June 11, 2023

Series: June 2023

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon




Scripture Reading

Matthew 9:18-26

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. 

Author Philip Yancey opens his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” by telling a story that a friend had told him about a woman who had come to this friend in a dire situation – homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her 2-year old daughter.  This woman had made some terrible choices out of desperation for both herself and her daughter, and was now really struggling.  Yancey writes that his friend told him, “I had no idea what to say to this woman.  At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help.  I will never forget the look of pure shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there?  I was already feeling terrible about myself.  They’d just make me feel worse.’”

Yancey then writes, “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this one fled toward Jesus, not away from him.  The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.  What has happened?”[i]

I think about this story when I hear this passage from Matthew’s Gospel.  One thing that stands out for me in this passage is how willing Jesus is to help the people who come to him.  He could have easily brushed them off or told them to wait.  He was legitimately in the middle of other things.  He did not have to stop what he was doing to give them his attention.  When this passage begins, Jesus is deep in conversation with his disciples, answering their questions and offering them a teaching.  And then, “While he was saying these things to them,” the passage says, “suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him …” Basically the synagogue leader barged into the conversation with his own needs, interrupting everything else that was going on.  Suddenly he was there, taking up space in Jesus’ day.  But rather than scolding him or getting upset by the interruption, Jesus listens to him, shows him mercy, and gets up to help him.

Then, because that one interruption obviously wasn’t enough, the passage continues, “Then suddenly a woman came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak.”  This one could have easily been ignored.  All she did was touch his cloak.  Jesus could have pretended not to notice this sudden interruption and continued to follow the synagogue leader.  But, no, Jesus turns to her, shows mercy again, calls her daughter, and tells her that her faith has made her well.

Both people suddenly appeared in Jesus’ life with no warning, when he was in the middle of something else, and both times, Jesus gave them the care and attention and healing and love that they so desperately needed.  The woman, especially, was likely considered an outcast in society, since she had been bleeding for twelve years.  She was ritually unclean – people would not have wanted to be near her to or interact with her.  But Jesus welcomed her with open arms, even as he was on the way to somewhere else.

It makes me wonder how we, the church, do at extending that extravagant welcome to all.  It pains me to think that the woman Philip Yancey writes about would think that a church community would make her feel worse about herself, rather than better.  It pains me to think about how far the church has strayed from Jesus’ model of mercy and inclusion.

When I say “the church,” I am talking in general terms about Christianity in our country.  Not about Westminster specifically.  I am continually proud of how the Westminster community works to draw the circle wide.  That being said, it doesn’t hurt to critically examine our own welcome, even as we pat ourselves on the back.  Do all people who walk through our doors feel welcome?  Do we make our very best effort to include everyone in our community?  How about those who don’t walk through our doors, for whatever reason?  And what about those “suddenly” moments when someone is in need of our care and love and attention even when it is absolutely inconvenient for us?  How are we at caring for the least of these in those moments?

I want to share with you a story about what it looks like to show up for someone in those “suddenly” moments. It is from a book titled, “Be the Brave One,” by Ann Kansfield, who is a chaplain with the New York City fire department, as well as a pastor at a church in Brooklyn.  In a chapter titled, “Showing up is 99% of the Job,” she writes about an acquaintance named Tom, who was a semi-regular guest of her church’s hot meal program and ended up going to jail.  She was able to keep in touch with him while he served his time and then, she writes, “About a year later, someone rang the church doorbell.  I answered and he said, ‘Hi! It’s Tom! I’m on parole.’ I gave him a big hug and said I was happy to see him and to see he was out of prison. Then he confided in me that he'd been drinking and he couldn’t stop. He also had been paroled in Connecticut, and had now crossed state lines into New York. I said, ‘Look, Tom, you just got out of prison. You’re on parole. You’re drunk. And you’ve left the state.  This is a bad idea from top to bottom. You gotta get yourself back to Connecticut.’

He waffled. I took him to lunch. He continued to waffle. I said, ‘Look dude, it’s the day before Christmas Eve. It’s now or never. I’ll drop you off in Connecticut.’ Still he waffled.

The next day it was sleeting rain. Miserable.  The doorbell rang, and sure enough, there he was, fully liquored up. He’d thought about it and he wanted to go back to Connecticut.  And, he said he wanted to go to detox. We drove in the awful, sleety miserable weather up to Greenwich while I kept looking at my watch and hoping I could get back in time for Christmas Eve worship.

We finally made it to the hospital, but it was a long wait in the waiting room.  Tom was still drunk and was talking with Nemo, the beautiful orange fish in the waiting room tank. Everyone in the waiting room was looking at us and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m his pastor friend.’ I’m pretty sure they’d seen drunk people before, but my guess is it was probably the folks getting liquored up at the Yale reunion, or local teenagers.  They were not ready for Tom the paroled convict.

Truthfully, I don’t relish spending time with drunks. But even drunk, driving Tom to Greenwich was an unexpected, sweet blessing. It was probably the best Christmas Eve I’ve ever had. We tend to think Jesus was all about doing something for those less fortunate, but my view is that so many of his teachings are really about keeping usspiritually grounded, present.”[ii]

I read that and I wonder, how would I have shown up for Tom in that “suddenly” moment? Would I have been present for him? Would I have driven him to detox, through the rain, on Christmas Eve of all days?  Talk about inconvenient!  I hope I would have.  But I don’t know if I can say yes for sure.  I like my schedules and my routines.  I usually have Christmas Eve scheduled down to the milli-second. But, people don’t always need our love and mercy according to our schedules.

The month of June is Pride month, and I am aware that the church (again, the church in a general sense) has done incredible harm to the LGBTQ community in the ways that the church has been not just unwelcoming, but aggressively hostile.  Thankfully, I have never been a recipient of this hate from any church community, but I could imagine people in the LGBTQ community reacting similarly to the woman in my opening story, never considering being part of the church, which has caused so much despair.  With all of the anti-LGBTQ legislation happening right now, this Pride month feels more like a “suddenly” moment than it has in the past several years. We, as Christians, need to combat the lies and hate coming from other Christians, whether this is a convenient time for us or not.

Jen Hatmaker is an author and blogger who rose to prominence in the evangelical, fundamentalist, Christian community.  Many years ago, she and her then-husband helped to found a church in Texas, and then helped to lead it for a long while.  Then, she began to question some of the exclusionary beliefs that she had held for so long, including those about the LGBTQ community.  She writes, “As we steer into Pride Month, my community knows me now as an outspoken ally, practically draped in glitter and purple satin at this point.  But I want to take you back to 2013 or so, when my head and heart were misaligned and my evangelical edges were fraying. I was desperate to find a faithful, thoughtful hermeneutic that made sense of the Spirit I knew — one that didn’t leave the LGBTQ community exiled or begging for crumbs. I just kept thinking: ‘This can’t be right. The fruit of the tree is too rotten.’ I was in full spiritual crisis and couldn’t bear the cognitive dissonance anymore.”

When she began to publicly affirm and support the LGBTQ community, it was definitely not a convenient time for her.  She says that her “evangelical world crumbled,” and many who had been friends would not associate with her anymore. 

This work is hard. Showing love and mercy to people in the margins – whether suddenly or over the course of weeks, months, or years - sometimes does not earn us any friends.  People can feel threatened when we dare to uplift the outcast or give voice to the voiceless.  But the work must continue. 

Hatmaker reflects on her journey, “There comes a moment when it is our turn to hold up the lantern. As we’ve been guided by the lanterns ahead of us, leading us down unfamiliar paths and cutting through the fog, it is now ours to do the same.

It is our responsibility.

Our work means saying out loud what we’ve learned. It means standing unafraid with communities beloved by God. It means planting your feet in the storm if need be.

I searched for lights at every stage of spiritual evolution, and thanks be to God that so many people were holding them high. Wherever you are, look for the lights. There are faithful lanterns up ahead if you need the path illuminated. If you are further down the road, don’t forget the folks behind you; hold up your lantern so they can see even as you continue to move forward.

The lanterns are needed at every mile. They all matter. Yours matter. This is how we get there together, light by light, step by step.”[iii]

Hatmaker was writing specifically about her work with the LGBTQ community, but the sentiment can be much broader than that. The “suddenly” moments when we are asked to share God’s love and compassion and kindness with another happen in our lives all the time – often when we least expect it.  This work can be so hard.  But we do the work together. We take care of one other, shining our lanterns for each other. 

Which leads me to our second scripture passage, from Mark’s Gospel.  The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”

Jesus cared for others, and he cared for himself.  And he encouraged his disciples to care for themselves because they were in community together.  Jesus’ rhythm of rest was integrated into his rhythm of service.  He immersed himself in the community, and then he got away to a deserted place.  We are called to care for others, but let’s not forget to also care for ourselves.  That balance is so important.

Now, even Jesus struggled with this, because if you keep reading this story, you read that the crowds went ahead to this supposedly deserted place, and were waiting for Jesus and the disciples by the time their boat reached the shore.  I hope you had a nice boat ride, because that’s the only peace and quiet you’re going to get!  But did Jesus send the people away, even when his disciples were encouraging him to do so? No.  He had compassion for them, he began to teach them, and he made sure all were fed.  And thenhe went up on the mountain to pray.

Returning to Matthew’s Gospel for a moment, have you noticed that I have barely even mentioned the two healings that are a part of this story?  That has been on purpose, because I don’t think they are the important part of this story.  Don’t get me wrong, Jesus’ healings are very important throughout the Gospels.  But, even Jesus himself doesn’t draw attention to the healings in this story.  He tells the woman it is her faith that makes her well, not anything he did.  When he gets the synagogue leader’s house, he tells the crowds to go away, because he doesn’t need excess attention on him.  It’s not about him.  And he says the girl is merely sleeping, not dead – perhaps also to remove the attention from him.  The miraculous part of this story may not be the physical healings at all, but instead the care and attention and hospitality Jesus gives to those who need it most in their “suddenly” moments.  May we go and do the same.  Amen. 


[i]“What’s So Amazing About Grace,” by Philip Yancey, pg. 11.

[ii]“Be The Brave One,” by Ann Kansfield, pg. 113.