Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Outcast: A Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

A few minutes before services started this morning I had a call from my dad, that he'd been in the hospital all night and wasn't sure what was wrong with him. My dad's 87 years old, lives alone. I'm on my way to his house now (250 miles away).

This made the sermon a little more difficult to preach.

Prayers, please.

Oh, and Petra and I sang the verses to "Orphan Girl" together. She's a good one.


I am an orphan on God's highway
But I'll share my troubles if you go my way
I have no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl…

Have you ever had the experience of feeling entirely, thoroughly… alone? Cut off. Isolated. Outcast. As if no one else on God’s green earth could possibly begin to understand who you were and what you were going through. As if the rest of the world passing by constituted another world, really. The world where people sat together and talked intimately, and understood each other. The world where people touched one another on the arm as they spoke. The world where people embraced one another spontaneously when someone was sad, or glad, or relieved. When we feel alone, it can be as if we were looking through a thick wall of glass upon that other world, one utterly foreign to the world we are in.

What was that time for you? Was it a time when the world shifted beneath your feet and you learned that the rock-solid job was in reality perched on shifting sand? Was it a time when that loss caused you to question your abilities, your vocation, your sense of what you were meant to do in the world, who you were meant to be in the world? Or, was there a sense of being alone during the break-down and break-up of a long term relationship, a friendship, a marriage? Was it a time when you experienced the devastating loss of someone you loved… parent, partner, sibling, spouse, child? Or, perhaps, a moment when a doctor turned to you with a grim face to deliver bad news?

When we experience a trauma or a loss, it is a profoundly isolating experience. We feel cut off. We feel outcast, as if we might never again be able to swim to the shore of normalcy. And even if there are people we love standing by, unless the loss is theirs, unless they are undergoing the same trauma… it can feel almost impossible for them to reach us. And everything they say can seem wrong, especially if they try to interpret God for us. Kind and loving people of faith, when they tell us why God let this or that happen… well, it’s hard for us to experience it as kind and loving. I used to say, “I can’t imagine what you are going through,” until a friend snapped back, “Try.” She’d lost her son. Trauma, loss… they isolate us. They orphan us. They make us feel as if we’ll never make the connection again.

I have had friendships pure and golden
But the ties of kinship I have not known them
I know no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

The woman at the heart of today’s gospel encounter with Jesus is just such an isolated and outcast person, only her outcast state goes beyond her feelings and extends to the community’s treatment of her. She is a nameless and faceless person, known to us only by a kind of thumbnail sketch: we know just four things about her:

• We know that she’s been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years.
• We know that she has gone to physician after physician looking for a cure.
• We know that, not only has she not been cured, she has grown worse.
• And we know that not only has she grown worse, she has spent all her money on this fruitless pursuit: everything she has is gone.

Those are the facts the gospel passage shares with us. There are more things you should know about her, though. You have heard what the cost was to her medically, and financially. But there is another cost to her socially and religiously, as outlined in Leviticus. It is the cost of being ritually unclean for many, many years. A woman with a hemorrhage would be considered unclean—as would every bed she lay upon, every thing she touched, every person she touched.
[Lev. 19:25-27]

Because of her physical condition, the prevailing religious mores of the day would demand that the woman be left completely alone. Cut off. Isolated. Outcast. Other people would know to avoid contact with her. Anyone who wanted to be part of normal community life—to go to the market, or the waterfront, or to the Temple—would be forced to shun her presence. She has probably lost her family, and most likely lives alone, so that no one else need be exposed to the risk of being, as she is, permanently ritually unclean.

We have encountered situations like this before in the gospel of Mark. Remember the man who had leprosy, who was every bit as outcast as this woman. You may remember that Jesus was moved with both compassion for that man’s plight and anger at the injustice that excluded him from being a part of God’s family.

There’s one more thing you should know about the woman with the hemorrhage. She has not given up. She is still determined to find healing for herself.

But when He calls me I will be able
To meet my family at God's table
I'll meet my mother my father
My sister my brother
No more an orphan girl

So, here comes Jesus. He is in the midst of a great crowd… people are pressing in on him from every side. And he is hurrying, we must believe, with a distraught (and very wealthy and powerful) man to the bedside of that man’s daughter, who lies at the brink of death. The nameless woman who has been suffering for twelve years gets the idea that if she can only touch Jesus’ clothes, she will be healed. And… we have to confess, that sounds an awful lot like magical thinking, using Jesus as a sort of talisman. If we are honest with ourselves, we engage in that kind of behavior all the time. We have rituals ranging from saying a prayer before taking a test, to the wearing of lucky socks for the bowling tournament, to brides wearing “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Human beings impart quasi-magical powers to physical objects all the time, whether we admit it or not.

So touch Jesus’ clothing she does. And sure enough, power flows from him… the Greek word for that power is dynamin… the same word from which we get dynamite. Explosive power! That dynamic power flows from Jesus, and he knows it, and he stops and looks around the crowd and says, “Who touched me?” Which elicits a response from the disciples along the lines of “You have got to be kidding.” And, you know, the woman knows right away she has been healed… she can feel it in her body, just as Jesus can feel that power has gone out from his. But Jesus is not willing to simply make someone well. Jesus is not willing to simply let the power flow out from him—good and dynamic and healing as that power might be. Jesus is not content to merely solve a problem. Jesus wants an encounter with a person.

And encounter her he does. And what does he say to her? He says, “daughter.” To the woman whose family has fled, he says, “daughter.” To the woman who is alone, cut off, isolated, outcast… he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” And with those words, Jesus accomplishes the truly explosive healing: the work of restoring her to community, to family. Someone who has been excluded, who has been languishing on the outside, for twelve long years, has a family once more.

And so it is for us. Do we want God to heal us of our diseases? Of course we do. No one wants the return of the tumor, the terrible pain, the grave infirmity. Of course we want the healing of our many varieties of real heartbreak and loss. Jesus offers us that, and much more. He offers us an open door into that world where people sit together and talk intimately and understand each other. He offers us a world where people touch one another on the arm as they speak, where they embrace one another spontaneously when someone is sad, or glad, or relieved. Jesus offers us the beloved community, the family of God.

The beloved community gathered, first, around the preaching and healing Jesus, and then, around the risen Christ. It is the foundation of the beloved community that there is room at the table. It is the foundation of the beloved community that no one is to be alone, cut off, isolated, or outcast. Each one of us is “daughter.” Each one is “son.” Each one is “sister, or “brother.” Each one is “friend.” Each one is “beloved.” No more orphan boys or girls, but each of us is kin to Jesus, who touches us with dynamic power and welcomes us in.

Blessed Savior make me willing
And walk beside me until I'm with them
Be my mother my father
My sister my brother
I am an orphan girl

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Like a Weed: A Sermon on Mark 4:26-34

A few years ago I served on an arts committee with A.. She’s a professor at Excellent Local University, and during the time we worked together, she felt it was the right time to buy a house. She looked and looked, and finally found the perfect place, nestled on a hillside in NearTown, with a little creek running by and a stand of pine trees. The house was not too big, it was not too small, it was cozy. It was comfortable. It was just right.

When A. moved in she noticed another stand of something that looked like bamboo running alongside the creek. It was picturesque, and A., a first time homeowner, had visions of it imparting a kind of serenity to her surroundings. She liked it. She liked it until the day, late the next spring, when it started growing through the baseboards of her bedroom.

A. had encountered Japanese knotweed, which some have called “killer bamboo.” She didn’t know it at the time, but this is an invasive species that gives new and richer meaning to the word “tenacious.” A. embarked on a plan of trying to control it. She dug it out. It grew back. She invested in environmentally friendly methods of trying to control it. They had no effect whatsoever. She invested in environmentally nightmarish chemicals. The pretty “bamboo” continued its incessant, unending program of growing in through the cracks that had now formed in the foundation of A.'s home, sometimes appearing inside the walls of her house in the morning, like an scary new species from a science fiction film. A.’s last attempt to control the bamboo involved pouring acid on it. The leaves shrunk and withered, and for a time the weed receded. Within a month it was back with a vengeance.

How shall we envision the kingdom of God? Jesus asks in this morning’s scripture. By what parable shall we present it? And he answers himself: it is like a mustard seed. A mustard seed is tiny. It might even be the tiniest seed, he says. But when it grows—watch out. It’s big. Bigger than you thought it would be. It’s a shrub, though, so… it’s not as big as, say, a California redwood, or even the pine trees in Angela’s backyard. So maybe the point is not that it’s big. So then… what is the point?

Jesus was always speaking in parables, according to the gospel of Mark. And it’s good for us to recognize that parables are an extremely complex and sophisticated mode of communication. When Jesus speaks in parables, we often find ourselves wanting to turn them into allegories, stories in which all the characters signify someone or something else, and if we can just plug in the correct identities, then we can understand the story. For example, the prodigal son is the sinful, ungrateful human being, the loving father is God, and the older brother… well, is he Satan? Or another jealous human being? At any rate, we tend to want parables to be neat little life-lessons that have an easily decodable answer. In other words, we want parables to be something they’re not.

Parables are most often brief sayings or stories that raise more questions than they answer. They take familiar items and characters and situations, and tell us something about them that, usually, turns our customary way of thinking on its head. One writer puts it this way:

In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer's secure mythological world -- the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data.[i]

In the very earliest stories about Jesus, parables go unexplained. Jesus simply floats them out there, to rise or to fall on ears that are, or are not, able to hear and comprehend. We wish it weren’t so. We wish we could understand each and every one with absolute clarity. We want them to make sense.

We are not alone in that. The gospel writers are just as frustrated with Jesus’ parables as we are! They bend over backwards to provide us with interpretations, to minimize the confusion, and to give us those neat little life-lessons we are craving.

Take the parable of the mustard seed. The most common interpretation of this is influenced by the way Matthew tells the parable: he says, though it’s the smallest of seeds, it grows into a tree, and the birds of the air can nest in its branches. This is a very appealing image for the Jewish community Matthew was preaching to. It evokes a beloved vision used by the prophets to describe Israel, the great and majestic cedars of Lebanon.

I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
~ Ezekiel 17:22-23

This would have real appeal for the hometown crowd! This is an image of the work the Messiah will do! The cedars of Lebanon would grow to a height of a hundred feet or more, and they would, in effect, provide a home for all who would care to nest in them. This is an image of how God intends to care for God’s people. We can easily imagine this as a wonderful vision of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus isn’t talking about a giant cedar. In Mark’s version, the earliest version of this parable that has been preserved for us, Jesus isn’t even talking about a tree. The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that grows into a great… shrub! Well, frankly, that’s kind of disappointing. Doesn’t it even sound like Jesus might, in some way, be teasing his listeners, poking fun at the image of the cedars of Lebanon?[ii] Maybe we need to step back a bit to define our terms. What exactly does Jesus mean by the “kingdom of God,” anyway?

Remember: the kingdom of God always carries with it a paradoxical sense of here/ not here, already/ not quite, accomplished/ coming. That helps when we consider the mistake we often make in thinking about the kingdom of God. We tend to think of a “kingdom” as an “area,” a place. And the Greek word that is translated kingdom, basilea, can mean that. But it can also mean “power” or “authority.” In other words, it may be more helpful, in understanding just what Jesus is talking about, to think about the “kingdom of God” as “the power of God,” or “God’s rule.”

With what can we compare God’s rule? What parable shall we use for the power of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. Mark 4:30-32

Here’s the thing about the mustard shrub. It’s not that big-- a large one might grow to be 10 feet, tops. But it is tenacious. Stop thinking oak, pine, redwood or cedar. Think, instead, kudzu, dandelions. Think, instead, Japanese knotweed. In the gardening practices of the ancient Jewish world, the mustard plant was considered a weed. It was to be avoided. It was never sown in a garden, because it would quickly take over every bit of space that was available, crowding out all the other vegetables and flowers. It was like Japanese knotweed, which, I’ve learned, can take root if even one tiny tendril of it remains alive in tons of landfill.

With what can we compare the power of God? The power of God is something that starts out small. It may even look picturesque when you first encounter it. And it is, truly, beautiful. But watch out. It’s tenacious. It can’t be stopped. The tiniest slip of it, one little seed, one small tendril can take hold and take over.

And… we’re not necessarily going to like it. It’s going to disrupt our pleasant and cozy places. It’s going to make us uncomfortable. It might even crack the foundations of the things we think we treasure most… our homes, our institutions, our churches. The power of God is wild, and untamable, and uncontrollable. We will wake up in the morning and find that it has made its way into the comfort of our homes. We will probably be distressed, we will probably be freaked out, we will probably want to find some way to fix it or modify it or eradicate it. But it is the power of God, and so it cannot be fixed or modified or eradicated.

In his book, Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne writes, “Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken for its power to be released.” Who does that remind you of? Sounds a little bit like Jesus. Claiborne goes on, “This is the crazy mystery that we celebrate, a Christ whose body is torn apart and whose blood is spilled like the grains and grapes of the [communion meal] that gives us life. Mustard was also known for healing, and was rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, sort of like Vicks vapor rub. Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside down power—official sponsor of the Jesus revolution.”[iii]

With what shall we compare the power of God? It is a wild contagion. It is a healing balm. It is something that starts out so small we can barely see it. It is something that grows and moves without pause or hesitation. With what shall we compare the power of God? It is something that may crack the foundations of the things we rely upon, maybe even cause cracks in our own hearts. It is something that, in the end, will provide us shelter… perhaps not the kind of shelter we envisioned, but shelter nonetheless. The wild, unruly, untamable, healing, growing, moving power of God. It is here. It is not here. It is already. It is not quite. It is accomplished. It is coming. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Eugene Boring, “Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 19__) 299.
[ii] Brian Stoffregan, CrossMarks,
[iii] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing/ The Little Way, 2008), 104-105.