All Sides of the Sea

A version of this post was my sermon on Sunday, June 28.  The texts are Mark 5.21-43 (NRSV) and 1 Thessalonians 3.1-13 (NRSV).  It is the third in a five-part sermon series on First Thessalonians. 

Three chapters and 43 verses into Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul is still giving thanks for the members of the Thessalonian congregation. In fact, offering thanksgiving for them and rejoicing over them is essentially ALL Paul has done thus far. The faith instruction that is so prominent in Paul’s other letters has been minimal. Don’t worry, it’s coming; but in the first three-fifths of First Thessalonians almost everything has revolved around Paul’s love for this church and his joy in them as brothers and sisters in Christ – and this in itself is instructional.

We can’t go too far out of our way or make too big a deal out of love. It is Paul, after all, who will later pen the most famous hymn to love in all of Scripture – arguably, perhaps, in all of Western literature: 1 Corinthians chapter 13.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing…. [ Love ] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Without love, we, the people of Jesus, have nothing. We gain nothing. We are nothing.

Jesus Himself declares that love is what everything comes down to. Love the Lord your God with your whole self, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets hang from these two commandments. Paul is simply embodying here what he has received from Jesus, and what he proclaims elsewhere.

When Paul himself cannot visit the Thessalonian church, he sends Timothy to “strengthen and encourage them.” Paul is afraid that recent trials might have caused them to doubt or stray, so he made sure someone got there. And when Timothy returns with a report that all is well with them, Paul celebrates! He writes to tell the Thessalonians how joyful they have made him, and how that joy has sustained him during his own very trying time.

Then, he goes one step further. Paul concludes this section of the letter with a prayer – praying that God will increase their love for one another, and for all people. He wants them to love even more! For all there is to celebrate, they have not yet found the floor of love’s depths nor reached the peak of faith’s summit. When it comes to love, there is always more: more to receive, more to give, more to experience. And more is what Paul wants for the Thessalonians because that’s what Christ wants for them and all of God’s children. That’s what Christ offers us, and what He models for us. It all comes down to love. And love never ends – which means love only expands; it never contracts.

We’ll see how Paul encourages the Thessalonians to reach for more and strive for more in the next couple of weeks as First Thessalonians continues. In the meantime, to explore why (when it comes to love) there’s always more to reach and strive for, the Gospel lectionary reading for today illustrates the boundless reach of Christ’s love as well as any text in the New Testament. I think it will help us understand why Paul can’t seem to stop rejoicing over the Thessalonians, and prompt us to reflect on how we should love as Christ loves – within our church, and within our world.

In Mark 5.21, Jesus has just returned from the land of the Gerasenes. Jesus had crossed over the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile side, to an area referred to as the Decapolis: a region of Greco-Roman cities and towns east and south of Galilee. These settlements were outposts of Hellenic life and culture in the otherwise Semitic territories of the first century Near East.

For Jews, especially pious Jews, the Decapolis was the land of “the other.” It was an “unclean” region, and the cultural base of their pagan overlords. Yet, Jesus goes there. And not only does He go there, He performs a miracle there – just as He performed miracles throughout Galilee and Judea. Specifically, he heals a man possessed by a “legion” of unclean spirits. As a Gentile, this man would have been considered unclean anyway. But this poor suffering soul turns out to be an unclean Gentile, living in an unclean Gentile land, who makes his home in an unclean cemetery, possessed by an army of unclean spirits. He’s about as unclean as a human being could possibly be in the minds of Jesus’ peers.

He’s so unclean, even the other unclean Gentiles won’t have anything to do with him. The townspeople are afraid of him. He howls like an animal and hits himself with rocks. Out of their fear, the community tried to restrain him, but he was so strong he broke free of their chains. So, they kept away from him – had nothing to do with him. If he came near, they would have run in the opposite direction as far and fast as they could.

But Jesus doesn’t run. Jesus engages this man, then casts out the legion of spirits by sending them into a heard of pigs that happened to be nearby. The possessed heard then stampedes into the sea and drowns. The owners of the pigs are none to pleased, as I’m sure you can imagine – and they ask Jesus to leave. The Lord might have healed this feared man whom everyone thought was incurable, but He did so at great cost to certain individuals and they’re now afraid of Jesus.

So, Jesus leaves. As Jesus and the disciples are getting into their boat, the man whom Jesus healed begs to come with Him. But Jesus refuses his request. Jesus tells him he needs to stay, and this is what He says. “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

These instructions are key to understanding fully what Jesus is up to. Jesus is not just restoring this poor man to his right mind; He’s restoring him to his society, to his friends and family, the community from which he has been ostracized and estranged for so long. Jesus instructs the former demoniac to stay so he can begin rebuilding the bonds of kinship now that he’s been released from the bondage of his condition, and the literal shackles his relatives and neighbors tried to impose upon him.  We might even go so far as to say that Jesus leaves (And takes the blame) so that the former demoniac can stay.

Community matters. Belonging matters.

Now, at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is back on the “right side” of the Sea of Galilee – back among “righteous” people: God’s people, the Jews. But even here, all is not well and restoration is needed.

Right away, Jesus is met by a man named Jairus, who is one of the leaders of the synagogue. We’re not just back among “clean” folk; we’re among the shiniest of the clean folk. To be a leader of the synagogue, Jairus must have been an especially pious person. At the very least, he must have had a reputation for being an especially pious person. Nevertheless, Jairus’ piety has not shielded his household from tragedy. His daughter is ill – on the verge of death – and he implores Jesus to come and heal her. Jesus agrees.

Then, the story gets even more interesting. On the way to Jairus’ house, another person sees Jesus making His way through the crowd: a woman who has suffered with a hemorrhage, an issue of blood, for twelve years.

Mark tells us she’s been to see all manner of doctors, and spent all of her money trying to get well. But the doctors have failed her. Not only could they not make her better, their proscribed treatments have made the problem worse. What’s more, her affliction, like the demoniac’s possession, has rendered her unclean. For more than a decade, if she touched anyone, or if anyone touched her, she would have made them unclean, too.

So, even though she was there in the midst of the multitude, she would have been isolated. Most likely she was also deeply troubled as well as in great discomfort from her affliction. What had she done to displease God that this was happening to her? What sin had she committed? What offense had she given? After twelve years, the fact that she had any faith left at all is almost as miraculous as what happens next.

The woman says to herself, “If only I can touch Jesus’ clothes, I can be made well.” So, as Jesus passes by, she does what the Law says she shouldn’t do: she reaches out and grabs ahold of Him. When she does, Mark says that she can feel in her body that she has been healed.

Jesus feels it, too. Mark says that Jesus feels the power go out of Him and He begins asking, “Who touched My clothes?” The disciples are incredulous. Seriously? In this sea of people, You want to know who touched You? It could have been anybody.

But Jesus will not relent. He keeps searching, though we’re not quite sure why. Is He surprised? Angry? Curious? The anonymous woman hears His inquiry, and even though she is afraid, decides to make herself known. “It was I,” she says. “I touched You.”

What Jesus says in response to her confession is just as powerful and important as what He tells the Gerasene demoniac. “Daughter,” He says, “your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Jesus addresses her as, “Daughter.” To her world, she may have been anonymous; she may have been an unclean outcast.  But to Jesus, she’s family. She is a “daughter” every bit as much as the child of the leader of the synagogue whom Jesus is on His way to see. Jesus restores her humanity as well as her body. As with the demoniac, He returns her to community as well as to health.

Jesus’ satisfaction is short-lived, however. While Jesus is blessing the anonymous woman with the issue of blood, news arrives from Jairus’ house that his daughter has died.

Yet, unlike the inconsequential, unclean woman in the crowd, the response to this tragedy from the supposedly pious household of the leader of the synagogue is a lack of faith rather than a demonstration of it. The messengers say to Jairus, “Why trouble the teacher any longer?” It’s finished. Nothing can be done.

Jesus won’t hear of it. He tells Jairus not to fear, but to believe – and presses on. When they arrive at the house, the people gathered in the girl’s room laugh at Him when He assesses the situation and them tells them the little girl is only sleeping. They laugh.

No matter. Jesus remains undeterred. He throws the scoffers out of the house, and with her parents and the inner circle of His disciples present, Jesus heals the girl and she begins to move freely around.

Then, at the very end of the story, we discover an incredible detail. Mark tells us Jairus’ daughter is twelve years old. That means that she, the daughter of the prominent synagogue leader, and the unclean, anonymous woman from the crowd share a connection. The woman’s hemorrhage had dogged her for twelve years, which means it began the same year the young girl was born. Now, of course, they share an additional connection: Christ Jesus.

Jesus connects everything in Mark chapter five: Jew and Gentile, the somebodies and the nobodies, the living and the dead. In the privacy of a prominent home, in the thick of a bustling crowd, on the “right” and “wrong” sides of the sea – Jesus lives and moves. We see Jesus with the supposedly “righteous” and the supposedly “unrighteous.” We see Him with the movers and the shakers, as well as with the voiceless and the marginalized. From start to finish, He values people of every station and status enough to allow them to summon Him, interrupt Him, even to tell Him He needs to go. There is more than enough of Jesus and His love to go around.

That’s why Paul can declare to the church that love never ends – and why he prays for love among Jesus’ people to continually increase, even when it abounds in their midst. If love never ends, it must continue to grow. So, even when we’ve gone with Christ to the other side of the sea, we haven’t yet gone as far as we can.

As the people of Jesus, we need to remember that. We need to remember that each and every day, but we especially need to remember it as the people of Jesus in America as we begin to live in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality.

Since the Court’s verdict was handed down last week, social forums and media outlets have exploded with exuberance and outrage. Some see the ruling as victory in a decades-long struggle for civil liberty. Others view it as the veritable end of Western civilization. What’s more, faithful, earnest, God-fearing, Jesus-loving people are to be found on the side of exuberance, on the side of outrage, and at many points in between. It’s a debate that has been raging for some time, and it is a debate that will continue to rage. The Court’s decision is a milestone, not the finish line.

It’s also a debate worth having. Living a faithful life in pursuit of Jesus is a challenge. Yes, we have the witness of Scripture to guide us, but the Bible says a lot of things. Some matters are addressed directly. Some are hinted at. Others are not addressed at all – and still others are addressed one way in one part of the Bible and another way in a different part. Scripture must therefore be continually and prayerfully interpreted. Engaging in honest, sincere debate about how to best apply what we read to the life we live is how we learn and grow as disciples. And the fact that there are so many faithful, earnest, God-fearing, Jesus-loving people at various points all along the theological spectrum of this particular question should confirm for us that marriage is a nuanced issue far more complex than simply “what the Bible says.”

That’s why the venom and the judgment embedded in many of the supposedly Christian responses to the Supreme Court’s decision are so disturbing. Christians on one side of the debate are essentially telling fellow Christians – and anyone else – on the other side that they are unclean. You don’t see this matter the same way we see it, therefore you are not counted among the faithful. You are apostates outside the fold of Jesus’ flock, essentially outside the scope of His love and mercy.

We simply cannot indulge that kind of rhetoric, or logic. When we draw such rigid lines in the sand, we stunt our own spiritual growth and we make our faith about the lines rather than about Jesus – the Jesus whom, as we have seen, lives and moves among the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” on all sides of the sea. What’s more, we’ve seen that great faith and powerful witness can be found among “the unclean,” and doubt and misunderstanding can be found among the “clean.” Jesus is always deeper and wider and greater than our own conclusions, which is why, at the end of the day, our faith must come down to love, if it is come down to Jesus.

Like Jesus, love always sees people, no matter how thick the veil of fear or doubt that surrounds them, or how thick the crowd that obscures them. Love constantly nudges us, prods us, to push through the lines that crisscross our world – some drawn by others, some drawn by us – and to pay attention to the humanity within their bounds. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

I think that’s why Paul can’t stop talking about love, can’t stop rejoicing in the love he witnesses and experiences, and why he prays that the followers of Jesus will find and experience even more love.

That’s my prayer today, too: that in the days ahead, the Lord will make the people of Jesus increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May we remember that none of us has yet found the floor of love’s depths, nor reached the peak of faith’s summit – and that Jesus is to be found on all sides of the sea, with “us” as well as with “them,” whomever and wherever “we” and “they” might be.

Amen.

Vine City USA

As you enter the town of Berwyn Heights where we live, you pass a sign that says: “Welcome to Berwyn Heights: a Tree City USA”

“Tree City USA” is a designation from the Arbor Day Foundation meaning that Berwyn Heights spends a certain amount of money each year on urban forestry efforts, has an administrative board specifically tasked with overseeing those efforts, and has passed ordinances that generally make it difficult to have a tree cut down.

Kristen and I have joked for years that a more accurate designation would be “Welcome to Berwyn Heights: A VINE CITY USA, because there are vines running amok all over the neighborhood – up and down our street, anyway. Our backyard is covered in vines that have crept over the fence from our neighbors’ yards, and we can look over into their yards and see vines creeping over their fences from their neighbors’ yards.

I’ve been battling one vine in particular that I’ve nicknamed “the Sarlacc” (after the tentacled monster in Return of the Jedi). We’ve been trying to get rid of this plant for five years. The first year we lived in our house we thought the Sarlacc was great. It covered the trellis just off our back patio and provided a nice, shady barrier in the summertime. Then, the second year it covered the trellis…and the flowerbeds and the patio and the tree and was going after pretty much everything within its spindly reach. Since then, we’ve drowned it in Round Up, and come at it with clippers and loppers and chainsaws. Last year, I hacked the two main trunks of the vine up out of the ground with my pickaxe and stood over the fallen, severed stumps like a Celtic warrior, screaming in triumph. Even so, we still find tendrils of this vine popping up in various parts of the yard to this day.

Just last weekend, I noticed that something had sprung up and was pushing its way through the boards of the fence on the south end of our backyard. I thought it was a sapling of some kind that had taken root and shot up over night, but when I went to take a closer look IT WAS THE SARLACC. I then spent the next half hour trying to unravel it from the fence posts and wrench it from the ground.

Needless to say, I’ve about had it with vines. So when I hear Jesus declare, “I am the vine, you are the branches” in John 15, I’m not too thrilled with the metaphor. I much prefer the comparison Christ offered in our Scripture reading for last week: I am the Good Shepherd. Why don’t we just stick with that? Isn’t that enough? Why would Jesus want us to think of Him and think of ourselves as something so pervasive and invasive, that covers everything within reach, that scales walls and pushes holes through fences, and is next to impossible to get rid of?

So I asked Him. In a terse prayer, I asked Jesus what the deal with the vine was. And you know what? Within the depths of my soul, I heard a small but clear voice answer:

“Because we live in a world divided by too many walls and too many fences that need to be covered over and punched through. If you’re going to be My disciple, that’s the kind of tenacious presence I am calling you to have, the kind of love I’m calling you to spread. I’m not calling you to be any ol’ vine; I’m calling you to be a particular kind of vine, My vine, a vine that bears fruit; a vine that provides shade and sustenance for the people of my world. Love and sustenance – these are the necessities of “the life that truly is life” – and that is what my world desperately needs.

“If you need proof, just look north. The inner city of Baltimore burned last week for the same reason the California countryside burned last summer: it’s dry. It’s more than a food desert. It’s a desert of humanity, and it’s an environment that’s completely man-made. The high fences and thick walls of that city keep out the things that nourish life, and so all it takes is a spark. If it seems like history is repeating itself, that it’s 1968 all over again, it’s because these are the same fences and walls that stood 45 years ago. They’re still there. They’re still standing tall, because instead of pulling them down, America decided it would be better to install some gates. Gates are a step in the right direction; but a gate is the same as a wall if you don’t have a key.

“It’s time for the walls to come down. It’s time for the fences to come down. That’s why I’m in the world,” the small, clear voice declared. “That’s why I’m in the world as a vine: to crack the mortar and pry apart the boards that suffocate life. And that’s why I’m calling you, My people, to be branches of this vine: to spread out into the world, to be leverage for this work, to bear fruit, to offer love.”

Was this the voice of the LORD? You can wonder with me. I do know these words within my soul are consistent with 1 John 4, the companion reading to John 15 in the Revised Common Lectionary. …[B]ecause love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God [and] whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. ….There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…. [Therefore] the commandment we have from Christ is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Love. That’s the fruit Christ calls us to bear. That’s the leverage He calls us to exert. And let’s be clear: the implications of the Gospel imperative to love are nothing short of cosmic. Because God loves us with deep and abiding love, we have the capacity to love one another with a deep and abiding love – and deep, abiding, divinely inspired love has the power to transform as well as save  the world.  The two actually go hand-in-hand.  Where there is love, there should also be transformation, because love by its very nature is transformative. If you are loved, you are changed. If you love, you are changed. So, if our love isn’t transforming the world, then we have to wonder whether it’s love we’re truly offering.  And if we aren’t transforming the world, can we really believe we’re saving it – even if a steady stream of folks “walk the aisle” on Sunday morning?

We have the power, and we have the commission from Christ our Lord to change the world. The question is: do we have the will? Put another way, “How ‘viney’ are we willing to be?” The answer to that question is a mosaic of answers to other questions. Some of them are big questions: questions of public policy, and national and community priorities. Are we willing to engage those debates? Are we willing to demand better for our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, even our enemies – all of the people Christ bids us to love? Others are small questions, in terms of scale if not ease. Will I choose to live out of generosity or fear? Will I go about my day with my eyes open or shut? Will I allow love to spur me to action, or will I hold back and wait for someone else to take the risk first?

Those are the kinds of questions love asks, and the answers to those kinds of questions will transform the world….or won’t.

And so, brothers and sisters, whatever you’ll be doing after you read this, resolve to do it with the love of Christ. Whether it’s difficult or easy, simple or complex, resolve to do it with the love of Christ. For He is the vine, and we are the branches. As He is in the world, so we are called to be in the world. We shouldn’t wait for the world to come to us, anymore than a vine waits for the trellis to come to it. There is mortar to be cracked, there are boards to be bent. There is life to let in.

May abundant life pour in like waters, and swell like a mighty stream through the cracks we make. Amen.

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