Sermon: V Pentecost (8b)
V Pentecost (8b)
1 July 2012
Fr. Patrick S. Allen
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A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell, whom I suppose we could describe as a journalist and amateur pop social-psychologist, wrote a bestselling book called The Tipping Point, in which he attempted to describe that moment – and the conditions required to bring that moment about – when an idea or trend, a behavior or consumer product, "tips" and begins to spread exponentially throughout the culture until it becomes utterly ubiquitous.
The Facebook phenomenon might be the most obvious example of recent years – first popular among a fairly small set of college students looking to coordinate their hooking up and now utterly ubiquitous throughout the culture. The Church of the Holy Communion even has a Facebook page.
In his book, Gladwell mainly sticks to the upper trend, but things – like, for instance, 6-inch wide lapels, the subjunctive mood in English grammar, the popularity of tennis, and – oh, I don't know – religious liberty as the highest American value, can go the other way to.
And of course, it's not just consumer products and ideas which may decline and fall, but also venerable institutions (just take a look at attendance and baptism trends in the Episcopal Church). But, entire national economies (just ask a Greek). But, people, human lives – just take a look in the ICU up the street, or in the shelter down at Crisis Ministries. There comes that moment, that "tipping point" Gladwell describes, when we see – not just feel or sense but clearly see – that we have lost control, and that a downward trend has sufficient momentum that it is, effectively, out of our hands, can't be arrested or even slowed, much less reversed. Hopless. A lost cause. A goner.
In this morning's Gospel lesson, we see a man, a father, right at that moment, right at that tipping point: his little girl, the apple of her daddy's eye, sick and dying, dying, almost gone.
Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Ja'irus by name; and seeing [Jesus], he fell at his feet, and besought him, saying, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."
Mark tells us that this desperate father was a one of the rulers of the synagogue – which is to say that he is a member of a group not generally sympathetic to Jesus. In the gospels, folks who follow Jesus, folks who are healed by Jesus, are often expelled, excommunicated, from their synagogues. Jesus himself had been expelled from his own hometown synagogue. And they didn't just expel him, they tried to throw him off a cliff.[i]
It's interesting to read through the Gospels and see who it is that gets Jesus – and who doesn't. And Jairus is fairly typical of the latter, those who don't get Jesus, because they don't – at least so they believe – need Jesus.
Jairus was one of the rulers of the synagogue. He was respected. He was admired. He had it together. For a while. He was, apparently, quite comfortable, quite at home in the world. He had no need of a rabble rousing rabbi from Nazareth, no need for a faith healer, no need for Jesus, until death and disorder invaded his life, his family, his daughter who was his own heart.
You know, desperate need is not the only reason people come to Jesus, but it's probably the best, because it is, if only by heart-breaking necessity, the most honest. And certainly need, desperation, can break through our prejudices, our petty conceits, even our warped worldviews and deeply held (if deeply mistaken) convictions, and drive us finally to seek help like Jairus who fell at [Jesus'] feet and besought him, and so to be made well and live.
In the novel Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn (who of course is the basically homeless child of the town drunk) tells Tom that he sometimes is able to find shelter for sleeping in old Ben Rogers' hayloft, and that sometimes Roger's black slave, Uncle Jake, will share some food with him. And more than that, Huck tells Tom, "Sometime I've set right down and eat WITH him. But you needn't tell that. A body's got to do things when he's awful hungry he wouldn't want to do as a steady thing."
Huck's need, his hunger, forces him to humble himself, set aside his ridiculous, ingrained prejudice, and accept the help that is available, even if it comes from old black Uncle Jake, of all people.
Well, Jesus is Uncle Jake for Jairus. Jairus was not the sort of person who would want to resort to somebody like Jesus "as a steady thing," but he was, in Huck's terms, "awful hungry." His little daughter is at the point of death.He is desperate. He has hit the tipping point.
I think it's probably true that this is not how many of us came to find Jesus in his Church. Many of us were born into it – I was, and I thank God for that everyday. Or maybe we became convinced in our minds of the truth of the Christian revelation – which is wonderful. Or maybe we liked the music – great, and I suspect that Mrs. Godshall and her choir are our bests evangelists at the Church of the Holy Communion. Or maybe, since this is the Episcopal Church and this is Charleston, we came at least initially as means of social advancement – well, whatever. Though I think those days are now over, and good riddance.
But this little story of Jairus and hisbaby girl – a little story about a big miracle – distills for us exactly the actual truth of the matter. That, whether we've yet realized it or not, we are in desperate straits. That we stand in need, we are "awful hungry" for a real and true love that we are powerless to fill or produce on our own; that our hearts are hobbled by our own sin and sick to the point of death; that we, like Jairus, like his little daughter, are all of us subject to death.
And that, whatever our need, whatever the proximate cause of our desperation, the answer is not more and greater discipline, not the power of positive thinking, and certainly not to deny the problem; but rather, the answer is Jesus Himself, Love Himself; the Resurrection and the Life Himself, who will take us each by the hand, and gently but with all the authority of Heaven and earth say, Talitha cumi – and isn't it wonderful that St. Mark preserved for us the very Aramaic words that passed our Savior's lips – Talitha cumi – "Little girl, arise." Little boy, arise. Old man, arise. Soccer mom, arise. Whoever, and wherever, arise.
The Polish poet and Nobel laureate and faithful Catholic Christian Czeslaw Milosz, mourning the death of his mother, depressed and distressed, wrote a little poem after Mass one Sunday morning:
That's how he began. And of course, that assertion of God's hatred of death is hard to accept, hard to understand, hard to reconcile with this world of death and decay. But then Milosz continued,
A reading from the Gospel according
About a little girl to whom He said: Talitha, cumi!
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me.[ii]
Talitha, cumi!, Jesus says. This is for desperate us, to make us "rise from the dead" and, as Milosz put it, "repeat the hope of those who lived before us."
To "rise from the dead / and repeat the hope of those who lived before [us]." That exactly is our calling.
History's tipping point, life's tipping point, love's tipping point, arrived that first Easter morning 2,000-odd years ago. Jairus' daughter's miraculous resuscitation to continued, though temporary, earthly life is the sign of Jesus' own Resurrection to eternal life, that Resurrection to which we, by faith and baptism, have been united.
And for us, we now live in "the sure and certain hope" of that resurrection, which means that we must live in the light of that resurrection, repeating in our own time, in our own situations, the hope of those saints who have gone before us – to see ourselves, to see our neighbors, as never beyond hope, never beyond the reach of our Lord's redeeming and resurrecting love, and to become ourselves the agents, the living signs, of that redeeming and resurrecting love.
And now, Jesus will even strengthen us for that work, and, with Jairus' little girl, give us something to eat, food fit for the living, "the medicine of immortality,"[iii] even his own Body and Blood.
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[i] Jn 9; Lk 4.28,29
[ii] "With her" in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001. For more on Milosz' poetry and faith, see Jeremy Driscoll, "The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz" in First Things, Nov 2004.
[iii] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians (ca. AD 108): "If Jesus Christ shall graciously permit me through your prayers, and if it be His will, I shall, in a second little work which I will write to you, make further manifest to you [the nature of] the dispensation of which I have begun [to treat], with respect to the new man, Jesus Christ, in His faith and in His love, in His suffering and in His resurrection. Especially [will I do this ] if the Lord make known to me that you come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ."