Sunday, July 1, 2012

Do Not Fear, Only Believe

Okay, so even though I had a huge list of stuff I wanted to write about but only wrote about two of those things, here we are moving on. This is my first sermon for my first appointment, Deer Creek and Mt. Tabor United Methodist Churches.

Before even getting to the sermon, I need to write what probably should be its own post of gratitude. I was welcomed with countless hugs and good food by the congregation. My dad came out to support me in worship, as did my almost brother-in-law David Harrington. Aaron turns out to be an amazing preacher's husband, so I am even more excited to have him as my partner in ministry. At Deer Creek, Ruthanna Hipley, a woman who watched me grow up at St. Paul, came in to see me preach. At Mt. Tabor, Caitlin Katrinic, who went to high school with me and Aaron, showed up and sang beautifully. And on top of all this was the surprise appearance of Carolyn and Wendel Thompson, friends who went to Bosnia with us in 2004! I am so filled with joy and honored to be beginning this new part of my ministry journey at Deer Creek and Mt. Tabor!

Scripture: Mark 5:21-43 1

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "
Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Sermon: Do Not Fear, Only Believe

I am so blessed to be here this morning as your pastor. Bonnie and I knew each other before we knew I would be coming here, and she used to brag about you a lot. So that good recommendation on top of being home is really exciting. Aaron, my fiancé, and I graduated from North Harford, and we always said we were going to move to the city or someplace and not come back; yet here we are, seven years later, and we could not be happier to be home. We keep talking about how beautiful Harford County is, and now, of course, we have one of the most beautiful views in the county from our own front porch!

But this is still a scary time for us, as I'm sure on some level some of you may be scared or at least nervous. Change, no matter how many times you go through it, always comes with some level of uncertainty that can be unsettling. When I passed my first ordination exam, we were excited for half a second but then we were afraid we would be placed far away--- Aaron works at APG--- because we thought there were no appointments available in Harford County, and lo and behold, we end up right down the road from where we grew up! But we are still scared, still trying to figure out what this part of our ministry journey will look like.

And so all this is what's going on in my mind when I read the scripture for this week. It's no surprise that Jesus' instruction to Jairus in our Gospel lesson this morning jumped out at me: Do Not Fear, Only Believe.

So will you pray with me?

Patient Teacher, Gracious Healer,
we come to you this morning, uncertain, but reaching out to you.
May we feel you reaching back to us, lifting us up,
as we look to your life this morning to learn how we are to live. Amen.

Jairus was afraid. He probably had watched his little girl slowly fade away, sitting by her bed without sleep, his own face mirroring her sickly one just from the sheer exhaustion of worry. Because what else can you do when your child is sick and you are no healer? He sits. He worries. He waits. Until he heard about Jesus.

So too, the unnamed woman interrupting Jairus' story this morning was also afraid. You see blood means life. "Blood was such a sacred, precious, and dangerous force in Jewish belief and practice because it was what God said constituted the very life of a being," according to one of the commentaries I read in preparation for today.2 So the unnamed woman is watching her life seep out of her day after day for twelve years. She has been to see physicians, she has tried everything. And still she bleeds. There is nothing left to do. Until she hears about Jesus.

Femme Touchant Jesus by Corinne Vonaesch
But hearing about Jesus doesn't even end the fear there for either of them. Jesus' presence doesn't even end the fear. Jairus knows there is no time left. He tells Jesus, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." Jesus is his last hope. When Jesus agrees, I can still feel the anxiety within Jairus as he scrambles through the crowd, praying for a few more minutes. You can see on the image of our bulletin today how Jairus is pulling Jesus and all the people pressing in around Jesus, Jairus, and the woman.

The woman sees there are too many people pressing in, too many needing healing--- why would Jesus stop for her? She's a nobody, certainly not a synagogue leader like Jairus. She's a woman, first of all, and maybe she's heard that Jesus does have women followers, but still she must doubt his acceptance of her. Besides that, she could touch him and render him unclean under Jewish purity laws; but even beyond that, how is she supposed to explain to a man what is wrong with her? Even today, two thousand years later, there is such a taboo about women bleeding! She fears his rejection. And yet she presses ahead through the mass of people, arm outstretched as far as she could reach.

It is at these anxious moments when I can really relate to Jairus and the woman. I knew as soon as I got the call about this charge that the Holy Spirit was in the room with the bishop and the cabinet, sending me where I needed to be. I am confident, as Jairus and the woman who was bleeding were confident of Jesus' healing power. But there is still so much uncertainty, so much about which to be anxious.

But Jairus and the woman turned their fear into boldness.

The woman in particular. She had two moments of boldness, the first being when she reached out to touch Jesus. She grasped that one thought in her mind: "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." That's all well and good, a simple solution, right? In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is constantly surrounded by crowds. He is always amidst all these sweaty, needy people. I don't know if any of you have seen Jesus Christ Superstar before, but there is a scene in which a crowd of people almost crawl over the stage and chant/sing, "Won't you touch, will you heal me Christ?" all while reaching out to Jesus, pulling on his clothes. It is overwhelming. This bleeding woman in this story is like one of those people. She must see that. Surely she fears never getting to him, never being healed, and yet she boldly pushes forward, herself crushed beneath the mass of people.

And then--- the moment of wholeness. She was healed, but she barely processes the thought before yet again, she must be bold. Jesus turns around and asks who touched him, looking around him, searching faces for some sign of who he healed.

This moment really must be frightening for the woman. Did she go through all that only to have her healing taken from her? But, she must have felt no choice but to act boldly again. If she has the faith to know that just brushing against Jesus would bring healing, perhaps she would know Jesus could recognize her. And so, it is out of this fear that she comes forward to reveal the truth. In Mark's gospel, the term truth is only used to describe Jesus' teaching, yet here it is used to describe the unnamed woman.3 Despite her fear, through her trembling, she speaks boldly. And Jesus blesses her, telling her to go in peace, healed.

Now, Jairus' boldness was in his ability to continue to move forward. Can you imagine the turmoil inside him when the people came from his house to say that his daughter was dead? He has watched her fade away, sat beside her, only to leave her to finally find help. But it was too late. Instead of succumbing to grief, though, he put one foot in front of the other, supported by Jesus' words, "Do not fear, only believe."

We have all come to points in our lives when we are grieving, or afraid, and yet must keep moving. That time for you may not be having a new pastor. One of your church's great gifts is forming pastors for ministry. Yet there is still uncertainty, and you are still grieving Bonnie, who just blossomed under your care. And, as you have done in the past, and as I am learning to do, we step through that grief, that uncertainty, to act boldly. To believe, as Jesus told Jairus not to fear, only to believe.

I learned the importance of believing in spite of fear, of acting boldly, when I served as a student chaplain in a hospital in New Jersey, particularly from my friend Lauren who was also a student chaplain in our first week at the hospital. Lauren is not afraid of much. She is one of those people who exudes confidence about her ministry. When we divided up floors in the hospital to serve as chaplains, though, she specifically asked not to be on the oncology floor. Now, most of us have been to the oncology floor of hospitals before--- very few of us have not been touched by cancer in our families or friends. So we know that it is a very hard place to be for patients and caretakers alike. But it was more than that for Lauren. She had lived with a family in college and the man of the house had become in those years a second father to her. In her last year of college, he died after a long, protracted battle with cancer. She was still grieving and didn't think she could face situations so similar to her own so soon.

But the end of our first week, the Spirit had other ideas. We were sitting in the break room, packing up to leave and debriefing, when a patient advocate walked in needing a chaplain. Apparently a family in oncology had been asking for a priest for two hours for their mother on hospice care and could not get through and the patient advocate was desperate. Lauren and I just looked at each other. We went down to the oncology floor with the patient advocate and met the family. They still really wanted a priest, so I, rather cowardly, volunteered to find the priest, telling the family I would be back when I contacted him--- though I tried for almost an hour before I could go back to them with the priest.

Lauren took a deep breath and then began to talk to the family about their mother. Initially, the nurses told the family they still had a few hours left, but while Lauren was in the room, they realized it was only a few minutes. Lauren arranged the family around the bed and they listened to the mother's favorite music in silence for a few minutes as the mother passed away. Then the daughter asked Lauren to say something. Lauren read Psalm 121.

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.4

This is a beautiful Psalm. One of comfort, one that reminds us of the peace that the mother of this family now has, and one that reminds us of God's constant presence with us, even when we don't feel it.

Lauren's hands were still shaking when I found her in the hallway, bringing the priest in too late behind me. But the family thanked her for her presence, telling her it had been a perfect death which confused Lauren who had been so scared throughout the situation. Yet the family was at peace.

This experience for Lauren was difficult, even ugly in a way because of the way it sneaked up on her. But she believed. She had faith. This is not to say that she had faith that everything would turn out all right in the end. Faith, as one of my seminary professors has said, is not about certainty but about courage.5 Lauren's faith in this story was not about certainty, it, like that of the woman and Jairus, was about courage. Lauren was uncertain what would happen in that room. She was dealing with her own fear, her own grief, her nerves, her confusion in that room. She had no idea how she would react to the situation, how the family would react...but she was courageous through her fear, believing the God was present with her and being witness to that presence with that family.

The woman who came to Jesus for healing was courageous when she spoke the truth, believing God was present with her. She wasn't certain what would happen if she spoke up, but she had the courage to do what she thought she had to do. So too, Jairus was courageous when he continued to lead Jesus to his home, though he must have been breaking apart inside at the news of his daughter's death. These are people who do not let uncertainty or fear stop them, but rather they have the faith to act towards wholeness, to bring in miracles.

May we also in this time of transition in the life of this church act with boldness. May we act out a faith not of certainty but of courage as we begin this journey together. Amen.

1 Mark 5:21-43, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).

2 Rick Morely, "To Touch and to Be Touched," Witness Magazine 27 June 2006,

3 Emerson B. Powery, Commentary on The Gospel of Mark, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. by Brian K. Blount (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 132.

4 Psalm 121, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.

5 Attributed to Catherine Keller, though I cannot find the original source.

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