Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
In the name of God, creator, healer, and restorer of life. Amen.
Two stories. Two unrelated people. Two different circumstances. Two surprising conclusions. That is the sandwich that Mark’s Gospel serves up for us to digest today. Both are stories of great need and of desperation. Both are stories of hope that life can be different or changed. Both this father and the hemorrhaging woman came to Jesus with a real sense of urgency about their desperate situations.
The happy ending for both of these people is their encounter with Jesus and their transformation from death to life. That’s obvious in the story of the ruler’s daughter because she literally died. It’s a little less apparent in the case of the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years. In Jewish belief, blood was a sacred force so the woman who had been bleeding for such a long time was losing her life and because of this affliction, unable to produce life.
These miracle stories in the Gospels—and there are many of them—can be as disturbing as they are consoling. The trouble with miracles is that it is difficult to witness them or even read about them without wanting one for ourselves. I would wager that everyone of you here this morning knows someone who could use a miracle—someone like Jairus whose child is in great distress or someone like the woman who is desperate for a cure for some life-threatening illness. In the past few months, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal prayed for a miracle. It didn’t come. Millions of Michael Jackson’s fans around the world wished that EMT’s might have resuscitated him. It didn’t happen.
The fact is that miracles are not easy to come by and everyone who prays for one doesn’t necessarily get one. Then there are some who get it without even asking. It all seems rather random and it is the source of great frustration for a lot of people. So we might have good reason to ask, “Why did the writers of the Gospels include certain miracles for us who would hear about them two thousand years later? Was it to make us envious of those who were as fortunate as the two characters in today’s Gospel? What’s the message intended for this audience?
Jesus didn’t perform miracles to show off or to entertain. Jesus performed miracles to show us that the way things are in this world are not the way God wants them to be nor the way they will always be. The miracles of the Gospel are testimony that God does not want us to live in turmoil but rather in wholeness. Each miracle is an opportunity for God’s kingdom to break through time and show us—if even for just a moment—how things will be when God’s economy, not the world’s economy, reigns. Miracles are the stuff of the thin places in the world where we get a glimpse of what awaits us on the other side.
If we go a bit deeper into the stories we recognize that one of the people who approached Jesus in desperation was a wealthy, respected leader in the Jewish community and one was a woman who, because of her condition would have been an outcast and living in poverty. Who would employ her? Give her housing? Marry her? She was unclean and must be shunned. The healing given each of these two people was not something to which they felt entitled. It was a gift. It was grace. And that gift is offered to both the well-off and the rejected members of society. There is no litmus test for receiving God’s grace—thanks be to God!
What these stories are not meant to teach or reinforce is the lesson that many of us may have learned at the hands of well-intentioned but misguided religious people. It goes something like this: “If you just believe hard enough, your prayers will be answered. If you don’t get your miracle, it is because your faith is not strong enough. That’s just plain mean. It also suggests that miracles are something we can control and, if you happen to be ill and you get worse, it must be your fault. You didn’t pray hard enough.
Faith does not make miracles happen. God does. Accrediting a miracle to the power of our belief that we can make it happen by wanting it enough is equivalent to the practice of magic. Real faith is acknowledging that we are not in control and that God is the source of every ounce of grace that we receive.
There is one final and important kernel of revelation yet to unpack in this gospel. It is the sense of urgency with which the man and woman brought with their respective needs. I wonder if a real deficiency in the church today is that it has lost that sense of urgency—that awareness of how desperate people are to be told that God loves them with an extravagance that they cannot fathom, that God is with them in their pain and their happiness, their sadness and their joy, their faith and their doubt, their hope and their despair.
The stories we heard this morning are about the power of God to transform death to life. Sitting here today on a pleasant summer morning, you know what shadow is in your path, what situation which you are facing that seems like a dead end, where you may feel confined or what may be pulling the life force out of you. And God does as well.
Perhaps the miracle is that two thousand years after Jairus’ daughter got up from her bed and the woman with the hemorrhage began to lead a healthy, happy life, there is still a community of people like us who believe that God is with us and works through us—through our welcome of the desperate, our willingness to walk with them in their distress, our offering of a sacred space in which to find and be found by God.
Mother Donna, as Jesus did in the Gospel last week with his disciples, we send you off today to the other side—of Connecticut. We send you to a new ministry among people who are already there at St. Paul’s, Woodbury, and those who have yet to come. You have given us the gift of your deep love of the people you have served here, your care for their sometimes broken lives, your devotion to our children, your leadership and guidance.
I know that you will take with you a sense of urgency—urgency to proclaim the message of God’s radical love for all God’s people—no matter who they are or where they may be on their life journey. I know that your years with us have empowered you to go out and do church differently, taking a piece of our very core and fabric with you as you lead another community of faith in the building of God’s Kingdom.
At the Monday morning clergy meeting in a certain city, the Reverend Joe Smith was telling his colleagues the story of another church in the city that had gone through spectacular growth in the past few years. “It’s really a miracle,” he told his peers.
One of the other clergy blurted out, “It’s no miracle. That guy has just gathered a group of admirers. It’s nothing more than a cult.” Another laughed and chimed in, “He’s a showman. It’s just a good act and it has attracted a crowd.” Then they heard Joe Smith muttering in a stage whisper, “We clergy just can’t stand the possibility that God might actually reach in and do something for a church—if we let it happen.”
Mother Donna, you and I, and all of us here know that miracles happen in the church because we have seen it. When we make room for it and get out of the way, God does reach in and does something spectacular for a church. Then God sends us people in need like Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman and asks us to continue that work of restoration, of healing, of reconciling the world. It is urgent that we do so. It is the difference between death and life. Go with God, Donna, and continue the important, urgent work that God has entrusted to you knowing that our hearts go along with you.