Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
June 28, 2015
(Preached after Supreme Court Decision Legalizing Gay Marriage, June 26)
What touched your heart the most this week? Was it watching Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia and Virginia scramble to get rid of the Confederate flag? Or Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole in Charleston and taking down the flag herself. About time, since even NASCAR got rid of the Confederate flag 20 years ago. Or was it the Supreme Court raising the Rainbow flag over all 50 states declaring marriage equality? Friday night we stood on the church steps with the Amherst area Gospel Choir and a couple of the Raging Grannies to celebrate, and spontaneously sang, “Going to the Chapel and We’re Going to Married.” On average news week, a Supreme Court decision on health care, or a Papal encyclical on Global Climate change, would be a major event. We are so accustomed to the endless Congressional gridlock, walruses piling up on beeches in Alaska, and senseless violence everywhere, that we may wonder if anything can touch our hearts on the news. I’ve felt cynical long enough to have a hard time kicking the habit. And then on Friday Obama sings “Amazing Grace” at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral and the world is sprouting rainbows, and I’m not done grieving the heartbreak. I don’t like to exaggerate, but I must say, Friday may turn out to be one of the most historic days in my lifetime. My heart is touched in so many ways it will take all next month to preach my way through it all.
While I was closely following the news cycle, I was also following the lectionary cycle, and a story of a healing moment where barriers came down because of courage and grace. With all due respect to Obama, the Pope and the Supreme Court, I want to give the Gospel lesson and an unnamed woman and Jesus their due time and attention. I invite you to join her story at the moment of tension and confusion, as a share with you an imaginative reconstruction of what everyone might have been thinking.
“Who touched my clothes?” Jesus said. “Someone touched my clothes, come on, who touched me?” Peter’s questioning look gets a shrug from James and John. “Jesus, you see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ Matthew is impatient, thinking, “We should be on the way to Jairus’s house. After all, he is a leader in the synagogue, and he asked Jesus to visit and pray with his sick daughter, and he gave a lot of money to the capital campaign. Time is pressing, lets get a move on it.” Bartholomew wonders, “Where exactly were you touched? Was this a good touch or a bad touch?” Andrew worries, “I hope no one touched me. I don’t know where everyone’s hands have been. I got a terrible cold in Caesarea. Hands off people.”
Mordecai, an ultra-orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, visiting the Holy Land, whispers, “It was probably a woman and the Rabbi doesn’t want any impure sexual thoughts. You know, on my last flight on Delta, I was seated next to a woman, and she would not give up her seat. We had to wait 20 minutes before someone moved so I could get a seat not next to a woman. I’m flying El Al next time.” (That’s a true story.) And the woman near him mutters, “Why don’t you just cover yourself with a big plastic bag and wear a blindfold next time you fly? Yutz!”
A slender, pale woman takes in all the glances and whispers around her. She imagines everyone is looking at her, knowing that she was the one who touched Jesus robe. “What do I do now? How did he know? I only touched the hem of his robe. My body feels different…strong…whole. I could slip away, and no one would know I was the one. He can’t possibly know it was me, could he? If he could feel that, he will find me. I think I want people to know, I don’t care what happens.” So she falls down before Jesus, trembling in fear, and tells the whole truth. And as the impatient, confused crowd looks at her, she feels hundreds of eyes upon her, all seeing what they want to see. Jesus says,
“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
This is a moment when all grace breaks loose. Mark loves to tell stories of where grace breaks the flow of what Jesus is doing. He is teaching and some men rip off the roof of the house and lower a paralyzed man, and Jesus heals him. He is sleeping in the boat during a storm, and his fearful disciples wake him and he calms the sea. He is on his way to Jairus’s house to heal his daughter and a woman touches his robe, not his shoulder or even his foot, just his shirt tail. And the result is intense enough that he feels a power go forth from him to someone out in the crowd. It doesn’t happen during the planned liturgy, she didn’t have a timeslot in Jesus’s appointment book, she was not on Jesus “to-do” list that day. But she was ready, sick and tired of being sick and tired. So she tried to quietly, silently touch Jesus, and all grace breaks loose. I wonder what she expected to happen.
I want to quote from one line of Obama’s eulogy about grace. Diana Butler Bass said on Twitter, “No president has ever uttered such a brilliant theological understanding of grace in any public address.” He said, “We don’t earn grace…but God gives it to us anyway and we choose how to receive it.” We chose how to receive the gift. How do we do that? We receive grace by letting things touch our hearts. We stretch out our hand and risk touching someone, even just the edge of Jesus’s robe, his shirt-tail.
Grace is always present, coming at us whether we know it or not. Grace is like the sun, which keeps coming up every morning, its there even when our clouds block the light. The sun does not shine on us only when we deserve it. It shines when on us when we are at the right angle to receive it. Sometimes we are on the other side of the world and we can’t see the light. We look up at the night sky and see the moon, and sometimes it is only a sliver of reflection, but it reminds us that sun is not far off. I can’t take the sun shining on me all the time. I can’t sleep once the sun rises, so I need a break, the cover of night, to rest and regenerate. Last summer I was in Iceland and the sun never set for a week. It was too much. I can’t take in all the emotion, all the painful things, all of my daily short-comings, all at once. I can only handle them bit by bit with every new sunrise. I get most of my grace moments at sunrise and sunset, because high noon is too intense for me. But I know I need the sunlight, and it will be there for me soon enough. And Grace is new every morning. I know I need to be present to God in those moments, to know grace, or my heart is too closed.
If we protect our hearts, because we don’t want to cry, be hurt, or have to struggle with cognitive dissonance, grace can’t get through. When we shield our hearts, we put ourselves on the sidelines of God’s work in the world. We are spectators, one more member of the crowd of the curious pressing to see Jesus. Mark’s Gospel invites us to step out of the crowd, and get into the story, to become a character in the work of Jesus.
We become a character in the Gospel story when all grace breaks loose in us, and we wonder, who touched me? One minute we hear the news of nine deaths in a shooting at church and we shake our heads and say “Aint it aweful.” The next minute we see a mother of one of the dead offering forgiveness like Jesus did, saying to a murderer who wanted to start a race war, “You took something precious from me that can never be replaced, but I forgive you.” I feel a tug at my sleeve and ask, “Who touched me?” One minute, we think that justice does not move forward, except maybe in inches, that the forces of homophobia and discrimination are too strong still, and then we hear the words of Justice Ginsberg
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. … [The challengers] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
And something brushes my shoulder and I wonder, who touched me? Maybe, just maybe, I can come out of the crowd and hope again. I felt the touch, a brush with history, a stirring of the spirit, so just maybe I can reach out in faith to Jesus. How abou
t you? Grace comes to us whether we deserve it or not. We must decide what to do with it.