While Bryon and I were on our two-week “Staycation,” we binge watched two seasons of “Newsroom,” the television drama written by Aaron Sorkin about a national TV news program and the dramatic events that take place inside and outside the newsroom. But real news that we couldn’t ignore began to break in on our pleasure watching with tragedy, joy, life-changing decisions, inspirational rhetoric and courageous commentary. It has been a remarkable series of events.
Mother Mary said it best in Luke’s Magnificat:
- He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
- He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
- He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
In the past two weeks, ordinary Christians welcoming the stranger and opening arms of love to a hate-filled young man were killed at the end of a Bible Study at church. As their loved ones began to respond and their funerals started to be held, an entire nation has been exposed to the extraordinary faith, compassion and grace of a Christian community who take seriously all the commandments of Jesus including the ones to love their enemies, to pray for those that persecute them and to not be afraid but to have faith.
These nine who died in Charleston at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were not the proud or the powerful but in their death, God has lifted them up. They are not lowly in God’s eyes but beloved children, now holy saints in glory. Their loved ones are weeping now but “joy will come in the morning” as they experience the new life of resurrection together. One daughter called out in her grief and sorrow as the casket was closing on her mother’s body, “I’ll see you in the morning.” And she will, in that beautiful morning when God wipes away every tear and there will be no more sorrow or sighing. For “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” “God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity.”
While our nation once again turns its face to the ugliness of racism and its persistence in our lives, confederate flags are coming down and the laws which protect people against discrimination in housing based on race are being strengthened. Yesterday, in a historical election, the bishops of the Episcopal Church have elected Michael Curry an African American bishop from North Carolina, to serve as our Presiding Bishop for the next 9 years. Our church which struggles with a mixed history with regard to slavery and Civil Rights has taken another bold action to proclaim that God is the one who lifts up the lowly and that in Christ we are one Body, black and white, male and female, rich and poor.
God has broken down the dividing wall that separates us from one another and has made us one in Christ. The painful division in our nation and our church regarding the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people has changed dramatically in the past years. The recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriage is another way in which the dignity of every human being has been lifted up officially. The celebration of this change is not universal but for many it is an affirmation that God’s beloved community includes and affirms our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Their painful exclusion from participation in the full life of the church is decreasing; the necessity of maintaining secrecy about their loving commitments is diminishing; their inability to share the full benefits of legal family life is disappearing.
And that’s not all! Many who did not have health insurance in the past will continue to have coverage. People like my brother and nephews will not have to choose between purchasing groceries and paying for health care. Divorced people who have been stigmatized by the Roman Catholic Church heard a note of compassion and understanding from their Pope acknowledging that divorce was inevitable when relationship had failed. We hear echoes of the gospel hope:
- The lowly are lifted up
- Those who mourn are comforted
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied
- Those who are persecuted have their reward in heaven
This is the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims. This is the way of life he lived. Today we heard about Jesus’ encounter with the most vulnerable, the lowliest, the unclean in society. He allows himself to become vulnerable, lowly and unclean as he enters human tragedy, suffering and death and effects God’s restoration, forgiveness and new life.
His day begins with a boat ride back into familiar territory, Jewish territory. There he is approached by a Jewish religious official whose young daughter is gravely ill. Jairus must have heard about the healings that Jesus effected. He may also have heard that Jesus, unlike many other religious leaders of that time had a special place in his heart for children. When the adults want to push children off to the side because they are not important or seen to be valuable unless they grow up enough to work or bear children, Jesus calls children to himself. Jairus’s daughter was 12, not quite old enough to be of marriageable age, not quite at the point where she might be valuable economically or politically to her family. But she is clearly beloved of her father who is willing to humble himself and beg Jesus to cure her. Jairus risks political and religious disfavor by associating with Jesus. He risks a lowering of his status by his visible concern for a daughter. He crosses boundaries of propriety, tradition and religious righteousness to come before Jesus with his need. But that’s what you do when you love. Love makes us all vulnerable, humble and willing to suffer on behalf of the beloved.
Jesus hears that plea and responds immediately but while he is on his way, another desperate figure approaches him, but this time from behind, hidden from view and ashamed. Again the one suffering is a woman, not a lowly girl child but someone with even lower status, a woman who because of her constant flow of blood is unclean. She cannot be touched by anyone who wishes to remain ritually pure. She has lost her self-respect. She has spent all her money on cures that haven’t worked. She is an outcast with no one able to even touch her in tenderness, love or mercy.
So she sneaks up on Jesus from behind, not to touch his person, but simply to come in contact with his outer clothing, hoping against hope that his healing power might pass to her. And it does… immediately. But instead of slinking off, she is brought into a full confrontation with Jesus who needs to know who has come to him with such need and faith that he felt the very power leave him. In fear she approaches him and like Jairus falls down before him. And a second healing takes place for her. He calls her “daughter,” a beloved child of God. He affirms her faith in front of others and confirms that she is now healed and clean. He enables her to lift her head with dignity and self respect.
In the meantime Jairus’ daughter has died. He is ready to give up hope. Jesus again walks deliberately into a situation guaranteed to make him ritually impure. He approaches the corpse. No one could touch a corpse and remain clean. A lengthy ritual would be required to restore purity. But Jesus doesn’t see a corpse. He sees a beloved child. He reaches out to her and raises her up. He calls to her and restores her to life. He cares for her by asking that she be fed and nurtured into full health.
To live as citizens of God’s Kingdom and to walk in the way of Jesus will make us vulnerable and lowly and unclean as well. Every time we open our doors to the stranger and our hearts to the unlovely, the wounded and diseased, every time we open our hands to serve the least, the last and the lost, we open ourselves to risk. Anyone who hangs around this congregation knows this well. Whether it’s in the feeding program, daily encountering those on the margins or in ministry in the jail or hospital or through the ministry of prayer for those who are most desperate or in the Bible Study where anyone and everyone is welcome, we take on Christ and encounter the beloved children he cares for and gave his life for.
But you also know the rewards. You know about the miraculous ways God transforms lives, beginning with our own. You know that healing is still happening through the loving, prayerful touch of those who call upon Jesus for power. You know that death does not have the last word and that joy comes in the morning. You know that when you hang around Jesus and the people he cares about your life will never be boring or comfortable.
I hope we never have to endure the gut-wrenching grief of the congregation that is mourning the violent deaths of their two pastors and 7 beloved parishioners. But I do hope that it could be said of us that we live faithfully, not in fear; that we live with open hands and hearts, trusting in a good God who is always on the side of life; that we live with humility and humor and that our lives are surrounded by grace and God’s goodness no matter the circumstances; that we live as God’s grateful and forgiven people willing to become vulnerable and lowly and even unclean for the sake of others.
Let’s sing. Amazing Grace.
The Reverend Canon Britt Olson