Scripture: Mark 5:21-42
Uncited/unedited, by J. Lavoy
I think that stories of Jesus’ healing others, somewhat miraculously, are the scripture passages that challenge me the most. Health, healing, disease, and illness are among things that I have had the most opportunity to deal with, theologically and spiritually, and I have yet to find any resolution.
My death of my grandmother when I was 15 was an important and defining moment in my life. I was as close with her as grandmother and grandson could be. She took special care in caring for me, nurturing me, and mentoring me. She was an extraordinarily kind woman, always giving of herself and her time and money, and many people prayed for her leukemia to be cured. Of course, it wasn’t, and she died at age 59. I sobbed miserably at her funeral, and I didn’t cry again for nearly a decade when, as I was wrestling with my own sense of call, I attended a performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and the refrain at the end of the hour long piece is “the lord shall reign forever and ever.” In that moment was an acknowledgement that I didn’t have to have all of life’s answers in my early twenties, but that my job, as a human being, was to trust God through the process of life.
Yet, I still remained somewhat spiritually constipated. In the ten years between 15 and 25, there had been a lot of noise, frustration, anxiety, and anger that kept me spiritually blocked. I continued to think of religion as being a helpful instrument of social change, nothing more, nothing less. I wasn’t very sure about God’s presence, but there were enough occasional reminders of Handel’s the Lord shall reign forever and ever to keep me moving along through life’s process.
Then, I did a chaplaincy internship at Jefferson University Hospital in center city Philadelphia. It is the largest trauma hospital in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and northern Maryland. My tasks were to emotionally and spiritually care for people in the emergency and trauma unit, and throughout 13 floors of ICU. That is an enormous if not impossible task, and I think that’s why they assign 2nd year seminarians to it. People in tremendous crisis would cry out to be consoled, and I could do nothing except sit and listen.
No matter where people sat on the religiosity spectrum, the presence of God that I tried to foster seemed like a great gift for many. In fact, the more religious a person was, they were less likely to appreciate my quiet, open presence. That’s something I’m only realizing now, and I wish I could process that with my internship cohort.
It was through this internship, however, that I was reminded more fully, that it was not my job to have answers to questions, but rather, to be open to the questions of life. This is quickly turning into a Lenten sermon, so I don’t want to get too carried away.
But, once I discovered my trust in God through openness, I found that I began to cry more frequently. Where once my defense mechanism for life was cynicism and sarcasm, and my heart was hard as a rock, my defense mechanism became no defense at all, but rather, a willingness to let my heart be broken by need and pain; and a willingness to let my heart be sown back together, with laughter and contentment.
There are two women in our scripture passage, today.
The first is an older woman who had experienced a persistent menstruation for twelve years. To her, this would have been beyond annoyance, it would be been a thing of anger and frustration. For twelve years, she was considered ritually unclean. This meant that she could not go near her husband, she likely had no women friends, she couldn’t become pregnant, and she likely understood this condition as a curse from God. She would have been outcast from the culture around her, for no discernable reason. I’m sure that you and I both know what feelings of futility can do to a person. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace,” he said.
The first woman hemorrhaged for twelve years, the second woman was twelve years old when she died, and her story couldn’t be any more different. She was the daughter of the local rabbi. She would have been a prominent daughter, far from outcast, and probably preparing for a high-profile marriage, soon. Instead of lurking in the shadows, trying to “steal” a healing from Jesus, the twelve year old girls father, Jairus, walked right up to Jesus and pleaded for him to come visit her. When Jesus arrived, he pronounced that the girl was not dead, only sleeping. The people in the house laughed at this, but the people’s laughter turned to awe when Jesus said, “talitha cum, little girl, get up”, and she did, and walked around. “Get this girl something to eat,” he said.
These miraculous healings are difficult, and it would be easy enough for us to dismiss them as relics from a bygone era. But those early followers of Jesus were just as skeptical of miraculous healings as we are, yet the stories remain.
I think the first and most important thing to notice is that these stories are not simply about two individuals, told in isolation. The author of the story deliberately compares and contrasts the healings, to remind us that these stories are about people, within the context of a community. The mini-climax of the story, I think, is when Jesus says, “be not afraid, only believe.”
Be not afraid that your illness defines you, but that your personhood and your relationship to God defines you.
This woman, socially ostracized by her uncontrollable hemorrhaging wasn’t herself a hemorrhage; she was a daughter – a daughter of her family, a daughter of her community, and a daughter of God. God loved her all along; it was her community that needed healing.
This girl, who died long before her time and for unexplained reasons, did not have her identity wrapped up in her death. She was the daughter of Jairus’, a prominent faith leaders whose own friends and family had little faith. They laughed at Jesus, and were awed by Jesus’ miracle. It was not the girl that needed healing, but her community.
Therefore, Jesus is saying “Be not afraid, be open.”
We all process through life, in our own time, and in our own way. I’m intentionally not saying progress, here, but process. Though we all progress, I think it puts too many expectations on us. Because we want easy answers, I think. We want clarity. We want people to respond the way we want them to; we want our dreams to come true without any work or faith; we want illness to be healed.
Instead of our miraculous healing, are we willing to reach out in faith to touch God?
At the end of our time, whether it is the end of our worship service, the end of our professional occupation, or the end of our temporal lives, the God of eternity is not so concerned with how many boxes we’ve checked off as accomplishments. Instead, God reminds us that our humanity is wrapped up in how loving we are, and how open we are, as we move through life.
My prayer for you, this week, is this: “God, may I be open to your direction.”