North Riverdale Lutheran Church ― June 28, 2015
Pastor Monte Stevens
“Arise” ― Gospel: Mark 5:21-43
I’m not sure about you, but I have found myself these past days still in deep reflection about “The Nine of Mother Emanuel” as they have begun the process of burying their dead; in deep reflection about America’s original sin―slavery.
In deep reflection about our overt Jim Crow past and the subtle Jim Crow of today. In deep reflection about racism, and what it means to live in community, to live in America as a majority race and minority race. In deep reflection of what it means to be white and black in America.
In deep reflection on the various posts I’ve seen on social media. Words of love and words of hate. There has been enough to reflect on, that at times, I have felt anxious and had moments of despair.
But our gospel lesson for today would not let me be either fearful nor slip into despair. And as I sat down to listen to President Obama deliver the eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, I took to heart the second line of his address. He said — reminding us — “The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.”
So today, we gather to hope, to persevere, and to be instructed by Jesus, and peer a little further into the future where faith can take us and I will offer you several challenges.
The title of my sermon last Sunday, was “The Boat of Mother Emanuel.” The premise of that title was that the black church, with Mother Emanuel being a shining example, has been the bedrock of the black community in good times and especially through hard times like: Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the struggle for Civil Rights.
It was because of the black church living through these centuries of hardships and injustices that they learned how to respond to hate. Time and time again, Mother Emanuel was a boat that had carried her disciples through centuries of hatred and violence. When their church was burned down, they rebuilt. When her members were hanged, they pressed on in faith. When the white legislatures made laws so they could not worship without white supervision, they met secretly to praise God.
I don’t know if you noticed, but on either side of the dais, where the president delivered his eulogy there were large white poster boards that declared:
“Wrong Church! Wrong People! Wrong Day!”
What they meant by that comes from a long history of knowing themselves as a black congregation in AME the tradition. If the shooter thought he would create a new storm of racism to spread across our nation he sure picked the wrong church. They had a long history of living through, and rising from, hatred in non-violent ways. Wrong Church!
Wrong People! If you have spent any time reading through the bio’s of the nine beautiful souls that were gunned down on June 17th, then you know they were some of the most loving people and grace-filled people you would ever want to know.
Not any hate in these people. Wrong People!
Wrong Day! It was Wednesday! Bible Study Day! Grow in discipleship day! In the Black church, Sunday is the day to gather and praise God but Wednesday nights are Bible Study. Wednesday evening is when you come together and go deeply into God’s Word and learn how to live life in the deepest way possible.
The Wednesday night folks, are known as the really serious folks; where your best leaders and ministers meet to grow in ways you can’t grow on Sunday morning. Not to sound too righteous, but these are the “cream of the crop” people, whose roots of faith fun deep, and where wisdom and courage is found for living God’s passions for the world.
They could of also had said ― Wrong Denomination! We have seen the grace-filled, forgiveness-filled, loved-filled catechism of the AME church on display since June 17th.
To buttress the point of these posters, and the significance of what the black church has meant, and still means I want to quote a few sections from President Obama’s eulogy he offered for Pastor Pinckney.
“To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life – a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.
Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah — rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.
They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart ― and taught that they matter.
That’s what happens in church. That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart.”
In my humble opinion that is a pretty wonderful vision of the church. One of the best lines in there, for me, was: “Churches are places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter.” I hope we all do that well here at North Riverdale.
The president continued …
“Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of the AME church. As our brothers and sisters in the AME church know, we don’t make those distinctions.
‘Our calling,’ Clem once said, ‘is not just within the walls of the congregation, but the life and community in which our congregation resides.’
He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long – that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”
I hope you hear in that description some of North Riverdale’s ministry, and as we, in our own humble ways, push for a just society and live out our vision of Christianity, that it is about more than just individual salvation, but our collective salvation.
The President continued.
“We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches―not random―but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.
Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group―the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.
The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court―in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that. Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.”
Wrong Church! Wrong People! Wrong Day!
Sorry for those longer quotes, but don’t think I could have articulated their content any better.
It is that long history, and the theology of the AME church, that allowed for the response that has so inspired the nation.
There is reason to hope! As the president reminded us: “The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.”
Since the Bible was so important to those “Wednesday Night Nine,” and is the place where we draw our hope, let’s turn to our Bible, today’s gospel passage, and see what Word from God we can find for our living and current context.
This is a classic Marken text of a story within a story.
Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to Jesus to heal his daughter who is at “death’s door.” He wants Jesus to come and lay his hands upon his daughter so that she might, “Get well, and live.” Before Jesus can do anything about this he is interrupted and we hear the story within the story―the story of the woman who has been plagued by her hemorrhaging for 12 years.
She wants to be healed of her plague. There is touching of clothes and people pressing in all around Jesus, but in the end Jesus recognized that someone has touched his clothes. And the woman finally comes forward and tells her story.
Jesus blesses her faith, calls her his daughter, and says, “You took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, Lived blessed. Be healed of your plague.”
Then we go back to the first story of Jairus’ daughter, and some people come from his house, while he was waiting on the road for Jesus, and they tell him “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the Teacher anymore?”
What is precious to you is gone; why bother the Teacher anymore? Jesus says to Jairus … “Don’t listen to them; just trust me.”
Jesus pushes through all the doubtful people and takes her parents into her room, clasps her hand and says, “Talitha Cum,” which means, “Little girl get up.” And the twelve year old girl gets up―and the people are told to get her something to eat.
These are often categorized as miracle stories, but for me they are more than Jesus doing something miraculous―something that we cannot do ourselves. That is a literal-factual way to read the story, but these are clearly, in my mind, metaphorical stories. Whatever the historical context might be these are stories that Mark has crafted to teach us about trusting in the Way of Jesus―about deep healing and salvation, and what it means to be whole, and to hope when all hope seems lost.
Jairus’ daughter is at death’s door. A woman has been left hopeless, hemorrhaging for 12 years. Both of these characters in Mark’s drama of salvation have the number 12 attached to them. This is a story for the twelve tribes of Israel―for God’s people―who have gone through their own history of hopelessness and were at death’s door many times. This is a story for the 12 disciples and all of Jesus’ disciples who choose to follow Jesus.
It is a story that takes us into the real meaning of what salvation is―what wholeness is―what is possible with Jesus. “Don’t listen to them; just trust me.” This is a story-within-a-story, for you and for me.
For Jesus, salvation is transformation in life, this side of death. Salvation is not just getting heaven.
How many times, metaphorically, have you been at death’s door during your lifetime? Job losses? Didn’t know where to turn? Loss of a spouse? Your child’s marriage is falling apart? We have all been at death’s door many times, and we’re there, once again, in Charleston.
How many times have you had a problem that has felt like a plague in your life? A persistent problem that will not go away―maybe it is a health issue. Maybe it is the plague of alcoholism or drugs. The plague of physical abuse, which has left their scars upon you. The plague of racial hatred.
Just like the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, we all suffer. She is us.
Have you ever felt so powerless and hopeless that you are desperate enough to reach out to anyone that would or could help?
Salvation is about transformation this side of death. Salvation is about the healing of our wounds and becoming whole.
The root of the word salvation is, salve, which means “a healing ointment.” And people are reaching out to Jesus, in Mark’s story, for this salvation. It is for us as individuals; and for people living together in society.
Last week the disciples asked, “Who is this man?”
On the other side of the lake where demons dwell, he is the One with the healing ointment of salvation. He is the one who offers hope in the midst of despair, and the One, Mark says, we are to trust with our very life and living.
Into the fear, in which we often live, Jesus says, “Stop being afraid; Go on living by faith. Don’t listen to those without hope; Just listen to me.”
In those present tense verbs Mark is pointing us, inviting us, to follow Jesus’ transforming power to change our lives―from fear to trust―and, in so doing, find wholeness and peace for our wounds. We are to have faith in the Way of Jesus.
“Talitha Cum!” Jesus said to the little girl “Arise!” And he says, “Talitha Cum!” to each of us …“Arise!”
The good news is that there is a way to leave the land of the dead. “Arise!”
This story of life within a story―of salvation and healing ointment―got me to thinking about those four little girls who were killed by a bomb on September 15th,1963, as they attended Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. And our recent story of “Nine Bible study AME disciples” being killed. And the hopelessness they all have felt at one time or another with the plague of slavery, and their fight for Civil Rights and justice, and having the fullness of their humanity recognized.
The words of hate have been strong over the centuries, but Jesus says, “Don’t listen to those voices; just trust me.”
I went back and read Martin Luther King’s eulogy for those four little girls, and there were some poignant lines that parallel the problem we still see manifesting itself today in Charleston and other places in America, and the promise of the hope that Jesus offers, as we follow in his Way―to touch and hold onto his garment of salvation.
King reminded us in his eulogy, “They died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they did not die in vain.
God still has a way of bringing good out of evil. History has proven, over and over again, that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to their dark city.
The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man, to the high road of peace and brotherhood.”
When I think of the 12 years of the hemorrhaging woman, I can’t help but see in her bleeding, in her plague, the hemorrhaging blood of those little girls, the hemorrhaging blood from Selma’s bloody Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the most recent hemorrhaging of blood at Mother Emanuel.
King’s words that wrap up his eulogy for the four little girls are still as vibrant and true for the eulogies that are now being offered for the “Nine of Mother Emanuel.”
Here are a few of the lines toward the end of King’s eulogy.
“Through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace. Your children did not live long, but they lived well. The quantity of their lives was disturbingly short, but the quality of their lives was magnificently big. They died within the sacred walls of the church after discussing a principal as eternal as love.”
The only way we will stop the hemorrhaging of blood is to follow in the way of grace, forgiveness, and love, and find the collective salvation for all of God’s children living together in a society built on the girders of justice.
The only way we will leave no more little girls at death’s door is to transform all types of hate with the lasting lessons of love, which are rooted in the dignity of humanity. And with the recognition that all have been created in God’s image and are beloved.
To that end let me conclude with two challenges.
In his eulogy Friday, President Obama said the shooting “has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. [God has] once more given us grace, but it’s up to us now to make the most of it.” It wouldn’t be fair to Pinckney’s legacy “to go back to business as usual” after the funerals for the nine victims of the Charleston shooting have concluded. “It would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”
I am already planning a process for us to learn more of the history of our collective past and to learn about hopes for our future. I invite you to participate in this offering in the near future.
Next, I extend a challenge that comes from the granddaughter of the slain Rev. Simmonds.
It is called the “Hate Won’t Win” campaign. You can go to Facebook and type in “Hate Won’t Win”. You can post your story and experience with a picture. You are simply being challenged to go out find someone who is different from you, in some way, and do something nice for them.
Just go out and spread some love―a word of kindness, an act of generosity, an opportunity to see life from someone else’s perspective. Do it, and then if you wish, post what you did on their Facebook page. And I invite you to share what you did here in church, if you wish.
It’s pretty simple―low risk―and will honor the lives of those that been lost by sharing a little love in the world.
Let us make the most of this opportunity and not slip back into comfortable patterns. Let us leave fear behind and spread the ointment of healing onto a world that is hemorrhaging. Let us continue to transform this world, for all people―this side of death―so that all might find a measure of wholeness in this life.
In this story-within-a-story Mark is pointing us, inviting us, to follow Jesus’ transforming power to change our lives―from fear to trust―and in so doing find wholeness.
In the eulogies I have shared, we hear a story of hemorrhaging within the larger story of love and grace found in the invitation to reach out and touch the life of Jesus, and offer God’s amazing grace to the world.
Clasp the hand of your neighbor and say, “Talitha Cum.” “Arise!”