Saturday, June 27, 2015

Don't Worry, He Will Get to You

Mark 5:21-43
Ordinary Time 13
June 28, 2015
William G. Carter

Her health care plan was not working. The woman had been sick for a very long time. So long, in fact, she didn't know what to do. She didn't know where to turn. Everybody suggested a different remedy, but none of them would work. She visited many physicians, but none of them could help. She stayed sick. As time passed, her health grew worse. All those medical bills were bleeding her dry.

So when she heard Jesus was coming to town, she pushed her way through the crowd. She'd heard about him, of course. The last time he worked on this side of the sea, "he had cured many," says Mark. "All who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him."

Now she believed it was her turn to get well. She pushed through the multitude, saying, "I don't need to talk to him. I don't need to bother him. I don't need to slow him down with a lot of bedside chatter. All I need to do is touch the edge of his garment, and then I will be made well." As we have heard, that is precisely what happened.

Well, mostly. Because, as we have also heard, two things went wrong. First, no sooner did she touch his clothes when Jesus spun around and said, "Who touched me?" Apparently he did not want anybody to get healed anonymously, much less this anonymous woman. "Who touched me?" Jesus said. He stood there, looking for her, scanning the crowd. He looked at every face: some of them eager, some curious, some confused. He kept looking until he spotted her. And her anonymous touch became a conversation face-to-face.

She told him what she'd done. He said, "Daughter, faith has made you well. Go in peace. Be healed of your disease." It was a big moment for her. There she was, sick, desperate, and anonymous. And Jesus healed her, blessed her with his peace, and gave her the name "daughter." 

What I want you to notice is Jesus took the time to do all of this. For twelve years, the scriptures had diagnosed her hemorrhage and called her "unclean." But Jesus took the time to heal her, restore her to full status in the community, to risk touching a ritually unclean woman and making himself unclean – all for the sake of making her well. For twelve years, she shuffled through her days without dignity. On the day she touched Jesus, he turned and restored her as a human being.

I want you to notice he took the time to do that; because I also want you to notice that, because he took time for that woman, he ran out of time to help somebody else. He was late for a previous appointment. That's the second thing that went wrong. While Jesus was busy healing the woman who had been sick for twelve years, a sick twelve-year-old girl died.

Fortunately this sort of thing doesn't happen much in the gospel of Mark. Jesus got interrupted from a healing by a healing. Jairus begged, "Please heal my daughter." He intended to make the young girl well by a touch and a word. On the way, however, Jesus got interrupted by a sick woman he called his daughter. She interrupted him with a touch and a word. And the daughter of Jairus died because Jesus ran out of time.

It must have been an embarrassing moment. Imagine how that pushy woman must have felt. The word of death came, says Mark, "while Jesus was still speaking" to her. She stood there, healed and whole. Refreshed for the first time in years. Yet because of her demand on Jesus, death came to somebody else.

Imagine how that woman must have felt. She had been sick for twelve years. If only she had waited another fifteen minutes, Jesus could have healed the little girl first. The woman could have pushed to the front of the line then to touch the edge of his garment. I mean, her timing was all wrong.

Not only that, it must have put Jesus in an uncomfortable spot. Picture the girl's father. Jairus insisted that Jesus come to his house and help. The man stood by patiently as Jesus paused along the way. He grew hopeful as Jesus restored the sick woman. But then came the message from his house: "Jairus, don't trouble the teacher any further. Your daughter is dead."

In the face of such news, what should Jesus say? "Sorry, Jairus, I meant to heal your daughter, but I guess I got held up." No, he couldn't say that. It's a difficult dilemma. Jesus meant to heal one, instead healed another, and the first one died.

As you know, Jesus eventually goes to the house and raises the little girl from the dead. But that merely suspends the problem; it doesn't solve it. Because we all know that for every person who ever gets healed of a disease, someone else will suffer and pass. For every person who can push through the crowd to claim the power of Christ, somebody else stands close at hand, having just lost a daughter or son.

I guess we need to take a little time away from the story to sort it out. Sometimes people get well. Sometimes others do not. What can we say about that?

At moments, the words fail us. Years ago I received a phone call from a pastor friend. It was late and he sounded distraught. Among his hospital rounds, my friend had begun to visit a young boy from his church. The child had leukemia. There was nothing anybody could do. This minister visited faithfully through the rapid stages of the disease. They became friends. They played checkers together. They shared an occasional meal.

When the end was near, they were alone in the hospital room, quietly sharing the evening. Suddenly the boy broke the silence. He said, "Reverend, I think I know why God isn't able to make me better."

"Why is that?" said my friend.

And the boy said, "Because I think he's busy helping somebody else."

My friend said, "I left in tears, got in the car, and drove around for a while. I didn't know what to say." What can we say?  Some people get well, others do not.

The gospel of Mark would probably say, "That is the way this world is." All the gospels agree Jesus was a healer. He restored life in the face of death. Some of the stories sound quite successful. Luke says, "People came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases . . . and all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him, and he healed all of them." (Luke 6:18-19) Matthew says, "Jesus cured every disease and every sickness among the people . . . They brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them." (Matthew 4:23-34)

By contrast, Mark adds a note of restraint. Mark says, "They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. The whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick." (Mark 1:32-34) Do you hear the difference? Jesus "cured many," not all. Many got well around him, but not everybody.

The gospel of Mark knows what you and I know: sooner or later, one way or another, all of us become sick. The warranty runs out on our moveable parts. A stain appears on the X-ray. The blood count changes without warning. Or we develop a hemorrhage that lasts twelve years. That's how it is, in a world like this. Like it or not, sooner or later, one way or another, time will run out.

Sometimes the human body develops a problem that cannot be fixed. Just like the daughter of Jairus. She died. Other times, somebody may stop the clock prematurely. That's what happened to Jesus. He was put to death on a tree. Like it or not, every human life will run its course. Mark is brutally honest about the ways things are.

One of the great illusions of our age is that we can live forever through better medicine. So we spend billions of dollars on medical research. We build machines that keep our lungs breathing. We design great drugs to keep our hearts ticking. Somebody raises the premiums to pay for all of this. Like that sick woman, we are willing to spend all that we have to clot up that hemorrhage. But it doesn’t always make us better. Maybe it buys a little time.

The gospel of Mark starts with what we know: this is a world of sickness and death. Sooner or later, every single life runs out of time.

But the gospel of Mark knows something else. Jesus came preaching, "The time is fulfilled; God's kingdom is near." He wrapped his words into deeds. And every sick person he touched became well, one person at a time. Every hopeless person who trusted his word found peace, one person at a time.

And do you know why? Two reasons, I think. The first is that the healing work of God is never anonymous. It is for this person right here, who has a name, who has a story. In the healing services that we have held four times this past year, there is a point at which the person who comes forward for prayer is asked, “For what would you like me to pray?” It’s a specific need for a specific time, and it is offered to God who alone can address it. It is not random; it is for you.

I remember that afternoon some of us spent in a mission hospital in Port au Prince. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity welcomed us into a room of sick children. Some of these children were whimpering, some were too weak to whimper. And if you went to hold a child, you turned your back on another. And if you turned to help this one, you turned away from three behind. The need was overwhelming. My heart was breaking, my head hurt. What should I do?

A nun in blue could read my mind. She smiled and said, “We hold one at a time, for each is precious.” One at a time. This is the one in front of me, this is the one who gets my attention for now. Jesus takes the time for the woman with the hemorrhage. He does not do it from a distance; he does it for her.

And the second reason is because he has all the time in the world to get to the next person, to that little twelve year old girl. Or to put it another way, he has all the time in eternity to get to that little girl. For that is the grand secret of the Gospel of Mark, the enormous open secret of the Christian faith: in Jesus Christ, the eternal realm of God intrudes upon our world of timelines, limitations, and life spans.

In Jesus Christ, the God beyond time intrudes upon our business-as-usual. That is, even though Jesus didn't heal everybody, the day will come when he will. Even though he ran out of time, he never really runs out of time. It is his intention to make every person well, whether like the old woman they wish to be well, or like the daughter of Jairus they run out of breath. Time does not matter to Jesus, for he is the eternal healer, God in the flesh, and his slow work is to make all things well. That's the good news according to the Gospel of Mark.

So let's go back to the story . . . The messengers said, "Jairus, your daughter is dead. Don't trouble the teacher any more." But Jesus said, "Jairus, do not fear, only believe." At the house, there was a great commotion, with people weeping and wailing loudly. Jesus said, "Why do you make a great commotion? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him, because obviously they think he doesn't know what kind of world this is.

But Jesus had the last laugh. He took the child by the hand and said, "Get up!" Immediately she got up, alive and well, and she began to walk.

In one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, there is a character who speaks a great line. He says, "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance."[1]  Indeed he has. A sick woman pushed through the crowd to touch the garment of Jesus. We could expect him to rebuke her and say, "Get out of my way." Or he could have ignored her because he was busy. Instead Jesus interrupted his work to do his work.

When the interruption caused Jairus to hear the sad news that his daughter was dead, we might have thought, "Well, that's that." At best, we could expect the tardy Jesus to make an apology. Or maybe we could ask him to lead the funeral service. But Jesus has never led a funeral. Instead he presides over a Resurrection. Thanks to Jesus, this weary world has been thrown off balance. And it is slowly becoming "the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ." (Rev. 11:15)

In the meantime, whenever any of us gets healed of a disease, let’s see it for what it is: it is a sign of God's will, a sign that God’s dominion is breaking in. Whenever a surgical procedure makes us well, we are reminded of the final destiny when all shall be well. Whenever we are saved from the jaws of death, it is a blessed disruption of the world as we know it. It is a glimpse of God's new creation, already present yet still coming through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We cannot be naive. We know what kind of world this can be. There are occasions when life cannot be saved or sustained. There are moments when it looks like Jesus our savior has run out of time.

But we also know Jesus Christ will never really run out of time. For our Lord is risen. He is stronger than every power than damage, hurt, or destroy. And he will not cease his labor, until one by one, he takes each of us by the hand and raises us from the dead.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1983) 28.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Who's Running This Joint?

Mark 4:26-34
June 14, 2015
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

One of my most affectionate memories of First Presbyterian Church was a day when the church was in complete chaos. People were coming and going, volunteers were folding the newsletter, a couple of people were doing an annual scrub of the nursery, and one of the self-help groups from the community was convening down the hall. Three people were lined up to talk with me about crises going on in their lives, somebody had a complaint about the flower calendar, and a jack hammer could be heard on the street corner.

In the thick of it all, some good-hearted soul stopped by to inquire about the cars in our parking lot. He wanted to know who was parking in our parking lot. He knocked on my door, opened it, nodded hello to the person that I was counseling, and said, “Who is parking in our lot?” I said, “I don’t have a clue.” He said, “Well, who is running this joint?” And I said, “God.”

With a look of absolute shock on his face, he pivoted around and went back to his car. In all the years since, I have never needed to apologize for that off-handed comment. I really do think that God is running the world. It may not be obvious, because that is the way that God exerts power over the world. God rules over all things, even if it isn’t always obvious. We have to be trained to take notice.

Jesus provides his training by telling brief stories. They are called parables. He describes a slice of life, often from nature, and waits for us to catch on. One of the parables today is a personal favorite. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a farmer who throws some seed on the ground and leaves it alone.” That’s all he says. That little story needs to germinate in our hearts for a while.

Now Jesus grew up near the country fields. He often talked about sowing the seeds, and comparing it to God’s kingdom. Earlier in chapter four, he speaks of a sower who throws his seed all over the place. Some seed falls on a hardened path. Some falls on rocky soil. Some seed has no root and gets choked out by weeds. Some of the seed falls in fertile soil.

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that one is true. Some people cross their arms and close their ears whenever God is speaking, so no Gospel grows in them. Others seem receptive, but they don’t work at it, so the Word withers within them. Still others are enthusiastic at first, but then they get distracted by working, and vacationing, and making money, and staying entertained all the time, and over-programming their kids to make them just as successful and exhausted as themselves; forget about the seed of God’s Word. But then there are some who hear, who receive, who grow, who bear fruit – and praise God for them.

Or there’s that other parable about a seed, which Jesus tells immediately after this one. He said the kingdom of God is like the smallest little seed. It begins as this little tiny thing, but it grows and grows until it becomes the largest of shrubs.

At least one scholar thinks Jesus is poking fun at the cedars of Lebanon, those enormous trees up north that adorned the great palaces of his time. If so, it’s quite a joke, because the mustard shrub was a weed. And when it grew, it could take over a whole field. Jesus said, “God’s kingdom starts small, and then it grows like a weed.” It is as invasive as the kudzu in a South Carolina tree.

Now, we can understand that one, too. When Jesus told that one, the Roman Empire laughed and said, “You are delusional.” But when a friend did some mission work in Zaire, he said the Christian church is growing out of sight. In one small town, he joined up with a preacher who did 450 baptisms in a single day. It was exhausting. They were begging to be baptized. Finally the preacher said, “Listen, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, and I’ll baptize some more of you then.”

A small seed grows beyond human control. God’s presence among us can be like that.

But the parable for today is different. It is quite bashful and understated. The farmer scatters the seed and then goes about other business. He goes to sleep, gets up in the morning, goes back to bed, gets up in the morning, goes back to sleep. One day he wakes up and suddenly there’s a crop. It happened when nobody was looking.

What’s remarkable is how restrained the parable is. It doesn’t declare how God works, nor does it invite us to do anything more to help the seed grow. No, the growth is a mystery. Listen to that: it’s a mystery.

It’s like the year when I discovered that my front lawn had grubs. I was raking my front yard one spring. I scratched the dry patch with the rake, and the turf came right up. Then I saw a big fat segmented bug wiggling away. That’s bad news in a neighborhood where people pay a lot of attention to their lawns.

So I went off to Lowe’s and got the necessary items. In the shopping cart went a bag of Grub Poison, a bag of starter fertilizer, a bag of top soil to patch the affected area, and a bag of Scott’s finest grass seed. My first task was to hold a funeral for the grubs. The grubicide was spread, and then I murmured the minister’s words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I could hear the grubs yelling in defiance, and I even took a little pleasure in it.

After a suitable grieving period, I opened a bag of top soil, raked it around, sprinkled a little starter fertilizer, and threw down some grass seed. The garden hose kept the area nice and wet. But time past and nothing happened. It was frustrating. It got so bad I started muttering to the grass seed: “Come on now, get growing!” Nothing happened. I was disgusted.

I got tired of waiting and moved on to other projects.  One night I walked by those dirt patches and said, “If you don’t start growing, I’m going to find some more grubs.” That didn’t work. In a couple more days, I looked outside and there were little shoots of green all over. I’d like to take credit for my green thumb, but I know better.

If you have ears to hear, listen. Jesus says, “The kingdom is like a farmer who throws some seed and leaves it alone.”

That’s hard for us to do. We don’t want to leave anything alone. We hover over our crops, we circle around our projects, we buy cell phones for our children so we can call them at any moment and say, “Where are you? What are you doing?” As somebody quipped, the cell phone is now the world’s longest umbilical cord.

Hovering has become a habit for a lot of people. My nephew worked in a college admissions office for a while. He said, “You wouldn’t believe how many parents actually write their children’s college admission essays.” They stop at nothing to get their kids into the college of their choice.

So it is no wonder this little parable of Jesus is almost universally ignored. Most of us like to keep in touch, to stay involved, to remain concerned. It is difficult to be reminded of how many human situations are out of our control. It’s even more difficult to leave important matters in the hands of God.

I know all about that. I’m a pastor. Every day, I am surrounded by situations that I cannot fix. I really do wish I could fix everything. Sometimes I’m even tempted to think that I can, that maybe if I put in a twelve hour day, everything will go better. But good people still get deadly diseases. Well-educated folks make big mistakes. Pleasant people can be overcome by depression and despair. And one of my daughters told me that a high school classmate recently died of a drug overdose; the deep irony is that he was a pre-med student.

If there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that the whole world needs a lot of help. The challenge of a parable like the one for today is the challenge of trusting that God is going to fix it. The wise farmer sows the seed; ultimately he or she has to trust that God is finish what we cannot. No amount of shouting over the seed is going to make it grow. We have to trust that another force is at work in the world. We have to trust in God.

The kingdom is like this: we sow the seeds, and go to sleep. And while we’re sleeping, while we are faithfully out of control, God gets busy.

It’s like the story of Martin Luther, the great reformer. Germany was in turmoil, and Luther was leading the charge to dig deeper into the Gospel. The story goes that somebody complimented him one day for his leadership of the Christian revival in Germany. Luther said, “Oh, I have little to do with it.”

“But Dr. Luther, you are a wonderful preacher.” And Luther replied, “Well, I preach my sermons, but then I go home to drink my Wittenburg beer and wait for the Holy Spirit to get to work.” Not a bad story for us to recall on a Sabbath day.

Or there’s that story in one of Frederick Buechner’s books. A Princeton history professor rebukes a preacher with all the terrible things that Christians have done in the name of Christ. And he is thorough; he has a really long list. The preacher’s name is Leo Bebb. And Bebb says, “Professor, I agree the world is full of manure.” (I’m cleaning up the story).

“But look closely at the manure,” he says, “and when you see something green growing, that is the hand of God. God is where something is growing out of the decay and the rot. God is where there’s something no bigger than the head of a pin starting to inch up out of the stink and dark towards the light of day. God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the manure with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”[1]

Don’t misunderstand: we do what we can. We always do what we can. But ultimately, the Gospel, the Kingdom, and the salvation of the world is not about us. We do our part; we trust God with everything else.

That’s what Jesus says. And do you know what he does immediately after saying this?  He goes to sleep. He says to the disciples, “Let’s row across the lake.” And as they do all the rowing, Jesus falls asleep. A great storm blows in, the waves splash over the sides, and the boat is getting swamped – and the whole time, Jesus is snoring. What is this? A sleeping Savior? Is he so in charge that he can take a nap? Of course he is.

In fact, I remember one of the first stories in the book of Genesis. God works hard for six days. God makes a world and fills it with life. And what does God do on the seventh day? God takes a break. God is so completely in charge that everybody -- God included -- can rest.

This is the Mystery at the heart of today’s text. What is the kingdom of God like? Jesus said, “A farmer scattered some seed and went to sleep. He did not hover. He did not stand over top of the seed and scream at it to start growing. He did his part and let God do the rest.” 

Do I believe that’s the way God is?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner, Lion Country, in The Book of Bebb (New York: HarperCollins, 1979) pp. 350-351.