To the other side

“Let us go across to the other side,” Jesus had said to the disciples that evening when they took him with them in the boat. There was a great windstorm that night, and waves were beating into the boat, and the disciples were terrified, fearing the boat would go down and all of them with it, but Jesus commanded the sea to be still and the wind to cease. They crossed over to the other side to the country of the Gerasenes, and it was a stormy crossing. When they reached the other shore, immediately a man out of the tombs met Jesus, a man possessed by a legion of demons, and Jesus commanded the demons to leave the man, and they entered a herd of pigs, and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned. The storm at sea had only been the prelude to the storm unleashed on land, a storm of liberation among people who had not known the power of God who redeems the oppressed.

Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction: From heaven to earth, from Jewish communities to the world of the Gentiles, from the streets where the poor struggle to survive to the homes of the wealthy, from rural Galilee to the city of Jerusalem, from rules written in stone to justice written in mercy, from death to life.

Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction, but his crossings are never random zig-zag trips to wherever. They are purposeful invasions. They bring the very life and power of God into situations where life has been kept from flourishing.

I’m lingering with this theme of crossing over because on Friday the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case marking a major cultural and legal shift in how we think and talk about marriage. For many of us, the decision affirmed what we believe equality before the law demands for same-sex couples. For some of us, the decision also affirmed what we believe to be the meaning of marriage as a Christian covenant of love and fidelity between two adults. For others among us, however, the court’s decision marks the end of Christian teaching informing the secular definition of marriage. The Supreme Court has ruled, but in the church things are far from settled. And so we must continue to be patient with each other, because some of us think the boat is being swamped by terrifying waves and there’s no way we’re not going down, while a good number of us are convinced we have finally reached the other shore where equality and a fuller meaning of marriage are at home.

Nancy and I had our twentieth wedding anniversary on Thursday. We were married in this sanctuary on Sunday, June 25, 1995, during morning worship. We celebrated our anniversary with a short trip, and before you get too carried away with ideas of a romantic get-away to the mountains or the lake, let me bring you back to earth. We went to visit Tennessee Tech and the University of Tennessee with our son; Miles will be a Senior after the summer, and we want him to see a few schools before he decides which college to attend. It was a curious choice to celebrate our anniversary with a college tour, but it was only partly driven by our schedules; our children and their well-being have been and will continue to be a significant dimension of our marriage, and so a college visit didn’t seem foreign at all. We toured UT on Friday morning, and I caught a headline about the Supreme Court decision on my phone, but I didn’t have time to read more; we were exploring dorm rooms, rec centers, and libraries. Yesterday I had time to read through the ruling, and I was moved by the language of the final paragraph concluding the argument for marriage equality:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.  In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.[1]

I believe this is a good decision, and not only for constitutional reasons. This decision lifts up and affirms the profoundly biblical character of marriage as a covenant rooted in God’s covenants of love and fidelity. The conversation isn’t over, though, it never is, and so we must continue to be patient with each other as we talk about the meaning of Christian marriage in an age when commitments of all kinds are under pressure by self-centered visions of life. I have lingered with the theme of crossing over to help us remember that we are in the boat with Jesus, and that the journey to the other side is a journey of promise, because Jesus brings the very life and power of God to us.

Our gospel passage for this day begins, “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him.” Jesus doesn’t cross over randomly, but to bring life, new life to all who are oppressed by the power of death. Jesus comes and people gather. One of the many in the crowd is a synagogue president named Jairus, a man with a name, a man with a reputation and a position to uphold. But he is clearly a man at the end of his rope, a desperate man. He falls at Jesus’ feet, his hands and knees in the dust, and he begs 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.” His love for his daughter has made a beggar of Jairus. He doesn’t have the power to make her well, but he has heard enough about Jesus to be drawn to him. Driven solely by his love for his child and leaving behind any thought of position or propriety, Jairus falls to his knees and begs Jesus to come and lay his hands on his daughter. And Jesus comes with him. The child is at death’s door, but Jairus trusts that the touch of Jesus’ hands is the touch of life. How far is it from the shore to the house? How big is the crowd they have to push through to get to the girl’s bed? How long will it take? How much time do they have? Can’t you see him, pushing against bodies, gently at first, with his hands, then with his shoulders, pleading, shouting, “Let him through! Please, step aside! My little girl is dying.” And then, surrounded by people on every side, Jesus turns around and says, “Who touched my clothes?”

We’re the only ones who know about the woman in the crowd, the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, the woman who has spent all she had on medical bills, the woman who hasn’t touched anyone in twelve years because of her condition and no one has touched her, the woman whose life has been dripping away slowly, the woman who heard about Jesus and came up behind him, saying to herself, over and over again, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” only we know about the woman in the crowd who reached out and touched his cloak.And immediately she felt that she was healed, but we’re the only ones who know about her.

Jesus is aware that power has gone out of him, and when he turns around and asks, “Who touched me?” she comes forward in fear and trembling and tells him the whole truth of her suffering and her poverty, the whole truth of her loneliness and her shame, and her hopelessness that ended when she heard of him and how all she could think of was, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

That was all the faith she had, and now Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, free from your affliction.” He calls her daughter, which is such an important part of the whole truth, because she is not just some anonymous impoverished woman in the crowd, but a member of God’s family, a child of God. He calls her daughter, and that reminds us of Jairus and his little girl, and suddenly we remember the urgency with which he begged and pleaded. What about her?

The people who have come from the house say it’s too late now. “Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any more?” But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, only have faith.” Hold on to the faith that brought you here. He goes to the house where the funeral is already underway, and he takes her mom and dad into her room with him, and he takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up!” And she gets up.

That’s almost too much to take in, isn’t it? We know too many stories with a different ending. I’m praying for a family and their little girl who almost drowned in the pool on Wednesday; she is in a coma and I ask Jesus to go into her room with her mom and dad and take her by the hand and say, “Little girl, get up!”

But it’s not about knowing the magic words that will produce the outcome I want. As much as I or Jairus or any mom and dad might want that power to make our kids well or to change the world in an instant to make it a home for them and their children; to make it a world where each one’s uniqueness is honored and cherished, a world where the dignity of every child of God is sacred. It’s not about knowing the magic words, it’s about trusting God; it’s about holding on to the faith that draws us to Jesus. It’s about letting ourselves trust in him.

Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction: from heaven to earth, from Jewish communities to the world of the Gentiles, from the streets where the poor struggle to survive to the homes of the wealthy, from rural Galilee to the city of Jerusalem, from rules written in stone to justice written in mercy, from death to life. Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction and he takes us with him to where life in fullness awaits us all.


[1] Opinion of the Court, p. 28