|Today’s scripture readings:
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The doors wouldn’t open until 5:30 on Friday morning, but by eight o’clock the night before, a line had already begun to form outside.
Inside the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, hundreds of dentists, dental students, and other volunteers had set up a massive, free dental clinic. They expected to serve around two thousand patients on a first-come, first-serve basis over the next two days.
Back outside, those who were first in line were hunkering down for the night. As she laid down a mat on the concrete, one woman was heard saying she really shouldn’t be sleeping on the hard floor, since she was recovering from a minor car accident. But, she said, it was worth it. Another man waiting outside described years of agony. “I was a heavy smoker,” he said. “I drank a lot of coffee and messed up my teeth. They just started falling apart. My whole face is just really messed up. At times I’ll swell up so much I can’t even talk. I haven’t really been able to eat solid food in ten years.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who are so eager for a dental exam that they would camp outside their dentist’s office the night before in hopes of getting an appointment the next day. I just had my teeth cleaned last week and I can tell you that none of the other patients I saw at the dentist’s office seemed very excited to be there. But the people who showed up in Duluth and waited hours to get in to the free dental clinic—even camping out overnight to hold their place in line—they were desperate. They made sacrifices to be there. They sacrificed a good night’s sleep, for one thing. But more than that, they sacrificed their dignity. I doubt many of them were very proud to be seen there, huddled outside the doors, sprawled out uncomfortably on their sleeping mats, completely dependent on someone else’s charity for their own health and well-being. But given all that they had been through, this was probably a small price to pay. When you’re that desperate, you’ll do almost anything, and sacrifice everything, to find relief.
Yesterday presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, where he had been invited to speak to political activists gathered there. A few minutes after he took the stage, over a hundred people in the crowd began chanting, disrupting the event and creating mass confusion. Moments later, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement came on stage and seized the microphone. “It’s not like we like shutting things down,” she said. “But we have to. We are in a state of emergency.” The demonstration continued for close to 20 minutes, while Governor O’Malley stood silently, awkwardly, waiting for things to settle down. Protestors allowed O’Malley just a few uninterrupted minutes to respond to their concerns before his allotted time was up and he left the stage.
Watching the video of the ordeal made me squirm. The protest was disrespectful. It was embarrassing. Storming the stage and taking over someone else’s event isn’t how proper, well-behaved people get what they want. But, for better or for worse, these protestors have had it with “proper” and “well-behaved.” They’re done trying to maintain their dignity and play by someone else’s rules. They’ve had it with business as usual. They perceive their community to be in a state of emergency. They are desperate. And when you’re that desperate, you’ll do almost anything, and sacrifice everything, to demand relief.
A few Sundays ago the gospel lesson had Jesus sending his disciples out two by two and giving them authority to cast out demons and heal the sick. In today’s gospel lesson, they’ve returned, and they tell Jesus about all they have seen and done. Many people have found healing, physically, spiritually, and in their relationships with one another. Hearing of their successful mission, Jesus calls his disciples to join him in a deserted place where they can rest awhile. The ministry of healing is exhausting work, after all, and they need an opportunity to recharge and care for themselves.
I really like a Jesus who wants to talk to me about the importance of self-care and taking a break, of keeping Sabbath. I could totally preach a sermon about that.
But there’s a problem. The crowds of people that have gathered around Jesus see him and the twelve getting into a boat and departing, and the crowds follow by land. When Jesus and the disciples reach their destination, they are met by an even larger crowd. It’s not at all the restful wilderness place they had been seeking. I might have been tempted to give them all the church office phone number. “Talk to Pastor Bradley or Pastor Lois—I’m on vacation!” But not Jesus. He sees the crowd and has compassion, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus and the twelve get out of the boat, and the scene the gospel writer describes next sounds frenzied and chaotic. People from throughout the region are rushing about, bringing the sick to him, taking over the marketplaces, begging to touch even the fringe of his cloak. You don’t get the sense that these were people who were much concerned with proper decorum, calmly taking a number and waiting their turn to see Jesus. Rather, I imagine folks pushing and shoving, crying and screaming, elbowing their way to the front of the line, sacrificing their dignity to obtain the healing they longed for. When you’re that desperate, you’ll do almost anything, and sacrifice everything, to find relief.
Can you imagine what would happen if people actually believed the church was a place of healing, a place where they could find wholeness? If people camped outside the doors on Saturday night to be sure there would be room for them here on Sunday morning? If, heaven forbid, they rudely interrupted the sermon and demanded to be baptized and welcomed into the household of God, right there on the spot? If they elbowed their way to the front of the communion line because they longed so desperately for a taste of God’s love?
I think most of us—myself included—would be terrified. We design worship for people who like things to be neat and orderly, who don’t like too many surprises, who want to feel like everything is under control. The last thing we want is to be made to feel uncomfortable.
And so, people who really are desperate for healing and wholeness are more likely to find themselves in therapy or support groups, reading self-help books, or experimenting with alternative medicine, than making their way to church. Those of us who are here every Sunday: I wonder, do we recognize church as a place where we can show up in all our desperation and brokenness and expect to find healing? Or is church, like so many other places in our lives, a place where we sense that our pain isn’t welcome, where being honest about our struggles just makes the people around us uncomfortable?
Every so often at Gloria Dei, we are very intentional about creating space for us to be real with one another. On our annual Recovery Sunday, we hear the stories of people who have struggled with addiction themselves or whose family members struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. During Mental Health Awareness month we talk openly about mental illness and encourage those who suffer to seek help. The stigma around addiction and mental health issues often prevents us from opening up about our own experiences and need for wholeness. That’s why we mark Recovery Sunday and Mental Health Awareness month. If there’s any place where we should be able to talk openly about these issues and seek healing and support, it’s here in the church.
What if that became the regular culture of this congregation? What if we developed the courage to radically welcome those who desperately long for healing and wholeness, to hear their stories without flinching, to lean in rather than backing away, to hold their hands and pray together, to walk with them through their darkest valleys? And what if we developed the courage to be honest with one another about the desperate longings in our own lives so that we, too, could find healing in the support of this community?
The world is desperate for healing. May this be a place where all can find it. Amen.
“Black Lives Matter Protesters Interrupt Martin O’Malley at Netroots Nation,” YouTube video, posted by James Roguski, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMg2oT5Fgdo
Robert A. Bryant, “Mark 6:30-34, 53-56: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Cheryl Bridges Johns, “Mark 6:30-34, 53-56: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Dan Kraker, “Hundreds show up for free dental care in Duluth,” Minnesota Public Radio, July 17, 2015, http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/07/17/free-dental-clinic-duluth.
John Lundy, “Free dental clinic rises in the DECC,” Duluth News Tribune, July 16, 2015, http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/news/3798902-free-dental-clinic-rises-decc.
Karen Marie Yust, “Mark 6:30-34, 53-56: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).