Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 1, 2018a

Lessons:

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

Psalm 30

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Mark 5:21-43

 

Today, Mark gives us a story about holy interruption. Or maybe I should pluralise that: Today, Mark gives us a story about holy interruptions. I count no fewer than six interruptions. Maybe there are more. With each interruption, I am going to suggest a possible lesson. Not the only lesson, but a possible one.

Interruption Number One. Jesus crosses the sea to the other side and there he encounters a crowd. Jesus before a crowd; if you have spent any amount of time reading the Bible then you know this story well enough to be able to predict what will come next. This is the moment when Jesus will begin to tell parables, to cast out demons, to feed the hungry, to heal. But Jesus is interrupted. Interrupted by Jairus, by a leader of the synagogue, a man of status and power. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs.

Please.

Please. My little girl is at the point of death. Come lay your hands on her so that she may be made well.

And so Jesus goes.

A possible lesson. It Richard Rohr who says: Jesus always goes towards the pain. Healing is his priority. Being with the suffering is always his priority. Jesus is not a harried bank teller or an overscheduled professional, too busy to get you into his day planner. When you and I say to Jesus, Come with me, I am hurting, or Come with me, the one I love is hurting, Jesus’ answer is always Yes.

As Jesus walks towards Jairus’ house, the crowd follows and grows and presses in him. Zoom in the camera on a woman. For twelve years – a number heavy in symbolism, think of the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles – the woman has endured much under many physicians. Like many people in America today, she has been bankrupted by healthcare costs. She has spent all that she has on doctors’ bills, but has gotten no better, only worse.

She touches Jesus’ garment.

And Jesus stops.

Interruption Number Two.

Who touched me? he says. It is an absurd question. Jesus is in the middle of a crowd, this is a scene like trying to get out of a stadium after a football match, he is pressed into by people on his every side. But Jesus notices the power go out of him.

A possible lesson. If we take it seriously, this moment in the story has a pretty shocking takeaway. We are used to the formulation Jesus saves, Jesus heals, Jesus forgives. We are used to a formulation in which the name “Jesus” is followed by a verb, in which has agency, in which he chooses to do good works. In this story, there is a startling absence of choice on Jesus’ part. The woman is healed even though Jesus didn’t choose it. He didn’t even notice her before she touched his cloak. But she is healed nonetheless.

I have heard theologians say – and there is a double negative coming up here, so listen closely – that God cannot not forgive. God, who is love, always forgives. Forgiveness is who God is.

Maybe Jesus cannot not heal.

Let’s stay in this moment for Interruption Number Three, maybe the most obvious interruption of them all. The woman touches Jesus’ cloak, or as Sam Cooke once sang, she touches the hem of his garment. And instantly the hemorrhage stops, the flow of blood is stopped.

A possible lesson. I’m least sure about this one, but let’s try it out together. Could the hemorrhage, the blood be a symbol of violence? Just like you and me, the woman is a member of a collective, a crowd, a culture, a tribe, a country. And there are times when the tribe to which we belong engages in cruelty and violence, when we are implicated in that cruelty and violence even if we do not participate directly. The confession that we are saying together in the season of Pentecost, right now, goes like this:

We repent of the evil that enslaves us,

the evil we have done,

and the evil done on our behalf.

Sometimes morality, sometimes faith, means stepping out of our tribe. Sometimes it means risking setting aside the privilege and safety and anonymity that comes of remaining in the crowd. Sometimes morality and faith requires us to risk reaching out to Jesus. Sometimes that is the only thing that will stop the bloodshed.

Interruption Number Four. The woman is healed, the woman steps out of the crowd, and full of fear and trembling, she falls before Jesus.

And Jesus does not say to her, Glad that I could help. Nor does he say, It was nothing. Nor does he say, Don’t thank me, thank my Dad. Jesus says:

Daughter, your faith has made you well.

A Possible Lesson. Somehow, faith itself has the capacity to make the woman well, faith itself is healing. Now, I want to be careful here. I don’t mean that if you believe hard enough or well enough you will stop having cancer and start being rich. That is destructive nonsense. It is destructive nonsense which here in America we know by the name of the Prosperity Gospel. It is a heresy that makes God into a used-car salesman, selling health and wealth and a ticket into heaven in return for the payment of our belief. What I mean is something more mysterious, harder to quantify than that. What I mean is that there is healing in faith itself.

The theologian James Alison says that we often misunderstand faith. That we make it about frantically following rules, about creating borders, about calling out people who are doing the wrong things, who are believing the wrong things, about feeling terribly guilty. But faith, Allison says, is actually about relaxing. Faith is about being with God, being with someone whom we trust, with someone who knows us absolutely and, as Mr. Rogers used to say, likes us just the way that we are.

That sounds like healing to me. Your faith has made you well.

Interruption Number Five. Jesus stops and he talks to the woman. I have children, I cannot even imagine how anxious Jairus is getting right now. Picture Jairus as Jesus stops his progress and turns to talk to this person who has fallen down before him. Picture Jairus dancing from one foot to another, his fists unclenching and unclenching, picture him whispering under his breath, “Come on! Jesus, come on!”

A Possible Lesson. There is a scandal here. A man of power and wealth is made to wait for an impoverished woman. A woman, what’s more, whose hemorrhage, whose flow of blood makes her ritually unclean. What is being interrupted here – by Jesus, by the woman to whom he gives his full attention – is not just Jesus’ journey to Jairus’ house. What is being interrupted is patriarchy, it is economic privilege, it is a societal system that values some human beings more than others. In this instant, Jesus and the woman embody what Jesus will say elsewhere: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Interruption Number Six. Some people come from Jairus’ house and, in what makes a case for being the cruelest two sentences ever spoken in scripture, they say, Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?

But Jesus says to Jairus, Be not afraid. Believe.

And he goes to Jairus’ home where Jairus’ little girl lies on the bed, surrounded by mourners. Jesus asks why they are weeping, says that she is not dead but sleeping.

And they laugh at him.

Jesus puts them all outside. (I love the brevity of that sentence. What words or actions do you suppose Jesus uses to put the laughing mourners outside?) And he says to the girl:

Get up.

And she does.

A Possible Lesson. When we are with Jesus, even death is interrupted. This is the lesson of his life. It is the lesson of the cross, it is the lesson of then empty tomb.

A short story interrupted no fewer than six times. Each interruption takes us further into possibility, into faith, into compassion, into love. Each interruption takes us into resurrection. May Jesus interrupt your life and mine in the same way.

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51-62

 

 

Former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has been lampooned at some length for the 2002 press conference during which he spoke of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” But while Rumsfeld may have expressed himself in a somewhat goofy or awkward fashion, the idea that he was getting at is actually an important one. These three categories of knowledge really do exist, and becoming aware of them – especially the final one – is enormously helpful in understanding ourselves, understanding the world around us, and understanding scripture.

Known knowns are perhaps what we think of most often when we speak of knowledge. This is the stuff that we are aware of, that we have access to, that we can use. Rudimentary arithmetic fits into this category for most of us, as does speaking and reading our native language, as does riding a bicycle or driving a car or operating a telephone. We probably spend less time thinking about known unknowns, although there are contexts in which they are inescapable: the couple of times I have travelled in Europe, I was highly aware that English is my only language, and every time I get on an ice rink, I am reminded that, even though I grew up in Canada, I really don’t know how to skate.

Unknown unknowns are what really fascinate me. Here are the instances in which we don’t even realise our own ignorance. Rumsfeld was speaking of a geopolitical or military context, but we don’t need to go that big to encounter this phenomenon. I suspect all of us have had the experience of immediately and effortlessly noticing something about another person that they don’t notice about themselves – and even more alarmingly, the experience of someone immediately and effortlessly noticing something about us of which we were entirely unaware. I have spent my whole life, for instance, being surprised when people describe me as “quiet” – it is only lately that I have come to accept that “quiet” must genuinely be how I read to most folks. And my friend Lauren – as generous and accepting and loving a person as I know – tells the story of more than one classmate coming out to her in college, of saying, “Lauren, I need to tell you something: I’m gay.” Lauren had to make herself say: “That’s wonderful, thank you for telling me. Do you have a boyfriend?” Instead of what she was thinking, which was, “I’ve known that for years.”

To read scripture is to encounter unknown unknowns constantly. Most of us, without realising it, bring a suitcase-full of unexamined assumptions to this holy book. Some of these assumptions are kind of comical or charming. Every Christmas and Epiphany, for instance, we hear Matthew tell us the story of the Wise Men coming to visit the baby Jesus, and we automatically picture three of these men on top of their camels. Except that the text is entirely silent on the question of how many Wise Men there are: there could very well be fifteen Wise Men gathered around the manger. (I’ve mentioned this to folks in the past and actually seen people open their Bibles to double check. “Three” is so firmly planted in our heads that its absence from the text is almost startling.) Similarly, Luke tells us the story of Zacchaeus, who “was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” As Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to see better, we assume that it is Zacchaeus who is short. But actually, Luke’s grammar works just as well if it is Jesus who is short.

Some of our other assumptions or blind spots about scripture are less funny and more problematic. And I want to suggest that, in a lot of these instances, our unknown unknowns about the Bible heavily overlap with our unknown unknowns about ourselves.

So. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. He sends messengers ahead of him, they enter a village full of Samaritans to make ready for Jesus. But they don’t receive Jesus. John and James – two brothers, the sons of Zebedee – ask if they should call down fire from heaven and kill everyone in the village. And Jesus rebukes them.

That’s an intense story and a brief story and a simple story, right? Well maybe. But drawing on the work of a theologian by the name of Paul Nuechterlein, I’d like to suggest that there is a significant unknown unknown hanging out right in the middle of this passage. Nuechterlein asks the question:

In verse 53, where we find the words, “they did not receive him,” who is “they”

Nuechterlein says that he has opened up every commentary that he can find on Luke and that 100% of these commentaries tackle this passage with the assumption that “they” are the Samaritans. Sometimes this assumption is even cemented into a printed Bible and magnified, so that this section is entitled something like, “The Samaritans Reject Jesus,” although “Reject” is a vastly more loaded and judgmental turn of phrase than “Did not receive.” (If you show up at a friend’s house unannounced and he says, “It’s not a good time. Could you come back tomorrow?” your friend has not received you. If, on the other hand, your friend starts swearing and throwing rocks at you, your friend has rejected you.)

Nuechterlein invites us to wonder: What if “they” are not the Samaritans, but rather, are the messengers whom Jesus has sent ahead? Listen again:

“…they (the messengers) entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they (the messengers) did not receive him…”

Luke – the book from which our Gospel this Sunday comes – also contains one of the most famous parables in all of scripture: the parable known as the Good Samaritan. Indeed, the Good Samaritan appears in the very next chapter of Luke, Chapter 10; we’ll read it here in church in two weeks’ time. If you have heard a sermon or two on the Good Samaritan, you will know that Jesus builds this parable on a spectacular reversal of expectations. For many or most of Jesus’ followers, Samaritans are untrustworthy foreigners, maybe even contemptible and vile. But Jesus makes the Samaritan into the one who stops and helps the wounded man. The one you loathe, Jesus says: he’s the hero of my story.

If Nuechterlein is right, then what we hear today in Chapter 9 anticipates what we will hear in Chapter 10. These messengers go ahead into the Samaritan town, but because the messengers have not received Jesus – because the messengers don’t get the Gospel, because they believe that you can both follow Jesus and engage in exclusion and bigotry and ostracism, because they believe that Jesus backs them up in their prejudice – they are incapable of connecting with the villagers. They are stopped by their hatred. John and James are in the very same headspace when, with terrifying casualness, they suggest murdering everyone in the village: men, women, and children alike. If Jesus hadn’t been there to rebuke them, they might very well have gone through with it.

Now, a few minutes ago, I suggested to you that our unknown unknowns around scripture overlap with our unknown unknowns around ourselves – that the stuff that we can’t see about the Bible is the very same stuff that we can’t see about our own hearts. I want to suggest that every human being – you and I, all of us – has acted and perhaps is acting right now like the disciples in this story. We exclude and we judge and we even hate. And a lot of the time, we call our exclusion and our judgment and our hate being Christian.

Once again, this kind of behaviour is really obvious to spot when we see it in other people. For most of us gathered in this church, it could not be any clearer that the vilification of Muslims or GLBTQ folk or immigrants is incompatible with the Gospel, that folks who engage in this kind of behavior and call themselves Christians have wildly misunderstood who Jesus is and who he is calling his followers to be.

But before we start feeling too great about ourselves, consider how we may talk, consider the casual contempt that we may feel, for people who vote differently than we do or people who have different feelings about gun control than we do. Think about the way we speak about people who are less educated than ourselves (this month’s issue of The Atlantic has an article that talks about the derision that many of us cheerfully express for people who aren’t especially smart: those of us who would sooner stab ourselves in the eye with a pencil than utter a racial epithet or a homophobic slur will happily use the “S-Word,” we will mock people for being stupid). In the last couple of days, I have been startled to witness the hot vitriol directed towards those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union. And you don’t need to spend long hanging out in Portland to hear burning vitriol directed towards anyone planning on voting for Donald Trump.

There are so many ways in which all of us have not received Jesus. And listening to this way of talking, this way of being, it’s not hard to imagine you or me saying: Lord, should we call down fire on those people?

Now, before I wrap up, let me clear: I am not suggesting that Jesus is advocating for some kind of moral relativism, a worldview in which everyone has their opinion and all opinions are all equally valid. We know from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that Jesus doesn’t feel that way at all, that Jesus is spectacularly opinionated, especially when it comes to protecting and standing with the poor and the marginalised. There is no doubt in my mind, for instance, that Jesus, who consistently rejects violence, wishes that there were fewer people running around our society with guns, that he wants us to work for a society in which there are fewer guns. What I am saying is that, even as Jesus calls us to this work, he calls us to do it in love – and not a halfhearted “hate the sin, love the sinner” kind of love – but to the genuine, all-in love that calls us to connect with and find communion with everyone, everyone, everyone.

Jesus does something really hard: he shines a light on our unknown unknowns. In particular, he shines on light on those places where, without even really noticing it, we respond to hatred with hatred of our own or to exclusion with exclusion of our own. He calls out the ways in which we, like those first messengers, have not received him. And then he asks us to open our hearts. To let him in. And to go forth. To go forth even among people whom we don’t understand and don’t like, maybe even people we hate as much as his first followers hated the Samaritans. And there, in the midst of that strange and disquieting village, he asks us to proclaim and to hear the Gospel.