Ephesians 4.25 – 5.2
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Things have been a little different in the way I read and interpret scripture in the last year and a half. Instead of reading a text and wondering what it might have to say to us at Plymouth, I first wonder about the broader political implications of what the text might be saying to our politicians. We are in a different era than we were before an intransigent Congress dug in their heels and refused to do business across the aisle. Imagine if all those good Christian men and women on the Hill agreed to “put away falsehood,” “speak truth to their neighbors,” acknowledge that “they are members of one another,” to identify what makes them angry, but not “let the sun go down on their anger.” Imagine if our president, instead of losing his cool on Twitter agreed “to let no evil talk come from his cell phone” but would only tweet “what is useful for building up…so that his words may give grace to those who hear.” And what if our attorney general agreed that we should “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” in carrying out the work of the Justice Department?
You know, it’s pretty easy to point fingers and to read the admonitions of the Letter to the Church in Ephesus as being applicable to someone in Washington. It’s much more difficult for us to grapple with what they say about us.
The critique I offered of people in Washington who claim to be good Christians may be valid, but I want to return to the harder work of how this text might apply to us as well. Because there is precious little we can do to affect the behavior of folks in Washington, other than with our votes, but we do have the power to direct our own thoughts and actions here.
I think that each of us still has lots to learn in terms of good, open, honest communication, and I think that while we are a healthy congregation, we also have room to improve the way we talk to one another in the spirit of love. If we can’t do this within our congregation, God knows we won’t be able to engage people who hold political views that differ radically from our own. And at some point, that sort of dialogue may be an important task you and I will be called to engage.
“Let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Here at Plymouth we have a low sense of ecclesiology –- the theology of the nature the church itself. But when we invite people to join as members and to covenant with us, we are inviting them to be part of this body and also the church universal –- body of Christ in the world. (That’s a big deal, folks!) We may see ourselves as individuals, but I hope that we each can also learn to see ourselves as part of a larger organism, which is our church, and beyond it, the church universal.
Sometimes it is really difficult to speak the truth lovingly to our neighbor. I get that. In the family I was raised in, we avoided unpleasant conversations and topics. So, nobody talked about my mom’s alcoholism or the impact of moving the family across the country every few years. As a young adult, I learned that avoiding something -– not talking about it -– won’t make it go away. In fact, avoidance is an invitation to allow problems become worse.
Church people are probably the worst offenders when it comes to avoiding “speaking the truth to our neighbors,” because we try to be nice. And I looked through the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and could find neither a commandment: “Thou Shalt Be Nice,” nor a Beatitude, “Blessed Are the Nice People.” So, maybe we can let go of “nice” and instead embrace compassion and speaking the truth in love.
Apparently, the author of the Letter to the Colossians (unlike my family of origin) thought that anger was an acceptable emotion, and to work through it is the way to keep it productive, and not to “let the sun go down on your anger.” Anger (like doubt) is a perfectly acceptable feeling, but it is not a healthy place to hang out forever, because it can consume your vital energy.
Healthy church systems depend on honesty, on respect for one another as the body of Christ, on speaking the truth, even when it pinches a bit and makes us uncomfortable. And the funny thing is that being open and honest can make living together so much more pleasant. You don’t have to wonder if Darlene is upset with you (or why), because she told you straight-out that she had a strong reaction to something you wrote in the Placard. And because Darlene brought this up directly with you, you had the chance to sit down with her and listen to her point of view and to describe your views more fully. Even though you and Darlene may not agree on everything, you’ve had the chance to clear the air, and you have started a pattern of healthy conversation that has ripple effects in our congregational system. We build up the body of Christ when we speak the truth to our neighbors, and when we listen lovingly.
Last week I was talking with a friend who goes to a theologically conservative Evangelical church, and we were talking about the fact that nobody –- none of us –- has our act together, that all of us are dealing with stressful life situations, whether in a marriage, a career, with our kids, in our grief, our finances, our depression, our isolation. And she remarked that her pastor often says, “We’re all just walking each other home.” We all have bad things happen in our lives, and most of us are doing our best to make it through the day as best we can. I liked that phrase, “We’re all just walking each other home,” and I was curious about where it came from. So, I did what any self-respecting minister would do: I Googled it. It turns out that the quotation comes from Ram Dass, the American guru who was popular with people of my age or a little older. So, whether you’re an Evangelical, or a Hindu, or a UCC member, we can acknowledge that “We are all just walking each other home.”
After hearing that I also reflected a bit more about Ray Becker, whose funeral I had the privilege of leading last Tuesday. Ray was a compassionate and a peaceful spirit who was the unofficial patriarch of Plymouth. Ray was born here in Fort Collins in 1925, lived through the Great Depression, served as a surgical technician on a troop ship ferrying wounded servicemen back from Europe in the Second World War, and was a meat cutter and eventually Meat Department manager at Safeway. Ray was supportive of a lot of changes at Plymouth that his parents’ generation were not, and he also had the gift of being able to disagree with people without becoming disagreeable.
I also had a fascinating conversation after the service with Joe Grassmick, who attended Ray’s funeral and was visiting from his home in Buffalo, NY, where he is a member of an inner-city UCC church. Ray was Joe’s Sunday School teacher, and Joe’s dad, Veldon Grassmick, was the minister here at Plymouth in the 1950s. Three monumental shifts happened under his pastorate here at Plymouth, and they did not happen without controversy: we gradually switched our worshipping language from German to English, we became part of the UCC in 1957, and we moved our home from Whedbee Street to this location on Prospect Road. That is a LOT of change! Joe told me that Ray was one of his dad’s right-hand men because he knew that if Plymouth was to thrive, it would need to attract younger people, to broaden its reach, and to move into a larger location. And it wasn’t easy. The older generation didn’t like those changes, and they lost members when they moved down to this site. People complained that the new location was so far south that was clear out of town; they complained that there would be a Fellowship Hall, because that might encourage fraternization and dancing, and what would we possibly do with three whole acres?!
So, I learned something after the funeral: it turns out that Ray was one of the people in his generation at Plymouth who knew how to speak truth to his neighbors.
I think we all can learn something from that example: to speak “what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.” We can speak the truths that need to be spoken and to do that in a grace-filled and loving way, because “We’re all just walking each other home.”
So maybe when we get snared by “bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with malice,” it might be a good time to ask what is really going on. Is there something in us that is getting triggered by something someone else said or did? Maybe it’s time to take some deep breaths, say a word of prayer, and try to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving,” and also honest and forthright. And to speak the truth to our neighbor.
Back in 1629, our Congregational Puritan forbears had a covenant that members entered as they became part of that church in Salem, Massachusetts, (which is now a Unitarian congregation):
“We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”
Today at Plymouth, we are part of the body of Christ in the world, we are an outpost of the kingdom of God, and Plymouth itself is a body of people who are in covenant with one another “to walk together in all God’s ways” and to walk each other home. And the best and healthiest way to build the spiritual depth of this congregation is to “learn to speak the truth to our neighbors,” “put away bitterness,” “forgive one another,” and “live in love.”
May it be so. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Healings of Jairus's daughter and the hemorrhaging woman
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 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."
24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" 31 And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
35 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?" 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." 40 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. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Did Jesus really cure these two woman of disease? Could he do that? It seems impossible to our 21st century knowledge of modern science and medicine, doesn’t it? What do we make of this? Considering the healing stories of Jesus to be historically true in some form or fashion seems dangerous....maybe even ridiculous to some. Is it best to stick with metaphorical interpretations of the stories? Ask questions about spiritual healing? Is our life force slowly hemorrhaging away, individually or corporately? Are we sleeping, moving through life comatose, waiting for the voice of God to raise us from the dead? Good questions, but do they skirt the real power of our stories today?
In his book, Days of Awe and Wonder, How to be a Christian in the 21st Century, the beloved and late Marcus Borg, encourages us to understand Jesus as one in the long stream of a Biblical tradition of Spirit-filled mediators who bridged the two worlds of tangible reality (our modern scientific world, world of the our physical senses) and the world of nonmaterial reality charged with energy and power, the world of Spirit. With his scholarly expertise and deep faith Marcus stretches our theological imaginations and our spiritual muscles to accept the historical man Jesus as a Spirit person and a charismatic healer. Marcus’s writing brings me hope in understanding our texts today.
Both the woman with the hemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter are brought back from the brink of death by Jesus’ healing. The woman was unclean in the eyes of her community. No one could socialize with her. Perhaps she had family, but they dared not take her in because of her impurity. She obviously had no male relatives willing to intercede for her with Jesus which would have been the proper cultural tradition of introduction. And she was out of money. Spent it all on seeking a cure. With no family, no finances, no community she might as well be dead.
Jairus tell Jesus his daughter is near death. Then a messenger from his house tells us she is dead. Then the mourners laugh at Jesus when he suggests otherwise. They know death when they see it. The spectral image of death is repeated here times. Does the girl really die? Or is she so deeply comatose that people believed she was dead? The only clue is that Jesus speaks against what the crowd says in tangible evidence of death, saying she is only sleeping. Sleep of death or sleep of coma? Either way she is cut off from family, from community, and they from her. And dead bodies were also ritually unclean. Like the woman, the young girl is as good as dead.
Yet these two woman, younger and older, both considered dead to community, dead to possibility of wholeness, are cured. By God’s power through the touch of Jesus the healer. Thanks be to God! These are miracles! And haven’t we all hoped for such miracles in our lives for ourselves or our loved ones?
We think of cure as medical wholeness, the banishing, repairing of disease medically. We often equate this with healing, the restoration of health. Healing is more that medical cure. It is restoration to wholeness. The stories of the woman with the flow of blood and Jairus’s daughter bring us to the intersection of curing and healing. Jesus never just cures. He also heals.
And yet....we all know the stories, we have all lived the stories, when curing does not accompany healing. Not everyone we pray for is cured. We have all experienced this. Where is the healing? I believe we take the example of Jairus who advocated for his daughter and the woman who advocated for herself. We begin the healing process by telling our whole truth. Both Jairus and the woman tell their stories. They tell the whole truth.
Jairus is a prominent man in the local village and surrounding area as one of the leaders of the synagogue. What is he doing throwing himself at the feet of Jesus, this itinerant, upstart teacher and begging, repeatedly and in front of the crowd? Telling the story, the whole truth, of his daughter’s illness? Unbecoming conduct for a man of his stature. To be so vulnerable about his personal needs. What would the other leaders of the synagogue think? Even if holy men who were charismatic healers were accepted in Jesus’ time was it appropriate for Jairus to seek out a healer so publically? Making a spectacle of himself? Surely he had the power to send a message and request privately that Jesus come to his house. Yet he falls at Jesus feet and begs....and which of us wouldn’t do that for a child on the brink of death?
The woman is audacious as well. She tries to remain hidden, doesn’t she? According to Jewish law the woman with the hemorrhage ritually unclean because of her unceasing flow of menstrual blood. Like a leper she could not be touched. And could not touch men in particular. Yet here she is in the crowd surreptitiously making her way through to touch just the hem of Jesus garment. To be healed and yet not contaminate him? And she is in the crowd that is moving toward the house of Jairus. She knows Jesus is on a mission. But so is she. She too, is seeking a last resort for healing. And it works! She is cured of her long, long ordeal of disease. What she didn’t know is that once you fervently seek the power of God, you can’t hide out anymore. Realizing this with Jesus’ prompting she finally comes forward and tells her whole story, the whole truth.
Jesus meets these two people right where they are. Jesus knew as he moved through the crowd that someone had been cured, God’s power had flowed through him. He also knew he was on a time sensitive journey to Jairus’ house. He could have rushed on knowing this miracle was accomplished. But he stops to personally interact with the woman. He is not doing this for show. Seeking her out allows her to come and tell her story....in front of the whole crowd. She becomes a witness, she testifies to the power of God she has experienced. Telling her story of faith heals and empowers her soul. Jesus affirms her with God’s love, calling her “Daughter!” He Acknowledges that she received God’s power and also that it is her faith, her complete trust, that empowers her healing. Her body is cured and her soul is healed internally. Publically brought back into community through her encounter with Jesus. If Jesus had not encountered her publically she might never have been believed by her community that she was cured. The community would have missed the power of her testimony. Healing is never just for the individual. It is always brings us back into the community.
Jairus daughter is brought back to life and also into community. While Jesus orders those with him not to tell anyone about her healing....how could this have happened? The daughter would be living in the house with the family. She continued her normal life. So those who were mourning outside the house would see her. They would know about the miracle. They would eventually be included in those “overcome with amazement.” This story did not stay contained long. The joy and celebration of the daughter’s cure surely spilled over into healing in the family and community. They had experienced the power of God’s love! That cannot be contained!
Jesus always brought healing. And it always affected the community as well as the individual. And healing always begins with telling and hearing one another’s stories, listening to the whole truth. Healing comes with the vulnerability. Think of it....authentic medical treatment cannot begin unless we are vulnerable in telling the doctor all our symptoms. This is true in mental health therapy as well. And it is true when we are completely vulnerable in seeking the power of God. Telling God the whole truth, the sorrowful truth, the angry truth, the despairing truth, the doubting, questioning truth opens the door to healing. Vulnerably telling the truth in our communities, the truth of sexual harassment, the truth of suicide, the truth of addiction, the truth of domestic violence, the truth of sexual and gender identity, the truth of oppression,.... you can add your truth to the list...leads to healing. We may not see a cure immediately. Or even in our lifetime. But I can guarantee that as we tell our whole stories to one another and to God healing will begin....healing will happen. When we are vulnerable we may not be cured, our loved ones may not be cured in the ways we envision, but we are healed into deeper community and communion with God.
Yesterday Hal and Christopher and I were with friends and family from my son, Colin’s, community. I had prayed for a cure for Colin’s struggles for years...and it did not come as I had envisioned. His release from disease came with death rather than with my hopes for new life in the treatment for mental illness and addiction. And while I am fully confident that he is now at peace, it hurts not to have had my prayers answered in the ways I had envisioned. And to heal I must tell that story. And as I encouraged his young adult friends yesterday....we must tell our stories of his life and love to one another and to others. We must tell the stories of his pain and struggle and of his joy in living, his joy in the creation of music and visual art. It is only in sharing our stories that we are being healed. My friends, I invite you on the journey with me. Tell your stories of struggle, of cure, of healing, to one another and to God. Tell your whole truth for there lies your healing and the healing of community through the power of God.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.