Sunday, July 22, 2012

July 22, 2012- Proper 11B

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Things are not always as they seem. It’s one of those universal clich├ęs, but there is some truth in that statement. Things are not always as they seem. I’ll start with a story from my time in DC. On a cold January day a few years ago, a man was playing a violin just outside a downtown subway station. He played for 43 minutes and just over 1,000 passed him by and tossed a total $32.17 into his violin case. No one applauded at the end of any piece that he played. And that isn’t a big surprise. You see musicians at subways stations all the time in DC.
Now I wasn’t there to witness this particular man playing the violin. But something was different about him. He looked the same as any other street musician, but the music sounded better. Turns out, it wasn’t just another guy playing the violin; it was the Grammy awarding winning, world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. And he wasn’t playing movie themes, but instead was playing some of the most complex and beautiful music ever written. And he wasn’t playing on some instrument that was bought at a thrift store, but instead on a violin that was made around 1710 and was purchased for $3.5 million dollars. Just two days before this social experiment, Bell had sold out a concert hall where tickets went for $100 each. A man whose musical talents normally earn him $1,000/minute made only $32.17 in 43 minutes. That day, things were not as they seemed.
We find this same reality expressed in our reading from 2 Samuel this morning as well. Things are not as they seem. David is the king of Israel, a nation experiencing peace for the first time in generations. Up to this point, the Ark of the Covenant was seen as the physical representation of God’s presence with the Hebrew people. But David thinks that now that he is living in a grand city that God also deserves some sort of a fancier place to dwell. David thought it was a nice offer, but things were not as they seemed.
Many of you know that today a group of youth and adults are leaving for Grundy, Virginia to work for a week at the Mountain Mission School. Last year we spent a week there, living in community with the faculty and students of this school, and we’ll be doing that again this year. I hope that you also know that we’ve hired a very talented and enthusiastic young woman as our Director of Children’s and Youth Ministry. Bringing her on board will mean that I’ll be shifting my job description to include more work in the area of evangelism. So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about mission and evangelism and what they mean.
This passage from 2 Samuel challenges us to reconsider our assumptions, not only about the house for God, but about everything that we do on God’s behalf, which includes mission work and evangelism. Historically, mission and evangelism have gone hand in hand. The story goes like this: God has redeemed humanity in the crucifixion of Jesus, but in order to receive this salvation, you must be aware of and accept it. So the work of evangelism is telling people about it and mission work revolves around getting people to believe the same thing that what we do. And I’m not knocking mission work, a lot of good has also come from it. What I want to challenge is our view of evangelism.
God, it seems, is constantly calling us to a new vision. As soon as we get comfortable, God seems to push us in a new direction. It’s the story of David. Finally, Israel is established as a nation, they have a king, and an army that protects them from invaders. And this is when David offers to build God a house. This passage really can’t be understood without considering the Hebrew in which it was written. David says to God, “I’m going to build you a bayit.” And God responds “when have I ever asked for a bayit?” God then recounts what God has done for David- brought him into safety, handed over his enemies, and established his throne. David offers to build God a bayit, but God says “no, I’m going to make you a bayit.” The word play here is so rich- as the word bayit can mean house, but also dynasty. David is thinking in terms of a dwelling place, but God is talking in terms of an everlasting covenant. Things are not always as they seem.
I hope you see the easy parallel to mission work and evangelism that is imbedded in this turning of the tables. David thought he was to build up God, but instead it is God who builds up David. Too many missionaries have uttered the phrase “we’re going to take God to Africa, or wherever.” We do this in the Church as well; we think it’s our mission to build God up, to sell God, to sell people on the concept of faith. The Church has a real edifice complex. We focus on what we build. I applaud our national Episcopal Church for deciding this past week at General Convention to move our headquarters away from the posh downtown Manhattan office building, realizing that we are not called to build and maintain buildings.
God doesn’t seem to be very interested in, or impressed with, the things that we build. God has seen the rise and fall of empires and churches. And let’s be honest, most of what we build with our hands and take pride in doesn’t give glory to God, it gives glory to us. Jesus once said something about not letting your right hand know what your left does. But we like to have huge buildings that cost millions of dollars, we do an act of charity and we issue a press release and put it all over Facebook. Are these things built for us, or for God?
Instead, God says that God will make David into a bayit, a dynasty. God wants to build David up, not the other way around. We see a few things in this new vision of building. The first is that God won’t be confined to an Ark, a Temple, or even the Church. God will be with God’s people, wherever they are. We can’t put boundaries on God. This new vision of who builds up who also shows us a lot about what God is really interested in- us.
We are the mission of God. CS Lewis offers this parable: imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on. You knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But then he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts a bit and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of- throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.
I suggest that this is the true work of evangelism, becoming the house of God ourselves, not building it. And this is risky business for God, to put God’s mission and task into the hands of fallible and imperfect beings. For God to work with us, the limitless takes on limits, the unknowable becomes known. But God takes this risk with us because God trusts in us, and because God’s mission needs our hands and feet, our ears and mouths. As I’ve quoted St. Augustine before, I’ll do it again- “without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” We are the mission of God.
So if God is building us into a house, what sort of house do you look like? What will be your dynasty? What will be your legacy? We are all evangelists, we all are preaching something in our lifestyle. If a Martian came to earth and met you, and was told that you are a Christian, what would they think the Gospel of Jesus is about? Would they say the Gospel of Jesus is the prosperity gospel, would they say it’s about building wealth, would they say it’s about spending every waking moment with a Blackberry in hand? Or perhaps would they say that the Gospel is about loving others at least as much as you love yourself, would they say it’s about giving so that you can be ready to receive?
A quick word-study of evangelism might be helpful at this point. Evangelism is a Greek compound word meaning “good news.” The prefix is eu and means “good,” think of euthanasia meaning “good death,” or Eucharist meaning “good thanks.” And the root is angelos, which you’ll recognize as being related the word “angel,” or those who were God’s messengers. So evangelism means “good message.” But this word, evangelism, is a noun. The real question here is how do we make this noun into a verb? How do we live evangelically?
Simply sharing the good news isn’t really enough. If I told you that I won $10 million in the lottery last night, and to be clear- I didn’t, that’s good news. But how does my telling you about it actually do anything for you? What if, though, I decided to use half of that money for you? That changes things. St. Francis said “preach the Gospel every day and use words when necessary;” and while it’s important to use the name of Jesus, he was on to something.
Evangelism is not about telling others about God, it isn’t about building things for God, but rather evangelism is about letting God build something in us. Evangelism is about being the Good News. And that too is risky, because God is going to do grand and wonderful things with you. God is going to make you into a palace, but sometimes the construction process can be a bit uncomfortable.
The blogosphere, Facebook, and Twitter have been full of commentary this past week about two articles about The Episcopal Church. One article was in the Wall Street Journal, the other in the New York Times. Both classified The Episcopal Church as being in a downward spiral of liberal insignificance and decline. I’m very proud to be an Episcopalian right now. Our Church has decided to stop building the Church as we think it should be built and let God build us instead. We’re realizing that buildings aren’t necessary for ministry, and often they hamper ministry. Just think of how much money we put into maintaining buildings and grounds. And while those buildings are beautiful and are a place to do ministry, do we really need 6 Episcopal campuses in Greensboro?  We’re starting to realize that the Holy Spirit isn’t confined to our buildings, but instead can be found in coffee shops, bars, gyms, and soccer fields. We’re realizing that God’s blessing is not confined to the limits of one man and one woman marriages. We are learning that structure and rigid hierarchy aren’t as necessary as we once thought.
And to act on this is risky and challenging. These articles were written out of fear. Fear of what it means to let God build us and shape us into the Church we are called to be instead of holding onto our power and prestige. Fear of what it means to actually make sacrifices in our lifestyle so that the poor and outcast can have a stake in the Kingdom of God. Fear is what made the Pharisees so uneasy when the rebel-rousing Jesus threatened to upset the status quo of the religion of the day.
There is a prayer that we use on Good Friday and at the Ordination of Priests, and I love it. It says “let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This, my brothers and sisters, is good news! The parts of the Church that are old and tired are being reborn. The mistakes we’ve made will be redeemed. Our shortcomings will become our strengths. God is building us up, we just need to get out of the way and let God do it. In our reading from Ephesians today St. Paul writes “but you are citizens of the household of God…with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” If we are to let God build us up, if we are to live the Good News of God’s love, God’s salvation, and God’s ongoing construction in us, we need only to let Jesus serve as the cornerstone for God’s building project in us.
So how do we do that? Well, Jesus was a man of prayer, of loving others, of serving those in need, of making sacrifices for the God’s Kingdom. If we can follow this example of Jesus, if we can live his Good News in our lives, then God will build a grand home in us. And if we don’t follow Jesus’ example, don’t expect God to just leave you alone- you’ll still hear the sound of hammers and chisels in your heart and mind, the project just might take a bit longer.
Things are not always as they seem indeed. We’ve spent too much time and energy trying to be the foremen and women of the construction project of building the Church and doing evangelism, when all this time God was trying to build something in us. It’s a lesson David had to learn, and today we are challenged with it as well. What is God building in your life? What will your house be known for? Is Jesus your cornerstone? Living the Good News is risky business, but it exactly the business that our world longs to have- justice, peace, love, and building up instead of tearing down. Let’s be the pillars of God’s Kingdom.
Today a group of us will leave for Grundy on a mission trip. The rest of you though will go on another mission trip- a mission trip to your office, to your house, to the gym, to the grocery store. We all are embarking on a mission trip today, what will be the legacy of yours? 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity?

The old adage is that "there's no such thing as bad publicity," meaning that if your name is out there in the news, then that's a good thing. Most people have to design marketing plans, and pay for them, but publicity is free. So the thinking is that even if it's not good news, being in the news will still lead to consumer awareness and might lead to future growth.

Well, the Episcopal Church has the chance to "cash" in on some free publicity, though it's not of the good variety. On the heels of our 77th General Convention (not the best site for an overview, but it gives you the basics), two articles are lighting up Twitter, Facebook, blogs.

The first, from the New York Times: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? (and a response) and
The second, from the Wall Street Journal: What Ails the Episcopal Church? (and response 1, response 2, and response 3).

I'd recommend reading the articles to get a sense of what's going on, especially the WSJ piece as it's the one that's getting the most press. It's a terrible hack-job of writing that isn't worthy to be called journalism. The author, Jay Akasie, is grinding an axe and comes off quite bitter and incompetent. I'm quite surprised that the WSJ would allow such an article to be published. I'm all for dialogue and I welcome criticism, even if it hurts; but I ask that the criticism be founded on truth, not what would make his argument look better. And before I go any further, I will offer this disclaimer: I was not at General Convention (though I did my best to keep up with it via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Episcopal New Service, and the media hub), nor do I claim to have the quick fix for the Episcopal (or any other) Church.

Some of the above responses do a very good job at bringing reason, logic, and Christian love into the conversation, which both of the original articles lack, so I won't repeat their efforts. Instead, I have a simple question.

Why do newspapers such as the NY Times and WSJ care enough to have articles about the Episcopal Church in them? Why would Douthat, a non-Episcopalian, and Akasie, a clearly disenfranchised Episcopalian, care enough about the Episcopal Church to write about it? Why do they assume that their readers want to read about a denomination that makes up only 1.4% of the US population? If we are indeed a dying breed, as they seem to suggest, why not let us die in peace? But both of these authors think we are worthy of their column space, their time, and their readers' interest.

They both obviously think the Episcopal Church needs to be criticized, but why? Neither suggests an evil that has been done, nor do they offer anything of real substance as far as criticisms go. Perhaps they are afraid.

Fear was something that the Pharisees knew quite well in the 1st century. They saw that the religion of their day was changing because people were starting to follow the teachings of Jesus- a man who upset the status quo, challenged the authorities of the day, a rebel-rouser, and called people to live transformed lives. It would be another blog post for another day, but I won't deny that the Church has corrupted and abused the message of Jesus. I've read the thoughts of many people who were at General Convention, I'm working on the Diocesan Galilee Commission and I see God active in our Church. But I might even agree that the Episcopal Church, or at least parts of it, is dying. But for a purpose.

But as Christians, haven't we learned that death isn't the worst thing? I seem to recall that same Jewish teacher that ruffled so many feathers was involved in a Sunday morning Resurrection. Parts of the (Episcopal) Church do need to die- some of our structures prevent ministry from happening, some of our budget priorities need to be shifted, sometimes we think too highly of ourselves, sometimes we think we know where God is calling us before we listen to the Holy Spirit- we're not perfect.

I can feel the winds of change sweeping through the Church, the winds of the Holy Spirit are leading us into new waters. So we're shifting some sails, doing some things differently. And we're not exactly sure where this ship will end up. And that's scary. It scares me at times, and I think it scares Akaise and Douthat.

It's great to get publicity of any kind, I suppose- though Penn State might disagree with me. I think it's great that these authors have let people know that the Episcopal Church isn't going around doing business as usual. The Holy Spirit is indeed moving about; and by the grace of God, the Church won't look the same in the future. It will take a while for people recognize that this is a good thing, and some may never see it. But the Episcopal Church that I know, and love, and serve is a Church committed to the the Gospel of Jesus Christ- of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

So thanks to these authors for the publicity, I hope and pray that you'll be hearing a lot more about those rebel-rousing Episcopalians.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reservations Required?

The Sacrament of Last Supper by Salvador Dali, 1955.

Some restaurants require reservations and it's not really possible to just show up and get a table. But is that a fitting metaphor for Eucharist? This is a blog post I've been considering for a while, but given that General Convention is now discussing the topic of Open vs. Closed Communion, as presented in Resolution C040, it seems to be the day to post it. This resolution would replace the current Prayer Book rubric that states that "no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church" with the language "to invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion."

Here is a brief sketch of each side of the debate. It is also worth noting that sometimes the via media (or middle way) isn't a clear option because of the nature of some items. Open or Closed Communion is not a continuum, nor does anyone really advocate for receiving only the bread, but not the wine, as a compromise. This is one of those situations in which side must be chosen.

Open Communion-
The argument here centers around inclusion and hospitality. People will say "Jesus welcomed all to his table, so should we;" "this table does not belong to the Episcopal Church, but to God, and all are welcome at God's table." Terms such as "radical welcome" are used. Scripturally, proponents point to stories of the wedding banquet (Mt 22/Lk 14), all things being called clean (Acts 10), or examples where Jesus preaches inclusivity (ALL ye who are weary...Mt 11:28). This side points out that Jesus had table-fellowship with people from all walks of life and did not administer a litmus test before doing so. "Hospitality" is a common word found on this side. They will also point out that "these are the gifts of God for the people of God" noting that all are the people of God.

Closed Communion-
This side focuses has several valid points to make as well. One is history and the fact that it is the historical position of the Church. This side will also talk about the distinction between table-fellowship and the Last Supper, pointing out that the sacred meal on which Eucharist takes its roots was not "open," only the disciples were there. They will also talk about hospitality, and make a rather interesting point with it. They will use the metaphor of teaching a man to fish, saying that if you give a hungry person a fish, they eat for a day and are filled; but if you teach them to fish, they can be filled for a life time. They say that the true act of hospitality is to welcome people into the Body of Christ through Baptism. They will speak of our modern desire for "gotta have it now," and our impatience and quickness to cry out "not fair." From the Bible, in addition to the Last Supper, they cite passages such as the Great Commission (Mt 28:19) that place the emphasis of evangelism and mission on Baptism. Watering down the Sacraments (both Baptism and Eucharist) is said to be a concern of this camp if Open Communion were to be practiced. Finally, they would agree that Eucharist is the "gifts of God for the people of God," but would say that while all people are God's children (ie, the world), not everyone is the people of God (Israel vs the other nations).

Before I share my thoughts on the matter, take a moment and consider your own opinion. Where do you fall on the issue? Are my above summaries lacking? What would you add or change?

I began as an advocate for Open Communion, but have shifted to keeping Communion reserved for the Baptized. Open Communion has some very compelling arguments, and many thoughtful, compassionate, and learned Christians land here. However, I believe that these reasons are deficient for a few reasons:

1) It is important to stand for what you believe. The notions of "welcome" and "hospitality," while being wonderful and loving acts of the Christian life, can also erode genuine faith. We all stand for something (whether it's the DH in baseball, slaw on bbq, or the divinity of Jesus, we all have points on which we are unwilling to budge) and there is nothing wrong or shameful about having boundaries. As the Very Rev. Ian Markham writes "there are voices that want to advocate an unthinking vision of Eucharistic hospitality, which would result in the madness of inviting a Muslim who does not even believe that Jesus died on the cross to a table that remembers our Lord’s death... there are plenty of voices who want to exclude in the name of inclusion."

Pluralistic theology (where there is no inside or outside) is a slippery slope and is rather un-Incarnational. "If we stand for nothing, we will fall for anything" (Alexander Hamilton). To be a Christian is to hold certain truths and to live them out. Again, there is nothing wrong with saying that Baptism precedes Eucharist.

2) It is more hospitable to offer a path to membership in Christ's Body rather than to simply offer one of our most complex symbols to someone who doesn't understand it. Closed Communion does not mean we don't welcome people, but it does mean that instead of giving them a quick handshake, we invite them in and ask them to join the family- which is a much more radical welcome. Again, it is not to exclude, but to include in a more substantial way.

3) Other Sacraments requires a discernment/learning/preparation experience (Ordination, Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Reconciliation). Would Baptize a non-Christian just because they asked for it? Would we ordain a Muslim to be welcoming? Would we marry a Jewish couple in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Probably not. So why would we consider giving Eucharist to them?

4) Eucharistic theology is so deep and rich that to give it to anyone who would take it is to diminish and ignore that depth of meaning. This isn't to say that you need to be a liturgical scholar to receive Eucharist, but to simply hand it out without discretion is to reduce its meaning.

5) There is much theology around the ability to receive Eucharist without actually partaking in it (consider hospital patients who cannot take food/drink by mouth). The "highlight" of the Sunday service is the great AMEN that follows the Eucharistic Prayer, and this is the work of the people. Baptized and unbaptized can say it, and all are able to take part in the liturgy. I would not suggest that the unbaptized should be removed from the church before Communion starts (as was the practice in the early Church). All may participate in the celebration of the Eucharist- but the receiving of Eucharist if for members of the Body of Christ who receives bread which is the Body of Christ. Furthermore, anyone may come to the altar for a blessing.

6) The Sacrament actually does belong to the Church, at least in a sense. The Church is the steward of the Sacraments. God's grace is for all and is given to all, but the Sacraments fall under the auspices of the Church. For God, all things may be possible, but without the Church I'm not sure how the Eucharist would be celebrated. Yes, metaphorically it can happen around shared meals, but I'm talking about the actual Sacrament. So if the Church oversees and administers the Sacrament, it makes sense that the Sacraments are for the Church and fall within the confines of the Church.

7) Eucharist is not the only vehicle for God's grace, love, forgiveness, or Kingdom. It is one vehicle for the Baptized, and there are others. There are also other vehicles for the non-Baptized. We can even break bread with one another and have table fellowship and love feasts (agape), but again when we break the Body of Christ as the Sacrament, it is for the Body of Christ. To close Eucharist is not to send people out with "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

8) History is important. If the Spirit is indeed calling us to a new understanding of Eucharist, let's give it a generation to see if we still can discern the same new truth in 20 years. There is no need to change the rubric so quickly. Closed Communion is not discrimination, there are no victims, so this is not like same-sex marriage in which there are actual instances of hurt and exclusion. Let's take our time and see if the Spirit is blowing, or are we just spouting the hot-air of modernity?

9) There are compelling arguments for Open Communion, such as powerful stories of unbaptized people taking Communion and feeling God's grace. But as lawyers will say, "hard cases make bad law." If such an experience is so powerful, what does it mean? And how much more would full-initiation mean? Heaven might have Open Communion, but I think it's safe to say that everyone there is also fully on-board with God (whatever God fully is) and there are no debates around theology. It's not really a fair comparison. Our goal is not to make this world Heaven, but rather it is to make this world reflect Heaven. To make our world Heaven is to create an idol- the idol of perfection.

10) It's the Prayer Book rubric, and I need good reasons to break a Prayer Book rubric. I will and do bend certain rubrics; but not all rubrics are created equal, and not all have impacts as significant as this one. Now bending and breaking might sound like a fine line, and it is. However, I am not persuaded by arguments for Open Communion to the point that I'd disregard history and tradition.

For fuller and more academic reasons for Closed Communion, see this article.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I look forward to the time when all of Creation will gather at the heavenly banquet. But in the meantime, I am thankful for the opportunity to discuss how best to invite all people to participate in the grace of God.

Agree? Disagree? Questions? Thoughts? Be sure to check comments too!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 1, 2012 - Proper 8B

In the name of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
            In the spirit of the upcoming celebration of Independence Day, you might entitle this sermon “In God We Trust.” It’s printed on our money and assumed as our national motto. But what does trusting in God actually mean?
            Our reading from the Gospel according to Mark deals with this issue of trust, especially as it relates to healing. It seems that both trust and healing are in short supply. We are distrustful of so much. Thanks to the internet, anyone can be an “expert” on any subject without knowing anything; tv networks do a “Fact Check” segment after a politicians speak; and as the trial of Jerry Sandusky reminds us, trust is too easily broken.
And healing is something of which there is more demand than supply. We all need to be healed from some ill- whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual. If you don’t think you need to be healed, then perhaps your illness is being too sheltered or the inability to recognize brokenness. The wars that rage on around the world and children dying of hunger are ills that we all suffer from. We need more healing, and we need more trust.
These two issues are addressed by Jesus today. This reading is an example of what scholars all the Marcan sandwich- it’s a story in the middle of story. So the encounter with Jairus is the bread, and the hemorrhaging woman is the peanut butter. When you read through Mark, you’ll find sandwiches all over the place, and often these sandwiches involve a contrast between the circumstances but a harmony in meaning.
So what does today’s sandwich offer us? Well, we start with Jairus, who, as our text says, is a leader of the synagogue. Today, you might call him a bishop or a senator. He was well known, powerful, and had lots of resources at his disposal. So we start with him coming to Jesus and begging that his daughter might be healed. The story is then interrupted.
On the way there a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years comes to him for healing, but in a different way. This woman would have been a societal outcast because her bleeding made her unclean. She would have gotten dirty looks from everyone, people would go out of their way to avoid walking by her on the road. So she knows that she cannot dare approach Jesus and speak to him. She walks up behind Jesus and touches his cloak and was healed. Jesus catches her in this radical act of faith and tells her that her faith has made her well.
We then find ourselves back at Jairus, going from the lowest rung of society, back to its upper echelon. And it appears to be too late, as the girl is dead. This little incident with the woman slowed Jesus down and he missed his chance. Jesus goes into the house and tells her to get up, and she does.
The contrast between this unnamed woman and Jairus couldn’t be any starker, and that is part of Mark’s point in using this sandwich technique. Two people who would never cross paths, who would never be mentioned in the same sentence are now linked for all eternity in the proclamation of the Good News. They have different truths in their life- different lifestyles, different socio-economic classes; in many ways, they didn’t even live in the same world. But they also shared a very powerful truth- they both experienced the healing of Jesus through their trust in him.
They both trusted in the power of Jesus and his healing touch. Jairus comes to Jesus and asks him to lay hands on his daughter, and the woman just wants to touch the hem of his robe. We all know the power of touch in our lives. Touch, in the form of a slap or punch, can destroy relationships, or in the form of a hug, can build up. Touch can violate boundaries, or it can initiate a relationship in a handshake. I’m reading in baby books the importance of the loving touching of a newborn, but we also remember the ways touch has been used to exploit young children by predators. Touch can nurture and touch can tear apart. Some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a priest have come at the touch of hands. When I was ordained and had hands laid upon me, I felt as if I was in the throne room of heaven. When I touch the bread and wine at Eucharist, I feel a great sense of awe. When I anoint the sick with holy oil, both parties are greatly moved. When I distribute communion, I find the touch of hands and bread to be powerful. And while I understand the need for Safe Church policies, I really lament that sometimes we have to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to touch.
Jairus and this woman both understand the power of touch. The thing about touch is that it requires us to be very close to one another. You can’t touch each other through a video chat or letter in the mail. There is something about being with each other that is powerful. But to be close enough to each other to touch, we must have a trusting relationship with one another. To be touched is to be vulnerable, but often healing only comes through touch, so we must trust.
I was struck by the line in Mark where it says that the woman knelt down to Jesus and told him her whole truth. The text doesn’t say it, but this very well might be first instance of Confession in the gospels. Confession is one of those sacraments that doesn’t get very much play in the Episcopal Church, but it should. The old adage about Confession is that “none must, some should, all may.” The Confession that we say before in the service each Sunday is really meant as to be a communal confession, not as a replacement for the sacrament of Confession.
In the Prayer Book, you’ll find that it’s called Reconciliation, which is what it’s about all about- restoring relationships so that we can be closer to God and each other, close enough to touch each other without being afraid. It is such a powerful sacramental experience because it doesn’t talk about some vague promise of forgiveness, but rather is about having an actual experience of being restored and renewed. Forgiveness is not the rewards for changing your life, but rather it is the source and condition of that change.
So I want to take this opportunity to uphold the ministry of reconciliation to you all, and invite you to participate in the holy work of Confession. And unlike the movies, you don’t have to be a mobster who just whacked someone to come to Confession. We all have a truth to tell, and Confession is a great way to tell that truth in the trust and confidence of the Church of Jesus Christ. In being forgiven, we come closer to God and closer to God’s healing and saving touch.
In this reading today, Jesus says “do not fear, only believe.” But that’s not always easy to do. It’s especially tough when we long for healing and don’t find it. Sometimes I really wish I could rewrite parts of the Bible. Or not so much rewrite, but add some stories about Jesus. I really wish there would have been a time where Jesus went to heal someone, but they died instead of getting up and walking. Because, that’s life. I read this story about Jairus’ daughter, and part of me really doesn’t understand why it is that she gets to live and so many others don’t.
Before I was born, my parents had a happy and healthy baby girl. But an unexpected medical emergency came up, and she died in surgery when she was two days old. I bet my parents prayed as hard as Jairus did, I bet they begged God just as much as he did; they wanted healing as much as the woman did. But my sister stayed dead.
Preachers often talk about how healing doesn’t always equal a cure, but sometimes I really wish that we had a story about Jesus encountering that reality. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Jesus take a stroll through Moses Cone and send everyone home happy and healthy? But it doesn’t work that way.
And this where fear comes into play. We fear that miracles aren’t possible; or that they were possible in Jesus’ day, but not here and now. Or we wonder if our sins have precluded us from experiencing this sort of healing. But as I’ve already said, we are forgiven, we are loved. Or perhaps we fear that we don’t have enough faith. And as Paul suggests in today’s epistle, we are judged based on what we do have, not what we do not have. Faith is not a contest, nor is there anything such as too much or too little faith. Perhaps you have the faith to move a mountain, and that’s great and wonderful. Maybe you have faith that struggles to move a piece of paper during a windstorm, and that’s okay too. Don’t beat yourself up over having enough faith. So what gives? Where’s the healing?
            Fear is a tough thing. As Jesus says, “don’t fear, but have faith.” That is, don’t be afraid, but instead live in trust, and live in love. The renowned preacher Peter Gomes once wrote that “fear is the absence of courage and poverty of imagination.” When we fear, we are unable to act; we are unable to feel God’s touch. When we are afraid we act out of our lowest possible emotional intelligence. Fear casts out things such as reason, hope, joy, and wonder. Fear can crush the spirit and closes the door to opportunity. Gomes also says that we fear what we don’t know and the mother of fear is ignorance.
            So Jesus cautions us against fearing. When we are ignorant, or unaware of, the touch of God going on around us, it’s awfully hard to be healed. When we are blind to the needs of others, it’s quite hard to help them out. If we focus on our sin, we cannot live freely in our forgiveness. If we fear that miracles are impossible, we probably won’t see them when they do happen.
            Sometimes I wonder if Jesus was ever afraid during these healings. Did he ever think to himself “what happens if the girl doesn’t get up? Then I’m going to be in trouble.” If Jesus did have that fear, it certainly didn’t show. Perhaps this is because the opposite of fear is not courage, but instead is compassion; and Jesus was a man full of compassion. We cannot fear what we love, and so compassion leaves no room for fear in our doing of God’s work.
            When you’re the new kid at school, your fear can get you eaten alive. And if you show too much courage, you’re treated as the kid who’s full of themselves. But the kid who comes in and is full of compassion will often fit right in. It’s hard to be afraid of someone who is nice; and if you’re focus is on loving others, it’s tough to be afraid of them.
            Now will compassion bring the dead back to life? Probably not. But if compassion ruled in every interaction, there would be a lot more healing in our world, and that would be miracle enough for me.
            Well, I hope that this Marcan sandwich was enough to hold you over until brunch. We are all in need of healing, and we yearn to trust in something that will not let us down. Whether we relate best to Jairus or the hemorrhaging woman, we come to Jesus seeking his healing touch in our lives. We are invited to tell our whole truth, in order to restore relationships; that we might trust each other enough to be close enough to touch. Jesus demonstrates that fear is cast out by compassion. So that in seeking to follow the example of Jesus’ compassion, we are given the opportunity to abound in the healing power of Jesus.
In God we trust. Amen.