Sunday, July 1, 2012
First UMC Seattle
Text: Mark 5: 21-43
Listen to the sermon here.
As I was preparing this sermon, I turned to one of my trusted sources: Twitter. For those of you who don’t use it or who don’t get it, it’s a short online information service where you can send out messages or ‘bursts of information’ as the website says, in 140 characters or less. Anyone can reply and great conversations have emerged as a result. So I did what I typically do when I have a question or an issue that I’ve been thinking about: I tweeted it. Since I had been in conversation with my younger sister earlier, I knew she was online and asked her this:
I don’t know about you, but I like to consider myself a pretty casual-I’ll roll with anything kind of person. That’s pretty much the vibe here in Seattle. If plans change, no problem, we’ll work something out. But sometimes I’m not the best mirror to myself. So I had to ask my sister what she thought of my planning temperament. Her response was this:
@SophiaSPU I think you’re one who masks as a fly by the seat-er..but who likes to plan and plan
— Shalom R. Agtarap (@justshalom) June 30, 2012
And as sisters do, she nailed it. I am a planner. When I have it on my mind to do something, there’s very little that I will let get in the way. I research [which really means I google and sometimes wikipedia], I find the best app for my iPhone or iPad, I talk to friends and family, I psych myself up for the upcoming experience. So you can imagine my dismay when things don’t quite go according to plan, when I have to recalibrate or when I have to just ditch it completely.
And why would I not be frustrated? We live in a culture where we have been taught that planning is important. We set goals, we engage in strategic planning at our workplaces and I’m sure our recent graduates were asked more than once: so what’s your plan now? And there’s nothing wrong with planning. But when we get too absorbed or self-assured in those well-thought plans and deceive ourselves that our plans can fly without us also being attuned to the ways God calls us to live and be in the world, then we can almost guarantee our plans won’t always work out as we intended.
Sometimes our best efforts and intentions to create a seamless experience are not immune from the happenings of life. Those who have lived longer and who are wiser than me can probably attest to the adage that says, life happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Interruptions and delays that thwart our journey forward are just as much a part of our lives today as they were in Scripture. If we truly allow ourselves to experience life in its fullness, we soon realize that we can’t control everything that happens—only how we respond to the intermittent surprises and detours we encounter. Detours and interruptions are a part of our collective story as a wandering people of God.
Shane Claiborne, founder of a monastic community called, The Simple Way, wrote the book, “Follow Me to Freedom,” which he co-authored with John Perkins, has this to say about interruptions:
Interruptions are a theme in Scripture. We have a God who is continually interrupting us—interrupting our routines, our patterns of inequity, the status quo. Abraham’s life was interrupted. Moses’ life was interrupted. The gospels are stories of interruption after interruption. Jesus was at a wedding in Cana when His mother interrupted Him and said, “They have no more wine.”
The story that precedes today’s gospel lesson says that He had just stepped ashore when He was interrupted by the cries of a demon-possessed man.
So here we are at this morning’s interruption: Jesus was on His way to visit a sick child—a dying child, in fact, when a touch on His sleeve interrupted Him and He felt the power go out from Him.
Before we continue, I’d like to give just a quick introduction for those of you who haven’t spent much time in the book of Mark. Mark is the first of the written gospels, which scholars say was compiled sometime between years 50-70 of the Common Era. It’s really the set of accounts that establishes the life of Jesus as a story form and it’s the book that the writers of Matthew and Luke draw from. The events in Mark move much faster than the other gospels and if you blink, you might miss some detail or story that Mark is trying to sandwich in there. In other words, we have to pay attention to the story and what comes before, after and even within.
Perhaps we are alike in that there are certain life experiences that come across as interruptions, jolting us out of a particular way of living and being. A sick parent, the loss of a job, the end of a meaningful relationship. It’s easy to resent these intrusions in our lives because they cause us to stop what we’re doing and pay attention to the issue at hand. And as interruptions typically present themselves as unplanned events, we are unprepared to respond.
In the passage read to us this morning, Jesus had just returned to the other side of the Sea of Galilee from having exorcised unclean spirits from a man, when he was met by Jairus, a synagogue leader and respected authority who begged Jesus to heal his dying daughter. We do not know where Jesus and his disciples were headed that day, so we might say this was the first interruption in today’s story. Common to the book of Mark are the ways that the author likes to use those outside Jesus’ immediate circle to teach readers and listeners about faith. Unlike other religious leaders of the day, Jairus was not hostile to Jesus. Perhaps it was out of a combination of desperation and having heard or seen Jesus’ prior healings that he came to Jesus with this request. The version in Matthew even says that Jairus fell at his feet and ‘worshipped’ him. I can imagine the crowd pressing closer as they felt an impending miracle brewing. Imagine crowds at the Seattle Center on a perfect summer day for the Bite of Seattle or Bumbershoot. People are packed together so tight that breathing and moving become difficult. Luke’s account uses even stronger words, describing that the crowds choked and stifled Jesus.
Enter the next interruption: A woman, who by all standards and points of view is pitiable. She’s been bleeding for 12 years, her finances are shot having tried every treatment there was possible, and she was considered ceremonially unclean according to Jewish law. Her condition had not improved at all. In fact, it had gotten worse. She was fresh out of options. For 12 long years, her life had been one long interruption from living a full life. no relationships, no family, no ability to earn income, no ties to a community. I imagine these years having affected her so greatly that she could not help but remain on the margins, hunched over, timid, lonely and cut off from community. I liken her to the disenfranchised who remain invisible or who we choose not to see today: those without insurance, without a home, in need of medicine, in need of a cure, in need of hope and damned by the structures seen and unseen in our society, the church, included.
And so this woman with a chronic condition squeezes through the crowds towards Jesus. This desperation-driven faith that was aroused in her compelled her to touch the garments of his clothing so that she might be made well without being noticed. And as she touches Jesus’ cloak, she is immediately healed. And what she probably hoped would not happen, happened: Jesus took notice and stops to ask: who touched my clothes?
Perhaps it’s just me, but at this point in the story, I’m trying to imagine how Jairus is feeling right about now. His daughter is dying and Jesus is stopping to talk to this woman who has been chronically ill for a very long time. As long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive, in fact. Her sickness wasn’t going anywhere. Did he really have to stop to talk to her right now? I can imagine Jairus tapping his foot impatiently, trying to rush Jesus to keep moving toward their destination, hoping that his daughter was still hanging on.
When I think about interruptions in the context of ministry, I can’t help but think of the homeless and low or no-income populations we serve here at First Church. I wish everyone had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of our office sometime during the workweek. Chelsea, our office coordinator speaks with something like 5 to 10 people in person or on the phone on a daily basis. Folks asking for bus tokens, for help with utilities, for a bed for the night, for clean socks or a warm meal. These could easily be seen as interruptions to the day. And sometimes they do feel like delays when we have a long checklist of things we’re trying to cross off. After all, there are reports to type up, phone calls to return and projects from the week before to attend to. But it is in these interruptions that we see the face of Christ among us. Interruptions present us with a choice to make: we can be like the disciples and possibly Jairus in the story who were irritated by Jesus’ decision to stop and address the situation and minister to this woman, knowing there was somewhere else they needed to be, or we can choose to rely on God’s guidance and respond in faith.
Luckily, Jesus doesn’t look at interruptions the way we do. We tell people to wait, rolling our eyes because we were bothered by an unsolicited question. Call me back in a few minutes, we say, or Can you make an appointment later this week? I know I’m not alone when I find myself trying to rush to get somewhere, only to find someone in front of me taking their sweet time. And more often than not, when we want God to act swiftly as we pray for an answer or a resolution to a situation, that’s when we realize God’s timing and our timeline don’t quite match up? God does indeed have a sense of humor.
The incredible thing is that Jesus was never too busy or so fixed on his vision for the kin-dom that he didn’t make himself available and attentive to the interruptions, surprises and needs in front of him. I think about the church, and the ways that we have convinced ourselves that ministry is synonymous with committee meetings, fundraising and strategic planning. We meet to plan what do to, how much to spend to do it and how long it will take to get it done, and when a pressing need arises, we find ourselves stuck with a decision to make because it wasn’t part of the plan or because we don’t have a line item on the budget for it. And our own lives are like that too, aren’t they? We like predictability. We count on it. We hire financial planners, we see life coaches and spiritual directors, we attend seminars on goal-setting. But sometimes, the Holy Spirit has other plans for us. The career you’ve spent your adult life building, you no longer find fulfilling. The partner you thought you were going to spend your life with has decided to leave. The life you find successful by society’s standards, suddenly feels incomplete. I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit is in the business of crushing our dreams, but she does have a way of disrupting our norms.
I’m not sure where any of you are in terms of the ebb and flow of your lives. I’ve experienced a few disruptions these past few years that have reminded me that as great as it is to have a plan, we should be ready to be interrupted. In all our goal-setting and sticking to our lists, we can miss those interruptions that lead to beautiful reminders that daily, we rely on the grace of God and the fellowship of community. Reminders that God’s love doesn’t fail us. That remind us that there are other roads to travel than the ones we are on. That it’s ok to revel in the mystery of God and not know what the next step looks like. That remind us that God’s ultimate desire is healing and wholeness for all, even if it comes in ways that we didn’t foresee. At least at the time.
I am a work in progress. We, brothers and sisters, are works in progress. Today’s reading in Mark demonstrates to us that the interruptions in our life stories are not disparate. Life and death are juxtaposed, status quo and status breaking paralleled, interruptions and disruptions intertwined to reveal a story of healing and wholeness bound together by the God of life and love.
In what ways will we allow other people’s stories to interrupt our lives and perhaps join our own? In what ways will we have the boldness to interrupt someone else’s life? And finally, how will we pattern our lives to allow the God who interrupts, to break through the routines and rhythms that we so tightly cling to?
Friends, may the pauses and disruptions and interludes we experience, though jarring and neck-breaking and even maddening at times, bring us to new places of knowing the love of God who abides with us, the comfort of the Holy Spirit who sustains us and the example of Christ that challenges us to respond in faith, knowing full well that something beautiful awaits us on the other side of that interruption. May we go forth from this place as agents of God’s love, grace and peace to a world in need. And like the unnamed hemorrhaging woman in the story, experience the transforming healing that comes when our faith leads us into the arms of the living and loving God who calls us daughters and sons.