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Wasting the Teacher’s Time

Date: February 4, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Mark 5:21-43

Writing job descriptions requires some fairly unique skills. The main question is how to outline the basic duties of a position, without ruling out the possibility that the employee may be called on to do things that aren’t spelled out in the description. The goal is to keep an employee from saying, “That’s not my job,” a sentence that is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, personally, after watching my dad roll his sleeves up and wash pots and pans at the cafeteria one busy Sunday when the dishwasher had to leave early for some reason.

He was the boss. It truly wasn’t his job to do dishes. But they needed doing, and there wasn’t anybody else who wasn’t busy doing their own work; so he did them.

There are other legalities and issues involved when a job description is being written. When I was working for a temp service, years ago, it was common for a job to be listed as “temporary to permanent.” But it didn’t take too long before somebody decided using the word “permanent” could get a company into trouble, if an unsatisfactory employee decided to claim they couldn’t be fired because their job description said their position was “permanent.”

The Council of Churches in Portland, where I worked before I started seminary, had job description writing down to a science. When I applied there, I was working a temp job, so I had Mike go pick up the application packet for me (no resumes allowed; you had to use their application form, which included several long essay questions).

That job description was really something; two pages long—for a receptionist job. It had two sections: duties and qualifications. Most of the items in the first section were straightforward, but the very last item—and I discovered this was the case on every description for every position within the organization—was “Other duties as assigned.” We joked about it sometimes, like when a pipe broke in the breakroom and one of the young men who kept our donation records got a mop to get the water up off the floor. “Other duties as assigned,” he said.

But there was a time when it had to be enforced.

The Executive and Deputy Directors who were there when I first started working there were old-school managers who expected and received a certain amount of special treatment. When they left—one to the National Council of Churches office in New York, and the other to take a four-year term as the head of Church World Service—things changed. The interim bosses decided almost immediately that there needed to be a rotation of responsibility for keeping the breakroom and downstairs kitchen tidy. Only the interim Executive Director was exempt; the interim deputies each took their turn.

Not long after that we started getting complaints about dirty dishes piling up in the downstairs kitchen, which all of the offices in the building used, but which we used the most because we had people working on that floor while the other offices didn’t. One of the interims asked me what the story was, since I was supervising the front office staff, one of whom had the task of setting up for and cleaning up after the many meetings we had in the downstairs conference rooms. That staff member said she was doing her job, and the mess downstairs had nothing to do with our meetings.

So we got to looking at the rotation schedule, and discovered that the mess was at its worst when one of the upper management folks who worked downstairs was supposed to be in charge of cleaning. The interim spoke to that person, whose response was, “I’m not here to do dishes.”

I can only assume she was set straight about that, because it wasn’t long before the problem went away. Doing dishes fell under “other duties as assigned.”

Everybody’s job descriptions included, in the section for needed qualifications, “High tolerance for ambiguity and change.” It was definitely needed; in an organization as big as ours, working in so many areas, things were frequently ambiguous, and something changed just about every day.

We front office staff—receptionist and administrative assistants—had a couple of other qualifications included: “Ability to manage multiple assignments and shifting priorities,” and “Ability to work amid frequent interruptions.” Our phones rang a lot, and lots of people came in, and dealing with them was an important part of our jobs, not just the receptionist but all of us. A person who couldn’t do their work with phones ringing and people coming in and going out wouldn’t have lasted long in that office.

I moved from that organization to an internship at my church. The pastor there was a very organized person who liked things planned, and when it was up to him preferred not to be interrupted when he was focused on something, like getting his sermon done. Every morning he would come down to my little office to check in, and the first thing he would ask was whether it was okay to interrupt me. It generally was; having worked in that busy nonprofit office where there was always something going on, I got pretty used to turning from what I’d been working on to give someone the attention they needed at a given moment.

I carried that skill into my first pastorate. Ultimately the church secretary and I had to work out a system where I could have time to focus on one thing, like sermon writing. What we finally decided was that if I needed to focus and not be interrupted—even by her—I would just shut my office door. Sometimes she would shut the door if I didn’t think to or if she noticed I was getting flustered, and she was very good at screening calls and determining if something was important enough to break in.

If Jesus had had a job description, it would have included an item like my job description did about coping with frequent interruptions. Today’s reading shows us how he dealt with one interruption.

The story starts out with a leader in the local synagogue coming to ask Jesus to heal his daughter. She was twelve years old—in that culture that put her right on the edge of adulthood—and she was very sick. Jairus was an important man, but his daughter was still a girl in a culture that didn’t value girls; even so, he loved her dearly. It hurt him to see her suffering, and he sure didn’t want to lose her. So he found Jesus and begged him for help.

It doesn’t really say that he came and politely asked him, “If you can spare a moment…” He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged, repeatedly, for Jesus to come see his daughter.

Jesus went with him, but his journey was interrupted. A woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years heard Jesus was coming by, and knew of his growing reputation as a healer, so she went out to see if she could get a moment of his time. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that this woman’s condition lasted the same length of time as Jairus’ daughter had been alive, although I’m not sure I know why Mark includes that detail.)

We need to keep in mind that this woman hadn’t been bleeding for twelve years from a cut on her hand. She’d endured twelve years of what Mike euphemistically calls “girl stuff.” As such, not only would she have been weak and anemic, but her hormones would have been out of whack, possibly causing her to be emotionally erratic. No doctor had been able to do anything for her; she had spent every cent she had and seen every one she could find, but their ministrations had only made matters worse.

And according to the Jewish Law, she was ritually unclean. That meant there were places she couldn’t go, and she may have been isolated even in her own home. Contact with her would make others unclean, too, so chances are no one had touched her, so much as held her hand, for that whole twelve years. Scientists have discovered that humans need appropriate touch in order to be emotionally and physically healthy. This would have been a complicating factor in her condition.

But like Jairus, she was unwilling to stand by and hope Jesus noticed her; in both cases, I think their boldness was motivated by desperation. Even so, this woman—and I wish Mark had given us her name—didn’t want to risk offending Jesus by making him unclean himself. So she decided to just touch the hem of his clothing, convinced that even that would do the trick. And it did—immediately she was cured.

But she was also immediately found out. Jesus could feel the power going out from him. When he stopped and demanded to know who had touched him, she was terrified. But when she fell at his feet and told him what she had done, he didn’t answer her with anger, or even irritation at having his important errand interrupted. He called her “Daughter”—even though she may well have been older than he was—and commended her faith.

But then we find out how much this interruption cost.
People come to Jairus and say, “There’s no reason to bother the Teacher any further.” They would get there too late. Jairus’ daughter was dead.

But Jesus whispers to Jairus as tears begin to spill over: “No fear, only faith.” [1] They continue on to Jairus’ house, where Jesus raises his daughter up from her deathbed and asks someone to give her something to eat.

Jesus dealt with lots and lots of interruptions during his ministry, most of them not as poignant as the one in today’s reading. Yes, sometimes he did need solitude, even if he didn’t have Sherrill there to shut the door of his study and screen his calls. But most of the time he handled his interruptions with grace and kindness.

Maybe this is something in which we can aspire to imitate him.

As we go about our business, trying to follow Jesus and do some good in this world, we’re going to find ourselves interrupted. It’s inevitable. Some of the interruptions are going to feel pretty trivial—but are they? When we look back, we just might find that the interruptions that seemed the most unnecessary at the time were life-changing, either to us or to the one who did the interrupting.

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest who lived among people with physical and mental disabilities in a L’Arche community. Like most of us, he found himself interrupted frequently when he was trying to do work he considered to be important.

In one of his books he related a conversation he had with a professor at the University at Notre Dame, which caused him to rethink his reaction to interruptions. This older colleague said, “You know…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

Ministry happens in the interruptions. It happens when a child comes up to tell us some little story that might seem trivial from an adult’s point of view, but which is anything but trivial to that child. It happens when we get a phone call from someone who needs a few minutes and a few words of encouragement from us. It might happen in an aisle at the grocery store, where we meet someone who’s having a rough time of it. It could happen on the street, someone coming up to us wondering if we could spare a few cents to help him make his bus fare so he could get to work. [2]

We just don’t know when it might well be Jesus interrupting us—as he said in Matthew 25: I was hungry…I was thirsty… and so on, I saw you hurrying on your way and stopped you to ask for help.

Reflecting on the conversation he’d had with his colleague at Notre Dame, Henri Nouwen wrote: “It has been the interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part…All of these interruptions presented themselves as opportunities…invited me to look in a new way at my identity before God. Each interruption took something away from me; each interruption offered something new.”[3]

Think about this when you’re interrupted this week. What do you learn about God, and about yourself, in your interruptions? What ministry have you been able to do because you’ve been interrupted, not in spite of it?

Was it, possibly, Jesus himself who interrupted you?

[1] This is Michael Card’s interpretive translation of v. 36.  See his commentary in the Biblical Imagination Series, Mark:  The Gospel of Passion (Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 2012), p. 78-79.

[2] This happened to me last summer, as I was walking back to my car after worship at Downtown Disciples in Des Moines.  Lest anyone question whether the young man really needed bus fare or was going to spend the two dollar bills I gave him on something nefarious, the bus pulled up moments later and he got on it.

[3] This quotation can be found in many blog posts; it originally came from Nouwen’s book Out of Solitude:  Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Notre Dame, Indiana:  Ave Maria Press, 1974).