07/01/18 “Other-hood: Other Sides”

“The Shimmer” from the motion picture “Annihilation”

Mark 5:21-34

Marc and I watched a really weird movie the other night.  It was called “Annihilation.”  We had seen some previews of it, so we knew it was science fiction, and we knew it would have some gory scenes in it, but here’s why I wanted to see it.  It was about this thing called “The Shimmer”—a glistening wall of light that had appeared on the earth. In the previews, it was beautiful and mysterious, like a watery rainbow, and I was willing to watch a science fiction horror flick, just so I could see what was on the other side of that other-worldly curtain.

There must be something innately human about wanting to know what’s on the “other side” of something.  Think of all the explorers who risked their lives venturing out into the oceans and across the mountains and even into outer space to see what was on the other side.  We even have a children’s song about this desire: “The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see.”

I got to thinking about our fascination with “the other side” this week because our passage for today starts out with Jesus again getting in a boat and crossing “to the other side.”   This is actually the return trip from the crossing we read about last week.  We don’t know why Jesus wanted to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in either direction, or in any of the other gospel stories where he travels to “the other side” (and there are a number of them).  But what we can see is that every time he does, his disciples have an opportunity to know him better and to deepen their faith by seeing something new about Jesus and his ministry.

In last week’s passage, Jesus suggested that he and the disciples “go across to the other side” of the Sea of Galilee on a boat that was nearly swamped in a terrible storm.  But Jesus did what no ordinary man could do. He calmed the wind and waves by his word alone.  As they crossed to the other side, the disciples were allowed the opportunity to witness first-hand that Jesus has the power of God to command even nature.

After Jesus calmed the storm and they reached the shore of the land of the Gentile Gerasenes, Jesus encounters a man possessed by demons. The demons know full well who Jesus is.  Jesus casts them out of the man and into a nearby herd of pigs.  In this dramatic healing of a Gentile man, the disciples had the opportunity to see that Jesus’ mission was not just to the nation of Israel, but to all people.

Then, Mark tells us in our passage, Jesus and the disciples “cross again in the boat to the other side.”  This time, amidst the large crowd of people who gather around him, Jesus encounters two individuals who desperately need his help.  The first is Jairus, a respected leader of the synagogue.  His little daughter is dying, and he has heard that Jesus is a healer.  He comes and throws himself down before Jesus and begs him to come with him and lay hands on his child so that she might be saved.  As Jesus is making his way to Jairus’ house, reports come that the little girl has died.  But Jesus continues, and as he enters the house, where the grieving has already begun, Jesus announces that the little girl isn’t dead but sleeping; in effect, that she has already been healed. All those who gathered there laughed at him.  Of course, she was dead!  They wouldn’t make a mistake about something like that!

But when Jesus takes the grieving parents, along with Peter, James, and John, into the room where the little girl lay, he takes her hand, tells her to get up, and she does.  The healing had taken place before Jesus even got there, as he had announced. The disciples had an opportunity to see that Jesus’ healing power was so great that it was effective even from a distance.

Then there’s the second person in the story: an unnamed woman who had suffered for twelve long years from some kind of persistent bleeding.  She had spent all she had on one doctor after another, without success.  In fact, her condition had gotten worse.  But she, too, had heard of this healer Jesus.  So, she had come, confident that if she could merely touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, she would be made well.  And she was!  The disciples had the opportunity to witness the kind of faith in Jesus that enables healing.

Each time Jesus went to the other side, it resulted in an opportunity for the disciples to learn more about who Jesus was.  They had new opportunities to understand his mission, his power, and the source of his power.  They had new opportunities to grow in their faith.  But, sadly, they didn’t.  In the boat, after the wind and waves obeyed Jesus’ command to be still, the disciples were filled, not with understanding, but with amazement to the point of fear or terror.  Our version says they were filled with great awe.  But the Greek word Mark uses is phobos, like our word phobia.  This isn’t garden-variety awe, this is fall-on-your-face-in-terror awe.  All they could do was wonder who Jesus could be. They were clueless about what they had witnessed there on the boat as they were going to the other side.

We don’t know how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ healing of the demoniac, but we do know how other people reacted.  They were so afraid that they asked Jesus to leave their neighborhood.  And so he did—and went back to the other side.  Once they were there, the disciples were unimpressed when Jesus felt power go out from him and asked who had touched him.  And at Jairus’ house, after the little girl had walked away from what everyone had thought was her deathbed, the disciples again were overcome with amazement—practically out of their minds with fear and wonderment rather than understanding.

Each time Jesus took his disciples with him to the other side, he was inviting them into situations that would help them to know him better.  And Jesus is doing the same thing with his disciples today.  Jesus invites us to go with him to the other side in so many ways, and in all of them, we can grow closer to him.

Like the disciples, Jesus may ask us to physically go to the other side—maybe not across a sea or a continent, but maybe to the other side of town. In a few weeks, we have the chance to go to Monroe Street United Methodist Church to serve breakfast at the Freedom School.  When we get there, we will have a chance to know Jesus’ mission better.  Because Jesus will be there, helping to exorcise the demons of poverty and violence and hunger that can point children straight towards a future in prison.  As we go with him and serve in his name, we will come to know him better as the one who came to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives.

Sometimes the shortest distances are the hardest to cross, like walking across a room.  That distance across the room may simply be a symbol of a greater distance we need to cross—the distance between us and a stranger or someone we know only by a reputation that makes us prefer to avoid them.  It may be a distance created by anger at someone who has hurt us or disapproval or contempt for the way someone lives or thinks or believes.  When we are able to go to the other side with Jesus, and look through his eyes, we will come to know him better as the Son of the God whose image each person bears and the only rightful judge of people’s hearts.

We may need to cross social and cultural differences to get to the other side with Jesus.  Language, history, tradition, politics, religion—all these can put us at a distance from those Jesus loves and came to serve as much as he came for us.  To get to that other side, we need to leave our pre-conceived notions behind us on the shore and be open to new possibilities. As we do, we come to a new understanding of the one who made a special effort to reach the Gentiles, women, children, tax collectors—all kinds of people who are on the outside in some way.  Jesus didn’t let cultural and social obstacles stand in the way of his mission.  When we don’t let them stand in our way, we understand Jesus’ open and loving heart all that much better.

Sometimes the other side isn’t even out in the world.  Sometimes we have internal distances to cross.  So many people, even ones who are active in church and that most people would identify as “good Christians,” feel that they are at a great distance from other believers.  We may feel like our doubts or our questions would make others question our faith.  We may feel our experiences of God aren’t as authentic as the ones “true” believers have.

We may even feel a distance between us and Jesus.  We don’t feel worthy of being with him.  The distance we have to cross is in our own hearts, to a place where we can truly hear Paul’s words for ourselves: that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  We need to get to the other side of doubt and self-loathing and fear so that we can feel what John Wesley described when he got to that other side and felt his heart strangely warmed: “An assurance was given me that Jesus had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Of course, going to the other side can also be a way to avoid doing what God is calling us to do or going where God is calling us to go.  Remember Jonah?  God called him to cross into Nineveh, but instead Jonah headed toward Tarshis, which is in exactly the opposite direction.  Jonah went to the other side, all right, but it was the wrong other side.  The other side was what some people chose in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. Luke tells us that, seeing a half-dead man along the side of the road, a priest “passed by on the other side.”  A Levite “passed by on the other side.” Sometimes we can choose to go to the other side—the side of resentment, or fear, or self-righteousness.  But that is not the side Jesus is inviting us to.  Jesus invites us to the side of compassion and mercy, healing and understanding.  Jesus is calling is to the side of grace.

As we contemplate the other sides that Jesus is inviting us to cross into, we can take courage in the fact we are not the first to make such a crossing. In Jesus, God first crossed to the other side to be with us.  God came down from heaven to this earth—this other side—to live our life, to know our joy and our pain, and to die our death.  God crossed over to our side so that we might know God not as a distant deity but as a God who is by our side every minute of the day.  Whether we are in storm-tossed waters or in unfamiliar territory with people who are very different from us, in a crowd or wrestling with our own hearts, God has already made the ultimate crossing to be with us.

Jesus is always inviting us to go to the other side with him.  That other side may be across a physical distance, or it may be across a social, cultural, emotional, or spiritual distance.  But each time he calls us to go to the other side, we have an opportunity to learn more about who Jesus is.  We have new opportunities to understand his mission and to join him in it.  We have new opportunities to witness his power—the power of God.  And we have opportunities to grow in our faith.  May we be ready and willing to go when Jesus calls, eager to see what’s on the other side.   Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young