July 1, 2018
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
When I stood in this spot last summer, I shared the story of being broken down by the loss and suffering I had witnessed over the last 4 years living in Haiti. I preached about Jesus feeding the 5,000 even as he grieved the loss of John the Baptist, and I held onto that story as a beacon of hope as I navigated the somewhat foreign and often surprising process of healing.
My experience of healing was not one single thing – I started counseling, I read books about the problem of suffering, I learned to pray for healing in new ways with a group from my church in Haiti, and I studied scripture passages like the Gospel reading for today. And through all of these different experiences, I learned a few things about healing that I want to share with you this morning.
First, I came to see healing as an act of war.
If you look at the context of today’s gospel reading, Jesus has spent most of Chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel talking about his kingdom. He told parables to give his followers word pictures of what the kingdom looks like. And then at the end of Chapter 4 and through to 5, Jesus seems to say, enough metaphor about what the kingdom is like, this is what my kingdom is: the calming of a chaotic sea, the casting out of demons, the restoration of health and wholeness to a bleeding woman, and life to Jairus’ little girl.
The thing is, we talk about Jesus’ kingdom coming as if it is such great news, and it certainly is for these folks. But “coming” means that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t actually all here yet. It means that we are largely still living under a rule that is defined not by love and peace, but by suffering and conflict. Most of us only need a few minutes with the news cycle to be reminded of that.
I know this is the “already but not yet” nature of God’s kingdom here on earth, but the truth Is that I don’t really get the “not yet” part. What is God waiting for? What does it mean for Jesus to have conquered death if all of the rest of us are still dying? Why is evil still wreaking havoc all over the place? What is a loving God doing while all of this suffering is happening?
Part of my healing journey last year was studying this problem, and one image that came to me during this time was of the American south in the weeks following the end of the Civil War. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on April 9th, but skirmishes continued for months. The emancipation of slaves didn’t reach parts of Texas until June 19th (now celebrated in African American communities as Juneteenth). Those long months – with freedom coming, but the slave masters still in control – it’s an image that has helped me understand the “already and not yet” of Jesus’ kingdom. And it’s an image that really resonated with my own experience. The healing process for me truly felt like a release from captivity.
When Jesus heals, he is not just making someone feel better – he is advancing the boundaries of his kingdom. Jesus the liberator is reclaiming territory from the enemy.
It feels freeing to use words like war and resistance and fighting, because it does not look to me like the King of chaos and violence is trying to pack up and go peacefully. If you’re squirming at those words, I get it. But this is not the Crusades. It’s possible to see Jesus as fighting a war against evil without twisting his image into something bellicose and aggressive, because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are what we see in Jesus: reconciliation, generosity, truth, healing. These are the means by which he comes and plants his flag.
The second thing I learned: healing happens when Jesus shows up, and most of the time Jesus shows up because someone asked him to.
I’m guessing there is one, but I couldn’t think of a single instance when Jesus performs a healing miracle that didn’t involve someone seeking out his help. Sometimes, as with the woman in our story today, or the demon-possessed man from earlier in Chapter 5, it’s the suffering person himself. But just as often, it’s someone else – like today’s synagogue ruler coming on behalf of his daughter. In some cases, like with a deaf and mute man in Decapolis, or the blind man in Bethsaida, a whole crowd brings the suffering one to Jesus. Sometimes, people have to be quite persistent: the four friends who lower a man through the roof to get to Jesus, the foreign woman seeking healing for her daughter who argues with Jesus that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and Bartimaeus sitting on the roadside hollering over the protests of others.
I don’t quite know what to make of this – why isn’t Jesus just shooting out rainbows of healing power over whole cities? But it seems like, for whatever reason, that’s not the way Jesus’ power works. In the meantime, at least we have heroes like the woman in today’s story. The audacity to reach out and touch Jesus, of all people – possibly breaking purity laws and maybe also gender norms. It seems like this woman was so far beyond caring about propriety at this point she would have needed a telescope to look back at the lines she was crossing. But she couldn’t be bothered with that; she needed Jesus. And she got him, didn’t she? The certainty, the boldness – she is the woman I want to be when I need healing.
She is not the woman I was last year. I needed the crowd to carry me. I had lost faith in God’s goodness, which was excruciating, and of course God was the last person I wanted help from in bearing that pain. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to God about it, but I could tell my church, and on Easter morning as they wept with me, they believed for me, and they carried me to Jesus. I don’t know how to repay them other than by knowing that I have to be part of that crowd for someone else as often as I can. It’s my job, as part of the body of believers, to cry out to Jesus for healing, not only for myself, but like Jairus, on behalf of others.
There is a whole lot of suffering in this world: those families, escaping horrors in other countries just to be subjected to more of them here. Those children, torn from their parents. The political violence in Nicaragua. The shooting in Annapolis. It can be wearying to think about, let alone pray for. But I try to remember: healing happens when Jesus shows up, and most of the time Jesus shows up because someone asked him to.
And the last point: Jesus’ healing is often more than we bargained for.
When Jairus sought out Jesus, he asked him to come heal his daughter, who was ill. But before Jesus arrived, Jairus hears that the little girl had died. That feels like…. a significantly bigger problem. Lack of medical and scientific knowledge aside, first century Jews probably saw people recover from their illnesses from time to time. They probably did not see a lot of people raised from the dead.
I can’t imagine how Jairus must have crumpled at the news. I can’t imagine the devastation of a parent trying desperately to save your child and learning that you have failed.
Jesus, however, is not only not deterred from his mission to heal the girl, he also turns his compassionate gaze on her father. “Don’t be afraid,” He says. “Just believe.” The Bible doesn’t record Jairus’ reaction. Was he freed from his fear and guilt and suffering in that moment? Did he believe his daughter would live? I think so, I hope so – but the important thing to me is that Jesus sees Jairus’ fear and deems it worthy of healing too. Jesus means to liberate every last corner of this earth, and of our hearts.
When the woman comes to Jesus, all she wants is to put a stop to the bleeding. She’s been bleeding for twelve years. She’s been bleeding for as long as Jairus’ daughter had been on this earth, and when she touches Jesus she knows that It. Has. Stopped.
I have never suffered a chronic illness, but I have heard that at times, it feels like it has become a part of who you are; in some way, your identity is inseparable from your suffering. In this woman’s case, living under ceremonial law, her illness must have been a defining feature of her life. While some scholars disagree about this, I think Leviticus 15 is pretty clear:
25 “‘When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period.” [Isn’t the Bible full of delightful things?]
Being ceremonially unclean means you can’t participate in a lot of aspects of community life in Jewish society. We don’t know for sure what kind of isolation or “otherness” the woman experienced for 12 long years. What we do know is that Jesus sees her in the moment she steps forward and says: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Did you hear that? Daughter. Daughter, you belong to the community. You belong to this family, you are one of us. In that moment, I feel like Jesus makes the healing complete in a way that the woman probably had never anticipated.
I was feeling pretty healed towards the end of last summer – I had met God anew, and we were friends again, and my heart felt stitched back into one piece – when the unthinkable happened: a friend called. After giving birth the month before, her bleeding hadn’t stopped. When she went back to the doctor, they ran some tests and found some strange looking cells. The pathologists looking at her cells literally wrote the textbook on an extremely rare but very aggressive type of cancer, and this sample, they said, looked just like it.
It was devastating. She is one of my closest friends, and a woman who has experienced more kinds of heartbreak than one can imagine – and now this. I was worried and upset for her. And truth be told, I panicked more than a bit for myself – I felt like I had just got my legs back under me, and if this diagnosis was correct, I feared not only the consequences for her health but also for my ability to love and support her well if I was once again falling apart.
So I prayed. I don’t know that I have ever prayed as often and as fervently for anything in my life. While the doctors biopsied and tested and talked and consulted the actual world expert on this kind of tumor, I prayed.
You may be able to guess where this is going: when results from the further tests were finally available a few weeks later, there was literally nothing there. Whatever the pathologists had seen the first time had simply vanished. She was fine.
Look, I believe in modern medicine. And scientific explanations for things. I don’t really believe that these things happen. But this thing happened. I still, months later, don’t quite know what to make of it, except that it feels like the same kind of gratuitous grace as I see in these stories. And for that I give thanks. Amen.