The First Sermon I Remember

Mark’s fifth chapter includes a long stretch of verses, depicting* Jairus pleading for his daughter’s life and an unnamed woman boldly seeking Jesus’ help for her illness. Those ancient words invariably time-travel me to high school. I am suddenly in the balcony of the church I attended until leaving for college. There, alone with others on a long pew, I listened to a sermon.

I cannot tell you the first sermon I heard.

But I can tell you the first sermon I remember.

Treasured.

Wondered about.

It was the first sermon that shared words and images that felt like it was only for me. Did I lean forward in the pew? Maybe. Did my heart race or did I hold my breath? Maybe. Nonetheless, I can still sense the shift, the amazement within, as the preacher portrayed an ill woman’s faith. In his description (or his tone of voice, or how he paused, or other inexplicable actions the preacher conjured) I sensed her faith. Her hand reaching. Her desperation for healing. Her hopeful selfishness mingling with humility.

Who among us doesn’t need healing?

Mark’s meandering passage is rich. Preachers endlessly pan for its Gospel gold. Over the years I gave sermons emphasizing . . .

Interruptions. The woman interrupted Jesus’ goal of getting to Jairus’ home and saving that twelve-year old daughter. How much of the best and worst of our lives are interruptions rather than the plans?

Named and nameless people. What a contrast the writer of Mark created, with the powerful—and named—Jairus making demands. And then there’s that nobody. A woman sans name. How often do strangers make a difference in how we receive or practice our faith?

Rationalization. Jesus’ muddle-brained disciples can’t imagine how they can possibly know who touched Jesus. Their first reaction involved (wait, wait) an excuse about too many people! In other words:

  • Let’s keep moving.
  • Ask someone who cares.
  • This is not my responsibility.
  • I don’t have time for this.

Derision. Jesus arrived at Jairus’ house, optimistic and confident. And what does the crowd do? And they laughed at him. There’s a truthful sermon for a month of Sundays in those words. If you dare to declare it.

(Please continue with your own list!)

From the first moment Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to ordering pizza for the now healthy little girl, those verses have easy or intimidating inspiration for preachers, teachers, and other ne’er-do-wells. But I simply like how this passage once and always transports me. I like how the power of the words, and the memory of a moment, remind me of who I once was and who I became. And even who I am still becoming years later.

Christians are sometimes called the people of the word because of the Bible. True! And yet the gift of words into our minds and into our souls contains transformative power in more places than the Bible.

I sat beside an alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada, finishing John Irving’s The World According to Garp for the third or fourth time. Always, I cry during the final pages. In the wild, miles from the nearest road, as a storm shoved into the lake basin where I camped, as the temperature plunged, as the first drops of rain moistened the pages, I wept. Irving’s character had loved and lost and failed and succeeded and dreamed and deceived. He was enough like me so that I couldn’t put the words away as thunder rumbled overhead.

I met Winnie the Pooh in college. In my senior year I had a wild notion that I’d missed something in my adolescence. That led me to the children’s section of the university’s library. I hadn’t known a college’s library might contain more than books desperately needed for the paper I’d put off (and were currently checked out by others and my self-delusions for an “A” ended). But I ventured into unfamiliar territory, with kindergarten furniture, where the Velveteen Rabbit asked questions, Dr. Seuss’ weird creations spun rhymes, and Mr. Toad lived with the wind in the willows. And where I first read that Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too had daily adventures.

Merely children’s stories.

And yet I became enthralled.

Truths were told. Faith, directly or indirectly, was revealed. In the best writing, in the words that dare to dazzle, we experience ourselves. Unless you become like children, Jesus said. Winnie the Pooh beckons.

What about you? Where have you been transported beyond or within yourself by words?

Once and long ago, a young man occupied a pew. A preacher preached. How could everything said be for me? I can still visualize the woman reaching out. Soon the disciples spew excuses. I imagined Jairus, in fancy clothes and boasting a highfaluting title, and yet his daughter’s life is all that matters. Soon people will make fun at the promise of new life Jesus brings.

All of it, I remember. All of it I still feel. I love these words. I straddle the universe by a mountain lake and weep. Garp lives, Garp dies. I settle into a child’s chair, banging knees on a pint-sized table, chuckling and chortling over Winnie’s exploits.

The next sermon, lesson, or response you offer may transform another. Stumbling along Jesus’ way, you have the privilege of sharing a story that could give them the gift of themselves.

*Painting of woman touching Jesus’ garment: from artist Chris Cook.

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2 Comments

  1. How do you do it Larry? Time after time you lay out something simple, not complex and it turns into a redemptive word, powerful and personal. I felt myself thinking back to a sermon that touched and changed me, even though I didn’t realize at the time. As time passed, I remembered words and passages that began to resonate anew with deeper meaning, understanding how they hit my life with challenge anew. You have a mind like few others that leds you in places few have been willing to tread and find there fresh water.

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