Sunday, June 28, 2009

4 Pentecost

June 28, 2009

Mark 5.21-43

I love reading theology and not just theology like the theology I profess and believe. The theologians I enjoy reading the most probably don’t get a lot of airplay because they aren’t that controversial. However, there are theologians out there—the ones who are given front page headlines and whose pictures appear on the cover of Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly—who are so popular because of their controversial views.

These theologians would probably regard the miracles we heard in today’s Gospel as purely fiction. We must, these thinkers claim, be rational when we read these stories of Jesus curing and healing and raising from the dead.

I will admit that I read these many critical views avidly. I will even confess that, at times, I have been a bit titillated by the likes of John Spong and Marcus Borg John Dominic Crossan and Robert W. Funk and the news that came from the Jesus Seminar. But I will also admit that I read them in a way in which I have to process their writings.

Although these kind of theologians have much good to say to people who are theologically minded, who enjoy reading about topics like the Historical Jesus and the differences between the pre-resurrection Jesus and the post-resurrection Christ, the fact is that the more I have worked in parish ministry and cultivated my own spiritual life and delved deeper and deeper into scripture, I have found myself becoming distances more and more by these academic religious thinkers. Oftentimes, I simply have found that the message of these theologians rings hollow in my ears next to the experiential faith of my day to day life and those around me.

Having said that I am just as quick to say that I have not become a fundamentalist by any sense of he word. I still consider myself to be progressively minded as I once was. I am a good “progressive, inclusive, generously orthodox, Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian.”

However, I have found that my progressive-mindedness strangely and perhaps paradoxically has grounded me in a more—dare I say?—orthodox understanding of scripture, the sacraments and the Church—and more importantly, in my own faith and prayer life and in the faith lives of those alongside whom I serve.

Pastor Mark Strobel shared with me last week a wonderful article about the United Methodist Bishop William Willimon regarding ordained ministry. He centers in, at one point, specifically on those theologians who wish to reduce these miraculous stories of Jesus to quaint superstitious nuggets from a pre-rational, pre-scientific people.

Bishop Willimon counters this way of thinking. He writes:

“…it seemed not to occur to [these critical theologians] that contemporary biblical scholarship, because it is asking the wrong questions of the biblical texts, and even more because it is subservient to a community that is at odds with communities of faith, may simply be irrelevant both to the church and to the intent of the church’s Scripture. Sometimes the dissonance between the church and the academy is due, not to the benighted nature of the church, but rather to the limited thought that reigns in the academy.”

As most of us who have lived and worked in the academic world know, there is a strange distance between training and application. What we learn in the classroom is priceless. It is needed. It is a vital base for all that one does afterward.

However, what I discovered very quickly as I grew both as a Christian and a priest active in parish ministry, is that all that critical training I received from those theologians was not always helpful—either to the people I served or even to my own spiritual well-being.

Now, I will admit that, at first, there was a kind of liberation when I read these critical theologians. I was no longer confronted with anything supernatural. I no longer had to face the mysteries I was forced to sometimes wrestled with in scripture. However, I sometimes found my rational thinking just as challenged by these critical theologians as I was by the miracles they rebelled against. I remember especially the following statement by Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? regarding his take on what he believes “really” happened at the crucifixion.“

Jesus died alone. He died the death of a publicly executed criminal. His body probably received the typical treatment given to those so unfortunate to fall under that category. He was removed from the instrument of execution, placed into a common grave and covered over. No records were kept, for no value was attached to those who had been executed. Bodies did not last long in their graves anyway. Burial removed the stench of decaying flesh, and in a very short time only some unmarked bones remained. Even the bones were gone before too long. Nature rather efficiently reclaims its own resources.”

So, yes, there was an empty tomb, but nothing ever laid there. The resurrection wasn’t a miracle, though it was a profoundly spiritual event. But it all seemed just as far-fetched for me. How did Spong know this? Where did he get his knowledge on this subject? Certainly he wasn’t there. And, as far as I understood, Spong wasn’t any more educated than most other Bishops I knew of or knew personally. Certainly his episcopacy gave him no greater knowledge on these topics than anyone else. Yet, he wrote with such authority on this issue that it seemed almost as though anyone who believed contrary to his rather flimsy approach to this subject was small-minded and quaint.

The other more practical problem for me with this was that I could never preach that message from this or any pulpit. There is no good news in it. There is no hope in it. A mass grave and anonymous, “unmarked bones” are not what those I look to for spiritual inspiration lived and died for—people like George Herbert, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, the Martyrs of Memphis or any of the others.

And I can tell you that when life turned against me, when I got sick with cancer, when I faced the realities of death and dying, the message of Spong’s empty tomb did not sustain me. And not just me, but in the lives of countless people I have served alongside in ministry, countless people I have held hands with as they have lay dying or crying or mourning or facing uncertain futures.
Maybe the Resurrection never happened. Maybe that woman with a hemorrhage was never healed or maybe she never existed in the first place. Maybe Jairus’ daughter was never healed or maybe Jairus nor his daughter ever existed.

But the fact remains that all of these stories have the ability to sustain me. I personally need these miracle stories. I need to cling to them in my own life and I need them in my work in the parish. These stories of Jesus overcoming sickness and death are stories I can cling to when I am faced with sickness and death.

This past week we buried Ron Richard. I can tell you in all honesty that as I read and reflected and lived with this Gospel reading this past week, as I prepared Ron’s Burial Liturgy and sermon, I felt a renewed faith from my reading. When I read of the woman with a hemorrhage grasping at the hem of Jesus garment, I knew what that healing in her life was like. We too are often feeling like that woman. We often find ourselves bleeding deeply inside with no possible hope for relief. That bleeding might not be an actual bleeding, but a bleeding of our spirit, of our hopes and dreams, of a deep emotional or spiritual wound that just won’t heal And when we’ve been desperate, we find ourselves clutching at anything—at any little thing. But when we clutch after Jesus, when we reach even for a fringe of his presence in our lives, we find, strangely, healing.

And in this story of Jarius’ daughter, I too felt that moment in which I felt separated from the loved ones in my life—when I felt that a distance caused by estrangement, anger or even death. And when I have begged for healing for them and for myself form Jesus, it has come. Even in those instances when someone I have cared for and loved has died and I have still not healed that relationship, I can call out to Jesus and Jesus can say to me, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? Your loved one is not dead but only sleeping.”

Resurrection comes in many forms in our lives and if we wait them out these moments will happen. That is the story I gather form Jesus and his miracles. These miracles continue today in my life and in the lives of those around me. I know, because I have seen it again and again and, not only in my own life, but in the lives of others.

So, yes, I do still read Spong and Borg and all the others. But I do so with a fairly fine strainer. I am able sometimes able to sift out some fine gems from their writings. But with these Gospels, with scriptures, I find my greatest consolation. In slow and prayerful and sacred reading of these words, I am able to be sustained and rejuvenated and am able to face whatever life may throw at me with hope and, sometimes, even joy.

So, in your own life, make these stories of Jesus your own. Believe in them and believe they can happen in your life as well. Cling to them, find strength in them and hope in them. Let them give life to your faith. If you do, those words of Jesus to the woman today will be words directed to you as well: “your faith has made you well; go in peace; be healed.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't believe it because it's true? Do you believe in the same way for your financial statements? When you go to the doctor?
In other words, it makes me feel nice and supports whatever politics I happen to agree with/match my personal interests?
No wonder people don't take churches seriously anymore. Why bother? Save yourself time, money and trouble and sleep in on Sundays.