Struggling to Heal
A sermon preached by The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
June 28, 2015
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8, Year B
What a week! As the New Yorker appropriately and simply titled a post to their website two days ago – Ten Days in June. They wrote “What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace.”
The week opened with our nation still in grief over the brutality we beheld in Charleston, and then it exploded with two landmark decisions by the Supreme Court – one upholding again and preserving healthcare for millions of Americans, and then the second forever changing the map on where same-sex marriages would be recognized, ensconcing in law that love is love no matter where you live. As the week was winding down we found ourselves at a funeral for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the 9 people whose lives were tragically cut short by hatred and racism in Charleston, and our President became a preacher – reminding us of the immeasurable grace of God and calling on us to not rest complacently with that grace, but to allow it to inspire us to acts of courageous love and healing.
But, wait, it isn’t over – when all of that had ended, we got word yesterday, from somewhere out in Salt Lake City that the Right Reverend Michael Curry, was elected our new Presiding Bishop. He will be the first African American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the first time a bishop has been elected on the first ballot. And, perhaps more important, we have elected as a Presiding Bishop, someone who is known, not only within our church, but to the world beyond, first and foremost as a preacher. He is a gifted leader and pastor and theologian, passionate about evangelism and social justice, but he is among the most skilled homilists in the world, a spiritual communicator of the highest order. In electing him, we are calling upon someone whose words can inspire and exhort, lift up and heal our church. And, now more than ever, it is comfort and healing we seek – not just from the divisions within our church, but from all the wounds and sickness that infects our world.
As I watched the news this week, in each case, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges our country faces, how much that we need to heal from. And it was with these challenges and divisions in mind that I read this morning’s gospel, the story of resurrection and healing.
In one of the more detailed accounts from Mark, we find Jesus once again surrounded by a pressing crowd. A synagogue leader named Jairus fights through the crowd and falling at his feet begs of Jesus to come heal his daughter who is at home sick and fighting for her life. Having compassion, Jesus immediately follows Jairus to his home. Along the way, there is a smaller vignette – a woman, sick for many years with a hemorrhage believes that just in touching Jesus’ garments she will be healed of her disease, and so she does, and she is. And, as Jesus is speaking with the woman, Jairus’ daughter dies, so that when they arrive at the house, they are already in mourning. Yet, Jesus is not dissuaded from his task – entering the room with the girl, he assures the mourners and her parents that he can raise her from death as waking someone from sleep, and taking her hand, he bids her rise, and she does!
As I sat with these stories, I couldn’t help but see how fraught with struggle both of them are – how both Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage wrestle through the crowd, how the clamor of the world seems almost chaotic, and how both must insist and press to find their healing and wholeness. Simultaneously, I was struck by how effortlessly and easy the power to heal and revive seems to flow from Jesus, as if by grace.
“Grace is the free and benevolent favor of God” said our President this week “as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.” And, as he reminded us too, rarely does our faith speak of healing and grace without a sense of the wider work of God, and the connection of our lives to those of others. When we hear of healing in the gospels, it is always connected to the wider narrative of the kingdom of God, that beloved community where all are made well.
Many of you probably heard or read on NPR this week the eloquent reflection of Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika in his Dispatch from Charleston. Kumanyika is an activist and artist and he had come to Charleston with his wife to participate in the funeral for Walter Scott, an unarmed African American slain by a police officer after a routine traffic stop back in April. While he was in Charleston, Kumanyika attended a vigil with thousands of others in mourning for the victims of Emanuel AME church. A clergy person leading the vigil said a prayer and invited the attendees to take the hand of the person nearest them and to join together in singing “We Shall Overcome”. And, Kumanyika tells how he turned to find a kindly looking white woman next to him, smiling and offering her hand, and he says he froze. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t reach out his hand and take hers – because she was white. As he noted, the experience of healing would not flow both ways. While she and the thousands of white people gathered that evening would no doubt take solace and comfort in the act of joining hands, black and white, rich and poor, as a symbol that we might indeed overcome, he knew in his heart that the healing would not be equally distributed. He says that even as he took her hand, he thought of his black brothers and sisters around the stadium and around the city, and wondered what comfort and healing could he bring to them in this gesture. Kumanyika says, “I can’t promise them that things will change, that their sons and daughters will make it to happy, healthy adulthoods, that one day they won’t have to work in brutal heat for insultingly low pay or that a police officer or angry young white man won’t snuff out their happiness in a single instant. I could offer them a hand, too, but I can’t offer real comfort.” There is no easy answer, no easy healing.
No, healing comes by struggle and it comes by grace. Whether the wound is poverty and a lack of access to healthcare or whether it be the sickness of homophobia and racism, we press in to find healing, we reach out our hand for a touch, and we experience it by grace.
You might have missed it amidst the flurry of news this week, but the family of Matthew Shepard released a letter this week, which they received from Coretta Scott King in 1998 in the days following their sons violent and untimely death. Her words to them then echo with words we’ve been hearing out of Charleston this week.
She writes “The epidemic brutality that took your son’s life and has caused so much pain to your family must be confronted and stopped. Americans of conscience must work a lot harder to eliminate this sick culture of violence that threatens even our best and brightest.”
We must struggle – that grace, which our president illuminated, which comes from Jesus the healer, is bestowed without merit and without choice – yet, as he said, “It’s our decision how to honor it.”
We who have felt the touch of Jesus, who have experienced blessings and grace beyond measure, we are called to never cease in the struggle – to confront hatred with our voice and our lives, to march and agitate and to give generously and with our whole selves, to become grace for others in the fight for justice and equality and healing.
It has been said this week many times that love wins. But, my friends, love can only win if we share it – if we, like Jesus, “though he was rich…became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” can shoulder some of the discomfort, some of the suffering, of this moment so that in the days to come we might all equally share in the comfort and healing of God.