Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Grab the Hem

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2015, Ordinary 13B
Mark 5:21-43

Grab the Hem

Healing. You would think this would be one thing we humans would unanimously agree is a good thing.
Working my way through the halls of the local VA hospital it wasn’t hard to see examples of why any of us would be downright jubilant if Jesus were to show up in the flesh and run rampant through the halls, healing patients left and right.
You would think this would be one thing we humans would unanimously agree is a good thing. But somehow, it isn’t always so.
One thing that sometimes gets in the way of this longing for healing, something that many of us fall prey to at times, is the slight problem that in order truly to desire healing, one needs to be able to admit that one is sick. And we’re not always good at that.
“Oh, it’s just a sniffle. It’s nothing.”
“I just didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
“It’s only a tickle in my throat, no big deal.”
Of course, before you know it, you’re in bed wiped out with the flu or something worse. We don’t admit we’re sick – maybe we feel like we have too much to do, or it’s too late to get someone to sub for us, or who knows what excuse we use, but the illness fells us in the end because we refused to admit it was upon us.
This isn’t a problem for either of the protagonists in today’s scripture. Jairus, the local synagogue leader, has seen his daughter’s condition worsen steadily until she is on the brink of death. While the religious authorities in Jerusalem might have disparaged Jesus’s healings as the “devil’s work,” Jairus evidently didn’t care; if there was any chance this itinerant rabbi could heal his beloved daughter, he would do whatever it took to get it to happen. In a scene that must have shocked the locals, Jaiurs threw himself before Jesus and begged him to come to his home and heal his daughter. Jesus agreed and the two, and Jesus’s disciples, began to make their way through the ever-present crowds around Jesus towards Jairus’s house.
It is in the midst of this travel that our second seeker enters and even interrupts the story. Mark is fond of these “sandwiches” in which one story is inserted into the midst of a similar or related story, allowing us to see the two in tandem and perhaps compare them to one another. While both are stories of people seeking healing, the contrasts are at least as notable as the similarities.
Jairus, a significant person in the community, comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter. It turns out she’s all of twelve years old. While infant or childhood mortality was certainly more prevalent then and there than here and now, no parent was willing to let their child go without a fight. We can certainly understand Jairus’s determination to do anything he could to bring his daughter back to health.
Our second seeker, though, is about as different as possible. She gets no name in the story, not a surprise given that in the context of the time she would have been about as insignificant as it was possible for an adult to be. She seems to be a widow, with no family to care for her or to speak on her behalf, and such a woman had no legal or societal status, now matter how often the lawgivers and prophets of the Old Testament implored the people of Israel to care for and deal justly with the widows and orphans among them.
At one point she apparently had some resources, but they were consumed in the struggle to find treatment for her malady, one which the old King James Version called an “issue of blood.” It was constant, it was debilitating, and it was sufficient to render the woman ritually impure, unable to participate in the rituals of the Jewish religion.
Having no one to advocate for her, she had to take matters into her own hands. And she had been trying to do so for twelve excruciating years. A cavalcade of doctors had done their worst, apparently, while bringing her no relief and possibly leaving her in worse condition.
Perhaps surprisingly, historical scholarship has actually given us a few of the possible remedies that might have been inflicted upon a woman in this condition. Charles Powell notes a few of these:
§  Carrying on her person the ash of an ostrich egg wrapped in a cloth;
§  A sudden shock;
§  Drinking wine mixed with a power of rubber, alum, and garden crocus;
§  Or, eating a batch of Persian onions cooked in wine while the doctor intoned, “arise out of your flow of blood.”
For possibly these or other remedies, from a virtual cavalcade of doctors, the woman had been relieved of all her money, leaving her destitute as well as sick.
No one had to tell her she was ill and in need of healing. Still, she didn’t choose to approach Jesus directly for a cure. We aren’t told exactly why; Mark tells us that she believed she would be made well if she simply touched his clothing, but doesn’t tell us why she didn’t simply come to Jesus directly. The culture of ancient Israel offers a few possibilities. She might have feared that if he knew her condition, Jesus might refuse to heal her for fear of being made ritually unclean himself. It’s also possible she feared that he would refuse to hear her, a poor widow with no man to speak on her behalf, simply because that’s what men typically did. She might have felt that in her condition she would simply be unable to get through the crowd enough to speak to Jesus directly.
Whatever the reason, you’ve heard the story; she somehow gets through the crowd and touches some part of his garment, and is healed of her long, debilitating illness. Somehow Jesus knows that something has happened, even in the midst of the jostling crowd, and in the end the woman does meet Jesus after all, and hears Jesus speak to her as a “Daughter,” and hears him say that “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Did you catch that? “Your faith has made you well…be healed of your disease.” Now, I lot of theological discussions of this passage will get deeply involved in explaining or understanding the idea of the first phrase – “your faith has made you well…” and I’m not saying that it is not a challenging thing to most theologies to read a statement that seems to attribute the healing to the woman’s faith. I think, though, that part of the answer to this lies in the way Jesus is dividing two phrases that we tend to read as meaning the same thing.
When we peer into the Greek, it gets more challenging; the word that the NRSV translates as “made you well” is more often translated when it appears in other verses as having to do something with saving. That leads a lot of preachers off on an unprofitable bunny trail about how “salvation” comes – whether by human faith or God’s work – when the more challenging and on-point question here is, “You mean there’s a difference between being healed of illness and being saved, or made well, or made whole?”
There’s more to being well than just not being sick.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if we know that, subconsciously at least, when we pray. We pray for healing for our own sicknesses or the illnesses of those we love, but there are things that we need to be truly whole, to be truly saved from harm, to be truly well, that we don’t always recognize about ourselves, and that if we’re honest we would just as soon not submit to the full-fledged healing of Jesus.
If nothing else, our country has had demonstrated in the last couple of weeks just how much un-wellness still remains in society, particularly white society in relation to black society. The murder of nine members of an AME church in Charleston, by a young man fond of wrapping himself in the old Confederate battle flag, ripped open old wounds that remained present and raw for many, many blacks in the United States, while many whites had allowed themselves to be convinced that such wounds no longer existed – that there was no more racism in American culture.
Even as the following days seemed to offer some miniscule signs of hope; when whites and blacks came together to pray and to weep; when cities and statehouses removed from their grounds the flag in which Dylann Roof so loved to wrap himself – not only did voices of hatred continue to be raised; in the past week six primarily African-American churches in the South have been burned in acts officially reckoned as arson. The plague of racism will not go quietly, and not without a great deal of baring of souls and shedding of tears. And we shouldn’t pretend that racial hatred is the only such wound on our society that will require restoration in order for us to be made well, or made whole, or saved from harm. And it’s an open question just how much of our society, and even how much of the church, is really willing to put forward the faith needed to be made well.
It upsets the order of things, truly being made whole. It takes us out of our comfortable places and the ways things have always been. It might just set us against our friends. It might be inconvenient.
But if we truly want to claim our faith to be real, to be faith in and towards Jesus, our salvation to be in Christ alone, then we will inevitably be drawn to this, to giving up on and walking away from these comfortable failings. We will inevitably have to confront these ongoing brokennesses in us, whether they be lodged in our own attitudes and beliefs or whether simply in our unwillingness or fear to confront them in the world around us.
Yes, it is easy to ask for physical healing, and we are toldd to do so. But that can’t be the only healing we seek. Being healed of our illnesses can never be mistaken for being made whole or well or even for being saved. Until we can look around the whole word, until we can see all of the men and women out there as sisters and brothers, people Christ calls us to love; we are clinging to brokenness. We are not seeing just how sick we really are, and are not bringing all our sickness and brokenness to Jesus.
Until we are ready not just to reach out and touch the cloak – until we are ready to grab hold of the hem of that cloak and never let go until we know full, real, complete healing – until we are willing to give it all up, perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt the Master. Perhaps we should let him move on to that sick girl.
But when we are ready, when we know our brokenness and our sickness and can no longer stand that brokenness and sickness, then let us reach out and grab the hem of that cloak and never let go, until we are made well.
For total healing, not just the physical kind, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” (462), “Come Sing to God” (181), “O Christ, the Healer” (380), “There Is a Balm In Gilead” (394)
Credit: (it's generally very funny, and on point as well)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sermon: Divided Houses and Rearranged Families

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 7, 2015; Ordinary 10B
Mark 3:20-35

Divided Houses and Rearranged Families

It’s been a while since we’ve been in the Gospel of Mark, and (at least when I’m here preaching) we’re going to be in this gospel for a while. It seems proper then to reacquint ourselves with the beginning of the book and how we got to the place where we find ourselves today. You might remember that this gospel jumps directly into the story, with no birth narratives or any kind of preliminary material; we find John the Baptizer proclaiming in the wilderness and Jesus coming to be baptized by him; after a spell in the desert Jesus kicks off his public ministry with the proclamation that might well serve as the thesis statement for the whole gospel, found in verse 15 – “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (If you’re the type who finds it useful to memorize verses of scripture, I’d suggest adding this one to your memory banks if only because we’re going to come back to it over and over again in the upcoming weeks.)
Jesus then calls his first handful of disciples, and soon follows his first miracle, an exorcism performed in the synagogue, followed by the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Word spread quickly, and multitudes came to be healed by him, whereupon he set out to preach around Galilee, only to come upon a leper seeking healing; when he did so, the leper (disobeying Jesus’s order) spread the word all around, so that Jesus couldn’t even go into the towns or cities due to the crush of people seeking healing from him. That’s roughly the first chapter, about where we left off.
In chapter two and the early part of chapter three, we start to see the first opposition to Jesus, coming not from the common folk but from the religious authorities. When a group of friends pulls a hole in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus, a group of scribes objects to his words to the man, “your sins are forgiven.” Then the scribes and Pharisees object to Jesus’s eating with “tax collectors and sinners” after the call of the tax collector Levi to be a disciple, and then they object to the disciples not fasting, and then they object to the disciples’ plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Finally, after daring to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are already seeking to conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed, and that’s only in chapter three, verse six. So you could say that things have gone south very quickly.
At the same time, though, despite the opposition of the religious leaders, the people continue to turn out in droves to see Jesus; today’s story starts (rather in the middle of things) with the observation that the crowds were so deep that no one could even eat. But the crowds aren’t the only ones who show up (uninvited, it might be said) at this apparent dinnertime. There are two different groups who have come for Jesus, and we get the stories of their appearances told in “sandwich” form, one inside the other. Wrapped around the appearance of the scribes from Jerusalem is an attempted intervention by Jesus’s family; specifically his mother and his brothers. Let’s deal with the scribes first.
It is no small deal that these scribes have appeared, and that they have come from Jerusalem. Imagine the Vatican itself sending out a delegation to investigate a kerfuffle in one of the local Catholic churches in Gainesville. Just in case the reader hasn’t been paying attention, the very appearance of these scribes from the seat of Jewish practice should alert us that Jesus’s activities are causing serious concern among the religious authorities.
We’ve already noticed that the Pharisees and Herodians are in conspiracy against Jesus; these scribes, who may or may not be part of that plot, seem to have come to this remote town for the particular purpose of discrediting Jesus. Since the crowd knew all about the healings and exorcisms Jesus had been performing (quite possibly the crowd contained some of those people who had been healed or had had demons cast out), these scribes sought to discredit those healings. In doing so, though, they put themselves in a position for Jesus’s most direct, most stinging charge against them.
Apparently, according to these scribes, Jesus was able to cast out demons by the power of…none other than the head demon, here called Beelzebub.  It must have sounded like a great rhetorical flourish, and one of those unanswerable and unassailable ways to discredit a troublesome character forever; “he’s in league with the devil…” has sometimes been an effective charge for whipping up a mindless frenzy against a person, almost as good as “she’s a witch!”
They weren’t counting on Jesus being ready for that kind of charge, though, and frankly they weren’t counting on Jesus being better at rhetorical argument than they were. For one thing, accusing someone of being in league with the devil might be intimidating, but when the subject is what power by which Jesus is casting out demons, the accusation doesn’t hold up very well once you look at it rationally. Why would Beelzebub be working through Jesus, or anyone for that matter, to cast out his own demons? How does that even make sense? Jesus of course tears apart the very idea with a line that would be often cited throughout history, by the likes of no less than Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War – “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If the devil is casting out demons, then the devil is already defeated.
But that’s not all Jesus has to say; he then launches into a parable about breaking into the house of a “strong man” and binding him up in order to plunder the house. This might sound odd in this context, until you put it together with its context; the strong man is no less than Beelzebub, and the one binding the strong man and plundering his house is Jesus himself. It’s not just that Jesus is not casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub; Jesus has power over not just the demons but Beelzebub himself. 
Finally, though, comes the most powerful charge against these scribes, one which has become one of the most misused and abused verses of scripture ever. After saying that people can be forgiven for “whatever blasphemies they utter” in verse 28, Jesus continues that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, for it is an eternal sin.”
There are two problems with how this passage gets used as a “clobber verse,” one with which certain types of Christians beat up their perceived enemies. First of all, know your Greek. Whoever blasphemes, whoever is blaspheming, whoever is continuing to blaspheme the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven – how can you be reconciled to the God whom you are calling demonic? But whoever ceases to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? 
And secondly, don’t invent new and convenient meanings for “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.” This isn’t a random verse inserted into the story. This act is defined by its context; the scribes see Jesus doing the works of the Holy Spirit, and attribute them to the devil. They see people being healed of all manner of illnesses, they see people being delivered from the demons that torment them, and they refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit in it. This isn’t about “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” or committing suicide, or any number of other things we presumed Christians are eager to condemn.
Far from the kind of sin that it is easy to read into others, this is the kind of thing we had better be extremely careful about engaging in ourselves. Christians have a pretty bad habit of condemning based on particular beliefs or doctrines. We are pretty good heresy hunters. But when we become so obsessed with doctrinal purity that we refuse – not fail, but refuse – to see the work of the Holy Spirit in those “others” we are just as guilty as those scribes who got so hung up on Sabbath laws that they accused Jesus of having a devil in him.
Meanwhile, Jesus’s family is also present, trying to get into this crowded house, apparently to take Jesus away. The NRSV suggests that “people” were saying that Jesus had lost his mind, but in truth the people who were saying this were most likely Jesus’s family themselves.
Jesus’s response to the news that his family was coming for him sounds like the worst nightmare of “family values” crusaders. Jesus basically ignores them. Doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. Instead, he turns to the crowd, the healed and the demon-dispossessed, the poor and the outcast, the sinners and the tax collectors – and sees his family. “Here are my mother and my brothers!” he says. He then offers the counterpart to that difficult verse 29: “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
And there’s the crux of the story. Beyond dogmas and rules, beyond even family ties and blood relations, there is the imperative to live into this “kingdom of God come near,” to echo Jesus’s claim from chapter one. There is this imperative to be led of the Holy Spirit. There is the imperative to follow Christ, to live like Jesus, to be truly Christlike instead of merely Christian. To participate in the healing of the world and its people; to be a part of the casting out of those demons that torture us in the modern world, whatever name they may take; to be instruments of God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s love; this is what it means to be a brother or a sister of Jesus, a “joint-heir” with Christ to borrow Paul’s phrase from last week.
This is how the Holy Spirit is seen to be in you. This is how the world knows you are followers of Christ. When people are healed, rescued, restored, reconciled, and brought to new life, let us never, ever be the ones giving credit to the devil. No; be Jesus’s family. Be the one doing the will of God, and so be Christ’s mother and sister and mother.
For the call to be part of the family of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “This Is My Father’s World” (293), “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” (383), “Come, Risen Lord” (503), “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” (369)