Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sermon for June 28, 2009

June 28, 2009
Scripture: Mark 5: 21-43
Sermon Title: “Between Life and Death”
Rev. George N. Miller

(Tell people of audience participation. Right side is group 1; Left side is group 2)

After witnessing the fashion show in Samuel and the courthouse of Acts, we find ourselves back in the land of Mark. As you recall, this gospel was composed during uncertain times. The author does not spoon feed us our faith, but invites us to be uncomfortable in the unknown.

Mark’s Gospel announces itself as “The beginning of the Good News” and ends with people running fearfully from the tomb. In between there are children who die, women who bleed out, and men who are bound by chains: in other words, a world gone mad.

Doesn’t it feel a bit right now as if the world is going mad? What with the economy and flooded parking fields and riots in Iran’s streets. But let’s be honest: when hasn’t the world seemed a bit mad?

The Vietnam War, Monica Lewisnky, Michael Jackson’s death: it seems as if there is always something throwing things out of wack.

That’s how the seminary journey was for my classmates and I. We began school in 2001, bright eyed and full of life. Then two planes flew into the World Trade Center, placing our education in the shadow of the valley of death.

Professor Peggy Way helped us make sense of the mess. She reminded us that we are all living, biological, chemical creatures dealing with the chronicity of life. Which means illnesses happen, tragedies occur, and everyone will die. She challenged us to ask how God was present in the aftermath of 9/11 and how we were called to be the Body of Christ.

As if the events of 9/11 weren’t enough, over the span of three years, four of our classmates died. The shadow of death loomed large at seminary, but it did not have the only voice. For even in the midst of death, there was an abundance of life.

We had dinner parties, danced to Beyonce and 50 Cent, had late night conversations and studied in cafes. Couples met, friendships formed, circles of healing were created, Ultimate Frisbee broke the monotony of our studies. Mission trips took us around the country and around the world. And God was worshiped in unique ways.

At Eden Seminary we truly lived between life and death, and I would not exchange that experience for anything. To this day I believe those events created some of finest pastors in the country, because everything we learned and did was in the shadow of those realities.

When planes collide into buildings, when friends die in car accidents how does one still find the faith to be made well, to get up and walk, and to hear words of life when others want to laugh at you or cry out in defeat?

Mark has us wrestle with these thoughts as he tells of a time in which one woman’s life is bleeding out while a young girl is taking her final breathe, and how Jesus brings wholeness to both situations.

Jesus has traveled to where there is much life going on. There’s the hustle and bustle of folk who’ve gathered by the waters to experience Jesus for themselves.

The excitement is soon interrupted. A leader of the synagogue comes to Jesus. His 12 years old daughter is dying. He falls to his knees, begging Jesus to lay hands on her so she may live.

Death has made itself known.

Jesus and the man go to the girl. While on their way, a woman comes up to Jesus. For twelve years she’s been bleeding. She says if she touched his clothes she’ll be made well.

Immediately, her bleeding stops; Jesus turns to ask who touched him. Trembling, she kneels before him and admits her actions. And Jesus says (point to group 1. They say “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”)

Life has been restored. Wholeness and healing have won the day.

But wait: while Jesus is speaking, people come for the father of the sick girl and say (point to group 2. They say “Your daughter is dead.”)

The balance between life and death. It exists throughout the Bible, between the garden and the cross, between desserts and green pastures.

But pay closer attention to how Mark writes this story. As Thomas Long points out, it’s when Jesus is saying his words to the woman that the people talk about the girl. In other words, both sentences are said at the same time.

And here is where your participation really comes in. On the count of three, everyone is to say their line. 1. 2. 3. (“Daughter, your faith has made you well/Your daughter is dead.”)

Did you hear that? Jesus isn’t just living between these moments of life and death. He’s operating while both are happening at the same time.

This is a story for the ages, and a fitting story for our church today.

For in downtown Grand Rapids, UCC members from all over have gathered for the 27th National General Synod. Right by the flowing waters of the Grand River there is the hustle and bustle of folk coming to share and experience Jesus Christ.

Visitors are filling our streets with life and exciting newness. This is at a time in which both the mayor and our President are members of the UCC, and our denomination is blessing the city with the largest convention they’ve ever had, pumping $3 million into the economy.

Meetings have been electrifying, worship has been grand, and we can proudly say “I am a member if the UCC, where God is still speaking.”

There is much life.

And yet, we at Burlingame Congregational UCC are going through the pangs of death. In four weeks we close our doors for good. Like the leader’s daughter, we are taking our final breathes.

Our death is very real. And we are not the only church in the area facing this reality as other churches in Wyoming are struggling to stay alive.

Nor are we the only church in the UCC to struggle. In Massachusetts in which we are the largest protestant denomination, 39 UCC churches have closed in the past decade.

In some ways the women in today’s scripture represent what mainline congregations seem to be facing.

We have congregations that are bleeding out. Bleeding out in the form of members who are leaving because they’re unhappy with a stance the church has made.

Congregations that are bleeding out financially, as money is being spent faster then it is brought in.

Congregations that are bleeding out physically. People feeling drained from all the work they do, not allowing themselves rest and rejuvenation.

Like the girl, there are churches that are taking their final breath. They’ve fallen upon hard times too difficult to bounce back from. Congregations have been complacent, finding it easier to stay in bed then to step out into the unexpected.

Congregations that have just been too sick for too long from inside squabbling or unresolved issues.

And we ask, as members of the Christian faith, how do we survive, how do we continue to exist?
As we live in both life and death, we wonder if there is anything we can do.

But I’m not here today to preach doom and gloom, but to preach a word of hope. Because I believe there is indeed hope for the universal church, hope for the UCC and hope for the world.

That hope comes in the person and the life giving actions of Jesus Christ.

That hope comes from the belief that sometimes what looks like loss and despair is really just rest and opportunity for transformation.

That hope comes from the fact that both the UCC and Christianity have come too far to be left bleeding out or laying breathless in bed.

Because we, as a denomination, proudly come from ancestors who once decided, in Boston, that it was time to throw some tea into the water.

Because we as a denomination trace our roots to brave women and men who risked crossing a sea to worship God in freedom.

Because we as a faith trace our roots back to a Messiah who met people by the shore and spoke calm to a raging sea.

Because we are the Children of God whose Spirit moved over the waters of creation and it was good.

People can say what they want about the fact that we’ll be closing next month, people can say what they want about it seeming as if Christianity is waning. Let them go ahead and join the folk who are crying at the little girl’s house.

But I invite you to be like the synagogue leader and the bleeding woman, doing what needs to be done to experience Christ and to live out the Christian story.

As long as people continue to seek Jesus out, unafraid to ask for what’s needed, Christianity will survive.

As long as we’re willing to walk the distance with Jesus, even when failure has been announced, Christianity will survive.

As long as we are willing to act in hope, believing what we do can make a difference, Christianity will survive.

And as long as there are people willing to tell their story and wait for a word of healing, Christianity will survive.

The closing of our particular church does not signal the end of the story, because even as we prepare to say our goodbyes, there is celebration in the streets.

There are over 3,000 living representatives of Christ making themselves known to the people right by the waters of Grand Rapids

In conclusion, Mark wrote for a world steeped in madness and loss; and he could have easily written for our world today.

Through his telling of the Jesus story, Mark is saying that even when death seems too real, even while others are crying out, we still have ways to welcome Christ and the new life he brings.

It may mean falling to our knees, it may mean taking the chance to reach out, it may mean patiently waiting other events out, but it will be worth the work and worth the wait.

Between hearing “Your faith has made you well” or saying “Your daughter is dead” which do you choose?

I believe Mark would tell us not to lose our faith, because God is still working. It may seem as if we are bleeding out, it may appear as if we’re taking our last breath, but Jesus has stepped out of the boat and Jesus is in our midst.

Thanks be to God who is with us during these difficult times, to Jesus Christ who listens to our stories and to the Sprit which empowers us in ways we can only imagine.

Amen and amen.

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