February 15, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Mark 1:35-45

Moment of Impact: When Anger Collides with Compassion

Let me begin with one of my favorite stories of peacemaking. It happened fifteen years ago, on a December afternoon just as it was getting dark. I was with a group of friends who had signed out a van from our college, so we could make the twenty-mile trip into Manhattan to attend a rally. Only problem was trying to park a van in New York City at rush hour. We did exactly what you have to do, and we found a parking garage with astronomical hourly rates. Only problem now was that we misread the sign and tried to enter the garage through the exit.

I can tell you that the sign was confusing because there was a car behind us, some kind of Mercedes, trying to do the same thing. Abby, the girl driving the van, thought it might work to just pull forward and get out of the way, but as you might expect, that’s when a car came toward us trying to exit.

Now we were stuck, and the other drivers were fuming! We were getting honked at from both directions. The man in the Mercedes got out of his car, cursing and coming toward us. You would think that it would be smart to stay in the van and lock the doors, but one of my friends, Luke, decided to get out and approach this angry Mercedes driver. We don’t know what he said, but we all watched Luke speak calmly to this man behind the van.

It took the man completely by surprise, and as we watched, we could practically see his blood pressure come back down. Luke and this man were making a plan. The man went into the street and began directing traffic so he would have enough room to back up in his car. Meanwhile, Luke walked up to the driver of the car coming toward us and explained what happened. She was able to back up a little bit to give us room to maneuver. Before long, Abby backed the van down the ramp and onto the street.

I know what I saw on that December afternoon. Something holy happens when anger rises up and crashes right into compassion. Something holy happens when you see someone who’s angry and you go up to that person and ask them for help. This is the work of peacemaking.

Today we conclude our winter sermon series. For the past few Sundays, we’ve been exploring Jesus’ ministry in the first chapter of Mark in light of the question that goes, What can this teach us about our own outreach ministry at Church of Peace?

Our story today begins and ends with Jesus trying to go off by himself and be alone, and that is not working out for him. It’s like a piece of music that begins with two lines of melody played as a solo, then the middle swells and grows with all the orchestral variations, then the piece ends with those same two lines of melody played in a single voice.

To begin with, Jesus gets up while it is still dark and goes out to a deserted place to pray. Before long, Simon and the disciples find Jesus and greet him by announcing, “Everyone is searching for you.” We don’t know whether Jesus let out a sigh, or whether he uttered under his breath, “Geez Louise! Can’t you just give me a minute!”

In the story Jesus gets up and says to Simon, “All right! Let us go to the neighboring towns so I may proclaim the message. After all, that is what I came out to do.” Whether he’s cheerful or whether’s he resentful, or whether he’s both, Jesus goes throughout Galilee proclaiming the Gospel and casting out demons. This is the Jesus we know. He is preaching, and teaching, and saving the world.

Then Jesus meets this guy. A man with a skin disease comes up to him, and falls down on his knees, and begs him. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Some translations say Jesus was moved with pity. Some translations say Jesus was moved with anger. Either way, Jesus reaches out and touches him! He says, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately, the man is healed.

The Bible says, Jesus snorts at the man. Jesus speaks to him sternly saying, “Don’t tell anybody what I did! Just go to the priest as the law commands, so you will be declared clean.”

How does Jesus get away with this? He seems irritated and frustrated. Jesus gets angry at the person most in need of his help. Before I hear myself say, “Who is this Jesus?” I know. The truth is, I know exactly what it’s like to feel this way. And if you have ever tried to help someone in need, I’m pretty sure that you do too.

There’s no way to help someone in need without remembering your own need for help. No way to see someone’s vulnerability without experiencing our own vulnerability. Ask anybody who’s ever tried. When you help someone in need, you can feel your heart fill with rage and break in compassion, all in the same moment.

There is a terrific quote attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. What I love is that it exactly captures this intermingling of frustration and compassion.

“We the willing, led by the unknowing,

are doing the impossible, for the ungrateful.

We have done so much, with so little, for so long.

We are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

“We the willing, led by the unknowing,

are doing the impossible, for the ungrateful.

We have done so much, with so little, for so long.

We are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

Do you hear how she takes complaining and turns it into encouraging? Our resentment can turn into generosity. Our weary indignation can turn into hope.

Here at Church of Peace, we might often feel burn out when it comes to our ministries of mission and outreach. When we are struggling to pay our own bills, how can we afford to spend money on the food pantry? When we are tired and worn out ourselves, how can we do the heavy lifting in keeping these programs going? We always need more money and more volunteers. So it might seem like the church should focus more on inreach rather than outreach. It might seem like that’s the choice. But I’m not sure that it is.

In our story today, we can relate to Jesus who might be moved by compassion, or moved by anger, or moved by both. But can you imagine what it is like for this man with the skin disease? Somehow he manages to stop the wandering preacher and fall down before him. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus sighs and snorts on him, but he heals him too.

Imagine feeling the scales fall off your face leaving healthy smooth skin. Now you can finally go home. You can go back to your people!  This morning you woke up with a terrible disease, and now you are well. Here Jesus is grumbling at you saying, “Go to the priest. But don’t tell anyone! I can’t have this keep happening.” Here God’s healing is poured out upon you, and now there’s no way to stay quiet!

This man who is made well goes into the streets and takes up the work of Jesus by proclaiming the word of God. What happens is he and Jesus have switched places. Now it’s Jesus who goes into hiding to escape the demand from the crowds. I wonder if this gives Jesus a break. I know the people find him in the country and come to him from every quarter. See when this man asked Jesus for help, that changed the story for everybody.

Something holy happens when anger rises up and crashes right into compassion. Something holy happens when you see someone who’s angry and you go up to that person and ask them for help. This is the work of peacemaking.

What would it mean if we, as a congregation, would take our weary worry and turn this into a request for help? We could do more asking for help — not just of each other, but from our neighbors and from the people whom we’re trying to help. Not everybody can give money, I know. Not everybody can perform a miraculous healing like Jesus. But everybody can help in some way.

When we bring together all our needs and our gifts, we remember that it is not all about us. The promise of the Gospel is greater, and the Gospel will not stay quiet. Ask for help, and the word gets out. Anger turns into peace, and the grace of God is on the loose.

Let me close with a story of peacemaking. A few months ago, Chris and I were shopping for food to donate. We had a cart full of groceries, and it was almost time for the store to close, so there were just one or two check out lanes open. We went to one and began unloading the food onto the belt, when a man and a small child got on line behind us. I see they have one item. So I become preemptively irritated.

Look, we’ve already started unloading our cart. It’s too late to let them go ahead of us, but I’m convinced they are going to get annoyed with us. There was a prickly tension you could feel. I was mad at them for being impatient. Only problem was they were not impatient.

The man noticed that we had a lot of the same kind of each thing. He said to me, “Either you really like cheerios, or this is food you’re donating.” “Yes” I snorted. “Well, we can help you with that.” Now all my defensive anger turned over and melted.

The man and the little boy helped us unload our cart, they helped us bag all the groceries, and they helped us re-pack the cart. In these few minutes, they turned prickly frustration into cheerful working together. (And it was not lost on me. That one item the man and the boy were trying to purchase was a child-size Batman costume. Always let Batman help you with groceries!)

Friends, I really believe. God has a vision for our world and for Church of Peace beyond what we see right now. We don’t know what it will mean for us —beyond our plans for fundraising, beyond ideas for new service projects. So come, bless the anger and frustration that rise up and turn into compassion. Bless the asking for help. This is how the word gets out. The grace of God is on the loose and you better believe it won’t stay quiet. Hallelujah! Amen.

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