Starting fresh

This is the sermon I preached today, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached today,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.  We are using Track 2.

In the Episcopal Church, it is almost unheard of for an ordained person, whether that person be deacon or priest, to serve in his or her sponsoring parish.  The sponsoring parish is the parish that discerned ordained vocation with the clergy person, raising them up for ordination, so to speak.  Though the person may go back once or twice after ordination, or even occasionally to do supply, serving as the assigned deacon or the rector or priest-in-charge is, essentially, a “no go.”  And there is good reason for that.

For example, my sponsoring parish, where my husband and kids are still members, is now beginning a search.  Their rector of nine years left just last week.  As word of her move made its way around and at her going away party, several people asked me if I could “come back.”  My answer to them was a flattered and loving, “No!”  Begging the question that I serve here with you, there are larger issues to consider, the primary one being that, although I have from time to time done Saturday supply for them (obviously before I began serving here), and we have all enjoyed that time together, as a more permanent option, it would not work out for them or for me.  We know each other differently than as priest and people, and there is no leaving that behind.

It’s the parochial equivalent of the teen-age breakup in which the kids promise to remain best friends.  It almost never works because there is no going back, no forgetting or truly moving beyond the relationship you had before.  In my case, there are still many people who remember me as the young mother whose husband was away in the Navy, trying to manage a job and getting to church with two little boys, and then having a third child.  I’m remembered as someone who always listened to, and sometimes gratefully took, the advice of my elders in the community. I’m the choir member, stewardship chair, vestry member, search committee chair, food pantry volunteer, reluctant holiday fair chairperson, friend, and… What I am not is their priest.

Jesus has a bit of a similar experience in today’s Gospel.  In what is the third of three consecutive weeks of stories about how those around him view Jesus’ authority, we hear Jesus say, ““Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Jesus says this after the people who likely have known him longest, and may know him best, essentially say, “This kid is getting too big for his britches.  Does he forget that we know he is Mary and Joseph’s son?  Look!  We know the whole family.  Where does he get off thinking he’s got that kind of authority over us?”

At this time in his ministry, Jesus has been out and about in the community for a while, gathering people to him, preaching his message, and modeling how to live as God intends. I’m pretty sure word of the miracles Jesus did, perhaps including the calming of the sea and the stilling of the winds (the story we heard two weeks ago) and the healing of the woman with the hemorrhages and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (from last week’s Gospel) would have made it to his hometown.  And, while people seem to accept that he can do those things, we are told “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  People can accept the healing of specific illnesses but they cannot accept his authority to bring a new way of being, a way in which all people are reconciled to each other and to God.  Because they know him and have known him as they do, they cannot wrap their heads or their hearts around the idea that he is the Messiah, the incarnate God.

This is true about our relationships with God, too.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to, mostly in my work as a chaplain, who are sure that they cannot be loved or accept God’s love because of some way they’ve felt about God or something they have done in their life.  Maybe they’re angry with God because they have cancer or a child has died or anyone of the myriad ways our human-ness means life does not seem fair or kind. Even though they truly want to move beyond the anger or the fear or the lack of faithful behavior, they cannot quite get past it.

The good news for us in today’s Gospel is that Jesus tells us he understands this and he gives us some insight into how it is that he is different than us, that God does not hold onto or get caught up in anything that has gone before the very moment we are in.  Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the countryside to do what they do, to be who they are, without trying to plan for the usual way of being greeted, bringing only what they need to do the work they are given to do, to be who they are.  They are not to try to plan for every eventuality or to meet their own needs.  No food.  No money.  Only one tunic.  Wear your sandals, which, among other things, would make shaking the dirt off your feet much easier.  And, while we often hear “testimony against them” as punitive, I’m not so sure we can assume that.  It may be an indication of the reality that we are not always ready or able to meet God where we are. God gives us opportunity after opportunity to invite God into our hearts and lives, though God also gives us the free will to decide to forego the invitation.

The Scriptures tell us in at least a few ways that every day with God, every moment with God, is a new one.  God knows us fully and completely, God knit us in the womb, God knows us better than we know ourselves.  It’s frightening, I know, and yet God invites us to move deeper into God’s heart without any desire to hold onto the ways we’ve been unfaithful, the things we’ve done wrong, or, I suppose, even the things we’ve done well or faithfully.  What God wants is for us to want to be in relationship with God, and for us to leave behind any of the baggage we carry so that the journey brings us closer to the realization of God’s dream.  God wants us to recognize Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ mercy, compassion, and hope.  God wants us to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us to bring about peace and the reconciliation of all people to each other and to God.  God wants to be invited in, to be welcomed in our hearts and lives.

Healing one and all

This is the sermon I preached last week, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.  We used Track 2 with Lamentations.

I’ll admit:  I love the miracle stories in the Gospel.  They tell us so much about who and whose we are.  Even more than that, they tell us so much about the nature of God and God’s commitment to God’s creation.  These stories tell us about God’s dream for the world.

And I’ll confess: as pastor and chaplain, I’m not always so sure about the stories of miraculous healing.  Those stories invariably raise questions of why some people are healed and others are not.  They raise questions about why the prayers of some seem to be answered so fully and completely, while the prayers of others seem to fall on deaf ears.

This week, as I was reading and praying with today’s lectionary, and talking about it with a friend, I wondered if it’s possible that we are missing the point of the healing stories, at least some of the time.  What if they are less about the healing of the physical ailment and more about God’s answering prayers we don’t even know we have, giving us something we may not even know we need?

Today’s Gospel, with the two seemingly unrelated healing stories, is a good example of the questions that occurred to me in my prayer and reflection.  I share with you now what I think today’s Gospel really is about:

  1. God looking beyond what we think we need and responding to the needs we don’t know we have; and
  2. God reminding us of the need to have faith even when it seems we have come to the end of the road.

And, to top it all off, God does that by acting in ways that are unexpected or, even, as some might say, “not right.”

Let me tell you what I mean…

At the beginning of today’s Gospel we hear of Jairus’ plea to Jesus to heal his daughter.  This is happening after Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a raging storm, the story of Jesus’ calming the seas and stilling the winds from last week’s Gospel.  Jesus and the disciples get to the shore to be greeted by a crowd of people, Jairus among them.  Jesus hears his plea and together they head off toward Jairus’ house.  Given Jairus’ position in the community, as a leader in the synagogue, I’m pretty sure it would have surprised no one that Jesus would listen to him and attend to his needs.  Jairus is a man with authority and stature in the community, likely used to making requests and having people respond in the ways he asks.

So, here they are, leaving the shore and heading to Jairus’ house, with the crowd following along.  From somewhere in the crowd comes someone who touches Jesus’ cloak and, without making a specific verbal request, receives some of Jesus’ healing power.  Jesus is unsure of who did it, as are his disciples.  What happens next probably surprised many, if not all, of those gathered.  A woman, suffering from a bleeding disorder, steps up and admits it was she who touched Jesus!  A woman touching a strange, unrelated man in public would have gotten attention, even if the woman were not someone who was considered ritually unclean and therefore an outcast in the community.  In all likelihood, she is someone who should not have been on the same side of the road as Jesus, never mind being in the crowd and touching him.

I imagine Jesus’ response to the woman was about as shocking as her behavior. People would have expected a religious leader to admonish the woman, to remind her of her status as an outcast, and to send her back into exile.  But what does Jesus do?  He listens to her and then tells her that her faith has made her well.  He provides healing.

He heals the woman’s physical ailment, but that, my friends, is only a part of what Jesus does, and perhaps not even  the biggest part of what he does.  Because in heeding her prayer and healing her body, he brings her back into the community.  She is no longer an outcast.  She can take her place with her family, friends, and neighbors, and live a life that has been denied to her because of her illness.  She is made whole.  That in and of itself is truly amazing, but the story does not end there. Her family, friends, and neighbors can once again benefit from the gifts she has to offer and from being in relationship with her.  The community is made whole.  It’s as if Jesus uses the occasion of her physical healing to model a new way of being, of understanding how to be in relationship, of the power and importance of reconciliation.

Of course, that takes a bit of time, enough time that Jairus and Jesus get the word that Jairus’ daughter is dead.  His friends see no point in troubling Jesus any further.  They have given up hope.  But Jesus continues on.  When he gets to the house, he says simply, “Young girl, get up” and she does.  And, as with the healing of the woman at the shore, this healing extends beyond the physical ailment of the daughter.  When she arises from the dead, Jairus’ family is made whole once again.  Obviously, for any family that would be incredible, wonderful news.  Given that Jairus is a religious leader in a time when the adage “the sins of the father…” was taken quite seriously, his daughter’s healing also means that he maintains his credibility as a righteous man, as a leader in the community.  Again, physical healing occurs and relationships are restored, as Jairus’ friends and family learn not to lose faith, even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.

These stories teach us much about the nature of God and how God understands healing and reconciliation.  It seems to me they are especially relevant- poignant perhaps- in this time in the life of our country and the world.  In times of such immense and wide-ranging conflict, are reminded that God pays attention to all of us, to each of us, while, at the same time, we are reminded that God does not prioritize the needs of one over the needs of another.  The measures of success and worthiness we see and value are not God’s. The focus of God’s healing is not limited to a particular person or ailment, but to the reconciliation of all people to Gods’ self and to each other.

In these stories we are given two seemingly contradictory models of faithfulness: the audacious faith of the woman and the humility of Jairus.  My guess is that, at some time or another, all of us have needed to approach God with the boldness of the outcast woman, in her own surreptitious way demanding that Jesus’ power and authority be extended to her.  My guess, too, is that at other times we have needed to approach God more humbly, as Jairus, the leader of the synagogue does, when he pleads for his daughter’s health in public, more or less literally “before God and everybody,” as the saying goes.

The learning for us in this is that God is present to us as we are, not in our perfection or as other people expect but just as we are. Whether we are bold and audacious like the woman or humbled in our desperation like Jairus, or something different all together, God is present and gives us more than we ask, God gives us what we need. This is completely consistent with God’s dream of reconciliation to and with all people, and God’s willingness to give us healing in the ways we know enough to ask, and in ways we may not know we need.  And God does this, as God does everything, in the ways God does because God is God.  That is Good News indeed!