Sunday, June 1, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Talitha Koum"

Mark 5:40 to 43

They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (Common English Bible)

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

I have a confession for y’all (because confession is good for the soul, right?): I do my best to read our daily local newspaper, The Daily News (props on the super creative name, whoever came up with it 90 years ago).  I’m not always successful in keeping up with it, as you might know by sometimes telling me about story in it that I had not seen.  But the one section in the paper that I never miss, day in and day out, are the letters to the editor.

Now, it is a practice I began when I got here because I believed (and I still do) that letters to the editor can be a way for a pastor help keep their finger on the pulse of the wider community they minister in.  But here’s the real confession part: now, I kind of just read them because some of them are so, well, bizarre, like you just know that whoever wrote that letter is wearing a tinfoil hat and is eagerly anticipating the return of the mothership.  It’s fantastically amusing reading, in an odd way.

But one letter caught my eye several days ago, and not at all for the tinfoil hat reason.  Victoria Campbell is a senior at Mark Morris High School and a longtime pianist.  For her senior recital, she elected to invite the entire community and to solicit donations at the door for Community House, which all of you probably know as our biggest homeless shelter in town and an organization that this congregation aids as part of their mission.

I have to tell you, I was amazed.  Coming to read the letters with the more cynical attitude I had towards them, I did a double take when reading her’s, because, well, it’s so extraordinary.  And maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is.  In a section of the paper where grown adults quarrel with each other over this, that, and the other, here is a young woman saying to this community, and to an organization in need that serves those in need, what Jesus Himself said to a young woman two thousand years ago when raising her soul from the dead: “Talitha koum.”  I say to you, arise!

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 have worked to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we went through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and today).  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 returned last week to the original plot point of Jairus and his deceased daughter, and now we have arrived at the climax of the story: the actual miracle itself, and the gift of new life.

I have been referencing the Lazarus narrative as a vantage point for our familiarity with resurrection stories in the Gospels, especially if you were here for my sermon series on John 11 from two years ago (and if not, don’t worry…I had been here for less than a year, it certainly isn’t like I knew what I was doing!).  And in one of my sermons in that series, I briefly referenced this story, the Jairus story, as an aside.  This is, verbatim, what I said two years ago:

She (Martha) objects to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone at Lazarus’s tomb, saying, “Lord, there will be a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Which only serves to drive the point home—this is not, John is saying to us, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, of a person thought dead but who was actually sleeping, this is a person who is, without a doubt, deader than Lindsay Lohan’s Hollywood career.

I probably shouldn’t have included that sentence if I knew that two years later, I’d be preaching for four weeks on the story of Jairus’s daughter.  Or at least not put it that way.

I should have left it at the traditional rendering of that verse, which makes it one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture: “Lord, he stinketh.”  That John meant to convey to us with the “He stinketh” commentary was that Lazarus was without any if’s, and’s, or but’s, dead.  What I simply should have said was that this daughter has not been dead for as long, and in the absence of medical science to confirm death the way we do today, it may have allowed Jesus’ detractors to dismiss this resurrection as simply being a shaking back to consciousness of someone still very much among the living.

But we should still take the words of Jairus’s kinsfolk at face value that his daughter is dead, because it serves a crucial purpose to this entire affair: who in this story we are meant to relate to.  It may not be our instinct to relate to that state of being dead, but we’re meant to. The person who represents us, the audience, in this last part of the story is the daughter herself. Jesus, is calling to the deadness in our own souls—the absence of life in our own journeys that has been caused by hurt and pain and sin and strife. Amid the death that those things create, Jesus invites us to experience life by simply saying, “Talitha Koum.” 

“I say to you, arise!”

Eugene Lowry, an emeritus professor at Saint Paul School of Theology in my hometown of Kansas City, he calls it the “homiletical plot.” We would think of it in terms of the proverbial curveball—we see an obstacle coming, it looks like a fastball, but then it dips down, and it is up to us to adjust, and then we either swing and miss, or hit a home run. Professor Lowry calls these stages “upsetting the equilibrium,” which would be when Jairus’s daughter dies, the status quo has been altered. Then comes “analyzing the discrepancy,” which is a way of saying, “What are we going to do?” That took place during week two of the story, when Jesus and the disciples debate returning to Judea. Then there is learning “the clue to resolution,” discovering what it is that will solve the problem—which is us learning from Jesus that in His hands (as opposed to the world’s hands), this girl is not dead, but merely sleeping.  And now is best and greatest step—experiencing the Gospel—experiencing the Resurrection and the Life of Jesus Christ in this girl, and, by extension, in each of us as well.

Because when the equilibrium of our own lives is upset—when the delicate balance of health and work and finances and security that we are always carefully adjusting is thrown asunder, we are left asking, just like the disciples, “What are we going to do?” The answer from God is the same—experience the Gospel. Experience the Good News. Jairus and in particular his daughter experiences the Gospel and is shown the way out of death and into life—to simply arise and awaken!

It’s an exhortation that I imagine can be heard in any language.  You have to think every tongue has an expression that means “Wake up!”  It is one of the very few expressions of Jesus that was preserved by the Gospel writers in His native Aramaic language (as opposed to the Greek that the New Testament was written in), and that too I cannot imagine is an accident.  Its preservation in the original Aramaic speaks to the universality of this circumstance, of one person calling upon another person to arise and awaken.

It is not merely the language which is universal, either, but the circumstance: we all sleep, and we all must awaken.  But when we fall sleep to the ills of the world, to the sins and hurts that we inflict upon each other, to the evils and harms we stand by and allow to happen, we are oftentimes particularly difficult to rouse, to the point that we may not be able to rouse each other as easily as we could for another person taking a nap.

At that point, we need, desperately so, the voice of God ringing in our ears, “I say to you, arise!”  From whatever doldrums, from whichever slumber, from any sort of dormant state you find yourself in when confronted with the decision, “Do I use today to help build the Kingdom of God or not,” Jesus offers us a simple, elegant, firm, yet gentle rejoinder: I say to you, my beloved: arise.

Because the things that upset our own equilibrium that I talked about earlier, those are the things that can make us numb, that can make us want to sleep, that can deaden us to all the other things that upset another person’s life, things that we might be in a position to help with and actually be that voice and vessel and agent of new life for that person!

And ironically, perhaps, in spite of Jesus’ earnest instructions that nobody speak of this miracle, ever, clearly someone did because here we are, reading it and hearing about it today.  A miracle that is all about the giving of new life was given itself immortality in being enshrined in the Scriptures.

And so, in a way, resurrection begets even more resurrection.  Maybe, God willing, a young woman’s desire to strengthen her community’s homeless outreach will beget another resurrection in someone else’s life.  Maybe, just maybe, it will set off a chain reaction, with the word of “Awaken” being passed from one weary and wayward soul to another.

Just maybe, we can be the vessel for that voice of Christ calling out in our ears, “Talitha koum!”

I say unto you, arise, my child.  Arise, and live anew.

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 1, 2014

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