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.
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 hemorrhages 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 hemorrhage 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.
To Be Touched: Mark 5:21-43
Have you heard about good trouble? That a phrase that civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis uses sometimes to talk about the most important works of his life. Like on May 4th, 2016, he tweeted a picture of a bunch of people who were waiting to get on a bus. He described the picture this way: "55 years ago today, I was one of 13 original Freedom Riders who set out to integrate America's buses. #goodtrouble." Another time, when talking about why he once again began to use the protest tactic of the sit-in, he said, "Sometimes you have to get in the way. You have to make some noise by speaking up and speaking out against injustice & inaction #goodtrouble." That's what he means by the words "good trouble." A disruption of injustice. A willingness to put yourself on the line in order to do what is right. You may be getting in trouble, but it's the good kind of trouble. It's the kind of trouble that makes a difference.
This ethic of "good trouble" rose from his own experience as a black man raised in the Jim Crow South. Growing up in such a hateful political system, black people had to be very careful so as try to avoid the violence that white people were allowed to direct towards them. In the graphic novel about his life, March, Rep. Lewis talks about warnings his parents gave him growing up. "Stay out of trouble. Don't get in white people's way." This was not a heedless fear on their part. From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched in the United States, with 73% of those lynchings in the South. When Mr. Lewis was in high school in Alabama, just one state over in Mississippi, another teenage boy named Emmett Till was murdered by white adults who claimed he called a white woman "baby." Keeping your head down.... Not drawing attention... Choosing not to correct people when they were rude or cruel... Not getting in trouble... that is what kept you alive. It's what kept your kid alive.
Representative Lewis learned something though: Sometimes you need to get in trouble to force a change. Sometimes the rules of the society or even of one small community are contrary to what is good and hopeful in the world. Representative Lewis learned this. So, he started getting in good trouble, first as a college student integrating lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. Then, as a freedom rider. Continuing through his activities with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the marches across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, into his work as a public servant, he found power and transformation in getting into "good trouble." And, he helped change the world.
I'm going to suggest that you keep this idea of "good trouble" in mind as you hear these two stories, one of a father advocating for his daughter and another of a woman advocating for herself. These are people who are willing to get in good trouble. Now, they aren't joining in national protests. They are most advocating for themselves and their families. But, in approaching Jesus, they both are willing to look at the social conventions of their time, decide that they were not conducive to life and wholeness, and risk getting in trouble to demonstrate their faith and find healing. This is a story about two people getting into good trouble and about Jesus seeing the wisdom and care in their trouble-making. They show us a way to be brave and follow Jesus. They show us the power of good trouble.
At first glance, with the gift of hindsight, a whole pile of cultural differences, and 2,000 years of Christian tradition, neither of the two people's actions seem all that brave or unsurprising. Those of us who have read Gospel stories for years, who have come to maturity knowing that Jesus can do amazing things, we're not surprised to read the story of two strangers approaching Jesus. I mean, that's what you do when you see Jesus. You ask him for help. How could you not? Well, there were some pretty big reasons why they wouldn't that we miss because our cultures are so different. But, if we don't know about these differences, we miss some of the power of their stories. We miss the good trouble. So, let's take some time to see why they might have had a hard time approaching Jesus in a way that we wouldn't. It might help us figure out how to approach Jesus, too.
First, the woman who touched his cloak: She is a woman alone in public who slides through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus' clothes. According to the research I have read, in the era in which they lived, it was common to believe charismatic teachers and speakers had the power to heal. This comes up in other parts of New Testament, like in Acts 5 and 19. Their clothes were an extension of their body, therefore, an extension of their powers. Knowing this part, we shouldn't be surprised that she would be content to touch his clothes. For someone with faith, they would have believed that this would have been enough to heal them. The clothes thing, it turns out that that's not the surprising part. It's the fact that she thought she could touch him at all that we should pay attention to. You see, her particular physical ailments, likely gynecological in nature, would have deeply affected are ability to engage with other people in her community.
She had been bleeding excessively for many years. Because of her particular ailment, she would have been labeled ritually unclean. People in her community, including a husband if she had one, would have hesitated to have physical contact with her because of her ritual status. While she had once had money, she had used up most of it on doctors who could not help. Her poverty, a product of going bankrupt to pay medical bills, would have also isolated her from the community. To reach out and touch a man, a teacher, who was not a member of her family, someone whom she would then make unclean... these actions put her at even greater risks for ostracism. But she has heard of Jesus' power and his compassion. She knew he could heal her. Her faith pushed her to risk trouble to gain healing. The risk ended up being worth it. He felt her touch. When she admitted what she had done, rather than run away, he praised her, calling her daughter, and sent her on her way in health and peace. She no longer bled. And, she was restored in relationship. And other people learned from her bravery. That is some good trouble.
Jairus is another one who risked trouble in going to Jesus. Jairus is the administrator of the local synagogue. He would have been close with Pharisees. They were the ones who ran the synagogues. Remember, Jesus and the Pharisees were often at odds over their interpretations of the law. I am not certain that it would have looked right for a synagogue administrator to go to a traveling teacher for healing. And, to go to such lengths for a daughter, that might have appeared unseemly... undignified, especially as the man fell at Jesus' feet. It was a risk to go to Jesus. He put his good relationship with local leaders in jeopardy. He put his public reputation in jeopardy. There were other, more appropriate ways to seek help, but he didn't. He believed Jesus could help. He calculated the risk (conflict with his community), and the reward (the restoration of his daughter's health), and decided to push the bounds of what would be deemed appropriate. He pushed his way through the crowd and found Jesus.
Jesus ended up doing something pretty risky, too. Shortly after healing the woman, people came up to him and Jairus and said that Jairus' daughter was dead. There is no need to come heal her anymore. That could be the end of the story. If the reason Jesus was going was to heal her and she was already dead, why go? Why risk ritual contamination by being near a dead body? Dead bodies, like bleeding women, were unclean. But, death did not stop Jesus. He looked at Jairus and said, "Do not fear, only believe." Then, bringing along Peter, James, and John, Jesus went to the girl's bedside. The professional mourners were already present. Jesus said, this girl is not dead but sleeping. With her mother and father by his side, Jesus said to her, "Get up." And, she did. And, he said to feed her something. And, they did.
And, he said to tell no one what had happened. I'm not sure why he did that. Maybe he knew the story would be too incredible and strange to be believed. Maybe he wanted to make space for people to meet him on their own terms, without having heard of him before. Maybe he wanted them to have a miracle story that stayed their own. Whatever Jesus' reason, none of it would have happened had Jairus not been willing to get in some good trouble. His daughter was alive because he was willing to ignore convention and seek help in unexpected places from a man with a dubious reputation. Like with the woman in the crowd, the risk, the trouble changed things. And his family was better for it.
Are you being called to good trouble? What conventions and preoccupations are keeping you from seeking healing in this world? Good trouble is not easy and will not be smooth. Ask John Lewis about his good trouble. But, it is remarkably worthwhile. If the woman and Jairus could talk, I bet they'd agree. I hope you can find your good trouble. And, I hope you know that Jesus is in the good trouble with you. So, do not fear. Only believe. And, be ready to reach out.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while preparing this sermon:
On Rocks and Boats
Can I tell you one of my favorite stories that I read this week? This couple named Charlotte and Dave Willner had been paying attention to the news about the new family separation immigration policy that began in May. They are parents themselves and were particularly moved by the images of one little girl whose mother was being patted down by a border patrol officer. Ms. Willner recognized her own daughter in that child’s image. She said, “This is the exact face she makes when she's terrified.” Now, lots of people might be moved by such a picture and try to figure out how to help. The Willners definitely were. They had both once worked for the social media company Facebook, and they currently work for other technology companies. They know how much good social media can do when used well. They also knew that Facebook has a new feature where you can set up a fundraiser and share it with your friends. And, they knew that they were pretty good at researching things. They had all these really helpful tools at their disposal.
Working with another friend, they tried to figure out what would be a good way that they could help people coming across the US border with Mexico. They eventually learned about the work of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. It’s called RAICES for short. This is a legal non-profit organization in Texas that works with new immigrants and people who are refugees. RAICES has a really good reputation and does good work. I’ve seen multiple posts and articles commending them. What caught the Willners' eye was one particular part of their work, their family reunification and bond fund.
To understand why they need that kind of fund, it is helpful to have some background about changes in immigration policy enforcement. I learned about some helpful information about the new family separation policy from a non-profit, non-partisan news organization called the Marshall Project. Before May 7th of this year, if you were caught crossing the border between official border checkpoints without proper documentation, you would face immigration charges in a special immigration court. Families who were caught, or who had presented themselves to immigration authorities to request asylum, were usually detained together in family detention centers. There's one in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. Since 2015, families with kids couldn't be held in that kind of facility for longer than three weeks. A judge said that it was harmful to the children to keep them there longer than that, and that families should be released together so the kids could be with their parents. For the last three years, upon initial arrest, families might be detained for a little while, but, barring suspicion of serious illegal behavior, like child trafficking or drug dealing, they were usually released all together to await their immigration court dates.
Starting this past May, the government began a new policy. People who cross between official check points are no longer allowed to ask for asylum when they meet a border patrol officer in the field (people used to turn themselves in so they could do just that). Things changed once they get arrested, too. Now, rather than send the adults to immigration court, they have to go to federal court to be tried for a federal misdemeanor of cross the border without permission. Remember that all used to be done in immigration court. Only some cases actually went to federal court. Now, everybody goes to federal court. There's one other big change. That's the change that has gotten most of our attention: the family separations. Instead of taking previous court rulings into account that recommended keeping families together during this process, any children who cross with their parents have been taken and funneled into an entirely different agency federal agency than their parent. Remember: The parents aren't even convicted of crimes at this point.
While the parents are being held in federal pre-trial detention, the children are being classified as unaccompanied minors (though they were initially accompanied) and detained by the Department of Health and Human services, often in privately contracted facilities, where they go to wait for their own immigration hearings. The parents often aren't told where their kids are and the kids are often moved to facilities very far from their parents. The parents may be in Texas while the kids are in Florida or New York state. The parents and their lawyers, when they actually have lawyers, are having a very hard time finding the kids once they have been taken. Some parents have been deported without getting their kids back.
Looking at their resources and the enormity of the problem at hand, the Willners decided the thing they could do was to help pay the bond of one parent so at least one person could get out of pre-trial detention and begin the difficult process of finding their kid and being reunited. Every adult's bond will be at least $1500. Much of the time, the bond is between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars, even if the person is an asylum-seeker and has no criminal history. It is hard for them to get bail, in part because bail bond companies don't usually help people in immigration bond proceedings unless they impose very strict requirements on them. RAICES had already been raising money for bonds well before last week and had staff at work to help the parents. Sometimes if you want to help, you help people who've been doing the work longer. Charlotte and Dave Willner started a Facebook fundraiser, hoping to get $1500 together to donate to RAICES that they could help one parent with a low bond get out and get their kid. Just $1500. That seemed like a reasonable donation that they could manage and still feel like they were doing something worthwhile for one family.
They ended up helping way more than one family. I don't know if you've heard about this. As of this morning, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, the little fundraiser that hoped to get $1500 has reached $19,982,160. To put that in perspective, RAICES' own fundraising for all the work they do, not just the bond work, was about $7 million last year. The Willners' fundraiser has been passed around so much that they have raised 2.5 times the nonprofit's yearly needs. RAICES has been raising money on their own, too. They have raised over $5 million dollars on their website. Gobs of other people are giving in other ways, too. Jenny Hixon, the nonprofit's development director, said that they have also received phone calls from literally thousands of people who want to volunteer. People are even offering to come to Texas to help.
What started as a modest goal from one family to help one other family has become millions of dollars that will help thousands of families. RAICES will be channeling the money into two of their programs, the bond fund as well as a fund that provides legal representation to kids who are actually unaccompanied minors. They also are going to share the money with other nonprofits. They know that there are plenty of other groups are doing good work and now is the time for all-hands-on-deck. They will be able to have more lawyers for the parents. They are hiring more people to do the work of finding the kids and getting the parents back in contact with them. And, they will be launching a nationwide network of people who will provide legal support to those who have been detained. They are even working on setting up a network of therapists and psychologists to help families address the likely PTSD and toxic stress of separation. All of this, from a nonprofit that was going to have to stop some of their programming next year. You see, last month, the government stopped funding a grant program that helped some unaccompanied minors get lawyers. That program paid a lot of their bills. RAICES wasn't going to be able to take on any more cases for kids in that situation. But, now they can and they will be able to do so much more. All because one small family used the tools they had to give all the help that they could.
Underdog stories catch people's attention. So do stories of regular people doing extraordinary things. I suspect that's why NPR and the Washington Post and several other news outlets paid attention to the story of the Willner family. The Willners aren't exactly shepherd boys facing down giant warriors, but they are regular people who looked at a monstrously large problem- thousands of children taken from their families- and looked at their resources- social media, the ability to read and research, some money to start off donations- and figured out how to put their resources to work. In that way, they are like David in today's reading.
David could have looked at the challenge before him, a trained and armored warrior, an adult, a confident army... he could have looked at all that was before him and given up before he even started. But he didn't. Armed with five smooth stones, a shepherd's bravery, and the confidence of one who knew he would one day be king, David faced the Philistine's challenge and won, changing the course of not only his life, but the history of his country. The Willners, and all the other people who joined with them to raise literally millions of dollars, they are changing things, too. They will definitely change the lives of all the people RAICES and other nonprofits will help. They helped me feel more hopeful this week, too.
Now, young David and the Willners aren't the only ones who can make a difference. Every single one of us has some divine tool for serving our neighbor at our disposal. David was just a shepherd with slingshot. The Willners are just an upper middle-class family with a computer and a Facebook account. What smooth stones are in your pocket? What gifts to you have that you can use for the public good? The challenge is great. But our God is greater. Like, stop the sea with a word greater. Let's put all these tools to God's use.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources to write this sermon:
Here are a couple articles about the fundraiser
Divided: Psalm 138 and Mark 3:20-35
As you may know, most weeks, I decide my sermon title, which helps guide my sermon research, some time on Tuesday. It usually has something to do with what catches my attention in the scripture or seems timely. After hearing our reading from Mark, where Jesus butts heads with scribes, is at odds with his birth family, is accused of being a demon, and redefines family, I bet you can understand why the image of the "house divided against itself" caught my attention. Have you heard a scripture that is a more apt description of the angst that many Americans are feeling right now? Powerful people saying one guy is possessed, not just wrong, but possessed by a demon, mostly because he has the gall to disagree with them. The same guy's family is really worried about him and comes to take him home. When they come to see him, he completely blows them off. Not only that, he said that their claim on him as birth family wasn't really all that important. He looked at his siblings, his mama... the woman who risked her life to give him birth... and he said that his real family was someone else. This guy, Jesus, an upstart preacher from a nowhere town, decided to upturn and reorganize two of the most important institutions in his culture, religion and family, and he was causing a lot of trouble while doing it. On Tuesday, with the divisions in our current culture on my mind, this seemed like a scripture worth preaching on.
And, then, sometime Thursday afternoon, while I was working on the class I'm taking right now, I came upon this list of practical things to do when you feel overwhelmed. We are almost at the end of the first eight weeks of the coursework. Most of what we've been talking about is doing the stuff Jesus was doing in this part of Mark: reorganizing and reorienting our important institutions to better reflect Christ's priorities. We've been talking alot about how we can be coworkers with God to address the most critical issues of our time. That's what Jesus did in his time. It's the work we continue in ours. Brian McLaren, our teacher for this part of the course, argues that the most pressing issues of the day center around three major areas of concern: environmental stewardship, ridding the world of poverty, and fostering peace on national and international level. The fourth area of concern guides our response to the first three: how do we cultivate religious communities that, as the author of Mark might put it, "do the will of God" in caring for the earth and our neighbors.
As you can imagine, between the news that I read, the interactions I participate in, and the information presented in my class, I can get overwhelmed by the scope of the problems that I am navigating as a person of faith. I have a hunch that I am not the only one who has had this feeling. I think Brian knows this happens, too. That's why he had a whole lecture lined up for us about it. He knows the weight of the information he's sharing. He's a pastor and a Christian. This is stuff he has to deal with, too. I figured, knowing how conscientious and hospitality-minded this congregation is, for as much as you appreciate a call to work with Christ and become part of Christ's family, you might also appreciate a practical list of some things you can do when you feel overwhelmed, so you don't get too bogged down to work with Christ for the world.
The first thing Brian said was that it can be helpful to reframe the overwhelm. To think about it as a sign that you are paying attention to both your neighbor's and the earth's needs. It means that you have the opportunity to, in the words of Quaker writer Parker Palmer, let your heart be broken open to opportunities for healing instead of broken apart in despair. You may have heard a Sihk activist and lawyer named Valerie Kaur talk about it this way: When you feel lost in darkness, you can think of it as a tomb or as a womb, preparing you to be born again. Your feeling of being overwhelmed can be a sign that you are preparing to be born again. Now that you know you are in the midst of such fertile darkness, ready to be broken open to serve, what can you do to nurture the impulses that help you to be family to Christ?
First, if you are overwhelmed, admit it to yourself. You can say it out loud or just think it real hard. This is a real feeling in response to real things in the world. But, a feeling doesn't have to stay forever. They ebb and flow naturally. This feeling of overwhelm is here now but does not have to be here always. Next, know that you don't have to hold that feeling on your own. You can ask someone to hold it with you. Tell a friend, a colleague, a counselor, your pastor: "I'm feeling overwhelmed." Brian suggests practicing finding a metaphor to describe your own overwhelm. Tell your person, "I feel like... I'm running a race and can't catch up, or... I'm on a boat that's filling with water and I can't bail fast enough" or whatever captures your feeling best. Tell your person. Practice beforehand if you need to.
Brian suggests to tell God, too. Some might tell God first. That's fine. This isn't a checklist or a set of steps that must be performed in a specific way. Do the parts in the ways that help the most. But, tell God. If you have a hard time starting with your own words, maybe use Mary's words from a time when she was overwhelmed, "Here am I, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Brian also said don't be afraid to tell everybody else, too. It's ok to share aloud, maybe during prayers at church or conversation over dinner or on walks with your neighbors, "I often feel overwhelmed, but I’m not giving up." He said you can take this time to affirm that you've decided to trust in God's promise of justice and grace, even in the face of very hard odds. Then, go back and tell all of these people, yourself, your confidants, your neighbors, your God, not just about what overwhelms you, but also what you are grateful for, and why you are grateful. Brian said, "Gratitude helps heal broken hearts." So, go tell everyone thank you.
Once you've done the telling part of this exercise, you can shift to the asking part. Ask yourself two questions. What kind of person would I wish to be in an overwhelming situation? What qualities would I wish to demonstrate in a hopeless crisis? Practice naming how you want to act in the world. That makes it easier to actually act that way later. You can remind yourself what you are aspiring, too. You can work towards those aspirations little by little. And, lastly, Brian invites us to pay attention to what recharges us. Jesus ate dinner with friends and spent time in the wilderness in prayer. What do you need to fill up your resources so you can go back out to work with God? A hike? A party with friends? Art? Kickboxing? Do the things that recharge you and fill you with joy. In a world that can get you down, Brian says joy can be a revolutionary act.
If you are looking for a place to start this process of sharing your overwhelm, can I recommend our reading from Psalm 138? It is a beautiful Psalm of Thanksgiving: "I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart... I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness... though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies. You stretch out your hand and your right hand delivers me." Reading and reciting this prayer is a way to practice gratitude and practice talking with God. It even describes aspirational behavior- graciousness, perseverance, faith- in the midst of crisis. I don't think Brian was writing about the Psalm when he pulled together the lesson this week, but it's awful close, isn't it?
Our story from Mark is intense. Jesus, wild enough to concern his family, fierce enough to concern the scribes, knew what it was to be divided. He used the metaphor to explain his power of healing. No evil thing to could cast out more evil. Dividing a house against itself does not make it stronger. Dividing our feelings from our actions doesn't make us stronger, either. It is necessary to go to our moral center rather than break our hearts into pieces. Our walk with Christ, like his words about family, will be a scandal and a challenge. But, there is no need to be lost eternally in the enormity of the work before us. The Lord will fulfill a purpose in us. God's steadfast Love endures forever. God will not forsake the work of God's hands. We can be broken open instead of broken apart. We can be knit together again in the womb of God's love. And, we can emerge, when we are able, ready to once more with Christ. Are you ready to be a part of Jesus' family?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
On Shouting and Harvesting: Psalm 81:1-10 and Mark 2:23-3:6
Do you remember all those covenants we learned about during Lent? All those great promises between God and humanity and the potential for goodness they hold? These covenants that promise freedom, relationship, sanctuary, and healing are the roots to God's relationship with the people of Israel. When the people lose their way, the prophets and sometimes kings... sometimes God Godself... calls the people back to their covenantal roots. People remind God of the covenant, too, sometimes. Abraham was quick to remind God of grace and compassion when it was necessary. All these covenants and the miraculous salvation stories of shelter in the wilderness, food that suddenly appeared in the morning and evening, and voices that thundered from high places, those stories should be on our mind when we read Psalm 81. It is a Psalm to remind the people of their relationship with God. It is a Psalm to remind them of their part of the promise.
This Psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving and exhortation that was written not during the time of Exodus, but during the time of exile. So much of the Hebrew Scriptures, which before the exile had been stories and prayers around campfires and in holy, wild places, were finally written down after the devastation at the hands of the Babylonians. With the leadership of their community in Babylon and the common people spread across what was left of their once-promised land, they needed shared stories to help their culture survive. This Psalm, which describes a religious festival and retells part of the salvation story of the Exodus, teaches people, again and again, how God saved them and what God asks of them.
Think of every good thing that you credit to God. The relationships that bring you joy and wholeness. The support when you've needed it most. The challenge to serve your neighbors. Mash together all of those feelings of joy and gratitude and imagine them erupting from you in song. That's the feeling the beginning of this Psalm is intended to invoke. Sing aloud to God our strength! Shout for joy to the God of Jacob! What are you so thankful for that it would make you take up a tambourine or blow a trumpet? For this Psalmist, it's the memory of the way God cared for them when they were deeply oppressed. It's the memory of God's commitment to liberation.
When we remember all that God did for Israel, the rescue from slavery and the time in the wilderness, the stories we usually call the Exodus... these are some of the most influential stories in the Hebrew Bible. In this act, the people were shown repeatedly that God wants liberation, not constraint, for God's people. And, they were invited to act as agents of God's liberation into the future. If you've had any chance to spend time with our neighbors at Temple Beth El, you may have witnessed their commitment to welcoming new immigrants. They, like many Jewish people, root their welcome to the Exodus story, a story that reminds them that they were once strangers in a strange land and were sorely mistreated. In honor of their liberation, they will welcome others. They aren't the only ones who have been inspired by the Exodus story. In US history, it is the Exodus stories that helped many African Americans survive slavery and fight for their own freedom. They heard the truth of God's liberation, even when so many Christian church's supported bondage. This truth helped them shape a more just future. It is still pointing us to a more just future.
There is this interesting turn in the Psalm after the party of the first five verses. All the sudden we shift from a leader reminding the people to give thanks to the voice of God reminding the people of their side of the covenant. Remember what we read today: God says, I'm still your only God. Remember that I brought you out of Egypt. Remember that I made sure you had food to survive in the wilderness. All those commandments the people began to receive during the Exodus... the second part of the Psalm is to remind them of the promises they made in response to liberation. The whole gist of the promises wasn't to make life more complicated for the people. Because I know that you all have memorized all of my sermons, I know that you will remember that commandments are really to help people reshape their lives so that they better reflect God's promises and God's priorities. The laws weren't just to be religious hoops to jump through. They were to be guides to shape your life into a reflection of God.
I think Jesus understood this. That's why he got in the two arguments that we heard in our reading from Mark. If we can turn to that story for a moment, we can see a difference between living a life shaped by liberation and concern for the needy, that is a life shaped by the law, and living a life that is more concerned with the letter of the law than its spirit. Jesus and his disciples were traveling. Instead of finding somewhere to stay and pre-preparing food for the Sabbath, they began to pluck heads of grain to eat as they walked. For the Pharisees, who were deeply concerned with following the law, these actions... the traveling and the harvesting... went against even the most basic ways of keeping the Sabbath. And, keeping the Sabbath was very important.
Jesus didn't think he could or should ignore the law. What he did think, like other Jewish teachers before and since him, was that sometimes some parts of the law take precedence over others. In this case, he reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was set aside for rest and prayer after the era of slavery, when people rarely had time for either. It is a time intended to remind people of God's generosity in liberation. He said, like Jewish teachers before and after him, Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. So, if people are hungry on the Sabbath, you feed them, even if it means doing a kind of work that is usually forbidden. Jesus also pointed to King David's own life story. When he was on the run with few resources, he ate bread that was unlawful for him to eat. David needed to eat to survive to go on to fulfill his calling as king. The call to feed the hungry took precedence over the call to serve the priests in a particular way.
The second story is similar. There was already a practice of understanding that saving a life is a kind of work that was ok to do on the Sabbath. If you could work and save someone, you were not disregarding the gift of the Sabbath. But, this man whom Jesus' heals does not appear to be dying. I mean, his hand isn't working well, but he wasn't in immediate danger. His healing was the kind of healing that could have probably waited a day. Jesus' followers probably could have skipped a meal, too. But, he didn't ask any of these people to wait. Instead, he placed a value on doing the most good as quickly as possible as a sign of his dedication to the law. And, as one scholar I read this week pointed out, on what better day than the Sabbath, a day set aside for restoration, could Jesus restore a person's body to wholeness. With this healing, not only did the man's hand work correctly, but it also allowed him to work more easily, thereby better providing for himself and his family. With this action, Jesus showed that God's liberation doesn't need to wait. It can happen right now.
As followers of Jesus, we consider ourselves inheritors of this tradition of liberation. We would do well to follow Jesus in making both thanksgiving and reconnection with covenant, the two key elements of Psalm 81, part of our lives as well. So, we find ways to celebrate, I mean really celebrate what God has done for us, just as our ancient forbears remembered what God did for them. But, we also remember to shape our lives according to the greatest of God's priorities: liberation and compassion. Where are the places where you are willing to stand up to authorities to restore someone else to wholeness? Maybe you've heard about our government's practice of removing children from parents who are crossing our borders without proper documentation. Maybe these are the people who need wholeness right now. Maybe you've heard of someone else who needs liberation in another way. Where are you being led to work with God towards future liberation? What songs will you shout to guide your way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3689
Diane G. Chen, "Proper 4 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Matt Skinner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Moved by the Spirit
I am about four weeks into a continuing education course called the Convergence Leadership Project. It's for pastors and church members who are interested in cultivating a joyful and generous Christianity that is a force for good in the world. Right now we are in a session that is talking about how we can rouse up the passion and perseverance of Christ's Church to tackle the most pressing needs of our day. It is in the midst of these conversations that I encountered the work of Jessica Jackley.
Ms. Jackley grew up as a middle-class, white, American kid who went to church. She did what we hope all kids do at church, listened to and tried to follow the guidance of Jesus. It was at church that she said she started hearing stories about "the poor." She said she never really heard anyone call themselves poor and never really heard poor people talk about their own lives. She just learned that to be poor was to not have something you needed... like clothes or food or shelter. And, she learned that people who followed Jesus were supposed to help people who were poor. "What you do for the least of these, you do for me." She said, "I was very eager to be useful in the world -- I think we all have that feeling. And also, it was kind of interesting that God needed help. That was news to me, and it felt like it was a very important thing to get to participate in." So, she started trying to help poor people in order to follow Jesus.
Around this time, though, she heard another part of the Bible that talked about poor people. She heard that Jesus once said, "The poor will always be with us." She must have been a very good student, because this second story confused her. She said, "I felt like I had been just given a homework assignment that I had to do, and I was excited to do, but no matter what I would do, I would fail." As she got older, it got harder to remain excited about this work God had called her to help in. She never experienced poverty herself. She only heard about it from other people and from books and the news. Poverty seemed unrelenting, all wrapped up in disease, war, and devastation.
In the face of poverty that seemed insurmountable, she began to feel bad when she heard about the lives of poor people. She said she felt guilty, too, because she lived a life of relative privilege. She said that she even began to feel shame. She couldn't help everyone enough. She had such a good life, but she didn't have the skills she needed to disentangle her shame from her sense of calling. So, she said she started to distance herself from the stories that overwhelmed her. She still gave money to charities and to individuals who were going good work. But, what had once felt like a mission from God had become a transaction to relieve guilt. She had enough money to insulate herself from the pain around her, relieving her guilt in the process, but never really being the force for good that she had once wanted to be.
In today's Pentecost story from Acts, we are told that the people knew a miracle was happening because they heard people speaking their own language, telling them something new about God. Ms. Jackley had a Pentecost moment, too, but it wasn't a room full of people all speaking different languages. No, it was one man, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, speaking and telling her something new about humanity that would help her fulfill that old calling from God. He spoke a language she needed to hear and she was moved by it. He talked about a financial lending process called microfinance and about all the amazing, poor entrepreneurs he had met in his work. Attending this talk changed Ms. Jackley's life.
When she learned about the power of small loans to change people's lives and learned the real stories of creating a life in poverty from the poor people themselves, she finally saw a way to serve her neighbors that moved beyond the transactional into the relational. And, she began to really understand people who were poor as whole people who could tell her something about the kind of help they needed. She was so moved by hearing Dr. Yunus speak that, just a few weeks later, she quit her job. She then spent three months in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania interviewing people who had received loans of $100 to start or grow a business. In that time, "the poor" stopped being strangers with terrible lives, and they started being humans with joys, ambitions, and intelligence. And, she stopped using emotional distance to protect herself from their stories.
The more conversations she had, the more she learned. She said one of the most important things she learned was about her own limits for fixing other people's problems. She said, "It was really humbling to see for the first time, to really understand, that even if I could have taken a magic wand and fixed everything, I probably would have gotten a lot wrong. Because the best way for people to change their lives is for them to have control and to do that in a way that they believe is best for them." She also noticed that in three months, she was never asked for donation. But, a couple times, people did ask for loans. She had seen enough that she knew $100 could do a lot of good. So, she tried to figure out how to get some small loans into people's hands where it would do the most good.
Working with old friends and family back in the States and new friends in Uganda, she helped found the program Kiva. Kiva connects lenders to people who need money but don't have access to major lines of credit. You can start with a loan of $25, a manageable sum for many people, and know it will be put to good use. Since they began building relationships between lenders and borrowers in 2005, the program has loaned $1.15 Billion dollars (mostly in small amounts). They have a 97% repayment rate. And, when you loan through Kiva, you get to hear the story of the people in whom you've invested. And, the people who are helped are empowered to make decisions based not on what a wealthier person believes, but what they know will help them build a thriving life. Now, programs like Kiva don't do some things. It doesn't replace the food pantries or free clinics of the world. But, they do shift financial systems so that poor people have access to life-changing money. And, it is helping people with money to share stop using money to isolate themselves from the world. Instead, their money becomes a tool for connection.
Jessica Jackley has gone on to work with a other projects and no longer works with Kiva. But, she carries the lessons she learned with her. One of the most important was this: she said,
"When you lend [people] money, and they slowly pay you back over time, you have this excuse to have an ongoing dialogue. This continued attention -- this ongoing attention -- is a really big deal to build different kinds of relationships among us… from what I've heard from the entrepreneurs I've gotten to know, when all else is equal, given the option to have just money to do what you need to do, or money plus the support and encouragement of a global community, people choose the community plus the money."
There are so many ways to understand the miracle of Pentecost... the miracle that we say birthed the church after the Resurrection. Perhaps our lesson for today is to be pay attention to the ones who are speaking a language that is, all the sudden, telling you something that changes how you understand the world. That new word you're hearing is the Holy Spirit. That new word is helping you to understand humanity better. That new word can help you work with other people to make a difference in the world. What is the church if not a group of people, hearing one another stories, and investing in one another's lives for the better.
We can hear the stories and see the images of devastation, and we can hide away for our own self-protection. But, Jesus never asked his followers to hideaway in dark closets and behind locked doors. He calls us out, to connect, to learn, and to build. The Spirit will give us the ability. We just need to use it. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." May we all dream and may we all prophesy.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_20_2018
Caroline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4641
Greg Carey: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3665
Caroline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5154
To hear and read Jessica Jackley's talk about Kiva, please go to https://www.ted.com/talks/jessica_jackley_poverty_money_and_love/transcript
To learn more about Kiva, go to https://www.kiva.org/about/impact/success-stories
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/pierre_teilhard_de_chardi_114239
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Friends of Jesus- John 15:9-17
I'd like to tell you one of my favorite stories of the late Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock. It is a story that took place on Easter and we are now in the final weeks of the Easter Season. It seems appropriate to share it as a reminder that Resurrection didn't happen just once. It happens all the time. So, hear this story about baptism and love and Christian community. In the year before he married, Dr. Craddock served a small church in East Tennessee in a small town on Watts Barr Lake. That's not more than a couple hours from where I grew up. Dr. Craddock was ordained in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a sister denomination of our own United Church of Christ. If you were to worship in a Disciples church, it would seem very similar to our worship services with a few interesting exceptions. One difference is that their lay people pray over and serve communion. In our tradition, someone must be ordained to bless the elements. They also usually have communion every week, which is less common in the UCC. Another difference is with baptism. While people of all ages are baptized in the UCC, many people are baptized as infants or very young children. In Disciples churches, most people are baptized when they are old enough to make their own statement of faith. They are fully immersed in water, either in large baptismal fonts their congregations or in the lakes and rivers near their congregations. This story that Dr. Craddock told took place following several baptisms in the lake near their church.
The church gathered with those who had felt moved to be baptized along the shores of the lake on Easter Sunday evening at sundown. One of the oldest practices in Christianity is to accept new members into the faith on Easter. His church followed this tradition. You know that this story takes place in the South because the lake wasn't still frozen over at Easter. It was probably still at least a little bit chilly though, but, warm enough to be baptized in. He and the candidates would wade out together. One by one, he would baptize the newest members of Christ's body. As they finished, still dripping, they would go back to shore where the rest of the church had gathered. The church would have already built a small fire. They would be singing and cooking some supper to share. The newly baptized would then go and change into dry clothes in little booths that the congregation had constructed with great care for just this purpose. Dr. Craddock changed his clothes, too, and everybody went and stood by the fire.
Up to this point, the story seems very familiar to me. Plenty of churches across time have practiced baptism this way. While the lakeside fire-cooked supper may be a nice addition, I imagine that many Christians would recognize their own church practices in these baptisms. It is the next part of the story that I think makes this little church stand out. They added their own ritual to this ancient one. Dr. Craddock said it always started the same way. Glen Hickey, a long- time member, would introduce the new members. Glenn did this every time. He would say their name, where they lived, and what they did for a living. The new folks would also gather closest to the fire, which was fair since they'd just been in the lake and were undoubtedly chilly. The rest of the church would create a circle around them.
Once all the new folks had been introduced, the older members would begin to go around the circle and introduce themselves in a unique way. They would first say their name and then, they would offer a service. For example, I might say, "My name is Chrissy and if you ever need somebody to come and feed your cats, please call me." Then, the next person would offer their name and how they could help. This would continue all around the circle, with everyone in the church taking a turn. "My name is Earl. If you every need anybody to chop wood, please ask." "My name is Bernice... if you ever need a ride into town, I'm happy to help." "My name is Beverly and if you ever need somebody to sit with someone who is sick, call me." "My name is Jonathan and if you ever need somebody to watch the kids, they can come to our place." One by one by one. A name and a way to serve. All the way around.
Then, they would do the most church-y of activities: they would eat. Food cooked on the fire. Food brought from home. Food from the little deli on the corner. They'd eat all of it. Then, as if that weren't enough, they'd have a square dance. Right there by the side of Watts Bar Lake. They'd dance long into Easter Sunday night. Then, as Dr. Craddock told it, when it was the right time, a man named Percy Miller would stand up and say, "Time to go." They would clean up the food and pack up the dishes. They'd take down the changing booths and carry coolers and camp chairs and guitars to the car. And, they all head home. Percy would be the last person to leave, making sure everything got cleaned up and the fire got put out. Dr. Craddock shared that he was pretty overwhelmed the first time he experienced all this. You see, these practices predated his ministry at the church. He had to learn them just like the newly baptized people did. As he stood with Percy, watching him kick sand on the fire, he couldn't really move. All he could do was stand still and try to take it all in. Percy looked at him and said, "Craddock, folks don't ever get any closer than this." I think Dr. Craddock believed him.
If I ever heard a story that sounded like church, it would be this one. People gathered together to celebrate rituals that were long central to Christianity as a whole and to their own small church in particular. People sharing sincere offers of care and kindness to new comers to their community. Food and song and dance, all in celebration of the Body of Christ growing just a bit bigger on that night. Having people who knew how to lead and knew when to make sure everybody got home. This is what intimacy in religious community can look like when people take seriously this call to be friends of Christ. And, while this story doesn't talk about it, I am certain that this generous spirit was not limited to only the people in the congregation. I do not for a minute believe that it would be easy to be this gracious in religious community without that graciousness leaking out into your relationship beyond church. No, this is the kind of intimacy that give you a space to practice mutuality and service to others so you then extend this loving-kindness beyond the walls of the church.
Part of what is groundbreaking in our reading from John and also so inspiring in this story from Fred Craddock, is the power found in equitable relationship. The graciousness of post-baptism practice at the church is so striking, in part, because every single person participates. Every single person offers care and every single person is a possible recipient of care. No one is understood to be without a gift. Everyone has the capacity to help. Everyone is understood to likely need help at some time. In the Scripture from John, it is incredible that Jesus invites his disciples to be more than servants, to be friends. At that moment, he upends so many social expectations between teachers and students, as well as any sense of how the Messiah might be some mighty military leader. Instead, he posits that an interdependent relationship should really be the divine standard. You become his friend when you follow his commandments. And, he commands us to love one another. The people dancing on that lakeshore in Tennessee loved one another. We can love one another, too.
I've recently started a continuing education class for pastors. In a class earlier this week, our teacher invited us to try praying in a different way to more clearly connect our calls from Scripture to our experiences during the week. Remember how the church introduced themselves to the new people: My name is.... and if you need.... I'm going to invite you to reimagine that practice with the last week in mind. You can write it down on your bulletin. First, imagine what you would tell a newcomer that you could help them with. Second, think about one time in the last week that someone has shown you Christ's loving friendship. Make a promise to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for that person. When we pray together in just a few minutes, if you feel so led, you are welcome to share what you can help with or how you were shown love this week, along with anything else you'd like us to pray for. This is how Christ's joy lives in us, when we act as friends of Jesus. How has your joy been completed this week? And, how will you carry that joy forward in love?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3649
Choi He An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, eds. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Chalice Press, 2001
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.