Sunday, July 1, 2018

Holy Spaces (Sermon)

“Holy Spaces”
Mark 5:21-43
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         When it comes to storytelling, songwriting, painting, sculpture, dance, virtually any kind of artistic endeavor, the spaces between matter as much as the objective content.
In The Creation, that famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo would have ruined the effect had he allowed God’s and Adam’s fingers touch. They have to be close enough to generate hopeful tension while leaving enough space to communicate the artist’s understanding of both God’s desire to create and the human being’s hunger to exist.
         I am in no way an aficionado of dance, but whenever I channel-surf past some show that has ballroom dancing, I do notice that the space between a dancing couple is a kind of third partner in the choreography. When the dancers fail to maintain that space, their dance can become either crowded and clumsy or distant and individualistic.
          When a singer is singing a song that has more to say than “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”, it’s crucial to slow the melody down in places, to include intervals for instrumentation, or even quick moments of silence. Those spaces allow for emotional energy to build or to release as needed.
         Advent and Lent are liturgical forms of this literary space. And while we often clutter them with loud anxiety, they’re meant as times to slow down and listen, times to allow God’s Spirit to leak into our awareness and humble us toward new understanding and purpose.
It seems to me that when we read the gospels, we tend to focus our attention on the objective events of Jesus’ life, and often ignore the spaces of doubt and the silences of awe without which revelation and transformation don’t seem to happen.
         Today’s text compresses two stories – the stories of Jairus and his daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage. And the reading begins with an invitation into holy space. “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side…” Do you feel that space opening up? “When Jesus had crossed…again…in the boat…to the other side.” In that phrase, Mark opens wide a space of possibility and anticipation. Remember, Jesus had just crossed this body of water, and when he did, there was an unforgettable storm and an even more unforgettable response to it by Jesus. Whenever gospel writers speak of Jesus crossing water, climbing a mountain, or being approached by someone, you can almost hear them saying, “Wait for it.”
         The spaces of memory are realms of holiness. They hold potential for newness, because they’re spaces of expectation and preparation. If we dwell in the spaces of Mark 5, we may realize that, like Jairus, we all have a 12-year-old girl within us or near us. As our own youthful innocence and hope, she stands at the threshold of full potential. And if she dies, something about us will die. We may become wild and unrestrainable, howling at the moon, bruising ourselves and others with stones. If she dies, our lamps may go out. If she dies, we may become rocky, thorny, hardscrabble ground, unfit for growing seeds.
All of those references come from earlier stories in Mark. By sharing them, Mark creates the spaces that prepare us to hear about Jairus humbling himself before Jesus and begging for help. Remember, Jairus is a man of influence, a leader of the community that helped to shape Jesus himself. Jairus’ actions scandalize the community, especially the leadership. But his desperate love for another makes him good soil. It makes him a bright light, even if it does drive him beyond the boundaries set by the law and its keepers.
         Then we meet a woman who, for 12 years, has experienced a hemorrhage. The specifics of her condition don’t matter. It’s enough to know that for 12 years – ever since Jairus’ daughter was born – this woman has been considered as good as dead in the eyes of community. Unclean and unwelcome, she has not been able to claim and live her own rightful humanity. So, she comes to Jesus, too. But unlike Jairus, whose humility throws him at Jesus’ feet in terrified anguish, her years of humiliation have numbed her to consequences. While the crowd may see her as a kind of vacant space, she represents a daring and holy fearlessness.
         Her actions say, Let the crowd do with me as they choose. They can’t do worse than they’ve already done. I will be healed or die trying. And when the woman touches Jesus’ robe, he feels part of himself pour out and fill what others had seen as an empty space, but which the woman knew was her own holy and beloved life.
         If we enter and engage the stories of Jesus’ life with even a hint of the artistry available to us as creatures made in the image of God, those stories will reveal more than some remembered event. They will deliver us into those holy and redeeming spaces where we begin to discover the unique terrain, demands, and blessings of new life in Christ.
         What might all this talk look like? At the beginning of this sermon, I suggested a few ways we might begin recognizing and interacting with sacred space in everyday life. And right now, let’s turn our attention to the communion table set before us. As we prepare for it, I’ll say some words so familiar that some of you could recite them right now. There are at least a couple of reasons for using the same words over and over. First, these familiar words connect us with the generations of Christians who have come before us and those who will follow. The liturgy of the Lord’s Supper is something that binds us to the whole community of saints – past, present and future.
         Second, by virtue of familiarity we don’t get too caught up in the words themselves. Sure, that can be a problem. They can slip past us like white noise. Then again, because we know them so well, we can sit with the words. They can become a kind of centering prayer that creates a space through which we enter into the mystery of the sacrament. So, when I invite us to the table, when I offer the prayer of thanksgiving, and speak the words of institution, try sitting with the words, the elements, and the people around you the way that you might sit with the 23rd Psalm, or John 3:16, or the Lord’s Prayer, or Amazing Grace.
         Listen, but don’t necessarily listen directly to me. The words are designed to create a space through which we enter into the creative and redeeming holiness of resurrection. It’s a healing space because in it the Spirit resuscitates that child within us. In that space our tired, discarded self is restored to community and, therefore, to life.
         This table is the very hem of Jesus’ robe. And when we gather around it, and when we eat and drink from it, when we touch it, it raises us up and fills us with the forgiving and transforming presence of God.