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Taking a Breath

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 5:21-43

Before coming to the pulpit this morning I took a deep breath. It’s something I often do as a way of trying to focus, of calming my nerves a little. After all, this congregation can be pretty intimidating with a level of expertise and experience that is unusual! In pastoral rounds over the years I have found it helpful to pause outside a hospital door, or in the driveway of a family in crisis, and send up a mini-prayer as I take a breath. While working at the Denominational Center I had the privilege of assisting a number of congregations in their planning for ministry, and it was customary for me to take a breath before heading into an initial meeting with a group of folks I did not know. In this I’m not alone, I’m sure. I’ve noticed, watching the Grizzlies play, that frequently a player steps to the foul line and—among many other well-rehearsed tics and starts—takes a deep breath before launching the free throw. Baseball players approaching the batter’s box often do the same thing. Gymnasts at the Olympic Games inhale deeply before beginning the floor exercise or the vault. These days I sometimes need to take a breath just to watch the news! In the movie “The King’s Speech” the thing that seemed most effective in helping Prince Albert deal with his speech impediment was to take a breath. Maybe you have done this occasionally to deal with apprehension and to put your most confident self out there. I’m not certain of the physiology of the matter, but I expect filling the lungs provides a boost of oxygen to the bloodstream that makes us feel stronger and more relaxed. The Harvard Medical Health Letter (website) puts the practice under the heading of stress management.

This comes to mind today because for the first time in thirty-four years, this church is without a full-time pastor. Some here have known no other pastor in their Christian experience, and many have loved no other pastor like William. So there is an inevitable feeling of uncertainty in the air. In addition, Linda has taken a well-deserved retirement from the position of music director, and Claudette from the DCE post. To say the church is facing a period of adjustment would be an understatement. We are happy and grateful for these wonderful servants who now step away from leadership, but we can’t help feeling a little stress about the church’s challenging future as well. Part of my role as interim pastor, I think, is to invite us to take a spiritual breath in preparation for the next step in the continuing journey of faithful ministry that is the life of Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with the Scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel just shared. Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder the same thing! I should admit that in my study of Scripture for the purpose of preaching, I sometimes try to read between the lines, to put myself in the scene in an attempt to better understand it. I realize this is speculative and subjective, and I’m leery of stretching the text too far. Today we have before us the familiar story of Christ’s healing of a woman who touched his robe, and the daughter of a leader of the local synagogue. The same account, with minor alterations, is given in the three Synoptic Gospels. So when we follow the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday Scripture readings, this account comes up regularly. Its very familiarity, though, pushes us to think about it in a new way.

The two characters featured in our story are quite different. Jairus was perhaps the president of the local congregation, while the woman who reached out to Christ was regarded as ritually ineligible to participate in the synagogue due to her condition. He was a man well known in his community, an upstanding citizen, known by everyone as the respectable Jairus. The woman, on the other hand, is unnamed in the account, a person of comparatively limited status in the community. But the two of them have one thing in common. They are distraught.

There is no fear like the fear a parent has for a sick child, and Jairus feared for the life of his little girl. His concern for her outweighed all other considerations. So when he learned that Jesus of Nazareth was in town, he set aside any thought of his own reputation in approaching this one that most of his friends regarded as an imposter, a blasphemer. Then in the terse prose of the Gospel, we’re told that the woman in the pressing crowd had suffered her affliction twelve years, had seen many doctors to no avail. Instead of getting better she got worse, and she had run through her life savings. Not only was she physically ill and weak, but the malady restricted her social interactions as well. She had heard reports of Jesus’ healing powers, and learning that he was passing through, she seized on the possibility of seeing him, hoping against hope that he could help her. If only she could touch his cloak! Yes, it was risky, because the custom of the day made what she contemplated taboo.

So it is safe to say that both of these people were under a lot of stress that day. And we would not be surprised if, when Jairus rounded a corner and saw the Master with his disciples, the elder took a deep breath, then charged ahead. Nor would we be surprised if that morning, before the woman crossed her threshold into the busy street with the crowd drawing near, she drew a breath to bolster her nerve.

Scripture sometimes alludes to what might be thought of as a sacred pause. The preeminent example is the sabbath, instituted at the time of the Exodus. The Lord commanded that every seventh day the people were to keep the sabbath as a holy rest, abstaining from work, because God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. [Ex 20:8ff] And there are other texts where we can infer a momentary pause, like taking a breath. Moses, for instance, was captivated by the sight of a burning bush that was not consumed, and the Lord told him to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground—surely a breath-taking moment! [Ex 3:5] Isaiah, praying in the temple, had a vision of the Almighty, high and lifted up, but instead of rejoicing he cried, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone!’ [Isa 6:5] Knowing himself to be a man of unclean lips, he fell silent before the Lord. Queen Esther heard her adoptive father Mordecai challenge her to use her influence with the king to stay his plans for the decimation of the Jews. She then asked that he organize a three-day fast of the people, and she would do the same before she appeared before the king, risking her life. ‘Who knows,’ Mordecai had said, ‘but that you have come to the kingdom for just such a time as this!’ [Est 4:14] And through the Psalmist the Lord invites those who are faithful to ‘be still and know that I am God.’ [Ps 46:10] There is, with the sudden awareness of the nearness of God, a kind of breathlessness that comes on us, a hesitation, a space in which to discern the way forward with God.

So it was that when the prophet Ezekiel at last arrived in Babylon with the other exiles from Jerusalem, his head spinning with visions and his mind reeling from the disaster that had befallen his countrymen, he sat down by the River Chebar and could say nothing for seven days. [Ezek 3:15] But then the word of the Lord came powerfully to him, and amidst the word of judgment, ultimately the message he received was one of hope. In a vision the prophet saw a valley of dry bones, the listless, lifeless people of the Exile. But from the four winds the Lord caused breath to wash over the valley so that Israel would live again! [Ezek 37:10] Ever since the Creator breathed into First Man the breath of life, and Adam became a living soul, the divine breath has sustained us. The breath we breathe is the divine breath. [Gen 2:7] And you recall that when the Risen Christ imparted his Spirit to the quavering disciples, he breathed upon them! [Jn 2:22]

We have no difficulty imagining that when that woman who reached out to Jesus heard him say, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace,” she breathed a great sigh of relief! And through the sobs of Jairus and his family when they saw their twelve-year old daughter running into their arms, what a breath-giving moment we perceive!

Yet with all this talk about taking a breath I don’t want to sound an uncertain note, to borrow a phrase from St. Paul. [1 Cor 14:8] This interim period between pastors is by no means marking time for the church! On the contrary, the congregation has been proactive in the discernment process, seeking professional guidance, listening to the membership through focus groups, engaging in prayerful and visionary projections for the church’s current and future ministry with strategic planning. Your pastoral search team is already at work in anticipation of the stringent challenges inherent in finding a permanent pastor. So the interim is a time of preparation, of renewed commitment. It’s the opportunity to catch our spiritual “second wind” at this critical juncture of the church’s life.

This church is unique in providing a bit of a summer break with its suspension of Sunday school and the choir’s lighter schedule. Summer at Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown has always been viewed as a time of rejuvenation, re-grouping for the fresh start of a new academic and ecclesiastical year. This summer especially let me ask that you make prayer for your church job one in your spiritual disciplines, and that you make every effort to support your church and its ministries with your presence and your gifts. It will be tempting to regard this time as a chance to step back from church involvement. But the message we have to share as ambassadors for Christ is too important for that! [2 Cor 5:20] In a world of great conflict, a time of polarization and disregard for human dignity, we are given the ministry of reconciliation. [2 Cor 5:18] We are to represent the kind of sensitivity and responsiveness to human need that Jesus shows in today’s Scripture. He embodied divine love, and in his name we strive to love one another as he calls us to do, and to love the world of neighbors around us. Some think this is idealistic. I believe it is genuine realism. Hatred cannot thwart hatred. Violence cannot end violence. Greed cannot overcome greed. Only the love Christ has demonstrated for us can deal with the deep-seated evils in us and in the world. So the way you can assure that the church moves in the direction you’d like to see it go is to step up! Take a breath, yes, but only in order to get started with renewed energy. The Lord Jesus said to that worried father: “Do not fear; only believe!” That’s the attitude I would urge upon us today.

There’s a sense in which our moment at the Table of the Lord is a sacred pause, a time for taking a breath before the Lord, of seeking God’s direction and opening our lives once more to the empowering breath of the Spirit. May the Sacrament nourish us today in this time of preparation and discernment as a congregation of God’s beloved community.

—George R. Estes, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, July 1, 2018

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