Today’s Gospel—the entwined stories of the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the healing of the woman with the flow of blood [Mark 5: 21-43]—comes in what some biblical scholars call a “Markan sandwich”. There are several places in the second Gospel where Mark enfolds one story within another, thereby allowing each to comment on and amplify the other. The raising of Jairus’s daughter gives us the bread, the woman’s healing the filling.
Today’s two stories are related on several levels. They both feature desperate people—a man whose daughter is near death, a woman who cannot stop bleeding. They both tell of miraculous healings—Jairus’s daughter is restored to life, the woman’s blood flow is stopped. But to my mind, the most important feature these stories share is that everyone in them takes a risk.
What’s so risky about this Gospel? An establishment figure dares to seek help from someone outside the official religious system. In going to Jesus, Jairus risks both his position and his reputation. Then, a person who is ritually unclean dares to touch the garment of a holy person. In touching Jesus, the woman risks punishment for violating the boundaries of Israel’s purity laws.
But they’re not the only ones taking risks here. Jesus has no choice about the woman’s petition—she touches him and he feels the healing power leave him. But he does have a choice about Jairus’s daughter, and in choosing to restore her to life Jesus risks the rejection of those around him. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he says. They respond by laughing at him. But when he tells her to get up, and she does, they respond not in derision but with amazement.
Healing and resurrection, derision and amazement. And now to the windows. Many of you probably know that I have called for Washington National Cathedral to remove two windows on the south side of the nave that depict the lives of Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and display the Confederate battle flag.
These windows (along with their inscriptions) seek to reframe the Civil War and present the two generals as saintly, exemplary Christians. Let me say a word about each issue.
First, the battle flag. It is a common image in American culture, but in the wake of the shootings in Charleston the week before last we have all become aware of how deeply offensive this image is, especially to African Americans. Like it or not, the Confederate battle flag has become the symbol of white supremacy in America. There are many white southerners who will say that they intend no disrespect when displaying it. But as a preacher I know a lot about the difference between intent and impact. I may not intend you to hear something when I say it, but if you do hear it, I am still responsible for what you hear. And so it is with the flag: as benign as the intentions of some may be in displaying the Confederate battle flag, the fact that many find it offensive should be enough of a reason to fold it up and put it away.
There simply is no excuse for the nation’s most visible church to display a symbol of racism, slavery, and oppression. None. I believe all representations of this flag should go from our public spaces. In saying that, I do not want to whitewash history. But I don’t want to celebrate a cause whose primary reason for being was the preservation and extension of slavery in America.
As President Obama said on Friday at the funeral for Clementa Pinckney,
Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.
Second, the windows themselves. Some have suggested that we merely excise the flag images from the windows and leave the rest of them intact. But if you go look at them after the service, and I encourage you to do so—they’re on the south side of the nave, just this side of President Wilson’s tomb—you’ll see that the flags are only part of the problem. The Lee-Jackson bay was installed in 1953 after a long campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy both to fund and approve them. The United Daughters of the Confederacy is a group mainly concerned with fostering respect for southern heritage. But in proposing these windows they went beyond heritage and created a memorial that puts a decidedly saintly spin on two leaders of the Confederate Army. The inscriptions portray them as exemplary Christian gentlemen. But the windows contain no reference to the sin of slavery which both men fought—and one died—to uphold.
Some have accused me of wanting to whitewash history. I do not seek to whitewash history. I seek to celebrate history in all its fullness and complexity. In calling for the windows to be removed, I am asking not to rewrite the past but to tell the story of the past honestly—in a way that honors not just one side but everyone involved in a painful time whose effects are with us yet. The great southern American writer William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” America’s cathedral should represent America in all its fullness and tell our story without trying to make saints of men who served an unjust cause.
We can live with some contradictions until we can’t. I’m not unaware that the dean who installed these windows—Francis Sayre—was one of the great activist civil rights clergy of the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently he saw no contradiction between supporting the Lee-Jackson windows in 1953 and Brown versus Board of Education one year later. He could live in that tension, but I cannot, and I believe this cathedral cannot. It is time for those windows to go and live elsewhere in our buildings as part of a historical display. It is time for us to commission new ones for the nave that will tell the full, painful, yet hopeful story of race and justice in America.
And that brings me back to today’s Gospel—two entwined stories about faithful people taking risks. Like Mark’s Gospel, America itself tells two interlocking tales—one of equality and liberty and freedom, another of oppression and violence and segregation. We will never live into the fullness of our destiny as a people until we live into the fullness of the interconnectedness of these two stories. In 1865 we ended a war over slavery and began, as blacks and whites, to live together as full equal citizens of our shared land. 150 years later we still have not completed the work begun in that war’s end. Washington Nation Cathedral is called, as our nation’s most visible church, to lead the faith community and our nation in healing America by facing into racism, its history, and its encampment in our own hearts. We cannot do that if our building only tells one side of the story. We cannot do that while the Confederate battle flag shines in our windows. All our artworks, like our scriptures and those who preach on them, must always strive to tell the truth. And sadly, our understanding of truth emerges only over time.
Jairus dared to risk by seeking out an itinerant preacher for help. The woman dared to risk by touching a holy man when she was sick. Jesus dared to risk by promising he could bring a dead girl to life. Everyone laughed, and then they were overcome with amazement.
We can live with some contradictions until we can’t. Here is the question the Gospel poses for us today, and we could not find a clearer sharper moral problem if we tried. In light of the risks taken by Jesus and these others, do you and I have the courage to do something risky as well? Can Washington National Cathedral—this great, glorious, temple of our nation’s religious establishment—can this cathedral dare to risk on behalf of our best shared vision of America? Do we have the courage to revisit our assumptions and admit when they are inadequate or false? Can we risk admitting that we can no longer live with the contradiction between justice and oppression, that we can no longer celebrate both slavery and freedom in the same space?
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This cathedral will continue to honor all sides of the American story. What it can no longer do is pretend that slavery was a value worth fighting for. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were men of courage and valor. They fought for their homeland with courage. But in choosing to serve a nation founded on slavery they were wrong, and they fought under a flag that many across America equate with racism, bigotry and hatred. It is time for our cathedral to replace their memorial with one that does justice to the sacrifices of all involved in that terrible and bloody conflict. It is time for this cathedral, like the Jesus we follow, to dare and risk. People may laugh, but if we are faithful and persistent, they will be “overcome with amazement” at the loving, forgiving, and liberating grace of the God whom we struggle, by fits and starts, to follow. Amen.