Kevin Steiner is the first of our 2009 Lay Preacher series. A perpetual graduate student at Case, you may recognize Kevin as that guy in the yellow helmet, pondering Good News as he pedals his bike around northeast Ohio.
For those who have been in church the last two Sundays, you will recall that Pastor John is in the midst of a series of sermons on deep faith topics – the lexicon of faith. Two weeks ago, he kicked off the series with the topic of sin. Last week he continued on with grace. And at the end of his sermon he provided a bit of a teaser saying “Last week, ‘sin.’ This week, ‘grace.’ Next time, ‘repentance.'” Well, obviously I am not John, and if you came this morning expecting a good, old-fashioned repentance sermon, I’m afraid you’ll have to come back next week. And no, this is not part of a conspiracy to keep you coming back week after week, it’s just the way the schedule worked out.
Since we have been away from the Gospel lectionary readings for a few weeks, I’d like to take a moment to place this wonderful and, for me at least, somewhat troubling story in the broader context of Mark’s gospel. The healing of this woman and the raising of Jairus’ daughter take place upon Jesus’ return across the lake of Galilee after a brief foray to the country of the Gerasenes. You may recall on the way across the lake the first time, Jesus calmed a sudden and violent storm that had his boat companions at their wits end. Once ashore, Jesus cast out a legion of demons from a man in a manner perhaps troubling to all who love pigs. Though the formerly possessed man experienced a life transforming event, the swineherds and townspeople were understandably confused and afraid and begged Jesus to make himself welcome somewhere else. So Jesus recrosses the lake, setting the stage for this morning’s gospel story.
Now Mark, recording these events decades after they took place, almost certainly placed this trio of miraculous works together with a purpose – it seems the intent is to clearly demonstrate and confront the reader/hearer with the extraordinary and far-reaching power of this man Jesus. Authority over the seemingly chaotic and frightening power of nature, authority over the spiritual world and demons, and finally power over physical and social ailments and indeed, over death itself. We are set up to feel with those witnesses utter amazement. Surely there is a sermon in that, right?
And yet, this story of the bleeding woman and the dead daughter stuck in my craw for some reason. So I began searching deeper for other potential sermon topics. And the more I looked, the more ideas came pouring forth:
- Jesus’ insistence on a deeper, personal interaction with the woman who touched his cloak reaffirms that Jesus did not come simply as a healer or miracle worker. There is more to faith than personal gain or a fleeting encounter, there is a deeper, transformative relationship with God.
- Or perhaps a little edgier and maybe a bit thinner theologically – that Jesus intentionally delayed in the assistance of a presumably powerful and wealthy leader, Jairus, in order to heal a destitute, socially outcast, woman. Some would suggest this lends evidence of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and disenfranchised.
- Or, how Jesus felt it important to publicly bring her forth to commend her faith and to call her “daughter” – to reaffirm for her what John and Clover so frequently remind us (and rightly so!) that we are all beloved children of God.
I think any of these ideas have potential as a meaningful and powerful sermon topic. But none of them stirred me. And unfortunately, for me at least, I know why. I have been blessed to experience several small group experiences through this church – Faith Leader and Bibles and Bagels most notably – and if you would ask others that I have shared these experiences with they will likely tell you that I am a questioner, I struggle with the easy answers, I strive for nuance and subtlety, and often in light of real world experiences of myself and others, I wonder if we aren’t misinterpreting and missing some of the good news.
Indeed, the more time I spent with this story in Mark, the more almost cynical I became. Jesus is confronted with two scenarios needing fixing, and what does he do? What else would he do? Of course he heals them; he fixes things in an almost magical fashion. It seems so simple – two individuals put themselves out there as they approach Jesus – Jairus verbally and assertively and the nameless woman no less assertively but attempting to be a bit more surreptitious – they present themselves and their requests and Jesus grants them, simultaneously exhorting their belief in him and affirming their faith. Yet life today, as I’ve experienced it myself and through many stories of others, seems more complicated.
Certainly there are stories of miracles and healings to be shared, but it seems more often than not, when confronted with illness, isolation, despair, even death, those words of “Fear not, just believe” seem hollow. Often belief seems not to translate into healing so simply, at least not in such a direct and clear fashion. I found myself tilting almost toward nostalgia over an era I never experienced – it must have been so much easier to believe when Jesus was right there, physically present, healing the sick and raising the dead. When we directly compare our lives to those surrounding Jesus – particularly in this case the sick and the dying – it certainly seems that the “Talitha koum” moments, if not completely absent, are further and farther between. So I struggled…Jesus surely seems to uphold and esteem the faith that the woman and Jairus place in him, and yet I feel uncomfortable with them as models of faith for myself.
And so I found myself stuck, as the days on the calendar slipped steadily toward today, and I began to doubt whether choosing the lectionary reading as scripture was really such a good idea. So I decided to loosen my grip a bit, to sit with the story without studying it, to let my mind wander and play. And curiously at least to me, I found a foothold in an unexpected manner. When pondering this story I found that more and more, my mind could not help but recall a play, or rather musical, that Laura and I went to see with her parents at the Wayside Theater in Middletown, VA. This small, but extraordinarily talented theater troupe staged a performance of “Cotton Patch Gospel” – a play based the book written by Clarence Jordan with music written and arranged by Harry Chapin. The premise of the book and play is to retell the Gospel story, the life of Jesus, in the context of the 1960s or 1970s in rural Georgia. Through bluegrass numbers and clever storytelling the small cast recalls and reenacts scenes from Jesus’ life, including today’s scripture story. Interestingly, though Jesus is certainly a central character, what gives the play a special flare is that it is told from the perspective of the disciples – those that were witnesses up close to the Gospel, to the bringing of Good News. Though somewhat artificially constructed, “Cotton Patch Gospel” sought to redefine the limits of Gospel time – to take the Good News of the redemptive power and work of Jesus and to unhinge it from the confines of history. Now there’s an idea that stirred me.
I began to see this scripture, particularly the story of the woman, not only as a miraculous story of healing, but even more as a deep statement about Jesus’ message of redemption, reconciliation, restoration. The woman, an outcast, ritually unclean and unwelcome for years was redeemed and restored. Indeed the Greek word translated here as “healed,” can also mean “saved.” Why did Jesus choose to make such a public display of this redemption? I wonder if it was only for the woman’s benefit. No, I suspect it is also for the rest of us looking on – Jesus came to tear down the walls we have built around ourselves and others, to shift our perspectives on who should be included, and to build a community based not on separation or isolation or ritual, but on love. And truly, if we, like the woman were to tell the whole truth, perhaps with fear and trembling, we may find that we also feel isolated, unclean, ashamed, and unworthy. That we may also long to push through the crowd and just catch a piece of Jesus’ cloak. This woman’s restoration to community, her redemption then, serves as an example of our own.
Yes, I believe we continue to live in Gospel time, this is Good News time. God’s work of redemption is happening all the time, all around. We have the option of claiming it for ourselves and working at it with others. As individuals and as a congregation, finding ourselves in this time and this place – where economic troubles abound, unemployment continues to rise, housing and food insecurity loom, and where division is sown by distrust of our leaders, our neighbors, and sadly too often of one another – in this time and in this place, how are we living the Good News? Here in the suburbs of Cleveland, what is our Inner Ring Gospel? Examples in our own community abound – the food pantry, Abundance Acres, Interfaith Hospitality Network, and even the Big Give. But let us not limit ourselves to these grander examples. Gospel is made manifest every time a strained or fractured relationship is repaired, it is lived out in the asking of another for their forgiveness, and witnessed too when we offer forgiveness to another. Individually and collectively as a church, we must see ourselves in this story as both Jesus’ cloak through which God’s restorative power flows into the world and also as the woman reaching out toward a promise of our own redemption. There is risk involved, there is commitment involved, and there is vulnerability involved, even confusion and uncertainty at times, but that is what it means to live fully in the Gospel.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, writing from prison in 1944 (prior to his execution for his role in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler), said, “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”
Or put another way and in the words of one of my favorite religious writers and preachers, Dr. John Lentz, “How are you seeing the inbreaking of God? How are you living it, working it, loving it, singing it? Where are the miracles? Where is the incarnation? Where are you living Immanuel, God with us? Where are the signs in your desert? Start there.” My paraphrase: Gospel is happening all around us and in us constantly. The Good News of redemption, of reconciliation, of restoration is an ongoing work…there are continual opportunities to take part in our own redemption to God, reconciliation and rebuilding of relationships with others, and restoration of our communities, of creation, of the poor, the oppressed, the wealthy, the privileged, everyone, everywhere.
That is Gospel.
That is indeed Good News.