Four Lives

(sermon 6/27/21)

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels . Used with permission

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!”

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Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 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 around 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.

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At some point this past month, George and I got hooked on the television series Sense 8, and we ended up binge-watching its entire run in just a few weeks. The details of the show often deal with mature themes, but its basic premise is that there are some people living among us who have this sensate connection with one another, in small groups or clusters – it’s telepathic, but more than that; they can not only feel one another’s joy and sorrow and fear, but they can actually also appear to each other at various times – usually times of personal crisis – they can even live through each other, each one of the very different people from all around the world using their own talents, skills, knowledge base, to help one another get through these crisis times. It’s really a fascinating concept, to imagine people having that kind of a bond. Almost immediately after we watched all of this show, we stumbled across another one called Manifest, which is a much more family-friendly series, with a very different plot, but with a similar premise of a group of very diverse people whose lives, thoughts, feelings, were somehow mysteriously interconnected. As I thought about the draw that these shows have for me, I guess I’ve been attracted to shows like that for some time now. One of my favorite all-time movies is the film “Crash,” which examines the complex ways that a group of random people’s’ lives weave together, in ways not at all as telepathically or mysteriously as those two television shows, but just through very real, everyday events; how the lives of very different people, at their best and their worst, are still connected into some larger whole.

Today’s two Lectionary texts tell us about four people directly, and a few others who are standing just offstage, I suppose. In the first reading, we’re looking through a window, observing the anguish, the grief being suffered by David at the precise moment he learns about the death of King Saul, and especially Saul’s son Jonathan. The scriptures tell us here and elsewhere that David and Jonathan had a very deep, abiding love for one another, and even while David ended up marrying Saul’s daughter Michal, it seems that David had a deeper bond with Jonathan, Michal’s older brother; it was a relationship that David says in this particular passage what “wonderful, passing the love of women.” But now, in this moment, he’s learned that Jonathan is dead. As he eulogizes Jonathan and Saul, there doesn’t appear to be any bottom to his grief.

A thousand years after David, Jairus was beginning to feel similarly overwhelmed with grief as he’s dealing with the reality that his daughter is about to die. Mark tells us that Jairus is a leader in the synagogue – we aren’t sure exactly what kind of leader, or if he’s an official leader or one based on his prominence in the community or the length of time he’d been part of the synagogue, but what is clear is that whatever kind of authority he had, no leader of a synagogue, no leader of a church, not even a future king, can escape the pain and grief of the death of a loved one.

Jairus, beside himself in grief and panic, reaches out in every way he can to maybe save his daughter. He’s heard about Jesus and hopes that the stories about him are true, that he can heal people. Mark doesn’t tell us that Jairus is a secret follower of Jesus, like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea in other stories. Jairus doesn’t ever offer any kind of profession of faith about Jesus being the Son of God, or the Messiah. Honestly, with his daughter in such a precarious position, Jairus would have probably been willing to profess that Jesus was a ham sandwich, if that’s what it would have taken to get him to come heal his daughter, and frankly, in the same situation we’d likely be willing to do the same thing.

At very least, history has given both David and Jairus the respect of telling us their names. Sadly, the men who wrote these stories for us didn’t offer the same degree of respect to the other two people , the women, who we focus on today. We’ve looked through a window observing David’s grief by way of our first reading, and Mark has given us a framed view of Jairus pleading with Jesus to help his little daughter; now he frames another view for us.

As Jesus is on his way to see Jairus’ daughter, we see this woman who had been suffering and in ill health for twelve years. She’d seen a whole hospital’s worth of doctors and bankrupted herself in the process, getting lots of advice and lots of treatments but not any actual improvement; in fact, we’re told she’d only gotten worse. This woman, this one whose name is lost to us, takes control of her own well-being now, working her way through the crowd and somehow pushing through all the others thronging around Jesus at least enough to get a momentary brush of Jesus’ clothing, and after confronting her, Jesus tells her that the faith she exhibited in trusting that Jesus could help her, and doing something about it, has made her whole again, after all those years of suffering.

The fourth person who receives attention the second nameless one – is Jairus’ daughter. A completely innocent player in this whole drama, the one we never hear a single word from, the one with the least power or control over anything. Here, Mark directs our view through one final window, framing one final scene – Jesus and the girl, and her parents, and a small handful of others – Mark isn’t clear whether it was a few of Jesus’ disciples, or some other family members, I suppose it was probably some of both – gathered around her bed as Jesus gently, lovingly holds her hand and said the simple words, “Talitha cum;” “little girl, get up;” the words not in the Greek of Mark’s writing but the Aramaic that was Jesus’ first language, suggesting that whatever else Jesus may or may not have said, he most likely said these exact words, written for posterity, but first recorded to memory, in all probability by someone who had actually been in that room and heard it.

And outrageously enough, she does get up, and while she starts coming to terms with the fact that she’s back in the room and no longer wherever she was just moments earlier, Jesus tells someone to go get her some soup, or maybe some peanut butter and jelly toast, because she must be famished.

People have debated this story since probably it was first told, whether the little girl was really dead or not; whether Jesus actually raised her from the dead or whether she just appeared to be dead. It seems at least that everyone involved in the story believed she was, and no doubt Mark did too as he documented it. But the point remains that whatever a person believes about that, what Jesus did in that room was every bit as much a miracle, because he gave the girl, and Jairus, and all who loved her, new life, new hope, and a new recognition of their interconnectedness. Their sorrow was connected to each other’s sorrow; their joy was connected to each other’s joy. What Jesus said, and did, in that room didn’t just change the little girl’s life, but everyone’s in the room. It seems that Jesus was speaking to the little girl, but not only to her.

Mark frames this view for us, but if we step closer to the window, we can see more of the room within the frame, and maybe we can see that it isn’t only that small group gathered around the bed at all. David is there too, and so is the formerly hemorrhaging woman, and for that matter, Saul and Jonathan are there, too – all of them connected, sharing in this most intimate of human moments, overlaid with this most miraculous of gifts that Jesus gives to all of them. In a very real way, when Jesus told the little girl to get up, and to come into this new realization, this new life, he might just as well have sad *all of you* get up. And we step a bit closer still to the window, and we see even more of the room, and we see still more people are there – and somehow, maybe as if in a dream where time and space bends and twists, it isn’t just the girl’s little room but now it actually goes on forever, and everyone ever born is right there with the little girl and her parents, connected in this moment, gathered around the little girl and her family. All of you, get up, Jesus seems to be saying. All of you. You who are like the little girl, powerless and whose life is being shaped by forces outside of your control. You who are like Jairus, emotionally empty and spent, feeling like you just don’t know how you can keep going as you deal with the illness and suffering of a family member. You who are like David, suffering the deflating, all-consuming gut-punch of having lost the love of your life, regardless of whether they’re the same or opposite sex. All of you – you who are on the top of the world, and you who feel like the whole world is on top of you; you who have deep faith, and you who wonder in your most honest of moments whether religion is all just a con game or a racket. Get up, Jesus says, recognize this life, and this hope that you were designed for, this connectedness that you have with everyone else, great and small. In truth, all of our lives are intertwined, even more intricately and mysteriously than the lives of the people in Crash; and while the premise of shows like Sense 8 and Manifest certainly aren’t the gospel, in one way they aren’t too far from it, either, because we are, in fact, fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist says. We are more magically, mysteriously, gloriously, intentionally connected to one another by our common Creator as the whole family of God. Get up, Jesus says, and recognize this life that you were really meant to know. Life is uncertain, yes, and it will often be hard, and sometimes even scary, but it is also beautiful, and wonderful, and in all of those things, you aren’t going through them alone. God is with you, and when we’re lucky enough to recognize it, so is everyone else. That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s what Jesus was saying in that room. That’s what the church is, at least on its best of days. Get up, he says – there’s a place in the room, at the Table, in the family of God, for all of you.

Thanks be to God.

Five Words

(sermon 6/20/21)

Mark 4:35-41  

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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There was a Facebook meme that showed up on my timeline maybe a week ago that asked, “Four Words that Any Woman Would Love to Have Whispered in Her Ear.” There were hundreds of answers, all of them along the lines of “You’re so beautiful tonight.” “I’ll love you always.” “Will you marry me?” I was in an ornery and funny mood at the time, so I offered a different one: “I lowered the seat.” That was actually my second thought; I first thought that an even more magical whisper would be “I took out the trash;” but that was five words so I had to come up with something else.

Weirdly enough, just a few days later I saw a similar meme that did ask for five words –  “Five Words that Will Ruin Any Vacation:” I thought about it for a moment and then typed “What’s that weird engine noise?” Kay Sherrard saw my comment and offered her own take on the same idea, drawing on some personal experience that she and George had on one trip: “Why is the engine smoking?” With a little thought, you could easily come up with some of you own: “We can’t find your luggage.” “Your boss says come home.” “We’re hijacking you to Cuba;” or maybe even a bit more exotic, “Pirates have boarded the ship!”

I enjoy little challenges like that meme because it’s actually an exercise in reductionist storytelling, and, contrary to what you might think from some of my sermons, I really like the creative challenge of painting a broad mental picture, evoking a much more complex and nuanced story, using just a bare minimum of words.

While today’s familiar gospel text is mad up of a lot more than just five words, some of its key elements actually are conveyed that way, with the fullness, the depth of their content going far beyond their word count.

As Jesus and this little flotilla of fishing boats making their way across the Sea of Galilee to the opposite, Gentile side, the wind kicks up into a chaotic, terrifying situation, as large waves pummel the boats and threaten to capsize them all, far away from the shoreline. And somehow, in the midst of that, we hear that Jesus is sleeping through it all, lying on a cushion in the rear of one of the relatively small boats – he had to have been getting lurched and tossed around pretty badly by the waves, and he almost had to be getting doused with water ad the waves pounded and splashed over the sides. But still, he managed to sleep through it, in spite of the clear danger they were in. It’s here where Jesus’ disciples offer the five words that speak volumes in the major themes in this story. They ask, “Teacher, do you not care?!”

Now, before you point out the obvious, yes, I know their whole comment was longer than that; I can count; but I think these five words are actually the distilled version of the totality of their thoughts and feelings in that moment. “Teacher, do you not care?!”

And once he’s awakened, Jesus offers a simple reply to them, one that can similarly be distilled to just five words: “Have you still no faith?” And then he calms the storm, bringing calm and order out of chaos and confusion and danger; leaving the disciples relieved, to be sure, but also with at least as much concern and anxiety as they wrestled with the implications of what had just happened when they woke Jesus, probably only hoping he’d help them bail out some of the water, but he ends up commanding the water and the wind in the same way that God does in the Genesis accounts of creation.

There might not be any gospel story that we could all, to a person, identify with more than this one. Because we’ve all, in multiple times and situations, faced challenges – very real, often terrifying, maybe sometimes even life-threatening, challenges, that could overwhelm us at least as much as any storm at sea, and being people of faith, looking for God’s presence and assistance, but finding God to be frustratingly silent or absent; as oblivious to our struggles as Jesus was while he was sleeping on the boat, and in those times, we’ve likely all used the same or very similar, five words: “Teacher, do you not care?” “Do we matter to you?” “Can you really help me?” “Are you even really there?”

It’s interesting that in Jesus’ answer to the disciples, when he asks them “Why are you afraid?” he doesn’t tell them that there isn’t anything to be afraid of – there clearly is. But he tells them to place their faith, their trust, in God; placing their fears, and worries, and their anxiety in God’s hands, no matter how uncertain the situation might be. Because the Holy One, seen or unseen, bidden or unbidden, recognized or not, is still present and has promised to hold us in love and care. As we grow in our faith, we see more and more deeply that this is true – that no matter how real the fearful situations are, they can not, do not, will not have the last word.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is often portrayed as being amazed, dumbfounded, annoyed, even downright angry, at how often the disciples seem to be clueless blockheads that always miss the point of what Jesus is saying or doing. And maybe that’s the way this story is meant to sound, too. It’s easy to read that tone into Jesus’ words. But it’s also possible to read his words in a more caring, a more loving tone, the way I tried to read it here this morning. God at creation, Jesus in the boat, Christ in the quiet of our own hearts, says “Have you still no faith?” “Place your trust in me.” “I am at your side.” “You are precious to me.” And to those terrified disciples in the boat or to us as we wonder what the future of our life together in the faith will bring, or as we examine all the contours and stories of our own lives, maybe the most poetic, the most beautiful, the most reassuring five words – maybe the summation of the totality of the gospel itself – “I am with you always.”

Thanks be to God.

What, Are You Crazy?

(sermon 6/6/21)

Mark 3:20-35  

The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

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It was an interesting job the ad agency had landed. The local Country & Western radio station, a long-time familiar spot on the radio dial, wanted to up its game and refresh its image – to become more visible, more memorable, and hopefully attract some newer, younger listeners. The agency’s creative team needed to come up with a new logo, and a simple, to-the-point catchphrase that would stick in people’s minds, and then build a comprehensive advertising and promotional strategy around them.

The plan they came up with would kick off with multiple placements of a television commercial to introduce the new catchphrase. In the commercial a man is sitting in an bare, empty room; other than his chair, the only piece of furniture is a small table with a radio sitting on it. The man is bound up in a straight jacket, while the radio plays various styles of music – Top 40, jazz, rhythm & blues, classical; and with each one the man gets more and more agitated, his face scrunching up in disapproval and even pain, and he wriggles and struggles to get out of the straight jacket. His eyes are wild. A little bead of sweat runs down his forehead as he gets more and more agitated. Finally though, the music changes to Country & Western – and you hear the dulcet tones of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. And with that, the man relaxes. He’s calmed. He smiles, and finally, this “real” music energizes him, and he finds new strength, and he jumps up out of the chair and bursts out of the straight jacket, and as the music comes to a twangy guitar-chord finale, the announcer says, “K95 – Crazy about Country!” And with that, an ad campaign was born.

Unfortunately for the ad agency, it was a short-lived campaign, because almost as soon as the commercials began running, the station started to get complaints about the commercials – saying that the ads reinforced insensitive and incorrect stereotypes of people with mental illness or disabilities; painting them all as crazed, wild-eyed lunatics needing to be physically restrained; and it took people in the opposite direction from forming more accurate, healthy, and constructive attitudes toward mental health issues. The radio station realized that the people complaining had a valid point. They quickly pulled the commercials, and the catchphrase, and came up with a completely new, retooled ad campaign.

The problem of unhealthy, stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness has been with us probably since the beginning of the human race, and as you heard, it’s an element in today’s gospel text. Maybe this particular story would have been a little more appropriate if it landed a couple of weeks earlier in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, since the passage deals with people thinking that Jesus was out of his mind – crazy – or possibly even possessed by a demon, as much mental illness was believed to be in Jesus’ time.

But just what exactly was Jesus doing in this story that made so many people, even his own family, think he’d lost his mind? I mean really, he just seems to be helping people in this story. What’s wrong with that? What’s Jesus doing that draws such a response?

Well, a few things, I suppose. First, by associating with the kind of people who were thronged around him, he was rejecting society’s attitudes about who were “good people” and who were not so good; the traditional norms of who were socially acceptable and who weren’t. Jesus was choosing to associate with those who were sick, those who were assumed to be possessed by demons, those born with physical or mental infirmities – essentially, all those who made supposedly “normal” people uncomfortable, and who were therefore pushed to the margins. These were people whose suffering or difference was often even seen as God’s punishment for something unnatural or sinful or evil about them. These were precisely the people Jesus was not just associating with, and not just associating with, he was actually caring about them; he was saying they were of equal worth in God’s eyes; he was healing them because they were precious, and beloved, not evil.

Another other thing that Jesus does in this story that makes people think he’s lost his mind is that he prioritizes people’s lives, their needs, and caring for them, over cultural, and particularly religious, traditions and dictates, instead of the other way around. He doesn’t disrespect those traditions or throw them out; on the contrary, throughout Jesus’ life, we see him continually and enthusiastically participating in the traditions of his Jewish faith – but he called for those traditions, and by extension any particular religious or cultural traditions, then or now, to be given their proper place. Jesus was teaching that whenever we prioritize following rules over loving and caring for people, and meeting their needs – even when we might be trying to do so with the most sincere, devoted, pious of intentions – we’ve actually missed, and frankly, we’ve abused, the whole point of the rules God gave us with the intention of us flourishing, and the intention of all people knowing a peaceful, just, and abundant life.

What people saw as crazy in Jesus actions was that he cared so much for these people that religion and society cared so little for, that he considered them family – adopted family members, parents, siblings; all part of that “infinitrinity” that is the family of God, the kin-dom of God, that I mentioned last week.

That’s why people thought he’d lost his mind. it didn’t align with the ways of the so-called “real world,” with supposed common sense, with the way that people said things really worked.

Jesus’ actions here point to the reality that if we’re going to follow his lead, there are going to be times when we’re going to have to do some things that many in our society, and even many in our religious structures, will consider crazy, too. Reaching out to hear, and learn from, and care for, and lift up, the people our own culture pushes down or aside. Prioritizing people over profits. Creation over environmental exploitation. The beauty of human diversity, the full range of what it means to be created in the image of God; over racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry and hate; even when it’s embedded in our society and considered acceptable and right, and yes, sometimes, even considered godly.

As I mentioned earlier, today’s gospel would fit in May, Mental Health Awareness Month – but it does also fit pretty well in June, Pride Month, too, when we celebrate, welcome, and affirm LGBTQ+ folk in church and society. In this text, we’re told that when Jesus’ family arrived to take him home, possibly even having to forcibly restrain him in order to do so, people told him his family was outside, and without dismissing his birth family, he gestured to all the outcast, socially unacceptable people gathered around him and he said that these were all just as much his family, too. One of the all-time great gay anthems, one that always gets a lot of play this month, is the Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family,” and in this gospel text, Jesus, as he surrounds himself with all those pushed down, pushed aside by society, says, “Yeah – we really are.”

So if we’re going to follow Jesus, and sometimes we’re going to need to act in ways that others might consider crazy, and we might even take some heat for it, as Jesus did, this might be a good time for us to ask ourselves: are we doing anything, particularly as a matter of our faith, that the world – that people we know – maybe friends, close friends – maybe even close family members, people we love – might consider crazy?

If we can’t think of anything like that, the odds are pretty good that we’re probably missing some opportunity that God is placing in front of us to courageously live and act as the people of the kin-dom of God.

I know that doing some of those kinds of things can seem risky, maybe even scary. Maybe we might think them crazy ourselves. But the good news embedded in all this is that through Christ, God did what the world might consider the craziest thing of all – to leave the beauty and perfection of eternity to dwell in this world, which is filled with pain and suffering and real evil, and that can often be anything but beautiful and perfect. And God did it in order to live among us, and as one of us, in order to love us, and to show us this crazy, eternal way, this alternative to life as the world defines it. And through this crazy act, God not only shows this life to us, but through the Spirit, actually empowers us to live in this different, supposedly crazy way. Our good news is that through Christ, we’re released from our own straight jackets; we’ve been liberated; freed and enabled to live in this way that Jesus modeled and called us toward.

At least, that’s what I get out of this passage. Or maybe I’m just crazy.

Thanks be to God.