What Makes You Cry?

2001 Covenant Conference
Evening Worship, November 2, 2001

 Sermon

 What Makes You Cry?

 Mark 9:38-50; Numbers 11:24-30

J. Oscar McCloud
Associate Pastor, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York City

It was a Thursday evening in April 32 years ago. My family and I lived in Atlanta, Georgia. My wife was entertaining her bridge club. Since I could not play bridge, I think my responsibility that evening must have been to take care of our two small daughters and to assist with refreshments. There was conversation and laughter from several people around the card tables in our living room. The phone rangI answered the phone and on the other end was a friend, Leon Watts, a minister friend from New York City. The words he spoke still ring out in my mind as though they were yesterday. He said “Martin Luther King has been shot!” Dr. King was in Memphis, TN, leading the garbage workers’ strike. He had been taken to the hospital. And the next words I heard from my friend over the telephone were pounded in my head with the force of a blunt object. “They say he is dead! Dead! Dead!”

At first I was shocked! Then there was disbelief. Not Martin King! It can’t be! Why would someone do that? He’s dead! Then there was anger. The bridge game quickly ended, the guests departed and then I began to cry. Many years were to pass before I would come to understand why I felt the way I did that evening in April 33 years ago, and it was not simply because I knew Dr. King personally.

The scripture that we just heard read from Mark confronts us with another kind of operatic force.

The disciples proudly tell Jesus how they had nipped in the bud a potential heresy in their midst. Discovering a man exorcising demons in Jesus’ name, without the official authorization and designation of the disciples or even authority, they had insisted that the healer stop.

But rebuking the unknown exorcist in Jesus’ name, the disciples had done something which they were unaware of. They had stopped a source of divine compassion from flowing to those who were in need of healing. The disciples saw themselves as a uniquely endowed, specially selected group that were privy to Jesus’ individual attention. They believed that because of their close relationship with the Master, they had been “rewarded” with some extra power and authority to preach and to teach and to heal in the name of Jesus. The disciples considered this unknown exorcist the way we would view an unlicensed doctor — someone who at best was to be reported to the authorities as quickly as possible and who also was to be stopped from his activities.

In response, Jesus gave his disciples some of his harshest, most demanding judgments of what believers should do in order to avoid committing such a sin. Jesus uses exaggerated notions and actions to make his disciples face the gravity of what they were doing. Jesus rejected the disciples’ attempt to privatize his power. Because this man employs Jesus’ name, he is participating in the power and he is witnessing to the authority that Jesus’ name has over evil and over illness and bad health.

Now what was occurring with the disciples and the unknown exorcist was not really dealing with the matter of exorcism, but with the question of power and who had a right to it. It was a question of who is in and who is out. In essence the disciples were saying that because the man was not one of them he had no right to use Jesus’ name.

Jesus’ calm acceptance of the exorcist reminds the disciples that the power to heal comes from the name of Jesus, and not from the name of John, or James or Peter. Anyone who authentically acts in Jesus’ name or on his behalf, Jesus asserts, is a full and legitimate participant in the power his name has. And all that Jesus requires is the tiniest evidence of respect and interest in those who witness in his name in order for them to have power, and thus he says. Giving a “cup of water” is hardly a measure of exuberant hospitality. Yet Jesus insists that it guarantees an eternal reward.

Jesus’ greatest anger, his darkest emotions, his bitterest tears were reserved for those who took advantage of the “others”, the “little ones” — the poor, the weak, the young, the old, the sick, the outcast. And Jesus was not ashamed to let the fierceness of his feelings turn to tears of compassion and love for the “others,” for the “little ones” who stumble and struggle to find their way in this world.

Now I ask you, brothers and sisters, What gets you pumped? What makes you cry? What arouses your compassion? What makes your eyes juice up and your cheeks get damp? What connects your water works? What turns your eye faucets and tear pumps on? What makes the rain shower from your face?

What makes you cry, Deborah? What makes you cry, Laird? What makes you cry, Tim? What makes you cry, Susan? What makes you cry, Pam? Is our crying really anything more than our wanting what the world has, our wanting what we used to have — the prestige, the pre-eminence, the power; our wanting the perks that came with an earlier time?

Or is our crying based on the kinds of attitudes and activities that brought the sting of tongue to Jesus’ mouth, the sting of tears to his eyes?

All of us in my generation may have recalled the time in your life — at least in mine — when on Sunday around the dining room table everybody had to recite a Bible verse. And at least in my family the children all rushed to be first so we could all say “Jesus wept.” Little did we understand then what those two words meant. For Jesus did weep. Jesus not only cried out a lot but Jesus cried literally, he shed tears.

And why did Jesus cry? Jesus cried out of compassion over the death of his friend Lazarus, a human relationship loss. Jesus cried out over Jerusalem, for Israel and its failure to see what makes for peace and justice in the world . And Jesus cried out for himself — from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You see it has always been ok and acceptable to cry out over human relationships, the death of a loved one — over personal hurts — injury or illness.

But I suggest to you this evening that tears for justice, for compassion, for genuine heart-and-soul-break iare very rare today. Tears aren’t rare. All you have to do is watch some of the silly television programs and maybe they’re fake crying, but they have men crying all over the place. And when I was growing up, I was taught along with my brothers that, you know, males are not supposed to cry. “Real men don’t cry.” Admonitions like “Get control of yourself, boy,” “Stop crying” helped wean the tears and the weeping out of those of us who were of the male species. And then later in life we found out that because “real men don’t cry,” men die earlier than women do.

Yes, we all cried on September 11. But how many of us have cried over starvation in the Sudan? How many of us have cried over car bombs and the killing of children and women in the Middle East? How many of us have cried over our nation’s export of weapons all around the world? How many of us have cried over the fact that the two things that characterize our nation as the most powerful nation in the world are our military might and our economic system? It is not that we hold up before the world the things which even our own constitution says we treasure most: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Another scene from the past: it was Sunday afternoon, February 11, 1990; do you remember where you were? Do you remember the historic event that happened that day? This time it was not a telephone call that caused me to be overcome by emotion, it was watching television and the unfolding of an event 10,000 miles away. It was the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison! Not since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., had I been so aroused emotionally by what had happened to another person, and this time by someone I did not know, nor had I ever seen him.

Now you may be wondering what is the connection for this preacher between Martin Luther King’s death and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison: two events separated by 22 years. Well, for me it is easy to describe now years later. You see in very different ways, it was hate that killed Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was hate that had imprisoned Nelson Mandela. It is hate that makes me cry, it is hate that brings tears to my eyes — it is hate that tugs at my heart and my soul and makes me ask what in the world is going to happen to us. And it is the joy experienced in seeing hate overcome which makes me cry as well. I cried for Martin Luther King out of sadness. I cried for Nelson Mandela out of joy!

Even God is grieved by what we do to one another. There’s a little interesting verse in the 6th chapter of Genesis, the 5th verse in the King James Version that describes God’s feelings about humanity, and I hope some day to hear one of you preach on this text — and here’s what it says.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind and saw that it was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil. And the Lord repented that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to the heart.

God repented — grieved to his heart that he had made humankind.

I suggest to you that it is the need to exclude and the fear of the “other,” the hate for one who differs, and the silence of the community that allows violence to occur against people. It has happened to women, and still happens. It has happened to African-Americans, to Native Americans, to Asian Americans, to Hispanic Americans; and it is happening and will happen to new immigrants coming to this country unless we care. It happens to homosexuals. The brutal beating to death of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming was the result of fear, the need to exclude that grew into hate that resulted in violence. The savage death of James Byrd, dragged behind a pickup truck in Texas, was because of the need to exclude that resulted in fear and hatred that ended in violence.

And, you know we Christians practice exclusion as well. Even in our churches do it: you’re not Presbyterian, you’re not Methodist, you’re not Lutheran, you’re not Baptist, you’re not Catholic. Even we Christians exclude people based on non-essential standards. But Jesus did not do that. Jesus said to the disciples — anyone who is not against us is for us!

And, because we practice exclusion out of fear and hatred inside the church, we question other people’s faith, their level of commitment, their belief in God, and even their confession of faith! And this happens when we raise tradition above truth, and when we make conformity more important than commitment, and when we hold the word of Scripture more important than the Spirit of God.

We practice it when we challenge others with the old familiar question, “But what would Jesus do?” I’ve been convinced for some time that is not the right question for us Christians. The right question for us Christians is, “What would Jesus have us do?” But that’s a more difficult question, and we seek to relieve ourselves of responsibility and say, “But O, what I could I do? I am only one person. No one would listen to me.”

Well, I suggest to you that you look at what Jesus says in Mark 9:41. You look at what he says about a simple, insignificant cup of water, seemingly a most insignificant act. Yet Jesus said that even the giving of a cup of water will be rewarded in heaven. What I cannot do, God does not expect of me. But what I can do, God requires.

And there’s something else I learned from my experience of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. I have come to believe that suffering and love come from the same place deep down in the soul. If we did not love, we would not suffer. We suffer and hurt and weep for our kids, our parents, our siblings, our friends, our community, our nation, because we care. We get homesick because we love home so much. We shed tears over someone’s death because we loved her living so much. Jesus wept for us because Jesus loves.

What makes you cry?
I close with the words from one of Peter, Paul and Mary’s ballads,

Long ago on a hilltop where now the curious crawl
A man on a cross paid the ultimate cost
For the love of it all!
For the love of it all!

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