(a sermon for June 28, 2015, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost; 2nd in a series, based on Mark 5:21-43)
One of the things that goes along with being a pastor is that by virtue of this vocation and the place you have in the life of a congregation, you can often bear witness to the wide range of the human experience: its incredible joy and the laughter that arises from that; the tears that come with its sorrow and its pain; and also in the anguish that comes in life’s struggles and its utter uncertainty. Truly, one of the great privileges of the work I do comes precisely in sharing moments with people that are incredibly celebrative, as well as standing with them in times of unthinkable tragedy; because in both instances, you really do get to see, in a marvelous fashion, the presence, the power and the comfort of God at work.
What’s more, as a pastor you also get to see how people act and maybe more to the point, how they react to the varied situations of life; and in the process, you come to know a lot about those people! For instance, over the years it’s been fascinating to me just how often in the midst of what by all appearances would seem to be a hopeless situation, you begin to see the very best in people coming to the forefront in grand and glorious fashion! I mean, it’s amazing; these people we’ve known all our lives, and who, in all honesty, we’ve determined to be adequate at best (!) in handling whatever situation comes along; and yet, right the middle of facing the most difficult stuff that life can hand out, when everything and everyone else around them is coming undone, they’re the ones who seem more together than they’ve ever been before! There’s an abundance of life and faith and joy and love that quite literally exudes from people like that, and I have to tell you not only that they’ve been an inspiration to me as a pastor, but also that they’ve clearly had a profoundly positive impact on the lives of everyone else around them!
Of course, by the same token, I’ve also met plenty of people who seem to approach whatever challenge and crisis comes their way with what might be described as a “barren spirit;” people with no hope and no real life within them; who spend their days awash in anger, bitterness and the grim determination that nothing good, worthwhile or healing can ever happen. In other words, to put it politely, they live by the credo that “life stinks and then you die.” These are people for whom faith, any kind of faith, is a scarce commodity at best, and as one commentator I read recently very bluntly put it, they are people who live their lives out of that scarcity, and then tend to “overcome and suck the life and generosity out of [everybody else]” around them.
Now to be fair, we need to understand that everybody handles these situations differently; each one of us has to come to terms with whatever challenge we’re facing at our own speed and in our own way. Grief, whatever its form, takes its own path; and there is no shame in struggling through our faith issues in difficult times, because I believe – and I think scripture bears this out – that in many ways our “lamentations” help us to reconnect with God. That said, however, it is true that how we respond to the challenges of our lives says a great deal about who we are, and there is a difference between those who live in the “scarcity” of human life, and others who trust and thrive in its abundance. The difference between the one and the other, I believe, is to be found with God; God, who is the giver of truly abundant life.
That’s what at the heart of this morning’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, two intertwining stories of Jesus’ acts of healing “along the way;” two instances where our Lord brought forth an abundance of life where no life seemed possible: first, in the healing of a woman with a twelve-year issue of blood; and then in the raising of the daughter of Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue. This is a story that, as Mark tells it, takes place relatively early in Jesus’ public ministry; and the story is there, I think, not only to give us a clear sense of Jesus’ healing power and of his great compassion for those in need (even to the point of allowing himself to be distracted from going to help one person so that he might help another, which is pretty amazing in and of itself), but also to indicate how even at this early point the crowds were starting to clamor around Jesus wherever he went. Some were there out of curiosity, of course; others maybe because of skepticism or suspicion; and yes, some out of a deep-seated hope that perhaps in this man Jesus could finally be found an answer for their deepest need. In fact, if you look closely at the crowd in this story, what you’ll find is a very clear difference between what it is to live life out of scarcity, on the one hand, and living life trusting in its abundance on the other.
Consider first of all in this story the woman who “had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.” By virtue of this bleeding, she was considered to be ritually “unclean” and therefore, according to Jewish law, was to be avoided and left untouched. We’re told that she had “endured much under many physicians,” which means that these doctors had basically treated her badly, “taking all her money and leaving her worse off than before.” (The Message) The upshot of this is that they dealt with her as a woman with no hope whatsoever of any sort of healing or redemption, and so she was forced to live as an outcast; living a life of hopelessness away from family and apart from the community, usually amongst lepers and around people who were considered to be possessed by demons. This was the life to which this woman had been reduced!
Or for that matter, think about the other story that’s part of our reading today, that of Jairus’ twelve year old daughter. Now, here’s a part of this story that I really hadn’t taken much notice of before, but in fact, it’s very telling. Of course, we know that Jesus is delayed in getting back to Jairus’ house, but “while he was still speaking, some people came… to say ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” In other words, it’s too late, give it up already (!) because your little girl is gone, and she’s not coming back! And you’ll notice that these are people who came out to specifically to say just that to Jairus; and isn’t that always the case, that there’s always got to be somebody who not only has to be the bearer of bad tidings, but who also revels in it!
What we have in both these little stories are people who are full of “scarcity thinking;” in that they have no hope, no life, no abundance, and their first instinct is to simply push everything aside, move on and make sure everyone else does, too. Your daughter is dead; there’s nothing anybody can do, so get on with your life! We can’t fix your bleeding, so you’re just going to have to live with it; not here, of course, but somewhere.
But here’s the thing: neither Jairus nor the woman were people of scarcity; but rather they were ones who trusted in the abundance of God that their prayers would be answered. Jairus is so convinced of Jesus’ ability to heal his daughter that he quite literally plows through the crowd so to pull him away from everyone else and to bring Jesus back to his house. And of course, you know all about the woman; her story is among the most poignant moments of the gospels, when she works her way in and through all those gathered just so, as the old gospel song puts it, she can touch “the hem of his garment,” because, she says, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” And it happened: Mark tells us that “immediately her hemorrhage stopped and she felt in her body that she was healed.” Healed: just as was the little girl that so many others had written off as either being dead or never to recover.
In both of these healing acts, Jesus says something to them about faith. To the woman, he says, “your faith has made you well,” or as The Message translates it, “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague.” And to the grieving, skeptical masses around the synagogue, Jesus says something that you have to imagine had a bit of an edge to it: “Do not fear, only believe.”
Jairus did believe; that’s the point. The woman in the crowd desperate for healing; she believed; and that’s the difference, you see, between living a life of scarcity and living in the abundance of God! Somehow, even though their lives were mired in hopelessness, they understood something the rest did not, could not; they knew the promise of God’s abundant life and knew that if only they could get to Jesus that life could be theirs, too. The doctors, the crowd, the mourners coming from Jairus’ house: all they could see were the dark, hardcore realities of life and death; but these two believers understood something that transcended even the certainty of death, and that’s God’s generous spirit.
At the heart of this gospel story is an example of what another biblical commentator has referred to as “God’s profligate giving;” God’s abundant generosity; the point here being that by our standards, it would have seemed enough for Jesus to offer compassion to the poor, outcast woman; sufficient to comfort Jairus and his wife on the occasion of their grief at the loss of their daughter. But in Jesus, God went much further and healed the woman of her disease, restored the young girl to life and (in an interesting little footnote to this story) made sure she got something to eat!
That is the extravagant generosity of our God; but you see, it was the faith of those seeking out the generous God that made all the difference; and this is the difference between a life lived in scarcity and a life lived in true abundance!
And friends, that is good news for you and me today.
We know, of course, that not all of our stories end that well. We all know of times when our loved ones are not healed the way we had hoped and prayed; when things simply don’t work out the way we would have wanted. And moreover, the truth is that many of life’s struggles are on-going; and so often, the concerns we face have this way of piling on, as if to smother us! There is indeed, for so many of us who are worn down by all the difficult “stuff” of life, the temptation to give up and give in to the scarcity of it all; but it is to that very temptation that Jesus says to you and me today, “Do not fear, only believe.”
Beloved, our Christian faith does not promise us that all our problems in life will be erased; and we are not given the assurance that every challenge we ever face will be met, nor will we always win every battle; but our Christian faith does promise us access to the abundant life that God gives us through Jesus Christ, and by grace we are assured of more than enough of the hope and the strength that comes in living as children of God; along with the ability to know joy in every situation we face, and the perfect love that casts out all of our fear.
We know this to be true; we have seen it, we have felt it, and it is a heritage of faith that you and I carry into the future as believers and as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is what lifts us up when everything in life would conspire to smack us down. It is what moves a people wounded by violence and hatred toward a renewed vision of unity, justice and peace; and yes, it is what brings us ever closer to loving equality in all things, including marriage.
Amazing things happen when we trust in the abundance that God has to give us, dear friends; it changes us, and it changes the world; and whatever the challenges we face, it makes true the words of that wonderful old folk song: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome… we shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”
By the abundant grace of God, so might it be.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c, 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry