Tuesday, September 4, 2012

5th Sunday After Pentecost 2012

I have to admit that I had trouble writing this sermon for today. Not because we just returned from vacation, rather because of what happened prior to my vacation—and how it made me react to today’s reading.
A couple of days before I left, Charity and the boys went to Florida so that they could spend some time with her family. She and I would obviously keep up with one another regularly. One day, she calls and tells me that one of her cousins had been in a near fatal car accident, and had been taken to the hospital. Apparently she had damaged some of the vertebrae in her neck, and they were afraid if they moved her too much, she would have stopped breathing.
So, she spent the next day or so in ICU, and her family, including Charity and her parents had gotten the prayer chain working.
Apparently, somehow, within the 48 hours that followed, Charity’s cousin was released from the hospital with nothing more than a plastic neck brace and probably some pain meds… Later, a couple of the people who had been in the room with her reported seeing an angel enter the room and cradle her head before she came to and soon after released…

I have to say it’s an amazing story, and I really have no rational explanation for what happened. Obviously something divine—but what troubles me is that while I am happy for this woman, it leaves me with far more questions than it answers. Specifically, I wonder about all of the other people in the world who are wishing and hoping for healing, but don’t seem to ever get it.
Today’s Gospel reading, then, seems to only complicates things further for me. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment.
Here we have Jesus returning from this tour of the Decapolis, these Gentile lands. He’s just cured people and exorcised demons, and here he has returned to his own people.
Right away, this man, Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to come to heal his daughter, because she has been ill. All around him, Jesus has a number of people—perhaps also begging for healing of their own—pressing in on him and his disciples.
Agreeing to help Jairus, who we’re told was a leader in the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples begin pressing through the crowd.
Along the way then, a woman who has been dealing with a hemorrhage for years, sees Jesus. And she knows that if she can just touch him or even his clothes, she could be healed.

So, she pushes her way to him, touches his garment and she knows suddenly in herself that she is healed. But Jesus, even in this crowd, knew something had happened, and asks who touched him. His disciples think he’s ridiculous because the crowd is so thick—but the woman (who would have been considered ritually unclean) comes to Jesus and tells him that she had touched him. And this is where we get the completion of this particular healing, as Jesus pronounces her to be whole as well as healed.
Now, in the meantime, while all of this has happened with the woman, Jairus’ daughter died while Jesus was interrupted by this woman. But in the end, Jesus even resurrects the girl, and everything seems to be alright.
In the Gospel writer’s usual style (in Mark), we have a story which interrupts a larger story—and each of them work together to highlight a particular aspect of who Jesus is and the meaning of his ministry to the world.
In this case, of course, he’s already spent time with Gentiles, healing and preaching, and he even returns to heal a woman and resurrect a little girl. All of them, technically, were ritually unclean, yet all of them receive healing from Jesus. So, we can see that by his very presence, Jesus supersedes political, social and religious norms—not to mention his supernatural authority and power.

In this particular story, we see commonality in the desperation of these people. Jairus, the leader of a synagogue, is desperate enough to beg this strange faith-healer and teacher (who has been with ritually unclean people, I might add) to come to his house to heal his daughter. Likewise, this woman is willing to press through a crowd of people just to touch Jesus in hope of healing.
These are obviously powerful witnesses to the authority and love of God in the person of Jesus. These are accounts which were meant to give the early followers of Jesus, and all the rest of us hope.
But as all of us know, hope can be as dangerous a thing as it can be beautiful.
Hope can be the very thing that helps us through some of the toughest times in our lives—it can give us purpose to endure some of the most heartbreaking things in life. Hope can shed even the faintest light in the darkest places of this world.
But this same hope can be dangerous if it is a false hope. And I think that at times we might feel this way—fear that the thing for which we hope most might be in vain. We might wonder if the hope that we have is really self-delusion.   
And sometimes, what can be harder, is seeing something hoped for come to pass for someone else, while we wait as nothing seems to happen…

This is the sort of thing that went through my mind as I began working through the lessons for today. It honestly bothered me enough that when I met with my colleague group, I almost felt like a bad person for failing to really celebrate such a miraculous recovery as the one seen in Charity’s family. Like I said, I was left with more questions than answers.
The next day, however, one of the people in my colleague group sent me a link to a blog that discussed this very same issue in light of today’s Gospel reading. The author of the blog referred to a scene in the movie Shawshank Redemption, where the main character played by Tim Robbins has just come back from spending time in solitary confinement. After his friends ask him how he made it through, he tells them he just listened to Mozart the entire time. At first his friends are confused, but he explains that the music was in his head, and he kept hold of it because it gave him hope.
Red, the cynical and experienced character played by Morgan Freeman, warns him that hope can be dangerous…
Of course, not to ruin the movie for anyone, in the end hope does in fact come through—and it becomes clear that hope can be dangerous, but somehow beautiful at the same time.

This pushed me to look a little closer at the Gospel reading—but more importantly, it made me look a little closer at my own heart. And, after quite a lot of prayer, and soul-searching; a few things came together.
First off, in the story about the woman who touched Jesus’ clothes; she might have gotten a physical healing when she touched Jesus, but the true turning point of the story happens when Jesus speaks to her. Because it’s then that she receives a blessing from Jesus and a pronouncement of wholeness.
It’s my sense that often we confuse healing and wholeness as being the same things. That’s not to say that in seeking healing that we aren’t looking for wholeness—rather that wholeness is a much deeper thing; and it may be very possible that some of us receive wholeness without healing.
Also, I think for anyone who has been with a loved one before they pass away, they’ve experienced how the person who is dying has a kind of peace. Even if there might be some fear, there is often still a sense of wholeness that can’t be easily ignored.
Secondly, I believe that even if we do not receive the physical healing that we ask for—for ourselves or another person—I believe that somehow being with people who are hurting, or suffering (and sharing with them in their experience), somehow it makes us all more whole. It somehow makes us more human, and challenges us to understand ourselves and our relationships with God as well as others.
The truth is, however, that there really are no easy answers. Perhaps the more that we read about and hear about all that Jesus did in the Gospels, we may begin to feel as if we’re missing out on a lot.
But what we forget, is that even in the Gospels, there were people who were not healed, and people who did not always have an easier life for having known Jesus and believing in him. Ironically, this is the reason that the Gospels were written—so that those of us who don’t have an easier life, yet still believe, could have some hope.
It may very well be that hope for healing (which may come to pass). It may be hope for a better life—who knows. But what the Gospels are at least honest about, and continue to remind us, is that our hope is never in vain. Even if we doubt, or feel that what we hoped for has failed to come to pass; we are still encouraged to hope. Because what we hope for may be much more short-sighted than what God has in mind for us.
 Hope may be a dangerous thing, but the alternative of hopelessness seems that it would render life barren and unbearable. After all, to hope is to look beyond circumstance and trust that there is something far better. In light of that, hope for all of its possible dangers seems no less an incredibly beautiful thing.

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