Religious Rubbernecking – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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Good day, all!

This last week, parish and neighborhood children shared in our annual Shepherd and Edge Camps, both under the banner of “Amped!” (that’s A – M – P – E – D – with an exclamation point at the end).  Admittedly, heretofore I had not discerned the connection between the Gospel and so-called “extreme sports.”  Nonetheless, 160 young adventurers received the invitation to live boldly, strengthened with the confidence of God’s love for them, each and all – “Fully Alive,” as the program named such ardor.

All the parents and grandparents, the youth volunteers and staff who loved these children through daily stories, songs, and games, all of them powerfully witnessed God’s love – by their love, God’s love.  There were leaders of every age – 75 adults and 35 teenagers – who gave their undistracted attention (a rarity in these days), and we as the whole Body of Christ receive their generosity as a gift.  By their ministry, we nudged the beloved community a little nearer, and, just as our Shepherd Camp theme gave voice, in this morning’s Gospel appointment, Jesus encourages, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, approaches Jesus with the intense urgency of a father whose child is gravely ill.  The intimate language of his appeal – not simply “my daughter,” but “my little daughter” – invites not only Jesus’ sympathy but that of us Gospel’s readers.[i]  Jairus asks for Jesus’ help, and Jesus agrees to go with him.

A crowd had gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching, and, as Jesus goes with Jairus, the crowd “follows him and presses in on him.”[ii]  We read in the record no sense that this gathered crowd carries any interest for Jairus’ family, neither for the ill daughter nor for her worrying parents.  Rather, the crowd has heard how Jesus calmed the sea; they have watched him cast out Legion; and now they want to see what will happen next.

Undoubtedly, some in their number wanted to see Jesus fail, to prove their nay-saying had been right along: “See!  I told you so.  This guy is not who he says he is!”  Every righteous undertaking attracts these movement cynics, who press upon the faithful with harangues of skepticism and contempt.

Assuredly, others hoped to see something more, something amazing about which they could tell their friends they had been a witness – not because it might change their heart, but because it might improve their social standing, gifting them the best story at the Jerusalem Club’s cocktail hour.  These are the religious rubberneckers, who follow the spectacle of Jesus, and not his ministry.

Yet, even in the company of all these whose devices and desires did not reflect the Kingdom’s hopes, some went because they believed.  Hungry for meaning and starving for life – for new life in this One sent by God, and for new life in this child whose grieving father had appeared before them – some gathered because they had been called to that occasion, and being so called, they followed in faith.

Along the way to Jairus’ home, a hemorrhaging woman touches Jesus’ clothes and her bleeding stops.  Jesus, “immediately aware that power had gone forth from him,” confronts the crowd, asking “Who touched my clothes?”[iii]  In this exchange, even his disciples prove distracted from the wounded who surround them, and they argue with Jesus, incredulous at his question.  They ask, “Teacher, everyone is touching you – what do you mean, ‘who touched me?’”[iv]  However, Jesus singularly fixes his focus on the most vulnerable in the crowd around them.  Over and over again, these who suffer most are his compass’ true North, and, moving toward them, he can sense what the disciples and the crowds cannot sense: someone was hurting, and someone had reached out to him.

In “fear and trembling” this woman comes forward and admits what she has done – tells him “the whole truth – and instead of admonishing her as she seems to fear he might, Jesus encourages her to “go in peace,” her disease healed.[v]  During this brief exchange, people come from the Jewish leader’s house and report that Jairus’ daughter has died, declaring that nothing else could be done for the child.

Linger for a time in the chaos of this scene: the crowds – noisy, hot, sweaty – surround Jesus on all sides.  Amid that dusty throng, the disciples fuss at their teacher the way a child might pout with a frivolous complaint while his parents wrestle with a real crisis.  Then, as the woman admits her outreach and Jesus addresses her – an encounter full of its own anxiety and tensions – in that very same breath those from Jairus’ home share the dreaded news of the young girl’s death.  This moment is impossible – yet, Jesus will not be distracted.  In response to the chaos he turns to Jairus – the most vulnerable member of the crowd – and offers him comfort.  Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.”[vi]

Perhaps looking to leave behind some of the crowd’s encumbrance, or perhaps looking to protect Jairus from what he might find at his home, from that point forward Jesus brings with him only his intimates, those he trusts follow him as ministers and not as paparazzi.  At the synagogue leader’s home, Jesus confronts a new crowd – this second “tumult” – with many “weeping and wailing loudly.”[vii]  Entering these new histrionics, Jesus asks, “[What is all this commotion?]  The child is not dead, but sleeping.”[viii]  And the people scoff at him.

Even these gathered at Jairus’ home – presumably their closest friends and family who love this little girl the most – even they allow themselves to be drawn by the spectacle of it all and to be distracted from her basic needs.

Consider the grievous possibility that Jesus told the truth: that is, the daughter was not dead, but was sleeping.  See, the little girl was sick and needed reassurance – maybe the magic of “The Cool Rag” (are you familiar with the magic of the cool rag?) – and, sadly, it took the King of Kings to set aside the nay-saying of the cynics, to ignore the distraction of the rubberneckers, and to offer comfort to the child.  The crowd in Jairus’ home had become so consumed by their self-created furor, they had not even taken time to feed the little girl, and Jesus must remind them to do so.  Once the child receives reminder that she is loved, immediately she finds strength to stand.

The task of discerning a faithful response to the needs of the whole world can feel utterly overwhelming.  The crowds – angry politicians and desperate families; desires for fidelity and fears of the unknown; the powerful and the powerless – all of them press in on the Church.  Amid this dusty throng – noisy, hot, sweaty – will we dismiss the suffering simply because their needs feel too much and the necessary solutions too complicated?  Will we be drawn into the “commotion,” and leverage their tumult to further our own needs and agendas?  What do we do?  Where do we begin?

People of God, let us seek who Jesus seeks: the most vulnerable in our midst.  Despite the cynics and the rubberneckers who crowd him, Jesus turns to offer blessing and healing to the hemorrhaging woman; he turns to offer reassurance and hope to the grieving father; he offers love and mercy to the dying child.  Let us do nothing less today – over and over again, until the Kingdom comes – let us turn to these most vulnerable who Jesus sought, hearing and sharing his encouragement: “Do not fear, only believe” … for God is with you, and we stand beside you.

In the name of this Holy One,

Amen.

[i] Mark 5:23.
[ii] Mark 5:25.
[iii] Mark 5:31.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Mark 5:33-34.
[vi] Mark 5:36.
[vii] Mark 5:38.
[viii] Mark 5:38-39.