Crossing the Boundaries of Faith

Mark 5:21-43
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Last week, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. As a storm blew upon them, the frightened disciples worried about Jesus sleeping in the boat. But Jesus woke up, calmed the storm and wondered what the fuss was all about. 

Before returning across the lake to the point in the story we heard today, Jesus went to Gentile territory. There, Jesus exorcised a demon-possessed man living with the pigs. In the short trip, Jesus crossed the boundaries of Gentile and Jew by crossing into Gentile territory and interacting with people and things with whom he should not normally be interacting.

In just that quick trip across the lake, Jesus showed that the boundaries most people observe, don’t scare him. 

And today, when Jesus lands back on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, the boundaries have been crossed and the rules broken. There is no going back now. 

Today, it is first Jairus who eschews social norms to throw himself at the feet of Jesus to beg for healing. Jairus, an upstanding leader in the synagogue, begging a wandering preacher for mercy for his sick daughter. 

And then the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years breaks nearly every rule imaginable to get access to Jesus. 

As Jesus responds to these two very different requests for healing, it can feel like one story is jammed into another. Jairus and his dying daughter, and the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. It can even feel disjointed and a bit like an interruption…. In fact, Jesus starts to seem like a traveling medi-clinic. Like a place for the sick to go for healing, a source of power for those in need. But as we heard earlier in Mark, Jesus has not come to be a miracle healer, but to preach the Kingdom of God coming near. 

So these two stories start out on the surface to be about healing, but turn out to be about so much more. 

When Jesus arrives on the shore of Galilee, Jairus, a leader in the synagogue throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for help for his sick daughter. Jairus, an important community leader, who would usually have a servant for errands like this, comes to Jesus directly. Jairus, who should have considered Jesus an equal, if not a subordinate, throws himself at Jesus’ feet. Jairus, who should have requested, commanded or ordered Jesus to help, begs. He begs immediately and without shame. In desperation, Jairus breaks the rules of how a man in his position should behave. 

And then there is the bleeding woman. The woman who had been poked and prodded by doctors to no avail. The woman who had been suffering for 12 years in an unclean and impure state. The woman who is not allowed to be in public, or to touch others, especially men. The woman who has no voice and no advocate. The woman who pushes into the crowd and steals a healing without even asking Jesus for it. In her desperation, this woman crosses the boundaries of what polite and proper people should be and do.  

It is easy to gloss over these images of Jairus and the bleeding woman. It is easy to see no problem with persons of prominence and authority throwing themselves at Jesus’ feet. No problem with the weak and powerless reaching for the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. 

And yet, we live in a world full of boundaries. A world where we have needed to think carefully each day about how our actions and decisions will either run up against or cross boundaries.

And when we aren’t measuring risk and public health orders, we have been living with the boundaries of screens. The tools that simultaneously allow us to connect with family, friends and community when we otherwise would not be able to, but that also remind us of the distance we have been keeping from each other these past months. 

Now, as vaccines are rolled out, questions around who can do what, who can go where and what it means to be completely safe have arisen. Will businesses, schools, public services and even churches make distinctions between those who are granted access and those who aren’t? 

Of course, it hasn’t been just the pandemic that has placed boundaries on our lives. For the past year, the boundaries and barriers created by colonial and racists histories have lifted up the many obstacles that people of colour face in our society, and particularly the systematic and institutional barriers that Indigenous people face in Canada, put in place by predominantly White Christian Settlers through the Indian Act, the reservation system and residential schools. 

The boundaries and barriers of the world help us to make sense of things, help us to know how to follow the rules. They often define the way people belong, so that we can know where we belong. They allow us to know who is “in” and who is “out” among us. Who is permitted and who is not. 

And yet we also know that the rules and boundaries don’t always serve everyone equally. We know that sometimes people end up in places where the rules push them down and grind them into the ground. We know that the boundaries can become walls, keeping people out and in the darkness, isolated and alone. 

The rules and the boundaries that we live by, that we hold onto so that we can feel safe and secure… can also hurt and exclude and we know it, because sometimes we are the ones being pushed down and we are the one stuck on the outside. 

But Jesus has this habit of doing things and going places that we cannot. Calming storms and talking to demons.  

Jesus crosses the boundaries and breaks the rules. 

Jesus crosses the boundaries and breaks the rules because Jesus wants to bring God close, the Kingdom of God near. 

As the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years crosses every social boundary imaginable and steals a miracle from Jesus, and as Jesus himself is not quite sure what has happened, he demands to know who has touched him. We would expect that Jesus would have condemned and scolded this woman, but instead he stops to hear her story. And then he joins her. Joins her on the other side of the crossed boundary. As an unclean sinner, she isn’t supposed to be out in public or touching people … no one but family, that is. And so Jesus steps out of the public space and into a familiar one… “Daughter” he calls the woman. Jesus makes her a member of his family, a person whom he can be close to even if she is unclean. “Your faith has made you well.” And then he blesses her. By crossing the boundary, and breaking the rules, Jesus gives this woman the first bit of care and compassion, of healing and wholeness that she has known in 12 years. And it wasn’t by healing her of her bleeding, but by joining her in her isolation. 

And then Jesus continues on to Jairus’ home, and he enters despite the news of the little girl’s death. The waiting crowds tell him not to enter … they know the boundary that has come to this place.

And yet having just crossed boundaries to heal the woman bleeding for 12 years, perhaps Jesus is inspired to keep going. To keep crossing boundaries. He comes near to a sick person, a possibly dead person, and intrudes on a grieving family. 

But Jesus knows that the little girl will rise. 

Because Jesus is going to cross another boundary to join this little girl, this second daughter that he meets today. 

Jesus crosses the uncrossable. 

Jesus reaches across death and brings the little girl back to life. 

Jesus crosses the boundary of death. 

Jesus also crosses the boundary of resurrection and new life. 

And we saw it coming all along, because we know that story already. We tell it every week. 

For, you see, for all of our rules as human beings, we keep telling the story of God in Christ who breaks the rules. 

Christ, who gives forgiveness even though it is undeserved. 

Christ, who washes in the waters of baptism even though we are unclean. 

Christ, who brings peace even though there is conflict. 

Christ, who makes us one even though we are many. 

For, you see, for all of the boundaries that hem us in, we keep telling the story of God in Christ who crosses the boundaries and joins us where we thought God should NOT come. 

Christ joins us as the incarnate God, born into creation. 

Christ comes to us in the Word of God, spoken through human voices and heard with human ears. 

Christ gathers us together from every nation and tribe and corner of the earth. 

Crossing boundaries and breaking the rules shouldn’t be a new or surprising thing for us, because almost from the very moment we gather until we are sent out, God is doing just that in, through and with us. 

God is crossing boundaries and breaking rules in order to name us as daughters and sons, making us part of God’s family, bringing the kingdom near to us. 

No matter how much we love rules and cling to boundaries, God will always be willing to break and cross them, in order to love us more. 

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Today, our journey into Mark’s gospel continues. Last week, we started this long season of green by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that in the middle of all the human chaos, and the divided messy nature of human relationships, Jesus stays the course of bringing new life to us and to the world. 

Today, we return to more familiar parables: Parables of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those to whom Jesus was teaching and preaching. When Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different from ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected. 

The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval – a powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever again being ruled over by foreigners. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centered in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place, as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria. 

Into this expectant time Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how they would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the 

smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of garden weeds. 

These parables would not have described a Kingdom like that which the crowds would have expected. This was not the Kingdom of God they were looking for. 

Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what the Kingdom should look like. 

These days, just like those first century followers of Jesus, we too are in a moment of expectation. The world is waiting for things to get back to normal, for our pandemic misery to end, for all our pent-up desires for our favourite outings and gatherings to finally happen. 

But we are also reeling. Reeling from the discovery at Kamloops Residential school two weeks ago. Reeling from the next tragedy and reminder that we are a broken and divided house in Canada.  Reeling from the terror attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Reeling from day after day of multiple COVID deaths in our province, including the death of a teenager this week. 

And this experience of tragedy pushes us to ask for, to demand, to expect something of our leaders, of those in charge. To demand and expect a response from God. 

Our hopes for the future, our hopes for the present can look a lot like the hopes and expectations of the crowds listening to Jesus today, wanting some very specific things because of our world in need, because of the cries for justice from the oppressed, grieving, and marginalized. 

Yet, today, we know that this parable of Jesus’ is about defying expectations, about doing the unexpected. God is asking us, in the middle of the chaos, to step back and consider just what the Kingdom of God might look like. 

So let me ask a question. And it is for the gardeners among us, in particular. 

Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?

I can’t think of any. 

You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look very similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown. 

In the best of times, churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.

As human beings in this moment, most of us are longing to regain some predictability into our lives (every day might feel the same as the last, but our weeks and months feel impossible to plan for). We want to go back to a world that is predictable and safe. We long for a world that isn’t blindsiding us every week with another tragedy or another big news story or another thing to get all worked up about.

But the Kingdom of God is simply not that way. 

God is up to something that is not safe or predictable or manageable. Scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes God ends up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field – mustard seeds that grow into wild, weed-like over-powering bushes. 

This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into a living plant. 

And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and threatening to take over. 

As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the Church. And then God has other ideas, seizing opportunities to throw us out of our comfort zones, to call us to find new and unexpected ways of being. God demands that we give up our narrow vision of the world, and instead embrace the wide-open, possibility-filled vision that God has for us. 

We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within our imagination and expectations. The Kingdom of God appears and grows in unexpected places from surprising seeds. 

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

To people who have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like, to the Israelites of the 1st Century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.  

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would never have predicted from the seed. 

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness. 

The Kingdom of God is meeting us on our screens, in our social media pages, in the outpouring of righteous outrage and compassionate support for survivors of residential schools and Indigenous communities, for the family and community of victims of the London terror attack, and for Muslims across the country. 

And in the scattered seeds of the Kingdom, God is reminding us that there is more work for us to do in order to achieve reconciliation – the work of justice, education, and change is upon us. God is reminding us that there is a new and unknown way of being the Church and a community of faith ahead for us, even if we don’t know what that will look like. 

New plants growing from the most surprising of places.

So as we struggle in this moment to find a world that meets our expectations, that conforms to a controllable, manageable state… we are reminded that God is busy with other plans. 

God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life. 

God Will Heal the People and the Land – With Us or Despite us

Content Warning: Residential Schools, Racism, Colonialism, Death of Children

GOSPEL: Mark 3:20-35
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

On Monday afternoon, after taking a family drive to make a socially distanced delivery, our household made its way to The Forks. As we drove through the city, the kids asked nervous and fearful questions about the news story that brought us there, trying to make sense of it all. After finding a parking spot and exiting the car, I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism that our family represented. Our children, reminders of the victims of the abuse and tragedy uncovered in Kamloops, Courtenay and I, members of the clergy class who took a central role in perpetrating it. 

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Today, we are turning the page on the first half of the church year, and entering into the more subdued season of green. For most of the next 26 or so weeks, we will remain in green Ordinary Time, hearing the stories, teachings, ministry, healing, exorcisms and exploits of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Mark. 

Yet, this turn towards Ordinary Time begins in a strange spot. Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and appointing his disciples. Then upon his return home, he finds several different groups of people upset with him. His family is searching for him, thinking that he has gone out of his mind. The scribes accuse him of teaching heresy. Crowds are clamouring to hear what he has to say. 

In the middle of it all, Jesus offers a parable-like example of Satan’s house divided against itself, about the strong man’s house being robbed, and about families in conflict and division. 

It is all rather messy and complicated: Jesus’ family, the scribes, his teachings and the crowds.

As usual, Mark is expecting much from his readers. He expects us to see the bigger and deeper picture: what it means for the divine Son of God, the Messiah to enter into the humanity’s messy state.

And this scene from Mark’s gospel is an example of a very human response to the divine Messiah. People got upset, people were confused, people demanded signs and miracles, people just didn’t know what to make of Jesus. 

At a time when our world is full of tragedy and suffering, full ICUs, struggling businesses, lonely seniors, haggard remote learning families and so on… This story comes to us at a particularly poignant moment in Canada. It has been difficult to overshadow the pandemic with news stories this past year. But there have been moments. Last year it was the killing of George Floyd. This year it is the tragic news coming out of Kamloops… the discovery of the remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Residential School. 

While the news came out Thursday night, it quickly snowballed into a furor of outrage, grief, sorrow and lament through days that followed. We have not changed. We are still the messy, confused, upset human beings that we hear about in Mark today. 

Just as Jesus points out that a house divided cannot stand, we are reminded that we are a divided and broken house. It was the revelation that opened the eyes of too many to Canada’s colonial history. It was something we should have known, a story that has been told over and over again to settler Canadians:

Six years on from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission…

After countless stories of systemic racism against indigenous peoples in our country… 

After news stories about the way the RCMP and other police forces target indigenous peoples…

After reports of indigenous over-representation in our prison system….

After it is revealed that indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19…

After indigenous treaty land rights are routinely ignored by governments for the sake of resource extraction…

After our governments and churches consistently apologize, lament, wring their hands, yet drag their feet when it comes to real action towards implementing reconciliation…

After decades of not providing clean drinking water to too many indigenous communities… 

After many mental health crises on First Nations causing too many young people to die of suicide…  

After all of that, it still took the remains of 215 children to wake us Settlers up, at least for now, to the fact that Canada is a divided and broken house, just like the one that Jesus describes. We are a nation that has yet to truly discern who our siblings and family are.

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When our family arrived at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks, there were about a dozen people scattered around the amphitheater. In the centre was the impromptu memorial. Shoes and stuffed animals, flowers and photos. As we stood at the top of the steps, a boy just Oscar’s age, an indigenous boy, came up and said to Oscar, “Can we be friends?” Oscar looked up at me, and I nodded. The two ran off to explore the edges of the installation. A little indigenous girl Maeve’s age came up to her wanting to see the baby doll that Maeve had brought with her. Together with Courtenay, the two girls made their way down the steps to the centre of the circle to get a closer look at the memorial. They walked around the shoes and stuffed animals, as Courtenay carefully told them the story of why these things were left in this place. 

I found a ledge to sit on and watch while they examined the items left at the circle. The pastor in me wanted to gather people and lead them in prayer. Or least to pray myself. Yet, many wise teachers remind us in moments like these it is good to slow down and listen. So, I let my prayer be listening. 

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In the middle of the disciples, crowds, the angry scribes and his upset family, Jesus’ responses seem odd at first. He rebuffs the religious authorities, telling them that their houses are divided, and unable to stand. Later he brushes off his family, claiming that his family is those who do the will of God. 

And yet, there is something more to what Jesus is doing. As the community around him splits off into factions all looking out for their own, Jesus keeps attending to his business. 

He has been healing, teaching, calling disciples, and soon he will be teaching the crowds in parables that will ring with familiarity to our ears. 

In the middle of this chaotic moment, Jesus holds steadfast to the work of God in the world. Jesus has come for a purpose, to bring the Kingdom of God near to God’s people. Even as the mess of humanity desperately tries to derail his mission, desperately tries to get some more miracles and healings out of him. Jesus sets himself to the task at hand – announcing God’s kingdom come near. 

It isn’t flashy or bold or dramatic, but determined and unmovable. Jesus invites those around him into the mission. Jesus invites those who would hear him into his Kingdom building… but if they will not participate, he will go about his business anyway. If those around him want to join in, Jesus calls them to follow.

Jesus reminds the scribes that he is there to do God’s work. 

Jesus reminds his family that all those who do the will of God are his family. 

Jesus reminds the crowds, that he is there on behalf of the God of all, reconciling creation with Creator.

All too often God knows that we need this reminder. That the work and ministry that we are called to, that Christ through the Body of Christ is doing is the work of the Kingdom. 

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When Courtenay, Maeve and her friend finally left the memorial in the middle of the circle, another family arrived. The two parents, with their three young kids, walked down to the memorial. As they walked, the mother called to her oldest son, about 5, to stand beside her. Her calm soft voice echoed across the amphitheater, she reminded her son of why they came, 

“Remember, these things are for the little ones that I told you about. We are going to offer them tobacco and pray that they go to the good place.” 

She took a pinch of sacred tobacco herbs and placed them in her son’s hands. He gingerly sprinkled them over the memorial, and began to pray. “Dear God, take care of all the little ones. Amen” And then the mother did the same with some more tobacco, praying silently to herself. 

There I was, a member of the Christian clergy, the same clergy that took children away to residential schools, and in this ancient meeting place, where the people of this land have lived from before Jesus was crucified, before the temple in Jerusalem was built, before the pyramids of Egypt were built… and I was bearing witness to the people and to the land, beginning the work of healing. Here were indigenous children and families, just like the ones that the church and government sought to educate, doing the very thing they tried to wipe out. 

It was a moment of grief and sadness, yet also a moment of hope. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work, a sign that, even when humanity drags our feet in the work of reconciliation, God is doing the work of bringing new life into the world. 

In the middle of our human mess, of our various factions being upset and confused and angry… 

Jesus is doing the work of God – with us or despite us.

And God is bringing hope and healing to the land. 

And God is bringing new life into the world. 

And Jesus is bringing God and God’s Kingdom near. 

Amen.