Sunday, July 15, 2018

Can't Stop The Word

2 Samuel 6:1-5 [6-12a] 12b-19;  Mark 6:14-29

Well, that’s a lousy story for a Sunday morning, isn’t it? Packed with guilty fear, questions of incest, plottings of vengeance, manipulation of children, murder… it’s hard to read. It should be hard to read.

And in a gospel where most of the stories have a relatively happy ending – a healing, a miracle, freedom from the demonic – it’s jarring to come across one that ends with human evil killing a man of God.

It’s also a gospel story in which Jesus is almost peripheral. It comes as a flashback, triggered by the news that Jesus’ disciples are out two by two, sharing stories and healings. As Jesus’ fame spreads, everyone speculates on where this miraculous new rabbi has sprung from, and Herod feels haunted by his guilty conscience:
Uh-oh, the prophet I murdered has come back to life, even stronger.

The moral of this terrible story isn’t at the end. It’s right at the top, revealed by Herod’s haunting: God’s power and purpose in the world can’t be murdered. God’s work in the world can’t be halted by our human errors, our fear, our sinful inattention. God’s will can’t be suppressed even by death.

If you think there’s some foreshadowing there, you’re right. But it’s not just that the resurrection of Jesus will be good news at the end of this story. It’s good news at the beginning of this dark flashback that the Word of God can’t be killed by the government, by intentional suppression or by the wrongs we do while we’re trying to avoid embarrassment.

Because that’s apparently why Herod killed John the Baptist. He orders the murder of a man who intrigues and interests and challenges him – a man who he listens to for the word of God – in order to avoid being embarrassed, shamed in front of his guests for breaking a foolishly extravagant promise.

It’s tragic that that’s what kills the prophet John. But it happens all the time.
This is, perhaps, the gospel story that sounds the most like our nightly news: tragedy caused by a messy mix of resentments, anxieties, fears and divisions. And just like our daily headlines rarely feature healing forgiveness, there’s no gentle healing, no clean forgiveness of the sins in the story of Herod and John. But the good news that the Word of God persists, in spite of sin and murder, introduces the story without cleaning it up.

Herod’s reaction to that good news is worth paying attention to. His sense of haunting discomfort might even be familiar to many of us.
Think about it – have you ever done something you wish you hadn’t?
Raise your hand if you have never felt bad about a decision or an action.
Or if you’ve never hurt someone else without deliberately intending to.

So most of us know then, what regret feels like. How it can haunt you, like it haunts Herod, when something – even a good thing – reminds you of the damage you wish you hadn’t done.

But did you notice, today, that regret is not the end of the story? It’s where the story begins as we heard it today. Because the flip side of Herod’s haunting regret is the news we need to hear: that the stupid, mean, damaging, inattentive hurt we’ve done – our sins – cannot stop the Word of God, the healing and grace and power of God, from filling the world and growing stronger.

Jesus comes, bearing forgiveness and healing and inspiration and resurrection, not to erase our regrets, but to bring us into God’s story in the midst of them; into the working out of God’s purpose in the world, even while we’re still tangled in our messy human weakness.

Mark sets this messy story right in the middle of the mission of the disciples. It’s triggered by their going out in the world, full of power to heal and teach and invite joy. Then we recall the murder of John, followed immediately with the disciples coming to Jesus to report on their success in healing and spreading good news. I wonder if Mark wants us to see Herod – sinful, messy, broken Herod – in the midst of that good news, and to rejoice for him that he hasn’t killed the word of God.

Just as we should rejoice that none of the hurtful things you and I have done, or left undone – as we’ll confess together in a few minutes – can suppress or stop or even slow down the power and purpose of God in the world.
We confess our sins so that we can see that truth, and let go of the fear of guilt that holds us back from rejoicing in and sharing God’s redeeming purpose.
We confess our sins, and remember this messy gospel story, so that we can dance in the presence of God.
Just like David.

In the fragmented excerpt of his story that we read this morning, we hear about David dancing in the streets, and about the feasting, music and dance that celebrate bringing the Ark, the physical symbol of God’s presence, into Jerusalem. But when all the parts of that story are told, you notice that David’s dancing happens right in the midst of messy, petty, human sin.

There’s the embarrassment, the shame, that Michal feels at the sight of David’s naked exuberance, and that she tries to share with him, burdening the celebration with greasy human fears about status and pride.

And there’s the missing bit of today’s story: where the power of the Ark kills one of its bearers, and David abandons the symbol of God’s presence in someone else’s house out of fear, and doubt, and maybe guilt. The biblical historians aren’t as specific about David’s motivation as Mark is about Herod’s, but one notices that David is quick to head back to claim the ark for his own when it turns out that it’s reported to be showering its keeper with blessings.

But whether David’s triumphal claiming of the ark is motivated by relief of doubt and fear, or by normal human greed for free good things, for blessings, this story, like Herod’s story, is clear that neither human failings and sin, nor the fears and doubts that cause our wrongs, can stop the power and purpose of God from getting to where God wants them to go. And that dancing in the street – pure, exuberant celebration of the presence of God – is entirely appropriate, even in the presence of shame and doubt and sin.

None of us – or very very few of us – are free of regret, error, sin or fear. But none of that can stop or suppress or kill the power and purpose of God.
So it’s right, a good and joyful thing, to dance anyway, in the presence of God. It’s right to dance – or to sing, or laugh, or play or shout, however you express exuberant joy in God’s presence – in the midst of all that’s wrong. Because that exuberant celebration lets us turn our whole heart and being over to God, whose purpose and power cannot be stopped, by us, by evil, or by anything.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Shake It Off

Mark 6:1-13

This is unbelievable! they said. Just listen to that incredible wisdom - I’ve never heard anything like it. And how ‘bout those powerful miracles? Just stunning.
I can’t believe this is this kid I used to know! Unbelievable!
So they didn’t believe.

I feel sad when I read that.
Not so much sad for Jesus, though I expect he’s frustrated and disappointed that he can’t do much for his hometown.
But sad for his neighbors, the family friends; the ones who know all his brothers’ names and hang out with his sisters, and who were so stunned by the spiritual wisdom and powerful signs of God’s presence around Jesus that they just couldn’t take it in and gave it up.

I’m sad for them, because it happens to me, too.

I lose track of wonder by focusing on the ordinary.
I resist miracles in my familiar territory, preferring to keep things close to me as rational and ordinary as possible.
I love to believe in the healing power of God for illness in general, and to believe in the skill of my doctor for my own healing.
I like a book I can put my hands on, or the advice of trusted friends, when I’m personally looking for what’s true; and though in the abstract I love the idea of God miraculously revealing truth and wisdom, I’m skeptical when someone tells me they’ve got a Word straight from God for me.

I need to be reminded regularly that just because I’m used to something, that doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle; just because I understand something, that doesn’t mean it’s not from God. Just because a leaping cat, a wise friend, the relief of the common cold, the sunlight on the leaves outside my window, the remission of cancer through modern medicine, and the internet are perfectly ordinary parts of everyday life, that doesn’t mean they aren’t each a divine miracle, worthy of wonder, joy, and open-hearted awe.

So I’m sad when Jesus’ neighbors miss that joyful wonder when he comes home, and they expect him to become an ordinary guy among them. Sad because I know that wonder mostly comes to us when we are open to it, and that’s the faith that Jesus was looking for at home. Because healing comes when I’m willing to trust my brokenness to someone else; and that’s the faith that Jesus was looking for at home. Because we only fall into the hands of God when we stop holding on to what we can know and do for ourselves, and that’s the faith that Jesus was looking for.
Still is looking for, in fact.

When he’s amazed at the lack of that kind of faith in his hometown – when the deeds of power, revelations of wisdom, and miraculous healings he brings with him vanish into his neighbors’ insistence on the ordinary – Jesus keeps looking for the faith that will let God’s people accept the gifts in Jesus’ hands. He sends the apostles out to find it.

From his stuck-in-the-ordinary hometown he sends them off, two by two, clearly and purposefully instructing them to leave behind everything that ties them to the ordinary: money, luggage, shelter, food.
All the resources they have on their journey will be gifts of God: the hospitality that feeds and shelters them, the ears they find willing to listen, and Jesus’ own power to heal and reveal placed in their own hands – all of these are miracles.
And we can see that they are miracles mostly – maybe only – when we leave all of the ordinary behind.

When Jesus finds too much ordinary in his hometown – all that ordinary blocking out our vulnerability to miracles – he sends his disciples out to keep looking for the faith. They aren’t sent to look for intellectual belief in the rightness of his teaching, but for the ability to receive God’s gifts as the miracles they are: for openness to wonder, and openness to letting God do what we’d feel more comfortable if we did for ourselves.

It works, too: They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them.
In other words, the apostles find the faith that Jesus is looking for, they find the openness to God’s unbelievable gifts that’s shown by the trail of miracles and healing and changed hearts in their wake.

It works in part because Jesus equips the apostles with the vulnerability that keeps them open to miracles, sending them out completely dependent on the kindness of strangers, but also because he reminds them what to do when people’s natural skepticism and a preference for the safety of the ordinary start to cling to them and weigh them down: Shake it off.

If any place will not receive you, won’t receive what God is offering; if anyone refuses to hear you and share the wonder, shake that dust off your feet.

Shake it off, when those around you want you to stay firmly in the ordinary.
Shake it off, when no one wants to be amazed with you.
Shake it off, when everyone else wants to accept miseries and injustices we can’t control as a part of daily life, instead of as an opportunity for God to act.
Shake it off, when no one around you is willing to see daily bread and shelter as the miracle they are, or a listening ear as a marvelous gift of God.

Shake it off, and keep looking for the faith that’s ready to receive the news and the gifts of God as miracles. Because it is out there.
It’s in here, too. In you and me, even though many of us have been familiar with Jesus since childhood, just like his hometown neighbors. Many of us have gotten comfortable with Jesus as ordinary in our lives, and gotten conditioned to miss the miracles because we’ve seen this all before, and the good news doesn’t seem all that new.
Even so, the faith that Jesus is looking for is here at home just as much as it’s on the road, we just have to shake off our own disbelief to set it free.

It’s not intellectual doubt that holds us back, but the comfort of not noticing, and not needing, miracles that keeps us from receiving the miracles God wants to give. So Jesus encourages us to shake off the pride or the shame or the social awkwardness or whatever it is that keeps us from longing for divine healing and revelation;  shake it off so that we’re free to be filled with wonder and miracle and grace. Shake off the expectation that we’re here in life to do what we can with what we have, and become free to receive what God can do, in our own hometown neighborhoods, and in the world.

It’s unbelievable, sure.
But that’s what makes it God’s.
That’s what makes us God’s.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Keep Believing

Mark 5: 21-43

She is very alone in the crowd; her presence in both story and crowd is defined by her separateness, her isolation. He is surrounded by community, his presence defined by relationships.
They have nothing in common.
Except the most important thing.
In their great need, they both receive the gift of Jesus’ healing power.

She appears in the middle of what seems to be his story. An unnamed woman, bankrupted emotionally and financially by extensive and failed medical treatment. Utterly alone in the crowd. No family, no friend, comes with her to seek this healer, this man of God, in her desperate quest to just touch his cloak.
The thick, shoulder to shoulder crowd, presses around her, bumps against her but doesn’t notice her, with no one to claim her and look for her in the chaos, no one to make space for her, no one to call the healer’s attention to her.

Meanwhile, he’s up at the front of the crowd, at the center of attention. Jairus is introduced to us and known to Jesus by name, by relationship, by his standing in the community. He doesn’t come to Jesus alone, but as a father, and a leader respected and surrounded by his community. And now the healer is coming to his home, to his family, specifically to respond to his need, bringing along a great, crowded community of witnesses.
That doesn’t make him any less desperate for healing than that lonely unnamed woman, though. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet, all but babbling in his pleading, asking for Jesus to help his little girl over and over before Jesus ever gets a word in edgewise.
The crowd makes space for him, definitely; they’re here for him – at least sort of – they want to see Jesus heal his child.
Even when the news is bad, when his daughter is reported dead, his house is full of community, mourners and neighbors, there to notice and remember and support the family in their grief.

Those two have nothing in common.
Except the most important thing.

When that isolated, unnamed woman gets herself just close enough to brush her hand against Jesus’ clothes, she is healed, and Jesus himself declares publicly that her faith has made her well.
Jairus, confronted suddenly and publicly with the fact of his daughter’s death, is reminded by Jesus to keep his faith – that faith that brought him to Jesus and Jesus to his house – and that faith opens the way for Jesus to heal his daughter.

These are stories about healing, absolutely. But they are also stories about the barriers to healing, and about the faith that opens up those barriers, because Jesus wants to heal us so much he won’t let those barriers stop us.

I mean, that whole touching his clothes thing should never have worked. Everybody else who is healed in the gospels asks for it. They call out to Jesus, and get his undivided attention. Or someone else advocates for them, begging or demanding healing face to face. Healing doesn’t happen by accident, behind Jesus’ back.
This touching of his cloak isn’t how Jesus came to heal us. He wants to see us, he wants to know us and be known, and heal us in relationship.

But this woman is different. There’s no one to speak for her, she’s isolated even in the midst of a crowd, and now she’s even going to take Jesusintentions out of the conversation. She wants to or feels she has to do it herself. So she convinces herself that Jesus’ clothes have the power to heal her (even though they don’t) and she won’t give up until she touches them for herself.

Independence, drive, and persistence are praiseworthy. They’re virtues we’re going to celebrate this week on our nation’s birthday. We value those qualities in our history, in our children, in ourselves. But sometimes they are barriers to divine healing, just like isolation usually is.

Relationship, respect, community leadership and family support are praiseworthy, too. We celebrate those in stories we love and in the news; we try to build or legislate them into our public lives.
Jairus has all of that, and it’s a blessing. But none of that is what brought him to Jesus for healing, and eventually it becomes a barrier, as his community starts to insist that healing isn’t possible, that he needs to accept his daughter’s death, to mourn with them, and stop bothering the teacher with this ridiculous hope.

Even good things can get between us and God sometimes. They become barriers when we let things like independence, persistence, respect, leadership, become more important in directing our lives than God’s wall-shattering generosity.  Or when we mistake our good human values for God’s will.
But Jesus isn’t going to let those barriers stop him from healing us. And he points out to both Jairus and the unnamed woman – and so to us, today – that their faith helps him pull those barriers aside.

It wasn’t touching Jesus’ clothes that healed the woman. She touched him, yes. Power went out of him, her bleeding stopped. But it was her faith: her overwhelming trust that her healing was possible in the face of overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t that made her well. Her trust touched Jesus’ power, and she was brought into relationship and healed, as Jesus pushes through the invisible walls of her separateness and self-reliance, knows her and makes her known and seen among the crowd.

Jairus’ faith in Jesus, his powerful trust in the possibility of healing – is publicly challenged when his household announces his daughter’s death, and the mourners laugh at Jesus.
But Jesus reminds him: don’t stop believing. Hold on to your faith, remember your trust. And then Jesus puts all the barriers aside, sending away the skeptics, so that he can reunite Jairus and his wife with the daughter who had been separated from them, healing not just her body, but their hearts, and making their family whole again.

We want that kind of healing. We need that healing - desperately, some of us. But there are things that can keep us from seeking and receiving that gift from Jesus. Things we know are dangerous, like isolation and pride and peer pressure can get between us and God. But also good things – independence or a tight-knit relationships; civility and fair play and work ethic; the rule of law or the ethic of tolerance. Any of those things, and many others, can make it difficult for us, as individuals or as a community to put our deepest trust in God, instead of in those things we’re proud of; and to trust Jesus to provide the impossible healing we need.

But Jesus wants to heal us – you, me, individuals, families, the world – so much the even the things that get in our way can’t stop him.

All he asks is that we go ahead and let ourselves trust – radically, impossibly trust – let go of fear, keep believing, so that we keep seeking God while Jesus breaks the barriers down.

Because Jesus wants all our different stories to be like the two different stories we heard today, completed with the most important thing, the gift of Jesus’ healing touch: greatly needed, trustingly sought, fully received.