Sunday, May 25, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "40,000 Quilts"

Mark 5:35 to 39

While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?” 36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” (Common English Bible)

“I Say to You, Arise: The Gospels’ Least Known Resurrection Story,” Week Three

The National Mall in Washington D.C. is not a mall you go shopping at.  Its vast expanse covers the land between the Capitol Steps and the Washington and Lincoln Memorials (1.2 and 1.9 miles in distance, respectively), and it remains a space to gather, assemble, and inspire surrounded by some of the most majestic symbols of the United States.  And on one October day 18 years ago, one such opportunity took place: over 40,000 handmade quilts, each of them 90 by 180 centimeters in size, were spread out over the entire length and breadth of the National Mall.


Each quilt represented the soul of one person who had died of HIV/AIDS.  40,000 is a mere fraction, though, compared to the over 340,000 AIDS victims to that point in time.  The true gravity of the circumstance was captured thusly by Peter Stepan:

Paul Margolies (the photographer) had to climb into a helicopter to get a full view of the scale of the demonstration…Over a million visitors reportedly streamed into the city on that October weekend to view the world’s largest communal textile project.

Life partners and parents, siblings and friends worked together to create the quilts.  In memory of the deceased, each included small symbols: mementos such as baseball caps, jackets, teddy bears and other animals; flowers and phrases were sewn onto pieces of fabric that matched the dimension and style of inscription commonly found on tombstones, only more imaginative and far more personal…eight quilts were stitched together to form larger pieces laid out in strict symmetry with space in between for visitors to walk among the quilts and look closely at each one.  The American tradition of the patchwork quilt provided to be the inspiration for the AIDS quilts; groups of people meeting to sew blankets in memory and honor of deserving individuals.

And thus, in this way, I have to think that the families and friends of 40,000 souls achieved that which all of us long for in memorializing our deceased loved ones, but that which not enough of us ever find: a way to ensure that their deaths are not total, and their departures are not permanent.  But that rather, like the daughter of Jairus, their physical forms are but sleeping, taken down suddenly by an illness, waiting to be awakened by a Messiah who is Lord and Savior of us all.

Easter is not just a day on the calendar for the church—it is a season on the calendar.  After all, according to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Jesus walked the earth for forty days after His resurrection.  All forty of those days were about the victory of God over death, not just the first day.  And so the church traditionally has kept those 40 (to 50) days after Easter as a season called, appropriately enough, Eastertide.  And so as part of our ongoing celebration of Easter and of the empty tomb, I typically elect to create a sermon series for those Sundays specific to the themes of resurrection and new life.  Two years ago, if you’ll recall, we went through probably the second most-famous resurrection (after that of Jesus Himself) in the Gospels—the raising of Lazarus as depicted in John 11.  One year ago, we spent a Sunday apiece on the reactions to the news of the empty tomb by the different disciples—Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, and so on.  This year, we’re returning more to the mold of two years ago in that we are going through another resurrection story, except this one is probably the least renowned of them all: the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5.  Why that is probably has to do with a variety of reasons, but we’ll be trying to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we go through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and Sunday, June 1).  We began this series by digging into the details Mark offers in his exposition of this scene—details that might escape us in a 21st-century American context as opposed to a 1st-century Israelite context—and then Mark took what appears to be a digression from the plot at hand to tell us the story of a woman being miraculously healed—and subsequently blessed—by Jesus.  We return now to the original plot point of Jairus and his deceased daughter.

How this story originally began was not with a request for a resurrection, but a request for a healing.  At least as of verse 23, when Jairus uses the term “that she may be made well,” his daughter seems to still be very much among the living.  But now, twelve verses later, by the time we arrive at Jairus’ abode, his daughter has died.

On the surface it might seem easy to blame the intrusion of the anonymous woman who touched Jesus’s clothing unbeknownst to Him as delaying Jesus in His primary mission of mercy.  And it would be easy to do that because mistakes are very easy to make.  In the other resurrection miracle Jesus performs (not including His own resurrection on Easter Sunday), He actually waits some time before traveling down to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, because that way Lazarus will have been dead for so long it will silence the voices of any potential naysayers claiming a misdiagnosis.  In other words, such healing and resurrection tends to occur on God’s timetables, not our own.

There is another reason, though: much like with Jesus’ own resurrection, the resurrection is quite simply more profound than the alternative.  Yes, Jesus almost certainly could have healed this girl.  But raising her from the dead, as we will see next week, adds a whole other dimension of depth to the whole affair.  Similarly, if Jesus had simply come down from the cross, as His mockers demanded, it might have been chalked up as a miracle, but surely nowhere near to the degree that His resurrection was and is.

Whatever the reason, though, the fact remains: the girl is dead, and hope is abandoned.  Why trouble the teacher any further, they ask Jairus, and they may well be us asking Jairus this.  Why bother Jesus?  There is no hope to be had, so what’s the point in trying?

Well…much like when a family loses a loved one for any reason but especially to an AIDS epidemic that was for years shamed by society at large and especially the church, you come to realize that there is a point in trying to achieve your own minor miracles of resurrection.  You try to keep your loved one alive in any way possible, and when all physical remedies have been exhausted, you turn to the emotional, mental, and spiritual realms to keep them alive and well in this world.

It is why 40,000 quilts blanketed one of the most iconic parks in the country.  It is why we see images shared on social media this weekend of veterans playing cards and pouring drinks at the tombstones of their fallen comrades.  It is why we tell stories and write poems and sing songs in memory of another.

It is because we, too, try to ensure that our dead are not dead, but are only sleeping.

Were we to take Jesus’ words too literally here, we would agonize over this part of the story.  Is Jesus diminishing the miracle He is about to perform?  Why would He scold a mourning family who legitimately thought their daughter was dead for weeping and making a commotion?

These dilemmas are easily put out to pasture by this succinct line from New Testament scholar Ralph Martin: “Jesus calls death by the tender word, “sleep”; not to deny that she was dead but to promise that He had come to awaken her.”

Therein lies the difference between Jesus’ efforts and our own: we can only maintain the emotional and spiritual weight of a loved one who is but sleeping.  But Jesus restores it in its entirety.  That is why Jesus says what He says: it is not a misdiagnosis of the girl; in fact, in the absence of Jesus it would be the correct diagnosis.  But in the hands of Jesus, death is little more than silly putty.  It is no longer death, or even hibernation.  It is merely sleep, the kind you take on a Saturday afternoon.

We can maintain the spiritual presence of our dead in our mourning, but we cannot awaken them.  Jairus, in his Ancient Near East custom, tries to maintain that spiritual presence through his mourning as well: the people weeping and wailing loudly in verse 38 were likely professional mourners, people who would be paid by a family to make a public commotion over the death of a person to show just how important they were and how much they will be missed (the irony of having to pay people to do this was lost on the ancient aristocracy, I guess).  Jairus cannot have his daughter in physical form, so the best that he can do is to maintain her importance in another way, in the socially prescribed way of making a really big scene out of it.

And in this way, I suppose, we do the same when we stretch 40,000 quilts across the span of the National Mall.  Only I have to believe that the quilts were a far more dignified way of going about it.  Jesus questions the mourners for making a commotion, but there is no such commotion made in the laying out of a quilt.  And the quilt, in speaking directly to the uniqueness of the person remembered, offers a path of memorial that a show of wailing and gnashing of teeth likely cannot.

How we choose to remember our loved ones matters a great deal.  And if thus far this message has sounded far more like a sermon that you might hear at a funeral than on a Sunday morning, well, that might be entirely true.  But we also do ourselves a disservice when the only times we talk about death are at the moment of death, or, in the case of Jairus and his daughter, at the moment of what we think of as death.

Because what Jesus saves us from is not ourselves, or the world, or even sin.  What He can also save us from is death’s permanence.  He can resuscitate us, revive us, renew us, resurrect us, whatever the term is you want to use, He is who can give us life anew…not a shadow of our life as it once was, or a memory suspended by the fragile, fraying threads of time, but the genuine article, the real deal.  A new life, and all that it entails.

And that is the message of hope that this portion of the passage ends with.  We haven’t reached the actual act of resurrection yet (that will come next week, so stay tuned), but we know what is about to happen.  Not just to the little girl whose life was snuffed out in a big damn hurry at so young an age, but to us all once we hear the voice of Jesus Christ whispering in our ears to each of us, “You are not dead, but merely sleeping.”  Let Him awaken you today.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 24, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment