This is the sermon I preached last week, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes. You can find the lectionary here. We used Track 2 with Lamentations.
I’ll admit: I love the miracle stories in the Gospel. They tell us so much about who and whose we are. Even more than that, they tell us so much about the nature of God and God’s commitment to God’s creation. These stories tell us about God’s dream for the world.
And I’ll confess: as pastor and chaplain, I’m not always so sure about the stories of miraculous healing. Those stories invariably raise questions of why some people are healed and others are not. They raise questions about why the prayers of some seem to be answered so fully and completely, while the prayers of others seem to fall on deaf ears.
This week, as I was reading and praying with today’s lectionary, and talking about it with a friend, I wondered if it’s possible that we are missing the point of the healing stories, at least some of the time. What if they are less about the healing of the physical ailment and more about God’s answering prayers we don’t even know we have, giving us something we may not even know we need?
Today’s Gospel, with the two seemingly unrelated healing stories, is a good example of the questions that occurred to me in my prayer and reflection. I share with you now what I think today’s Gospel really is about:
- God looking beyond what we think we need and responding to the needs we don’t know we have; and
- God reminding us of the need to have faith even when it seems we have come to the end of the road.
And, to top it all off, God does that by acting in ways that are unexpected or, even, as some might say, “not right.”
Let me tell you what I mean…
At the beginning of today’s Gospel we hear of Jairus’ plea to Jesus to heal his daughter. This is happening after Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a raging storm, the story of Jesus’ calming the seas and stilling the winds from last week’s Gospel. Jesus and the disciples get to the shore to be greeted by a crowd of people, Jairus among them. Jesus hears his plea and together they head off toward Jairus’ house. Given Jairus’ position in the community, as a leader in the synagogue, I’m pretty sure it would have surprised no one that Jesus would listen to him and attend to his needs. Jairus is a man with authority and stature in the community, likely used to making requests and having people respond in the ways he asks.
So, here they are, leaving the shore and heading to Jairus’ house, with the crowd following along. From somewhere in the crowd comes someone who touches Jesus’ cloak and, without making a specific verbal request, receives some of Jesus’ healing power. Jesus is unsure of who did it, as are his disciples. What happens next probably surprised many, if not all, of those gathered. A woman, suffering from a bleeding disorder, steps up and admits it was she who touched Jesus! A woman touching a strange, unrelated man in public would have gotten attention, even if the woman were not someone who was considered ritually unclean and therefore an outcast in the community. In all likelihood, she is someone who should not have been on the same side of the road as Jesus, never mind being in the crowd and touching him.
I imagine Jesus’ response to the woman was about as shocking as her behavior. People would have expected a religious leader to admonish the woman, to remind her of her status as an outcast, and to send her back into exile. But what does Jesus do? He listens to her and then tells her that her faith has made her well. He provides healing.
He heals the woman’s physical ailment, but that, my friends, is only a part of what Jesus does, and perhaps not even the biggest part of what he does. Because in heeding her prayer and healing her body, he brings her back into the community. She is no longer an outcast. She can take her place with her family, friends, and neighbors, and live a life that has been denied to her because of her illness. She is made whole. That in and of itself is truly amazing, but the story does not end there. Her family, friends, and neighbors can once again benefit from the gifts she has to offer and from being in relationship with her. The community is made whole. It’s as if Jesus uses the occasion of her physical healing to model a new way of being, of understanding how to be in relationship, of the power and importance of reconciliation.
Of course, that takes a bit of time, enough time that Jairus and Jesus get the word that Jairus’ daughter is dead. His friends see no point in troubling Jesus any further. They have given up hope. But Jesus continues on. When he gets to the house, he says simply, “Young girl, get up” and she does. And, as with the healing of the woman at the shore, this healing extends beyond the physical ailment of the daughter. When she arises from the dead, Jairus’ family is made whole once again. Obviously, for any family that would be incredible, wonderful news. Given that Jairus is a religious leader in a time when the adage “the sins of the father…” was taken quite seriously, his daughter’s healing also means that he maintains his credibility as a righteous man, as a leader in the community. Again, physical healing occurs and relationships are restored, as Jairus’ friends and family learn not to lose faith, even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.
These stories teach us much about the nature of God and how God understands healing and reconciliation. It seems to me they are especially relevant- poignant perhaps- in this time in the life of our country and the world. In times of such immense and wide-ranging conflict, are reminded that God pays attention to all of us, to each of us, while, at the same time, we are reminded that God does not prioritize the needs of one over the needs of another. The measures of success and worthiness we see and value are not God’s. The focus of God’s healing is not limited to a particular person or ailment, but to the reconciliation of all people to Gods’ self and to each other.
In these stories we are given two seemingly contradictory models of faithfulness: the audacious faith of the woman and the humility of Jairus. My guess is that, at some time or another, all of us have needed to approach God with the boldness of the outcast woman, in her own surreptitious way demanding that Jesus’ power and authority be extended to her. My guess, too, is that at other times we have needed to approach God more humbly, as Jairus, the leader of the synagogue does, when he pleads for his daughter’s health in public, more or less literally “before God and everybody,” as the saying goes.
The learning for us in this is that God is present to us as we are, not in our perfection or as other people expect but just as we are. Whether we are bold and audacious like the woman or humbled in our desperation like Jairus, or something different all together, God is present and gives us more than we ask, God gives us what we need. This is completely consistent with God’s dream of reconciliation to and with all people, and God’s willingness to give us healing in the ways we know enough to ask, and in ways we may not know we need. And God does this, as God does everything, in the ways God does because God is God. That is Good News indeed!