A Sermon about Healing, Subverting Boundaries, and the Promise of Restoration to Community

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Edgebrook Lutheran Church, Chicago
1 July 2018 + Lectionary 13B (Pentecost 6)
Mark 5.21-43


“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” Those are, of course, Judy Garland’s, aka Dorothy Gale’s, famous words from The Wizard of Oz as she takes her first steps in Munchkinland. Those words have also become somewhat of a rallying cry for anyone who finds themselves all of a sudden in a strange and different place.

“I have a feeling we’re not in seminary anymore…” I’d like to imagine I said to myself, as I walked the halls of the Cleveland Clinic during one of my first overnight shifts as an intern hospital chaplain in between my first and second years of seminary. Suddenly, this was real life ministry. Suddenly, this whole being a pastor thing wasn’t some far-off idea I only read and studied and talked about in classes. Suddenly, I was doing it.

During my summer internship as a chaplain, it was not an infrequent occurrence to be on my way to one call to visit a patient when another page to visit someone else would come in. In a way, you might say I could relate a bit to Jesus in our gospel reading today, being on his way to see Jairus’s daughter on her death-bed, already stressful enough, as this other woman comes up to him suddenly, and all of this in the midst of a tremendous crowd that just won’t leave him alone. It’s like the chaplain’s pager just won’t stop beeping.

“Jesus, I have a feeling we’re not in the parables anymore…” Suddenly, this is real life in Jesus’s ministry — not some theoretical parable or abstract teaching, but an actual story with actual people with actual needs for healing — all pressing in on him at the same time. No wonder the disciples respond to him sarcastically: “Who touched you?! You’ve got to be kidding us! Literally everyone! Literally everyone wants in on this healing thing you’ve got going on, that you can’t even get to one person without another coming after you.”

Suddenly, we’re not in the “safe” world of parables and stories anymore — the “safe” world of abstract concepts and textbooks and seminary classroom and bible study discussions. These are real people, coming to Jesus with real problems, real brokenness, real needs for healing.

It’s easy to fall into the dangerous trap, when talking about healing stories in the gospels, of putting our focus on the physical healing. A trap because it’s not really the point, dangerous because it only leads us to question why healings like that don’t seem to happen anymore.

In this pair of healing stories, the emphasis is much more on what the healings mean. Jairus is deeply grieved over the very real possibility of losing his daughter, being separated from his family. The hemorrhaging woman is exasperated, having exhausted every attempt for medical treatment for a condition that has left her as an outcast, cut off from her own community. When Jesus offers healing to them, he restores them to community. That’s what healing in the gospel is all about: restoration to community.

Healing restores people to community.
Healing brings wholeness to a woman plagued with an alienating, debilitating illness.
Healing brings a little girl back to her family.
Healing brings life where life seems to have died.
Healing brings wholeness where there is brokenness.
Healing brings restoration to community.

Where life seems to have died… where there is brokenness… where there is community in need of restoration…

Healing on these terms is desperately needed if we just look around at our world:

An immigration policy that separates children from their parents.
An executive order that claims to stop family separation but only ensures that parents as well as their children can be detained indefinitely. (Oh, but it’s okay, at least they’re together, right?)
A Supreme Court decision that allows for our country to deny entry to people simply because of their religion.

We desperately need this life-giving, wholeness-seeking, community-restoring healing.

This is the healing that Jesus offers in the gospel. And just as important is where this healing happens. Time and again, Jesus stands on the cusp of boundaries. After the stormy sea adventure last week, Jesus crosses over into the land of the Gerasenes to heal a man possessed by demons. In our reading today, Jesus crosses back over to the other side of the lake. And on his way to one family, another woman approaches him in the in-between place from starting point to destination. Crossing over, on the way, in the midst of the journey — Jesus is perpetually found at these boundary places.

Boundaries, or borders, we might say, keep some people out and other people in. There’s a certain security about borders, an alluring sense of protection, but at what cost?

Borders separate.
Borders divide.
Borders exclude.
Borders alienate.

But Jesus chooses to subvert borders and boundaries. He crosses over to one side of the lake and back again. He doesn’t let one healing get in the way of another. Instead of letting borders and boundaries have the final say, Jesus stands in the midst of them and offers healing that unites, that restores community, that promotes inclusion.

One of my favorite religious icons shows Jesus as an immigrant, his hands holding on to a barbed wire fence. It’s a powerful image that promises Jesus’s presence with those who suffer, those who are separated from their loved ones by borders and boundaries of all kinds, those who are in need of community-restoring healing. But the most intriguing part of this image is the unknown: We don’t really know what side of the border Jesus is standing on. And that’s exactly how Jesus subverts boundaries, by dwelling in the midst of them, offering healing and wholeness and restoration to community, revealing the absurdity and insecurity of the ways we divide ourselves from each other.

In the midst of life drained of itself, in the midst of irreparable brokenness, in the midst of isolation and severed community, Jesus stands at the boundaries, and reaches across with healing, with wholeness, with life abundant, with the promise of community.

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A Sermon about How the Kingdom of God Is Like an Invasive Species

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
17 June 2018 + Lectionary 11B (Pentecost 4)
Mark 4.26-34


When I was growing up, I remember this giant turquoise planter in my grandma’s backyard, nestled right in the corner of the fence. Every year, it would blossom into the most gorgeous morning glories. They never just grew like normal flowers, though, but  would actually take over the fence, to the point where it was nearly impossible to see the chain-link underneath.

One year, when grandma had had enough — because, let’s be honest, morning glories are beautiful but they’re a pain to weed out of a chain-link fence at the end of the season — she dumped out the planter and scrubbed it clean. Morning glories no more! Or so she thought… until they came back the very next year, taking over her fence all over again.

The kingdom of God is like a planter full of morning glories that takes over the garden. Even when you try to get rid of it, it’s still there.

Jesus, too, uses a lot of strange metaphors to talk about the kingdom of God in the gospels. The kingdom of God is like someone who sows seed… is like yeast… is like a treasure… is like a merchant searching for fine pearls… is like a net thrown into the sea…

Parables, Jesus calls them, a word that literally means to throw alongside — stories that are thrown alongside our own lives, our own reality, to make some spiritual principle Jesus is trying to convey seem easier to grasp… except it almost always needs explaining and might even make the original point more difficult to understand.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Along with the parable of the seed that grows by itself, these are Mark’s only two parables about the kingdom of God. Maybe Mark just wasn’t as creative as the other gospel writers, or maybe he missed a few days of Jesus’s teaching… or maybe, this is all he needed to say about the kingdom of God.

Mustard plants were, basically, like weeds where Jesus lived. They were hardy, they could grow nearly anywhere with minimal human effort to keep them alive, and they were big and difficult to get rid of.

The kingdom of God is like an invasive species. Now, invasive species, as we know, are not typically, if ever, considered a good thing. Whether animals or plants or even their eggs or seeds, invasive species, by definition, are non-native species that actually cause harm to their environment. They grow and reproduce quickly and spread aggressively. I’m no botanist, but it sounds a lot like a mustard plant to me.

And the thing about an invasive species is that it’s almost always perceived as hostile and a threat to its environment.

This past week, I have to say I was a bit surprised and perplexed to hear that separating immigrant families from each other at the border is, at least according to some, “biblical.” It’s “biblical,” they say, to enforce and to obey the laws of the government — laws that would and are ripping away children, most under the age of 13, from their parents and treating them all as criminals.

I don’t know what Bible they’ve been reading, but the one I know tells very a different story: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt… (Ex 22.21). The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself… (Lev 19.34). Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice… (Deut 27.19). Do no wrong or violence to the alien… (Jer 22.3).

Clearly, Jesus stands in a long religious tradition of justice and equity for the alien, the foreigner, and all who are perceived as “non-native,” outsiders who are seen as hostile and threatening. This tradition of justice is the message of the kingdom of God.

When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come near, it is itself threatening because it seeks to subvert and dismantle the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of the empire, the kingdom that normalizes injustice, fear, and criminalizing people because of where they come from or who they are. Like an invasive species, the kingdom of God threatens the very viability and survival of the kingdom of the empire.

Not all invasive species are bad. In the natural world, researchers have found that certain invasive species actually benefit their ecosystems: butterflies in California that feed on non-native plants, non-native trees that have helped restore pasturelands in Puerto Rico, even the infamous non-native zebra mussel that helps filter toxins from lakes.

And what happens when the environment the so-called invasive species is in is itself hostile and the real threat? Well, that sort of flips the tables, doesn’t it, and subverts what we mean by invasive and threatening.

In the context of the hostile kingdom of the empire, the kingdom of God is one invasive species to be welcomed.

In a hostile kingdom that separates families, that oppresses the other, that respects “law and order” more than human life and dignity, the kingdom of God invades. It comes perceivably out of nowhere, when and where we least expect it, and it spreads like wildfire, without regard for borders or boundaries. The kingdom of God is an invasive species that threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear.

The status quo might seem insurmountable, but it is surely under threat because the kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God happens whenever God’s justice and God’s love are made known in places that are  innately hostile toward it. And like the seed that sprouts and grows on its own, the kingdom of God happens and is happening — no matter what.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is here — not that it’s coming someday or that it will be here soon. The kingdom of God is here, is now, is in our midst, threatening and dismantling the status quo, even at this very moment.

A Sermonette About Immigration Justice and God’s Abundance

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Every first Friday of the month, people of faith gather in prayer and song in front of the immigration detention center in Broadview, IL, to minister to our sisters and brothers who are being deported that day and to advocate for a more compassionate immigration policy in this country. This month I was invited to share the Christian reflection.


Christian Reflection for Interfaith Prayer Vigil
Broadview Detention Center
4 September 2015 + Mark 6.30-44


Is there going to be enough?

That’s the message I hear echoed in our reading today. The disciples are tired, and they’re hungry. And after a long day of being surrounded by swarms of people, they just want to eat some fish and some bread in peace by themselves.

Is there going to be enough?

That’s the question that always ran through my mind when I gathered with my campus ministry to serve a hot meal to our sisters and brothers in Chicago who were experiencing homelessness. We do this every month and we can plan all we want, but in the end, we never know how many people are going to show up. It’s not difficult then for me to imagine the disciples’ position.

Is there going to be enough?

In my seminary this week, several of us gathered for a community conversation on diversity. Near the end, we had a panel of representatives from several different communities, and one question asked of them was to name the greatest sin facing our world today. What struck me is that all of them, in some form or another, kept saying fear of scarcity and the subsequent hoarding of resources and inequality. That fear separates the haves and the have nots, the privileged and the oppressed, those who are citizens and those who are struggling to become citizens. As one panelist suggested, I think the majority of the world’s “isms” and phobias would begin to fade away if we learned to fear less and trust God more.

But I also want to acknowledge, at least for myself, that it’s hard to trust. This summer I had the opportunity to preach on the passage of Mark’s gospel that immediately precedes the feeding of the five thousand. It tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. At that time, Herod threw a banquet for his birthday, and at that banquet, his stepdaughter danced to entertain the party guests. In return, Herod promised to give her whatever she asked for. So she went to her mother to confer. Now her mother had a tiny grudge against John the Baptist because he had called out Herod, her husband, for marrying her, who happened to be his brother’s wife. So she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Herod reluctantly complied.

I tell that story to highlight the fact that there are two back-to-back banquets in Mark’s gospel. There’s Herod’s banquet that ends in death, and then there’s Jesus’s banquet that ends in life-sustaining goodness and abundant leftovers. I don’t think that juxtaposition is just a coincidence.

I think it’s a reminder that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. I think Herod, who was in a position of power, was afraid of losing his authority and the respect of the people. And as a Jew himself, I think he was afraid because John called him out for his marriage that stood in violation of Torah. And so out of fear, Herod had John silenced.

But we know God’s way is vastly different from Herod’s way. Where Herod’s way is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death, God’s way is always concerned for the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed, the immigrant. God’s way is disarming and unexpected. It comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall, it comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi, it comes to us in the form of crucified Savior, and it comes to us finally in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s way ends in life.

And in the second banquet, God’s way also says there is enough. And it stands in stark contrast to Herod’s fear of losing power and control and to our fear of scarcity and the subsequent hoarding of resources. When we, like the disciples, want to send the crowds away to go get their own food because, gosh darn it, we worked hard for what we have and so should everyone else, we hear Jesus’s simple instructions, “You give them something to eat.” It’s incumbent on us to love our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves, and to care for and protect those who are the most vulnerable. That’s why we’re here today, and it’s why you keep showing up here every Friday.

Theologian Paul Tillich has referred to sin as separation. What we’re doing here today is protesting the separation of families and loved ones who are simply trying to take their place at the banquet table and fully realize their inherent, God-given sacred worth and dignity. When we turn back our sisters and brothers who come to this country seeking a better life, we are separating ourselves from our fellow human beings. If separation is sin, then this practice of deportation is sinful.

Back to campus ministry: One week we decided to host a meal in the middle of the month, made possible by a very generous donation. We had a beautiful spread of fried chicken and all the usual suspects on the side. But it deviated from our schedule, and no one knew about it. We had two people show up. There was obviously more than enough, and so we took the food to the streets and hand delivered it.

“Christ of Maryknoll” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

That’s the other great part of the gospel. Just as it readily welcomes all, it also actively pursues all, as the psalmist writes: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23.6). And so we openly welcome all, and we actively seek all, and we pray for our sisters and brothers being sent away this day and everyday around the country. We know that God’s justice says that all eat and are filled and that all are welcome at the table because we know that there is enough. I pray for the day that we let go of fear and recognize that unfailing abundance.

Amen.