Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B] - July 1, 2012 (Mark 5:21-43)

Health care has certainly been the talk of the week. Everyone around has been anxiously awaiting word regarding the validity of a recent campaign that promises health and wholeness to all people. People have even been assembling on the streets in some places, some of them voicing protest and others offering support. In and amongst them are plenty, I’m certain, who are just curious and want to be in on the action. Questions have abounded as the controversy reaches fever pitch: will quality health care be a privilege of the rich and well-connected or will there be access for the poor and anonymous? Who can count on getting attention in a system of care that is much larger and more complex than anyone realizes? What is the value of human life?

And throughout the whole episode, we’ve heard of desperate cases and extreme examples, those who are at the end of their rope and have nowhere else to turn. All in all it’s been a very sticky situation; one leader in particular finds himself walking a tightrope of legal restrictions, interpretations of codes and statutes that few common people can follow, much less understand. What will be the outcome? They tell us the whole thing is historic. It could change the future of everyone’s welfare. After all, Jesus of Nazareth might only pass through this town once. If you are in search of health and healing, you had better push and elbow your way into his presence and use any connections you may have to get his attention.

Jesus heals hemorrhaging woman
The scenes from this morning’s gospel lesson rivet us, and if they don’t, they probably should. Something monumental is happening. Jesus is back on the more Jewish side of Lake Galilee. The crowds are mobbing him. They know he can heal because he’s performed some miraculous healings, but many are probably equally fascinated by his teachings, which is why they are calling him teacher. Teachers of the law are supposed to follow the law, and that means staying away from things like bodily fluids and corpses. And yet Jesus, the teacher, doesn’t. It’s all quite riveting. In one episode, he is both approached by a synagogue leader named Jairus whose young daughter is near death and also accosted by an unknown woman who has been bleeding for twelve years.

Although few details are given, it is safe to assume that both of these people come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. One has likely been on the fringes of society, the realities of her condition making her ritually unclean. Kids these days might call her a creeper, someone who lurks around in the crowd, never directly confronting the object of interest. However, being a woman marked by the religious authorities as dirty, she had no other option but to creep up on Jesus.

"Raising of Jairus' Daughter" Ilya Repin (1871)
By contrast, the other person apparently has an entourage. Jairus would have been well-known in the community. In Mark’s gospel, we only know the name of one other person Jesus healed. As a synagogue leader, Jairus would have been well-versed in the law, as well. That he would approach Jesus, this controversial upstart from Nazareth, is no small thing. Few Jewish religious leaders would embrace Jesus’ ministry, but I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures, and his daughter is dying.

Two different folks, two different circumstances, but one clear message that God is concerned for the welfare of all of his people. Like many of other miracles in Jesus’ early ministry, these actions demonstrate God’s desire to free people from the powers of sin and death. This is God’s individual mandate: powerful redemption for the whole world.

Our response to this good news is faith. That is the other important thing that both Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage illustrate, and it is ultimately what Jesus wants to show us in performing these healings. Jesus is not just a wonder-worker who is here to do our bidding; rather, he is the Savior of the world who wants us to receive his kingdom message in faith. Jesus is not just a healer of medical conditions, but is the one who embodies the very compassionate heart of God, who desires all people to trust in God’s mercy and lovingkindness.

And yet in both cases, we see a wavering of that faith and trust. Once the woman is healed, she is overcome with fear and trembling.At first afraid to own up to her pushiness, her sneaking up behind him, she finally confesses how she pressed in on him so close that she could touch his clothes. In the case of Jairus, his supporters initially give up on Jesus’ ability to help after Jesus is detained by conversation with the woman. The daughter is already feared dead. Once Jesus arrives at his house, Jairus’ friends laugh when Jesus suggests that the girl is not dead but sleeping. Fear and laughter. Anxiety and mocking. Unwavering trust and belief are not the reactions that Jesus’ presence and actions produce, at least in these two. Even these models of faith show some vacillation as they learn to trust Jesus’ power. The promise of new life in Jesus is never first based on our faith or our power to believe to begin with. That’s why it’s called grace.

This past week, while the rest of the country was in the grips of the ruling over health care, I found myself at the Virginia Synod Kairos youth event at Roanoke College, in the grips of almost two hundred teenagers who were learning to articulate God’s loving care. During some of our large group sessions in the chapel, seniors are invited to sit before the whole assembly and give what they call a “faith testimony.” They sit on a stool in front of everyone and read aloud a statement they’ve written and agonized over which attempts to describe how they’ve felt God moving and working in their life.

As you can imagine, often these testimonies contain stories of trials and suffering, secret and shocking pain that often go unshared until they come into the presence of their peers. I consider it an honor to hear these stories and testimonies. One youth shared his fear and turmoil over a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy and what that might mean for his future. I was particularly moved by the testimony of one young man who openly confessed to everyone that he didn’t think he was a “good Christian.” He went on to explain how faith was something he never could get a handle on. Just when he thinks his understanding of God is deepened, at that moment he realizes it could be so much stronger yet.

At this point I’m unable to remember the exact words he used when he spoke to us, but rather than speaking of faith in terms of an object or tool which he might use to get what he wants—which so many of us often do—he spoke about it almost as if were the hem of a garment that slips from his hand just as he begins to grip it. His faith, he said, was more like a set of questions and hopes that he brings before God, a journey that he never can define or fully describe. In his testimony I could hear the echoes of both Jairus and the bleeding woman, a longing to be close to the Lord but also a fear that things won’t always work out like he hoped, that his failings and brokenness might somehow invite God’s wrath rather than God’s compassion. I heard him speak about feeling at times unworthy, ungrateful, unwilling, and I wanted to tell him that the fact that he acknowledges he is not a “good Christian” actually makes him a great Christian. I could hear an understanding that Jesus does not respond to our faith, but that faith is a response to what Jesus has done. But most I heard this young man’s thanksgiving for what he had already received from the hand of a loving and healing Savior, and his expectation that there was more of it to come. A common theme in all testimonies—his and the others—was that faith somehow made them well. It sometimes eluded them, often surprised them, but always, in the end, made them well. What about you? What words would you give to describe your faith? What actions in your life press you closer and closer to the man from Nazareth?

In the end, that is where this relationship of trust is aimed: God makes us well. And no matter where we are in life—and no matter what the world’s state of health care is—there will always be something healing, something truly life-giving about a relationship with Jesus that cannot be found anywhere else. There will still be something saving about seeking to know and—more importantly—being known by God. There will always be power in his cloak, if we can but touch it.

As we press closer to him, as we continue our questions of discovery, as we thrust onto God our pain and suffering, we learn that Jesus will not primarily free people from the powers of sin and death by performing miraculous healing. He will primarily do this by succumbing to the powers of sin and death himself. He is here, in our midst, not simply to command his power over everything but to give up that power and enter into the weakness of human experience. On the cross, Jesus touches…grips…is nailed to…all that separates us from God and, in his rising, conquers it.

Brothers and sisters, this is historic. It affects the welfare of everyone in the entire world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

1 comment: