Living Without Fear – Proper 8 (B) – 2015

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27Psalm 1302 Corinthians 8:7-15Mark 5:21-43

There was something in the woman’s immense faith, a total conviction that after years of suffering, she had found the cure in the person of Jesus, and the energy of that faith was more powerful than all the shoving and pulling of the crowd. One touch of utter faith calls forth the creative power of the divine, and healing occurs.

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Today’s sermon comes from Katerina K. Whitley who is the author of Seeing for Ourselves (Morehouse, 2002).  She lives and writes in Valle Crucis, near Boone, N.C.

Living without fear, 5 Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – July 1, 2012

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Today’s readings reinforce for us the undeniable reality that suffering is not unique to us or to our times, and that we know very little about the ultimate meaning of death. Wars, hunger, economic disasters abound and bring us to despair; personal illness, pain, and loss in our families cause us to lose hope. Sometimes we feel as if we are alone in our pain; we ask, Why me?

And then we read of David’s immense sorrow at the death of his friend Jonathan; we read of Paul’s urgent call for help for the starving in Jerusalem, and hear Jairus’ cry, “O Jesus come touch my daughter so she may healed,” and we recognize that we live in a world that has always contained profound tragedy and that our experiences are not unique. We also are reminded that despite much suffering and destruction, plagues, and starvation, human beings continue to survive and to multiply.

This kind of endurance gives us hope in a world where the predictors of doom arrive in every generation to howl in apocalyptic fear. Some do so out of a tragic misunderstanding of Scripture; others because it suits their purposes, or because of idolatry. It is with astonishment that people of faith hear that 2012 was predicted as the year for the destruction of the world, and that there are youngsters and even adults among us who are terribly afraid because of such predictions; they listen to those who have no faith in a loving God, and not having been taught the truth, allow fear to rob them of hope.

Listen to the contrast in the words of the psalmist:

I wait for the Lord, my soul
waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for
the morning,
more than those who watch for
the morning.

This is the balanced perspective and focus of a person of faith: wait on the Lord. Living and faith both require patience – wait on the Lord. Fear is the result of having no one greater than ourselves to look to. Waiting on the Lord takes away fear.

St. Paul adds another dimension to this waiting – acting in faith. Despite his apparent conviction that the Lord Jesus would return soon, Paul does not hesitate to look after the living. In his great effort to feed the starving in Jerusalem, he is not hesitant to ask for help from all those he had brought to Christ. He is not one to say, “Ignore the poor, ignore the hungry, because soon we all will be taken up.” He knows that life is a gift of God, that it is good, and that the bodies of children and adults must be fed. St. Paul knows what matters because he compares everything to the ultimate gift instead of to apocalyptic fears: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Listening to Paul helps things fall into place, helps us achieve a mental and spiritual balance when we focus on the redemptive work of God through Jesus Christ.

And finally, let us look at Jesus. His two encounters in today’s story, one with a sick woman and the other with a dying girl in Capernaum came at a time when Jesus was at his most popular. Hundreds of people followed him wherever he went. The scene is riveting.

He has just arrived by boat and is immediately surrounded by people who are in need of hearing words of hope, by those who are sick and need to be healed, and by the curious. A man, obviously important in his city and synagogue, runs to him, falls on his knees and begs for the life of his child. Jesus does not hesitate. He leaves the crowds to go with this father in need. But as they walk quickly together through the curious and the adoring, a stooped woman approaches and touches his cloak. Not a big deal. He is surrounded by so many people that she is sure no one will notice; she is convinced that the touch will heal her, and it does. Simple enough.

What is unusual about this story is that Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” When the disciples express amusement and surprise at his question, another reporter of this story tells us that Jesus responded that he felt power going out of him. What a remarkable reaction.

There was something in the woman’s immense faith, a total conviction that after years of suffering, she had found the cure in the person of Jesus, and the energy of that faith was more powerful than all the shoving and pulling of the crowd. One touch of utter faith calls forth the creative power of the divine, and healing occurs.

And all this happens very quickly, while Jesus is rushing to meet another person’s need. The connection of Jesus to the source of life and love, to the one he called Father, is so intense and unbroken that it is like electricity: Jairus plugs into it and receives hope, and the woman plugs into it and receives healing. Nothing else matters and nothing interferes with Jesus’ purpose. Fame does not distract him, physical exhaustion does not hinder him, and the clamoring of the crowd with its multitude of desires is shut out. Two people with specific needs have reached out to him and he knows that he can help them. He does.

In the following scene in the little girl’s room, death has already arrived and the professional mourners have gathered. There is probably a great deal of discussion and questioning going on. Why is Jairus still bringing Jesus to the house when he has been informed that his child is dead? What good can the healer do now? Why doesn’t he leave the man alone? Jairus needs to concentrate on his family now; the time for proper mourning has come.

But Jesus turns it all upside down, as he is known to do. He turns to the sad father and says the words that we all need to hear over and over again, “Do not fear. Only believe.” So Jairus continues to lead him to his house, which is overflowing with crying neighbors. Jesus’ words shock them. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he tells them. Instead of asking, “What does he know that we don’t know about death?” they laugh at him. He seems to be the only one who is free from the terrible bondage of fear; over and over again he commands all who follow him not to be afraid.

There is so much fear in this country and in the world today: fear of “the other,” fear of losing a job and not being able to pay the mortgage, fear of crazy people with guns, fear of not succeeding, oh, so many fears. How do we confront them?

The psalmist’s answer is to wait on the Lord; St. Paul’s answer is to remember what Jesus did for us; and Jesus’ answer is to be whole. This wholeness, “holiness” in theological terms, is possible only when we are focused on the one who brought us to new life with a trust so complete that it takes away fear, even fear of death.

“Who touched my clothes?” And we fall on our knees and confess, “We touched you, Lord, for we are afraid.” And then he says to us, “Your faith has made you well, healed of the evil that swirls around you, free of the fear that is being proclaimed in the public square, released from the need to squander your energies in things that do not matter.”

So, healed like the woman who had been sick for many years, brought to new life like the daughter of Jairus, we get up from our knees, listen when he has says, “Give her something to eat,” and approach his table in gratitude, free from fear.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is the author of Seeing for Ourselves (Morehouse, 2002), and lives and writes in Valle Crucis, near Boone, N.C.

Death has always been a question, 4 Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – 2009

June 28, 2009

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Psalm 130; or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24 and Lamentations 3:21-33 or Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”

What do you think about that verse from the Wisdom of Solomon?

If God didn’t make death and doesn’t delight in the death of the living, then why do people we love die, and who thought up heaven and hell? Why do our loved ones or good people or poor people or children die?

If there were no death, God would be a lot easier to figure out, don’t you think? Then God might be only the completely loving God who takes care of us, heals our sickness. A nice God, one who watches benignly from above as we live to be – what? – a million, a billion? Oh wait, now this gets to be confusing. If there were no death, we’d have to rethink the whole living thing.

So, what do we do?

First, we need to go back and consider where this passage from Lamentations comes from. Fortunately, we don’t read the scriptures as coming literally from the mouth of God into the ear of Moses, or any other writer of Biblical texts. These passages came from the hands of human beings just like you and me. The writers didn’t have magic powers to be able to probe God’s mind. They wrote from their own life experiences and an understanding of the culture and situations they found themselves and their people in at the time. We say inspired, we don’t say dictated.

And this is the beauty of scripture. The books of the Old and New Testaments were included in the canon of scripture because they, out of all the writings of those particular times, best commented on the connection of God to God’s people. These books were the ones used by the communities of those eras as helpful commentaries on how God worked in people’s lives. The writers were most likely very holy, thoughtful, devout people. They were probably very faithful to their prayers and so were able to listen to the inspiration of God. But they were human and had human questions and concerns.

Death has always been a question – especially the death of the young. If God loves us so much, why do we die? The writers of Lamentations and Jairus from our gospel probably wondered this. Maybe it’s because we don’t really know what’s on the other side. We have only God’s word of eternal life in union with God as promised especially by Jesus to hold on to.

The Book of Wisdom tells us that heaven is a place where tears are no more, neither crying nor sighing. The dead are in the hand of God. But what does that mean to us? Have you ever really thought about it?

In our mortal lives we don’t have a good image of what that means. Of course, we have those nice little carvings of a child leaning into the palm of a huge hand. The tenderness of that image gives us some idea, but there must be more. What we might do then is when we’re led into considering death as we do especially when we hear gospel stories like the daughter of Jairus or the raising of Lazarus, is to let our minds and hearts be just open to taking in our own images of what we see in the stories. We might consider the beauty of the church building around us – the music that stirs us – the image of a loving and faithful God that carries us into each day. Somehow all of this may be part of that place we call heaven. God does love us so much that our eternal life will be peace and love and joy. No one’s who’s ever had a near death experience has ever come back and said it was awful, have they? So, we must trust.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why the death of others so often hurts us so much. In an alternative Old Testament reading for today, David mourns the death of both Saul and Jonathan. And that’s a bit odd, don’t you think, when Saul gave David such a horrid time of it? Surely David loved Jonathan like a brother, but in their deaths, David mourned both. He cried:

“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.”

There is part of our answer. We are the ones who mourn. Those we love are no longer visible to us. We can’t touch them or see their love for us. If we believe what we know and if we really trust God as we claim to in our prayers, hymns, and worship, then we know that they are in a good place – a place where they are not suffering but are whole and joyful and intimately united with the God we pray to. Our hearts are broken. They break not only for our own loved ones, but our hearts break when we hear about genocide, when we remember times in our history such as the Holocaust or times in our current day when people still die for their faith and the faith of others. We think of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyr of El Salvador – we think of our most beloved friends and our hearts break.

But – but – we must believe as many writers and holy people have told us, that God weeps with us, too. When the writer of Lamentations says, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living,” we must remember that this writer is speaking from a human understanding. In one way, that writer is right – God didn’t make death. Death is a natural part of being a human being with a finite life on a finite planet. Suffering, sickness, pain, and evil is a part of being a human living in the natural world.

Death happens, and as we consider death on a Sunday like this when we’re not involved right now in a requiem service, we can look at it perhaps more objectively. We can ask our questions and think quietly about them.

Maybe we can come to a deeper trust that the second part of that verse is true: “God weeps with us, too.” God weeps because we weep. God is there to comfort us as we weep. There’s nothing wrong with pouring out our deep sadness as the loss of someone we love or at an evil that’s been committed in our world, but we are not alone.

Another thing Jesus was offering us in his raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead was the promise of the resurrection. As humans we need visual images to help us understand. The idea of finally all being together in eternal life, rising from our own death, is hard. This helps us a little. This and the other stories of Jesus raising people from the dead give us an insight into resurrection.

It might also give us an understanding that the dead are indeed still with us. They are spirits, both Wisdom and Revelation tell us, but they are in our hearts as God is in our hearts. We may not be able to see or touch, but they are with God, they are with us.

God is love. God is with us in every emotion, in every part of our lives. We pray for the dead not because they need it, but because it helps us – it keeps them close to us, it touches our memories.

As it says in 2 Samuel: “Beloved and lovely! In life and in death we are not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

May we see past scandal and welcome grace, Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 8 (B) – July 2, 2006

(RCL) Psalm 130 or 30; 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 or Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24, Lamentations 3:23-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43 

Maybe you saw the movie “The Godfather, Part II.” In that film, the Mafia godfather, Don Corleone, goes to Rome to negotiate a business deal with the Vatican. He is not interested simply in business; he wants to gain respectability.

There in Rome he meets with Cardinal Lamberto, who asks if he would like to make his confession. At first Corleone refuses. He makes a little joke about how it would take too long. However, he wants the cardinal’s help, and senses something redemptive in his presence. So Corleone begins his confession.

First he tells of his marital infidelities. Then he admits ordering the murder of his own brother. Overwhelmed by the burden of his guilt, he breaks down and starts to sob. Cardinal Lamberto pronounces the words of absolution, then says, “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”

Some may find this story scandalous. Here we have a career criminal, an adulterer, cold-blooded enough to plot the killing of his own brother, and yet he’s said to be forgiven, redeemed. Some may say that what’s called for here is not mercy, but retribution, revenge, a settling of scores. Let the Mafia man taste some of his own medicine!

Yet if there’s a scandal here, it’s the scandal of Christianity. Behind Cardinal Lamberto’s words is the blood of Jesus, God’s Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world.

And the Holy Spirit is hard at work in this encounter with Don Corleone. The Holy Spirit cracks open the hard heart of the Mafia man, and gives him tears of repentance for the horrors he has committed. The scene of confession becomes a resurrection morning. Don Corleone is raised from the death brought by his sins into the new life Christ offers him.

Some may still call this a scandal. But I would suggest to you, something of a scandal always happens when grace is at work.

Consider today’s gospel. Jesus raises from the dead a 12-year-old girl. We’re not given her name, but she’s the daughter of Jairus, a big man in town.

Jairus makes a fool of himself in public, begging Jesus to help his sick child, insisting that he can restore her to health.

Jesus goes with Jairus, but on the way they encounter people coming to meet them who report that the girl is dead. In the face of this terrible news, Jesus invites Jairus not to fear, but simply to believe.

When they arrive at the house, the professional mourners are there already, doing what they do when someone has died: they wail, they beat their chests, pull out their hair, and rip their clothing. They ritualize the final separation that death brings. Their frenzied actions are void of hope.

The crowd laughs at Jesus when he insists that the girl is not dead. He goes to where she is lying, accompanied only by the three disciples that are with him and the girl’s parents.

There Jesus takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up. She gets up immediately and starts to walk about. Jesus tells them to give her something to eat. After all, she is twelve years old — still a growing girl.

Do you hear scandal in that story? What Jesus does seems to be nothing other than a compassionate response to the girl and her father. But those around Jesus must be shocked. For what does he do with the girl everybody believes is dead? He takes her by the hand! He touches a corpse!

According to God’s law in the Hebrew scriptures, touching a corpse renders a person unclean. The people around Jesus are shocked, much as some people today may be shocked when Cardinal Lamberto absolves Don Corleone. The people around Jesus believe that purity must be maintained, and they have Bible texts available to quote in their favor.

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus giving some orders. He tells those with him to get the girl something to eat, and he commands them, strictly orders them, not to let anyone know what has happened to Jairus’ daughter.

We can be confident that the girl gets to eat. We can be equally confident that the other order is not obeyed, and that the story of Jairus’ daughter spreads like fire through dry tinder. Would you keep such a story to yourself?

Why then does Jesus issue this order? Why does he follow up many of his miracles with the insistence that people keep mum about them? Does he really expect to be obeyed?

It seems to me that he doesn’t want to be labeled simply as someone who comes into town and does a bunch of neat miracles. He doesn’t want to be known as simply the go-to guy when somebody’s sick, or you need bread and fish multiplied.

Instead, he wants people to know him because of something yet to happen, that work of grace more scandalous than any other, when he will die on a cross of shame and be raised in glory by the Father. That scandal will bring grace, not just to one person or a few, but to all creation. It will mean not only new life for Jairus’ daughter, dead from some illness, but new life for Don Corleone, who, spiritually speaking, has been for a long time a walking corpse.

We are here today to celebrate this greatest of all God’s scandals: the cross and resurrection. Some people simply cannot stomach it. They want a world more orderly, more fair than that, and in a way their desire makes sense. But we are given instead a world of undeserved mercies, where fear gives way to belief, and small decencies are scandalized by the generosity of God. Yet in this world we quite readily become fixated on scandal and we overlook grace.

We see a hapless victim dying on a cross. God sees the lamb victorious over evil.

We see a law-breaking rabbi who touches a corpse. God sees a once-dead girl now dead no longer and restored to her father’s arms.

We see a Mafia godfather, a man of steely heart and vicious life. God sees one of his children, hard heart now broken, tears flooding forth, now dead to his past and given a fresh start.

So often what we see is scandal; what God sees is grace.

Can we learn to recognize grace when it happens, sometimes in front of our faces? Can we be party to scandal that may shock the decent, but release the power of resurrection?

Each of us is on the receiving end of reconciliation. Christ always addresses us through words like those of Cardinal Lamberto: “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”

Christ always risks ridicule and misunderstanding by lifting us from death like Jairus’ daughter, and restoring us to life and to relationship.

Christ always dares to make present to us his most audacious scandal, the cross and the empty tomb. His grace comes to us free, but its price for him is the cross. For us he bears shame, abandonment, and death. He does it for us. He does it for all.

One further scandalous demonstration of grace to add to these others: Christ makes each recipient of reconciliation also a minister of reconciliation. His audacious expectation is that those who have been forgiven will forgive; those who know new life will offer new life to others. Christ’s expectation is audacious because in this world, grace appears as scandal, mercy appears unjust and leaves us uncomfortable.

The time comes for each of us when we can be a minister of God’s audacious grace if we are willing to weather the scandal.

It may be a matter of defiling ourselves, appearing to others as impure by society’s standards.

It may mean announcing to a hardened reprobate that his sins, her sins, do not exceed God’s ability to forgive.

It may mean making room for undeserved mercies for ourselves and for others, understanding that all are sinners and all are redeemed.

May we recognize the opportunity when it is placed before us. May we see past scandal and welcome grace.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest, writer, and teacher. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002).