June 28, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Psalm 130
Mark 5:21-43

At least once, almost every day, I meet someone who greets me by saying: “Hello Amanda. How are you?” And without a pause, I naturally respond, “Fine thanks. And you?”

A few months ago, I caught a horrible cold that kept me off work for a couple of days and feeling terrible for several weeks. And I noticed several times during that illness, when someone would say, “Hello Amanda. How are you?” I automatically answered, “Fine thanks. And you?” If I had thought about the question even for a moment, I would have had to admit that I was no where near “fine”. My head hurt, and my throat ached, and I was so exhausted that I was ready to drop. But “Fine thanks. And you?” was what came out of my mouth. And I don’t think I paid much attention when my conversation partner chimed in with their own “I’m fine also.”

It’s amazing how much time we can spend together with friends, neighbours, and fellow church members without having a lot of meaningful conversation. We can exchange a lot of pleasantries and waste a lot of time talking about the weather, and when we part ways, we don’t know much about the people we’ve been talking with, and none of us have been particularly impacted by the fact that we had a conversation.

The scripture texts this week got me thinking about the risks that we take in getting involved in meaningful relationships — when we decide to move beyond the superficial level and open ourselves to the people around us. The words of a song by Carolyn Arends came to mind. Carolyn is a Christian musician from BC, who writes in this song about the masks that we often wear to keep ourselves separated and safe from other people.

She writes: “Why do we try so hard? Life’s not some greeting card. Models and movie stars, they’re just pretending. Family full of achievers, Beat the Joneses, Be the Cleavers, Give the lawn a manicure, No rough edges, that’s for sure! Sunday, the whole congregation doesn’t seem to need salvation. Everybody’s JUST TERRIFIC all the time. Why do we try so hard? Life’s not some greeting card. If we’re not who we are, we’re just pretending.”

There are certain places and circumstances in society where most people feel they should be on their best behaviour… where they should dress up and behave well… places like at the symphony or at a formal banquet. We wouldn’t want to be embarrassed or to make a scene in these places. And so sometimes, we don’t really act like ourselves. We put on our masks and pretend to be someone else. Or at least, a more refined version of ourselves.

At some point along the way, many of our churches became places like that. They became places where everyone wore their best clothes, and women showed off their finest hats. The expectation was that worshippers be happy and pleasant towards one another. Voices should not be raised too loud, except in singing the hymns. And everyone should smile and say some kind or encouraging word to the minister at the door, no matter how long, boring, or theologically troubling the sermon may have been.

When I was in high school in the early 90’s, I read an article in the Presbyterian Record (written by a young person) about whether or not it was appropriate to wear jeans in church. I remember chuckling at the article, thinking it was a pretty silly thing to be concerned about. I figured God just wanted us to come and worship, and couldn’t possibly care what kind of material our pants were made of.

But then I heard from friends that people in their churches did seem to care. They thought it was terribly inappropriate to come dressed like that — and so these young people felt the pressure to wear dresses and suits, or else to stay home instead. Just think about that — young people choosing to stay home from church… perhaps not because they didn’t want to dress up nice, but because they weren’t accepted in the church community “just as they were.”

That’s a sad story, indeed… not only because it offers a potential reason why a whole generation simply disappeared from the church community in the 1970’s and 80’s, but also because it is so dramatically opposite to the ministry of Jesus. And it’s Jesus’ ministry that we are supposed to be carrying on.

There was no pretending necessary for the people who met Jesus during his ministry. He knew who they were, whether tax collectors, sinner, or prostitutes. Jesus didn’t interact with many people who “had it all together” or people who had no problems. He came to the lost, the outcast, the people who had messed up, the sick, the dirty, and the sad. And he didn’t teach the people to clean up their lives by putting on their best clothes and acting respectably. He transformed their lives by healing them and teaching them, and by inviting them to respond to his love by following his example.

In our Gospel reading from Mark today, we heard about two very different individuals who came to Jesus for help. Mark’s “story within a story” contrasts the status of an unnamed woman with that of a known leader of a synagogue. It also highlights their common vulnerability, which leads them to seek Jesus’ healing powers. Details in the story imply that Jairus and the unnamed woman have run out of options; they are desperate. We hear that Jairus “begged Jesus repeatedly”. And the woman has expended all her resources, and found no relief in 12 years of suffering.

As a result, each one takes risks. Jairus breaks rank with religious leaders who view Jesus as a threat, and goes to Jesus for help. The woman takes a great risk in her bold act of touching a man in public who is not family. Both Jairus and the woman “fall down” at the feet of Jesus. Jairus does so to ask for help. The woman does so “in fear and trembling” when Jesus notices her presence.

Like the psalmist, who cried out to God for help in the midst of trouble, both Jairus and the woman reached out to Jesus for help and hope when they could see no other way. They accepted the risk of being rejected or disappointed. And they accepted the risk of being scolded or mocked for their boldness and belief.

I think it’s probably true that a lot more people than show up regularly in church will turn to God for help when they’re really at the end of their rope. What’s the saying? — “There are no atheists in fox holes!” Or in hospital waiting rooms when there’s nothing else that can be done, even the most unlikely people will send up a prayer, just in case.

But our job as the church is not just to encourage people to cry out to God at those times. We are called to be the body of Christ — Jesus’ continuing presence in the world, carrying on the ministry that he began. So that means that when someone needs to cry out, we have the job of listening. It means that when someone is reaching out for help, we have the responsibility to do what we can to give assistance.

It means that we need to become a place where all kinds of people are accepted “just as they are”, where people can take off their masks, where no one needs to pretend that “they’re just fine” all the time, and where the conversation goes beyond pleasantries, allowing people to share their feelings, their sorrows and struggles and joys.

Something that has always bothered me is that when many church-going people experience a great loss or tragedy in their lives, they stop coming to church. They find it too hard to pretend, I think. They’re worried about crying too much and making other people uncomfortable.

And if there’s a risk in crying out to God when we are struggling, there’s an even greater risk in opening ourselves to allow our sisters and brothers in Christ to help us through when we are down. Yes, there is a risk in coming to this place, especially if we decide to take off our masks and to minister to each other as Jesus ministered to Jairus and the unnamed woman, and to so many others.

But like those who cried out to Jesus, the reward for us can be very great. We can be healed and transformed, whether we are listening and caring, or opening our lives and hearts to share. My prayer for our church is that we will continue to grow in our openness and care for one another, and that we will have the courage — more and more — to take off our masks and be together in God’s presence and love.

In a few minutes, when we have the prayers of the people, I would like to invite you to share with someone near you in the congregation. Perhaps there is a struggle or concern in your life. Perhaps there is someone that you would like prayer for. I’ll give you a couple of minutes (just before the prayers of the people) to talk with a neighbour in the pew, and to share your requests for prayer. Then, in our prayer together, there will be a time for us all to pray silently for our neighbours.