Sunday, July 2

Sermon

July 2, 2006
Proper 8, RCL, Year B
Jesus Christ Reconciler
The Reverend Laura Gottardi-Littell
Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

Today’s gospel passages from Mark contain two remarkable stories about miraculous healings performed by Jesus. In the first, Jesus heals a woman with a 12-year flow of blood. In the second, he heals the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.

These two stories share certain similarities. In both stories, the one being healed is female. Here as in other gospels, Jesus heals people across gender and socioeconomic boundaries. Lepers, the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, other untouchables. In today’s gospel, he heals people who are ritually impure. As Episcopal priest and professor Barbara Brown Taylor points out, a bleeding woman and a dead child would both be considered unclean in that time and place. As a holy person, Jesus would be expected to purify himself for seven days after contact with either one of them, and certainly not go right from one to the other. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Once again he upsets traditional ideas about what a holy man does, with whom he ought to hang out, and whom he is here to help.

These two stories show Jesus as an equal opportunity healer. Jairus, a powerful leader of the synagogue, at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, is just as desperate as the woman with the flow of blood, at the bottom of the heap. He’s a pillar of the community, she’s way out on the fringes of society, barred from public worship because she’s deemed unclean. It takes guts for both Jairus and the woman to beg Jesus for help. They both get his attention. Jesus elevates the woman, saying “Daughter go in peace. Your faith has made you well.’ Notice he doesn’t say “my great power has made you well” “Or don’t touch me, you untouchable.” Neither does he kowtow to powerful Jairus, but says, essentially: “Hang on a second, I’ll be right with you when I’m done with this bleeding woman, sit tight, and have faith.”

Having Faith. That’s the core, the heart of these gospel stories. Jesus tells the woman: “Your faith has made you well.” He tells Jairus to simply “Have faith” while Jairus waits –likely frantically -- for Jesus to heal his dying daughter.

Both of these stories raise several thorny questions about faith. As Barbara Brown Taylor says “The problem with miracles is that everyone wants one.” Don’t we all know someone who deserves a miracle, ourselves included? If miracles like this happened in Jesus’s day, why don’t they happen now, all the time? Where’s a miracle when you need one? Or is it just that we don’t have enough faith?

Taylor says emphatically that it’s not a question of having enough faith. She remembers working as a hospital chaplain and seeing well-meaning church people come and pray for patients who were strangers to them. In the eyes of the church folks, these patients clearly didn’t have enough faith or they wouldn’t be sick These prayers at the patients’ bedside added guilt and shame to the burden of those who were sick. It’s bad enough to be sick, but then to be told it’s your fault? And would you ever tell a parent their little girl or boy died because they didn’t pray hard enough? I didn’t think so. I never would either.

Miracles are not in our control. For Barbara Brown Taylor, the essence of faith is allowing God to be God. That even if the little girl didn’t respond when Jesus said “Talitha cum…” the real miracle would be if her father Jairus had enough faith to know his daughter was in God’s hands “even as she slipped out of his.” We have to deal with the reality that sometimes we don’t get what we pray for, and that’s not our fault.

Christian faith is not dependent on miracles. We don’t believe in Christ because of his miraculous powers. Jesus wasn’t a magician. There were magicians abounding in 1st century Palatine, and Mark, author of today’s gospel stories, takes care to distinguish Jesus from them. We don’t worship Jesus because of his superhuman feats of power. Our faith is based on how he lived and died for us, the barrier-crashing love he exhibited, and his challenge to the powers and principalities of his day, which ultimately led him to the cross. Mark believed that Jesus finally defeated the powers of evil when he was at his most helpless, on the cross.

Taylor points out that Jesus himself prayed for a miracle, in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked God to let this cup to pass from him. And Jesus didn’t get the answer he wanted. Yet trusting God, he was obedient to the end. That was the greater miracle, Jesus’s unshakeable faith.

So one potential stumbling block when we encounter these gospel stories is that they may cause some folks to think that if we just have enough faith, we’ll get the miracle we seek. And that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes bad things happen to good people of faith.

A second stumbling block these gospel stories can present is this: what does it mean to have faith, as thinking people who may wonder about the reality of miracles? For many who would like to be Christian, and many who are Christian, it’s hard to reconcile miracle stories with we’ve learned about scientific and medical realities.

Can we deconstruct or reconstruct these miracle accounts if we have trouble literally believing them? Are there other kinds of miracles we can wrap our minds around, besides the sudden, dramatic physical healings in the gospels? I believe there are.
Alcoholics Anonymous has transformed many a life in ways that seem miraculous. The first steps in that 12-step program are: “ We admitted that our lives had become unmanageable. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” The 12-step principles are Christian principles. Faith restores the lives of many an addict, many a lost soul.
“Daughter, go in peace. Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said to the woman with the flow of blood. For 12 years she’d struggled to find a cure, getting nowhere. She turned her life over to him. She was afraid. It was risky. It worked.

In the dark, searching times in my own life, caught between agnosticism and the desire to believe, there were people who reached out to me, words that came to me, a loving force, that felt…bigger than me. Guidance beyond my capacities. Coindicidences that didn’t feel coincidental. Small miracles of grace. After enough of these, I responded with a leap of faith. The Christian existentialist Kierkegaard said that’s what Christians have to do – we can’t make sense of it all rationally in our heads – we have to make a leap of faith. When I decided as an adult to give my life to God, life made more sense, not less. I felt much more of the peace that passes understanding. My life stopped slowly bleeding out of me; I felt renewed. Maybe reborn isn’t too strong a word.

When I made my adult decision to believe, I was affirming my faith in God, not necessarily an exclusive commitment to Christ. It took time to commit to Christianity. It consistently felt like the right path for me to walk. Yet I still remain very respectful of other faiths, and what the Quakers call the inner light within everyone.

Faith doesn’t have to mean closing our minds, putting up barriers, institutional or theological, blindly accepting every dogma or doctrine. I think God gave us our intellect, doubts, and questions for a reason. They are part of a mature faith life. And mature people of faith are what author Jack Good calls chaos-tolerant. Everything doesn’t have to fit neatly into square little boxes. We can see shades of grey and kodachrome, as well as black and white.

The bottom line is I don’t know if these miracles happened, or how. I personally believe that with God anything is possible. But it doesn’t matter to me if you aren’t sure if these stories happened that way. It doesn’t mean you can’t or don’t have faith.

Marcus Borg, Professor, Christian, and Fellow of the Jesus seminar, seeks to recover the essence of Christianity, and keep it relevant to 21st century life. Borg says that we can understand scripture as history, metaphor and sacrament, not necessarily as literal fact. Other Christians in the Emergent Church movement, the Progressive Christianity movement, and beyond are saying the same things.

In his recent book, The Heart of Christianity, Borg quotes from both a Catholic priest and a Native American storyteller. The priest once said in a sermon, “The Bible is true, and some of it happened.” To make the priest’s point obvious, “the truth of the Bible is not dependent on its historical factuality.” The Native American storyteller makes the same point as he begins telling his tribe’s story of creation: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”

So maybe the central question about these miracles stories is: do they speak to your heart? Have you experienced a chronic illness, long-standing problem, or felt you were at the point of death, and have you felt God, Christ, someone, or something reaching out and making a rough place plain, giving you new life? A force outside of you, bigger than you? Do these stories speak to your hopes and fears, your own sense of the transcendent? If so, then you are on board with what’s at the heart of the stories.

So, some stumbling blocks to receiving these miracle stories are: 1) We may feel that we ought to be able to control miracles, and may blame ourselves, others, or God if they don’t happen as we want them to. 2) We may have trouble believing the miracles happened as told in the gospels, given our Western rationalist vantage points. 3) We may feel passively dependent on miracles for healing, instead of understanding the role we humans have to play in bringing about health and wholeness. As o-workers with God we don’t have to be passively dependent on God to bring about healings that feel miraculous.

A book called “A Course in Miracles” encourages us to “Be the change we want to see happen.” As the Body of Christ, we can reach out to others with the love and faith we have gleaned. When we do so, we allow a glimpse of God’s kingdom to break through, as Jesus’s miracles opened that window to the people of 1st century Palestine. The miracle stories show us God’s will for humanity is wholeness, not chaos and destruction.

Paul writes to the Ephesians: “The power of God, working within us can do “infinitely more than we can possibly ask or imagine.” Katharine Jefferts Schori quoted this passage from Ephesians two Sundays ago, when she was elected the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Her election was a stunning upset – she is now the first woman ever to serve leader of the entire Episcopal Church in the US. It was an emotional, joyful shock to all who hoped she would win but felt she had no chance, as the only female on the ballot. It felt like nothing short of a miracle that she did win, for those who wished it. It’s only 30 years since women have been ordained in the Episcopal tradition, and not long before that, they were barred from reading Scripture or serving communion in public worship.

Jesus did not shun or shame the females in our gospel passage, or elsewhere. He raised them up. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, working through our prayers, has guided the Episcopal church to make a similar, healing choice. It’s heartening to know that despite the very human limitations of the institutional church, we can still function, at our best, as the Body of Christ.

We are all ministers, whether lay or ordained. Can we extend the inclusive love Jesus demonstrated? Can we work for peace and justice? Write wrongs? Tend the sick, encourage the poor, comfort the bereaved? Listen without judgment? We can take lessons from Jesus, who didn’t put up a lot of walls between himself and others. Rich or poor, female or male, Gentile or Jew, he served them all. We can all learn from his humility, equal-opportunity ministry, his vulnerability and accessibility.

We may not be able to cure a chronic illness or raise the dead. But ultimately, healing is about more than being disease-free and staying alive. It’s about being in communion with God and neighbor. We belong to God whether we are sick or well, whether we live or die. As Paul writes to the Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

What does Jesus do in these miracle stories? He crosses lines of gender, class, ethnicity, religion -- refusing to be told who to heal or hang out with. He loves radically and with amazing results.

As Christians in community, we are Christ’s body in the world today. When we share our love, labor, and faith, God’s power working within us can do infinitely more than we can possibly ask or imagine. It can feel to those on the receiving end nothing short of a miracle, no less life-changing than what happened to Jairus’s daughter and the unnamed woman of long ago.