and there is healing to be found in the God who searches us and gathers us up into communion and fellowship with one another - who brings us into love and forgiveness - who makes us whole again and who offers us the opportunity to turn toward new life….and we are reminded that in our beginning and in our ending and in all of our life - we belong to God.
We’re going to have a moment for silence and reflection, and I’d like you to prayerfully consider your own life. This Lent, as we journey with one another and with God, what are those fractured places in your life that need God’s healing? What are the jagged edges that God desires to restore? Where does God yearn to create beauty from your brokenness? Let’s take some time to silently name those places.
During our next hymn, you’re invited to come forward and take one of the pieces of seaglass on the table here and use a sharpie to write down a word or a phrase that represents where you’d like God to bring wholeness for you...and to place it on the altar as a way of offering your brokenness to God for healing. These pieces will stay here during the next five weeks in this space as a symbol that God holds all our hurt and pain and suffering together - and brings us wholeness. If you are moved to do so, you are also invited to spend time at the altar rail for prayer...to pray for God to work in you...to remind yourself that God knows you and loves you...to remember that the hurts and wounds we experience don’t mark the end of our story, but are part of our journey with the God who leads us to new life, who enables us to die to the parts of ourselves that prevent us from experiencing God’s love, and who reminds us that the things of death cannot hold us.
May we together turn toward life in God’s love, offering our brokenness to God for transformation and healing, as we stand and sing together “You Are Mine” number 2218 in the black hymnal.
*Hymn - You are Mine (FWS 2218)
Scripture Reading - Luke 9:28-43
Luke 9:28-43 (NRSV)
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
*Hymn - Holy Ground (FWS 2272)
If I’m being completely honest this morning, when I first approached this text earlier this week, it was with a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism - not so much doubting that these events transpired or dismissing the glorious, miraculous nature with which Jesus was transformed before the disciples’ eyes or diminishing power displayed during the banishment of the evil spirits from the man’s young son...but more so wondering what in the world does this story have to tell us here today when the denomination this church belongs to was on the brink of transformation and not only fell short, but took a giant, massive step backward in its witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m not just talking about the vote to enact stricter, more punitive laws around clergy who stand up for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers or those who identify as such seeking ordination. I’m also talking about the way in which the denomination handled that business together - a process full of political maneuvering, allegations of vote buying, dismissal of one another’s humanity - even after a full day of being in prayer together.
One bystander, an ordained United Methodist elder, shared his observation of General Conference on Facebook, writing these words:
It would seem that the famous observation of one of the leaders of the early church, Tertullian, has been reversed. In referring to Christians in the 3rd century, he said that pagans were baffled by the witness of the followers of Jesus: “See how they love one another,” they would say.
Now, in our modern day, in the wake of our General Conference, those outside the church are equally baffled by the witness of some of the followers of Jesus: “See how they hurt one another,” they must be saying.
Contrast this scene to the ones we have from scripture this morning - first where Jesus is depicted in all his glory, standing side by side with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures from Jewish history - representing the law and the prophets - dressed in brilliant white. Peter, James, and John, not knowing quite what to do with it all, but seeing that something important was going on and wanting to capture the moment, offered to erect tents - one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah - but before they could do anything, they hear a thunderous voice from the cloud proclaiming Jesus as God’s chosen one. And then they descend the mountain, amazed - if perplexed - by this display of God’s greatness….and again see Jesus in action with the healing of a boy tormented by demons - a boy, incidentally, that the disciples were unable to heal. The story ends with “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
All were astounded at the greatness of God.
Both stories reflect God’s greatness - God’s work - God’s movement and healing and glory. What happened in our texts wasn’t based on human maneuvering, wasn’t rooted in the disciples agendas or plans - even the healing of the boy wasn’t something the disciples could even accomplish on their own - it’s not about human work, our initiatives, our plans or machinations - but about the power of a God who acts and moves in ways beyond our understanding, that leave us astounded and amazed and that reminds us that God meets us at the limits of our own power and planning and does that which we cannot do...all so that it can be God who is glorified and made known.
God’s work and greatness - not our own.
This isn’t to say that God doesn’t give us hopes and dreams and visions to accomplish...but those hopes and dreams and visions aren’t for our own sake, but for the sake of building up God’s kingdom of peace and justice - for the sake of revealing God’s greatness in our lives and in the world - for the sake of God’s movement among us to establish a more loving, just, and hope-filled world.
And where the plans and hopes and dreams of many may have failed this week when it comes to a more inclusive United Methodist Church...where our own maneuverings may have compromised the witness of this denomination...where we wanted to build tents and shrines to the way things have been and how the church has operated for the past 50 years...the Holy Spirit picks up in those places we fail, and I believe that whatever comes next, we are in the middle of God birthing a new thing - a new transformation - something that God alone can accomplish provided with follow the movement of the Holy Spirit. We don’t know what that looks like - and we don’t know what the journey ahead will entail - birthing is a difficult process, filled with hard work, pain, and uncertainty - but one also of joy as new life takes shape and grows.
Here in this place, as we think about our island, our Chebeague community, and the witness of our church - it’s a reminder that our role isn’t one of grand schemes or brilliant plans for ministry - it’s about being faithful to the work of God in our midst and trusting that as we follow the Spirit’s lead, as we make God’s kingdom our priority, and as we trust in the power of Jesus to transform our hearts - God’s greatness will be revealed through us and the witness of our church will not be about how wonderful we are - but how great God is to do such things in and with and through us.
I do believe God is calling this community to commit to being a church that includes all people, particularly our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning sisters and brothers - and the reason such welcome needs to be explicit is because of the degree of harm that the church universal - including our very own denomination - has caused. I know that we all know in our hearts that this church is a welcoming place, but for those who have so often been excluded from so many churches, hearing those words of radical welcome makes a world of difference. As I mentioned in the letter I wrote earlier this week, our Administrative Council is in the process of planning a congregational vote later this spring on becoming a Reconciling Church, and we will have opportunities over the next few months for conversation and learning around what that means, both in practice and from a scriptural standpoint.
But that’s only one piece of what God is inviting us into. The greater journey is this one into deeper trust and faithfulness to Jesus - the journey that takes each one of us to the edge of what we know and what we can do and leaves us there - perhaps on the mountain top, perhaps in the places of our failings - leaves us there to meet the God who waits to reveal great things among us...who beckons us to be transformed by the depth of God’s love...and who is ready to do a new thing among us all.
This week - may we be moved by the transfigured Christ - amazed by the brilliance of his love and compelled to listen to his word - as we seek to follow the Holy Spirit and be the body of Christ for this community in this time and space, and to rely ever more fully on God’s work with us - so that all may be astounded by the greatness of God in this place. Amen.
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
What does it mean to see something?
[Look at it with your eyes] -- there’s the physical act of looking...the light waves bouncing off whatever objects are within your field of vision into your eyes that then are translated by your brain into colors, and shapes, depth and size. You look at something, and it’s photons and chemicals - a scientific process that takes multiple organs working together to be able to see those things that are in front of you.
But what else does it mean to see something?
There’s also this element of knowing or understanding. I could hold up a variety of objects in front of you and you could see them, but if you didn’t have an idea of what I was actually holding up, you wouldn’t be able to really, truly see them. I watch this with Michael all the time, as he’s learning and growing and figuring the world out. I could have 10 different objects in front of him and ask him if he sees this or that, and if he doesn’t already have an idea of what I’m asking for - his brain has no way to make sense of the different objects in front of him. Like right now, we’re doing it with magnetic letters on the refrigerator. He’s really good at being able to see the letter “M” (in fact, wherever we go, he can pick that letter out), but other letters - A….K….Y… he just doesn’t see. There’s no connection between what he’s looking at with his eyes, and any sense of greater understanding.
There are a lot of layers of “seeing” that is going on in today’s scripture passage: what it means to see and be seen...to be blind, both literally and spiritually...and how our seeing and unseeing impacts how we relate to ourselves...to one another...and to Jesus.
In our story we have bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside - presumably in the spot he always sits - looking for anything anyone will give him. When Jesus and his disciples leave the city, he hears of it and begins to shout out - “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those around him try stop him from crying out, but it only increases his desperation as again he calls out to Jesus. Jesus stops, stands still, and asks those who had tried to silence Bartimaeus to call him forward. They tell him “take heart, get up, his calling you.” Bartimaeus leaps up and casts off his cloak and makes his way to Jesus. (As a side note, I always found it interesting that they didn’t help him find his way to Jesus).
Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus says to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well...and immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows after Jesus.
The literal blindness of Bartimaeus and his regaining sight is a fairly straightforward layer in the text, but there are other blind people in this story - and it’s a bit more subtle. The crowd is blind to Bartimaeus; his ailment and his status as a beggar render him unworthy of an encounter with Jesus - at least in the crowd’s opinion. Even though they see him - they don’t truly see him...he is invisible, his cries - though heard - fall on deaf ears, and his very personhood is unvalued.
Until, that is, Jesus stops, and invites the crowd to call him. Jesus doesn’t invite Bartimaeus forward directly, Jesus tells the crowd to give him the message. In this act, Jesus heals the crowd of their spiritual blindness. He opens their reality to the value and worth of Bartimaeus, and where once they were trying to subdue his shouts and cries and pleas for help...they now encourage: “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” In this act, connection and relationship within the community is restored - Bartimaeus is no longer invisible to them.
The interaction Jesus and Bartimaeus have is one that I find deeply moving. Bartimaeus sees something that the crowd does not - he calls Jesus “Son of David” which is a title that Jesus never uses publicly in his ministry. The crowd doesn’t fully understand who this Jesus is - and perhaps they see who they want to see in Jesus - a healer, a miracle worker, an exorcist, a teacher, a potential military leader, a revolutionary, a simple carpenter’s son, a great speaker. They don’t see what Bartimaeus sees - Jesus as the Messiah….Son of David...the Son of God.
Jesus is fully seen by Bartimaeus - a blind man. Bartimaeus sees despite his blindness - and Jesus fully sees Bartimaeus. Jesus doesn’t assume that Bartimaeus wants to regain his sight. Jesus doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to a problem to be solved, or a series of labels. Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” which honors Bartimaeus as a full person - one with many wants, needs, and desires. Jesus invited Bartimaeus to gauge within himself what he wants of Jesus.
Bartimaeus in some sense had already made his decision - when he came forward to Jesus, he threw off his cloak - the most valuable possession he had - it gave him warmth and shelter, collected coins, gave him cover and an identity and a livelihood -- a thing safe and familiar that he cast off in order to meet Jesus...demonstrating a trust in this man he’s never met but knows and sees and that is confirmed when he follows Jesus after regaining his sight.
On the one hand, we could talk about and identify with the crowd and ask - who are the unseen people in our world or on our island...where does Jesus need to heal our own spiritual blindness to the troubles that allow and enable us to dehumanize and render others unworthy or less than. There’s a wealth of conversation we could have about how that plays out in our world and in our community.
Yet while the crowd features prominently in the story - it’s the encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus that leads me to consider the same question Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?
It’s a question of self-reflection and invitation for healing -- a question where Jesus asks us to examine our hearts and discover what lies therein...a question that points to our longings and fears. Jesus might also reframe the question: “What do you imagine I desire for you? Where in your deepest desires might we find each other?”
It’s a question that invites us to look within and see ourselves as we are - the hurts and pains and joys and sorrows, our intentions and mixed motivations, our deepest shame and our proudest moments, our sharpest wounds and faded scars. And to answer that question honestly, it requires that we see Jesus who who he truly is - God’s son sent to heal us and bring us back to life….to resurrect the dead and dying places in our lives and in our world...and it requires us to trust that when Jesus sees us - he doesn’t reduce us to our problems or our needs - Jesus sees all of who we are. He sees us as people worthy of love and attention, even if we struggle with thinking that about ourselves...he sees our suffering and our wounds, even if we try to hide them ...he sees the best and the worst in each our hearts...and looks on each and every one of us with love and compassion, longing for each of us to bring those wounded places to him for healing.
To end, I want to invite you into a place of reflection - hearing Christ call to you in and through this story. This was written by Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist pastor serving in Acton, Massachusetts.
Close your eyes….breathe in and out….and hear these words:
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting beside the Way.
What is the Way you are beside: something incomplete,
something not yet happening? Offer it to God.
He began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.
What has silenced you?
What has kept you from rushing headlong to God?
Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”
Imagine Jesus calls you.
Jesus wants you. Wants you near.
They called the blind man, saying to him,
“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”
Recite these words to yourself.
Take heart; get up, your Love is calling you.
Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.
Your souls is not as timid as you:
casting your safety aside, leaping, unseeing, to the Beloved.
Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Let him ask you.
“My teacher, let me see again.”
What would you see?
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”
Your crying out, your soul's leaping,
your blind begging is holy.
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
What is the new Way you will follow on?
Pray this all day long without ceasing:
“Jesus, Beloved of God, have mercy on me.
“Jesus, Beloved of God, have mercy on me.”
Scripture - Mark 10:17-31
Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)
17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Hymn - Jesus Calls Us (UMH 398)
I have to say, I really identify with the man who comes up to Jesus to ask him what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Of all the questions that he could ask Jesus - this man who works miracles, who casts out demons, who possesses all wisdom and knowledge - he picks the question having to do with getting eternal life. The big reward. The grand prize, blue ribbon, giant trophy. In the school of life, it’s the question - “what do I have to do to ace this class?” And being the good student that I am, I can relate to that. I was one of those kids that you didn’t want to have in the class if the professor was going to grade on a curve because if there was one thing I knew how to do well, it was being a diligent student and giving exactly what was demanded of me to perfection. What assignments do I have to complete, what rules do I have to follow, what books do I have to read. High school was tough because of classes like English and History where there weren’t any “right answers” - it was in college where this gift truly shone and I could hone in on my math and science skills to figure out the right way to arrive at the right answer. And truth be told, I operate out of that wanting to do things the “right way” mentality a lot of the time - wanting to say the right things when someone’s having a tough time or when I’m in a difficult conversation with someone, wanting to parent Michael the right way so he grows up into the person God created him to be -- wanting to have the right spiritual practices, to have all my stuff together and be presentable, to say and do the right kind of things that are expected of me...and when I don’t feel like I handled something the right way or mastered something I should have been able to do - I run through the scenario over and over again in my mind, thinking, “I should have said this” or “done that”. It’s all about matching my actions to outward expectations.
So when I see this man talking with Jesus - I see someone wanting to get it right, wanting to figure out what he has to do to be right with God, wanting to discover the expectations so he can get the prize. And Jesus hands him the list - no murdering, no stealing, no lying, etcetera. Your basic commandments - the ones, as it turns out, this man has been following all along. No sweat. A plus, buddy, you pass with flying colors.
But for whatever reason, this doesn’t satisfy the man. He wants more - and again, I can relate to that - the desire to master a challenge, to really sink your teeth and dig in to a project. A spiritual conquest, something that really proves that you’ve earned that eternal life.
Jesus, in our passage, looks at the man. And the text notes that Jesus loved him as he told the man the one thing he needed to do - the one thing that was missing, the one thing that Jesus probably knew that the man wouldn’t be able to do: to sell what he owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The man went away shocked and grieved because of his many possessions.
Jesus goes on to use this man as a bit of a teaching moment for his disciples - but again, his disciples miss the point - Peter is quick say that “Hey Jesus, we all left everything behind to follow you...look Jesus, don’t we get an A+ for that? We didn’t have a problem with letting go of our stuff to follow you.” Jesus instead brings the conversation back to their greatest sticking point - the biggest barrier to their own being all-in with Jesus -- and that was this whole notion of the first being last….and the last being first….and asking the disciples to let go of the notion that somehow they’ve earned first place or the position of being the greatest in the kingdom of God.
Jesus’s invitation - for both the wealthy man and for the disciples - is to give up the life they know and to live for others. To not be attached to the ego - the possessions, the need to be greatest, the need to be right - and instead live for others.
“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
This life with Christ is not about checking off boxes - following this or that commandment….sitting on this or that church committee….putting x amount of dollars in the plate -- and thinking that that equates to following Jesus. A life with Christ isn’t even about achieving a certain status of holiness or worthiness - as if you have to level up your soul to unlock new skills or additional bonuses before living the abundant life Christ offers. We can’t work or earn our way into it or create it ourselves - it is impossible for us to do. We can’t get there on our own.
When Jesus told the young man to sell all his possessions, I think Jesus knew that it was the one thing that was impossible for him to do. There was no way that he was going to be able to accomplish that task - and maybe that was the point. For if the young man had it within him to do it, had he said, “alright Jesus, consider it done” and went straight away to take care of it and came back to follow….he would have inherited eternal life all by himself - worked his way into the kingdom, getting there on his own merit, achieving eternal life as a reward for a life well-lived, done right, expectations met and managed.
Jesus knows this. He tells the disciples “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
How many of us are trying to save ourselves, relying on our own resources, rather than letting God grow the kingdom within and around us? How many of us lean on our accomplishments - spiritual or otherwise - and use them as a metric for determining our worthiness rather than offering all of who we are - the good, bad, and the ugly, and relying on God’s grace for the rest?
We can’t work ourselves into God’s favor or earn our way to eternal life - that was the mistake made by both the disciples and the young man in our passage. It’s a mistake I know I make all the time, thinking that somehow I can use my gifts and education and possessions and efforts and knowledge and translate that into saving myself from my own destructive habits, or that I can earn my way into making God love me more - as if the spiritual life were something to accomplish rather than a life poured out in love for others. The reality is, however, that there’s nothing you or I could ever do that would make God love me or you more...or less. And the way to access that love isn’t by achieving anything or getting your life in order or by thinking the right things or ticking off the correct religious boxes...but by surrender and letting go...surrendering our need for control or validation...our need to achieve or accomplish...our need for security and safety in the things we can see and touch….it’s a letting go of that which we cling to most tightly in order to follow Jesus…..a task that is impossible for us on our own….but not for God.
Jesus always invites us - “come and follow me.” That invitation stands wherever we are - however we are - whoever we are. There is no need to perform for God...or for each other. There is no need to show off our spiritual medals - or lack thereof. It is not necessary to have it together...in any area of your life. All that is needed is to accept the great depth of love God has for you - exactly where you are, no accomplishments needed - and trust that Jesus wants you to follow him not for your own sake only...but for the sake of a hurting and broken world that also needs to know how much God loves it.
We cannot save ourselves - but God can. May we trust this week in that invitation from Jesus - the one in whom all things are possible - to step together into that kingdom that God is building not only in the heavens but here among us on earth. May we accept fully God’s love for us - so that we can be a people poured out in love for others. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 9:38-50
Mark 9:38-50 (NRSV)
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
*Hymn - There’s A Spirit in the Air (UMH 192)
“There's a Spirit in the air,
calling people everywhere:
praise the love that Christ revealed,
living, working in our world.”
This is an image that gives me hope, after living through this apocalyptic week - not apocalyptic in the end of the world sense (though I know that some are feeling that way) - but apocalyptic in the original sense of word and in the way original hearers of scriptural texts would have understood it, which is what happens when the layers of our society are peeled back to show the truth, often the very uncomfortable truth, about what’s been going on. We’re in the midst of this kind of uncovering in our country and regardless of where you stand politically, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the hurt and pain we’re inflicting upon one another as a result of this great divide. The fear and anxiety for the future that many live with on a daily basis seems to permeate the very air that we breathe.
I find strength in remembering that God’s Holy Spirit is in the air as well -- moving everywhere, calling and drawing people in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places, also at work revealing truth - that love is also at work, living and breathing in our world, in the church, outside the church, with the church - and without the church. It’s a Spirit that cannot be bound or owned by a group of people, and cannot be controlled or ordered about.
Jesus points to this - and so much more - in our Scripture reading this morning. Immediately before this morning’s text, the disciples had had an argument about who among them was the greatest - and in response, Jesus had given them a pointed lesson on being the servant of all and getting to the back of the line to be great in God’s kingdom. Jesus had taken a child in his arms - a symbol for all those people society considered to be less-than - and told them that welcoming him - and welcoming God - was to be found in embracing the most vulnerable.
And so here we have John, one of the disciples, who speaks up and says, “But teacher, we saw this person casting out demons in your name and he wasn’t following us. He was working this miracle and we weren’t a part of it. He was trying to claim something that he isn’t a part of. He’s not one of us. He wasn’t doing it the way we do it. Make him stop before he ruins everything.”
Jesus essentially tells them to worry about themselves, not what others are doing—especially when this work also builds up the kingdom of God. The Spirit works in many ways - not just through them, Jesus tells them. Policing your own behavior, your own actions, is probably as much as you can handle anyway. Jesus reminds them of the stakes of being a stumbling block to the poor and vulnerable people in the world. It would be far better, Jesus says, for you to lose an eye or foot or hand if it’s causing you to stumble, to have a millstone hung around your neck and be cast into the sea, in the event you prevent those who are the last and least from my love.
Jesus goes on to describe in gruesome detail what to do if a hand or foot or eye causes the disciples to stumble, with images of the unquenchable fires of hell paired with the image of being salted with sanctifying fire.
I imagine that the disciples were probably a bit shocked that Jesus didn’t take their side in this...but perhaps their concern around this unaffiliated exorcist had less to do with what he was or wasn’t doing, and more to do with their need to ensure that they were the only ones who were truly “in” on Jesus’s work. It was more about their egos than anything else….after all, the complaint against this man was that he wasn’t following them….not that he wasn’t following Jesus. Again - it’s like they weren’t really paying attention to what Jesus was telling them two minutes earlier about service and humility. It’s like they wanted to be the only ones who could do it - who could cast out demons and perform miracles in Jesus name, they wanted to be the gatekeepers for God’s work in the world.
Except that’s not how God works.
This passage is Jesus’s attempt to tell the disciples - pay attention to what is important! Don’t be distracted by what others are doing or not doing, focus on what you are doing, how you are living, how you are being my disciples - because the stakes are high. What you do and how you act affects the ability of others to be in relationship with me. Faith is hard. Don’t be a stumbling block, don’t make faith harder than it already is, and don’t, by your words or actions, by your focus on the little things, by your insistence on doing it your way, prevent those who are suffering and vulnerable from experiencing my love and presence.
Attend to your own behavior and conduct. Be faithful in what you have been entrusted with to build up the kingdom - and don’t worry about what others are doing...because ultimately this is God’s work, and not yours.
Or, in the words of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, Do Your Job.
That goes for us as individuals….it also goes for our witness as a community of faith. Do your job, trust God with the rest. Be faithful in your work because your witness matters.
I want to share with you something I read from Debi Thomas at Journey with Jesus this week. She writes,
“What we do really matters. If Jesus is telling us the truth in this passage, then it is entirely possible for Jesus’s beloved “little ones” to stumble because of our carelessness, our apathy, our unkindness, our dogmatism, our prejudices, our unforgiveness, our laziness, and our fear. It is even possible for them to stumble as a result of our well-intentioned efforts to protect God, protect the Church, and protect the “purity” of our religion.”...She continues by saying,
“Jesus, does, however, want us to think carefully about what it costs to become path clearers. Stumbling block removers. People of God who actually help each other succeed. Because let’s be honest: sometimes, the process of removing a stumbling block from the path of faith can feel like surgery without anesthesia. Saying goodbye to a harmful relationship, surrendering a cherished point of view, breaking an addiction, forgiving a family member, making a significant lifestyle change, welcoming the oddball Other — all of these things can feel like deaths. Like drownings. Like losing our arms and legs. Jesus knows what he’s talking about; it hurts to change. It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life — even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.”
The consequences of not doing this, as Jesus points out, is not being able to stand the sanctifying fire - I imagine that would feel pretty hellish...and when enough of us fail to do our jobs - if we’re so worried about who is doing or not doing what and not attending to our own inner life with Jesus - the body of Christ is in danger of becoming, in the words of Jesus, salt that has lost its flavor. A light hidden so it can’t shine. A house built on sand. In short, becoming nice people who occasionally do nice things for others in ways that can be safely expected, never to move the needle very much, either for them or for the world.
In other words, Jesus says - who you are, how you conduct yourself, what you do -- really, really matters, both as individuals and as a people who call themselves the church. And when we get caught up in trivialities, when we get distracted by the minutiae, when we stake our lives on molehills rather than on mountains, when we worry more about who will get the credit or policing the behavior of others, when we try to slide gently through the world without creating ripples -- when we lose our focus on being disciples of Jesus, hungry people go unfed. Hurt people find no one to bind up their wounds. Lonely people are left at the door. Homeless people find no shelter. And we find the world no different than we left it...and when that happens, as Jesus says, it would be better for us to have a millstone hung around our necks and be cast into the sea.
Yet paired with that challenge is a promise - that if we do our job, do that one thing that God calls us to do; God will take care of the rest.
Jesus points out: The world does not need more nice people. The world needs people who season the world to show where God is present and at work...people who witness to a healing community of hope where we are bound together by God’s love...people who embody Jesus’s love for the hurting and suffering and those no one else cared for, and those living in fear...people committed to serve in the way Jesus served...people who follow that Spirit in the air that shows Christ living and working in the world right now, whose whole lives are grounded in the deeper reality of God’s kingdom that transcends empires and the powers and principalities of this world.
That is the job. Kingdom work and aligning ourselves with that greater purpose rather than be distracted by other things.
And so God challenges us this week to do your part, to attend to your own witness, and to let God be God. To be faithful with your calling and let the God of the universe who loved you even before there was time take care of the rest. To be salt for this community - Chebeague Island - to be about the important things in our lives and in our work together as a church. To trust that God’s at work among us and out in the world in ways that we can’t see or understand.Let us do our part and let God take care of the rest. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 9:30-37
Mark 9:30-37 (The Message)
30-32 Leaving there, they went through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”
34 The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.
35 He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”
36-37 He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”
Hymn - Make Me a Servant (FWS 2176)
About two weeks ago, a picture went viral on Christian social media - made famous thanks to a Christian comedian by the name of John Crist. The post said this: I was handed this card at church today, a few laugh emojis, #MajorShade #CheckUrHeart - and it was a picture of a card with the church logo blacked out...and the card said this:
“Thank you for being committed to being in church with your child. In order to allow those seated near you to engage in the message, please enjoy the remainder of the service in our lobby….A Connection Team Member Will Assist You.”
Naturally, a statement like this sparked all kinds of outrage of what kind of church would allow this and subsequent defenses of people and parents who find such practices helpful during worship and some even thought that this card must be satire. Lots of people weighed in on the children in worship debate.
And here in the passage we heard this morning we have Jesus, taking a child in his arms, embracing them, saying “whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.” It seems kind of cut and dry to me.
But contrary to how it might first appear, Jesus isn’t making any kind of argument about whether or not kids should be in worship or about the inherent value or worthiness of children to a church community in this passage. Jesus is making a statement aimed directly at the heart of a debate the disciples were having as they traveled along the road to Capernaum….an argument that when Jesus casually asked them what they were talking about, the silence spoke louder than words. What had they been arguing about? [response] They had been arguing about who was the greatest.
I find it interesting that the disciples don’t want to tell Jesus about this conversation - this is the second time in this short passage that they don’t want to talk to Jesus about something -- the first being when Jesus told them about his death and resurrection...they were afraid to talk to Jesus about this news he had shared with them. And now, here we have the disciples, again not wanting to talk to Jesus about this conversation - this argument - they were having about who is the greatest.
We don’t have warm and fuzzy Jesus here - we have harsh reality Jesus, who lovingly but pointedly gives the disciples a lesson about what the greatest looks like in the kingdom of God….because it doesn’t look like what we think it looks like.
We don’t realize how much our culture shapes our understanding of what it means to be great. As I was talking about with the kids, we regularly have conversations around who’s the greatest ball player, the greatest actor or actress, or any number of things. Our standards of what makes a person great is measured in dollar signs, professional success, academic degrees or natural talent. All of it routes through our ability to get one leg up on the others around us...to find the best ways to meet our own needs and wants - usually at the expense of others. Even in our own lives, we play this comparison game, ranking ourselves against others in all sorts of arenas - parenting, career success, volunteerism, smarts - even who’s a better Christian. In the end, regardless how altruistic our goals, it is second nature to us to define ourselves, to rank ourselves over (and even against) all those who are around us, and to base others’ needs, wants, and even worthiness along that same spectrum. Who is greater than whom? It’s a very self-interested question.
We’d be in the same boat with the disciples around this conversation; I can imagine their argument about “who is the greatest” went much in the same way - who was the smartest, who had cast out the most demons or taught the best when Jesus had sent them off two by two - who had brought the most followers to Jesus, perhaps.
Jesus, on the other hand, flips the whole conversation around and redefines this cultural definition of what it means to be great. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” Want to be great? Then take the place of those who are used to having their wants and needs ignored. Want to build yourself up? Take the time to serve the needs of those around you, and build them up first.
Jesus then takes a child in his arms. Children in those days weren’t valued in the same way children are today. In Jesus’s culture, children had no rights, were considered property and inferior members of society - much like women and slaves, and weren’t regarded as worthy of time and attention by those outside their family, especially not by religious teachers. Jesus uses the image of welcoming a child - treating them as one whose needs mattered, being open to hearing them and entering into their world, serving them and loving them - to talk about what it meant to truly welcome him...and welcome God.
It’s in serving others as opposed to serving yourselves...especially serving those that are accustomed to being ignored or dismissed, those who are hurting or pushed to the side, those who have been told that they don’t matter...it’s in serving those outside ourselves...that’s where true greatness lies in God’s kingdom….that is where Jesus is...that is where God is.
Christ was never about serving himself - later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As his disciples, we take up that same mantle. Discipleship is a downward path of service and humility, one that places us on the level with those who are forgotten and hurting...the marginalized and suffering….those who the world considered less-than or worthless...like the children and women and slaves and lepers and tax collectors and sinners of Jesus’s day. (Incidentally, those were most of the people Jesus hung out with). Discipleship is learning to put our own wants and preferences aside for God’s desires and learning how to live with Jesus as Lord of our lives and follow his way of being in the world….not with our own notions of greatness.
Here at the church, one of our values is inclusivity. We say that “We affirm the sacred worth of every human being, and so we welcome you. No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are loved and a child of God.” To be sure, when we talk about that value, we’re certainly including those of us who gather here on a Sunday morning for worship and Sunday School. That each of us here is loved and a child of God, that we’re all at different places in our relationship with Christ, that we all have worth and are welcome here. But when we talk about welcome….we’re not primarily talking about those of us here in this room. We’re talking about how we as a church are welcoming to others...being open to the needs and wants of those outside our doors...being able to serve the needs of our community first and foremost before our own, and fully embracing that value extends to everything we do as a congregation - from our times of worship to our times of business, from how we use our buildings to how we spend our money.
In the example of our unnamed church I spoke of earlier, I think it’s pretty easy to figure out whose interests they were serving in that particular aspect of their life together. But it’s not always so clearcut, especially when we’re talking about the congregation that we call home.
We talk a lot about wanting to be a great church - we’ve had these conversations about our values, we’ve adopted a mission and a vision statement that describe what we dream of being and how we want to get there, we’ve spent time and energy talking about financial sustainability, both in the present and for the future, and certainly we want to see our pews filled each and every Sunday morning. And it’s good to take the time for self-reflection to understand who we are and how God is calling us into the future together - but would that be how Jesus defines a great church? In our conversations about our life together - how we talk about worship or our building or our financial life, are we primarily serving ourselves, building ourselves up, focusing on our own wants and preferences, seeking to be great - or are we pouring out into others, seeking the good of God’s kingdom, looking out for those hurting in our community and our world, and taking a back seat to the needs of those around us?
Discerning our unconscious biases can be hard and challenging work. It can be painful to examine the practices that have held meaning for us and consider where they fit in the larger context of following Jesus as a church together. It can be uncomfortable to move to the back of the line when we’re used to being in first place. But Jesus gives us a way to reframe the conversation when we’re thinking about our life together as a church: when we find ourselves preoccupied with our own preferences and needs, with what would best serve us (both as individuals and as a community)...consider instead what would best serve others. What we do together is ultimately not about us, but about Jesus and welcoming those whom Jesus welcomed. It’s not about what we like or don’t like, whether we were served or fed for our own sake, but about the lost and the hurting...about those who don’t know God’s love and encountering Jesus when we as a community seek to welcome him.
Where might Jesus be calling us to serve with open hands? What would it mean for us to be a truly great church - a church that seeks first God’s kingdom, a church that looks first to the hurting and broken in our world? What would it look like to be a church where in our conversations, in our decision-making, in our finances, in our worship, in the use of our space - the primary purpose centered around being a blessing to those outside our doors?
If you want to be first, get to the back of the line. Be the servant of all. This week - let us be in prayer for ourselves and for our church, that we might together find ways to build up God’s kingdom - to seek God’s purposes for us and for this island - and to live into that together. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 6:30-34; 53-56
Mark 6:30-34; 53-56 (New Revised Standard Version)
30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
It’s a bit ironic to be preaching a sermon on rest and renewal during Chebeague’s busiest season...or maybe not since a fair number of us are starting to feel that slide into losing all semblance of control you might have had over your summer plans...or perhaps I’m only speaking for myself here. In any case, where I want to begin this morning is with something I came across this past week -- it wasn’t the first time I had seen it. I first saw it several months ago. It’s a new fitness craze that was developed last year - a gym workout especially designed for the stressed out, over-worked, and sleep deprived. It’s not some new form of yoga or meditative kick-boxing….it’s called napercise. Napercise was developed by David Lloyd Clubs over in the United Kingdom and it’s a 15 minute stretch and workout session followed by a 45 minute nap. They provide the sleep masks, mood music, and the cots, covers, and pillows. The instructors even drop the temperature in the room to induce extra calorie-burning while participants are asleep. Reactions to this class - which you pay for - were initially positive. Among the target demographics were “exhausted parents” who may find it difficult or challenging to fully relax at home. (I wonder why). I was unable to find out if Napercise, which came out in May of 2017, was successful or not or still a thing over a year later; I suspect it didn’t take because napping is something that you can do for free. In any case, the mere fact that someone had the idea to capitalize on naps in this way points to a deep need and truth in our culture - we are over-worked and in need of rest.
The problem, perhaps, goes even deeper than this. Our society is addicted to busyness - our worth tied to what we do and what we produce. We are enslaved to our to-do lists. The world runs at a 24/7 pace and we always feel the need for more time - to fit this event into our schedules or spend more time with our families or reprioritize x over y to make everything balance out as if our days are a cosmic account ledger that we somehow need to reconcile at the end of the week only to discover that we’ve already borrowed next week’s energy to pay for what we did yesterday. We know that this isn’t right...that we’re tired and overworked and stressed as a culture...and we know all the right things to do and the cliches - that we need to “stop and smell the roses” or “you can’t take care of anyone if you can’t take care of yourself first”...that “we’re human beings instead of human doings” or any number of sayings that are true but we can’t seem to put into practice. There just doesn’t seem to be any time to stop...to rest...and to be filled….
Jesus and his disciples face the problem of busyness in our text for this morning. The disciples were coming back from being sent off two by two - gathering around Jesus and filling him in on all their adventures - the healings, the teachings, the exorcisms - and in all that commotion - perhaps in their excitement, perhaps because there was just so many people wanting more from them -- they didn’t even have time to eat. Has that ever happened to you - you were so engrossed in a project or a deadline that you look up and realize that lunchtime was three hours ago? Or in your haste to get everything done, you eat as you’re checking things off your to-do list...for the disciples, eating wasn’t even on the agenda.
So Jesus, in his wisdom, says stop. Come away. By yourselves. Let’s go where no one will follow - a deserted place - and rest. Just stop and rest.
They all pile into the boat and sail across the sea and some of the crowds were able to figure out where Jesus and the disciples were going. Word spread, and people hurried there on foot from all the times and got there before they did. Jesus sees the crowds and instead of dismissing them, instead of ordering them to leave, instead of grumbling about this interruption in what is supposed to be a restful retreat for his disciples, Jesus is moved with compassion and begins to teach them.
No matter where Jesus and his disciples go, the people recognize them, and line up for healing. There’s an urgency and fire around what Jesus and his disciples are about, a passionate excitement for the work of building the kingdom, of being a part of something big and important. But even in the magnitude of the work, in the midst of the miracles and divine teachings - we see a very human Jesus. A Jesus who needs rest - who desires to retreat for solitude and prayer, who gets hungry and thirsty and tired. We constantly see passages in Mark where he mentions Jesus withdrawing by himself to pray, hiding himself away from the crowds, sleeping in the boat or needing to eat. Jesus needing rest reminds me of the creation story, when even God rested from the work of building the universe. And there is this thread throughout all of scripture on the importance of sabbath rest - drawing away from the world to engage with matters of the spirit and to rest...not just so that you can go out and reengage feeling refreshed and renewed and ready for whatever’s next….but to restore your very soul.
Come away to a deserted place...all by yourselves...and rest awhile.
Rest is just the tip of the iceberg here in this passage, though the need to stop and take a break is a real one. In the Christian tradition, there is a deep spiritual element to rest and to withdrawing to that deserted place that merits paying attention to. It’s not just taking that much needed vacation or putting your feet up on the couch and binging Netflix at the end of a busy day -- coming away with Jesus to rest is a spiritual practice.
With all the demands on our lives, we Christians face the temptation to derive spiritual benefits from the things we are already doing - walking through nature, cooking a nourishing meal, reading or talking with a friend - or perhaps, if you are more justice-oriented, the advocacy work from last weekend’s protest or calling your representatives and senators as an act of kingdom-building or feeding the hungry and clothing the naked - and I’m not here to negate the value of those activities and the way they can feed our spirits or change the world or even change ourselves. It is important work. But this “spiritual life on the fly” isn’t going to sustain us for the work God has for us to do. As Claudio Carvalhaes, professor at Union Theological Seminary puts it, “Very few understand that spiritual disciplines actually entail painful processes of learning to listen and to deal with our desires and our death drive.”
Jesus knows the struggles we face in our daily lives - the pushes and pulls and demands on our time...especially when the work is important. Yet still he calls, Come away to a deserted place and rest.
It is only in those deserted places where we can truly regain our sense of self - who we are not in relationship to our families or friends or our job or our community - but simply ourselves and who God created us to be.
In those deserted places, the state of our hearts becomes known - we only bring ourselves...we refamiliarize ourselves with those places of peace and hope....and we discover the places of anxiety or fear within us...and in doing so, invite God to reshape that landscape to free us from enslavement to our broken places.
In those deserted places, we cut ourselves off from the demands of the urgent - the cell phone notifications, the constant news cycle, our hurried lives -- and open ourselves up to the wellspring of true life - God’s love and grace - that makes us whole and that enables us to be a sign of God’s love and action in the world.
When it comes to our work as a church - and as people who follow Jesus - there is always more to do - because our presence and work in the world as Christians are vital to those who are the least of these in our world. There is no escaping those who are sick or homeless, poor or stigmatized, hurting, addicted, or lonely...and we need to attend to their needs, to welcome them into our homes and into our lives, to work to undo policies rooted in hatred or fear, to be present with those in their suffering. The work is never ending. Jesus, himself, couldn’t stop at times - so driven was he by compassion for those who needed God’s love and care.
Yet even Jesus knew he needed to stop. To return to the source. To go to the deserted place to rest. No one can run forever on fumes. The risk is burnout.
The rhythm, then, is to be both attentive to the things that are crying out for our attention -- to discern where God is at work and what the Spirit might be asking for us to do -- but also to be attentive to our hearts...to our spirits...to be sustained by a strong spiritual life, with daily spiritual practices of prayer and solitude and silence, of being in that deserted place - to allow God to penetrate to the heart of who we are, take root ever more firmly, and grow so that we may better live in the way Jesus invites us to live. We aren’t trying to balance our spiritual life with the rest of what we have to do as if it were one more item on the to-do list - instead, we are called into a rhythm of abiding with Christ and fruitfulness in the world for the sake of God’s greater kingdom work...and for the sake of our spirits.
As followers of Jesus, we are invited both to go out into the world...but also to come away with him...to that deserted place...to rest and be still and know that God is present with us...sustaining us...restoring us. To be reminded of who we are as beings infinitely loved by God...to remember that personal love God has for each and every one of us. And to let that love seep into our hearts and spirits and become the wellspring of compassion out of which our whole lives flow. I pray this week that you might make the time to come away with Jesus - that your times of daily prayer and solitude might fill your spirits - that you might take steps to let your days grow out of this grounding in the source of our being so that you may be made new - for the work of God ahead of us. Amen.
Mark 6:14-29 (The Message)
14 King Herod heard of all this, for by this time the name of Jesus was on everyone’s lips. He said, “This has to be John the Baptizer come back from the dead—that’s why he’s able to work miracles!”
15 Others said, “No, it’s Elijah.”
Others said, “He’s a prophet, just like one of the old-time prophets.”
16 But Herod wouldn’t budge: “It’s John, sure enough. I cut off his head, and now he’s back, alive.”
17-20 Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.
21-22 But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter entered the banquet hall and danced for the guests. She dazzled Herod and the guests.
22-23 The king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.” Carried away, he kept on, “I swear, I’ll split my kingdom with you if you say so!”
24 She went back to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?”
“Ask for the head of John the Baptizer.”
25 Excited, she ran back to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”
26-29 That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.
Right now I’m learning a new parenting skill - one that I know I will be using with Michael for many years to come...and it’s one that will change and evolve as he grows older.
That skill is: enforcing consequences...both positive ones and negative ones. It’s the skill of doing what you say you will do - even if those consequences are quick judgments made in frustration, even if they involve actions you’d rather not do (for example, we’re going to leave the party if you can’t stop throwing toys), even if it seems trivial -- like saying he can have a cookie if he eats 5 more bites of his dinner. (I never thought I’d be that parent, but you can’t resist the tide of this time-honored parental negotiating tactic).
Standing by your word is one of those important lessons that is foundational for trust - in personal relationships, in society, in our government...and going back on your word is frowned upon. As a parent, if I throw out a statement like, “we’re going to leave the party if you can’t stop throwing toys” and don’t follow through with it or change my mind, how can I set credible consequences for Michael in the future? What if the reason, however, he was throwing toys was because there was more to the story that I was unaware of - maybe a friend had pushed him, or he was overstimulated, or a full diaper was making him uncomfortable, or a whole host of reasons that - if known - wouldn’t be grounds for going home? When is follow through the right thing to do - and when is it right to change your mind?
Obviously, this parenting struggle is minor in comparison to the quandary that Herod faces in this morning’s text, where after a night of feasting and drinking and dancing, he is pleased with Herodias’s daughter and the entertainment she provided for the guests at the party thrown in his honor. So he asked the girl what she wanted - anything she desired, it could be hers.
It seems as though Herod thought her answer would be in the realm of property or riches or jewels - given that he stated that he would grant her request “even half of his kingdom.” Perhaps she even had this in mind as she went off to her mother to figure out what she should ask for. After all, such a request could mean social advancement, something that would have an impact on her whole family. But her mother Herodias has something different in mind -- Herodias, who carried a grudge against John the Baptist, instructs the girl to ask for his head on a platter. Perhaps this wasn’t on Herod’s radar, though he was well aware of her hatred of the man -- John the Baptist was in prison, after all, because he was trying to appease Herodias - and perhaps trying to keep her from killing John himself.
Her ire had been kindled when John had spoken against the relationship Herod had with Herodias (his brother Philip’s wife), even though Herod continued to regard him as a holy man, listening to him in awe, and returning to him again and again to hear his words.
So when the opportunity arose, she took it - and when the girl returns to Herod, wanting John the Baptist executed, head served up on a platter, Herod is dismayed, and, unwilling to go against his word in front of his guests, does as she asks. Clearly this was not what he anticipated would happen...and his regret is very much on his mind as this whole story is told as a bit of a flashback upon hearing the news about Jesus and what he’s been up to in the countryside - healing, teaching, and casting out demons. Herod immediately thinks that it is John the Baptist come back to life.
Herod - when faced with what is right or with going back on his oath, caves. He chose the easy way out as opposed to listening to that sense that kept drawing him back to listen to John the Baptist. He didn’t want to lose credibility with his peers by backing out - to be seen perhaps as weak or powerless or soft or lacking authority - decides to be faithful to his promise.
So is this an admirable trait - Herod sticking to his oath, regardless of the cost? Or is it a spineless move?
Normally, keeping your promise is a good thing. We applaud people who uphold their oaths. We like it when politicians do what they say they are going to do, uphold their end of the deal when we elect them into office. We value leaders who stick firmly to their convictions, no matter the resistance they may receive or the collateral damage such a commitment may require. But there are situations where there’s more to consider, especially when lives are at stake, or when you find yourself on the wrong side of justice, or when you are tempted to not to rock the boat and to go with the flow rather than changing your mind.
I think it’s easy to blame Herod, to point fingers and say “you spineless moron!” and criticize him for choosing incorrectly, and then to take that same finger and point it out in the world toward other people and leaders who have made similar compromises for the sake of amassing power, saving face, or not wanting to be seen as flip-flopping on an issue. But rarely do we take that finger and point to ourselves, looking inward to see the places where our practices are out of sync with the values we publicly profess - maybe we don’t go back on our word in as spectacularly a fashion as Herod did, but as human beings who are trying to follow Jesus, we daily face choices - some that are important and some that may seem inconsequential - that all either serve to enhance or weaken our credibility as Christians….and those decisions are a part of our public witness as a church as well.
Consistency and follow through on statements that have consequence and real-life impact are important and something that we hope for from our leaders and from each other. But when the statements we make don’t line up with what is right and true -- or when we say the right things but our actions don’t live up to what we profess - there is opportunity for conversation and growth - especially when it pertains to our own lives - and the chance to move forward more in tune with God’s kingdom than before.
And there are all times when the lines between what we say we believe as those who proclaim to follow Jesus and how we live that out aren’t that straight….the times when perhaps we fail to help out someone because they don’t fit the guidelines of what we deem as socially acceptable. The times around the dinner table with family or friends when we go along with a joke that makes us uncomfortable and we know we should correct but don’t. The times when we fail to give to charity because we really want that new cell phone or furniture for the house or whatever it may be. The times we say we are welcoming to others and then fail to listen to those with whom we disagree. The times when we judge or dismiss others. The times we don’t want to rock the boat or put ourselves at risk for the sake of compassion, justice, mercy, kindness, and love for all of God’s people, not just those who think and act and look like us.
Even though John the Baptist finds his unfortunate end in our story - I want to focus on what he was known for - the way he preached and proclaimed and prepared the people for Jesus and the arrival of God’s kingdom….and part of that process was baptism by water - a purifying, cleansing ritual - a sacrament that the church practices to this day. And the baptismal vows that parents make on behalf of their children and that we hope claim for themselves in confirmation or when we join the church...or that we make when we answer for ourselves in baptism...gives a picture of what we aim to do as Christians - both as individuals and as a faith community. We did this back at the beginning of the year, but it’s always good to revisit, so I invite you to look at page 34 in the red hymnal and see what kinds of things the Christian life includes -- and you’ll find not only this reliance and trust in Jesus Christ, not only this service to God through the church, but also resisting evil, injustice and oppression...repentance of sin...renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness that pervade the systems of this world.
These are the promises that we have made - that we have claimed - as those who have been baptized, as those who strive to follow Jesus. To be sure, each one of us isn’t perfect, and we thank God for that grace that surrounds us when we don’t live up to these vows, that allows us to grow and to take ownership of our sin when we fall short, and that enables us to let Christ take root ever more firmly in our hearts. But we need to take that look within ourselves - within our own hearts - in order that God’s love may be the force that draws us into action and be the motivation for what we chose to say and do.
We live in a time and a place that needs us as faithful Christians to stand for what is right - not only in our nation, but also in our communities and in our relationships. To help those around us imagine a world where the Herods - instead of abusing their power, instead of trying to save face, chose justice and compassion. To help others see the humanity of those our society tries to demonize. To help those around us envision a different way of being in this world. And so may we step out of those safe and comfortable places to take a stand for what is right...to step out of going with the flow of our culture and into the flow of the baptismal waters...the flow of love and grace that streams from Jesus...and to follow through our profession of faith in Christ with a life lived in hope and compassion, forgiveness and peace. May our words and our actions - especially when we acknowledge the places we aren’t there yet - point to the wideness of God’s mercy, faithfulness, and love...so that God’s kingdom may yet come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 6:1-13
Mark 6:1-13 (New Revised Standard Version)
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
I remember the first time I disagreed with my parents. I’m not talking about the kinds of disagreements most adolescents and young adults have with their parents around what’s for dinner or how late you can stay out with your friends. This was a disagreement rooted in something deeper - a shift in worldview. I was in my junior year of college home on a short break. I had brought home school work since I had some problem sets to finish and a paper to write for my sociology class. When I had signed up for the class at the beginning of the semester, I really wasn’t interested in sociology at all - I was a math and physics girl -- give me facts and figures and proofs instead of this reading and writing stuff. I took it because it filled a graduation requirement. To my surprise, I was actually enjoying the course, and while I was home writing up my final paper for the class, I shared with my parents a bit about the book and other research my papers was based on - prepared to engage in conversation and dialogue about how interesting it was. I wasn’t prepared for the feedback I received. I remember being bewildered by their absolute dismissal - there wasn’t any real conversation, and I was so caught off guard that I couldn’t even ask where their ideas and statements were coming from. It made me realized how much I had changed and how much my experiences and learnings and conversations with others had put me in a different place than the one I grew up in. It was a bit disorienting for me - and I’m sure it was for them as well - as we had to renegotiate the changing assumptions and perceptions and differing value systems that are a part of growing up and differentiating from one’s family.
I also think about Martin Luther King Jr….a Newsweek article from early this year noted that in the years leading up to his assassination, he was very unpopular in the United States. A Gallup poll in 1966 found that almost two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable opinion on him and only third had a positive impression -- and that unfavorable two thirds was an increase of 26 points from 1963. His popularity began to decrease after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, particularly after he began to shift the conversation around civil rights in the south to segregation and poverty among black Americans in Chicago. When he took a stand against the Vietnam War in 1967, he started drawing even more criticism, especially from those in the black community. Finally, his tackling the larger issue of poverty in this country - the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, calling for a march on Washington itself - was his final unpopular decision.
These moments are some of what came to mind for me when I read this passage about Jesus being back in his hometown of Nazareth, teaching in the local synagogue….it’s the tension of being in a different place than the rest of your community, of drawing criticism or critique from those who you had hoped would understand and know you, and wrestling with reality being ideologically and spiritually different than what was expected of you, particularly from those who know you - or think they know you - the best.
The people who came to hear Jesus speak were those with whom he had spent most of his life - they knew him as Jesus the carpenter, as Mary and Joseph’s boy, knew stories of what he was like as a child, perhaps they even had tables or benches that he had made. Presumably, word about what Jesus could do had made its way to their ears - casting out demons, healing lepers and paralytics those with all manner of diseases. The news about his wise teachings, too, had spread to them. So when he rolls into Nazareth with his disciples, he draws a crowd in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Initially, they are amazed and astounded at his words and by what he was able to do...but praise quickly turns to scorn. It was almost as if they still saw Jesus as the Jesus they had always known - not any kind of miracle worker or wise teacher, but just one of them. I can imagine them saying, How dare he think of himself as more than us, as better than us?” They didn’t understand the source of his wisdom and power.
Jesus, at their offense, perhaps gets a bit rankled himself, and responds with that famous proverb: Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown,...which goes on to say and among their own kin, and in their own house. Instead of pausing to lick his wounds or to high-tail it out of town with this less-than-stellar reception, Jesus forges ahead and offers deeds of power, except to find that nothing could be done, but for a few healings...and he is amazed at their unbelief. In rejecting Jesus, they are also rejecting the power of God that was at work in him - and so his inability to work miracles among his own community has less to do with him and more to do with the people who couldn’t see past the Jesus they knew and understood - the Jesus that seemed no different than them. Finally Jesus leaves, and goes to teach in neighboring villages.
And then all of a sudden in Mark’s Gospel we switch gears, and see Jesus sending out the twelve disciples two by two, giving them bizarre instructions for the journey - he tells them not to take a bag or bread or money or extra clothes - just a staff, sandals, and a tunic. He tells them to stay where they are welcome and shake the dust off their feet of the places they’re not. They went out on the road with “joyful urgency that life can be radically different” as the Message paraphrase puts it - healing the sick, exorcising demons, and proclaiming the kingdom as they went. A beautiful success story following a story of Jesus’ failure. We have to chalk this one up to the disciples - who really seemed clued in this time, after all the times in the gospels where they don’t get it, where Jesus rebukes them and corrects their mistakes, this time - they actually pull it off. Jesus takes off the training wheels a bit, sends them out and they make it happen!
So I have to wonder if Jesus taking his disciples to his hometown of Nazareth wasn’t a bit of hands-on modeling for his followers of what to do when resistance comes...what to do when they receive a less-than-warm reception...how to persist in the work Jesus set out before them. Watching Jesus handle rejection and offense among the people who knew him the best prepared the disciples for what they might face among the towns and villages where they would be preaching and healing.
Because the truth of the matter is, Jesus and his disciples were about this radically different way of life, this new message of God’s Kingdom being at hand, and it wasn’t exactly a popular idea among many people during his time - especially those who were good, observant Jews, those who connected with the Temple or who were religious scholars or who had an in with the Roman government or those who wanted to keep their heads down and not rock the boat, those who wanted to keep things the way that they were for fear of what those in power might do. This life of repentance, of lifting up the lowly and shattering the proud, of lavish grace and inclusion of the outcast and forgotten, of restoration for the broken and bloodied, of redemption for the sinners and tax collectors - it broke all the conventions of his time and threatened the very fabric of the society in which Jesus and his disciples lived.
And it remains a dangerous way of life. As followers of Jesus we should be finding ourselves a bit out of sync with the world. There will be times when people - sometimes people we love and care about - will look at us like we’re crazy when we talk about having compassion on the poor and treating them like human beings, or when we forgive the friend who betrayed us, or when we take time for the person no one gives the time of day to, or when we give generously not out of our extra, but sacrificially so that another person’s needs can be met. Christians operate off of a different script, seeing the world differently, taking cues from Jesus and how he lived and operated in the world...and Jesus continually invites us to pattern our lives and our hearts after his own. And as we are sent out into the world each week, each day, we find a world where we have to negotiate alternative messages to this life of love and peace - sometimes dealing with flat out rejection of the love that we’ve found in God, sometimes dealing with openness and excitement - and everything in-between.
In all of this, Jesus shows us how to persist in the work he gives us the power and authority to do - to heal, to attack the demons that plague our society and the world that God loves, and to share the good news….and shows us how to shake the dust from our feet and continue on when faced with opposition. For if we are following his lead, the resistance we face has more to do with where others are on the journey - their own worldview, their own assumptions about God and Jesus and faith - and less about who God really is and how Jesus lives and breathes in us. We are not held responsible for their response - but only for our own faithfulness as we are sent out in Christ’s name.
To close, I want to reread the second portion of the scripture passage from Eugene Peterson’s The Message - because as people who have found life in Christ, and as people who go back to our homes or workplaces trying to be faithful signs of God’s love with all the challenges that brings, I believe the way he frames this passage will help remind us of our calling as a people who are to build God’s kingdom in this world.
7-8 Jesus called the Twelve to him -- perhaps it should read “Jesus calls us to him”, and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority and power to deal with the evil opposition. He sent them off with these instructions:
8-9 “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple.
10 “And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave.
11 “If you’re not welcomed, not listened to, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”
12-13 Then they were on the road. They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different; right and left they sent the demons packing; they brought wellness to the sick, anointing their bodies, healing their spirits.
Go forth this day to share this truth with the world. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 5:21-43
Mark 5:21-43 (NRSV)
21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it.33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
For twelve years this nameless woman in our passage from this morning had suffered. Twelve years with a ceaseless flow of blood that rendered her unclean - which made her unable to touch anyone, unable to participate in the life of the Temple, unable to be in community with anyone lest they, too, become unclean and impure. Twelve years of perpetual doctor’s visits, spending every last penny she owned trying to find an answer, only to discover her condition was getting worse. Twelve years of constant, unending sickness and isolation - twelve years of being put to the side by everyone she encountered - twelve years of alienation and loneliness and desperation...until Jesus comes along….and instead of following the religious rules of her day, she pursues and encounter with Jesus. She reaches out to touch him, even though she knew she shouldn’t be defiling the crowds with her presence, even though she knew she was forbidden to touch any man in her condition, even though she knew her touch would render him unclean. She crosses all social norms to touch the hem of his cloak to be made whole again.
Jesus stops at her touch, knowing that power had gone out of him. He’s in the middle of a crowd - anyone could have jostled him by accident - but he knows something happened, and at his question “Who touched me,” she comes forward, fearful and trembling, after all she’s done wrong, perhaps she expected to publicly shame her or rebuke her, but she approaches yet again and told him the whole truth - her whole story comes spilling forth at the feet of Jesus. He listens to her, giving back her dignity and humanity after twelve years as this woman negotiated her body around others, dealt with other’s perceptions and prejudices and assumptions, kept back her full self from connection and relationship because of her condition. Jesus, instead of dismissing her, instead of casting her aside and admonishing her, calls her daughter, restoring not only her body but her whole being to community.
This story of this rebellious, transgressive healing is sandwiched between the healing of another nameless girl, known to us only by the relationship she has with her father - Jairus’s daughter. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue - wealthy in comparison to the destitute woman in the crowd - powerful enough to directly petition Jesus on behalf of his dying little girl. On his way to this man’s house, after this encounter with hemorrhaging woman, Jesus learns that the child has died, the messengers claiming that there is no need for Jairus to bother Jesus anymore. Would the girl still have been alive had Jesus not stopped to talk to the ailing woman? We don’t know. Regardless, Jesus is undeterred and enters the house to find mourners around the bedside of this little girl. When they mock Jesus for his pronouncement that the girl is “sleeping” - a common euphemism for death - he kicks everyone out except for the child’s mother and father and disciples - takes the girls hand and commands her to get up. In this case, it is Jesus who extends his hand to the girl - himself risking being made unclean by touching a dead body. This healing - resurrection, really - is a private miracle as opposed to the public spectacle just witnessed on the way, and Jesus orders secrecy around this event….as if anyone can keep quiet about a child proclaimed dead, whose funeral rites had already begun, coming back to life and eating and drinking.
What strikes me in both of these encounters is Jesus’s wholehearted presence with each of the people in this story - with the desperate father searching for healing for his little girl and Jesus’s ability to be with the family in the midst of the mourners who laughed at Jesus’s proclamation of life where they saw only death. Jesus unwavering commitment to this woman who had been covered in shame and who needed someone to hear her story and heal her. In both, Jesus not only performs physical healing, but restores each - the twelve year old girl and the woman who bled for twelve years - to community and fellowship. In each case, Jesus moves past the constructed boundaries of what is “impure” - this menstruating woman and the dead body - to practice compassion. In each story, a hopeless daughter can live and go in peace again because Jesus treats each one as a member of his family - finding value in each of them where no one else will.
I can’t help but connect this story to what’s been happening along the southern border of this country - and the ways that many Americans have made assumptions about their stories, about why they’ve come here and about their character because of the way they chose to enter the United States. Those in power have constructed narratives that make many in our country unable to listen to the stories of violence, pain, terror, that individuals and families are fleeing - often at great personal cost. Stories of gangs terrorizing and abusing single mothers and children, of domestic violence and high crime rates, unstable communities and violence that oftentimes came about due to previous United States involvement in their governments. These are the truths that immigrants carry with them into our country, but few are able to listen; instead, our government equates them to animals, criminals - fit for cages, with children continued to be held separate from their families. It’s clear how the principalities and powers are working to devalue the life of people crossing into our country - taking away their humanity, isolating them from community, treating them as less than and other. Compassion and empathy have been lost in the enforcement of law and order. Where there should be life and hope, our political system has been pronouncing death and despair.
In response to these and other horrors, Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, reminds us that “if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”
If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian. Period.
Jesus valued compassion and mercy over the rigid religious law of the day. Jesus took the time to affirm the humanity of those his society considered less than and other - bleeding women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers and beggars and those whose very existence his culture sought to ignore and dismiss, whose very laws dehumanized and erased. Jesus instead lived by love. What does that love look like? It looks like one whose heart went out to the cries of a grieving father, who touched the hand of a sick child. It looks like one who risks defilement to touch the bloody and the broken. The one who insists on the whole truth, however falteringly told. The one who listens for as long as it takes. The one who brings life to dead places. The one who restores hope. The one who turns mourning into dancing. The one who renames the outcast, “Daughter,” and bids her go in peace.
It’s the same love that calls us into one family - that makes us all brothers and sisters - no matter who we are and where we come from, whether we live on this side of the border or the other.
We may live far away from the atrocities committed by our government at the border, we may feel powerless in the face of such devastation. But we can be love - in the conversations we have with friends and neighbors, reminding others of the common humanity of those our government has sought to dehumanize, strengthening and encouraging each other when we get tired or burdened by the weight of the news we hear day after day.
Love looks like us - the followers of Jesus in the world - reaching out to touch the untouchable, listening to the stories of the dismissed, and choosing to act with love even and especially beyond the bounds of social construction.
Jesus’s love is subversive and transgressive and radical, breaking boundaries and barriers. It is not always a safe and comforting love - but a love that demands action - a love that cries out for us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us - it’s a radically different way of being with one another in our world. It’s a love that heals and restores those whom everybody thinks are worthless. It’s a love that doesn’t conform to the rules and regulations of this world. It’s a love that shows us the way forward to a kingdom of peace and justice, of undeserving grace and mercy, of wholeness and redemption.
Later in our time of worship today, we’ll be taking Communion - a meal that binds us as a family, where we take the body and blood of Christ. It’s a meal that unites us in our common humanity, a meal where we believe all are welcome to be fed. But also, it’s a meal that is more than just bread and juice. You know the saying “you are what you eat?” well, in this meal we are taking in Jesus. In this meal, Jesus is becoming a part of us….and in response is this call to let Jesus flow through us - to be that love - to be Christ in the world today.
As we come forward to receive - let it be your commitment to live this life of love. To be the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Jesus. To be a witness to this radical, boundary breaking love. To stand together as the body of Christ, to be a people who point the way to the one who brought life to dead places...and to be a people working and serving and shouting and singing our way toward greater compassion, mercy, justice and peace in the world. This is my prayer for us, the church, the people of God this day. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.