Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Kind of Sandwich Would You Like?

Fourth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 8) – Year B (RCL)
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Sunday, June 28, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

What we have here is a sandwich. Seriously. That’s what Biblical scholars call the literary style represented in today’s gospel lesson. A sandwich consists of a story that is interrupted by another seemingly unrelated story, like in today’s gospel. We have the story of Jairus coming to Jesus to beg him to heal his daughter, to which Jesus agrees. On the way to Jairus’ house, that story line is put on hold while we hear about the woman with hemorrhages. Only after that story is resolved do we get back to the story of Jairus and his daughter, which then plays out to its joyful conclusion.

When used in scripture, this style is also a theological device, with the story in the middle serving as the theological key to the sandwich as a whole. While all the synoptic gospels contain sandwiches, Mark is particularly masterful at the art of, shall we say, sandwich making, employing this device in unique ways to highlight and emphasize major themes of the Gospel. In fact, Mark uses the sandwich technique a total of nine times in his short gospel.

In some ways, the middle story might be considered the more important and more interesting bit – just like when you order a sandwich, you are probably more concerned about what goes in it than with the type of bread being used. That’s not to say the “bread” part, the story on either side of the central “filling,” isn’t important. We need it all, bread and filling, to make a theologically tasty and satisfying sandwich.

That being the case, I want to focus primarily on the story of the woman with the hemorrhages, but not completely forgetting the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter, as it does provide some nuances that only serve to enhance our understanding of the meaning of the central theological themes Mark is attempting to convey through the use here of the sandwich technique.

So let’s start with the woman herself. Suffice it to say, she’s had a rough life, as indicated in the scriptural account. But when we really consider the implications of what is told about her, it is safe to say her life is worse than rough. Given all that she’s had to suffer and endure, the woman suffering from hemorrhages is, cursed, at the very least, four times over. First, she obviously is experiencing a physical illness, one she had had for 12 years. Since she is a woman, and the affliction entails hemorrhaging, the affliction is in all likelihood gynecological in nature. Second, as Scripture tells us, she has depleted her financial resources in multiple attempts to obtain relief from many physicians, who, by all indications, were probably quacks, taking advantage of her for financial gain. Third, these quacks did not only leave her destitute, but also left her worse off medically, thanks to ineffective and even injurious “remedies.” And fourth, while not specifically mentioned, but as would certainly be the case under Jewish levitical law, she is undoubtedly considered ritually unclean – one, because she has an illness, and two, because of the nature of the hemorrhaging she experiences.

As a result of all this, the woman experiences illness and poverty. She experiences isolation and social alienation. She experiences powerlessness and vulnerability. This is quite the opposite of Jairus, who is a wealthy and powerful leader in the community. Because of his status, Jairus is free to walk up to Jesus and ask for his help. Because of her status, the woman should be nowhere near a crowd of people. Because of her circumstances, it is her duty to stay away, living on the margins of society. And if anyone should come anywhere near her, she is obligated under the law and by social convention to warn them that she is unclean, warning them so that they not risk being made ritually unclean by their contact with her.

Despite being beset by such horrendous circumstances and despite her obligation to her fellow humanity, what does this poor, marginalized woman do? She breaks all social, legal, and religious convention and enters into a crowd. And to make matters worse, she willfully and blatantly touches not only a ritually clean and healthy person, but a man, no less. Three strikes against her. But to her defense, and what is of paramount importance from our perspective, is that she does this, she reaches out to Jesus, because she has faith – faith that if anyone can help her, he can.

We’ll get back to the woman, but I want to turn to Jesus for a moment. One of the questions that troubles me every time I hear this story is why does this woman cause Jesus to feel the power flowing from him, while others pressing in upon him on this and countless other occasions, do not have a similar effect?

While we’re not specifically told, I believe it has to do with the way she touches him, with what motivates her to reach out, even just to touch the hem of his robe. I believe it is because of her faith – a faith so profound, a deep knowledge that he is her only hope. Now, I don’t personally think that the power leaves him per say, as much as he feels a connection with her because of her profound faith. I believe he feels his spirit, the power within him energized by the Holy Spirit, connecting with her spirit, as if his and her spirits are rushing to greet each other, as two friends who have not seen each other in ages rush to greet each other and to embrace. It is as if her spirit says to his, here I am, and I recognize you as my life and my hope, and his spirit turns and rushes toward hers, shouting, “my beloved.” This is all made possible by the woman’s faith in Jesus, that he is the channel to the healing power and presence of God.

I think another thing that is equally important is the fact that the woman could have just as easily taken her gift of healing and gone on her way. She could have slipped through the crowd, undetected. Jesus and those around him would have been none the wiser. Instead, when Jesus senses the connection between them, the touching of spirits, the resulting healing, and attempts to discern the reason, she stops and confesses that she is the one who touched Jesus. She falls down in fear and trembling, presents herself before Jesus, confessing her faith.

So too, Jesus could have just as easily continued on his way after he sensed the power flowing from him. With so many people around him, it could have been anyone. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. And chances are, the person responsible would not step forward. So why bother to find out? Chalk it up as one of those strange experiences, the cost of being the Son of God. But no, he stops and diligently attempts to figure out what has happened, and more importantly, to determine who is the cause. This is incredibly important. In doing this, in seeking out the person who has touched him in faith, Jesus is attempting to reciprocate. He is seeking relationship with this person of faith.

In falling at his feet in fear and trembling, the woman is undoubtedly afraid. She has violated all sorts of social, religious, and legal taboos in daring to touch Jesus. But instead of chastising her, Jesus calls her “daughter” – yet another sign of relationship. And in falling at his feet in fear and trembling, she is experiencing “the fear of one who knows that she is coming into relationship with God” (Edington, 192).

The question occurs to me, would the woman have been truly, permanently healed if she had not stopped and confessed her faith in Jesus? We will never know. But I do know that in kneeling before Jesus, she gives a physical, tangible sign of her belief, of her faith. She gives a physical, tangible sign of relationship with Jesus. And in return, Jesus gives a physical, tangible sign of his relationship with her. He proclaims “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Being sandwiched within the story of Jairus and his daughter provides the story of the woman with the hemorrhage with even more detail. Jairus is rich and powerful. The woman is poor and on the margins of society. The fact that Jesus interrupts his travel to Jairus' house indicates that wealth and social status are of no importance to Jesus. The woman is in as much need as Jairus. The fact that he has money and power make no difference to Jesus. It's not that she has a more immediate or pressing need. Jesus could have had her make an appointment with the disciples and he would get back to her. After all, she had gone for 12 years without relief. What difference would a few more hours make? If anything, the fact that Jesus stops to be with her, putting Jairus on hold, indicates that in his mind, the needs of the marginalized take precedence over the needs of the wealthy and powerful. But in the end, all are worthy of healing. Regardless of who we are, all are worthy of being touched by Jesus, of being made whole, of being called Daughter or Son.

Now all of that being said, it’s time for the disclaimer. Such stories as the healing of the woman with the hemorrhages and the healing of Jairus’ daughter can be a bit precarious for us modern-day Christians. We see how the faith of a woman results in her healing. We see how the faith of a father results in the healing of his daughter. We may be tempted to think that if we just have enough faith, our desires, our prayers, for healing will be answered. And then if those prayers are not answered as we would have hoped, we may be tempted to question whether we have enough faith. We may be tempted to question whether God really hears us, and if He does, does he really care about us, about our needs?

As your pastor, I implore you never, never, entertain such questions. God does hear us. God does care about us and about our needs. The Gospel assures us of that. The very fact that God sent his Son to live among us, to die for us, to be resurrected for us, is proof of that. It is proof that God desires for us and has literally moved heaven and earth, to provide us with the ultimate healing – with new and eternal life with Him. And while everything will work out fine in the end, that does not mean that the road to get there will always be an easy one.

As one minister so wisely put it, “it may be helpful to remember that prayers for healing are not simply utilitarian. That is to say, prayer is not simply a matter of bending the vector of divine will toward my will, my needs, and my hopes. More profoundly, to ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God. God's mind may or may not be changed, but I—my mind and heart—may be” (Lindvall, 190).

This is so important, so profound, so central to our understanding of our relationship with God, these words bear repeating. “Prayer is not simply a matter of bending the vector of divine will toward my will, my needs, and my hopes. More profoundly, to ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God. God's mind may or may not be changed, but I—my mind and heart—may be.”

No matter the response, no matter the outcome, prayer is useful. Prayer is necessary. Why? Because prayer is a sign of faith. Prayer is a sign of relationship. Prayer is our spirit reaching out and touching God’s Spirit in faith. And in response, God’s Spirit asks “Who touched me?” Our response of faith is to fall down before our God, to profess our continued faith, to enter more fully into relationship with Him. And in response, God’s Spirit cries out “My beloved Daughter, my beloved Son, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed!” (Mk 5:34, The Message).

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

Edington, Mark D. W. “Mark 5:21-43, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Lindvall, Michael W. “Mark 5:21-43, Pastoral Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oh Hear Us When We Cry To Thee . . .

Third Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 7) – Year B (RCL)
Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
Sunday, June 21, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

What a depressing bunch of readings! All the scripture lessons appointed for today are filled with images of struggle and chaos. We start off with Job, that poster boy for a life filled with calamity. The portion of the Book of Job that we have today is in the aftermath of all the struggles Job has been forced to endure. Despite being a righteous and faithful man, Job has had to suffer unspeakable traumas – the loss of his property and wealth, the death of his servants, the death of his children, and finally he is beset with terrible health problems. He’s managed to survive all of this, and now, in today’s lesson, Job is engaged in an argument with God. And as if to add insult to injury, God gets downright sarcastic with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Then there’s Paul, writing in his second letter to the church in Corinth. He goes on and on about the traumas he has had to endure during the time that he has been traveling around the Mediterranean, establishing churches and proclaiming the Gospel. “Through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger,” just to name a few of his complaints.

And then there’s the gospel lesson from Mark, recounting the story of the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, when “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” And even when the disciples turn for help to Jesus, who happened to be sleeping in the stern of the boat during all this chaos, the response they get is not what one would necessarily expect from the Messiah, the Son of God. Not unlike God’s response to Job, Jesus’ response is a bit on the sarcastic side. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Even the Psalm contains images of doom and gloom. In amongst beautiful language extolling the Lord’s goodness and ever-enduring mercy, what starts off as a song of praise is interrupted with images of stormy winds stirring up high waves of the sea.

We might as well be reading the front page of the San Bernardino Sun or the Redlands Daily Facts. Where’s the Gospel, where’s the Good News, in amongst all this chaos and struggle, all this doom and gloom?

In all fairness, the scriptures are meant to reflect the human condition. They are the stories of ordinary human beings who are attempting to live their lives, to eke out an existence, while also attempting to be faithful to God. But the reality of our human condition is that life is not a bed of roses. Stuff happens. Sometimes, bad stuff happens. Even for people of faith, no matter how faithful we may be, bad stuff can happen. In fact, odds are, at some point in our lives, something bad will happen to us. We’re human. We get sick. We grow old. Accidents happen. We live in a human society. Our lives are intertwined with those of others. And some of those people will unintentionally, or sometimes even intentionally, hurt us. We live on a planet that can be sometimes harsh and unleash destructive forces like storms and earthquakes. And no matter how faithful we are, no matter how often we go to church, no matter how many prayers we say, none of this going to change. Bad stuff will still happen.

In the midst of such struggles, who of us has not cried out to God, “why?” Perhaps one of the most frustrating things is the fact that that question is never answered to our satisfaction. God does not seem to answer. Even the church is at a loss to provide an adequate answer.

Does that mean God doesn’t listen to us? Of course He does. Does that mean that God doesn’t care? Of course not. God does care for His creation. Despite today’s scripture lessons with all the chaos and struggle, doom and gloom, that reflect our human condition, they also reflect the fact that we are not alone. Even though, at times, we may have to deal with some sort of struggle or suffering in our lives, we do not have to face it by ourselves. We do not have to go it alone.

Growing up in a military family – I am fond of saying that I spent the first 16 years of my life in the Marine Corps – we generally attended church at the chapel on the base that served as home. The Marine Corps does not have chaplains of its own, so relies on Navy chaplains to staff Marine Corps base chapels. Just as in our Anglican tradition, you can go anywhere in the world and feel comfortable with the liturgy because it is always based on the Book of Common Prayer, so too, in Navy and Marine Corps chapels, there are certain things that are always the same. While the actual structure of the liturgy would vary depending on the denomination of the chaplain, there were common elements to all worship services. The most notable, the one thing that was always the same, was the closing hymn. It was always “Eternal Father, strong to save,” also known as the Navy Hymn, the sequence hymn we just sang. For old time’s sake, I was tempted to ask Jeff to use it as our closing hymn today, but it actually made more sense to use it as the sequence.

Now, the version of the hymn we usually sang in Navy chapels was a little different, but the message was the same, and is summarized in the repeated phrase: “O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.” As a child, I always felt such comfort singing the words of the Navy Hymn, and particularly those words “O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.” As I have reflected on that time in my life, I realize that the sense of comfort was on multiple levels. One level, one shared with every other person in the chapel, was the sense of God caring for and keeping safe our military personnel – those who were in the chapel, but also, and perhaps more importantly, those who were away, often in troubled areas of the world. It was a comfort to know that God was looking out for the likes of my father and my uncle, of my friends’ parents, of the numerous people I encountered on a daily basis.

But I now realize that the words of this hymn provided a sense of comfort, even assurance, at an even deeper, more personal level. These words provided me with a sense that no matter what might happen to me, God would be there to take care of me. It was some of the earliest feelings I had of an abiding trust in God, of an assurance that regardless of whether we are faithful to God or not, God is always faithful to us.

This is born out in all of today’s lessons. In fact, “Eternal Father, strong to save” was inspired in part by some of the imagery of today’s Psalm, Psalm 107, and by today’s gospel lesson from Mark, among other portions of scripture.

Now, of course, even with such comfort and assurance, it does not mean that times of struggle or chaos will be a cake walk. As we’ve established, we are but human. And that brings with it all sorts of emotional stuff in response to what goes on in our lives, no matter how much we may try to be rational about our circumstances. While all of the readings are about life in struggle, addressing life in the midst of chaos of one form or another, they are also about the human emotions that accompany the times of struggle and chaos. Probably the greatest of these are fear and anger. And even these are reflected in today’s scripture lessons. Job is certainly angry at God for the injustices perpetrated upon him. And while the story does not say so, he was also probably even a little fearful. Who wouldn’t be with all that he had to endure? And the disciples in the boat with Jesus were, in no uncertain terms, filled with fear.

Each of today’s lessons provide us with particular insight into how to deal with our fear and anger, how to deal with the uncertainty that is present in those times of struggle and chaos that inevitably confront us.

The encounter between Job and God is a rather interesting one. The part we have in today’s reading is the beginning of a very lengthy discourse by God in response to Job’s questions as to why all these terrible things have beset him. It is interesting because, one, as I’ve already noted, God uses a rather sarcastic tone with Job. It’s as if God is saying “you’re putting yourself in the place of God when in actuality, the whys and wherefores are really none of your concern.” And two, despite the lengthy response, spanning four chapters, God never directly answers Job. Instead, he recounts all the details and wonders of creation. But yet, even in this, God does provide an answer of sorts, if we read between the lines. In his response, God is essentially providing assurance that all creation is a gift from God to humanity. Creation is the way in which God has revealed Himself to humanity. In all that is, God is present. Even in the chaos and suffering that we experience, God is there, ever present, not something apart from our suffering.

The challenge for us is to enter into the experience and to find God in the midst of our suffering. As one commentator so aptly put it, “The deepest places of our knowledge of God are often those places that we cannot explain: [such as] experiences of tranquility in the presence of pain.” This is one of the great mysteries of our relationship with God, of our existence as the people of God. That being the case, “Perhaps the church's vocation has less to do with explaining the root of that mystery and more to do with making space for that kind of mystery to be known and shared” (Connors, 150).

The experience of Paul is more of a direct application of this principal of having faith that God is in the midst of all life, including our struggles and our suffering. In our reading from 2 Corinthians, while he does not specifically state it, the tone of Paul’s words convey the fact that he has unwavering faith in the greater purpose to which God has called him. Despite all the suffering he has endured for the sake of the Gospel, faith in God and in what he was called to do kept Paul going in the midst of his various struggles.

And I believe that the key to understanding this whole concept of having faith in the midst of life’s chaos can be found in Jesus’ response to the disciples as they sit fearfully in the boat in the midst of a violent storm. What are Jesus’ words? The first thing he says to them is “why are you afraid?” Well, in some respects, this is one of those “duh” moments. But then again, in asking “why are you afraid?” Jesus is acknowledging the fear experienced by the disciples. He does not say, “don’t be afraid,” which in the midst of a terrible storm could be interpreted as being patronizing or dismissive. No, the feelings are real, even if, from Jesus’ perspective, a little unfounded. But they are not he, and Jesus recognizes this. He recognizes that the disciples still have some work to do in the area of faith. So, he attempts to meet them where they are, attempts to understand the reason for their fear, and to help them understand and to begin top come to grips with it. Only then can he begin to address it. And that he does. He then goes on to the heart of the matter: “Have you still no faith?” Faith in him, faith in God, is what is ultimately needed to weather the storms that life throws at us.

The bottom line in all of today’s scripture lessons is the same. In every case, the protagonists – Job, Paul, the disciples – do not have to face the ordeals, the chaos, alone. In all cases, God, in some form or fashion, is there in the midst of it with them. He was there all along. The only thing was, they all, Job, Paul, the disciples, had to work through the very natural, but very limiting emotions, that kept them from seeing that God was always there, protecting them, giving them strength to carry on.

Only when we have articulated the feelings of fear, and even of anger toward God, only when we have come to terms with those very human feelings that can get in the way of seeing that God has not abandoned us, that God will never abandon us, that He is always with us, can we then be in a position to be still and listen for God – for the God who is always in our midst, saying “Peace! Be still!” In the midst of storms, we are challenged to listen to and to rediscover our faith in God’s word, the word that proves God is ever-present, no matter what may happen to us or around us.

I believe Emily Bronte, the daughter of an Anglican priest, summed it up most eloquently in her poem, “No Coward Soul is Mine.” She writes:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

This is the faith of another nineteenth century Anglican who was able to write, “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.” This is the faith that will see us through whatever struggles and chaos life may throw our way.

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

Connors, Andrew Foster. “Job 38:1-11, Pastoral Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bible Study with Alzheimer's Patients

Several weeks ago, the parish received a call from the program coordinator (or as I like to refer to her, the cruise director) at Somerford Place, a residential facility here in Redlands for Alzheimer’s patients (an extremely nice facility, BTW). There are several churches and religious groups in the area that periodically come in and do worship or Bible study. The "cruise director" wanted to know if Trinity would be interested in doing something similar, providing a more mainline perspective (most of the other groups tend to be a little more on the fundamentalist-evangelical end of the spectrum). David (the rector) and I talked about it and he said he really doesn’t have time to add another program, but if I wanted to do it, go ahead. I decided it would be interesting to at least give it a try. So, I contacted Somerford Place and agreed to do a trial run of every other Mondays during June to see how things go.

Yesterday was the first attempt. I have to admit I was a little nervous. I have no experience dealing with Alzheimer’s patients. I didn’t know what to expect. But I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. There were about 25 people present. Now, about a quarter of them were dozing, but everyone else seemed to be at least somewhat engaged. And there were about five or six who did respond to questions and invitations to share their own insights.

Being the day after Pentecost, I decided to focus on that. I started off with a little discussion about Pentecost. Then I focused on Romans 8:22-27, the Epistle lesson for Pentecost. After one of the patients read the lesson, I essentially gave a recap of my
sermon from Sunday. I thought that would be good because in my sermon I focused on how the Holy Spirit is always with us, particularly in times of need. I thought the patients just might be able to relate to that. And they did. After my reflection, I invited people to comment and add their own insights or experiences. There were several people who did open up and talk a little about times of need in their own lives. There were a number of occasions when someone would come up with something that might have seemed tangential or even unrelated to the topic of discussion, but I was generally able to take such comments and use them as a springboard for further discussion.

The Holy Spirit definitely was present in our time together. My initial concerns and uncertainty were quickly dispelled and I felt pretty comfortable with the way things went. Actually, I was pretty surprised that things went so well for the first time out of the chute. I can hardly wait to see what will happen in two weeks.

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