My husband, who is not a church-goer, sometimes worries that if he attends a church event people will quiz him about his beliefs. I always assure him people are more likely to be interested in the fact that he grew up in Harpswell or that he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. We seldom feel comfortable talking about our faith in conversation with one another. We hold back, perhaps saying faith is “personal” and simply assuming others around us have some, not wanting to judge theirs and especially not wanting to have them judge ours.
I used to live in a university town and listen to sermons given by a well-educated pastor, an intellectual man, who knew his history and his ancient languages, and who especially knew how to talk the stuffing right out of a miracle by explaining its scientific basis. And while I find those explanations interesting, and probably correct, I find I crave the truth of the numinous and I am ready to risk being wrong for the sake of believing in things I cannot see.
On our mantel at home there are flowers and cards from kind friends who understand how sad it feels at our house without Molly. For years, I’ve been reading emails from dog people saying they’re glad they loved a dog, even though losing them hurts so terribly, and now I’m on the other side of that experience, opening a package containing a Berner angel pin, grateful that people care, but wishing they didn’t need to do it.
Many people write to us saying things like the answers we gave our children here, that they expect to meet their pets again in heaven, that this wound will be healed by reunion in the sweet by and by. Never in my life have I wanted and needed to believe this more fervently than this week, when even the skeptic at my house affirmed that if any dog belongs in heaven, Molly does.
We risk ourselves when we love. We risk our safety and our self-protection when we give our hearts away to others. We risk feeling foolish or alone or empty when they leave us, no matter how right the time or good the reason, and it’s even worse when the time is wrong and the cause horrifying. In this place, this very day, people are grieving, probably more than we even realize, and it’s all because they took the risk of loving other people.
I believe Jesus sets us that example and lifts up those moments of caring as a model for us to follow, too. I included two stories from Mark’s gospel today because the second gets skipped this year and is a favorite from my childhood. In each of these stories, Jesus is risking himself out of love, risking his very life to bring about healing, because in each of them he runs the risk of making the authorities angry.
In Mark 1, we read the story of the leper Jesus heals:
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45, NRSV)
In this very compact and dramatic story, Jesus warns the leper not to tell anyone what he has done, to simply go to the priest and give an offering for cleansing, which would have been the traditional ritual act. Of course, it was an act that did not usually heal a person, and the now former leper very well knew this. He knew something different had happened to him, and so he could not help himself: he went out and began to proclaim it freely, to spread the word.
The leper, in thanksgiving for his healing, told the world, did the thing we’re always saying we ought to do, but in his case, he put Jesus at risk.
You may wonder, what does it mean for Jesus to be at risk? After all, we’re only about 8 weeks away from the resurrection in our church calendar. Isn’t that the lynch pin of our faith, the victory over death? How could Jesus be risking himself or placed at risk by others? What did he have to lose? In my way of reading Mark, the demands for secrecy that repeat and repeat convince me that he did NOT know the end of the story going in, that Jesus himself had a sense that there would be an end, and no assurance that the people he came to reach with God’s love would ever get the message.
Jesus risked himself.
Chapter 2 of Mark finds Jesus and his disciples back in Capernaum, which is one of the funniest things about Mark’s gospel. We hear that the disciples drop everything to follow him, and we hear that he leaves town to proclaim the gospel elsewhere, and we hear it is not safe for him to go into a town openly, but here he is back in Capernaum, where he taught with authority in the synagogue, where he raised Simon’s mother-in-law from her sickbed, where he healed all those brought to the door of the house before disappearing to recuperate in our story from last week.
And no sooner does he return than he starts getting himself into trouble again. He forgives the paralytic, and stirs up the scribes.
"Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7, NRSV)
I told you this is a favorite story, and that is in part because I remember making a model of the house with the open roof at Vacation Bible School when I was a little girl. I remember running a piece of sting through the sides of a fabric stretcher and drawing a paper man to lie up on it.
I remember marveling at what friends will do for one another, what they will risk to get help when it’s needed.
I didn’t realize, or pay attention to the part, about Jesus risking himself by healing right in front of the scribes. We’re in chapter 2 of the gospel, still early in the story, but the time is coming when the colleagues and old school friends of these same scribes, up the road in Jerusalem, will plot the death of Jesus, will do all they can to bring his life and his healing and his teaching to an end.
You see, he threatens everything about their way of understanding God, their comfortable habits and rituals and traditions and formalities.
I love this poem, “The Risk,” because it tells us everything we need to know about Jesus and what it means to let him through the door of our lives. We may find we are on the outs with the authorities, or looked at strangely by our co-workers. Even our church friends may find it funny when we talk about Jesus!
You take a risk when you invite the Lord
Whether to dine or talk the afternoon
Away, for always the unexpected soon
Turns up: a woman breaks her precious nard,
A sinner does the task you should assume;
A leper who is cleansed must show his proof:
Suddenly you see your very roof removed
And a cripple clutters up your living room.
There’s no telling what to expect when Christ
Walks in your door. The table set for four
Must often be enlarged and decorum
Thrown to the wind. It’s His voice that calls them
And it’s no use to bolt and bar the door:
His kingdom knows no bounds of roof, or wall or floor.
(Marcella Marie Holloway)
You take a risk when you invite him in, a risk that your roof will be removed.
“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” Between the last story and this one, he’s realized the futility of keeping things quiet, or trying to. He’s realized he’s all in, that his hopes for us demand the complete risk of his life and his love.
Now, it’s easy enough to move back in our seats and say, “Yes, but he was Jesus!” Because he was!!! It’s easy enough to say, I must not be expected to do what he did.
But why did he heal the leper? Because the man believed and asked.
And why did he heal the paralytic? Because he saw the faith of his friends.
The real question for us is this: do we feel content with a comfortable gathering of familiar people, comfortable even with the disagreements we might have in some corners of our community life, comfortable with the way we do things and have done them forever and ever, Amen? Or can we risk Jesus, risk the possibility, the near-certainty, that our faith will change our lives forever?
I’m not going to tell you that risking Jesus will bring you success or prosperity. I’m not going to tell you it’s a shield against a broken heart. What I am going to tell you is that risking Jesus opens the possibility of wholeness, of a kind of healing that allows us to stand up and walk, no matter how broken we may feel, no matter how damaged we may be, no matter how much we are in need of forgiveness. Risk Jesus and he will choose to make you well. Amen.