Tomorrow we celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Like all of us, he was a flawed human. And like all of us, filled with the potential to prophetically speak truth to power. We may never speak as eloquently or to as large of crowds, but we all have the ability to speak, to be prophets, in a world desperately in need of truth-tellers, community builders, justice-workers, and peace-makers.

The apostle Mark was just such a prophet, and in today’s Bible passage, his voice booms! But do we hear it? If you’re like me, you’ve been lulled to sleep by bible teaching that domesticates a revolutionary God. When we fail to see just how revolutionary not just Jesus, but the entire Bible is, we reflect that domestication in our interactions with the world around us. So let’s take a closer look.

We know that the authors of the gospels brought their own writing styles into their stories of Jesus. How and why they arranged the stories is important. In today’s passage we have a couple of pretty straight-forward healing stories, right? Or do we?[i]

The scene opens with Jairus, a powerful religious leader, coming to Jesus and asking directly for him to heal his daughter. While he does ask with humility, there is nothing about him that keeps him from approaching Jesus. He is powerful, he is elite, he is male, and he has plenty of social clout. Jesus begins to follow him to his home in order to heal the man’s daughter.

Along the way we encounter a bleeding woman. She is unclean, untouchable, outside not just social class, but excluded from community itself. In her culture, as in our own, the poor sick were often made poorer by promises of healing at great economic cost. This woman had been fully exploited by the system, we’re told, having spent “all that she had” and only getting worse.

She is humble and fearful. She is also courageous and filled with faith. Because of her condition she shouldn’t even be in this crowd.  She knows her place and she knows that what she’s about to do will make Jesus ceremonially unclean! Still, she reaches out her hand in hope, touching his clothes and finding the healing she so desperately desires.

Jesus, aware that healing has taken place, immediately stops. He knows what’s happened, but his disciples and the other followers are oblivious. Trembling in fear, the woman confesses. Like Jairus, the pious religious leader, she too falls at Jesus’ feet. Jesus tells her, “Daughter, your FAITH has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” The words Jesus uses, according to Mark, are actually, “Your faith has saved you; be going from now on in shalom and be healed from your disease.”

What just happened here? Can we see it? Jesus makes time for this poor, unclean, outcast, no-name woman who is now welcomed by Jesus as “daughter”. She is no longer an outcast. Usurping the power-roles of the physicians and priests, Jesus heals her, publicly declares she is clean, and in so doing, restores her to the community.

This Holy Interruption not only brings healing, restoration, and hope, it’s a direct challenge to the entire political-religious system that created her situation in the first place! This is revolutionary love in action!

And Mark’s telling of this story is a direct prophetic statement as well. Not just about who Jesus is, but also about how God intends to work through us in the world. While Jesus took time for this outcast-woman-turned-daughter, the religious elite Jairus’ daughter dies. That in itself is a social scandal! “Don’t bother the teacher anymore” the messengers tell Jairus, “Your daughter is dead”. But Jesus’ response is remarkable. Jesus essentially tells Jairus, have faith like this poor woman your system excluded. Trust God’s love. Trust God’s purposes. Even you are not out of reach. Jesus flips the social norm, which is what prophets often do. The unclean outsider becomes the example of faith to the pious insider.

Jairus’ daughter, now dead, would be considered unclean by Jewish law. The mourners gathered in the home openly laugh when Jesus suggests that she’s not dead, merely sleeping. Excluding the doubters from the room, Jesus takes Jairus, his wife, and Peter, James, and John into the daughter’s room. Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up, and immediately she is healed. While Jesus prioritized the plight of the poor, unclean woman on the road, he does not dismiss the anguish or the need for healing in the powerful elite.

I realize some take miracles as fact and others see them as fiction. But no matter your approach, these stories contain truth. Mark chooses language and a timeline to unfold prophetic truth to the readers. Jesus has come to confront the powers, lift up the lowly, and restore community – harmony – shalom to all.

There’s much more to this short passage than I can talk about today (notice the woman had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old). My point in choosing this passage is two-fold: First, for us to see that Mark is telling this story about the prophet, Jesus, in a prophetic way to the readers. Jesus is a prophet and so is Mark. And second, to remind us that our eyes and minds often get too comfortable with scripture. When scripture becomes too comfortable, too familiar, we begin to read it with eyes that don’t see the profound message, and ears that don’t hear our call to be as prophets continuing to speak truth and justice to power.

We know much about the history and legacy of Dr. MLK. We know that his was not just a battle about Jim Crow laws and race, but also about violence, economic injustices, and militarism. His prophetic voice is as broad as it is profound, and it continues to ring true today.

And Dr. King’s message is a message that has been heard throughout the ages. From the chapters of the Bible, to the Jewish prophets of Bible fame, God’s desire for justice and harmony ring clear. From Jesus, to the Apostles, to prophets of the early church, God’s message of Justice and harmony are a clarion call. Throughout history the people of God have been called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We are surrounded, as the author of the book of Hebrews reminds us, by a great cloud of witnesses.

One of these prophets, and a grandfather of the Civil Rights Movement, is the Rev. Dr. Vernon Johns. He was born in 1895 and became a passionate, and often angry, prophet for justice. Johns was no pacifist, but he did call the people to non-violent resistance. Hear his prophetic words from his 1926 sermon, Rock Foundations, as he calls the people to action while speaking truth to power:

If all around us, and over and over again, our heavy, costly structures keep falling and catching us in the ruins, if the industrial revolution, which once seemed so promising, threatens to result in the extermination of the human race and its disappearance from the planet; if we expected great things of liberty and education, and have found them broken reeds; if armies and navies built and maintained at infinite cost, for our protection, stare in our faces and roar in our ears as unmistakably our mightiest perils, may it not be wise to listen when Jesus offers to show us a better way?

The Christian civilization, and a decent and sane and happy world, are not hindered in their advent for want of orthodox statements concerning the mystery of the person of Jesus: they are hindered for lack of a heroic and kindly practice of the simple teaching of Jesus. We are trying to substitute magic for ethics, theological catch words for Christian character. It is a base and foolish practice. We are building houses on the sand. The ethical ideal embodied in the Master’s words and realized in his conduct is humanities only dependable standing ground.

It so happens in our country that the very section of it which is unquestionably the chief seat of orthodoxy is at the same time the dependable theatre of our most heartless inhumanities. The appearance of an up-to-date textbook on science is a tragedy of Troy, but the crimes like those at Aiken and Wytheville (where mob lynching’s had just occurred) recur as regularly as Holy Communion, and the perpetrators and abettors are at peace with their ritual-loving God. If one opens his mind on the subject of religion, he may have to keep it open on questions of justice.

Prophetic words stand the test of time. Dr. Vernon Johns message is as relevant today as it was nearly 100 years ago. This is both the nature of the prophetic and the sad truth of our continual inability to follow Christ in life. Dr. Johns served as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where he was forced out by the deacons for rocking the boat – – – and replaced by a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We stand on the shoulders of prophets and peacemakers. We are called not to just listen to their words, but to put them into practice.

Last week I spoke about our need to keep watch for holy interruptions, those people and events that come our way and interrupt our busy schedules and agendas. This week I’m reminding us that we are also called to be Holy Disruptors! When we domesticate the message of Jesus, we ourselves become domesticated. When this happens, we become Jairus, the person of power and influence, who supports systems of injustice, oppression, and the status quo.

We need to hear Jesus speak clearly to us, to tell us to have faith like the poor, excluded woman he encountered on the road. The message of the prophets is difficult. Their message says the systems that give power and comfort to a few is a lie built on exploitation.

We don’t want to hear this because it requires us to change. This is the prickly voice of the prophets of old and the prophets of more recent history. This is the voice of Jesus and the the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, “Repent, change your direction, for the Kingdom of God has come near!” If you’re anything like me, you resist this message and you resist becoming the messenger. But it is this same lack of faith, this resistance to the prophets’ voices through the ages, that excludes and kills the prophets.

Dare we accept this challenge? Dare we ignore it?

Jairus could have listened to the messengers when they told him to not bother Jesus any more, his daughter was already dead. But he didn’t. Jairus accepted Jesus challenge to take up faith, to believe that life was possible even when death seemed the only outcome. Stepping into a world of new possibilities, Jairus himself becomes a prophetic witness to the laughing crowds as his daughter is raised to life.

As I wrote these words and prayed over this message, I found myself challenged again to faithfulness. Being true to the message of God is not just agreeing with the words, it must lead us to action and those actions are naturally prophetic. This is not an easy road. This is not for the faint of heart. Jesus tells us to “Count the cost” and then, reminds us of the cost saying, “Take up our cross daily and follow me.”

This is the heart of discipleship. This is the heart of justice. This is the heart of love. This is the heart of God.

How is God calling you to speak and live prophetically today?

[i] Drawing from the insights of Ched Meyers, Binding the Strongman, p. 154ff

This sermon was orginally given at Bethel United Church of Christ in White Salmon, WA. 2019

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