“Christ Interrupted” (Mark 5.21-43)
Alan P. Sherouse
By now, many of you have seen at least an excerpt of the eulogy and sermon offered by President Obama at the memorial service for Clementa Pinckney and the “Beautiful 9” of Charleston. Friday afternoon, in a 38 minute speech that was at once moving, personal, presidential and pastoral, President Obama memorialized a friend, spoke incisively about race in America, celebrated the legacy of the black church in our country, and shared powerfully about the grace of God. It is sure to be a signature moment of his presidency, culminating in his rendition of Amazing Grace, accompanied spontaneously by the service organist and a roused congregation.
The passion was arresting, most notably for me when it swelled on the phrase “I once was lost…” That’s when you knew it was in him, because he didn’t merely sing “I once was lost” but “I O-ONCE wa-a-as lo-o-ost” bending notes and adding syllables, passion swelling on this familiar line.
The line is made all the more powerful and passionate as we consider the history. In 1749 a large ship arrived in Charleston, SC carrying “human cargo” wrested from the coast of Africa – one of the more than 800 slave ships that would arrive there in the port’s history. Among the crew was a young first mate by the name of John Newton. John Newton would go on to captain his own slave ship. But then – you know the story – he had a powerful conversion experience and became an Anglican priest. Later, Father John Newton went on to speak against the Atlantic slave trade and its evils as an early abolitionist. A composer and hymn writer, along with many other songs he wrote, he penned one hymn with a peculiar African rhythm and hum to it: “Amazing Grace,” the hymn the President of the United States sang in Charleston on Friday at a memorial of 9 murdered not far from that port where Newton first arrived. (1)
“I o-once wa-as lost.” And all of us can join our voices with his, full-throated and fully passionate on that phrase of all phrases, because we have all known it to be true. We have all known what it is to change our course, to alter direction. And from the looks of things in today’s passage, Jesus knew what that was like, too.
Our passage today continues in the fast-paced urgency we’ve come to expect from the gospel of Mark. Just arriving to the other side of the water, no sooner has Jesus stepped from a boat and felt his foot sink in the sand than he is petitioned to come quickly for a sick little girl is on the brink of death. It’s the daughter of Jairus, who emerges from the crowd clearly identified as a leader of the synagogue. So dire are the circumstances that he has come himself, trusting no one else to deliver his urgent plea: “Come, lay your hands on my daughter so she may live!”
And the text says Jesus went. Just like that. Immediately. A straight shot – a beeline – to Jairus’ daughter.
I wonder sometimes how and where and why Jesus makes that decision – where to go, and why and how. When to make a straight shot, beeline appearance and when to take a more winding road.
What is it about Jairus and his daughter that draws such focus from Jesus? Why not the many others who are seen pressing in as he walks? Why not the person who lost a parent that week while Jesus was out on the water? Or the young person that was waiting in line trying to talk to him, just struggling to find some confidence and direction and perhaps needing some of his charisma and confidence to rub off? Why not all of the human cargo that must have filled the scene – slaves were there with their masters, wondering what it could mean to be free and why not them? And what about the woman who appears midway through the story? The one just trying to blend in. The one who had struggled with the issue of blood for some 12 years – as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive. Why didn’t Jesus make a beeline to her?
As it is, she has to come to him. She takes drastic action. Perhaps we miss just how bold her action turns out to be. As a person deemed unclean and untouchable by some, there is some risk in her pushing her way toward him. She can barely reach out to clip his heels, to graze the hem of his garment, but stretching, reaching she makes contact.
And here is where Christ is interrupted. Where Jesus changes course. He stops. And in a moment at once physical and theological, he turns toward her – this one from whom many had turned away. He can hear those around muttering about her – who she was, what she’d done, where she’d been, and why he would stop for her. But he turns, he addresses her, and suddenly that straight shot direction to Jairus’ daughter is secondary to this woman and her personhood, her need, her healing. Ostracized by some for something beyond her control, Jesus turned toward her and granted her new life.
And we know what it does for her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” But I wonder what it did for Jesus. What did this change of direction mean for him? He leaves, and he makes it to Jairus’ daughter saying “Talitha cum… Little girl, get up.” But even as he goes to Jairus’ daughter, I wonder if that healed woman from the road stays on his mind and shapes the work yet to come. Does she teach him to remember not merely the one who calls out to him, but also the one who reaches when he’s on the way somewhere else? Does she help him to have eyes open not merely for the leader of the synagogue, but also for the one who hides in the shadows?
Has it ever happened to you? To us? This change of course? This interruption of our straight shot plans? You’re on your way to one place, when suddenly a hand outstretched, a clip of the heels, a graze of the tunic, and one you did not expect reaches you, interrupts you, changes your direction. Maybe even one deemed unclean, untouchable?
Let me say that I think that’s part of what’s happening right now in our country, and I feel moved to talk about it this morning. With the Supreme Court ruling this last week recognizing marriage rights for same gender relationships, it is a new day for gay and lesbians persons in our country. I received an inquiry from a few local press outlets this week to react, and I turned them down, deciding I’d rather talk to you. I want to share what I think it means here, for us.
We know that there are some churches where people are united in full-throated celebration this morning, and others where there is uniform anger or unabashed concern. Both kinds of churches exist in this city, but you aren’t in either of those churches today. You’re here, amidst some range of reaction. So it’s important to note what it means to be in a church like ours at a time like this. We don’t tell you what to think. We won’t ask you to hide your thoughts or feelings. Make no mistake, to be a church that is wide in its range does not mean we are people without conviction – certainly I have mine as your pastor and you have yours which may or may not be the same as mine, or your neighbor on the pew, or your friend in Sunday School, or the people at your Wednesday Night table.
A friend of mine who is a pastor in Texas had an older church member once tell him in his first months on the job, “Pastor, there’s one thing you need to understand…” (pastors love that line!) “Pastor, one thing you need to understand is that the people in this church are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” Ryon thought that was a fitting image, but then the man continued, “But you also need to understand that we’re all from different puzzle boxes.” (2)
And yet it’s here where we fit together, where we can speak our own convictions, trust the Spirit, and meanwhile seek to hold hands with those to the right and to the left of us to do what we sense to be the work of the gospel.
In many ways that work of the gospel, and our understanding of it, has been our straight shot, beeline goal. Still, I don’t know about you, but I feel some hands reaching out, some alterations to my path, and I wonder what it means for The Church… and for our church.
First, what it doesn’t mean. Our friends and partners at the Baptist Joint Committee reminded us this week that, despite panic from some fundamentalist groups, religious liberty has not been threatened and the court doesn’t dictate to churches what they should or should not do. We order our life together according to the guidance of the Spirit. That’s what we’ve tried to do to this point, and that’s what we’ll continue to try to do.
But that doesn’t mean this will have no impact upon us, or that we can simply continue on our path with eyes straight ahead without interruption. Amidst wider shifts and increased rights in our culture, we must ask ourselves honest questions about the way the church – our church – treats LGBT people. And we must ask not just in quiet ways somewhere in the shadows, but out in the light in the ways one of our longtime, faithful and respected members was talking about recently when she said to me, “It’s past time for us to talk about this!” That means finding occasions for open, spiritual discernment in the days ahead. It means not simply taking our cues from those that reach in, but being proactive and discerning about the future of our church so that we might be the ones with hands outstretched.
Such spiritual conversation assumes our ability to see the best in one another, to embrace across difference of opinion, to show genuine love and respect, to worship with people with whom we might not agree, to hold differing opinions but still show up in one another’s hour of need, and to talk about vital things knowing that in Christ things can hold together.
Many of you were part of one such conversation on Monday this week, as 350 mostly white members of our community gathered to talk about race, racism and Greensboro in a conversation we called “Doing Our Own Work: White People Working to End Racism.” The conversation flowed out of a community-city working group that I’m a part of with 15 or so other community leaders, including our Mayor, having vital and challenging conversations about racism and Greensboro. At the start of Monday night’s community conversation, Rev. Julie Peeples, our friend down the road at Congregational United Church of Christ, offered some ground rules to govern the dialogue, and I offer them to you this morning:
- Listen to understand (Not just to formulate your argument)
- Speak with respect (Even for those who disagree with you)
- Share airtime (Don’t hog the mic or we’ll cut it off)
- Assume positive intent (Believing we are here for common work and purpose)
I call them “Julie’s rules,” but I’d add a few this morning as we consider the conversation before us:
- Be careful not to confuse your opinion with your church’s opinion. I’ll be careful of that and ask you to do the same.
- Be open to the fact that there are people who take the Bible seriously on all sides of this and other debates. The Bible says a lot of things, which we should read and consider together in community, and we will all seek to interpret sensitive to the Spirit’s leading at this place and time.
- Speak your convictions openly. Bring them into the light. I will do the same, trusting the Spirit to work through such openness and honesty.
- Allow for the possibility that community can remain even in disagreement, so that we might continue to reach for one another across the aisle.
If we’re honest, we admit that our church has been on a beeline toward other priorities and agendas. There is forward motion in so many thrilling ways. But for too long we have preferred not to ask and not to tell and not to talk. It’s not the ideal time, we’ve thought. There’s so much to work on beyond a potentially polarizing “issue.” There are so many who could mutter about us. And by the way, our new pastor hasn’t even been here 2 years! But I believe if we are prayerful, if we are careful, through the best forums and the leadership of staff and lay leaders in days ahead, we will find space to take seriously our faith and ministry in relationship to the pressing questions about human sexuality we have avoided for too long.
In fact, I believe we must. I believe it’s an urgent interruption because, at least for now, there are still some LGBT persons reaching for churches like ours and wondering if our welcome extends to them fully as they are. But even more strongly I believe that if we do not have such open dialogue, we will find before long that those people won’t stretch out their hands any longer… not to us.
What if the woman hadn’t reached? Or if Jesus hadn’t stopped? What if the interruption hadn’t happened? What if the course hadn’t altered? What if one once “lost” and ostracized had never been found by the grace of God?
We are here on a day when a Search Committee presents a candidate, as Christina McCord comes to be affirmed as our Minister to Children and Families. And it reminds me of a similar scenario 2 years ago, as Jenny and I sat with your Pastor Search Committee on our first visit to Greensboro over in the Conference Room of the American Hebrew Academy, secured for us by the connections of “Teacher of the Year” and committee member, Scott Culclasure.
At one point in our growing conversation I finally said, essentially, “How’s this going to go? You know the great matter facing the church: the polarizing questions of sexual identity.” And I said to them what I say to you today, especially any of you who have not heard me say it before: “I am a pastor who is fully open and affirming in my personal conviction.” And then I said, “This is a church that hasn’t talked much about that.”
And what I heard them say to me was that this is a church where we could be transparent with one another. Where we could speak our convictions in love, and make space for disagreement and dialogue. That growth for us meant finding a way to talk about hard things without fracture, and being open to considering seriously the Bible and what it means in this place in time. And I heard them say that they were trusting I could be a pastor in the midst of that difference and transition.
And that was my commitment. It remains today.
But here’s what I said to them. I told them what we are raising children and youth in this church, including my own, who if they haven’t already will in their life meet someone who was wounded by their church because of their sexuality or gender identity, and they need to be able to say in that moment, “I wish they had grown up at my church, where that would never happen!” They need to be able to say, “I wish they had grown up at my church, where we were active in our welcome… where we found community even amidst disagreement… where people who were once lost were being found, and sometimes even we ourselves were being found and transformed all over again… my church, where at every bend in the road you could find us trying to embody the grace and love so fully revealed to us in Christ… where we sought to echo the voice of Jesus, “Talitha cum…Dear one, get up.”
“I wish they could know First Baptist Greensboro.”
For somehow, even as the Church has ignored, brushed past, and continued on our way with eyes straight ahead, there are still hands that reach for the body of Christ in this world.
I don’t know everything that means for our church. I can only know that with you. But here’s what I know: Jesus turned toward that woman on the road. And given the opportunity, Jesus turns toward the person who is reaching every time. To do the same is the way of Christ. It’s the way of Christ’s church. And I believe it’s the way of this church.
To which we commit ourselves again today.
(1) With thanks to Rev. Ryon Price, Second Baptist Lubbock, for making this connection to John Newton
(2) Also from one Ryon Price – I owe you, bud!