the upside-down, gospel good-news

My syllabus project has been sorely neglected these last few weeks, but for good reason! I’ve been spending my time and energy saying goodbye to the precious people of Manassas Church of the Brethren. Writing, of late, has been for them.

I’m only marginally employed through the summer, so I expect more Readings in Surviving Empire work to bubble up and surface here in this space. In the meantime, here’s my last sermon from Manassas. The audio is also available on the MCoB website, here.

Sermon 6-28-15

Unexpected Healings

Mark 5:21-43

21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

This passage from the Gospel is an incredible feat of storytelling. Mark packs all kinds of narrative punch into just a few verses – there’s drama, suspense, unexpected twists, and a double dose of miraculous healing. This scene would fit easily into your favorite mystery novel or primetime crime-solving drama.

Here’s Jesus, crossing the sea in a boat, and being greeted on the shore by a big crowd of excited, adoring followers. They’ve heard of him, heard about the crazy faith healings he’s been doing, casting out of demons and curing people’s diseases, and they all want to see him for themselves. Everybody has some kind of malady in need of care, don’t we? We’re all in need of some kind of healing or another. We understand this impulse to flock together to see a teacher rumored to have the miraculous power of making all things well. We can easily imagine ourselves in that crowd.

Like any crowd, it was probably populated by all kinds of people – rich and poor, men and women, sick and well, those who had particular needs of healing and those who just joined the crowd rushing through town to see what all the commotion was about. You can imagine the camera panning the faces, old, young, short, tall, ragged and well-groomed. You can see the people, know who they were.

And then, the camera comes to rest on a tall, broad-shouldered man striding toward the crowd from the direction of the local synagogue. It’s clear that he is a well-respected man – you can see it just by the way he carries himself.

This is Jairus. We, the readers, know that he’s an important guy because of his name – it’s a variation on a Hebrew name for one of the Judges, used in three different books of the Old Testament. Jairus is the heir of generations of religious clout. He’s an important man around town, one of the leaders of the synagogue, installed in the upper echelons of polite society, used to getting what he asks for and assured of his ability and his right to part the gathered crowd and march straight up to this storied teacher called Jesus and ask him to come to his home and heal his dying daughter.

And, because Jesus’ healing is for everyone and because all who seek shall find and any who ask, to them it shall be given, Jesus follows him toward his house. And the crowd follows Jesus.

But here’s where things get interesting. On the way to Jairus’ house, the camera pans to the margins of the crowd, and rests on the face of a rather unkempt woman – hair tangled, clothes torn, eyes with that look you’ve seen before, the look of someone who hasn’t engaged in civil conversation with another human being in quite some time. It’s not just that people have neglected her – she’s actually been forbidden to interact with people because of the laws of the society. The structure of the people’s life together is such that someone with her physical reality – she’s been bleeding for twelve years, despite every effort from doctors and treatment – is relegated to a solitary, “unclean” life.

We know that she’s of little import to her community because not only does she lack an important family surname…she has no name at all. She is and will forever be anonymous. Unnamed. Unseen. Unknown.

This woman has never been certain of her access to healing. She’s never enjoyed the privilege of striding confidently through a crowd, never assumed she could speak freely to a leader. She has never been granted access on the sole basis of her name or her appearance, and she is suffering, suffering mightily.

And yet, something about this Jesus guy strikes her as worth a shot. She’d never march up to him and ask him to his face to heal her, but she can’t resist his powerful presence. So she sneaks through the crowd and grabs a handful of his coat. Just a handful, and just for a second.

And, because Jesus’ healing is for everyone and because all who seek shall find and any who ask, to them it shall be given, her bleeding immediately stops. And Jesus stops, too.

“Who touched me?!” He asks, aware that something has gone down. And, stunned to her core, the no-name woman stands up, wavers her way toward Jesus in fear and trembling, falls at his feet and tells the truth, the whole entire ugly truth and the completely unbelievably beautiful truth, and Jesus confirms it all for her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed.”

But there’s still the matter of Jairus’ dying daughter – Jairus, who has been, we assume, right beside Jesus all this time, impatiently awaiting more of his attention. Before they can return to their journey, some of Jairus’ servants appear and tell them it’s too late – she’s already dead. But Jesus, who deals not only in preaching, teaching and healing the sick but is also in the business of resurrecting even those who’ve died complete and utter deaths, says calmly, “do not fear. Only believe.” And walks the rest of the way to Jairus’ house, clears out the wailing mourners, takes the dead girl’s hand, and resurrects her from the dead. “There you go,” he says, “now why don’t you fix her some dinner? Surely that journey to the underworld has left her mighty hungry.”

What we assume at the outset of this story is this: the important leader of the synagogue, the one with the powerful family lineage and societal clout is in need of healing, and Jesus is going to show him, to humble him, to make it known that even the most powerful religious leaders are in need of God’s grace and Jesus’ healing.

And that happens. Jairus humbles himself by asking for Jesus’ healing, and he receives it.

But that is not what this story is about. This story, it turns out, is about the interruption, the unexpected, the random, unnamed woman claiming her place in Jesus’ reign as well. What we think is going to be a simple moral tale about Jesus’ power and our need for humilty turns into something unexpected. Our gaze is turned away from Jairus and toward this anonymous woman and all of the sudden we are wondering about her – where is she from? What is her name? Where did she find the courage to approach Jesus? What is it that she needs?

Jesus’ healing is for everyone. Everyone. Everybody matters, everybody is seen, everybody is acknowledged, everybody is offered access to the power that brings about wholeness and fullness of life.

That’s what this gospel story says. Jesus’ healing is for everyone.

But this story does not stop there.

Mark is making another, wilier point,

a point that might even have the power to transform and redeem us if we’re willing to hear it.

The healing of the synagogue official’s daughter

is real, and deep,

and the joy of finding his daughter alive again is surely unparalleled.

But.

The way Mark tells this story reminds us that the healing granted to the man who everyone assumed to be deserving of it is not the best part of the narrative.

The way Mark tells this story forces our heads to swivel around and acknowledge the unnamed interloper, the woman who’d been shunned and disrespected, turned out from polite company and removed from any status she could have hoped to enjoy.

The way Mark tells this story, the interruption becomes the point.

Maybe you know what happened here at our church during the last Love Feast. Maybe you remember that particular interruption.

I was across the room and noticed something strange, but I didn’t learn the whole story until months later. Maybe I should listen to this gospel story a bit closer, pay attention to the interruptions more, worry less about making sure things go off in the proper and well-ordered way.

Last spring, we held our regular, Maundy Thursday evening Love Feast. Most of us know how Love Feast goes, and we assume that it will be familiar, comforting, assuring us of our own belonging in this place and with these people. It is a great gift to us, this practice of eating together and washing one another’s feet. But this particular Love Feast was interrupted.

An anonymous man wandered into the church. No one knew him, no one knew his name, but he was welcomed. Several men led him to a table, sat with him during the meal, and attempted to learn his story. He seemed rather out of it, and when it came time for communion, he took the bread and the cup, but seemed to get stuck. While the rest of us gathered around the tables down in the fellowship center went on with our eucharistic ritual, ingesting the bread and blood of Jesus that we have been told for decades was broken and shed FOR US, our visitor stalled. He held the cup in his hand, but couldn’t seem to bring it to his lips. Finally, someone close to him said, simply, “That’s Jesus. It’s for you.” And he drank it.

The best part of this story, the upside-down gospel, good-news part

is that all of our assumptions about who is in and who is out get up-ended.

All of our assumptions, no matter how tightly we hold onto them, simply dissolve in the face of Jesus’ incredible, powerful, universal gift of healing.

The best part of this story, the upside-down gospel, good-news part,

is that what we think is the point of what we’re doing

is almost never the point of what God’s up to.

The best part of this story, the upside-down gospel, good-news part,

is that God’s Kingdom comes through us,

despite us,

not to spite us

but always to open our hearts to the largeness of God’s grace.

In the gospels, we are constantly, constantly reminded to pay attention to those things we’re tempted to write off as unimportant, anonymous interruptions. We are unendingly called to turn our heads and shift our gaze away from what we think of as the necessary, important, respectable things of the day and investigate that glimpse of something over there on the margins, to attune our hearts to the people who wander in or sneak up to touch Jesus’ cloak, the ones we’d never choose to associate with, the ones we’re most likely to ignore or shoo away.

And the beautiful thing is that no one is discarded. In Jesus’ world, in his ever-present Kingdom, no one is ignored. No one is left without healing, no one is refused an audience. The gospel is for EVERYONE.

In the three and a half years that I’ve gotten to be a part of this congregation, I have been so deeply transformed by your love and grace. I could tell the story over and over and never tire of it: that you all called me to a position I wasn’t qualified for or even excited about, that even with those reservations it was a clear call from this congregation and the Holy Spirit, that all of us together consenting to experiment with something none of us were sure about led to amazing relationships and some serious, unexpected healing. I am in awe of the ways you love one another, the ways that you have loved me. And I want more of the world to know that love.

Like Jairus in the gospel, this congregation comes to the present moment with a long, beautiful, rich heritage of faith. Manassas Church of the Brethren carries the name and respect of forefathers and foremothers who invested their lives in work for the Church and God’s Kingdom. It is a precious gift, and part of the inheritance of that gift is a certainty that we belong here, that we are worthy of compassion, that Jesus’ healing power is, in fact, a gift that we can claim. And, like Jairus, Jesus has answered many of our prayers for healing. Daughters have been healed, sons have been returned to us, we have found community in our suffering, and relationships have been restored even in the midst of conflict.

And yet. This story reminds us that we are not the main characters of this gospel story.

There are others, not far from us, who are not so convinced that healing is for them.

There are others, very near to us, who have been taught that they don’t belong, that their names are not even worth speaking aloud, that respect and compassion will never be gifts that they expect.

There are others, even here in our midst, who are living life like the anonymous woman, sneaking in through the back door of the sanctuary, sitting silently, grabbing what they can of Jesus’ coattail, hoping to scurry away unnoticed, trying to secure healing in whatever wily way they can.

I love this congregation. You have broken my heart and opened it, leading me to love in ways I honestly had no idea I was capable of. You have instilled confidence and compassion in me, made me into a pastor, encouraged me to use the gifts God has granted me. You have transformed my faith, given me boldness, and opened my eyes to the infinite, creative, joyful, awe-inspiring ways that God is always and everywhere at work in this world.

I am so astoundingly grateful for each of you, and for who you are as a congregation. The piece of the Body of Christ that calls itself the Manassas Church of the Brethren has taken up residence in my heart, and, I imagine, will remain there for all of my days. You, as a congregation, are really, really good at forming, encouraging, and loving people. God is at work within and among you in creative and surprising ways.

So here’s my challenge to you: Look around for the anonymous, suffering people in the crowd who are in need of healing but unsure about whether or not they’re worthy of it. Pay attention to the interruptions. Be a little less worried about getting the business done and a little more concerned with sharing who you are and what you’ve been given. You have love to share. You have compassion in spades. You have the ability to heal people by restoring them to relationship and community. It’s not something you have to go out in search of: these are gifts bestowed upon you by God, and you know it deep in your bones. But it’s helpful, sometimes, to remember that the story is not really about us. It’s about the interlopers, the interruptions, the show-stealers, the ones who come to us in unexpected ways seeking unconventional healings.

That will undoubtedly get messy. You know that. It will mean that programs might not work, that staffing will get all wonky, that there will be people in the building who might not look like they belong. I don’t know exactly what the future holds for this congregation, but after these three and a half years with you, I have absolutely no doubt that it will NOT BE BORING. And the secret is: it only gets messier from here. Jesus doesn’t call us to lives of sterile respectability. Jesus calls us to live lives of powerful, chaotic, joyful discipleship. It gets messy.

But, beloved friends, don’t be afraid to wade into the mess.

Remember what Jesus says to Jairus, after he’s been interrupted, after his daughter has DIED because of that interruption: “Do not fear. Only believe.” And then – after interruption, after death, after Jairus consents and believes and walks on with Jesus – THEN comes the resurrection.

Do not fear. Only believe.

This morning, we have the opportunity to participate in one of my favorite Brethren practices: anointing. The deacons and I will anoint one another, and then we will move to different points throughout the sanctuary. When you come forward, we may ask if there is anything specific you are desiring to be anointed for. In the Church of the Brethren, we anoint for 3 things: healing of mind, body, or spirit; strengthening of faith; and forgiveness of sins.

Are you here with the full knowledge that you belong, in need of healing and sure that Jesus’ promise of healing is for you? That is good and right and beautiful. This is for you. Come, and be anointed.

Are you here unsure about whether or not you should be, uncertain about whether or not you deserve to be healed, deserve to ask for such a powerful thing from the Lord? That is also good and right and beautiful. This is for you. Come, and be anointed.

Are you here realizing that you have stumbled, that you have hurt or wronged or excluded or neglected another, in need of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration of relationship? That, too, is good and right and beautiful. This is for you. Come, and be anointed.

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