First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
July 1, 2018
Scripture: Mark 5:21-43
Sermon: “Mission Interrupted”
It was July of 1973 and our summer league baseball team was playing for the championship. I played right field, and for those who are familiar with high school level baseball in small town America know that was a position generally reserved for one with a good bat and less fielding gifts. Anyway, in terms of my baseball talent it was my batting that kept me on the field. We were facing a team we had played earlier in the season and their star pitcher had a mean curve ball. I had faced him before …I had not fared well.
My dad, also a United Methodist pastor, was a good ball player. He had played semi-pro in his prime as a catcher but could also throw a pretty good curve and a slider if need be. The week before the game we spent what seemed hours every evening after he got home in our backyard and he threw curve balls at me… AT me… at least that is how it seemed at the time. He would throw, I would step out of the box, the ball would curve over the plate, and he would say, “Stay in the box!” Over and over again…throw, step, “Stay in the box.”
Saturday finally arrived, the game began, their pitcher was killing us. My time to step up to the plate. Now, just an aside, my father, the local UM preacher was also a minor league trained umpire. And yes, he was home plate umpire for the game. And I knew, as his son, he was committed to not be seen playing favorites, so if the ball was even close to the strike zone, I better be swinging because he was going to call it! I stepped in the batter’s box and readied myself. The pitcher started his wind up and threw a ball right at me, I stepped out of the box. “Steeeeerike One!” I also failed to mention my dad was a bit of a showman umpire, if it was a strike there was no doubt left by player or spectator as to whether the ump thought it was. I glanced back over my shoulder at my dad, I am not sure he did, but I thought I detected a slight shaking of the head. I gathered myself and stepped back in the box and tried my best to stare the pitcher down. The wind up started and he launched another ball right at me, I stepped out of the box, and the words I can still hear echoing in my head today, “Steeeeerike two!” Another glance over the shoulder and a deep sigh.
You know, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, change… All of those things can mess up a good mission. One can find oneself paralyzed, distracted, nervous, unable to concentrate, and lose sight of what it is that we are supposed to be about. We as individuals, as a community of faith, as communities, cities, nations, our world… can seem to be making great progress and all of a sudden something changes. Fear sets in, we become uncertain of what and who we can trust, distractions and deflects are thrown at us and we can find ourselves questioning our call, questioning our purpose, questioning our ability and vision.
The story we read this morning from Mark reminded me of those feelings as I prepared for my first Sunday here in your midst. Here we find Jesus doing what Jesus does, a crowd gathers around him and people making requests in the midst of his teaching and caring for them. A leader of the synagogue comes to him whose child is near death and pleads for Jesus to come and heal her. Here is a man who will do anything to save his child. One might presume he has exhausted all other options and resources to this point with medical care, medicines, prayers, hopes and so he risks standing and reputation to come and plead with this mystic, teacher, rabbi, healer for the life of his daughter. And along the journey some come to tell him his daughter is dead. Others encourage him to bother Jesus no longer, try to distract and stop the mission… but Jairus… Jesus, will not have it, they continue on. There are parallels in our world today of those who will risk everything, even their lives, to come to one, to come to a place in order to save their children. Jesus agrees to come with Jairus.
Things are going well so far and then in the middle of this large crowd someone touches Jesus. He knows it is not just a normal touch, but one with purpose and longing and need. He stops and asks who touched him. She has come at great risk to herself with this touch. A woman, who risks touching a rabbi and teacher… a man… and a woman with a hemorrhage. She could be, would be, ostracized, sent away, ridiculed, or …worse. Surely, she too is at the end of her rope, has tried everything, exhausted her resources and hopes, and turned to this holy man, mystic, teacher, rabbi, healer in hopes that finally she might be made whole.
Of course, his disciples say “What? Everyone is touching you, how can you even say that?” But Jesus knows it is something special. In the story, there are those who try to dissuade Jesus from the mission, both those who want him to keep moving and those who long for hope and healing.
Mission, programs, purpose, hopes, dreams, vision are often interrupted by change and circumstances out of our control. Fear can make us question whether or not it is worth the trouble and energy to carry on… maybe there is no hope, maybe we should just throw up our hands and call it quits. There are those in our lives, in the church, in the community, in the city, in the state, in our country, and in our world, who will say… “Pay no attention, keep moving.” Or, “Don’t bother any longer, just let it go, give it up.” Or even challenge our purpose by overloading us with causes trying to overwhelm our purpose in hopes we will just give in and give up.
There are forces at work within the church and in our society and culture that work constantly to keep us off balance and frustrated and distracted from the mission and vision at hand. For a community of faith whose purpose and mission are about deepening our walk with the Divine and working for justice and compassion for all it is difficult and exhausting work. And because of that it can also be easy for us to become distracted and/or overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, especially when unexpected change and anxiety enters our system of operation.
Our culture and society are being inundated with purpose and cause. And for those of us passionate about social justice and theological integrity we can find ourselves stretched thin and overwhelmed!
We find ourselves in a country where an image God is so distorted a baker is afraid to bake a cake for a fellow human being!
We find ourselves in a country where healthcare is quickly, if not already there, becoming a luxury of the rich and not a human right for all.
We find ourselves in a country where women’s health care and equal rights and justice are threatened more and more at every turn.
We find ourselves in a country where more and more are leaving the church because of our unwillingness to evolve theologically.
We find ourselves in a church where more and more youth and children are becoming disinterested because we have been committed to the way things have always been done.
We find ourselves in a country where leaders espouse theological malpractice with our scriptures to uphold blasphemous interpretation.
We find ourselves in a country where our leaders are more willing to promote fear by separating children from their parents than offering compassion and welcome.
We find ourselves in a church that would rather split over who it can keep out than welcoming all God’s children to all sides of the table.
We find ourselves in a country that would rather ban and oppress certain religions that honor freedom.
We find ourselves in a country rife with racism and bigotry where young black men and women are still afraid to walk down the street for fear of arrest, harassment, and violence.
We find ourselves in a society and culture that would rather shame the poor and marginalized than care for them!
We find ourselves in a country, in a world, fearful of the very beloved community for which we long.
We find ourselves in a society and culture so immersed in fear and dread we have forgotten how to love.
I don’t have to tell you the tsunami of theological atrocities, bigotry, and injustice that can be such soul sucking work for those of us passionate about social justice and progressive theology. But we cannot be dissuaded, we cannot be distracted, we cannot be told to just move on, to question our mission and purpose… we are people of God. We are people of grace. We are people of justice making. We are people of ComPassion for All! We are People of Peace! We are People of Love!
And love will not be dissuaded! Love will not be distracted! Love will not be beat down by fear!
Love will bake that cake for whoever asks!
Love will serve a perceived enemy at an eating establishment!
Love will fight for the least of these for access to healthcare!
Love will stand with women for equal rights and access!
Love will seek to understand the god so many have chosen to reject – Borg…and say, tell me about the god you do not believe in1 … and say… neither do I… but let me show you the loving, welcoming, and compassionate God I know!
Love explores and finds new ways to be and become community for young and old alike!
Love will reunite children with their parents and protect them from abuse!
Love will be a church where LGBTQ persons will be fully included in the life of the church on all sides of this table!
Love will embrace persons of other religious and faith traditions and stand alongside regardless of affiliation or lack thereof.
Love will stand with and use its privilege to defeat the racism that continues to plague our world!
Love will empower and lift up the poor and marginalized!
To these things I am committed and passionate… I pray we are as well! Love is the foundation… the bedrock… of the beloved community to which we are called and we cannot be distracted by the colluding of the powers that be of empire or religion! There are crowds of persons, both of good and ill will who are vying for the church’s attention…. for the church’s life… and our calling is to stay on task…to continually renew our vision to meet the needs of those we encounter in an ever-changing culture and context… the task is not on one particular church, it is not on a particular preacher, it is not on one particular issue … but on love.
It is the same love that motivated Jairus to plead for his daughter!
It is the same love that motivated the woman to reach out her hand and touch Jesus’ cloak!
It is the same love that told the woman her faith… HER faith had made her well!
It is the same love that reached out its hand and told the little girl to get up!
It is the same love that brings you to this place of inclusion, welcome, grace, and Compassion for All.
It is the same love that has brought me alongside you in this moment to lead with you into a bright and even more fruitful future!
It is the same love that has been with you all along.
I have long appreciated the words of Marianne Williamson who wrote, “Love is what we are born with, fear is what we learn.”2 Even toward those we might perceive as enemies, those who are the would-be oppressors who have colluded with the powers that be both empire and religion… we are called to love… but a love that is fierce and committed to Justice! In the Preaching book by O. Wesley Allen Jr. he speaks of such love when he writes,
“In Martin Luther King Jr’s Stride Toward Freedom, he recognized that although they do not suffer to the same degree as the oppressed, oppressors are also victims of the oppression who are in need of liberation from systemic oppression. Love toward oppressors then, isn’t demonstrated by some sentimental feeling, but by resisting participation in their oppression in order to free them from it!”3 We are called to love both the oppressed and the oppressor, but that love manifests itself in different ways… one by empowerment to justice and another in resistance into transformation!
Love… LOVE is what you were born with. It has been deep down in the core of your very being ever since your first breath! The world…in very real and tangible ways…as forgotten that, fear is the broad path. Fear is the easy path… But love will win the day for all! Love is the way.
It was what I remembered when I stepped in the batter’s box for the third time… as I dug my cleats into the dirt and tapped home plate with the end of my bat. I remembered something… I remembered something that I had known from the first time I picked up a baseball bat and my dad gently underhanded the first pitch I would face… it came from some place deep down inside, a still small voice, if you will, “Keep your eye on the ball,” and all the anxiety, uncertainty, distractions, and fear fell away.
The whole culture and society… Religion in general, We in the church universal, in the United Methodist Church, and here at First Church Omaha… we are in the midst of change and transition and our challenge. Our calling is to remain focused on who we are as a beloved community of faith grounded and founded in Love and ComPassion for all! Never forget who you are. Never forget you are loved. For Love is the Way. It is the Only Way. Keep Your Eye on Love!
May it Be So! May it Be Now!
1 Borg, Marcus J.; The Heart of Christianity, Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003. 68-69.
2 Williamson, Marianne; A Return to Love. New York: Harper Collins. 1992. xxii
3 Allen, Wesley O. Jr.; Preaching in the Era of Trump. Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. 41