Sermon on the Lectionary text for June 28, 2009, Mark 5:21-43, 13th Sunday in Ordinary time

Mark 5:21-43

Jesus’ Shortest Sermon

take my hand
take my hand

Every time I read this text from Mark I get impressed all over again at a number of things. I’m impressed by Mark’s skill as a story teller – how he weaves together the stories of these two very different characters – the hemorrhaging woman and the girl at death’s door into a single cohesive narrative. I’m impressed at Mark’s use of language that is simple and clear on the surface while at the same time being deeply significant on another level. I’m also impressed by Jesus all over again – what he cares about, where he directs his energy and ministry, the sensitivity he has to people in need, and his ability to meet their needs.

Let’s look at this amazing text together because I believe that as we do we will see how significant this is to us today – on several different levels.

Story 1 starts

First the story – or rather, stories. In the first story, Jesus, who returns from his trip to the “other side” is approached by an important person, a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, who humbly appeals to Jesus to come and heal his sick little 12 year old daughter.

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.”

Even though Jesus is in the middle of something – he is ministering to a large crowd – he simply stopped what he was doing and went with him.

Story 2 intrudes

But that story is interrupted by the second story. A poor woman from the crowd reaches out and touches his cloak, thinking, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”(v. 28). When she did, she got a lot more than she planned: she immediately felt well – her hemorrhaging stopped – but she also got noticed. Mark tells us that somehow,

30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

She has been found out – she is now very much afraid, but Jesus not only heals her disease, he calms her fear and says, 34“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Story 1 ends continues

So, now we are ready to resume story number one, Jesus can get on with going to the home of Jairus to heal his daughter, but the plot takes on a darker color as the report arrives from the home that the trip will not be necessary, the girl has died.

But this is not the end of the story. In our versions it says that Jesus “overheard” the report of her death, but everywhere else that word is used it means “ignored” – Jesus ignored the report of her death and to the father, who must have been in shock and grief, gave his shortest sermon on record, “Do not fear, only believe.” (v. 36)

To signal the unusually important nature of what is about to happen, Jesus takes with him only the three inner-circle disciples, Peter, James and John, and proceeds on to the house where the official mourning has already commenced. He sends the incredulous mourners out, 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!”

Immediately she got up, and Mark notes that she was 12 years old.

What could it mean? What children think

If we were young children who can only understand a story on the surface level, we might conclude that the message we are meant to hear is that short sermon:

Do not fear, only believe.” v. 36

And we might think that the point is that if you get into trouble – even scary-bad trouble, don’t fear, just believe, and Jesus will make it all go away.

But that cannot be the meaning because it simply is not true – and never has been.

Looking below the surface: crossing over (again)

So now we are prepared to look below the surface level of the story and notice the details that Mark includes that show the powerful message.

First, as the story opens, Jesus has not simply “returned” from his excursion on the boat to the “other side” – the impure, gentile side. No, Mark specifically tells us that Jesus “crossed again in the boat to the other side” (v. 21). Jesus didn’t just “return” he “crossed again” to a new place called “the other side”.

Is it any surprise then to notice the boundaries that Jesus crosses in this text? As he goes from poor, nameless, helpless sick woman to well-to-do named synagogue leader’s watched-over daughter, he is crossing a wide social chasm; both the very poor and the well-to-do are equally objects of God’s care. Both are representatives of the entire nation – the 12 tribes – the one suffering for 12 years, the other being 12 years old. From poor to the rich, there is suffering enough to touch everyone – and everyone needs Jesus’ touch.

Crossing taboo lines with Grace

In both stories taboo lines are crossed with Jesus’ approval; in the first, since blood is life-giving and its loss is life-ending, in this cultural context, the poor hemorrhaging woman is under the taboo of religious impurity. But nevertheless, Jesus affirms the appropriateness of her touch and pronounces her healed. In fact it was the crossing of that taboo line by her touch that brought healing to her.

Likewise, by the time Jesus got to Jairus’ daughter she was already dead – meaning that contact with her would render Jesus religiously impure as well. But he did not just say to her “Little girl, get up!” he also reached out and “took her by the hand” crossing the barrier of taboo.

God’s grace is not restricted to the good folks, the polite, the thankful, the morally righteous; the people on the inside of the taboos we set up. It is simply too lavish for such restrictions. One of Jesus’ most central characteristics was his crossing over to bring God’s healing, restoring grace to marginalized, despised, outsider, at-risk people – whether they were born into that condition or became so as they experienced trouble in their lives. There is nobody that God will not reach out and touch. How could it be any different for us?

We are doing no less than extending that taboo-crossing touch as we reach out with God’s love to hurting people – whether we meet them at the Christian Service Center, in tutoring, at the Boy’s Ranch, on Death Row, or down in Merida, Mexico.

Let me extend this even one step further. There has been a lot of talk in the Presbyterian Church nationally about the absence of 18-35 year olds from our churches. Perhaps our church needs to stop expecting them to cross the cultural chasm to come to us; perhaps we should be like our Lord who crossed the cultural chasm to bring God’s grace and healing love to them. We will not find them in the synagogues (that is, our churches) – but that does not mean that they are not hurting and do not need healing. In the words of one contemporary song, the singers looks at his life and concludes, “I’m not sick, but I’m not well.” But he’s not coming to church for healing either. Maybe we need to find ways to get to him in healing, life-restoring ways.

Going even deeper: entering the stories

There is an even deeper level to these stories that we must not miss. Mark draws us into both stories so that we actually experience them from the perspective of these suffering characters who experience healing. In the story of the hemorrhaging woman, he does it by allowing us, the readers, to see the whole situation through her eyes. As she furtively approaches Jesus from behind, we get to hear her internal monologue as she reasons to herself, and then we get to experience the feeling of healing from her perspective:

28 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.

By letting us hear her thoughts and experience her relief, we are drawn into the story – we identify with her. I know that there are parts of me that are unwell and need healings. Will God care about me, we ask? And through her perspective we conclude, “Yes, I am one of those people who, as unlikely as it may be, God actually notices. He cares about me! I can reach out and touch Jesus, by faith today, just as she did then.”

Similarly, Mark draws us into the other story too, so that we can identify with the little girl who was raised to life. One word of explanation: the prophets liked to picture the nation of Israel as a young maiden, an unmarried woman, pictured as God’s daughter. (e.g. Jer. 4:31) “Daughter Zion” experienced horrible trauma – and the question was – is she going to die? Is there a future for her? Could the child of the synagogue, nurtured in the torah, but who had suffered so severely ever recover?

When Jesus went to the synagogue leader’s home and took his 12 year old daughter’s hand, he was taking the hand of the “daughter of Zion” – the hand of the people of
God – in fact, our hand, saying directly to us, “little girl, arise” – and saying it in our ancient tongue (well, sort of – Aramaic, not Hebrew anymore – but the point is that it was not Greek). We hear Jesus’ words directed to us: “
Get up”.

The Presbyterian Church USA needs to hear this call from our Lord: “Get up” – take his hand; his will is not that we give up and die just because everything around us is changing. “Get up” he is telling us: there is a lot of life in me, your Lord, and I am here to give you new life. Expect something new! Just take my hand.” The message we need to hear is that short sermon “Do not fear, only believe.” (v. 36).

The First Presbyterian Church of Gulf Shores needs to hear this call from our Lord, “Get up.” We need to not be afraid to take his hand and say, “Though we are mostly retired, though we are in a retirement community, nevertheless, we have a lot of life to share right here, where we are.” We may need to cross some borders, but we will do it in the strength of the new life that he offers. The message we need to hear is that short sermon “Do not fear, only believe.”

We need to hear this on a personal level as well. None of us are as healthy as we want to look when we come to church all showered and shaved. None of us have families that are as healthy as our lawns are. All of us have areas of our lives that are sick – and some maybe even “near death.” All of us need to hear Jesus speaking directly to us, saying “Get up.” We need to take his hand that he extends to us. We need to reach out in faith to touch him and understand that he can heal those broken places in us. The message we need to hear is that short sermon “Do not fear, only believe.”

And let make sure that we understand that our brokenness includes, not only those areas in which we feel pain – but our brokenness also manifests itself in the ways we cause pain. The borders we insist on maintaining have been erected out of brokenness in us and cause brokenness and pain in others. These need healing as well. It is a grave concern to us that today, just as in Jesus’ time, there are people without adequate health care who suffer impoverishment trying to pay for treatment. This is a modern scandal – it is a sign that we all still need healing of those diseased parts of our souls that are content with the broken status quo. The message we need to hear is that short sermon “Do not fear, only believe.”

Sermon on Lectionary text for June 21, 2009 (Father’s Day), Mark 4:35-41

Job 38:1-11

Mark 4:35-41

The Sleeper and the Storm god

storm at sea, from
storm at sea, from

I’m one of those really blessed people who grew up in a two parent family, always aware that both my mother and father loved me and wanted the best for me. Many people cannot say that, so I feel blessed to be one that can. On this father’s day I have been reflecting on the role my father played as I was growing up, and how it was different from my mother’s role.

Fathers and pain

Mothers typically want to protect their children from harm. Father’s want to make sure their children know how to deal with harm when it comes. Good fathers do not want their children to get hurt badly, but they understand that a little pain is a unavoidable – in everything from learning to ride a bicycle to yard work. In fact, there is truth to the “no pain-no gain” saying – even though it can be exaggerated and cause harm. Nevertheless, fathers are willing to let their children get pushed past their comfort zones in order to prepare them for life.

I believe that God, in his role of heavenly Father is similar; I have never known anyone who has been shielded from experiencing pain in their lives; I do not believe that God our Father causes our pain – often times we cause our own, and often we are victims of pain-causing external events, from diseases to other people – but God, as a wise Father, helps us learn to handle pain rather than keeping us in pain-free bubbles.

Perhaps there is pain in your life today that you are struggling with – physical or emotional – perhaps relational or even spiritual. If so, this is an important text for us to reflect on, on fathers’ day. For whatever reason, your Heavenly Father has not shielded you from this pain – so what is going on? How do we understand it?

Last week we asked the question: what in the world is God doing, when it is not obvious that anything is happening. Is God, the gardner, careless with his garden, or the seeds? Is he asleep instead of out there fighting off the weeds and tending the plants? Is there a plan at work – something going on beneath the surface, down in the soil? Jesus used some humor last week, with his parables of the careless gardner and of the weed-planting mustard seed farmer. This week it’s not funny at all. The emotional tone is tense and fearful. This is a storm-at-sea story.

Pain, ancient and modern

I believe that when there is significant pain going on in your life, you do indeed feel like you are in a battered boat in a storm at sea; even if you do not believe that the wind and sea are dangerous nature-gods, nor that there is a chaos monster lurking below, as the ancients imagined, nevertheless, the panic we feel when “going down” seems like an imminent possibility is just as palpable. Pain is not just painful, it’s also scary: it hurts now, in the present, and it puts the future in doubt as well. The reaction of the disciples to the sleeping Jesus is not at all unimaginable today. We can sometimes hear ourselves asking:

Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

– Ah, now we are at the heart of the issue. Pain in our lives brings up the one essential, crucial question: “What in the world is God doing? Does he know how I feel? Does he care?”

No simple question; no easy answer

If this were a simple question, no one would ask it – or would keep on asking it. But we do keep on asking it. And the answer is not something saccharine and shallow such as, “Don’t worry; be happy. Jesus is in your boat and he will calm every storm.” Why not? Because we all experience what those disciples did: first, he sometimes appears to be asleep, and second, we wonder why are we here in a storm in the first place? It’s not just a question of ending well on a calm sea; it’s a question of surviving the panic in the mean time.

Besides, there must be more to it than a guaranteed happy ending. This is not a Mother-Goose tale and we do not live in a Mother Goose world. I have known stories that ended badly; so do you. Some stories end in untimely death. Some stories include other endings – like the way abuse stories do, or stories of relationship failure, of family dysfunction, or economic disaster, addiction, depression, grief – there are many painful stories out there – maybe everybody has at least one.

So what are we to do with this text of Jesus in the boat in the storm at sea; how does it help us?

No pleasure cruise

Let’s look at this story a bit more carefully: first, this story does not happen on a random day, like the day Gilligan’s ship was on his ill-fated 3 hour tour. They are in that boat because Jesus asked them to get into the boat. Whatever is happening, it’s his cruise, not theirs. They are not running away from God’s mission, as Jonah did on his ill-fated cruise, they are there under the direction of the Lord himself. Like the wise earthly father, he is not keeping them on shore in complete safety – he is getting them out of their comfort zone for a reason.

We are not living random lives. We are disciples. God has a mission for each of us, and he is not content to let us sit on the shoreline and sunbathe. He has us out on the boat, even if it means getting away from mom’s apron strings on land.

Crossing to the “other side”

Notice that Jesus asked them to get into the boat to go to the “other side.” They are going from good safe Jewish land to the “other side” where the gentiles live – the folks who are not safe, not good, not like us, and not nice. Of course it will be hard to cross over to the “other side” and bring the kingdom of God and his love and mercy over there – you might even end up in a graveyard dealing with a crazy man – and maybe that’s why you were told to get into the boat in the first place.

Isn’t it true that it has often been the painful parts of our life-experience that have led us to be able to be loving and kind to people we otherwise would have probably avoided? In fact, isn’t pain itself – the storms themselves – the great leveler? We do not all think alike, or look alike, or vote the same, or have the same outlook on the economy – but we all suffer the same. We all go through the same grief when we loose the ones we love. We all find intimate relationships challenging – sometimes to the breaking point. Raising children is hard – often painful – whether you are rich or poor, Hispanic or Caucasian, Jewish or Muslim. On the level of pain, we cross over to the other side where people different from us are just like us in their panic at the storm. But we are sent to them, to in fact bring Jesus to them. In this way, the pain of the storm itself is being redeemed, even before it ends with final peace and calm.

In that boat that day, during the storm, the disciples asked Jesus a question he did not answer:

Do you not care that we are perishing?” (v. 38)

Probably they meant “we – the ones here in this boat – do you not care about us?” It would be a natural question – albeit a selfish one. Yes, he cared – he was in the boat with them. But he had them in that boat, on that trip to the other side, because he cares about the people perishing on that other shore as well. The whole point of the crossing is to get to people he cares about and to rescue them from perishing as well.

Not alone, not for ourselves alone

There are two things we need to know from this text: that we are not in our boats alone, and we are not in them for ourselves. Our Heavenly Father is not shielding us from storms – we do not live in a bubble, out of reach of the pain that everyone else has to deal with. We do not get a pass. But the presence of the storm does not imply the absence of the savior. He is there, and he cares. And he has us out there so that we can be part of his mission to bring that care to the folks on the other side. The folks in pain, the folks, perishing, like us – but whose story is not over.

Ultimately, we do believe in the happy ending – but in a complex way. We do believe that since it’s God’s cruise and because he is along for the ride with us, that he will indeed ultimately control the storms. Eventually, we will know the calm that he will bring; though we will go through that storm before we get there. We end with his question to us:

He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” v. 40

I don’t know about you: I respond like that father in the gospel with the troubled son who said,

“I do believe; help my unbelief.” Mark 9:24

Sermon on Lectionary for 11th Sunday, Ordinary, Year B Mark 4:26-34

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Mark 4:26-34

Our dirty little secret

Pieter Bruegel's Harvesters, 1565
Pieter Bruegel's Harvesters, 1565

When I was a young person, I would sometimes get to hear a speaker at a youth camp who was really good – he could get everyone laughing so hard you were crying, and then zing in a pointed sentence before you had time to get your defenses up. Jesus was not exactly like that, but he did have a sense of humor and used it effectively – which we will see today. His humor was not because his ideas were trivial – just the opposite – but rather he used humor to teach things that people might be defensive about otherwise.

What could people be defensive about? How about admitting that it feels like God is not doing his job. How about admitting to being frustrated with God – or even admitting that we are angry with God – enough to take matters into our own hands. Those are notions almost no one will own-up to, and yet, listen to the sub-text of a lot of conversation these days, and you might here it there.

Just get people started – about the economy or about the steps being taken now by the administration to address this economic crisis – and people will say everything short of “why is God letting this happen?” And it is not just the economy that produces this subtext, it’s also personal issues, health issues, family issues – even weather issues. What is God doing? or more realistically asked, “why isn’t God doing what he should be doing?”

That is a heavy issue, and it’s summer time, so let’s lighten up – as Jesus did.

First, to this audience of people whose friends and families are mostly tenant farmers whose lives is at stake with every harvest, he tells a story that starts with a ridiculously funny scene:

26 The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,

What? Scatter? literally “toss down”? That’s not what you do, you sow seeds; they are precious – you take care; you don’t just “toss” seeds apathetically – who would do that? It’s not just careless, it’s irresponsible and risky – what a fool!

It gets worse;

27 and would sleep and rise night and day,

– and work, right? He didn’t mention that this farmer would work – work his head off, weeding, watering, tending – is this guy doing anything at all? Just sleeping and rising?

He continues:

and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Somehow – unlikely and undeservedly as it is – something grows – and the fool doesn’t even know how it happens! Nobody is that bad! Everyone in the ancient world knows why the earth is fertile – it’s God – or the gods – whichever you believe. You’d have to be learning-disabled not to know that!

The next line looks at what is happening out in that pathetic fool’s fields, from his own perspective – the guy who doesn’t care, doesn’t work, and doesn’t know:

28 The earth produces of itself,

– or literally, “automatically” – not by God’s grace or power, it just seems to happen as if no one is in control. Don’t confuse this sentiment with a modern perspective – for the ancient world, this man has lost his mind thinking that things like growth just happen on their own.

But then the scene changes – as they often do in parables:

29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Suddenly the most unlikely thing happens after this carelessness, sloth and impious ignorance – a harvest happens, and he hits the ground running out with his harvesting sickle in his hands – literally, he “puts in the sickle” to cut the grain.

Into this funny story Jesus has just slid in a famous line from the prophet Joel who pictured God’s judgment at the end of time as a harvest:

Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe…for their wickedness is great. (Joel 3:13)

To people who are getting frustrated with God’s apparent lack of attention; to people who may be angry that God seems to be involved in difficulties above his pay-grade; to people ready to take matters into their own hands because it looks like nothing is happening – suddenly, it’s harvest time! There was nothing automatic about what was happening – maybe invisible, but not automatic. God has indeed been at work – and he is no careless, slothful fool. Be careful little hands, what you do! There is a plan at work; there is a purpose being fulfilled – this is a time to trust a bit.

Sowing mustard seeds

But that’s not the only issue Jesus needs to confront with humor – there is more, so he continues with the farming image.

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground,

Now he has his listeners laughing again – using the proper word for “sowing” seeds, Jesus asks them to picture a man sowing a weed! It’s as if he said, “the kingdom of God is like a homeowner who went out to the garden and put in some kudzu” – as people down here have been known to say, “that ain’t gonna happen!” You don’t sow a weed-plant.

Mustard seeds grow into something like a shrub, they say. But then this story gets even more absurd, because this shrub-weed takes off, and grows, and grows, and like in the Jack and the Beanstalk story, becomes a tree – which Jesus describes as the
greatest of all plants, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

There was the zinger that Jesus slid in – the low growing shrub that be came a high-growing tree has such large branches that even the birds can nest in it – this is no random description. This is Ezekiel’s tree – the tree pictured by the prophet as a symbol of the nation of Israel, planted and tended by God: (Ezekiel 17)

22 Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out…
23 On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
24 All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree…;
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

Here is the point: Jesus has been out in the country side with the Galilean peasantry; people of low social status, marginal people, excluded people, sick people – and yes, he has a bit of a following out there – but look at them! They make Spanky’s Gang look like sophisticated gentlemen. You would be excused for dismissing them if not despising them outright.

But looks can be deceiving. Behind these rag-tag faces, God is at work. This may look like a shrub-weed, but it’s not over ’till it’s over. This little low-lying bush has been purposefully planted – it’s not a volunteer – there has been a gardner at work here. It is going to become a huge tree, big enough for the birds.

Now get this: Jesus is not saying only that this small group of marginalized people will win the “Israel’s Got Talent” show and become rich and famous; although that would be amazing, Jesus is saying something even greater. This group is not just going to be any big tree – this is THE tree! Ezekiel’s tree! This is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the nation of Israel!

“What? This is the kingdom of God?” – they may be asking? Not a new dynasty with a new king David? Not political power? Not ethnic purity and pride? Not vindication and revenge for all we have suffered?

The Kingdom is growing in the dirt

Despite appearances, the secret is that God is at work in that dirt, and what is growing is magnificent. God does not do it like I would, neither in style nor in substance. It may be easy to despise what we see with our eyes today, but do not be deceived, God is at work.

There are several different levels on which we can see this truth, from the global and historical to the modern world of this congregation and even in our own personal lives.

First, globally, the Kingdom of God that started in such a small, insignificant has been quietly having its effect in this world. For example, slavery which was universally accepted in the past is now universally condemned. Democracy has a long way to go, but today, a significant number of the people in the world have some say in who governs them. Women who until very recently were considered property are increasingly able to participate as equals – even in Iran steps are now being taken that just a short time ago would have been impossible. We could go on to speak of education and health care, and countless ways in which the lives of millions of people are better off now than they were in the past. Progress has been slow in coming – that’s true; and there have been long stretches during which it looked like nothing was happening – the seed sat in the groud for months of winter – but looks can be deceiving. God has been at work.

This is also the case in our congregation. We are small – and especially in this summer time of year, appear to be even smaller. But there is right now significant work being done behind the scenes to prepare for the coming harvest. We have completed the survey which we will begin to analyze this week. We have adopted the Acts 16:5 Initiative program of congregational renewal; we are not expecting instant success, but we are expecting that God is doing a new and powerful work here in Gulf Shores that will blossom in his time.

We also know that even despite appearances, God is at work in every one of our lives. It may feel like the world is on auto-pilot and nothing is happening, no one is in charge, but looks can be deceiving. The evidence of this fact is looking backwards, not ahead. Think back to the events of your life – the big good ones and to the times of crisis; can’t you see, looking back, that God was with you in those times too? In fact, looking back, can’t you see how he was working out his purposes – even in those times – to get you through them, and to bring you to where you are today? Were there not two sets of “footprints in the sand” – seen only by looking back?

So this gives us confidence in the present. No matter what is happening in your life, God has not abandoned you. He is not asleep or careless with your life. He is methodically, intentionally working in the dirt below the surface, to produce a rich harvest in his time. Have courage; be patient; trust him. Your life may look like kudzu now, but it’s going to become a fruitful tree, fulfilling the purpose God planted you for. Expect good things; expect new things. This is what Jesus is telling all of us today.