And they laughed at him

“ is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
   “The one who had much did not have too much,
   and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Cor 8:14-15)

Sometimes the Scriptures are not all that complicated.

St. Paul was raising money for the church in Jerusalem, because the leaders of the church there had asked him to “remember the poor”(Gal 2:10).  It was a charge he took seriously.  Like any good stewardship chairman, St. Paul identified a biblical warrant for his fund raising efforts.  His came from the foundational account of Moses leading the people of Israel through the desert during their long wandering after escaping slavery in Egypt, and before arriving in the Promised Land.

Everyone knows (or everyone used to know) that when the people grumbled about being hungry in the wilderness of Sin, God gave them quails to eat in the evening, and rained down manna from heaven in the morning.  About the manna - “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” - Moses instructed the people thus, “Gather as much of it as you need.”  And so it was that “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage” (Ex. 16:18)  The specifics of the arrangement, and the clear instructions to the people not to hoard the manna, which would go bad if kept overnight, seem to carry clear implications of God’s idea of justice, equality, and fairness.  But of course people being what we are, soon thee was grumbling that “there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Num. 11:6).

Will we ever learn?

An old headline of a story on the poverty that defines so much of this so-called city of brotherly love, declares that “Little has changed” (www.phillymag, article by Zoe Kirsch, 11-20-15). What kind of brothers and sisters allow the deeply entrenched suffering that comes with poverty to persist for 26% of their siblings, year after year?

I thank God that here in our diocese, Episcopal Community Services has defined its mission “to challenge and reduce inter-generational poverty.”  And I know that they mean it, and working to chip away at that poverty.  And you know already how I give thanks for all those who work for and support the mission of St. James School, which was established by this parish to serve children and families who are caught in the unrelenting cycle of inter-generational urban poverty.  We founded the school with the characteristically American confidence that education is the surest, and maybe this only real antidote to poverty.  Behind it lurks the conviction that the one who has much should not have too much, and the one who has little should not have too little.

As I say, sometimes the Scriptures are not complicated.  Did you hear how simple was the people’s assessment of Jesus’ power and authority when he made his way to the house of the leader of the synagogue to tend to the man’s dying daughter?  The people have already begun to mourn.  “Your daughter is dead,” they tell Jairus, the synagogue’s leader.  Jesus challenges them, with an odd statement that seems like it might be meant more for us than for them, “Do not fear, only believe.”  And when he arrives at the house he tells them, “The child is not dead, but sleeping.”  And the people pass judgement on Jesus right there and then.  St. Mark tells us, “And they laughed at him.”

I suppose that people have never really stopped laughing at Jesus, never stopped questioning his guidance, “Do not fear, only believe.”  It’s so much easier to laugh at Jesus, so much easier to dismiss him than it is to put your trust in him, than it is to let go of your fear.

If you dismiss Jesus you can give in to fear, but never let on that it’s fear that motivates you.  If you dismiss Jesus you can gather all the manna you want.  You can keep it overnight; you can hoard it for yourself; and you can pretend that it hasn’t spoiled - it becomes an acquired taste.  You can even pretend that it didn’t come from God; though it did.  But the more you have gathered for yourself, the freer you will feel to laugh at Jesus, who looks to you as though he was so thoroughly wrong, so thoroughly silly, so thoroughly laughable.

Jesus promised life where it was slipping away, and hope where there was only fear.  Jesus promised with the Psalmist that “weeping may spend the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”  And finally Jesus promised to conquer death, which he would accomplish by shedding his own Blood on the Cross.  And they laughed at him.

But St. Mark tells us what Jesus did in the face of this laughter.  He went into the room where the dead/sleeping girl lay.  He took the child by the hand, and said to her, “‘Little girl, get up!’  And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.”  And for a minute or two, I’ll bet they stopped laughing at Jesus.

Of course, no one will allow themselves to been seen to be laughing anymore about the poverty of others.  The experience of Marie Antoinette more or less brought that old practice to an end.  But it’s easier than ever to laugh at Jesus, especially since the foibles and failures of his church are so well and so widely known.

And they look at the poverty, unabated.  And they look at the dead and the dying.  And they remind themselves how much manna they have stored up in their barns.  And they don’t even take pity on us for what they suppose is our foolishness.  They just laugh.

I have little doubt that they look at the dark faces and the North Philadelphia addresses of our students at Sat. James School, where the poverty rate is probably closer to 40%, and they conclude, if not in so many words, that they are already dead.  And for some children in North Philadelphia, who are slipping dangerously into the slow-motion death of inter-generational poverty, is all too nearly true.

Which is why we must never forget this little episode that caused the people around Jesus to laugh at him with scorn and derision, when he told them that the girl was not dead, only sleeping.  “Do not fear, only believe.”

“He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up.”

And for a while, I expect the laughing stopped.

We do well to remember his guidance, in a world that so easily laughs at Jesus, and that so easily gives up so many for dead: Do not fear, only believe.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 July 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 1, 2018 .