Rainy Butte is located near Amidon and New England, North Dakota. Lebanon Lutheran Church in Amidon invited me to join their outdoor worship service on Rainy Butte on June 27, 2021. It was a glorious day in an even more glorious place! The video quality isn’t the best, but it does give you a little feel for where we were worshipping.
Mark 5:21-43 • June 27, 2021 • “Believe…”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Children of God from congregations across the southwestern corner of our synod, I bring greetings to you on behalf of your brothers and sisters of the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, around 60,000+ brothers and sisters;
I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – 9,000 congregations, 3 million brothers and sisters;
and, I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters in the Lutheran World Federation, of which our denomination of the ELCA is the only representative of from the United States. LWF connects 148 Lutheran denominations, over 77 million children of God, in 99 different countries who, together, are sharing in God’s ministry and mission around the world.
It is such a joy to be with you today as we worship on this beautiful piece of God’s good creation. One can’t help but stand in awe of the beauty of God’s creation – especially the beauty of the prairie of North Dakota.
I also want to offer my condolences on behalf of the western North Dakota Synod following the recent death of our sister in Christ Carolyn Erickson. She was an amazing witness to the grace and unconditional love of God. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet her a few times over the years. And grateful for the tremendous impact that her and Pastor Jerry have had on Christ’s church.
Carolyn was actually one of the first people I talked with after beginning my time serving in the office of Bishop on September 1, 2020. She was making sure that I had this date on my calendar right away – for two reasons, one is that today is her birthday and two was the great celebration of worship on Rainy Butte that was being planned.
Carolyn may not be with us today physically, but she is most definitely present in countless other ways as we gather to worship and give God our thanks and praise!
There are two stories in today’s text from Mark that challenge an interesting group of characters to “just believe.” The story of Jairus and his dying daughter and the story of a woman who has been suffering for 12 years.
Jesus has entered this village on the other side – probably west of the Sea of Galilee. He is met by a leader of the community, Jairus – a significant figure in the synagogue. Someone who should not even be acknowledging Jesus’ existence, much less be seen with him. And on top of that falling at Jesus’ feet begging him to come and heal his daughter. Jairus believes that Jesus can heal his daughter even though his tradition and culture tell him not to believe.
Jairus’ story is interrupted by an unnamed woman who has been very sick with hemorrhages and bleeding for 12 years. For 12 years this woman has been an outcast in society. She is not welcome anywhere or by anyone. Under the law, she is so unclean that anyone who even comes in contact with her will also be unclean. This woman also believes that Jesus can heal her even though her tradition and culture tell her different.
In spite of all the risks that these characters face, they believe Jesus can heal them if they can just touch him.
Which character did you relate to as we heard this text today? Are you like Jairus. A strong symbol in the community of elite social status, great respect, and wealth. Often, these folks feel like the world is on their shoulders and they seem to know just how to keep it under control and under their control specifically. The world runs exactly as they think it should run, until something unexpected happens. Now you turn to Jesus as the only possible source of healing out of your desperation.
Or are you like the suffering woman. You feel invisible and isolated from the rest of the community. You feel abandoned and ignored. If you even touch another person, they will be as unclean as you are. Desperately, you seek human affection to try and feel “normal” no matter what the cost. You believe that if you can but touch Jesus or just get close enough to him, he will make you whole again.
Or maybe you are like the dying little girl. Death looms over you. You feel like your time is running out. You fear that if anyone reaches out and touches you, they may also be threatened with death. You desperately want to be able to live a full life again. You believe that new life will be possible if Jesus can just touch you.
I know I can see myself in all three of these characters. I would guess that you probably can too.
Long before God planted a seed in me around the possibility of a vocation that would one day involve serving in the Lutheran church, I was a professional musician. Standing in front of people to present something on my heart usually took place in a smokey jazz club or on auditorium stage, not in a church pulpit.
In many ways, I can relate to Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in our gospel today, falling at the feet of Jesus, in search of something they didn’t know quite how to find.
Another part of my story that you may or may not know…I didn’t grow up Lutheran. I grew up Roman Catholic.
My family was active in church as a child, but I really struggled to connect. Yes, I believed, after all, my mom and grandma told me I should. But I didn’t understand why or how belief made any difference to the life I was trying to live.
I had a lot of questions and rarely did I feel like I found answers to those questions about church or faith in ways that gave me closure or peace.
Often my questions were answered by people saying things like “because” or “that’s just the way it is” or “it’s not our job to ask those questions or know their answers. That’s for religious people to know.” “Just keep quiet and believe.”
Eventually I began to dig deeper into my questions, to no longer be afraid of the questions I was asking, and to engage in deep conversations with trusted friends and family and spiritual mentors inside and outside of the Roman Catholic tradition of my youth.
Conversations about God and Jesus; faith and politics; justice and scripture; church hierarchy and history. Conversations about call and vocation. Belief.
After a few years of exploring and worshiping within many different Christian denominations, I ended up feeling most connected whenever I was in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation.
Now, the thought of being a pastor or the even more remote thought of being a Bishop one day still sounds absolutely crazy to me.
But in the ELCA, I felt welcome.
I was encouraged to ask challenging questions.
To dig deeply into things about the church that I disagreed with or simply didn’t understand.
I wasn’t judged for who I was as a musician or more so, for who I was as a human being.
I began to feel like I had actually touched the cloak of Jesus and was being healed in ways I didn’t know needed healing.
I’m not going to say that I always agree with everything the ELCA says or does, and I think the ELCA knows that – maybe more so than before I was called to be a synod Bishop.
But this church, the ELCA, continues to love me and accept me just the same.
I haven’t found that truth in any other church I’ve explored – Christian or some other faith tradition.
Jesus says to Jairus, “do not fear. Only believe.”
Jesus says to the suffering woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Jesus says to the dying little girl, “Talitha cum.” “Little girl, get up!”
Do you see the miracles taking place in this story?
There are not just two healings taking place.
There is the miracle of the healings, sure, but there is also the miracle of Jesus breaking down barriers that had been created by the community. Barriers that the community built.
Barriers that protected the upper-class like leaders of the synagogue and Jairus’ family and placed them on high pedestals above everyone else.
Barriers that kept people like the suffering woman isolated from everyone so she wouldn’t infect others.
Because Jairus, the suffering woman, and the little girl believed in Jesus – not only were they healed, but barriers came crashing down in miraculous ways for this community.
I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life when I feel like things are out of control. Times of unexpected illness, tragedy, and death.
On March 8, 2020, Wendy and I were enjoying a baseball game watching America’s team play in Mesa, Arizona. A few short months later, on July 28th, Wendy had an accident that although not necessarily life-threatening, has, and continues to be, life-changing.
A few months after that, on October 19th to be exact, my mother died from coronavirus. She didn’t die of or with covid, she died from covid. And my prayer is that her memory is not simply because she is one of the covid death statistics in North Dakota.
There are also times of great joy and celebration in our lives. Joy in new life, new careers and callings, and new relationships.
Wendy started a new job with a fantastic company in April 2020 and I received an unexpected new call from all of you, as the Holy Spirit worked through you, into the office of bishop. A call in which new relationships are forming daily that I give God thanks and praise for.
In this story from Mark’s gospel, you and I are reminded that in good times and bad,
and the Lord knows that we’ve had plenty of both in the past 18 months,
in all those times, Jesus was with us.
Jesus comes to us and says, “Do not fear; only believe.”
And please don’t hear me saying that if you believe, you will be able to get God to do what you want. The good news of Jesus is not about how to get God to do what you want God to. Today’s gospel is a story about who God is, how God acts, and what God is like as we live in relationship with him and with each other as the body of Christ.
That is why I can stand before you today and confidently and boldly proclaim to you as your Bishop and fellow child of God, “Just believe!”
It is one of the hardest things you or I will ever do as followers of the risen savior Jesus.
One of my favorite hymns in our hymnbook is written by a friend of mine whose name is Handt Hanson. It’s a hymn with the title “Good Soil.” I think the words of this hymn may help each of us understand the good news of Jesus for us today, inviting us to come before the feet of Jesus and say, “I believe.”
If you know it, join me…I’ll do my best with the pitch and melody.
“Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word. Lord, let my heart be good soil, where love can grow and peace is understood. When my heart is hard, break the stone away. When my heart is cold, warm it with the day. When my heart is lost, lead me on your way. Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart be good soil.”
May your heart be good soil sisters and brothers in Christ. As you believe in the good news of the savior of the world Jesus the Christ, may God continue to bless you and keep you as his mission to bless and serve the world is fulfilled through you.
Just believe. Amen.