Jesus and Verna and Jack
Proper 18B: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Mark 7:24-37
Sunday, September 10, 2006 ~ All Saints Church, Pasadena ~ Susan Russell
Can you feel it in the air this morning? Can you sense the energy and anticipation generated by new beginnings about to begin … a new program year about to start … a new school year just begun … and Homecoming is coming already next week! Where DID the summer go? Never mind that on the Pasadena calendar the New Year starts in January with the Rose Parade and on the church calendar the New Year starts in December with Advent – on the “Susan calendar” it’s September that feels like a new year … complete with urges to clear the decks, start new projects, make resolutions and -- oh yes -- buy something plaid and get a new box of freshly sharpened Crayola Crayons!
Those are last two are some things I hope I never outgrow – but there are some others I wish I could. And one of those is that measure of anxiety that seems inevitably to accompany the energy of new beginnings – new years – new adventures. Who doesn’t remember that butterfly-in-the-stomach-first-day-of-school feeling? Will I be able to keep up with the homework this year? Will I like my teachers? Will anybody sit with me at lunch? It seems to be a part of the human condition that the fear of the unknown consistently shows up as an uninvited companion anytime we journey out of our comfort zone – out of our context – out of what is safe and familiar and “home.”
The question I’m asking this morning … this “new year” … is not how to get rid of that fear – since we seem to be stuck with it -- but how to move forward anyway. And the answers I want to share this morning come from three voices of witness to the power of God’s love to transform even the fear in our hearts into strength for the journey -- a trinity of sorts: Jesus and Verna and Jack.
Let’s start with Jesus – always a good place to start! The gospels are full of the words and work and witness of the ministry of the rabbi who left the family carpentry business to proclaim the kingdom-come that Isaiah described for us this morning: then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. That’s the kingdom he proclaimed -- in today’s Gospel According to Mark we have a unique window into what it must have been like for Jesus to take that message out into the world – out of his comfort zone – out of his context – out of what was safe and familiar and home. Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.
Sounds like he was trying to get a little vacation, to me. And what does he get instead? A woman – a Gentile woman – tracking him down and asking for healing for her daughter. As one of the commentaries on this text puts it: Given that Jesus has traveled to Tyre, a Gentile stronghold, it's hardly unexpected that he should run into one of these despised people. What is perhaps surprising is that this Gentile woman would turn to Jesus for help, but of course a desperate woman will do almost anything to help her sick child. Jesus, however, is not inclined to help her. Moreover, he turns her away in language that implies there is a limited supply of food-- that only some may eat while others will go hungry. Surely Jesus of all people should know that God's goodness is bounteous, that there is more than enough for everyone. And this is essentially what the Gentile woman points out to Jesus. There's plenty for everyone; even for those who are the outsiders. And Jesus -- apparently moved by her words -- promptly heals her child, and never again in Mark does he refuse to heal anyone or question anyone's worthiness to be healed.*
This turning point in Jesus’ ministry came about because he was willing to listen and be changed by the voice he hadn’t expected to hear or even wanted to listen to. Following his example gives us the courage and the power – in spite of some unavoidable fear and trembling – to proclaim abundance even as others declare scarcity, to preach peace even if it is an election year, to embrace new beginnings even when they challenge our old understandings. For as disciples of Jesus – as the Body of Christ in the world – we follow the one who was willing to go where God led him even if it meant finding out he had to change his mind about a thing or two along the way.
And that brings me to the second person of my trinity this morning: Verna … Verna Dozier. Teacher, preacher, biblical scholar and theologian, Verna’s death last week at the age of 88 caused one eulogist to write, “May she rest in peace and rise in glory: we are poorer for her passing but so, SO much richer for her life and witness!” An African American, a woman and a lay person, her voice was a voice the church hadn’t expected to hear or – I suspect -- even wanted to listen to. And yet like the Gentile woman in Tyre insisting that Jesus hear her plea and heal her daughter, Verna stood her ground and insisted that church hear her plea and heal itself of the clericalism and institutionalism distorting its vision -- hampering its mission – keeping it from becoming all that God intended it to be.
In her 1991 book, The Dream of God, she wrote “God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church. The urgent task for us is to reclaim our identity as the people of God and live into our high calling as the baptized community…that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized."
I first encountered Verna when a copy of The Dream of God leapt off the shelf of the old Diocesan Center bookstore and into my hands. As I was preparing for ordination her words were my constant companions as The Dream of God became part of my seminary-survival-kit – reminding me over and over and over again not to confuse God with the church – challenging me to balance academics and action. I only heard her preach once – in 1997 in Cincinnati at a national justice conference – and what I remember most were these words, “Don’t tell me what you believe – tell me what difference it makes that you believe.” Her foundational thesis – that the church has failed in its high calling to be the Body of Christ in the world because is has too often settled for worshipping Jesus instead of following Jesus -- became a core value of my own priesthood -- and I am deeply grateful to be part of this All Saints Church community that not only shares but lives out those values.
Finally, her words about faith and fear are ones I have turned to again and again – especially whenever it’s time to once more step out into new beginnings, new challenges, new opportunities. “Doubt” said Verna, “is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today."
Freedom from the fear of risking because we might be wrong frees us to get it right --by opening new doors, challenging old assumptions, chancing new undertakings. And let’s face it – there is an urgent need for new possibilities we cannot even imagine today to overcome the very real challenges facing the world we live in today: war-torn, terror-wracked, politically polarized and often demoralized we are bombarded by voices in the culture who feed our fears, I fear, precisely to keep us immobilized. “Give us 22 minutes and we’ll scare the pants off you” could be the tag line for the local radio news – and as Gary Hall noted in his sermon last month, you can’t watch CNN for 15 minutes without one of the anchors asking a version of the question, “Are we safe?” Butterfly-in-the-stomach-first-day-of-school fears pale in comparison with the anxiety of this post-9/11 world – all the more reason to remind ourselves of those voices of witness to the power of God’s love to transform even the fear in our hearts into strength for the journey: Jesus and Verna and Jack.
Send us anywhere you would have us go … only go there with us.
Place upon us any burden you desire … only stand by us to sustain us.
Break any tie that binds us … except the tie that binds us to you.
This is a blessing I love … one I give whenever I have the chance and I don’t believe there’s been a single Sunday since I’ve been at All Saints Church that someone hasn’t asked me for a copy of it … so that tells me I’m not the only one it touches in a very deep way. It is a blessing I inherited from the priest who sponsored me for ordination – she herself inherited it from the bishop who ordained her back in 1977 in the Diocese of Newark: John Shelby Spong … AKA Jack.
Now, Jack Spong was and continues to be a controversial figure in the Episcopal Church. I’ve read most of what he’s written – agree with some of it, disagree with lots of it and frankly don’t quite get a great deal of it. But I love that we’re part of a church that gives us – all of us – you and me and Jack Spong and everyone inbetween -- the freedom to think things out, to imagine things through, to risk being wrong. And that’s what I love about Jack’s blessing: I love its focus on the freedom of knowing that wherever we go, God goes with us. Whatever burden we bear, God stands by us to sustain us. Whatever ties bind us or restrain us or restricts us pales in comparison with the tie that binds us to the God who created us in love and then sent us out to love one another in return.
Send us anywhere you would have us go … out of our comfort zone – out of our context – out of what is safe and familiar and “home” … into this school year, program year, election year … confident that no matter where we go, you go with us.
Place upon us any burden you desire … and help us remember that you will stand by us to sustain us through even the burdens that come from not from you but from the brokenness of this world that has failed to live up to your dream for it: the burden of having a son in Iraq or a daughter in Afghanistan; the burden of disease, of loneliness, of depression, of addiction.
Break any tie that binds us … ties to “how we’ve always done it” … ties to living in safety rather than reaching out in risk … ties to the fears that persuade us to build walls rather than bridges.
To claim that blessing as our own is to claim the freedom it promises: to claim the power of God’s love to transform even the fear in our hearts into strength for the journey – the journey we make together with Jesus and Verna and Jack – and with each other – one new beginning at a time! Happy New Year! Amen.
*Karen Keely in "The Witness"