Reaching out in desperate times. Once again, there is orange cloth on the communion table. Orange. A color symbolizing a need to respond to issues of gun violence in schools, out on the streets, at places of work, in newsrooms. Once again, we hear of about the overwhelming crowds gathered about. Yesterday in cities across the country. Millennia ago in Jerusalem, as a father reaches out to Jesus and pleads for the life of his daughter. A woman pushing through the dusty crowds… to… just… touch…
Reaching out. This is gut wrenching hope beyond all hope. Faith stretching out, towards the extravagant love which sometimes seems just beyond our grasp…
In the midst of this great, dusty, reaching out beyond all hope reality…
A word and two quotes reached out and caught my attention this week.
The word is: Civility.
And the quotes were, first: “Again and again, more and more, we are assured that we live in an apocalyptic era… Our generation is strangled by fear: fear for (human kind), for (our) future, and for the direction in which we are driven against our will and desire…”
The second quote was: “A quick glance at the news… demonstrates that we are failing at communal thanksgiving. We are anxious and angry, because we are haunted by night mares of scarcity, dystopian fears that someone else is taking everything, that there is never enough, and we will never get what we think we deserve.”
The first quote was written by a distant relative of mine, Hendrikus Berkhof. Berkhof was a preacher and seminary professor who lived in the Netherlands. During World War II, he preached out against Hitler, and was imprisoned by the Nazis. Berkhof survived the war, and the quote about the “generation strangled by fear” is from a book he published in 1958. Sixty years ago. Sixty years before our time, a little over 10 years after WW II, and Berkhof was writing about a generation strangled by fear. A world out of control.
Berkhof’s quote jumped out at me this week as one of my seminary professors, a Hebrew Bible scholar, went “full Jerimiah” on social media. As in Jerimiah, the prophet in the Old Testament. In Jerimiah 13, the prophet proclaims, “Thus says the Lord… This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing.” (Jeremiah 13:9-10).
Jeremiah describes a hopeless situation. The people have not listened to God. They are good for nothing. Thus sayeth the prophet.
The second quote, which reaches out to me and brings me hope, was from Diana Butler Bass. This deep, understanding… this deep awareness… that the theology of scarcity is being echoed around the world and trying to negate all that we believe as followers of Jesus. We who worship a God of abundance. A God of Love over fear. Life over death.
Yet it seems that we are, as Bass says, “failing at communal thanksgiving.” What might the current conversations regarding civility have to do with this lack of thanksgiving? This lack of gratitude? This lack of awareness of our interconnectedness with all of creation? The earth. Other people around the world and in our own backyard? US? You, me… the US that is here in this faith community.
For this is not really anything new. Questions around civility have swirled about the past few years and beyond. But have we taken the risk to talk about it? What behaviors do you define as being civil? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines civility as “civilized conduct; a polite act or expression.” All of this intertwines with recent news reports. There have been multiple instances of government employees finding themselves shamed in public. Suddenly a gazillion questions pop up: What is a civil action? What is not? What is civility? Does being a Jesus follower have anything to do with civility? Or not? Does civility weave into just peace actions? Nonviolent protests? Is there such a thing as #GoodTrouble?
History has many lessons to teach us. For example, 55 years ago in 1963, white, protestant, pastors (self-defined “clergyMEN”) signed an opinion article the Call to Unity, a call to civility, in response to the work of civil rights activists. These pastors wrote to push back on the actions of faith leaders and protestors who were calling out racial injustices and causing unrest across the country. The pastors urged “’an appeal for law and order and common sense’ in dealing with racial problems in Alabama.” And “expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts… (saying) we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
“Unwise and untimely.”
Reaching out and falling on the ground on the streets. Right in front of Jesus, asking publically for the healing of a dying child. Jarius’ request was risky. Unwise and untimely.
Sick and filthy, having been sick for 12 years, reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak as the crowds surrounded him, the woman’s actions were unwise and untimely.
Martin Luther King, Jr, wrote a response to the white pastors’ Call for Unity which many of us are familiar with—the Letter from Birmingham Jail. King retorted that, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
“Unwise and untimely.” #GoodTrouble
This week, Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite pointed out that, “Jesus of Nazareth publicly shamed those leaders he saw were committing injustice in his time, calling them out (Matt. 23:13). Jesus didn’t hesitate to be confrontational. ‘You hypocrites!’ he cried out.” King too, pointed out the hypocrisy of the faith leaders looking to quiet the unsettling caused by the nonviolent actions of Civil Rights movement.
Circling back to the stories the author of Mark offers to us today, Jesus’ response to those that reach out in desperate times is healing. Yes—the healings seem to be magical—but these are glimpses into moments when Great Hope overpowers great despair, great shame, great alienation. The reaching out, the active response to overwhelming despair, result in moments of resurrection as Life overcomes death. Magical, yes, but how else do you describe the indescribable?
Thus Diana Butler Bass’ reflection on being grateful and the ways in which gratitude are made manifest today resonates. Describing how gratitude impacts the wider, communal “we” she asks, “What might it mean to live together as a thankful society? As human beings, we possess an intuitive awareness that we depend on others to survive. We are safer and happier when we care for each other in community, when we do things for each other. If we recognize mutuality, we experience gratitude as central to civic life… how we—appreciate the ties that bind us as a larger society matters greatly to everyone… Indeed, living gratefully makes the world different.”
Reaching out to overcome great despair, great shame, great alienation. Through these moments of resurrection, Life overcoming death, healing can occur. Great power can flow forth from God. The power of Love. Grace. Hope. Peace.
This is where I see us today. Living in the midst of this gut wrenching hope beyond all hope. Faith stretching out, reaching out, to the extravagant love that is here. This is something we can grasp onto. In the midst of this great, dusty, beyond all hope reality, God can make the world different. Here, Jesus continues to calmly say the words to us, “do not fear, only believe.”
So if you are feeling a sense of despair today, reach out. Take time to define your own good trouble. Maybe for you, it is making time for prayer. Or maybe your good trouble is to take a break from social media—a digital Sabbath. Or maybe, you will be the person that takes time to write a card to someone who has been sick. Or maybe you will be moved to visit someone who is lonely. Or pick up the phone and call… or text… a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Or maybe you are the one that needs a visit… or a meal… or a card. Or maybe your good trouble is to feed those who are hungry. Or to drop off toothpaste for the Personal Essentials Pantry. Then again reaching out to Jesus on the streets in times of despair might mean to you that you make a sign and show up at a rally. Call your senator or representative. Vote.
Last week, I mentioned how science is teaching us that “negative feelings like anger and fear” cannot “coexist in (our minds in) the same space with positive ones like happiness and gratitude.” Diana Butler Bass leans into this concept further by saying, “Gratitude is defiance of sorts, the defiance of kindness in the face of anger, of connection in the face of division, and of hope in the care of fear. Gratefulness does not acquiesce to evil—it resists evil.”
Let us remember the Good News that is at the root of our faith. Let us tell a different narrative. Let us gather at the Table today in communal thanksgiving. Reach out. Grasp God’s abundance. Let us arm ourselves with the defiance of kindness and hope, and seek the healing transformation of the world. Amen.
Reflection on Mark 5:21-43 offered on July 1, 2018
 Berkhof, H. Christ the Meaning of History, by Hendrikus Berkhof; Translated by Lambertus Buurman. Eugene. OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004. 13.
 Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. Xviii.
 “Civility.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civility.
 Williams, Byron. “King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’.” The Huffington Post. June 16, 2013. Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/byron-williams/kings-letter-from-birming_b_3087360.html.
 Contributor, Guest. “Do Not Tolerate the Intolerable: Public Shaming Can Be a Justice Action.” Faith on the Couch. June 26, 2018. Accessed June 29, 2018. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionnow/2018/06/do-not-tolerate-the-intolerable-public-shaming-can-be-a-justice-action/.
 Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: How a Spiritual Movement of Thankfulness Is Transforming How We Connect to God and Others. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. xviii.
 Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: How a Spiritual Movement of Thankfulness Is Transforming How We Connect to God and Others. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 28.
 Ibid. 185.