Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lectionary 13
Lamentations 3:22-33 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-23
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

...for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity. (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23, NRSV)

What is death? In the most common definition, death is when a physical body stops living, when a living thing breathes no more. Iím sure most, if not all, of us reading this today have experienced the loss of someone we knew and loved, whether it was a person or even a pet. Death is the ultimate separation because except for the memories, we have no connection to that person or animal after theyíve died.

But death can be understood in a wider sense, to include objects and ideas as well as physical beings. Psychiatrists tell us that people grieve any sort of loss, just as they might grieve for a dead loved one. The loss of a job means separation from the workplace, co-workers and financial security. When we are separated from a friend because of an argument or a change in the relationship, we go through a period of grief. It can feel like weíve died when we have been faced with the reality that our opinions or ideas are wrong, especially if those ideas or opinions are deeply rooted and long lasting. Any of these experiences can cause division, separation: walls built between people.

God did not intend for us to live divided by walls, but we do a tremendous job of building them. Some people want to divide us according to some visible distinction, whether it is race, gender, age or any other physical attribute. Others want division based on ideas. Yet others want lines drawn between nations and cultures, classes or politics. It isnít always easy to tell who belongs to which group, but the walls are built anyway.

Every time a wall is built, a death occurs. Yet, as Solomon writes, ďÖbecause God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortalÖĒ (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, NRSV) God created us to last forever, living together in His Kingdom, under His rule, with His grace as the bond that ties us all together. Unfortunately, we live in a world corrupted by sin, our own and the sins of others, from the days of Adam and Eve until now. That sin causes death: death of body, mind and spirit. It causes death in relationships. It causes death of spirit as we are separated from our Creator God.

God did not intend for His creation to die. He did not intend for sickness. He did not intend for violence. He did not intend for there to be borders between people. Solomon writes, ďNevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.Ē (Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, NRSV) We find death. We find illness. We find destruction. We find (or cause) broken relationships. All too often death finds us because we have not lived as God intended. It began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve listened to the voice of the serpent and believed him above the voice of God. We continue to suffer the consequences of that choice, but we also suffer the consequences of our own choices. We hold on to the devil and in doing so, we find death.

The Gospel lesson is a complicated story with many characters, not the least of which is the crowd that was pressing in on Jesus. Imagine what it must have been like in that crowd. Why were they there? Some were certainly there because they wanted to be healed. This is true of the old woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Jairus was there to take Jesus to his dying twelve year old daughter. The disciples were with Jesus, probably surrounding him as best they could in the moving crowd to protect him. Who else was there? Some were curious. Others wanted to be part of history, like many of the crowds that gather around public figures today. Some may have been representing those religious leaders that were already questioning Jesus and His ministry. There were surely people whoíd seen Jesus heal the man with a legion of demons, perhaps even some angry pig herders that lost their animals when they ran off the cliff.

It was a diverse crowd, some who should not have even been in the company of some of the others. Take Jairus and the bleeding woman. As a leader in the synagogue, the man needed to avoid bleeding women so that he could do his job. He didnít care who was in the crowd. He cared only that Jesus might be able to help him. The woman should never have been in the middle of that crowd. Since she was bleeding, it was her responsibility to stay away from others because she made every one she touched unclean. She didnít care, she cared only that Jesus might be able to heal her. The crowd, many of whom probably knew about the womanís dis-ease, didnít care because they just wanted to be near Jesus.

One of the most difficult things the church has to deal with is the reality that congregations match a certain demographic. A church located in a middle class neighborhood will be attended by a majority of middle class people. A center city church will be home to those who live in the city. A country church will host farmers. The pews in a church in high retirement area will probably be filled with elderly. This is not how we want it to be, and we spend a great deal of effort trying to find ways to make our churches a diverse community. Unfortunately, the reality is that we want to go to a place where we feel comfortable and we feel most comfortable in places with people with which we have something in common.

Despite the fact that our congregations do not appear to have much diversity, I donít think any of us would come right out and say that we are a place for only certain people. We even spend time trying to find ways to bring diversity into our community. We change our music or liturgy. We offer programs to meet the needs of other demographic groups. We create mission statements that are inclusive and far reaching. And yet, do we really reach out to different people with open arms?

Take, for example, the congregation whose minister preaches the prosperity gospel. This is the message that God will make his faithful people prosper. There is an underlying message in these churches that if you are not prospering, then you must not have enough faith. The message can go the other way, too. There are those congregations that focus on the idea that Jesus came for the poor. It is true that much of His teaching revolves around wealth and He lifts up the poor, but some churches preach a message that the rich can not enter into heaven. In one church, the poor are excluded because they do not have enough faith that God will make them rich. In the other church, the rich are excluded because they do not have enough faith to give away all their wealth for the sake of others.

Jesus didnít preach those type of messages. It didnít matter to Jesus if a person was rich or poor, old or young, male or female. He didnít notice race, creed, or nationality. He didnít pay attention to hair color, skin color, body mass index, clothing styles. He did speak about the rich that were greedy and the poor that were lazy. He did tell people to stop sinning. He did teach us all lessons we have to learn to live as He has called us to live. But He was blind when it came to the things we tend to use to divide ourselves from our neighbors. We continue to allow death to rule in our lives when we notice the differences and build those walls. But when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we tend to be blind to those differences, too.

Jesus didnít send the man Jairus away, despite the fact that he was a leader of the synagogue and probably held some wealth. Instead, he followed the man who had enough faith to ask for help. As He walked, He was pressed in by the crowd, a crowd that was also blind to the people around them. He didnít send away the woman who by faith was healed of her dis-ease just because she touched his cloak. He never sends away people who are drawn into His presence by the faith He has made possible by His grace. He lifts up those who look to Him, no matter who they are.

I wonder if our churches would become more diverse if we stopped paying so much attention to our differences. Our focus on our differences is not life-giving. When we offer special programs that meet very specific needs to create diversity might draw in some people, but it also excludes others. It builds walls, causes death. Jesus came to break down those walls, to bring true life. It is only in Him weíll live the life we are called to live: gathered around the Savior, with our eyes on Him, in a community that sees everything through the Gospel of grace.

I have been pondering the question of justice in our world. What does it mean? Justice is defined as fairness, equality, righteousness. It comes with being conformed to what is morally and legally upright and good and conforming to fact or reason. But is justice always cut and dry? Can we always say that one answer is the right one? Justice is often in the eyes of the beholder. Just watch those television court shows and youíll see how people view justice. Sometimes the judgeís answer does not seem fair, but is it just? It might not bring equality between people, but according to the law it is just and right.

What parent hasnít experience the question of fairness between his or her children? It is hard because it isnít always easy to compare the things they are given. A girl may need more expensive clothes than a boy, but the boyís toys might be more expensive. How do you tell a child that the one package under the Christmas tree containing the Wii is equal to the packages of dolls and doll clothes and play kitchen accessories his sister found. We hope they wonít notice and try teaching them the value of their things, but this is a lesson that takes a long time to learn. To them, a dollar is the same as a hundred dollars. They base equity on what they can see, not on the reality.

Iím not sure we ever completely grow out of this idea of equality. It seems like in our world today, fairness means everyone having exactly the same thing. I canít tell you how many times the kids stood in the kitchen staring at chocolate sundaes trying to decide which one they would take. They want the one with the most ice cream, or the most chocolate syrup or the most whipped cream. If it even appeared as though one had more than the other, the child with the lesser bowl cried foul. ďItís not fair.Ē Thereís no way to know, in the end, whether anyone has received their fair share of anything.

So, as we are thinking about this question of ďfair shareĒ we have to wonder what it is we want our fair share of. Do we want our fair share of wealth? What does that mean? Do we want our fair share of time with those we love? How do we define time spent, by minutes, hours or quality? Do we want our fair share of love? It is impossible to measure love, but I can safely guess that at least a few of my readers feel like a sibling was given more love (or time or stuff) than his or her brothers and sisters. How do we assess whether or not weíve received our fair share and what do we do if we learn that weíve gotten too little or too much?

This is a ridiculous argument because there will always be people who have less and people who have more than us. We canít go to the rich man and demand that he give us a portion. We can share with those who have less, but we all know that our resources only go so far. We canít spend money we donít have. We canít share when our resources have been depleted.

The same is not true of God our Father. He is able to give as we need, whatever we need, because His resources can not be depleted. Despite the tough times the people of Judah were facing, particularly with the destruction of Jerusalem, they were still able to sing about the faithfulness of God. The singer in the passage from Lamentations, an individual singing for the entire nation, says that the Lord is his portion. The Lord is his fair share. Nothing else matters. Yes, there was great loss, but Godís love is steadfast. In the midst of our troubles we can wait for Him and Heíll come. We might have to suffer as we wait, bearing the yoke, sitting in silence, burying our face in the dust, offering our cheek to those who would strike and filled with disgrace. It might seem as though we have not received our fair share, unless we remember that God is our portion. We arenít empty. We arenít alone. We donít need to have the same amount of stuff as our neighbor. He is enough.

And because He is enough, we can trust that He will help us finish the work we are called to do. It isnít easy. Sometimes we get caught up in a project that we just canít finish. Sometimes we make a promise that we just canít keep. Or, we think we canít keep it. There are many reasons why we leave projects incomplete. Homeowners who begin renovations might run out of money for supplies. We might become too busy with other work to do the work necessary to complete the project. Time passes and we donít need what we were planning to do. It would be a waste of our time to continue with something that is beyond use. Health issues can make some things impossible to complete. There are some very good reasons, and some even better excuses for not finishing what we start.

We make commitments and promises that matter. Unfortunately, when we fail to complete those commitments, someone may suffer for it. There may be very real and important reasons why we canít complete the commitment, but that doesnít help the one waiting for us to live up to the promise.

Take, for instance, a pledge to donate something to an organization. That organization plans their budget around the pledge. If they do not get all the funds expected, they canít pay their bills. There may be a perfectly good reason for someone to renege on their pledge. They might have suffered ill health or financial collapse. They might have found a better way to share their resources. We make sometimes make commitments and then realize that the organization is wasting the fund. We make the conscious decision to take our money elsewhere so that it will do the most good. Whatever the reason, however, our decisions will impact those who are relying on our commitments. There are many reasons why we should finish our commitments even if there are good reasons not to.

The Corinthians made a commitment to help the poor in Jerusalem. We donít know what might have spurred them to make this commitment or what might have happened that would delay to fulfillment of the promise. But Paul writes to encourage them to finish what they started. This encouragement is not only because the poor in Jerusalem need their help. The act of giving will also serve as an example to the world of Jesus Christís generosity. As they say, we are Christís hands in a world where He is not visible to those who do not believe. So, by fulfilling our promises despite the hardships it might cause, the world sees our faith in action. It isnít enough to want to do something. It isnít enough to be eager and to talk about what we might do. Good intentions never fed a hungry child. We are encouraged by Paul, along with the people of Corinth, to complete what we have started, to do what weíve said we would do.

Our psalm today was probably written by David at a dedication for the Temple. Though David did not actually build the building, he did dedicate the land and the materials that would be used. It was an exciting time for the people, but it was also a dangerous time. David was not safe. He was still in danger from enemies as were the people of Israel. Thatís why David didnít get to build to Temple himselfótoo much blood was shed under his rule. But he was given the promise that his house would not end and that his heir would build. Solomon did build the Temple. David may have then planned for this psalm to be used when that Temple was complete.

It was also used later in the liturgy of Godís people. It became a regular part of the Hanukkah celebration. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus. Those who developed the liturgy recognized the worth of this psalm and its appropriateness for that occasion. It is a song of praise, a song that remembers a time when Godís people became arrogant and forgetful. It is a song that is still appropriate for us today. We are reminded of our own failure to live up to the expectations of our God, the God who has done great things for us. As we gather together to sing praise to God, we are humbled by His extraordinary love and mercy. He takes the reality of our failure and turns it upside down so that we can sing His praises and give thanks to Him forever.

Death is a part of our life. Death comes there is injustice. Death comes when sin builds walls between people. Death comes when we fail to live up to the expectation of God in our lives. But Jesus Christ came to bring life. He came to break down the walls between people and to bring healing. He encourages us to pursue righteousness through faith by grace. We might not always get it right. We may fail at justice and generosity. As the devil continues to wander the land, we will fail and weíll suffer death. But God does not intend for us to die. He made us in His own image. ďFor righteousness is immortalÖ for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity.Ē (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23, NRSV)

God created us for life, and so He sent His Son to break down the walls that cause separation and brokenness. Jesus came to destroy death. Not only will we live eternally in the presence of God by faith, but we can also see the benefit of faith in our daily lives. We can live blind to our differences, ignore the walls, reach out to those who are different, open our hearts and minds to others. We donít have to become door mats or give up our principles. We simply look at the world through Jesusí point of view and weíll see things differently. In faith, by grace, we have been changed. We do not need to suffer from death. We have been created to live and live abundantly.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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