October 28 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture Lesson: Mark 5:25-34
Last week we started a four-week series on being a good neighbor, focusing on the Great Commandment to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbors as yourself. We learned last week that neighbors are not just generic “anybody’s” but the specific people who live near us and with whom we regularly interact in our community. Our scripture lesson today shows us an example of Jesus interacting with the crowds who gathered to see him as he made his way throughout the villages in the region of Galilee. His neighbors. And we see that when one of his neighbors needed his attention, he stopped and gave it to her. He was willing to be interrupted from his original task in order to give his full attention to someone who crossed his path. So I want to ask you to take a moment to think about someone who has tried to get your attention recently. Maybe it was a family member, a neighbor, or someone in the grocery store or even on the side of the road. Think about that person, and whether or not you made the time you could have made for them. If not, think about how you could have handled that differently. After a moment of reflection, I’ll lead us in a prayer.
PRAYER: Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear your voice, O Son of man. (UMH 427)
Several of us from Maple Grove UMC just returned last night from a conference this past week called “Growing Communities of Love.” We have spent the week learning some new tools for becoming followers of Jesus who love the people in our communities like Jesus loves. One of the things we learned was that in order to develop healthy relationships that center on loving like Jesus, we must be able to give our full attention to others, especially those to whom we want to be a good neighbor. In one of our sessions, we actually practiced being mindful and aware. We started with a raisin, at first looking at it, then feeling its ridges and wrinkles with our fingers, then smelling its sweet aroma, then placing it in our mouths, feeling its ridges with our tongues; then we bit into it and paid attention to the way its texture and flavor changed. Finally, we swallowed it and noticed the way it felt going down our esophagus. After that, we formed pairs and practiced a form of deep listening to each other, paying close attention to what the other person was saying, and practicing the art of listening and being completely focused on the present moment by letting other thoughts that entered our minds just float by without getting distracted. Fortunately, we had several chances over the course of the conference to do this so that we could try to get better at it.
Something unexpected happened to us, though, on the evening of the last day of the conference. Without even meaning to, we found ourselves suddenly paying attention to others around us, so much so that just by acknowledging their presence, we seemed to have given a subconscious invitation to conversation. This started happening in the elevator of our hotel, in the food lines, and then – of all places – in line for a popular ride at Disneyland! And I want to tell you about this last experience because it had a profound affect on all three of us who were there.
Candy, Stephanie and I were getting in line for a Star Wars ride, and saw that we had to wind through several zig-zagging rows of roped off sections to get to the back of the line. The last two young men in line noticed us doing this, and went over to unlatch one of the ropes to make it easier for us to get where we needed to be. After thanking them, we stood in our little clump of three, ready to keep to ourselves as most people do in long lines. And then, something changed. Stephanie noticed a tattoo on one of the young men’s leg and asked about it. They both chimed in to talk about it. Which then led to discussions about work and passwords, and how many passwords one needs these days. After commiserating together for a moment, Stephanie complimented one of them of their Mouse Ears, which were striped with colors of the rainbow, just like the colors on the castle of the Disneyland t-shirt he was wearing. He beamed as he told us how he had finally been successful in getting one, due to the fact that Disney had been selling out of them within a day of getting in a new shipment. Next, the conversation turned to personal questions about where each of us works and lives. Upon discovering we were from Iowa, and they were locals, they asked whether we were there for work or vacation. So I explained that I pastor a church in Iowa and that we were all there for a church conference. “Oh…” one of them said, and I could hear his tone shift to one of guardedness and perhaps even fear or concern.
You see, I know that many of our LGBTQ neighbors, like these two young men, have been shamed by their churches and their families – some of them have even been disowned and kicked out of their homes. So I paid attention to what I was hearing in this change of tone, and chose my next words very carefully. “Yeah, we were attending a conference called ‘Growing Communities of Love,’ because we want to learn how our church can be more welcoming and inclusive of everyone, and how we can make more connections will all the people who live in the new neighborhood that is being developed around our church and make our church a safe space for everyone.” “Oh! That’s awesome!” he replied. And his tone shifted back to that warm and friendly tone he had been using before. After that, each of these young men reminisced about their own churches and youth groups when they were growing up, and things they missed about it. And how they wished their churches had been more concerned about connecting with those who didn’t have a place to connect “back then.”
About that time, the line shifted inside the next room of the building, where a Disney cast member was segmenting off groups for the ride. When she asked the two men, “How many in your party?” They responded, “Five!” One of them turned around and motioned for us to join them. As the first one in line was handed the five pair of 3-D glasses we would need for the ride, instead of just taking one and passing the others down, he came around and personally delivered a pair to each one of us. They had just claimed us as being part of their community! We were stunned, but so happy. So we continued chatting until we were finally seated as a group on the ride. When the ride was over, several rows exited at a time, and the two young men ended up several groups ahead of us as we exited down a long hallway. When we got to the end of the hallway, there they were, waiting on us, to tell us how much they enjoyed meeting us, and to wish us well on the rest of our stay.
Fred Rogers of the children’s TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said in a commencement address, “When we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred." I believe that something truly sacred transpired that night in a line for a ride at Disneyworld. Three people from the Midwest, who had been learning to notice and pay attention to others, happened to meet and begin a conversation with two young men from the LGBTQ community – for those who may not recognize the acronym, that stands for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Community. And when we noticed each other, and made time for each other, willing to get to know something about each other, and to be an agent of God’s welcoming and unconditional love, God’s spirit moved between us and created community – a little piece of heaven on earth.
In Mark chapter 5, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to heal someone else when Jesus noticed someone touch the hem of his robe. There was a crowd of people all around him, with many people wanting to get near the famous Jesus they had heard about. But one woman approaches him in desperate need. Her condition of hemorrhaging would be serious today – most likely requiring surgery. But it was even worse then, when the person with the condition could find no cure, AND would have been declared by the religious community as permanently unclean – similar to a person with leprosy. She would have been forbidden to touch or be touched by anyone! And she would have been shamed and treated as an outcast by her community who believed that such ailments were judgments from God.
When I think about those who were treated as outcasts in Jesus’ day, I can’t help but think about the two young men we met at Disneyland, who are treated as outcasts by many in our religious society today. But we can learn a lot about how to treat them as we look at Jesus’ interaction with the woman in the scripture.
First of all, Jesus was on a life-saving mission to heal the daughter of a well-respected religious leader in town, Jairus, who was fervent in his plea for Jesus to come at once to heal his 12-year old daughter who was to the point of death. Crowds flocked around Jesus, to follow him and witness first-hand the miraculous healing they had only heard about until now. And even though Jesus dropped everything to follow Jairus to his daughter, when another desperate soul reached out in faith to touch him, he noticed. How many of us get so involved in whatever important task that is before us that we completely ignore or block out everyone else around us? When we get into ‘task mode’ do we notice others around us who need our attention? We may think, “we don’t have time to stop.” It seems that that is exactly what the disciples were thinking when Jesus did stop. The disciples wanted to push things along and said, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” But Jesus felt it…his healing power had been used. And he needed to know who did it. So he stopped and looked all around until the woman came forward. (MARK 5:31-32)
Jesus wasn’t offended by this interruption – instead he was open to it. But how about us? Are we? The truth is that because of technology and social media, we are more distracted than ever today. And even though we have more power in our hands to connect with others than in all the other generations before us combined, we – especially our teen and young adult generations – are living in more isolation than ever before. We’re simply not paying attention to the people right in front of us. If you add to that the increasing number of activities that we’re all involved in and the increased sense of busyness overall in our society today, it’s no wonder that incidences of depression are on the rise. Consider again the woman in the scriptures who was not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone – what an extreme example of loneliness. And we are lonely, too – either because of the ways we isolate ourselves, or because of the ways that society rejects those who are ‘different than.’ But Jesus made time for the person right in front of him. He wasn’t nearly as concerned with where he was going, or what he was planning to do in the future, as he was with the person he was with in the present moment.
The next thing I want to point out is that Jesus was approachable. He didn’t close himself off as he journeyed to the next thing – he still created a welcoming sense that invited connection along the way. It didn’t matter that Jesus had important things to do because he always made time to stop for others. In other instances in the gospel of Mark, we see Jesus making time to heal a man with leprosy who comes and begs at his feet for healing, a man with a withered hand who interrupts him while he was praying in the synagogue, and even a man who rushes to the boat as Jesus was stepping off in order to stretch his hand out for healing. Jesus made time for all of those who came to him, especially those who had been rejected or cast out by everyone else, and who longed for someone to touch them and heal them – to make them feel whole and accepted, to feel once again that their life mattered. Jesus was approachable…but how about us? Do we communicate that same welcoming spirit to others with whom we come into contact? Do we take time to make eye contact, or to offer a friendly smile? Do we wave or say hello? Do we dare to begin a conversation, or speak intentionally in a way that lets someone know that they are seen and noticed, that their life matters? That we won’t shame them or judge them? That they are safe with us?
Fred Rogers believed that one of the most important things that needed to be communicated to children at an early age was the idea that they were accepted and loved just the way they are. He wrote a song called, “It’s You I Like” which he sang on many different episodes. One particularly poignant episode was filmed with a boy named Jeff Earlinger, who was wheelchair bound due to a neurological condition, and came on to show other children how an electric wheelchair works. Mister Rogers believed in tackling the serious stuff in life with children – things such as divorce, and war, and death, and even disabilities. After talking to Jeff about his wheelchair, his illness, and some of his doctors and medical procedures, he began to sing this song to Jeff. And then Jeff joined in. He wanted children to know that they were loved and accepted for who there were, just the way they are! In fact, he ended every episode of his children’s program with the phrase, “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
Friends, it is a gift when we are able to stop our tasks and take a break from our to-do lists and make time for others. And it’s an even greater gift when the person we make time for, the person we welcome, the person we communicate acceptance and love to is someone that feels they are outcast and unaccepted, unacceptable, and unlovable by everyone else. This story of Jesus healing the woman who touched the hem of his robe demonstrates to us that there are no barriers to the healing and helping power of God. If God’s love meets us and makes time for us right where we are, we must be willing to do the same for others, especially “THE other.”
Last week we thought about how we can meet and get to know our neighbors. We’re working on filling out our Neighborhood map by meeting and learning the first names of the eight neighbors who live closest to us. As we continue meeting those neighbors, I want to add one thing – I want to encourage you to become aware of those you pass by, those you interact with at work, at school, at the gym or at the store. As you become aware of them, think about what you might need to sacrifice in order to give more time to becoming a good neighbor to them. Would it mean less screen time on your phone? Would it mean letting go of attitudes about people with tattoos, or body piercings, or people with a different lifestyle? Would it require you to be less hurried and more patient with the teenagers learning to drive, or the elderly and infirm who don’t move (or drive) at your pace? It might even require that you simplify your schedule to be more available to family members, friends and neighbors. It can be daunting to think about making schedule changes and giving up something, but counselors agree that the first step to a healthier lifestyle is identifying and then acting on the changes necessary. A saying often attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Where can you do good this week? Who are the people in your neighborhood who need to know that they are accepted and loved just the way they are?
PRAYER: O Master, from the mountainside make hast to heal these hearts of pain; among these restless throngs abide; O tread the city’s streets again. (UMH 427)