Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Sermon for July 26th, 2015: Free Lunch, John 6:1-21- Preached by Roxanne French while Pastor Chrissy was away.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Just before moving here to Winthrop, I had finished raising two daughters and a son. Now, my girls are petite and my son is tall and big-boned. It seemed as though keeping food in the house was an always, on-going challenge. I remember dragging a second grocery cart behind me through the food stores. Even at that, it was a common event that often... after checking the fridge for a snack, my daughters would ask me what had happened to the food. I am guessing that this was a rhetorical question because we had all witnessed Steve eating enormous helpings of everything. Mixing bowls full of cereal. Huge glasses of milk drunk in what seemed like only three gulps. Ice cream was eaten out of the family carton with a large spoon. My answer to my daughters was: "There is the quick and the dead...I guess you know which ones you are."
One iconic family family has Steve happily eating out of a large plastic bucket the food had been sold in. (Nothing says "gourmet" like a plastic bucket from Walmart.) Steve was singing part of an Adam Sandler song , "Slop, slop, sloppy joes." He then turned to his older sister and said in a funny voice reserved for siblings, "You can't have none of my sloppy Joes". Linnea replied in a dignified way : "Steve, I am a vegan. I don't want any of your sloppy joes." To which my son responded, "I don't care about your Pagan God Vego. You can't have none of my sloppy Joes."
The boy mentioned in John 6 had 5 barley loaves and 2 small fish. Barley loaves were typically the food of the poor, being haIf the cost of the wheat loaves to bake. The small fish were likely cheap in a fishing town. Those of us that have experienced tough times...might think of ramen noodles and Bar-S hot dogs.
If this young man had the typical appetite of any of the growing boys that I have known, he may have had just enough food to satisfy his hunger. The boy most likely had built up his hunger with hard work, helping to support his family in a struggling economy. Yet he gave all that he had when asked. One of the most humble people in the crowd....assisted Jesus in a miracle !
This Gospel of John is spare in details. Bible stories such as the Feeding of the 5,000 are wonderful this way. We are allowed to use our imagination to fill in the details. If we need help in understanding this Scripture, there are clues in the text to help us along. For example, the number 5 (as in 5,000 and 5 loaves- is the Biblical symbol for grace- unmerited favor). The truly curious modern reader also has online resources such as Greek-English lexicons, commentaries by theologians, and sermons.
If you decide to re-read the story today, approach it as one would a great mystery with every word being a clue to unlocking the answer to that mystery. Try to put aside your scientific skepticism...just for a while... in order to glean the wisdom that transcends the ordinary.
As we read the Scripture, put ourselves in the place of any of the people involved. Even if we believe that we KNOW a story or parable...we will see new things in the text. There is space for us to superimpose our own life experiences upon the Scripture. The Bible holds up a mirror to our own evolving life stories and we will see this relection with new eyes.
As an example, I have been the Woman at the Well (John 4), Ja-El (a "fun" read from the Judges 4), and both Hagar AND Sarah from Genesis. Yet, I cannot imagine being the boy (or his mother) who gave up his lunch so that a miracle might take place. Unless I felt God calling me to do so.... and I believe that the boy did feel called by the Divine that day. It would take immense faith to believe that his simple act of faith would make a difference.
How many of us would have felt the Call to surrender what little we have in an act of faith and compassion ? Or would we have been more likely to hoard what we have, taking surreptitious bites from our sack lunch ? Would you have felt as though your contribution would have been in vain ? Do you often feel as though what you give is too little to make a difference, even as you feel compassion for others in need ? Does it matter whether the needy have a shepherd...or the same shepherd that you do ?
Jesus was able to feed 5,000 people because of the faith of one little boy. A pure-hearted boy, no doubt. The fact that he was named as a boy tells us that he had not yet turned 13, the age that a Jew becomes a man in Judaism. I believe that the boy... "our boy".... was being schooled in preparation for becoming a full member in his temple. He was studying the Torah with its role models, such as Abraham, who gave up much to follow God. The boys' teachers...rabbis....surely had imparted the wisdom that he could not fill the "God-shaped hole" with material goods.
A small boy with a huge heart helped Jesus feed 5000 people. In return, he received back more than he could carry home- 12 baskets full of loaves and fishes. From His loving God to a boy that had shown himself to be a giving soul. If asked again, I believe that little boy would have given up those 12 baskets to help some more people.
John does not say whether the boy's family is Pharisees, Sadducee, Essene, or Zealot. It may be that the family were just Jews. Plain simple folk who likely lived out their lives- following the ways as they'd always done, whatever their mothers or fathers had taught them in "simple piety." Jews who observed the Sabbath, the holidays, and the festivals. Jews who went with the pilgrimage to temple, who observed the Jewish food laws, the Jewish rituals, and believe in the Jewish God. Jews who follow the ways and the dictates of the Torah...with faith.
I meet simple Christians some times. They tell me of their nightly prayers with "Him", of living their lives as best as they are able, of being kind and generous to others- even if they do not attend church. Perhaps if Jesus returned to this earthly plane, these would be the folks that He would embrace and get to work for Him. Christianity is not about performance, it is about the attitudes of our hearts. Generosity is an outworking of the love of Christ that has been placed in our hearts.
I wonder what would happen if all of us cultivated a culture of generosity in our own lives and family? I wonder if we will participate in miracles ? I wonder if we should look for miracles to be part of ? I wonder.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
During our children's sermon we talked about how the red commas show us that the sentence isn't over and that we need to keep reading to hear the rest of God's story. This scripture is one important one in the book of Matthew. The red commas show us that we can love God with our heart, soul, and mind.
No Longer Strangers: Ephesians 2:11-22
Something unexpected happened while I was working on the sermon for this week. Each week, as a prepare for worship, I spend time reading through the suggested scriptures in the yearly church calendar. As I read, I came to the rich set of verses in the Ephesians text, and I knew that this was the text that I preach about this week. Honestly, we've known each other for about a year now. I bet that you'd guess I'd be interested in a scripture that talks about breaking down cultural walls and creating a community in Christ. That's not the unexpected part. The unexpected part is that I'd be preaching out of Ephesians at all.
Why would I hesitate to preach a sermon from Ephesians? Well, the primary reason has nothing to do with today's scripture but everything to do with a set of scriptures that I can't stand that come towards the end of this book, Ephesians 5:22-6:9. This set of scriptures is one part of what is known as the Household Codes that are found in some of the books of the New Testament. These codes are in found in Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter. They address the proper relationship, in a Christian home, between spouses, between children and parents, and between enslaved people and the people who enslaved them. While I think you can reasonably argue that the version of the code as outlined in Ephesians is probably the most generous version of this set of ideas about how to be a Christian family, when taken as a whole, there are few parts of the Bible that I think have been used to more often to do more harm than the household codes.
When people are go looking for scripture to justify societal norms that define women as second class people, they often go straight for the household codes. They hold up scripture like Ephesians 5:22-23 as a primary example of how the Bible says only men can be in leadership positions, be it in the home or in the public sphere. These verses say, "Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the Husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is the Savior." Ephesians goes on to say that wives should be subject in to their husbands just like the church is subject to Christ. And, while the author of Ephesians does tell husbands that they need to be as gracious to their wives as Christ is to the church, in the end, when you compare one person in the relationship to Jesus and the other to the church, the relationship described can never relationship between equals. In the best of possible scenarios, the relationship is between a submissive, less powerful wife and a hopefully gracious, considerably more powerful, husband. When people in Christian systems want to argue that gender inequality is ordained by God and that the Bible forbids women from being in leadership positions, the household codes are nearly always cited in the biblical rationale for such patriarchal behavior. When anyone has the temerity to tell a woman that she should stay in an abusive relationship because she is called by God to submit to her husband, the household codes are nearly always cited in the biblical rationale for such patriarchal behavior. As a woman called to Christian ministry who believes strongly that a healthy marriage is built on equality, not subservience, I have very little use for these parts of scripture.
As if the patriarchy weren't enough, the household codes are also often implicated in Christian justifications of white supremacy. When American preachers looked for biblical justification for the horrors of slavery, the household codes were consistently used to demonstrate that Christians could ethically own other human beings. For example, in 1861, when the Bishop of Florida wanted to outline what he saw as the strong biblical case for slavery, the household codes are some of the scriptures he used to make his case. The Bishop, named Verot, wrote, "St. Paul, in several of his epistles, speaks of the mutual duties of slaves and masters, he never dreams of the new duty invented by the Abolitionists- the pretended duty for the master to liberate and manumit his slave, and the duty of the slave to runaway from his master, even by using violence and causing bloodshed." He goes on to cite the household codes from Colossians, Titus, and 1 Timothy. These does mirror this admonition, found in the book of Ephesians: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ." The author of Ephesians goes on to tell slaves to render service with enthusiasm, as though, when serving the people who enslaved them, they are serving Christ himself.
Racist biblical interpretations like Verot and like countless other preachers before him set the groundwork not only for the atrocious practice of chattel slavery, but also for the centuries of systemic racism that followed and continues to infect our country to this day. You can draw a direct line from sermons like Verot's to southern White Citizens Councils that claimed their dedication to segregation was rooted in their Christian faith to northern banks who refused to give black families home loans because it would not be appropriate for black folks and white folks to live as equals in the same neighborhood as to the modern day drug laws that are color-blind on paper, but that are applied more consistently and more harshly to people of color. When study after study shows that black folks and white folks use drugs at roughly same rate, but black folks are arrested far more often and given much harsher sentences, there has to be something in the system that is that is teaching people to be suspicious of black people... there has to be something in the system that teaches us to treat people who are the descendants of the enslaved as though they are still not equal citizens. When we dig through our history, down to the foundation of this inequality, we find this scripture, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ."
I hope that it is clear now why I hesitate to spend any time with Ephesians. There is a burden of history and context here that I cannot ignore. This letter, credited to Paul, though not likely actually written by him, seems to be at the center of so many painful, broken parts of our culture. How can I even think of this book as Holy when it describes relationship that seem inherently unequal and asks oppressed people to act super happy about the service they are being forced to do? These are the questions that I wrestled with as I worked on my sermon this week. And, then I read this line: "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." And, then I read this line: "So, then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens in the saints and also members of the household of God... In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God." How could the beauty of these verses the describe a God who breaks down walls between religious and ethnic groups, and then rebuilds the people into one dwelling place for God exist right next to those frustrating verses describing unequal relationships in marriage and supporting slavery?
A scholar named Elan Mouton has offered one way of reading Ephesians that is helping me reconcile the division-destroying Christ of chapter 2 with the division affirming household code of chapters 5 and 6. Mouton argues that Ephesians can be read not as a witness to one who has finished being changed through Christ but as a testimony of an author who is right in the midst of being transformed through his relationship with Christ. We can see that this author understands that belief in Christ is life-changing and earth-shattering. This authors is convinced that the blessings that God bestows through Christ are so profound that they can literally reorient your life. In chapter 2, the radical reorientation that is most needed at that time is a dismantling of the cultural prejudices that were preventing Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus from truly living as siblings in Christ. This author is writing, in part, to provide theological grounding to address that particular issue.
What is frustrating for me as a modern reader is that I wish the author hadn't stopped knocking down theological walls with the Jews and the Gentiles. I think that the peace of Christ that brought together Jews and Gentile can also foster gender equality and offer a relational system that is does not rely on coerced labor and long-held beliefs about ethnic supremacy. I wish this author would have just kept working. I wish he would have ended up at what would appear to be me to be the natural conclusion of this kind of theology: a body of Christ where old divisions based on racism, sexism, and ethnic prejudice have been dissolved. What I got was a system where ethnic prejudices are questions but where presumptions about gender and class aren't. Husbands and masters are asked to be better than they currently were, but not actually be vulnerable and give up power as fully as Christ did on the cross. I get frustrated when I read Ephesians because I want an author fully transformed. What I got is an author who is still on the way. He's still in the midst of Christ working on him.
Perhaps the reason that I need to keep reading Ephesians is to be reminded that this process of being transformed through Christ is not quick. I need to keep reading Ephesians to remember that just because someone has worked through some areas of their life to break down walls of prejudice, that doesn't mean that that person is done doing all the work that is asked of us as we work with God to bring about God's reign of love and justice. Maybe I need to keep reading Ephesians to be reminded that I'm still on the way, too, and that I can't stop continuing to examine all of my own beliefs and behaviors just because I've been trying to tear down walls in one part of my life. There still may be inequality lurking in other parts that I haven't even started to work through yet. If I can still manage to read the first part of Ephesians, maybe it will help me work through the parts of my life that still look like the end of Ephesians. Maybe it will make me work harder to find the ways that Christ is growing all of us every closer, making sure that we're no longer strangers. Maybe it will inspire me to always keep working to create a more just household with God so that the story of my own transformation looks more like chapter 2 than chapter 5. May we all continue to be people on the way, not so we'll stop working, but so that we can keep working together.
Resources Pastor Chrissy found helpful when writing this sermon
This article by Carol Kuruvilla about the Bible and white supremacy:
Elna Mouton, "(Re) Describing Reality? The Transformative Potential of Ephesians across Times and Cultures," in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff (Pilgrim Press, 2003)
This story that theologian Howard Thurman told about his grandmother's conflicted relationship with the parts of the Bible that are credited to Paul and discuss slavery:
The full sermon by Bishop Verot: https://archive.org/details/tractfortimessla01vero
If you'd like to know more about the unequal affect that current drug laws have had on people of color, I highly recommend the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (New York: The New Press, 2012).
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and 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.’ So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And 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. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Mourning and Dancing
Having a crowd of people somewhere does not guarantee that those people know anything about what is going on. There are plenty of reasons why crowds gather. Sometimes, it's out of boredom and curiosity. They see something strange going on and decide to check it because they legitimately have nothing better to do with their time. These folks are mostly looking for a good show. They have no other investment in the outcome. They just want to be entertained. Be it a car accident or a flashy guy doing magic tricks, it doesn't matter. Just give them something worth watching. I think some of these people would have definitely been in the crowd that day. I mean, they had probably heard about what had happened on the other side of the sea. If that was any indication about what was going to happen here on the Jewish side of the water, this Jesus fella would put on a good show.
Did you hear what happened over in the country of the Gerasenes? Jesus ran into a man who was demon-possessed to an exceptional degree. The stories about this poor guy make him sound a little like the Incredible Hulk. He was too dangerous to live among the regular folks. He lived in the most isolated place he could find, the cemetery. He was so strong that he could break through chains and shackles with his bare hands. He howled in pain and grief all day and night. Well, you know what Jesus did when Jesus saw him? He realized that he was possessed not by just one demon but by a whole fleet of demons. Jesus exorcized those demons. You know what happened next? They jumped into a whole herd of hogs. No, seriously, two thousand of them, and those hogs ran right off a cliff and drowned in the sea. And, you know what else? The people in the community were so freaked out about what happened that they asked Jesus to leave town. The only one who appreciated it was the man who had been possessed, and he told everybody what Jesus had done for him.
Now, imagine that you've just been sitting around looking for something to do and you hear this story. Wouldn't that make you want to show up at whatever dock this guy was going to pull up to just to see what was going on? No wonder there was such a crowd. They'd heard a good story and figured they'd get to see a good show. Last time, he exorcized a bunch of demons and 2,000 pigs jumped off a cliff. I can imagine them high-fiving their buddies and saying, "Wonder what he'll do this time?" These are the folks who show up and don't know what's going on. They just want a good time.
Some other people showed up at the seashore that day, too. But, they weren't just looking for a good time. When they heard the story of the Gerasene demoniac, they heard more than a story about a monster and possessed pigs. They heard something that gave them hope. Jesus didn't have to tend to that poor, possessed man. He was not Jewish. He was deeply disturbed. He was violent and terribly lonesome. He lived among the dead. Even just one of those afflictions would have been enough reason for some people to turn away from him. But, Jesus didn't look away. He didn't try to run the man off. He simply saved him from the demons that tormented him and asked him to tell others what God had done for him. Jesus looked a sick, unclean, violent foreigner right in the face and he saved him. He did not allow the cultural norms that would have forbade their interaction to stop him from treating this man with compassion. And, there were some people back on the Jewish side of the sea who desperately needed compassion. They joined the crowd, too. Two of them, one seeking healing for his daughter and one seeking healing for herself, become the center point of today's gospel reading.
How desperate must Jairus have been to come to Jesus to heal his daughter? Though this is early in Jesus' ministry, he has already gotten in trouble with the scribes and temple leaders. Jairus himself was an administrator in the temple. He would have known that Jesus' reputation among the leaders in the community was not a good one. People had even accused Jesus of being possessed himself. Jesus was no physician. He was barely a carpenter. But, Jairus' daughter was sick. And, even though he had been taught that his sons were to be prized above her, he could not stand by and watch her die. He would do anything he could to save her, even if it meant turning to an wandering faith-healer... even if it meant angering the other leaders of the synagogue... even if it meant looking like a fool. If Jesus would save the foreign demoniac, maybe Jesus would save his daughter. He had to try. So, he waded through the crowd and threw himself at Jesus' feet.
What happens next is not exactly clear. The crowd doesn't seem to know what's going on. Who knows what the disciples are doing. The translation reads that "he went with him." It's unclear whether this means that Jesus was convinced by Jairus and followed him or whether Jairus followed Jesus, trying to convince him to help. Either way, the crush of people is still crowded around Jesus waiting for him to do something cool. In the midst of all this chaos, we meet a woman. She is not named. She is not even initially seen by Jesus or his disciples. She may not want to be seen. It may be easier for her if no one sees her. But, I think she came looking for Jesus out of a very similar sense of desperation as Jairus did. But, she is not worried about a loved one... she is trying to save herself.
Remember when I told you the list of things that would have made the demoniac an outsider according to Jesus' cultural norms? He was foreign, possessed, lived among the dead. Well, this woman had some intersecting identities that would have made her an outsider, too. She was likely Jewish, so she had that going for her. But, she was not a relative of Jesus' and probably shouldn't have been interacting with him on her own. She was sick, too, and sick in a way that would have likely rendered her ritually unclean. When it says that she was bleeding, it probably means that she had some kind of gynecological issue. It was a particularly serious one because she is described as having bled for 12 years. Not only would this have been an exhausting kind of illness, if she bled that regularly, she would not have been able to perform the rituals that made her ritually clean. Men would not have been allowed to be in physical contact with her as long as she was unclean. And, she was poor. She had spent everything she had to try to heal herself and nothing had worked. She was even sicker than she had been before. But, she had heard that Jesus had healed the foreign demoniac. She hoped that maybe she could be healed, too. She had to try.
Maybe she was used to people shunning her, or maybe she just didn't want to bother him, especially if he was speaking to a panicked Jairus. Either way, she didn't throw herself at Jesus' feet like Jairus did. She simply touched his clothes, hoping that a little of the grace would rub off on her. And, she was healed. Immediately. No more bleeding. And, she could have left at that moment happy, more happy than she had been in 12 years. But, suddenly, Jesus stopped. He knew that something had happened. The disciples were clueless. But he wasn't. He asked who had touched him. The woman could no longer hide. Like Jairus before her, she feel to Jesus' feet and fearfully told him her story. Rather than be angry that she tried to sneak some grace away from him, he praised her action and he praised her faith. He said "Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." He recognized her as a partner in this healing. It didn't matter how much grace he had. Had she not reached out for it, she would never had been healed. Thank God she had the courage to reach out.
And, yet, even in the midst of the joy of healing, comes mourning. We learn that Jairus' daughter has died before Jesus could get there. Jairus' friends say Jesus' doesn't need to come. And, since she has now died, her body is unclean. He probably doesn't want to come anyway. But, death doesn't stop Jesus... not this time, not ever. He says to the bereaved father, "Do not fear, only believe." Taking only a few disciples with him, Jesus' goes to her bedside. Even though the professional mourners have shown up, Jesus knows that this is not the end. He sees that this day will not be the last chapter in her story. He says to her, Talitha... little girl... talitha cum... little girl, get up. And, she raises just as surely as he himself will one day raise from the tomb. Jesus made sure that she had something to eat because resurrection can make somebody hungry. And, then, unlike the Geresene man, he tells her parents not to tell anybody what happened. But, like the women at the resurrection, they must have told somebody, because here we are reading about it 2,000 years later. It is, after all, very hard to not tell people good news.
Now, it could be tempting to try to make this story into some lesson about how having faith fixes everything. After all, in just a few verses, a chronically ill woman is healed and a child who seems to be dead has been revived. I think that is a mistake. Everyone in this room knows someone who has prayed mightily for healing and the healing has not happened. Our life of faith is more complicated than our requests for God to fix the problems in our lives. This story is more complex than that, too. Maybe the healing that matters the most here is that the woman is finally seen and recognized as one who can work with God to bring about her own healing. Or, maybe the healing that matters the most here is that of Jairus, who demonstrates his great love for his daughter in a patriarchal culture that valued boys over girls or his willingness to go against the wishes of his colleagues if it means that a little more compassion and healing can make their ways into the world. Or, maybe, this time, we can take our interpretive cue from David, who, in the face of great grace and blessing that he most certainly didn't deserve, chose to dance and shout out in amazement before God. May we be willing to reach out, even if it scares us; do what's right, even if it annoys the people in power; and not be afraid to sing praises when we know we've witnessed God's grace in action.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn Matthews commentary on Mark 5:21-43-
Preaching Mark by Bonnie Bowman Thurston (Augsburg Fortress, 2002)
Preaching the New Common Lectionary: Year B by Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker (Abingdon Press, 1985)
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 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! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Maryand brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 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.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
I bet that some of this story seems familiar to you. Local kid leaves town from some reason. Maybe it's for school or for a new job or joined the military or just to go on an adventure in some place that is new and unfamiliar. That local kid hardly checks back in with old family or friends. A lot happens while the local kid, now an adult, is gone, both to that local kid and in her hometown. She grows up. She learns things. She is changed by what she experiences. She comes back to town, not really to visit, but for work, and runs into the people she grew up with. She shares what she has learned and experienced, and it is not at all like what the hometown folks expected. They remember when she was a toddler running around in diapers and teenager who got caught drinking wine coolers behind the high school. They know her family, and all the rumors about her family. There is no way that they could take her seriously, even if she kinda sounds like she knows what she's talking about. They know her too well, they think. There is no way that she can convince them that there is more to her than just the kid they used to know. She may be surprised at the cold reception she receives. She knows that she has important things to tell people. Why won't they listen? Maybe she's not surprised at all. Maybe she knows that her homeplace never treats you well if you leave and try to come back. Maybe she knows that it always hard to go back to your hometown.
Sometimes when we hear stories of Jesus' life, it can seem so different from our own. Part of the reason it's fun to read the Bible is to read stories of people who led such different lives than our own. Sometimes, though, Jesus' story sounds a lot like ours. I think this is one of those times. Stories very much like this one happen in small towns and big city neighborhoods every day. I have heard countless stories of someone who goes away and then comes back, and no one really knows how to act when they return. This is yet one more story of the wanderer who doesn't fit in back home anymore and the hometown folks who worry that he's gotten above his raisin'. They are surprised by the wisdom that he has brought back with him, and maybe even suspicious.
This interaction goes so poorly that it almost makes me wonder if they may even be mad that he left. It sure seems like they are. To be fair, they may have a good reason for wondering why in the world he left town. After all, he had responsibilities. He was the oldest son. There were six other children. And, there was the family business. It appears that Jesus had learned a trade and would likely have been expected to work with or maybe even take over business from Joseph. You don't just ignore the training you've received when someone else has invested that much time in you. And, some people even think that, by this point in the story, Joseph may have died, too. He is not mentioned at all in the book of Mark, and Jesus is called the son of Mary, not the son of Joseph, as would have been the custom if Joseph had been alive. All of this makes it even more unusual that Jesus would have left. The oldest son would have likely been entrusted with caring for his widowed mother. What kind of boy leaves his mom to run off on some wild goose chase with his weird cousin? I don't care if there were 6 other kids. Jesus had responsibilities.
Maybe they were just shocked that he seems to feel comfortable speaking in the synagogue. While Jesus would have been highly trained as a carpenter, the skills required to do that job would have seemed very different from those of the legal scholar and rabbis. While I can think of several occasions in the past year when it would have been helpful to be a trained carpenter and a preacher, it doesn't appear that the people who heard him thought that carpentry and preaching went so neatly together. Most people would have understood religious teachers to have gained wisdom through inspiration rooted in years of study of Scripture and theology. Jesus would have come from a simple home. Who knows if the people in his family even knew how to read? It would not be unreasonable to believe that, if he was taught to read at all, it was primarily so that he could do business, not so that he could spend his time reading ancient theology and philosophy books. Who does he think he is, spouting off his ideas about the reign of God? I know his mama. I don't care how wise he sounds. There is no reason he should be able to do what he's doing right now. It's just not right.
In the translation we read today, it says that his former friends and neighbors took offense to him. The word in Greek, eskandalizonto, literally means something more like "hearing him made them stumble as though they tripped on a rock." What do you feel like when you trip on something you didn't expect? Embarrassed? Angry? Frustrated that you didn't see the thing that tripped you in the first place? Hurt because you fell on your face and now you feel foolish in front of people you needed to impress? The thing about stumbling on a rock is that you almost never know that the rock is there until the moment you trip on it. And, the rock almost always changes your course in some way, whether you want to change course or not. What the author of Mark was saying is that Jesus' presence and new found wisdom was so surprising to the people in his hometown that it knocked them flat on their faces, just as surely as if they had tripped on a rock. And, they were not happy about that in the least.
I suspect that Jesus' old friends and neighbors aren't the only ones have certain ideas about who Jesus is and who God is. I also suspect that they aren't the only ones who get mad when these expectations are upended. We all have ideas about the Divine that often seem pretty firm and unshaking. Maybe we learned them in our religious communities. Maybe they came to us through our own personal study or through the broader culture in which we live. I don't know about you, but, I'm pretty sure that my ideas about God are right. I don't particularly enjoy it when I stumbled upon a Holy rock and end up face down in theology that I used to think was so elegant and helpful and such an accurate description of the Divine. I've not always been happy about these little trips. I've often been embarrassed, angry, and frustrated that I didn't see the rock until the very moment that I tripped over it, and had to learn something new about God, whether I wanted to or not.
I don't think this story is trying to tell us that we shouldn't be surprised by how Christ can come into our lives. Jesus isn't amazed by the fact that his former friends and neighbors are surprised that he has returned home with new-found wisdom. It says that he is amazed by their disbelief. This is the kind of amazement that is colored by despair. He does not begrudge them a certain level of shock. After all, much has happened to him since he left. And, he is likely telling them something about the reign of God that many would find a scandal (by the way, our modern word "scandal" comes from this ancient word that means "to stumble as though on a rock"). What dismays him is that they are so locked into their idea of who they think he is... Mary's son, the carpenter, the oldest boy who ran off... that they can see the new gift that he is bringing them. He tried to bring healing and light back to his hometown, but they were so stuck in their old expectations around who he was that they could not hear new word of God's love and compassion that he brought them. Only a few people could hear his word of healing love and be cured. The rest were so mad that they stumbled when they saw a version of him that they didn't know that they missed out on the Gospel. They were too mad to hear a new word from a voice that they thought they already knew.
Some of you may know that the theme of General Synod this year was Unexpected Places. It is certainly helpful to me to be reminded that God often comes in ways we don't expect and through people we don't expect. Two of the best conversations I had at Synod were with people who either told me something unexpected about their faith or showed up in my life just out of the blue. One was with a young woman who shared how much Pilgrim Lodge feels like church to her. I don't necessarily think about church when I think about summer camp. The other surprising conversation was with a humanist clergy person who had shown up at the same press conference I was attending, ready to officiate marriages for people on the day of the marriage equality ruling. Had I not been willing to see the Divine in unexpected places, I would missed the two great conversations. My prayer is that we can be little more like Jesus' disciples who were willing to hear him when he made the unexpected request that they follow him, and little less like the folks from his home town, who couldn't get past their preconceived notions about the man that they once knew. May we be willing to hear a new word from a source that we thought we knew. And, may we be open to the times when Jesus comes to us with unexpected words of wisdom. We may be surprised by what we hear, and maybe even a little mad about it. I hope we stumble so hard that we miss out on the healing.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing her sermon
Clifton Black's commentary on Mark 6:1-13: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2502
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx
The Pulpit Fiction Podcast : http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/122-proper-9b-july-5-2015
Preaching Mark by Bonnie Bowman Thurston (Augsburg Fortress, 2002)
Pastor Chrissy was out of town this week. Church member Margaret Imber Preached.
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Do not invite death by the error of your life,
nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things that they might exist,
and the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them;
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.
for God created man for incorruption,
and made him in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil's envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his party experience it.
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
But as you abound in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all diligence, and in your love for us--see that you abound in this grace also. I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.
And in this I give advice: It is to your advantage not only to be doing what you began and were desiring to do a year ago; but now you also must complete the doing of it ; that as there was a readiness to desire it, so there also may be a completion out of what you have. For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have.
For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality,that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.”
Now, Let's Finish It
What a week. The Supreme Court upheld Obama Care and the tools necessary to enforce the Fair Housing Act. The Supreme Court overturned state bans against the marriage of gay couples. As a Facebook post noted, if you have a conservative friend, give him a hug. He’s had a rough week.
What a week. President Obama gave the eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinkley, the senior pastor at the AME church in Charleston that suffered a terrorist attack during their weekly Bible study session. It is hard not to grieve at this loss. It is very hard not to be outraged at the sacrilege Dylan Roof made in furtherance of his white supremacist ideology. It is hard not to be humbled by the extraordinary grace of the families of those slaughtered in the attack. They chose to forgive. If you have a sense of outrage over what happened, then measure the amount of fortitude and grace those closest to the attack displayed against the amount of anger and dismay we in Maine felt when we heard about it.
In his eulogy, the President urged all of us to grapple with both the uncomfortable truths of racial prejudice in our country and the terrible cost of gun violence in our society. If these questions have been daunting in the past, President Obama suggested that the terrible tragedy of the attack in Charleston was a moment in which God has given us the grace to see clearly things which we had been blind to before.
What a week. There are a hundred things in the events of the last seven days that could fill a sermon. Unfortunately for me, I had picked the readings because I wanted to talk about climate change. Any climate change news that might have happened last week was drowned out by the momentous actions of the Supreme Court and the tragedy in Charleston. The only point of connection I could find between my topic, the readings and recent events was the reference to uncomfortable truths and to God’s grace. Both references, in fact, might be used in a discussion of the climate change and the Christian’s response to the dangers we all face because of it.
Al Gore’s book and movie about climate change, for example, was titled, “An Inconvenient Truth.” He might easily have called it an uncomfortable truth. If we are going to confront the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth about climate change, I think some of us will also need God’s grace to see clearly things to which we have been blind before. The rest of us will need God’s grace to act on what we have seen and now know. As St. Paul suggests in Corinthians, it is not enough to know. We are obliged to act.
Fortunately for me, Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the environment a few weeks ago. It’s on line, easy to find and download. Environmental groups have already posted reader’s guides to it. The encyclical is long, but it is a very straightforward read. Fortunately for all of us, the current Pope cares about writing clearly so that as wide an audience as possible can consider his arguments. I shall here avoid the opportunity to make unfortunate comparisons to prior popes.
Let me summarize the main points of the encyclical here: First, the Pope notes that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is changing the earth’s climate. If you don’t accept this fact, I’m not sure what to say to you. I’d only ask you to consider why you don’t accept the overwhelming scientific consensus. Who or what has caused you to reject this view? Who would benefit if you and citizens like you refused to accept the consensus? After offering his evidence for climate change, the Pope then notes that the consequences of this change, a disruption of water supplies and a decline in biodiversity, threaten the safety and well being of all us. The threat is already real for quite a number of us. And those of us who are suffering under the experience tend to be poor.
By us, the Pope means, and I follow him here, all human beings who dwell on the planet. Since he follows St. Francis of Assisi, he also means all life, plant and animal as well. Today’s reading from the Wisdom of Solomon teaches us that God has made the planet for good:
For he created all things that they might exist,
and the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them;
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
But even if we only talk about humans, the most common, basic aspect of human society, despite our many differences in races and creeds, histories and cultures, is that we live together on this earth and if we fail collectively to be effective stewards of our planet, in the end, each of us individually will suffer as the planet degrades into an arid, infertile, inhospitable place. It is the present suffering of the poor under the effects of climate change that requires Christians to respond to the challenge of climate change now. Why?
There are hundreds of verses in the Old Testament that praise those who aid the poor and curse those who oppress the poor. Jesus spoke repeatedly about necessity that we, his followers, help the poor. Jesus said, "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:17-18. We all share the common inheritance of the earth. Some of us enjoy a goodly portion; others, a far smaller share. If human action is creating a catastrophe that right now oppresses the poor far more than the rest of us, then our Christian duty calls us to remedy that oppression.
It’s especially important for those of us who have been blessed with material wealth to take up this burden. I should note that the poorest person in Winthrop lives like a king compared to at least a billion people on the planet. If we are looking at the human community, not just our hometown, everyone in church today is very wealthy indeed. It’s an irony of our economic system that those of us who have more economic resources tend to be the ones who engage in the behavior that causes climate change. If you are too poor to drive a car, or take a plane – you’re not sending much carbon into the atmosphere. If you’re so poor that you spend your day searching for clean water, you probably not bagging up plastic Perrier bottles for the recycling pick up. So the fortunate among us have the greatest capacity to do the most harm. Yet, this is precisely what today’s scripture reading warns us against:
Do not invite death by the error of your life,
nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
The Pope says that our economic system is premised on the notion that the earth is an inexhaustible storehouse of resources. Whoever figures out how to exploit the resources the planet provides best will earn the most. But this assumption is belied by our experience. We are presently living through one of the greatest species die offs in human history. If you think there is an inexhaustible supply of water, you may not want to move to California anytime soon. If you’ve ever been in a garden, you know the soil needs to be replenished. The earth, our common inheritance, is threatened by the assumption that its resources are inexhaustible. So why don’t we abandon this erroneous assumption. We are not blind to these facts: 1) the earth’s resources are finite; 2) believing otherwise allows the wealthy in the west to engage in a type of economic system that burdens the poor today.
If we are not blind we must act. “Let us not love words or tongue but actions,” Jesus said. But action is hard. And talking about what actions we could or should take in the heavily polarized political times we live in seems virtually impossible. Maybe people will show some restraint around the Pope, but if I call for “more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations,” I can only imagine what Governor LePage might say. I know my brother will call me a hippie, pinko, tree-hugging, commie crazy lady. And then I’ll call him a troglodyte, exploiter of God’s gifts and peoples. And neither of us will take any action. But we will love our words.
Is there away around the problem of climate change? Can we talk about in a language that isn’t political but is faithful. Perhaps if we start with the poor - perhaps, if we recognize that the problems of poverty, the ills of our environment, the failures of our economy are not separate issues but all pieces of the same issue, then we can begin to act. If our goal is to ensure the human dignity of all members of our community, we should start with the poor. We wouldn’t build coal powered electric plants in poor neighborhoods, for example. Fewer coal fired electric plants, however, means that electricity will cost more. That’s my pocketbook we’re talking about now.
This is the conversation we must begin in our neighborhoods and towns, and our country, and our globe. Where could we possibly find a model that would allow us share our resources and combine our efforts? Well, let’s not hide the ball. The Christian tradition is filled with examples of communities of Christians who lived modestly, shared equitably and defined success by the value of the life of the least among them. We could start with the book of Acts and continue right to the present day, looking at examples of people, motivated by their faith who lived and worked together with a goal of making the world a better, more just place.
Indeed, we could start with St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – our second reading today. He is writing to ask the Christians in Corinth to collect money to support the Christians in Jerusalem:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.
When we live in a community of faith, we share, just as Jesus shared with us. Moreover, it isn’t as St. Paul says a bit waspishly, enough to mean well. We have to do well:
And in this I give advice: It is to your advantage not only to be doing what you began and were desiring to do a year ago; but now you also must complete the doing of it ;
Finish doing it, says St. Paul. It is not enough to mean well, we must do well. And we must act within our communities according to our means. This is not some crazy alternative economic scheme, Paul insists. Instead, it is a holistic, long term way to think in community. Those who have give now, so that in the future, when they have less, others may support them.
For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.
To me, this passage is especially striking in the context of climate change. Paul insists that members of the community think of the future when they make their decisions.
Perhaps we should send this letter to the Corinthians to the politicians in Washington and Augusta. Perhaps we should insist that they think of the future, of the children yet to be born, who – if nothing changes – will live in a world far different than our own – a wrecked world, destroyed by the work of our hands. Perhaps we should tell the politicians that we, like the Corinthians, are willing to give some of our resources now, to avoid wrecking the world for this generation’s poor and all of the next generation. It’s not enough to agree that climate change is a problem. Our Christian faith demands that we finish doing it. Our faith demands that we take our stewardship of the wholesome, generative forces of the world God has made for us very seriously. We cannot destroy it by the works of our hands. Our faith demands that we give now to help the poor among us live a life of dignity. And if we do that, not just talk about it, we will, along the way, save the world for the next generation.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.