Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Do not fear; only believe: A Sermon for 5 Pentecost

 Preached at St. Thomas Thomasville, June 27, 2021, the day after my diaconal ordination. Text is Mark 5: 21-43

For more than thirty years, I have been a member of a theater troupe in Tallahassee. The Mickee Faust Club, is best known for writing original skits and songs that poke fun at everything and anything that has a pulse or a point of view.

But the company’s real trademark is that it provides people who otherwise might never be seen in society a place to shine on stage.

While most of the pieces are humorous, Faust has often taken on doing serious projects. One of those is the periodic workshop-to-stage undertaking called “Actual Lives.” Participants get a prompt…something like…”write about an obsessive habit”…they’re given time to write out a short couple of paragraphs which they share with the group. These initial musings then get worked on and developed into a piece that the person presents as part of a performance.

The most recent Actual Lives project this past spring featured an African-American woman who I will call “Dominique.” She shared that she had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse, which left her feeling broken for most of her life. Then one day, when she was in her forties, she saw one of her friends reading the Bible. The friend talked with her about Jesus and encouraged her to start doing Bible study. And the story that struck her the most was the one we heard this morning from Mark about the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

It is a really powerful story, and for Dominique it planted the thought in her head that maybe, just maybe, this was something that could heal her, too.

So while she was in church, and her pastor was preaching and moving about in the nave, Dominique pretended to bend down and tie her shoe. As the pastor moved by her, Dominique reached out her hand to touch the hem of her robe. The pastor felt that tug. She stopped her preaching, looked at Dominique, and—clearly having a sense of what was going on here—the pastor said, “Your faith has healed you.” And Dominique said in that moment she felt her heart was healed…as she said, “It was no longer sealed in bricks. No longer wrapped in barbed wire. I had a new heart and I was able to love again. I was able to function again.”

A new heart.

Chains that bound her removed.

A woman Renewed. Restored.

Dominique’s story is a present-day testimony of the experience we heard in this gospel of the unnamed woman who had faith that there was enough power in Jesus that even touching the hem of his robe could make a difference in her suffering. Dominque identified with this woman who in her own First Century time also was broken. Her excessive and constant bleeding meant she was always in violation of the Levitical purity laws of her day, so she should not have even been in the crowd…let alone near Jesus.

This unnamed woman in Mark’s gospel was an outsider among her own Jewish population and they were already living as a minority under Roman imperialism.

Biblical scholar Ched Myers notes that the fact that she had spent all of her money on physicians who couldn’t cure her is another clue that this poor woman is about as down and out as you can get.

But even with all the odds stacked against her, something inside her made her persist. Something told her that if she could just touch Jesus, just the bottom of his robe, maybe that would take away this pain, this bleeding, this scourge that was keeping her apart from her community. And as Jesus felt that need tugging at him and looked upon this desperate person, he noted that indeed…her faith…that mustard-seed sized faith…had healed her. And her healing was so immediate that it left her trembling.

She probably never forgot those twelve years of agony. But those years of suffering would no longer be the definition of who she is.

Now…we can easily get lost in the awe of this moment in the story because it is such a great and powerful part of the Gospel. However, there’s more…much more going on here.

As my New Testament professor Kathy Grieb describes it, this Gospel text is a typical Markan sandwich. So we’ve been looking at the meat of the story, but there are two slices of bread on either side that are of great significance. And that’s the story of Jairus’ daughter.

Remember how this whole episode starts: Jesus has gotten out of the boat on “the other side”. Scholars suppose the location to be west of the Sea of Galilee. He’s approached by Jairus, who is described as a leader of the synagogue. Lawrence Wills notes that “leader of the synagogue” doesn’t mean that Jairus is a religious leader; he’s more like one of the pillars of the community, a prominent person with lots of influence. A man who has standing and therefore not only does he get to have a name in this story; he can move to the front of the line without fear or doubt. Jairus begs Jesus on behalf of his daughter to come quickly and lay his hands on her to heal her. And Jesus agrees.

But then here comes this anonymous woman who is a nobody and interrupts the mission to heal Jairus’ daughter. And because Jesus stops to meet her need—indeed makes this nobody into a somebody by calling her “Daughter”--we hear that Jairus’ daughter has died.

Now, Jesus knows the daughter isn’t really dead and tells Jairus “Do not fear, only believe.”

Believe, Jairus.

Don’t despair, Jairus.

Have faith, Jairus.

The people at Jairus’ house are weeping and wailing, and when Jesus says, “The girl’s not dead, she’s sleeping” they thought he was joking.

But restoration, rejuvenation, and renewal are not a laughing matter for Jesus. He told the naysayers to leave, and kept the girl’s parents and his inner circle of disciples with him.

“Do not fear, only believe”

Jesus took the girl’s hand, spoke to her, and this daughter…presumed to be dead… came alive.

Make no mistake here: these two daughters are about more than miraculous healing stories.

Mark’s Gospel is about showing how the last will be first.

Jesus was on his way to a house of power and privilege in the Jewish community, but he stops to heal and restore the health of a woman with nothing and who the systems of that society had failed.

It’s not that he won’t heal the ones who are the haves…but he will not do so until the have nots have been lifted up….the valley raised and the mountain lowered…so that everything is equal and equitable.

This was Jesus’ mission…and this is our work to bring about societal equity.

This past year forced most everyone to go into a pandemic pause. And that pause laid bare the realities which face those who are the poorest, the most marginally employed and in the most vulnerable professions.

Some people simply could not work from home.

And they put their lives and those of their families at risk so those of us who could work from home would still have a hospital or a grocery store with packaged meat when we needed it.

As we now slowly come out of the pandemic and attempt to find our way back to this thing we call “normal”…we cannot take anyone for granted nor is it right to leave them struggling to make ends meet. Too many people have died for us to ignore the inequities that continue to put those who are last at the back of the line.

That’s not the way of Jesus, the way of Love.

The way of Love calls us to acts of courage and having enough faith…like Dominique, like the hemorrhaging woman, like Jairus… that when things in society or in our lives are broken, we have a God ready to meet us, heal us, help us and empower us to repair the breaches.

We have a God who seeks not our death, but desires us to live and be made whole.

We have a God who will stop to help the nobody and will still be able to help the somebody in need…no matter the race, the ethnicity, or the identity.

And we are to respond in the same way in this community.

We must keep moving in that Godward direction of making this world equal and equitable for all people.

Is this hard work? YES!

Do not fear, only believe.