All-Access Jesus

a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B/Lectionary 13]

Mark 5:21-43

I don’t tend to spend a whole lot of time in emergency departments of hospitals—although with a 5-year-old son that is changing—but I do visit them on occasion when people I know are sick. What I’ve learned from my times in emergency rooms is that you can meet anyone there. The emergency room is one of those few places that really makes no distinction between people. Anyone could find themselves there at some point, and most of us probably will, regardless of how old we are or how wealthy we are where we live or even how overall healthy we are. I bet if you poked your head into the different pods in an emergency room on any given day you would probably find one of the most random assortment of people possible. Issues of health and illness and pain do this to us. They kind of equal us out.

As Jesus makes his way through the cities of Galilee he becomes a walking, talking emergency room. A seemingly random assortment of people find him and crowd around him and begin seeking his help. Anyone, it seems, is comfortable approaching him.

The stories we hear this morning from Mark’s gospel illustrate this more than possibly any other stories in the New Testament. And the peculiar way these two episodes of healing happen shows us just how astoundingly diverse the crowd is who seek him. First, there is a leader of the synagogue. We hear his name: Jairus. He is one of only two people in the healing stories in the gospels who is ever named. This suggests that people in that area or in the community that Mark was writing for may have known Jairus or at least known who he was. Jairus’ daughter is dying and he is desperate for her to live. He loves her. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for help.

Just as Jesus starts towards Jairus’ house, here comes someone else in the next emergency pod over. We don’t learn her name, but it was not common at all to know or care about the names of most poor, ill women. This widow is just one of the crowd. She doesn’t stand out, and is people were aware of her particular medical condition, which involved open bleeding, they would definitely stand back from her. She approaches Jesus very differently from Jairus. She sneaks up to Jesus and grabs his clothes from behind hoping he won’t notice. This is probably how she’s lived the past twelve years of her life as her condition worsened. The only people she’s been particular direct with are the doctors who haven’t been able to help her but put her through the wringer nonetheless.

And so these two people could not be more different, especially in ancient society, which was really keen on dividing people and assigning value. One of them is male, a person of power whose name is known. He appeals to Jesus in a manner showing respect and deference. He is wealthy and ritually clean, meaning people can be around him and touch him and not risk their own social status. She is a poor, unnamed female who is ritually unclean, which is to say because of the religious laws of the time no one would want to be around her, much less touch her, even less speak be spoken to by her in public. She has no power, no status, no agency. He comes across as a person who follows the social rules. He bows, he asks directly and honestly for what he wants. She, on the other hand, comes across as pushy and clever, aware that if she’s going to get what she wants, she’s going to have to break some boundaries. And in some ways, her pushiness is what creates Jesus’ delay to Jairus’ house where his daughter is dying.

We know that Jesus receives all people. This is not really new to us if we’ve been paying attention. Up until this point he has not wavered in helping people and driving out demons wherever he encounters them. He talks about his kingdom in ways that make us realize. It is drastically different from kingdoms of the world, kingdoms that almost always give preference to the powerful and the well-connected and the good looking. Having both of these people put together like this, back to back, their stories intertwined, makes it absolutely clear.

Just as issues of health and medical need tend to equal us all out—the rich and powerful and the poor and unnamed alike—so does Jesus’ mercy. In the emergency room we are all just people who are in dire need of healing, and all of us have to sit in that waiting room together. So are we the same before Jesus. Whether the world treats us like Jairus or the world treats us like the woman with the hemorrhage, we are each able to access him, and he will break boundaries to make that happen.

When I served in Pittsburgh I had a colleague who served a downtown congregation right in the middle of a very blighted urban area. It had once been a large and affluent congregation, but like many other downtown congregations its neighborhood had been affected by dramatic economic and demographic changes. By the time I arrived on the scene he had been there a number of years, and there were some thriving outreach ministries from the congregation reaching out into the area. It was still not a particular safe area, but the church was a haven for children and adults of all ages, and particularly for those who had been left behind in the economic drift.

What I found particular impressive and daring was that he expressly ordered the church doors never to be locked. There was no alarm system and, in fact, on most warm days the front doors were propped open all day long. He felt that sacred space should never be off-limits to anybody. That kind of decision might not work best everywhere and for every church, but, then again, it was key to the thriving of that congregation. Yes, it probably made it a bit unsafe to be there at times, but on the other hand, no one had to be pushy or clever or get there at the right time in order to find a community of faith or a moment of safety and solace. Anyone could walk right in.

Jesus lets anyone walk right up to him, and eventually find he will let anyone treat him however they want. His life is all-access, his own body a kind of door that God intentionally props open so that anyone can receive life he gives. God intentionally leaves it open, even as people take advantage of it and torture him and mock him and hang him on a cross to die.

People feel uncomfortable with full access—with churches that let anyone and everyone walk right in, with congregations that let anyone come to the communion rail—and people feel uncomfortable with a God who opens the kingdom even to people we would call pushy. And yet this is how God will receive each of us, in the open arms of Jesus that none of us deserve. That is how faith is found and grown. For Jairus to the hemorrhaging woman, and all those in between, the power of God’s healing and peace is always given.

I’ve been participating in a continuing education lecture series over the past couple of weeks called “Religion and the Spiritual Crisis: Ministry in the secular age.” It is being co-led by Andrew Root of Luther Seminary who wrote a book that some of us on staff read together a few years ago called Faith Formation in a Secular Age. A lot of it goes over my head, but the main idea they are discussing is that we live in a disenchanted time when it is just as easy not to believe in God as it is to believe in God. There once was a time when belief in God was a given, but that time is no more and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It’s just the water we swim in now. It’s not just that people distrust religion or don’t want to participate in a community of faith. It’s just that we live in such a here-and-now mindset that faith seems unnecessary. People don’t even care about old categories that we used to think about all the time, like whether miracles can happen, or whether we go some place else when we die, or whether we can be sinner or saint, or both at the same time, like Martin Luther said.

The leaders of this event I’m participating in articulate a lot of what pastors and church members feel these days—that the things about our faith that mean so much to us, the things that gather us and shape us for life, just don’t get much traction anymore. People don’t seem interested or concerned. Perhaps you’re feeling that too, if not within yourselves then maybe with your family members or your friends. It feels as if no one wants or needs the sacred anymore, much less believe in it.

In the midst of all of this doubt and apparent lack of desire for God people will still experience a sense of emptiness or need. They’ll experience crisis or pain or boredom, a hint that they have a soul. Maybe it’s a Jairus moment, a time of acute desperation. Maybe it’s like the woman…a nagging sense you try to hide that things could be better. And the best thing we can do as people of faith in these moments is not to offer proofs of God’s existence or prayer for a miracle or a church program or a wondrous Bible study but rather an invitation to listen and walk with them, to be there for them. The places where faith in a transcendent God can still make itself seen and heard and grow like a mustard seed is when people of God are just available.

It is when we keep the doors of our hearts open and offer people opportunities to share in our life together here around the table and around the font. It is to practice real friendship and non-judgment. It is not to spout off answers about faith, but just listen to people’s questions and wonder with them. It is about access, not appearing closed off or better than anyone—it’s about giving of ourselves to all people once again, just as the bread and wine are given over and over, as Jesus gives himself to all who came to him.

Because the Jairuses of the world and the nobodies will both eventually come looking and wondering. And when Jesus’ people can be open and generous of spirit in a world that is machine-like and cold, then there is a sign that God is truly still active and full of power, moving in our midst. Ready to receive. Ready to create faith.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Who Then Is This?!

a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B/Lectionary 12]

Mark 4:35-41

There was a big storm that came through Richmond one night this week—I think it was Monday night around 3am—did you hear it? I remember hearing dramatic thunderclaps all of a sudden, the bright flashes of lightning against the bedroom walls, and thinking, as I tried to go back to sleep, that at least one child would be in our bed in a matter of minutes. It’s been a long time since a storm has woken me up, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. The next day almost everyone I spoke to mentioned how it had woken them up, too. It must have been a huge storm system because friends from all across Henrico County reported it, and even people down in Chesterfield were mentioning how loud it was…everyone I spoke to, that is, except the person who was in bed next to me. My wife, Melinda, slept soundly through the entire thing. She even slept through our five-year-old climbing into bed with us and putting his head on her pillow. A spider can practically skitter across the ceiling in a distant corner of the room and she will wake up and ask me to kill it, but the loudest storm of 2021 doesn’t rouse her.

So I guess all I’m saying is that it doesn’t surprise me at all that Jesus never wakes up during this storm on Lake Galilee. Some people are just deep sleepers. And these particular storms, after all, were relatively common. Lake Galilee was prone to sudden squalls that could whip up out of nowhere. On top of all that, Jesus is likely exhausted. That’s not explicitly mentioned in the text anywhere, but we can connect some dots. He has just finished teaching what could have been hundreds of people for several days. The disciples whisk him into a boat to leave just as he is. I’m not sure what that means, but I bet it means they gave him no time to freshen up or change clothes or anything like that. Also, they give him the only cushion in the boat. So he gets comfortable, and next think you know he’s out like a light. He’s going to sleep through anything.

The disciples, on the other hand, fear for their lives. This storm could wipe them off the face of the earth, the waves emptying them and everything else in the boat into the depths of the sea. The waves and wind must really be substantial because, after all, many of these guys are fishermen. They spend multiple hours each day in boats, reading the sea, watching the sky for signs of bad weather. They probably were not particularly prone to panic in situations like this unless it was really bad. Like frightened little kid in the middle of the night stumbling into his parents’ room, they find Jesus and their anxiety spills over.

It is not altogether clear whether they think Jesus can do anything about it. In fact, I think if you take the whole account together, especially set in the context of Mark’s whole story, it looks like they don’t think Jesus can actually do anything other than maybe help them scoop more water out of the boat. They call him, “Teacher,” for that is really how they’ve come to know him up to this point. They admire their teacher, they have been called into mission by him, but as far as they can probably tell, his ministry is rooted in explaining and healing. He explains important things about what he kingdom of God is like and what Scripture teaches and he heals people who are sick. They are not aware that he is much more than that. And those are important things, but they aren’t readily translatable to keeping a boat from sinking. When they wake him up they are probably just worried that he will die too and confused that he’s OK sleeping right through it.

Christ on the storm on the Lake of Galilee (Rembrandt, 1632)

As you might imagine, this event is the subject of quite a few famous paintings. Rembrandt has one, as does Delacroix and Brueghel the Elder. What is interesting about many of these well-known works of art is they almost always depict Jesus in the act of sleeping, not in the dramatic act of stilling the storm. Rembrandt’s painting is probably the most famous. Known for his creative use and placement of light, which is called chiaroscuro to all you art majors, Rembrandt shows the bow of the boat lifting far out of the water, the brightest focusing your eyes on the place where a wave is crashing over the side. Two men are barely holding onto the rigging, and a third is almost completely awash in the water and spray, as if he might be taken back into the water once the boat lists back to the front. Another man is depicted hanging over the side, vomiting into the water.

These are the things that catch your eye. You have to really hunt to find Jesus. He is in the shadows, at the back and near the bottom, seated, completely removed from the area that is illuminated. He does not look powerful or mighty. He does not stand out or look superhuman in any way. He looks kind of like a professor. Of course, we know that when they finally rouse him, Jesus does not display an ounce of anxiety, but rebukes the waves and wind and brings peace to the sea. And then they are amazed. He is not just a professor. He is someone with truly special powers, and suddenly their perception of him is going to change.

It’s like in that coronation scene from Disney’s Frozen when Queen Elsa gets upset with her sister and accidentally lets her ice powers, which had been secret, spill out in front of everyone. The floor turns to ice, the fountain freezes, and all of Arendell is subjected to a permanent winter. Just like that, everyone’s understanding of just who Elsa is changes. She’s not just a royal. She can control nature. They’re in awe, and very frightened of her too, calling her a monster and accusing her of sorcery.

(Juan de Flandes) Jesus looks like he’s checking his notifications.

In this moment on the boat, our understanding of just who Jesus is changes. He has powers that clearly place him above the realm of nature. Like God his Father, he alone can exert control over chaos, which is what the sea and the wind symbolized to ancient people. Several commentators note that this episode in the boat begins to put distance between Jesus and his disciples. He silences the storm, but he also immediately chides them for their lack of faith. That is, his first and only words to them are not ones of comfort or understanding. He doesn’t say, “You know, it’s OK to feel scared in a storm.” Or “What I hear you guys saying is that you’re afraid we’re going to die.” He rebukes the storm and then essentially rebukes them for putting all the light on the storm, not on God. It puts a distance there. While he is human, he is also not one of them. While he works and moves among them, his mission is bigger than they can understand. While he is vulnerable to forces around him, he is also able to bend them to peace and life. This is the Lord of our life, the One who sails with us and bids us to cross the sea with him, the One who gets exhausted for us, the One who lets the powers of darkness do their worst to him. The cross and its death do come, and Jesus is still there to ensure peace and life will emerge from them. We may never witness Jesus actually controlling nature, but we do know that his presence and words—even after we die—have the power to tame the chaos of our lives.

I feel like I shouldn’t even have to say it, mainly because I feel like it’s all I’ve said for weeks, but the whole last sixteen months has felt like a long storm. In fact, it’s been a combination of several storms, all whirling around and among us. There’s no need, really, to re-hash it all—the way school was, the way worship was, the way life was, the maelstrom of discouraging science news, the arguing among everyone, the distrust. People clinging to the rigging to keep things afloat, the waves of regret and grief, and all the vomiting over the side. Yes, it was rough, but I’m trying to direct my thoughts to that shore where Jesus is taking us, strange as it may be.

And yet there were so many times I was anxious, and so many times I listened to anxious people. Why did I have such little faith? Why was always cranking up the spotlight on the bad things? What I did notice was that each time things seemed lost it was a word of Christ that brought stillness at hand. Now that the seas are a bit calmer, I can look back and see that when someone shared themselves selflessly, in the manner of Jesus, things felt immediately less treacherous, like God would get us through this. For my family, virtual learning was no cruise ship ride, and based on my discussions with other parents and the teachers who had to make it work, we weren’t alone in that. In September I thought there was no way we’d manage a year on-line with a 7th grader and an 8th grader and a 4-year-old who was going to have to wear a mask all day, and yet here we are, in June, on the other side of the sea, beholding a miracle.

This past Tuesday our monthly lunch group for retired men was able to re-gather for the first time since February of 2020. Among these gentlemen were two who were hospitalized with COVID, and one who lost his wife to it. We shared stories from the past year— things we learned, like how fun it is to shop for shoes on-line—but mostly the men wanted to talk about what’s coming next. All in all it was more of a forward-looking lunch than a backward-looking one. One guy brought a chart of worship attendance statistics he had typed up that clearly indicate a positive trend. People are still joining us on line and returning to in-person worship. And one gentleman offered to help with the next church photo directory which, in his opinion, should happen soon. There are so many new faces to get to know!

Yes, Jesus goes with us—just as he is—in the storms. Sometimes it feels like he is asleep and we think he’s snoring through it, but he knows when to exert the force of his love and there is peace once again. And the rest of us are filled with awe and saying to one another, as I did that day once again, and I know I will in the days to come, “Who then is this, that even the wind, and sea—and pandemic chaos—obey him?”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Great Family Reunion

a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 5B/Lectionary 10B]

Mark 3:20-35 and Genesis 3:8-15

This week the Wall Street Journal ran a piece with the headline, “The Great American Reunion.”[1] With poignant photos of different people embracing each other, many of whom were not wearing masks so that their wide and infectious smiles could be seen, the article was made up of several different stories of people across the U.S. who were planning to use the summer of 2021 as a chance to spend time with family. The sub-headline reads, “Families and friends are coming together after long separations as vaccinations rise; ‘My God, we’re back.’”

One story tells of the reunion between 22-year-old Nicole Chase, a recent college graduate, and her mother, who lives about two hours away. Having chosen to keep apart for months in order to protect a step-father with a compromised immune system, Nicole and her mother finally get together for a visit on Mother’s Day now that they’re all vaccinated. They hug, and neither want to let go. At one point Nicole says that the best part of the weekend was just being in her mother’s presence. “Being around her,” she explains, “just feels like home and secure and the one place where I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Sound familiar? There are stories just like this about people here. One older couple here has been waiting for over a year to see and hug their adult son, who lives in a special home for people with traumatic brain injuries. Their first meeting just a couple of weeks ago was happy and blessed. Scenes like this are occurring throughout the country these days as we begin to turn the corner against COVID, and the joyful reunions of human communities are perhaps the best part of it all.

But being with family is not always a blessed and harmonious thing. After a period of separation because of his ministry and travels, Jesus returns home only to have his family try to restrain him. It is not entirely clear whether they are trying to protect him or silence him, bring him in for some of mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese or lock him up in that room down in the basement because everyone thinks he’s crazy.

Because at this point, some important people do think Jesus is crazy. This huge crowd follows him everywhere he goes. You know those scenes from American Idol when the final contestants get to go back to their hometown after they’ve gotten a little famous? That’s what we can imagine here. There are people lining the roads, fans showing up in front of wherever Jesus is staying just to get a photo or an autograph. Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t even eat because of the crowd. But worse than that, the religious authorities have followed Jesus all the way from Jerusalem because they have seen him casting out demons and they see the commotion he’s started and they are convinced that he is up to no good. For Jesus, being in the presence of his kin is not the one place where he doesn’t have to worry about anything.

You could make the argument that just about every moment of Jesus’ life is a critical point but this particular event in his hometown is very important. The core of Jesus’ reputation and the direction of his mission is on the line. He is being accused of being a devil worshiper. I remember when accusing someone of being a Satanist was one of the worst things you could say about someone. When I was growing up there was an old run-down house way out at the edge of town that was reportedly haunted and used as a site for devil worship. There was absolutely no evidence to back that claim up, but we teenagers would drive out there at dark just to freak ourselves out. It was like a no-man’s land, only good for the bulldozer. No one would buy it…or so we thought.

When the scribes claim that Jesus has Beelzebul, they are saying that his house is haunted. And Jesus knows that these rumors must stop. For God’s kingdom of life and light to take hold, Jesus must make it clear that his actions are always for the good. When he is busy casting out other people’s demons, he is advancing God’s peace and justice, not causing the demons, themselves. If Jesus were on Satan’s side, he would instead be busy trying to put demons into people. It makes no sense, Jesus says, for his works to be described as dark and evil because his works are clearly an attempt to rid the world of evil. Jesus comes to bind up Satan the strong man and plunder his property. By that he means us (remember he’s speaking in parables)—we are the precious property of God, and we belong in God’s kingdom. But the forces of darkness that rebel against God have taken us hostage. Jesus comes to combat that and, by handing over his life, undo the control that these things have on us.

For some of us, this may be a strange way to understand Jesus, the man who comes to offer his life as a ransom for many, who lets himself get beaten and bound up in the worst possible way when he dies on the cross. But Jesus here, in the presence of his family and this huge crowd certainly understands himself as a superhero with strength and might who comes to tie up and do in the satanic forces so that he can rescue God’s people. This image of Jesus, this mission of Jesus, is precisely where the verses of one of our most beloved hymns come from, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

No strength of ours would match his might (the “his” in that sentence is the devil).
We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight,
Whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?
The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,
God’s only Son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.

What Jesus needs the crowd to understand, what Jesus wants you and I to know, is that in Jesus, God has come for us. Jesus has not come to harm us or condemn us or harass us. Jesus is not unleashing the forces of chaos on our lives. Jesus is the way God himself follows up on the question that God first asks to Adam and Eve, our first parents, that question that rings out when Adam and Eve go hiding, running away from their responsibility and their dignity into the dark places of the world. Looking for them, his beloved creatures, his pride and joy, God calls and says, “Where are you?” In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is continuing that question. Where are we? Where have we run to? There is no place Jesus can’t find us, and there is no strong force Jesus won’t tie up with his love in order to have us back. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus holds the field you are on victorious.

This is why Jesus says that people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. A blasphemy in this case is essentially an insult against God. God grants forgiveness for all of our brokenness, all of our misrepresentations of God and God’s goodness and the ways we let God down. God forgives all of our participation in the systems of corruption and oppression, but when people start to call the work of Jesus evil, that crosses a line. When someone outright denies the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, God’s ability to find us in the first place, then forgiveness isn’t possible because it’s like the person has already decided it doesn’t exist, that God doesn’t forgive and create new life.

This remark of Jesus piques our interest, I think, because we’ve heard there is nothing beyond the bounds of God’s love. God seeks out the lost sheep every time. We’re not accustomed to thinking that there is actually something we could do that would be ultimately unforgiveable. But Jesus makes this statement to the scribes to drive home a critical point: God’s saving acts are at work in Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit doing these things, not an unclean spirit, and that must be put in as stark terms as possible. To insult him is one thing, and he will undergo plenty of them, but to label his works as haunted, or evil, or a demonic force is to label life and healing and forgiveness itself evil and demonic.

When a person comes to the font to be baptized, or when they bring a child to the font for Holy Baptism, the pastor actually begins with something called an interrogation. Usually this interrogation takes the form of one to three questions, depending on how it’s worded. Here at Epiphany we ask:

“Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”

“Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” and

“Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”

Those questions have formed the beginning of the church’s baptismal rite from the very beginning because it needs to be clear here as this water is poured and these prayers are said, that this line is clear. This is the Holy Spirit at work, and there is no way that someone who is possessed of evil intentions or an unclean spirit could presumably respond to those interrogations by saying, “I renounce them.” It would be like Satan renouncing himself, and we know that Jesus says a house divided against itself cannot stand! Filled with the Holy Spirit, a person answers these questions with “I renounce them” and it’s a way of saying, “Yes, I want the life that Jesus brings. Yes, I know that God has found me in Jesus. He holds the field for me victorious.”

And when we receive that life, we receive a new family too, the new community that God has sent Jesus to redeem and gather. Jesus re-draws the lines of relationship, breaking down restrictive lines of blood and marriage and opening us up to a greater fellowship than our earthly families could ever provide. They are the brothers and sisters who have been washed in baptism with us, those who have been sought out and found by our one Father in heaven. People of all colors and ages and kinds. They belong to us and we to them,

As the seniors in the class of 2021 sat together in Price Hall the other evening for their picnic and recognition, I couldn’t help but give thanks for the sense of siblinghood many of them have among each other. I couldn’t help but be filled with joy for the ways they’d grown up here in the faith, especially in this year when so many other relationships were put on hold by pandemic. As I reflect on the lives and witness of people like June Cheelsman, of blessed memory, whose time among us at Epiphany and whose particular life path as a single person was a brilliant testament to how the church is a true family, I am filled with gratitude for how this community has nourished and enriched my children’s faith.

We renounce the ways that draw us from God because we know God draws us to him and with so many others. As this pandemic slowly draws to an end, and our family meetings resume, may we all gather for our reunion at the table of Jesus, where once again he lifts up the bread and wine and declares to those sitting around him, “Though life be wrenched away. The demons cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours, folks. Forever.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.