“Yearning To Breathe Free”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 1, 2018
“Yearning to breathe free”—that is one of the more famous lines from the poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns the golden plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem by Lazarus, with its imagery of tired, poor, huddled masses, came to mind this week as I studied the gospel lesson because right there in the gospel of Mark is a huddled mass yearning to breathe free.
First, we meet Jairus. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue. Just by virtue of his gender, position, and status, Jairus enjoys a very comfortable lifestyle. His position in church and society is the stuff of dreams. Leaders in the synagogue were wealthy and well-known, and they were given great respect because it was believed that they were leaders chosen by God himself. But Jairus, with all of his power and prestige and wealth, is reduced to a painful impotence that every parent feels when their child is sick. There is no power, no prestige, no wealth that can help Jairus right now. He is so desperate to find help for his dying daughter that he throws himself down at the feet of Jesus and says, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” It must have been a spectacle to see—such a powerful man bent over to the feet of Jesus. But that pales in comparison to this father’s desperation over his dying daughter.
Next, while Jesus is on his way to the house where the daughter of Jairus is dying, we meet a woman who is not given a name. Instead, we come to know her based on her medical history. Twelve years, Mark tells us, this woman has been suffering from hemorrhages. The medical community has failed her and she is completely destitute from paying the medical bills. We’ll never know what caused the hemorrhaging, only that it pushed the woman even further to fringes of society. She was already a second-class citizen because she was a woman; now, with an unknown disease involving blood, her status was even lower. It is very likely that she hardly left the house for fear of being stoned to death or sent into exile for being unclean.
Finally, we meet the daughter of Jairus, another unnamed female. She says nothing in this story, but her condition speaks loudly. She is surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of her community; her father’s status earned her the best medical care available; the family had no problem paying for it. But still she lays there dying. When Jesus arrives at the house, there is a commotion, people outside weeping and wailing loudly—it appears that Jesus is too late and the daughter has died. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” Jesus says to the crowd and they laugh at him. Frustrated, Jesus puts everyone out of the house. Taking Jairus and his wife into the house, Jesus cradles the little girls’ hand in his own and says, “Talitha, cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”
Each of these characters comes from a very different status and position in life. However, each is united by a yearning to breathe free.
Jairus yearns for his daughter to be made well and his yearning is met when Jesus raises her up to new life. A sick daughter is reason enough to plead with Jesus to come, but Jairus had even more at stake. If you are a leader chosen by God, it is generally assumed that God is on your side. That is, until some terrible thing happens to you or your family. From that point on, you’re cursed, you’re unrighteous, you’re on God’s bad side and God is punishing you. Jairus’ sick daughter meant the end of his family and his work, total ruin. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter to new life, and in doing so he restores Jairus to his place of respect and wholeness in the community.
The unnamed woman with hemorrhages yearns for health and a little respect; her yearning is met when she touches the hem of Jesus’ robe. We can’t imagine the woman’s bravery in leaving her home, pushing through the crowd, and doing something so unheard of as touching the robe of a man, a man who she did not know. But after more than a decade of suffering from a painful and debilitating disease, she had no other options. Crawling through the crowd, scrapping forward to just touch a thread of Jesus’ robe, took everything she had. Jesus did not scold her and he did not tell her to back away because she was a woman and unclean. Instead, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” and those twelve years of suffering and pain melted completely away.
Jairus’ daughter yearns to be a child again, to run and play and laugh, to be free. She teeters on the edge of death until Jesus comes and lifts her out of bed. Jesus names her, calling her daughter. The little girl had no rights, no power, no say in anything that will happen to her in life. Yet Jesus regards her as a precious and valuable child of God, worthy of life in abundance, health, well-being, and wholeness. She may never have a name in the books of the Bible, but she has a name from Jesus: daughter.
I think sometimes we become immune to just how compassionate Jesus truly is. We read these ancient stories and our enlightened minds rationalize and contextualize and we miss the miraculous thing that is right in front of us. The biggest miracle in this story is not the healing and the peaceful things Jesus says, though. That is miraculous, but the real miracle is how Jesus treats each person with a tremendous amount of dignity and respect. Regardless of status or position, Jesus responds to each with compassion and care, meeting each person where they are, lifting them to glory beyond anything they could imagine. The way Jesus acts towards these men and women yearning to breathe free is scandalous; it put him at odds with the religious and political establishment, and it even put him at odds with his family.
Jesus is showing us something here: it does not matter who a person is, it does not matter where that person comes from, it does not matter what disease they have or how unclean or impure someone might be...history doesn’t even matter to the Jesus. Jesus takes every person as they are. A wealthy synagogue leader, who may or may not have gotten to that position by unsavory means? Yup, worthy of dignity and respect. An impoverished woman who bleeds constantly and can’t leave her home or go to work or have coffee with friends? Yup, worthy of dignity and respect. A little girl who is sick for some reason, who the doctor’s can’t help and who can’t help herself? Yup, worthy of dignity and respect. That dignity and respect comes in the form of healing, restoration, wholeness; it comes in the form of a breath of fresh air into tired and weary lungs.
This is the tremendously good news of the Gospel for us today. The good news is that Jesus does not have compassion on anyone, you and me included, based on our position or power or wealth or worthiness or ability to pay or where we have come from or where we are going. Jesus regards us with deep compassion and love because we are God’s people, the messy and beautiful creations that God called ‘very good’ at the beginning of time. The good news is that Jesus recognizes the things that keep us from claiming his abundant life: disease, social stigma, economic or political oppression, pain and suffering, sin and death. Jesus came into this world to set us free, free to live as God intends for us to live. Christ’s power in this world and over us puts all those nasty and dark things to shame so that we can rise and live as the children of God.
As he did for Jairus, Jesus goes to where the need is most visible. Like the woman with the hemorrhages, Jesus does not scold us for the things that keep us down and out; instead, he blesses us and sends us away healed. With an outstretched hand, Jesus calls us, sons and daughters, to get up and claim the resurrected life only he can give. There is only one simple thing we must do: we must reach out to him. Even if we can only grasp one single thread of the fabric of Christ’s robe, he will respond. If the only thing we can do is send someone to plead with him on our behalf, Jesus will answer. When the only thing we can do is bow and his feet and plead, “Thy will be done,” that is enough. We are enough. Jesus responds and acts; when we yearn to breathe free, Christ is the breath that fills our lungs. He always has been and he always will be.
This good news comes with a challenge, though, my friends. Jesus did not come into the world only to heal us and set us free and banish the powers of sin and darkness back to hell where they belong. He says to each of us, “Come, follow me.” That means that we have a baptismal calling to follow Jesus and do the things that he does. It is an understatement to say that there are huddled masses all around us at this very moment, yearning to breathe free. Of course, I’m talking about those who seek a better life in a different land, those displaced by war and famine and disease, those who have been kicked out or locked out or beaten down. But I’m also talking about people we meet every day. I’m talking about the mother who worries herself bald trying to figure out how she and her children will survive on the wages she brings home. I’m talking about the father or son who simply can’t meet the world’s standards of masculine power and violence. I’m talking about the teacher who, at this very moment, is trying to figure out how his students will learn when he simply can’t buy another school supply with his own money. I’m talking about the pastor who is told over and over that her sermons are too political and that she should just keep her nose, and Jesus, out of things. I’m talking about the family member who knows they won’t survive. I’m talking about you and me.
All of these people yearn to breathe free—you and I yearn to breathe free. And each one of us has a God-given obligation to meet these people with the compassion, dignity, and respect of our Lord Jesus Christ. We also have a God-given obligation to meet one another with the same compassion, dignity, and respect. We talk about this way of life a lot around here, but I for one need to hear it over and over. Following Jesus does not require us to have a close, intimate relationship with every person we meet. Jesus does not call us to agree with each other’s political, sexual, or religious orientation. Jesus calls us to be united as he is with the Father, and commands us to love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, as ourselves. This means that we are not permitted to disrespect, dishonor, or demean. This type of behavior is not compatible with Jesus. And, boy, what a breathe of free air that will blow into the lungs of the world right now. Respect, honor, dignity—these are things of Jesus, and these are things we must do if we really claim to be his followers. To do anything less is to simply fail God and the calling God has placed on each of our lives.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the final line of Emma Lazarus’ poem says, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-torn to me, I life my lamp beside the golden door!” In the week to come, we will celebrate the things that lead so many seek that golden door. Chief among these is freedom. Let us remember that our true freedom comes not from the government, but from Jesus who frees us to live life in abundance. Let us reach out to him so that he can heal our wounds and diseases. Let us also be a sign and good word from the Lord, to the world and to one another. Let us work with Jesus for a world where all can breathe truly free. May it be so. Amen.