Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Location Matters, or, Jesus Loves You Where You Are...and Enough Not to Leave You There"

"Location Matters, or, Jesus Loves You Where You Are...and Enough Not to Leave You There"

Preached at St. Paul's Lutheran Church
Pittsford, New York
Fifth Sunday in Pentecost
28 July 2015

Day Text: Mark 5.21-43

Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

Many of you know that I am a missionary, a church-planter, at a community in downtown Rochester called the South Wedge Mission.  Recently, we’ve started embracing a vision of SWM as a “school for life,” a place where we are engaged in three primary life-long learnings: “learning to be with God, learning to be with each other, and learning to be in the world.”

During this season of Ordinary Time, we decided to go deeper into the third learning, “learning to be in the world."  When one of our members, Nathaniel, suggested we spend the summer intentionally engaging a series of trainings and conversations around "learning to be allies" to marginalized people, it felt like a no-brainer.  We are located in one of the most segregated and impoverished urban areas in the country.  The South Wedge neighborhood is one of the city’s most concentrated GLBTQ communities.  It’s not enough for us just to say “we are welcoming and affirming;” we need to take the realities of our context seriously, and put in the hard work of becoming the kind of church we say we want to be.  

So today’s Gospel story could not have come at a more opportune time for us.  Because while a myriad of public events press in on the church like the crowds in the story, from Charleston to the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality to escaped convicts to universal healthcare, this incredible chain of events is, ultimately, not the reason we need to take ally-ship, and white privilege, and racism, and all other -isms of injustice seriously.  

Ultimately, we take these realities and challenges seriously because the Gospel takes them seriously.  Jesus takes them seriously.  Even if none of the upheavals changing the face of our politics in the past week and year had taken place, we would need to take these things seriously because of the simple fact that, if are doing our best to follow Jesus, than Jesus will inevitably lead us to confront them.  

Because while Jesus loves us as we are, Jesus also loves us far too much to leave us there.  Especially if the location he found us is causing harm to others.  And to ourselves as well.

Today’s story about two healings of two very different women is consciously constructed to raise questions about our location in society.  If there’s any doubt, just look at how St. Mark very intentionally tells us that the little girl, the daughter of the synagogue leader, is twelve years old, and that the woman has been suffering from her bleeding for…wait for it…twelve years.  This narrative detail is meant to signal to us as listeners that Mark’s trying to tell us something about Jesus by comparing and contrasting the two characters.  

And one thing I’d stake my seminary degree he’s trying to tell us is that their social location, their place in society, matters.  And that much is pretty obvious from the story, right?  We are told that both the synagogue leader Jairus and the sick woman face massive crowds.  Yet, somehow, Jairus walks right up to Jesus and even has space to fall at his feet.  The woman, on the other hand, has to fight tooth and nail through the crowds, probably crawling between the kicking, stomping feet of a hundred other sick people.  

While Jairus’ personal body guards and sterling reputation probably helped opened wide a path straight to Jesus, I imagine the woman using her very last ounce of strength and determination to stretch out her hand, just barely swiping the hem of Jesus’ robe before she’s trampled underfoot.  

Social location matters.  Jairus’ privilege affords him access to Jesus in a way the woman cannot imagine.  And lest we think that, somehow, Jairus earned that access by working harder, Mark seems to anticipate this debate by two millennia when he shares with us that the woman had actually expended tremendous efforts to get healed.  She used up all her money visiting every doctor in the land.  She fights through a suffocating crowd.  Even when she was told there was no hope, she fights on.  For all we know, she used to be Jairus’ next door neighbor.  Now they are worlds apart. 

And that’s the insidious part about white privilege and social location that I think the Gospel is calling us to acknowledge today.  Both Jairus and the woman work really hard.  But their hard work does not yield equal returns.  It’s not recognized as equal by society.  Jairus, the male religious leader, is given a clear pathway to Jesus.  The unnamed woman, diseased, bleeding and unclean, needs to work many times harder just to touch Jesus.

The Gospel recognizes the reality of privilege and the inherent inequalities in society based on status, gender and social location.  And we, as the community called church to whom the Gospels are addressed, are being called by the Word of God to also begin to acknowledge those realities in the midst of our own context and time.

Which isn’t comfortable at all.  Nor should it be.  It’s kind of scary if you let yourself think about it for too long. 

Because if we’re honest with ourselves, if you’re like me, it’s very easy to take the kinds of access I have as a white person fore granted. 

It’s very easy for me to think that because my parents and because I worked really hard, of course I deserve that access, and other people should learn to work as hard as me. 

It’s very easy for me to get on the defensive, declaring, “look, I’m not a racist, I don’t use racist language, and I don’t try to exclude anyone, so why are we even talking about this and dragging it out of the shadows?”

It’s easy for us to get defensive about these realities, I think, because our privilege and our comfort depend on our defensiveness.  Because we think that to acknowledge these disturbing dimensions of the world around us means to condemn ourselves as evil racists, and to disparage the good gifts that we have.  

But I’m here to tell you this: naming, acknowledging and taking ownership of privilege does not have to be a moral condemnation.  I’m not here to tell you that being a Christian means moving out of Pittsford or Fairport and into the slums of the inner city.  I’m not here to tell you that white people are inherently evil or that you should be grateful and enjoy the good things in your life any less than you do.

What I am here to suggest is that we take Martin Luther’s first of his 95 theses seriously: that the whole of the Christian life is repentance.  That part of being Christian means seeking the truth that the Gospel brings into the light.  That our works, our good intentions, our accomplishments, and our successes will not justify us. 

But that the faithfulness of Christ has justified us.  Which means that we don't deserve anything, and can stop living and thinking as if we do.  Which means we can look honestly at the world, and ourselves, without fear, in the hopes of discovering a new freedom and a new happiness.  Which means, that when we can acknowledge we are part of the problem, then Jesus can start to heal us too.  

Because look at the story: Jesus never once judges Jairus for being a synagogue leader.  Jesus seems all to willing to leave everything he was doing and come heal Jairus’ daughter.  In the same way, Jesus seems to have nothing but praise for the unnamed sick woman and her faithful act of desperation.  Jesus heals both women.  Regardless of their social position.  

But here’s the rub, and the challenge: when the sick woman was told by every doctor that she was a dead woman walking, she didn’t roll over and quit.  Despite the medical and the social barriers erected against her, still, she sought to press through the noise and the crowds and in faith pressed her way into the presence of Jesus.

Jairus, on the other hand, as soon as he hears his daughter is dead, gives up.  “Why bother the teacher anymore?” ask his servants.  When Jesus promises that the daughter will live, still, Jairus and his posse laugh at Jesus.  

Despite uninhibited social access to Jesus, Jairus simply cannot believe that Jesus’ power can overcome even death.  Despite every argument to the contrary, the sick woman believes that nothing else but Jesus’ power can overcome death.

And see, that’s why we need to let go of self-justification, need to stop trying to cling to our privilege, need to fall on our knees with the sick woman, and start to pray for the gift of desperation.  Because ultimately, it is Jesus who will save us from the divisions we have created.  It is Jesus alone who can show us the truth about our privilege without leading us to despair.  It is Jesus who can bring us back to life.

Jesus loves us just as we are - but also loves us too much to leave us there.  Facing the reality of our privilege is not easy stuff.  It means acknowledging that while the gifts we have are good, they were often obtained at the expense of someone else, via a system that gives access to certain folks based on race, gender, class and other -isms of injustice.  We may be tempted to despair.  Or simply, to laugh when Jesus offers us freedom.

But Jesus wants more for us.  Jesus wants to bring us back to life.  Jesus wants us to be free from the slavery of sin.  Jesus wants us to let go of the phantom limb of the chains of oppression that we often drag around with us, unseen and unacknowledged.  Racism, white supremacy, and all other -isms of injustice are not only sins - they are heresies, lies and false teachings about who God is, who people are, and who God is for Gods’s people.  If we continue to live enslaved by these heresies, we continue to live cut off from the fullness of God’s love.  And from the gifts God is offering the world through God’s children.

This day, I offer you this invitation: spend some time this week praying about your social location.  As God to help you see honestly what in your life is a gift from God, and what has been given to you by a system of privilege, racism and supremacy.  As my therapist often commands me, be gentle with yourself.  This is not about condemning the goods in your life.  But about developing an awareness.

Because awareness is a great place to start.  Imagine if Jairus had been aware of the sick woman.  Even though he was in a rush for his daughter, perhaps he could have pointed her out to Jesus, parting the crowds for her as well, so she could be healed more rapidly, before Jairus’ daughter passed away.  In the Kingdom of God, there is enough time for every daughter of God to be healed if we desire it to be so.  

We would also not have witnessed the amazing miracle of a resurrected little girl; neither would we have glimpsed the fear and the defeatism nestled just below the surface of Jairus’ privilege and power.  Ultimately, in the story, God makes use of injustice to reveal the amazing grace radiating from the faith of the poor.  It’s beautiful stuff - as beautiful as the people of Emanuel AME Church offering forgiveness to the murderer of their pastor.  But imagine a world where the poor and the marginalized didn’t need to bear that burden in the first place.  

Jesus loves us as we are.  This is Gospel in itself.  But it’s also this Gospel that gives us courage to follow Jesus as he loves us too much to leave us in a position where we are not completely free.  The call to acknowledgement of our privilege and to repentance is not a condemnation upon us - it is God’s invitation for us to leave behind our blindness and our burden, and to touch the hem of the garment of Jesus, and, like the sick woman, become free.

So fear not.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.  In the Name of Jesus.   



  1. Thank you for providing these sermons. I am looking for a church and I have tried online sermons only to find a certain false belief or extreme strictness (i.e. KJV only, baptism required, apostolic...ect). So far, this is the best I have found and I will be reading more of your stuff.