Monday, July 2, 2012

Sermon for July 1, 2012

When Faith Meets Compassion
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 1, 2012


When God’s desire to make us and the world whole is met with sincere, honest faith, healing in some form happens!


 When I was in seminary, I decided that there was some good theology in that old western series that ran for over 20 years,  Gunsmoke.  For instance, you could learn a lot about the doctrine of eschatology watching Gunsmoke.  Eschatology is the doctrine of last things, how things finally turn out in the end, Christ’s return, final judgment, salvation, what happens after death—all of that.  What does that have to do with  Gunsmoke you might ask?  Many Gunsmoke episodes have a plot line where something terrible is going on somewhere, either in Dodge City or somewhere else in Matt Dillon’s jurisdiction—a robbery, hostages taken and threatened with murder, an innocent person about to be hung—and Matt Dillon is nowhere to be found.  He’s off on official business somewhere.  But then, near the end of the show, just before some heinous atrocity is about to occur, Matt Dillon rides in, defends the innocent, defeats the evildoers,  restores justice, and then  heads to Miss Kitty’s Longbranch saloon for a drink and a few jokes.   Does that sound like anything you’ve heard in the Christian story? 

In the episode I was thinking about as I studied this text, a rough and tumble farmer rides into town to get Doc.  His wife is about to deliver a baby and she’s having a rough time.  Doc tells him to go on.   He’ll get his things together and be right behind him.  The trouble is that as Doc is leaving, he witnesses a murder.  A thief stabs and kills an innocent bystander, another person fires on the killer, hits him, but doesn’t kill him.  So Doc has to take the murderer into his office and begin to do all he can do to save his life, which he does.  He sends Miss Kitty out to assist the mother in labor.  But, tragically, while he is tending to this person who, under the law may be hanged for his crime when all is said and done, the baby is delivered—but does not make it.  Doc arrives after the fact to face the farmer’s wrath.  The farmer is so angry that he contemplates knocking Doc off. 

It’s not an exact parallel to Mark’s account here in chapter 5, but it does remind us that there are often so many needs in the world that we are forced sometimes to make difficult choices not just about how to help, but whom to help.  And though you and I are often perplexed about whom to help when and how, Jesus seems to have the gift of making a difference in any situation, no matter how complicated or difficult, if he’s welcomed by faith.

Jesus is faced with multiple needs.  It turns out that while, on the surface, the two people who approach him may have little in common, they are more alike than you see at first glance.

First, Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue comes to Jesus.  His daughter is near death.  He believes that Jesus can make a difference, so he seeks him out, humbly falls at Jesus’ feet and begs like he’s never begged anyone before.  You can feel the man’s pain, a father pleading for his little girl.  Jesus agrees to go with him.

But while he is on his way to bring healing to someone in desperate need, a great crowd presses in around Jairus,  Jesus and the disciples.  Someone touches Jesus’ cloak.  He feels power go forth from him and asks who touched him.  The disciples are frustrated with Jesus, which is not unusual.  “Look at all these people, how could you ever possibly determine who touched you?”  A woman had touched Jesus, and she had felt something happen in her body.  She’d been healed.  She’d had a hemorrhage, an issue of blood, that had bothered her for 12 years, the same length of time Jairus’s little girl had been alive—12 long years.  She’d tried everything.  You can see her, can’t you?   She looks tired, haggard, worn down, defeated.  Maybe you’ve seen her in an emergency room seeking care, or in a doctor’s office for the umpteenth time.  She’s gone from doctor to doctor.  She’s changed jobs and lost her insurance because of a preexisting condition.  But more than that, this problem has dominated her life.  She’s spent a fortune and no one has been able to help her.  She’s tried every medication, every new age cure, every diet—nothing has worked.  More than that, her illness separates her from other folks.  Her problem makes her ritually unclean, so to be restored to participation in the religious community and  her circle of friends, she’s got to constantly undergo a process of ritual bathing, cleansing, and purification.  Her illness is embarrassing, one she can’t really hide from others.

Jesus, on his way to an emergency intervention at Jairus’s house, the ruler of the synagogue, one of the religious elites whose good favor could certainly not hurt Jesus’ cause, stops, not to cajole the woman, but to pronounce to her that her faith has brought healing to her.  “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  He spoke to her with respect, compassion, heard her whole story, and sent her away with a peace she’d not known for many years.  But he did something else that Jairus certainly noticed.  Having been touched by a woman in her condition, Jesus is now ritually unclean, and to observe proper etiquette, he needs to stop and go through a ritual bath and cleansing himself.  What was going through Jairus’s mind?  Was he angry?  That’d be understandable.  Was he anxious?  Of course, time was of the essence.  Was he simply resigned to the reality that his daughter, his precious little girl, would not make it?  Probably.  Because while he was speaking to the woman, he gets word, “Your daughter is now dead.”

But Jesus tells him, the leader of the synagogue, “Don’t fear, only believe.”  He makes it clear that ritual purity is not nearly as important to him as people in pain.  He goes, enters Jairus’s house, sends everyone away but the parents, and Peter, James, and John.  He tells the mourners in their unrestrained grief,  “The child is just asleep.”  They laugh at Jesus.  He sends them all out and goes in to the little girl and says, “Little girl, get up.”  And she does.

What’s the point of Mark’s juxtaposition of these two stories of healing?  Is the point the miracles themselves?  They’re no small matter, but we know that miracles in and of themselves do not always produce belief on the part of those who witness them.

First, Mark reminds us that whether we are rich or poor, whether we hold a place of esteem in the community like Jairus, or are held at arm’s length by others because they see us as “unclean,” we are all the same when we suffer.  One of the things that binds us together as human beings is the realization that sickness and death comes to rich and poor alike.  There are things that happen to all of us that stretch us to our physical, spiritual, and emotional limits and cause us to cry out for help from beyond ourselves. That recognition is often the beginning of our realization that we need God, and that we need one another, for we will all face moments of suffering. 

Second, we learn something important about Jesus.  Jesus will not let the conventions of society or the rituals prescribed by even his own religious code prevent him from extending genuine compassion to anyone who has need.  He touches the woman who is unclean even though that makes him unclean.  He touches the dead girl knowing again, that he will be doubly unclean. Jesus will do all in his power to reach people, whoever they are, in need. 

 Jesus wants to extend the offer of God’s mercy to the wealthy stock trader who makes billions on a ponzi scheme, and the hustler who picks pockets on street corners.   Jesus wants to extend the offer of God’s presence to the well-respected religious leader, and to the person who lives in a tent on an island in the James River.  God is in the business of offering healing grace to any who will receive it.  God’s grace is for all. 

Finally, it is not the miracle itself that is the point in these stories.  It is the intersection of God’s power and presence in Jesus and the faith of two very different people.  For instance, we know that Jairus’s daughter, as dramatic as her restoration was, would not live forever.  I happen to think that if Jesus had gotten to his house and the little girl had been found dead, and Jesus would have responded by tenderly closing her eyes, embracing Jairus and his family, and helping them believe that even in that moment, she was in God’s presence receiving God’s everlasting love and care, Jarisus’s faith would not have been in vain.   In the face of his suffering and loss, he would have realized that the real miracle for him and the woman he’d met on the way back to his house was at heart the same—it was the miracle of receiving the one thing in life that outlasts sickness or health, poverty or prosperity—the everlasting love of God.   If there’s one reason Jesus came, it is that, to show us that God’s love for us and God’s care for us—all of us—can be experienced here, now—and yes, beyond the grave.

The thing Jarius and the woman share is that they both have faith in Jesus.  Though they come from different strata of society, they both trust that Jesus love is for them, and through their faith, they become personally aware of God’s compassion and mercy.

Faith causes us to believe that God is good and that God cares for us.  Faith causes people, like the woman in Mark’s gospel, to ignore other people’s judgment of her worth or place in society.  Faith causes people to seek life where others only see death, healing where others only see sickness, victory where others only see defeat.  Faith causes churches in places where others say, “You’ll never make it,” to say, “With God’s help, we will see a new day.  We will be transformed, raised, so that through our ministry others can experience healing and resurrection.”

I watched with great interest the recent NBA playoffs.  I was interested partly because the Oklahoma City Thunder were playing.  After they won Game 1 against the Miami Heat, the commentators were certain that the younger, more energetic, athletic Thunder would win the championship.  But LeBron James for the Miami Heat had other ideas and the Heat prevailed, winning the next four games in a row.    He would not accept other people’s predictions of his team’s demise.  

That reminded of a story I’ve heard about the great Boston Celtics teams when Larry Bird played for them.  I followed them closely.  I was fascinated with the way a guy who seemed to lack many of the skills of other great players was able to be such a dominant force.  And I’d seen Larry Bird play against ORU when I was in college.

Supposedly, during a retirement party for Larry Bird in Boston Garden, former Celtics Coach K.C. Jones, himself a former great Celtic player told about what it was like to coach Larry Legend:

"We are playing in Seattle. Five seconds left on the clock and the score is tied and it is our timeout. In the huddle, I am thinking Xavier McDaniel is guarding Larry.

"So I said, 'Now Kevin, you take the ball out and get it to Dennis and Dennis you can finish that.'

"Larry said, 'Why don’t you just give me the ball and tell everybody else to get the [heck] out of the way?'

"So I said, 'Larry you play, and I’ll coach.'

"And he said, 'All right.'

"So I said, 'Dennis, you take it out and you get it to Kevin. Kevin you get it to Larry and everybody else get the [heck] out of the way.'

"That is communication. Before the timeout was over, he leaves the huddle, and I said to myself, where is he going.

"And Xavier was right there and Bird said, 'Xavier, I’m getting the ball. I’m going to take two dribbles to the left. I’m going to step back behind the three point line and stick it.'

"And that is what he did. So when he stepped back behind the line and released the ball, as soon as he released it, his arm was still in the air going to the dressing room. Game over." (accessed June 29, 2012)

That is what these two people learned in very different ways—the woman with the hemorrhage, the synagogue ruler with a very sick little girl—give those moments of terror, fear, and social isolation to Jesus.  Jesus will come to you and to me in those moments.  The miracle may take different forms, but it is always of the same substance—God’s love, presence, mercy, acceptance, and care are given to us all in the measure we need, just when we need it most.

So, what do you have to do to receive this gift of God’s healing mercy and resurrection power in your life?  What prerequisites must you meet?  How will you find the faith to trust God when you need it the most?  How can you have faith that, as you come to this altar to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, that you will truly encounter the presence and power of the risen Christ?

I like the way the provocative writer and preacher Episcopal priest Robert Capon puts it, and I leave you with his words as an invitation to experience Christ’s healing, life-giving power today:

“Jesus came to raise the dead.  The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead.  You don’t have to be smart.  You don’t have to be good.  You don’t have to be wise.  You don’t have to be wonderful.  You don’t have to be anything…you just have to be dead.  That’s it.”  Amen.

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