Sermon by The Rev. Pat Wingo
Sunday, July 1, 2018
Thank you for listening to Ascensioncast for this week’s sermon by The Rev. Pat Wingo, Interim Rector at Church of the Ascension. Below is the Gospel text of the day followed by a transcript of the sermon.
The Gospel: Mark 5:21-43
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 for Proper 8B – 7-1-18 PJW Ascension, Knoxville
In July of 2005 I went on vacation, and while I was gone the men’s Bible Study that I led as rector of my church got into a discussion. It seems that someone was reminiscing about growing up in their church as a child, and how they carried the American flag in procession as an acolyte. We displayed the flag in a nice way in our building, I thought, but we didn’t process it into church. So when I came back from vacation there was a little storm brewing in the men’s bible study, and when I went that Thursday, I invited them to come to the next vestry meeting where we could hear each other’s thoughts on the subject. One particular fellow named Bobby wanted me to say right then and there that we were going to process the flags in, just like he had when he was a boy in World War II, but I said that I thought we should have a discussion about it Monday night.
On Sunday, the day before the vestry meeting, I had finished the 8 o’clock service and was walking from one side of the building to the other after most folks had left. I glanced out the glass front door and lo and behold, there was Bobby, wearing a sandwich board, on which he had written the words, “Father Pat is a Communist.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it, so I got him a cup of coffee and went outside, and he agreed to ditch the sandwich board and come to the vestry meeting Monday night. But he didn’t come, and I was sorry about that, because we had a great discussion and came to a deeper understanding of what was important to each of us.
I tell you that story because I’m about to use a “lightning rod” word, and I don’t want any of you to go out and buy yourselves sandwich boards. I want to head you off at the pass. I’m telling you this now because I want you to do me the favor of listening closely, of not tuning out, because I’m not going to go at this delicate subject in the way that you might think once I get going. So stay with me, please, while I tell you another story.
In 2012 I went to a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with my oldest daughter. Perhaps some people might be only vaguely familiar with CSN—the main thing for you to know about them is that they were/are a folk/rock band that started in the 60’s who became known for their songs which addressed the problems of that era, and after that were an on-again, off-again group that made some good and not-so-good music over the next several decades.
At the concert they played a lot of fan favorites, many of which were their issue-related songs from the ‘60’s, songs like “Teach Your Children.” But when they played new songs that addressed today’s issues, several people in the crowd started yelling “No politics!”, to which Graham Nash responded, “Listen, if you go to a CSN concert, you’re going to hear songs about politics!” (That’s the lightning rod word).
I think many people want the opposite to be true when they go to church. Given the prevalence of political rhetoric on the airwaves in today’s world, many of us come to church to get centered on deeper things, to get away from the division, if only for a short time, and to get in touch with matters of the heart and soul that can somehow help us make sense of our lives. So when we hear anything that invades our sense of what we hope church will be for us, our first reaction may be an internal shout of “no politics!”
I looked up a number of definitions of politics, and in some way they all had to do with the debate or conflict that comes with gaining power in order to influence how a government or organization is run. So, yes, the process of achieving power and the conflict that comes with that is distasteful for us who are hoping for something different.
But that doesn’t mean we ignore what happens in our world. Others of us want the church to speak out forcefully about issues, to make clear statements, to condemn policies and actions that hurt people. And indeed, if we did that every Sunday, or made Facebook posts every week about those things, the sad fact is that it would be all that we did. There is so much in the world that is unjust, terrifying, and sad. And we live in a culture that sets us up to disagree about much of it.
The latest current event that has been served up for us to disagree about is the separation of families at the border. To be honest, I was glad when the President issued the Executive Order that prevents families from being separated. Having only been here at Ascension a couple of weeks at the time, I wanted the honeymoon to be a bit longer before we took on the hard issues. But even though only a handful of you asked Christopher and me about how we might address it, I think it’s important for us together to have a way of thinking about how we deal with those events, issues, and policies that almost automatically divide us.
As Christians, we are “resident aliens” in this world, to use the Will Willimon/Stanley Hauerwas phrase. It means we understand ourselves to be people who belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom “not of this world” as Jesus put it. It means that we look to certain core values when we think about current events and how we respond to them. It doesn’t mean we avoid the events and issues that surround us, but it does mean that we have different lenses through which we view them.
I’ll name some of those lenses: First, we are people who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Figuring out how to do that is hard work. Second, we are guided by biblical principles as we have come to understand them in the community of our church. That understanding has been and continues to be developed through the prayer, struggle, discussion, sacrifice and tears of generations of faithful people. It was, has been, and still is hard work. Third, one of the ways we have come to understand those biblical principles as Episcopalians is expressed in our Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer. In that Covenant we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Keeping that Covenant is hard work. Fourth, Jesus calls us to be united as disciples, even if we disagree with one another.
This is hard work.
What I hope you hear me saying is that being a Christian is not easy, and sometimes figuring out how to respond as a church community is even harder, because we don’t all come at the world from the same place. So I want a baseline for us to think about these things, for us to live together in the midst of these things. That baseline has something to do with our common humanity, being created by God in God’s image. It has something to do with Jesus’ unequivocal command to love our neighbor. It has something to do with putting ourselves in the place of people who are in pain.
So for me, at the most basic human level, at the level of the father of three daughters, I can say without hesitation that the separation of a child from its parents is terrifying. To any parent something like that certainly feels very much like how the leader of the synagogue felt when he approached Jesus in today’s gospel lesson—frantic, falling at Jesus’ feet, begging him repeatedly, “please, please help me.” I don’t think it’s hard work to come to thatplace as a human being, to come to understand that any parent would be scared and frantic when their children are in any kind of danger.
What IS hard work is to keep the lenses through which we see these things clear, keeping centered on Jesus and what he says, how he responds, what he calls us to be and to do. Twenty-four hour news channels work against that kind of centering, in my opinion.
What I am asking for, calling for, begging for here as a baseline is an other-worldly understanding of approaching and acting on all of these hard issues as Christians, no matter your political persuasion. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have opinions, but it does mean that we are called to be different in how we exercise and express our opinions. And sometimes it might mean that we have to do our best to live in the tension of caring deeply about our country and our world while at the same time striving to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the best example I can come up with:
On September 11th, 2001, I was the rector of a parish in a suburb of Birmingham. We had a service that night to pray for our leaders, to pray for peace, to pray for the families of those who died in that awful, horrific event. There were a couple of people there who knew folks who had died. I said the hardest thing I have ever had to say to a congregation that night in my homily—hard for them to hear and hard for me to say. I told them that as we prayed as followers of Jesus we also had to pray for the people who had done that evil deed. Why? Because Jesus said to pray for those who persecute you, he said to love your enemies, and when he was dying on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
I don’t think Jesus cares about our particular political persuasion. I don’t think God favors one party over another. What I think Jesus cares about is how we go about loving our neighbor, and what I think Jesus wants the church to do is to remind, and teach, and equip people to do that more and more and more in daily life, especially when it’s a hard thing to do. That’s what I hope we can work on together.
The Good News is that we have a Savior to follow, a rich legacy of how we understand our Scriptures to help us, and a Covenant with God through baptism by which we can be guided.
The Good News is that he has been there before us, forgiving those that nailed him to the cross, and he will always be there to forgive us when we fail, and to help us see more clearly how we can be his hands, and feet, and voice in this beautiful, difficult world.