Sermon Seeds: Brushing Up Against Grace

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 8)


Lectionary citations:
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 with Psalm 130 or
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 or Lamentations 3:23-33 with Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Worship resources for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year B, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 8) are at Worship Ways

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Mark 5:21-43
Additional reflection on Mark 5:21-43: “Faith and the Vulnerability of Children” by Brooks Berndt
Additional reflection on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Focus Theme:
Brushing Up Against Grace

by Kathryn Matthews

Our New Testament professor in seminary taught us to read the Gospels between the lines and behind the words. There’s so much meaning there, in the text, right before our eyes and yet we quite often miss it entirely. For example, the crossings over the sea: whenever I read or heard about them, I focused more on the small picture, what was happening to people, right then, when Jesus arrived at his destination. There was always plenty to concentrate on, but the bigger picture escaped my attention.

What did it mean, my professor would ask, that the crossings were stormy? And what did it mean that one side of the sea was Jewish territory, and the other Gentile? Can you feel the tension and the risk, even danger, in going somewhere less hospitable, less comfortable, less safe? If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, would you have needed anyone to set the scene for you?

Feeling the tension

Probably not, she said; you would have felt the tension as you listened to the story. Think of border crossings into North Korea or Syria or Iran today: the danger they hold and the international crises they provoke. And what about the border crossings on our minds every day, during this most recent immigration crisis?

In addition, the storms and the risks were something the early Christians would have understood metaphorically as they faced challenges in their life as the church, taking the risk of opening itself and reaching out to that “other,” the Gentiles. It wasn’t an easy crossing for them, either, just as it isn’t for us, today, when we reach across the boundaries that separate us from our own version of “the other.”

This tension runs underneath the narrative in many of the stories in the Gospel of Mark. After spending time on Jesus’ preaching with words, Mark turns to the way Jesus preached with his actions, in a sense, showing, not just telling people what the reign of God looks like. Jesus goes back and forth across the sea, doing many works of wonder and yet not always receiving a warm reception. Another theme that runs throughout these stories is really a way of describing that reception: faith, or no faith. Faith, or fearfulness. Faith, or confusion or hard-headedness or maybe even hard-heartedness.

The point between faith and fear

Our text this week sits on that point between faith and fear as it tells us two stories in one, both of them taking place on “this” side of the sea, after Jesus has returned from Gentile territory where he was (perhaps politely but definitely with fear) asked to leave. Fear, not rejoicing, was the response of the people who witnessed the spectacular and very public healing of a man who had unclean spirits; surprisingly, they didn’t flock to Jesus in hope of more miracles.

In contrast, the former demoniac wanted to leave everything behind and follow him. In that case, we get to hear about what happens later to someone whom Jesus has healed, and how his life has been transformed: he goes about the countryside telling everyone what Jesus has done for him, “amazing everyone.”

Two stories in one

This week’s passage contains two stories that are, for very good reason, woven into one. Just as the sea crossings hold more meaning than might first appear, this narrative of healing and restoration of life is full of contrasts and connections that weave the two incidents together tightly. You might say that these two incidents together help us to understand each of them.

Both stories involve women in crisis–in fact, we don’t know them by their names but by their needs–both “daughters” of Abraham, not outsiders to begin with but now both subject to the taboos around the mysterious power of life (blood) and the even more mysterious (and seemingly unconquerable) power of death. There were those who believed that bleeding women and dead girls should be avoided, at the risk of conveying their uncleanness to others.

Twelve years and new life

The number twelve is significant in Jewish thought (for example, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles), so it’s no coincidence that the woman has been bleeding (and therefore cut off from life) for twelve years. Richard Swanson says that blood is “the place that God’s first breath is understood to inhabit a human being, the place also from which we give life back.” He finds it intriguing that the word “flow” could also be translated as “river,” as “this woman’s life is swept along by a condition that persists for far too many years” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).

However, I think a better word for her is tired. A flow of blood for ten years would exhaust a person, as if her life force, her vitality, were draining away. On top of that would be the discomfort and, worst of all, the feeling of isolation that comes with uncleanness and the taboos around it. And yet Jesus ignores the taboo for the sake of relationship and, perhaps, for honor.

Letting himself be sidetracked

Jesus doesn’t permit this touch to remain an anonymous, passive healing on his part; he lets himself be sidetracked from hurrying to the synagogue leader’s home long enough to find the person who has reached out to him with a touch that’s more specific, more intentional, than merely jostling him in the crowd. Perhaps the crowd wanted to get near a celebrity, but this woman was reaching for her life. Jesus felt both her weariness and her deep hope. How could he simply walk away?

The other nameless woman in need is barely a woman, just twelve years old (that means the older woman has been bleeding during this girl’s entire lifetime) and ready to begin adult life, ready, in her own turn, to produce life through children. However, an unknown illness has struck her down, driving her father to extremes in his desperate search for help.

A person of importance

He’s a person with a measure of prestige, respected in his community, accustomed no doubt to being listened to by people not as highly placed as he was, people without his knowledge and the power that it brings.

However, while this man is “an important person,” a religious leader, his precious child’s illness has reduced him to falling to the ground in front of a traveling folk healer in a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst from happening. This man’s name is known to us: Jairus. Megan McKenna tells us that his name (onomati ‘Iairos) in Greek is “a clue to what is going to happen”: it means “he who will be awakened or he is enlightened” (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).

Courage to love in spite of risk

I once read in a history book that people before the scientific age often did not allow themselves to get too attached emotionally to their children, because so many of them, before vaccinations, hospitals, and prenatal care, died young. John Pilch observes that in Jesus’ time “60 percent of live births usually died by their mid-teens” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B), which suggests that those parents were simply insulating themselves from hurt.

The gift of a child must have seemed too precarious to invest in wholeheartedly, yet this man couldn’t bear to lose his little girl even, Charles Campbell writes, “at a time when daughters were not valued as much as sons” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). By going to this itinerant preacher-healer who was already in trouble with the authorities (authorities like him, in fact, his colleagues and perhaps even his friends), he risks being ridiculed, and he also risks missing the last few precious moments in his daughter’s life.

Something that might change their whole lives

It seems to me that desperation, more than faith, drives the synagogue leader to Jesus (it will be helpful to remember this in a few weeks when we read the story of the Syrophoenician woman), and his moment of faith comes a little while later, when the news arrives of his daughter’s death. Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, then preaches the “shortest sermon of his career: ‘Do not fear,’ he says to the grief-besotted man, ‘only believe.'”

Do not fear; only believe. Taylor says this sermon was not just for Jairus’ benefit, and not just for the early church Mark addressed, but for “all of us who suffer from the human condition, who are up against things we cannot control” (“One Step at a Time” in The Preaching Life).

The narrative is so spare, and we wonder what’s going on in the minds of those in the story: the synagogue leader, both worried and hurried; Jesus, who might have had other plans but has dropped everything, silently, and has gone with the father in distress; the disciples, struggling as usual just to keep up; and the crowd, watching all of this, all of them hoping for something, whether it’s just for a good show or something much greater, something that might change their lives.

Making room on the agenda for even more compassion

Into the midst of all of this comes the silent woman with a hemorrhage, without the religious leader’s boldness, simply hoping for one healing touch. Faithfulness or fear, desperation or hope: there’s no alternative for either one of these people, and they do whatever they have to do, whatever it takes, for the sake of healing and new life. We can connect this woman with the young girl at home, who lies dying, but we can also connect her with three other nameless women in Mark’s Gospel.

Gérald Caron notes that, like this woman, “the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-31), the poor widow (12:41-44), and the anointing woman (14:3-8)” are all positive models of faith in contrast to the (named) male disciples. In their “initiative, boldness, theological insight,” Caron writes, they embody what it means to be a disciple (Mark in the Lectionary). You might say that they “get” who Jesus is.

“Jesus the Multi-tasker”

Right there, on the road to one work of mercy, “Jesus the Multi-tasker,” as Beverly Zink-Sawyer calls him, encounters another person in need. His mission is interrupted, no doubt upsetting the synagogue leader who is, understandably, in a rush to get Jesus to his home. Matthew Skinner invites us to “consider a theology of interruptions….Grace means that God has no task more urgent than to bend to assist those who seek help” (New Proclamation Year B 2006).

How often do we have an agenda for our day that gets interrupted in unexpected (or predictable) ways, and find that our response to the interruption is more important than our original plans? Zink-Sawyer suggests that this text challenges us to consider our priorities, and who and what gets to the top of that list, and how we make that decision. Perhaps, she says, “those who are the most deserving of our attention may be the least visible ones” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3).

For Jesus, the most important thing in that moment is to face the person who has touched him, to encounter her as a human being and not just as an anonymous touch. Eugene Peterson’s offers his words in this way: “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague” (The Message). Like her, we long to “brush up against grace,” as our theme suggests.

Reaching down to lift up

Faith: during the delay, the synagogue leader gets the bad news that his daughter is already dead, and Jesus is no longer needed. “Never mind,” the messengers say, “it’s too late.” Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned with losing face in front of the crowd; instead, he speaks quietly, personally, to Jairus right then, reassuring him, according to Peterson again: “Don’t listen to them; just trust me.” When they arrive at Jairus’ home, they make “their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing casseroles” (The Message).

Perhaps Peterson makes the crowd sound like some of us church folks today, but Mark E. W. Edington reminds us that in those days it was the custom to have “hired mourners,” and Jesus speaks to them in much the same way he spoke to the disciples back in the boat, during the storm (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). Where is their faith?

On the other hand, Frederick Buechner’s sermon on this text is a bit more sympathetic to the mourners, who “wept and wailed because they didn’t have it in them to pretend that the death of a child is anything but the tragic and unspeakable thing that it is, and Jesus didn’t say anything to make them change their minds, didn’t tell them that it was God’s will or anything like that” (Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).

The possibility within the quiet

Unlike the noisy, dramatic, terrifying storm, it must have been a tender scene in that house, in the quiet that surrounds the sorrow for a dead child, yet Jesus is once again calm and confident. Instead of raising his hand to command the sea to calm down, he reaches down to invite the little girl to rise up and live. This is one of those times when Jesus uses a formula, as was the practice of ancient healers, John Pilch writes. “The fact that the Greek Gospel retains Jesus’ Aramaic words ‘Talitha cum‘ reflects the ancient belief that power is in the original words and not the translation” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B).

And the little girl does get up “immediately,” and walks around, to the amazement of all. Jesus has to be the one to remember that she might be hungry after her ordeal, and tells them to feed her. He misses neither the big, dramatic picture, nor the most ordinary details, of compassion.

No easy answers here

One can not read this text and easily avoid the question of faith and healing, or the related question of prayer. Most painfully, we ask why everyone who suffers is not healed, even when they do have faith, even when they pray and believe and trust God. This question is most painful when it comes from your own child as he watches his little girl, his beloved daughter, suffer with a life-threatening illness. Speaking from experience: neither the pastor nor the mother finds an easy answer at such a moment.

Many of the commentators (especially those writing with a pastoral voice) wrestle mightily with these questions and find no easy answers in this text. However, perhaps our question ought to be, “Why is Mark telling us this story?” Barbara Brown Taylor, among others, sees Mark’s purpose as establishing Jesus’ identity, for these stories tell us “who God is, and how God acts, and what God is like.”

According to Taylor, Mark is saying “‘This man is the son of God. Believe it.'” Holding on to that knowledge would sustain Mark’s community and the church today, all of us, and give us “strength to meet the days to come….[and] not lose heart” (“One Step at a Time” in The Preaching Life).

Are we open to the generosity of God?

Scholars, then, take this opportunity to explore the tension in prayer itself, its “goal,” however shaky, of getting God to do what we want and give us the things we believe would be best for us, and its uncanny ability, on the other hand, to center us in God’s will, to be changed ourselves rather than thinking that we can change God, or God’s mind about things. Barbara Brown Taylor notes that Jesus himself prayed for a miracle, for deliverance from suffering, the night before he died. Still, he did God’s will and trusted God’s goodness all the way to the end (“The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels).

Both Taylor and Michael Lindvall help us, then, to see prayer in a different light, and Lindvall especially focuses on the deep relationship with God that prayer nurtures: “God’s mind may or may not be changed, but I–my mind and heart–may be” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3). Miracles are not always what we imagine, and neither is healing. In fact, John Pilch takes a broader view, reminding us that healing might be experienced as “the restoration of meaning to people’s lives no matter what their physical condition might be” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B).

Trust and openness

It seems to me that the scholars are reading in this text a lesson about trust and openness. They find in this story a basis for our lives to led in ways that are generous: generous with ourselves and with what we have, with our time and our money and our gifts, generous and open to those who come into our lives (note the reading from 2 Corinthians about generosity and sharing).

Megan McKenna reminds us that Jairus’ daughter lies dying today in little girls jeopardized by illness, lack of food and water and the necessities of life, the safety and security they deserve. It is no great leap, this month, to lift up the plight of little girls kept in places we are not permitted to see, on our own border, little girls considered beyond the circle of our shared concern.

How many daughters lie dying?

What sort of miracle would it take for us to transform the world’s systems, and the hearts of its people, so that all children in need can rise up to new life? We might feel overwhelmed by the suffering of children around the world, and find ourselves accepting it, if only passively, out of our helplessness. However, McKenna observes, Jesus reminds us that all of these suffering people are on God’s mind: “[Jesus] refuses,” she writes, “to accept that human misery and the human processes of begetting and child-bearing, of being ill and dying, put one outside God’s concern” (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether they are outside the circle of our concern. Jesus refuses to keep himself removed from those who are declared unclean by religious authorities. Fred Craddock sees a call for the church in this story, and he hears a call in this text for the church as it considers the way it treats all of God’s children (Preaching through the Christian Year B). Clearly, Jesus calls us to follow in his ways. How well do you think we are doing with that?

Rising up from “partial” life

Barbara Brown Taylor and Frederick Buechner have both written beautiful sermons on this text that bring the scene alive before our eyes. Buechner is tender as he puts us in the place of the little girl, as Jesus speaks to us, taking our hand and telling us to rise up and live: “You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could….’Get up,’ he says, all of you–all of you!” Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are “only partly alive…who much of the time live with our lives closed to the…wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.” That, Buechner says, is the power at the heart of this story and all of our stories: “the power of new life, new hope, new being” (“Jairus’s Daughter” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).

Whether we take notice or not, miracles happen around us every day, and “every single breath we take,” Taylor writes, “is a free surprise from God. Faith does not work miracles. God does.” And every miracle, she says, gives a taste of the reign of God that is to come (“The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels).

What miracles have you seen in your own life? What miracles have you missed, only to perceive them as such much later? Do we participate in miracles, or do they just happen to us? How might this story apply to the life of a congregation today? Are there churches that appear to be dying or even dead, that might yet “rise up and live”? Why do you think Jesus let the woman with a hemorrhage delay him on his way to the house of the synagogue leader? Are there many ways that new life can be experienced?


The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 20th century
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, 21st century
“The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.”

William Paul Young, The Shack, 21st century
“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 20th century
“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”

Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.”

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, 21st century
“‘I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.'”

Cecelia Ahern, The Gift, 21st century
“‘What is it with science these days? Everyone is so quick to believe in it, in all these new scientific discoveries, new pills for this, new pills for that. Get thinner, grow hair, yada, yada, yada, but when it requires a little faith in something you all go crazy.’ He shook his head, ‘If miracles had chemical equations then everyone would believe.'”

Noah Benshea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom For a Complicated World, 21st century
“A miracle is often the willingness to see the common in an uncommon way.”

David Kinnaman, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters, 21st century
“Surprisingly, the Christian faith today is perceived as disconnected from the supernatural world–a dimension that the vast majority of outsiders believe can be accessed and influenced.”

Gary Rudz, 21st century
“No one ever sees or hears a miracle when they are talking over it.”

Ben Okri, 21st century
“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”

Additional reflection on Mark 5:21-43: “Faith and the Vulnerability of Children”
by Brooks Berndt

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, we are faced with the agonizing vulnerability of a 12-year old girl who has fallen ill. The father of the girl begs for Jesus to lay hands on her, but while en route to the family’s house, Jesus is delayed by the healing of a woman who had been hemorrhaging blood for 12 years. At first, this delay appears costly. Jesus is informed that the girl has died. When he arrives, the house is in full commotion, weeping, and loud wailing. The finality of death seems to define the moment until Jesus announces that all is not lost for the girl is asleep and not dead. Upon Jesus’s instruction, she rises.

The theme running throughout this narrative is that of faith: faith in God despite the circumstances. Scholars have suggested that the repeated use of the number twelve for the age of the girl and the duration of the woman’s hemorrhaging suggests that this story is ultimately a metaphor for the faith of Israel with its twelve tribes.

Faith can be a tricky matter to evoke. One does not want to offer false hopes amid tragedy. Yet, this is partially a matter of how one defines both faith and God. If faith is about trust and fidelity in relationship to God, and if God is ultimately defined by love, then the matter of faith is about counting on the unfailing tenacity of love even in the valley. While this faith does not always come easy, I have never found it to be false.

Whether it is the vulnerability of children due to immigration policies, climate change, or environmental racism, our nation faces a time that calls for faith, faith in what God’s love can do even in the face of suffering and evil. May we be vessels and vehicles of that love wherever we might be. In the process, may we not only find hope but give hope to others along the way.

The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ. He writes a column called “For the Love of Children” that recently launched with The Letter Manifesto: Children and Climate.

Additional reflection on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27:
by Kathryn Matthews

For nine Sundays in a row this summer, the lectionary readings from the Hebrew Scriptures come from the books of First and Second Samuel, so it’s most helpful to sit down and read through these books as one narrative, getting the feel of it as a whole and the sense of it as a picture of a people, especially but not only King David, as they strive to live their lives, their story, within God’s story.

Note: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could read entire books of the Bible in worship on Sunday? Instead, we face the challenge of interpreting and conveying the power of short excerpts, passages that give us snapshots here and there, along the way of a flowing stream of narrative.

An excellent way to approach the narrative is to read Eugene Peterson’s wonderful rendering in The Message, which tells the story in such a way that one can hardly put it down. It would be easy to see these texts as about specific characters like David, Saul, Jonathan, Samuel, and Nathan (the most familiar), or the more obscure figures of Amnon, Tamar, Absalom, and Gad, not to mention the unnamed figures like the young soldier who delivers the news of the death of Saul and Jonathan, and is executed on the spot by David for his presumption in killing God’s anointed, Saul, even though the dying king had begged the young soldier to end his misery.

Living our lives in the larger story of God

Whether or not we have time or opportunity to read First and Second Samuel from beginning to end (they were originally just one book, divided in half because of their length), Eugene Peterson’s introduction to these books sets the stage for how we might approach these sometimes violent, often troubling stories, our own stories. Peterson refers to the familiar characters named above whose lives are “large because they live in the largeness of God…God is the country in which they live.”

While their lives and many of their deeds are hardly exemplary, like those of saints, they do have something to teach us, or to remind us of, because their stories, Peterson says, “are immersions into the actual business of living itself: this is what it means to be human.” These stories, Peterson says, show us the reality of how we live rather than how we ought to live, and yet God uses even our flawed lives and experiences in accomplishing God’s greater purposes.

In fact, while God is not mentioned often, it’s clear that “God is the commanding and accompanying presence that provides both plot and texture to every sentence,” and “we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but to see our stories in God’s” (The Message).

“Our story in God’s story”

Keeping all this in mind helps as we make our way through the narrative. It’s hardly difficult to see our story in God’s story when we read of David’s exquisite grief over the death of his intimate friend, Jonathan, and Jonathan’s father, King Saul. It is ironic that David grieves over Saul, when Saul had been out to get David for some time, driven by resentment and a sickness of heart that led him to strike out repeatedly at his successor. Still, David mourns the death of God’s anointed one and pays him the honor that is his due, composing a lament that reflects David’s well-known artistic soul and poetic gifts.

Here, at the beginning of Second Samuel, then, we have death, we have disbelief (“How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan died?” David asks the messenger), we have anger and striking out (the execution of the soldier bearing this news), and then we have grief poured out in a dirge by the future king. Within this short episode we find notes struck about the friendship between David and Jonathan, the respect paid by David to the king (whether he was noble or not), and the depths of sadness not only about the loss of a friend or the death of a ruler but about the tragedy of war itself.

Inspiring a lament

“How the mighty have fallen,” indeed, and yet the blood of the mighty is rarely shed any more, and no longer flows with the blood of the unnamed, the soldiers unknown except to their loved ones back home, the children and innocent civilians killed in war (collateral damage, they’re called–could there be a more impersonal term?), those who cannot get out of the way of human beings bent on violence and destruction. It is enough to inspire a lament!

And yet our souls, even apart from war, know what it is to want to cry out in pain from grief, depression, and loss. In this, we share David’s story, too, for he knew how to sing and pray (it’s easy to understand why the psalms were attributed to this poetic soul) when he was encompassed by pain.

Grief bears down on us

What is the grief bearing down on you, or the sense of loss that has at times encompassed you? When have you felt the loss of a friend, to death or betrayal? How have you experienced war and the destruction it causes? When have you felt yourself seized by disbelief, by anger, by grief, and how did you express it? When have you gone “into the depths”? In what ways were you able to pray, or unable to do so?

This lament by David is not overtly religious and yet it does come from the deepest part of his soul, which makes it a kind of prayer. In what ways have the members of your church experienced all these things? In what ways do you and your church experience your lives as part of God’s story, and what is God working out through the losses and griefs of your life?

Our shared tragedies

With each passing year, the list grows longer of violent deaths in our midst: the sorrows of Parkland, Las Vegas, and dozens more join Charleston (a church, of all places!), Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Staten Island in breaking our hearts, in addition to the countless “smaller” incidents of violence in our midst. How do we lament these deaths and yet resolve to draw up the courage and tenacity, with God’s help, to change hearts and minds and practices and laws in this country? Is grief enough? How will we rise up out of the depths of this sorrow to new life?

According to James Newsome, the friendship between David and Jonathan “became in the memory of ancient Israel the epitome of what human friendship should be” (Texts for Preaching Year B). This offers us an opportunity to think about friendship and loyalty, about selfless love and immeasurable grief. Jonathan, son of the king, had much to lose by David’s ascendance. And yet, he was loyal and loving to the end. Perhaps there are heroes and heroines in the Bible we have missed!

For further reflection:

José N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love, 21st century
“Tears shed for another person are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of a pure heart.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 19th century
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 21st century
“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”

Lectionary texts

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.

David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:
Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
   proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
   the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.

You mountains of Gilboa,
   let there be no dew or rain upon you,
   nor bounteous fields!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
   the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.

From the blood of the slain,
   from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
   nor the sword of Saul return empty.

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
   they were swifter than eagles,
   they were stronger than lions.

O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
   who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
   who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.

How the mighty have fallen
   in the midst of the battle!

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
   greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
   passing the love of women.

How the mighty have fallen,
   and the weapons of war perished!

Psalm 130

Out of the depths
   I cry to you, O God.
O God, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O God,
   should mark iniquities,
who could stand?

But there is forgiveness
   with you,
so that you may be revered.

I wait for God,
   my soul waits,
and in God’s word I hope;
   my soul waits for God
more than those who watch
   for the morning,
more than those who watch
   for the morning.

O Israel,
   hope in God!
For with God
   there is steadfast love,

With God is great power
   to redeem.
It is God who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.


Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24

[B]ecause God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.


Lamentations 3:23-33

[The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;] they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

Psalm 30

I will extol you,
   O God,
for you have drawn me up,
   and did not let my foes rejoice
over me.

O God my God,
   I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.

O God, you brought up my soul
   from Sheol,
restored me to life
   from among those gone down
to the Pit.

Sing praises to God,
   O you God’s faithful ones,
and give thanks
   to God’s holy name.

For God’s anger
   is but for a moment;
God’s favor is for a lifetime.

Weeping may linger
   for the night,
but joy comes
   with the morning.

As for me,
   I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”

By your favor,
   O God,
you had established me
   as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
   I was dismayed.

To you, O God,
   I cried,
and to you I made

“What profit is there
   in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?

“Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell
of your faithfulness?

Hear, O God,
   and be gracious to me!
O God, be my helper!”

You have turned my mourning
   into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
   and clothed me with joy,

so that my soul may praise you
   and not be silent.
O God my God,
   I will give thanks
to you forever.

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something — now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “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.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!