FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and merciful God, we implore you to hear the prayers of your people. Be our strong defense against all harm and danger, that we may live and grow in faith and hope, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Mourning and lament are part and parcel of our lessons for Sunday. Our first lesson comes to us from a book bearing the very name of lament. Our psalm speaks of joyous deliverance from mourning and sorrow. In the gospel lesson Jesus enters into the sorrow of a bereaved family. Not until you are immersed in anguish of this kind is it possible to appreciate the comfort and salvation Jesus brings. But mourning and lamentation are not a part of our national DNA. In reflecting on the mindset of the church in North America and its tendency to neglect in its worship the biblical Psalms of lament, Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann observes, “It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 51. In his view, “the reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture.” Ibid. Our relentless cheerfulness is, in fact, an exercise in denial.
Nowhere is such denial more evident than in our society’s failure to acknowledge and come to grips with the reality of racism. One would think that after Walter Scott had been shot eight times in the back while fleeing a police officer in Charleston; after seventeen year old Justus Howell had similarly been shot in the back by police in Chicago just three hours later; after Freddy Gray of Baltimore had been beaten to death in police custody; after Eric Garner had been killed in a police chokehold; after Trayvon Martin had been shot to death by a vigilante; and after unarmed Michael Brown was shot multiple times by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; after all of that we should all be connecting the dots. But there continues to be a significant sector of society in stark denial. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh addressing the Brown shooting blamed not racism, but the media for “perpetuat[ing] myths in Ferguson because what happened is not common, it does not happen all the time, and yet this story is being covered and treated by everybody involved as though it goes on so much that we’ve had our fill of it… the only problem is it isn’t happening; it is irregular when this happens. It does not happen.” In much the same vein, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani insists that black men are killed by white police officers not because they are black, but because they are inherently more violent. Really folks, this is not about race. We’re over all that.
Frankly, I thought that argument was put to rest once and for all last week when white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into an historic black church with links to African Americans’ struggle for freedom predating the Civil War and shot dead nine African American worshipers making clear his intent to ignite a race war. Racism does not get any more explicit than that. Yet incredibly, Fox News expressed doubts about the racial motives of the shooter as well as the characterization of the shooting as a hate crime, suggesting instead that the killing was more properly understood as another battle in the so called “war on Christianity.” See my post of Sunday, May 31, 2015. The Wall Street Journal ran an article confidently stating that “the U.S., notably the South, has moved forward to replace the system that enabled racist killings like those in the Birmingham church [of 1963].” Finally, in what can only be described as a bizarre article and subsequent interview, Fox contributor Erick Erickson blamed Caitlyn Jenner for the violence in Charleston. “A society that looks at a 65 year old male Olympian and, with a straight face, declares him a her and ‘a new normal’ cannot have a conversation about mental health or evil because that society no longer distinguishes normal from crazy and evil from good,” he wrote. Don’t bother trying to re-read it. It won’t make any more sense the second time through. It will just make your head hurt.
If there is any value to repeating the above denials, it lies only in exposing their emptiness. Clearly, for anyone willing to acknowledge the facts, it is evident that our nation is mired in systemic racism of epic proportions. While the Charleston shooter was admittedly a fringe character, he was enabled, encouraged and incited by cultural enclaves in which racist epitaphs, stereotypes and jokes permeate routine conversation. Revelations from the recent investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri police force in the wake of the Brown shooting demonstrate that these enclaves are not limited to isolated bars, gangs or extremist political groups. They are ensconced in state, local and federal government as well as business and civic organizations. Racism is very much alive and well in the United States this Twenty-First Century.
To be fair, Fox News was not entirely wrong in calling the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston an attack on Christianity. It was just that. As disciples of Jesus, we confess that through baptism into Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God and enlisted in Christ’s mission of reconciliation. The good news of Jesus Christ destroys all divisive barriers between “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female” and of course black and white. Racism is nothing less than a sinful attempt to maintain and fortify those divisive walls that Jesus died to abolish. As such, it is a direct assault on the Gospel.
A word or two about the book of Lamentations is in order. It is not a book we hear from very often in the ordinary course of our Sunday readings. Because it does not contain any stories, it does not often find its way into our Sunday School curriculum. It is a short book that you can easily overlook when casually paging though the Bible. So it is entirely possible that you have never heard of the Book of Lamentations. For a brief but thorough overview of this book, see the Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
As the name suggests, this book is a collection of laments, that is, prayers in which the Jewish people pour out their sorrow and pain to God. There are many such prayers found in the Psalms as well. Generally speaking, they follow a common format:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vs. 1.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 2
- Expression of confidence, vss. 3.
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 4-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. Sometimes, however, laments do not progress beyond the second point, namely, the prayer expressing inward distress. See, e.g., Psalm39, which concludes with a mournful plea for God to “turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” The journey from despair to hope is a long one, often involving a lengthy trek through the darkness before one encounters any signs of light.
The laments in Lamentations express the grief of the Jewish people over the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 587 B.C.E. which resulted in the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of a substantial number of Jews to Babylon. It is hard for us to get our heads around the scope of that catastrophe and what it meant to Israel. I suspect that the Somali refugees struggling to survive in refugee camps throughout the Horn of Africa could probably relate better to the following:
My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite,
until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees.
My eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the young women in my city.
Those who were my enemies without cause have hunted me like a bird;
they flung me alive into a pit and hurled stones on me;
water closed over my head; I said, ‘I am lost.’
Lamenting or giving expression to grief is not part of my northern European constitution. I came from a community in which grief was met with stoic aplomb. My childhood memories of funerals I attended with my folks include hearing remarks such as “She is so brave!” or “He is holding up so well” spoken in hushed tones of admiration and respect. Of course, we were understanding when a widower got a little choked up at the wake and we were forgiving when a widow got a little teary at the last closing of the casket. But bursting into tears, whaling and lamenting would definitely have been considered in poor taste. Worse, it would have been interpreted as a lack of faith in the promise of the resurrection. I don’t suggest for a minute that this is a healthy way to approach grief. But healthy or not, it is the way in which I was acculturated.
By contrast, biblical psalms and prayers of lament acknowledge the reality of what Professor Walter Brueggemann calls “disorientation.” These laments insist “that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” They also insist that all “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52.
Again, it is hard for typical white, middle American protestants like me to imagine living through a catastrophe such as the Babylonian conquest of Judah. Yet there are plenty of personal tragedies so deep, so painful and so life altering that it seems there is no way back. Dissolution of a marriage comes to mind as a good example of disorientating trauma. When all the hopes and expectations you had for a life together go up in smoke, you know there is no going back. You know things will never be the same again, nor will the future you anticipated materialize. You don’t know when the raw pain will end or when life will get back to normal or even what normal will look like should you ever get there. Indeed, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family, friendship and support that allow you to heal, grow and find new opportunities for love.
People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
It is out of such confidence in God’s abiding presence and faithfulness that Israel found the courage to hope when there seemed to be no rational basis for hope. I get the feeling that the author of this text is asserting just such confidence, reciting a tried and true confession of God’s faithfulness even though s/he is not entirely convinced by it. But the question is not whether one believes or not. The question is whether one wants to believe. And if you want to believe God’s promises, then the best thing you can do is “go through the motions,” act as though you actually do believe. Pull yourself out of bed and drag yourself to church even though you don’t feel like singing, praying, making conversation with anyone or, worst of all, listening to another sermon. When church is the last place you want to be, that is probably when you need it most.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. Vs. 1. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. Vs. 2. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. Vs. 5.
The psalmist acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” Vs. 6. It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it does not matter how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.
The psalmist describes how s/he cried out to God for deliverance. Vs. 8. Then s/he aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Vs. 9. Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God.
Verses 11-12 conclude the psalm with thanksgiving to God for reversing the psalmist’s fortunes. Having turned the psalmist’s “mourning into dancing” and having “loosed” the psalmist’s “sackcloth and girded [him/her] with gladness,” God has liberated the psalmist to do that for which s/he was created: giving thanks to God forever. Vs. 12.
This psalm is a striking contrast to the lament in Lamentations. Here we have a person who has come up from the depths, out of the quagmire of despair and back into the light. Whether the psalmist’s problem was sickness, enemies or a combination of both, it is now behind him/her. Still, verses 4-5 of the psalm are remarkably similar to Lamentations 3:31-33. Both psalms emphasize that, in the long run, God can be trusted; that however dark the situation may be, God’s salvation ultimately will see one through. The circumstances, however, are wildly different. The author of the Lamentations psalm prays these words of affirmation in hope while surrounded by impenetrable darkness. The psalmist here prays in the confidence of having seen the faithfulness of God proven in his/her own life experience. The people of God are at all times in both places and everywhere in between. That is why the psalms form such a large part of my devotional life. They speak from so many different levels of human experience that there is bound to be one that fits.
Again, I find myself wondering “what were they thinking?” as I try to figure out how the folks who put together our readings decided to begin and end where they do. What is this “gracious work” Paul is referring too in vs. 7? Read the previous verses and it will become clear that Paul is taking up a collection from the Corinthian church. Most likely, this refers to an offering for the churches in Judea that were experiencing economic difficulties. (Galatians 2:1-10; I Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:25-27). This passage reflects the catholicity of the early church-a community that transcends cultural, regional and national borders. It is this catholicity that made the church such a fearful enemy of the Roman Empire. Nation states typically feel threatened by groups within their borders holding a loyalty higher than national allegiance. Such groups are deemed inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. That the protestant churches in America typically do not feel such cultural distrust and national persecution is not, as many suggest, a tribute to American tolerance. Rather, it is an indication of how deeply complicit we have become in protecting the interests of the nation state. A disciple of Jesus cannot be on board with an “America First” policy. A disciple must always “seek first the Kingdom of God” and the well-being of its citizens in whatever nation state they may be living.
In the same manner, congregations, such as the church in Corinth, cannot adopt a parochial view of ministry. The whole church is one body and all parts either flourish or fail together. Thus, the Corinthian church, which is evidently a wealthier congregation, must, for its own well-being and that of the whole church, use its surplus to meet the needs of the churches experiencing privation. For Paul, though, the issue is more than a matter of simple fairness. This tangible expression of service to and support of the Jerusalem church by Paul’s gentile congregations illustrates concretely Paul’s understanding of the church as a community of the baptized in which there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Galatians 3:28. The offering signals a new era in which God in Christ has come to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” Ephesians 2:16.
To get the full gist of what St. Paul is saying, you really need to read the full section at II Corinthians 8-9 in its entirety.
This is an aggravating story. Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death. This is a 911 call and Jesus is treating it as though it were an invitation to an open house. There is no need for him to terry on the way. The woman with a discharge of blood had already been healed and was on her merry way. Why waste precious time stopping to call her out, publically embarrass her and so further endanger the life of Jarius’ daughter? I suppose that raising a dead child is more impressive than healing a sick one. But since Jesus ultimately kept the whole affair a secret, that motivation does not seem likely. Even in Mark’s fast paced gospel narrative, Jesus will not be rushed. He does not permit events to dictate what he says, what he does or where he goes. What happened to this woman was important. The crowd, the disciples and Jarius need to know about her healing and to hear Jesus’ word to her.
Jarius, it should be noted, was a ruler of the synagogue. As such, he may have supervised worship services. Clearly, however, he held a position of honor and leadership in the Jewish community. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 157; Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House) p. 287; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 183. He would have been responsible for upholding religious standards in the community, including those governing ritual purity.
The woman with the perpetual menstrual bleeding would have been unclean by definition-and perpetually so. Leviticus 15:25-28. She would have been forbidden to touch anyone or anything that might come into contact with someone else, as this would render them unclean. Leviticus 15: 26-27. Clearly, she should not have been about in a tightly packed crowd like the one following Jesus. Furthermore, a woman’s intentionally touching the clothing of a strange man was at best a breach of propriety and etiquette. To do so while ritually unclean was an egregious breach of Mosaic Law. As a ruler of the synagogue, Jairus could hardly have been expected to approve of the woman’s conduct. For her part, the woman appears to harbor a superstitious belief common in the ancient near east (and evident in the scriptures as well) that holy men generate impersonal healing power. She hoped to be healed by Jesus without ever being noticed by him.
Jesus will not have this woman believe that she has escaped his notice. She is important and she needs to know that. Moreover, Jairus needs to know that she is important as well. It is no accident that Jesus calls this woman “daughter.” Vs. 34. It is as though Jesus were saying, “Look, Jairus. I am about to exercise compassion for your little daughter. I expect you to do the same for mine.” Just as Jesus will touch the unclean body of Jairus’ daughter, so Jairus must be open to the touch of others regarded as “unclean.”
“Talitha cumi” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” Vs. 41. This is one of the very few words of Jesus we have in the New Testament. It is a transliteration of the Aramaic tongue in which Jesus spoke. Recall that the gospels are all written in Greek and thus represent a translation of Jesus into a language he did not speak. Thus, even when we read directly the original gospel texts, we are dealing with a translation and thus an interpretation.
There is a symmetrical contrast in these two healings. The woman who sought healing in secrecy is brought out into the open. The synagogue ruler, who has Jesus coming to his home accompanied by the crowd to a house filled with mourners, receives his miracle in secret-and is enjoined to keep it that way. The interplay between secrecy and revelation running through the gospel of Mark is very much in evidence here. So, too, this contrast between what is clean and what is deemed unclean will be developed further throughout the following chapters of Mark. Whereas Jesus’ opponents shun the “unclean” fearing contamination, Jesus touches the unclean and renders it clean.