I’ve been thinking about courage lately. It’s one of our values at GracePointe, and yesterday I sermonized about what embodying courage means and looks like. Courage, of course, isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is choosing not to allow fear to dictate your response. In the process I was reminded that our faith Tradition is filled with stories of people who embodied great courage, and most of them are nameless. I know, I know. My initial impulse is to go to the eleventh chapter of Hebrews and see those familiar names: the Abrahams and Moseses, the Samsons and the Davids. Their resumes are surely packed with impressive accomplishments. However, if Jesus taught us anything it’s that while we tend to be impressed by the big and flashy, it is actually among the marginal, excluded, and forgotten that we find the signs of Kingdom at work.
Here are a few examples of courage among the nameless heroes found in our Tradition.
The friends who carry their paralyzed friend to Jesus. (Mark 2:1-12)
In Mark 2 there’s a story about Jesus that takes place in Capernaum, the town in which he based his ministry. It’s a crowded scene, with people spilling out of the house in which Jesus taught. A group of friends showed up, and four of them were carrying their friend, who was paralyzed. They couldn’t get through the crowd, so they went to the roof instead. They tore off part of the roof, and lowered their friend to the front row, right in front of Jesus. The text says when Jesus saw THEIR faith—not the faith of the man lowered through the roof, the man who actually needed the healing—but the faith of his friends, that he healed him. The friends had the courage to cause a disruption, and they didn’t let something as pesky as a roof stop them. They removed the obstacles so their friend could be included in the story.
Woman with the issue of bleeding. (Mark 5:25–34)
Again in Mark (chapter 5) we find Jesus on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus, when he ends up in another crowd of people who are swarming around him. One translation of Luke’s version of the story says the crowd was pressing in around Jesus so much that they “almost crushed him.” In that crowd there was a woman who had a condition that made her unclean and impure, essentially cut-off from the community. She had been in this situation for twelve years, and had been to physician after physician, specialist after specialist, to no avail. When she heard Jesus was coming through town she decided that, if a fraction of the stories were true, she couldn’t pass up the chance to be healed. She made her way through the crowd and touched Jesus’s cloak, and she was healed. Jesus, aware something has happened, stopped to ask, “Who touched me?” His disciples thought it was a ridiculous question, after all if you were in NYC for NYE would you ask who touched you? Jesus kept looking for the person, when finally this woman came forward, trembling with fear. She took such a great risk. Every person she touched on her way to Jesus would now be considered unclean. Then there’s the whole bit about her touching Jesus! She had made the holy man impure. Undaunted, she came forward, telling Jesus the whole story, and then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.” He called attention to her, not to shame her, but to celebrate her, so the community would see that she was not unclean, that the health Jesus embodied was contagious, not her illness. She took a risk, and it’s HER faith, Jesus says, her courage to reach out, that heals her.
The man who wants to have faith, but can’t totally. (Mark 9:14-29)
I’m showing my bias for Mark here, but in Mark 9 there’s another powerful display of courage. A man whose son has been overtaken by an unclean spirit. The spirit overpowers him and causes him to have seizures (we probably wouldn’t talk about this as an unclean spirit, but instead as a medical issue), threatening his life. Jesus’s followers couldn’t exorcise the spirit. The father says to Jesus (as a parent I feel these words deeply), “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” Jesus responded to him, “If you can do anything’? All things are possible for the one who has faith.” What makes this unnamed father courageous, a hero of our Tradition, is his response to Jesus. He replied—that’s actually playing it down, the text said “he cried.” This wasn’t a reserved, polite request. It’s full of emotion and desperation. ““I have faith; help my lack of faith!” Isn’t that beautiful and profound and … honest? I think if we are all honest this is where we live our lives: We have faith, but help our lack of faith. The courage to own that, to embrace it, and to keep going is so inspiring to me.
The boy who shares his lunch and feeds 5K+. (John 6:1-13)
In John 6 we have an account of the feeding of the 5K+, which is one of the few stories John includes that can also be found in the other Gospels. A crowd had been following Jesus and his disciples, because they had seen the signs and wonders he had performed. Jesus asked his disciples where they would get food enough for all the people following them. It was usual for people who were traveling to carry a basket of food for the journey. The fact that the vast majority of the crowd apparently don’t have food with them implies that this crowd is made of people who were likely food insecure. The disciples point out that to get enough food for everyone to have just a little bit it would cost more than six months pay. It was discovered that a youth present in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish, but that would be woefully insufficient for more than 5K+ people. The surprise in the story is that, once the bread was broken and shared, there was more than enough for everyone. In fact, the disciples pick up twelve baskets full of leftovers (which means the disciples had baskets? Did they refuse to share?). It’s not the disciples who display courage in this story. They demonstrate a lack of vision, actually. It’s this unnamed youth who has the courage to open his basket, to not hold on to his resources greedily or give in to scarcity. This youth embodies courage in the way he holds his lunch with an open hand.
We see courage embodied in the unnamed heroes in their willingness to risk, to live authentically, and to live from a place of abundance, not scarcity (both of those tend to create the reality they reflect).
This reminds me of a something John Shelby Spong wrote:
The call of the God experienced in Christ is simply a call to be all that each of us is—a call to offer, through the being of our humanity, the gift of God to all people by building a world in which everyone can live more fully, love more wastefully and have the courage to be all that they can be. That is how we live out the presence of God. God is about living, about loving and about being. The call of Jesus is thus not a call to be religious. It is not a call to escape life’s traumas, to find security, to possess peace of mind. All of those things are invitations to a life-contracting idolatry. The call of God through Jesus is a call to be fully human, to embrace insecurity without building protective fences, to accept the absence of peace of mind as a requirement of humanity. It is to see that God is the experience of life, love and being who is met at the edges of an expanded humanity.
That is my new mantra: Live fully, love wastefully, and summon the courage to be all I can be. Won’t you join me?