First Lutheran Church
June 28, 2015
Hope is one of those intangibles we cannot live without. Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning. Hope motivates us to get married, have children, go back to school and apply for jobs. As Christians, we know that the Lord God, creator of us all and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the source of ultimate hope. The Psalms gives witness to faith based on hope. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. I have seen hope in the Lord and I have seen futility disguised as hope.
I have seen a lot of despair and death and dying over the years. I have seen how they tear, not only at the fabric of dying bodies, but at the fabric of their minds and spirits. I have seen it tear at the fabric of their families, their life’s dreams and the core of their faith.
These words of Jesus speak to people without hope. There is a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. Under the Law, she is a pariah; outcast and excluded because her blood flow makes her unclean. The text tells us that she had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse. There was no human skill left to find a cure for her. In the process, she exhausted her finances and herself. As an act of final desperation, she sought out Jesus.
We also meet a little girl who is 12 years old, alive as long as the woman had been bleeding. We don’t know why, but she is dying. We only know that her father, desperate to save her, seeks out Jesus. My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live. Like the woman, Jairus is desperate with nowhere to turn except to an itinerant preacher with a reputation for disregarding convention and saying the oddest things. Things like, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. Things like, Do not fear, only believe.
I was a hospice chaplain for 4½ years. One of my first patients was a man who suffered a massive brain stem stroke, lingering for 18 months before he died. When I met him, the nurses were amazed that he was still alive, because people with brain stem strokes rarely survive. His wife, on the other hand, insisted that he was improving, that he would walk out of the hospital with a little physical therapy and a lot of God’s miracles. He made noises that she insisted were words. He flailed out his arms and she said he was reaching out for her. He reacted to sound and she said he knew her voice. As the man was actively dying, his wife was actively looking for a miracle. Come and lay your hands on him, so that he may be made well and live. Her hopes were the same as Jairus and the unnamed woman.
When one encounters Jesus’ compassionate healing, a variety of things may occur. The woman with the flow of blood felt her body heal. The little girl who died got up and walked again. My patient with the brain stem stroke neither was cured nor got up and walked again; he died. What can these two interwoven accounts of healing say to someone such as him? I often tell people that where there is life there is hope, but hope for what and in whom? Is there yet hope for someone like him?
From the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark presents Jesus as the proclaimer of the Good News. The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News. Mark continues with incredible accounts of what happens when the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God comes near. Teaching is done with authority, demons are cast out, lepers are healed, cripples walk, tax collectors are invited to dinner, a community of believers is formed, storms are quieted, chronic blood flows cease, little girls rise from the dead, and people renew their faith in the living God.
These accounts are not of cheap parlor tricks, in which we must suspend our beliefs to make sense of them. They are accounts of the Kingdom of God breaking into the ordinary lives of ordinary people. It is interesting to me that, in an age when we profess not to believe in magic, we still look for magical solutions for the things which cause us suffering. But the majesty and mystery of God elude us when we equate healing with a mere cure, when we equate resurrection with the restoration of the way things used to be.
We reach for the hem of Jesus’ garment, wanting his power but afraid of getting too close. Yet, the text makes it clear that superficial contact with him is not enough. The woman’s disease process was stopped, but she was not truly healed until she looked into the face of Jesus, until she told him the truth, until she heard his voice and until she was touched by him. Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. She was given life, not as it had been before, but new life, filled with peace, in right relationship with God.
Jesus often talks about having the ears to hear and the eyes to see the power of God at work. Those ears and eyes are set believers apart from nonbelievers. Clearly, faith is not a magical amulet that shields us from the suffering of living in a broken world. Clearly, faith does not prevent things like brain stem strokes or death from happening. But through faith, we have the ability to perceive life differently. Through faith, we hope for the future, beyond what is happening to us now. Through faith, we know that death is not the end of the story. Our hope is in the Lord to whom we cry from out of the depths.
I learned early that there is nothing I can say or do as a minister that will reverse a disease process or wipe out suffering. What I can do is pray that, through me, God’s love and presence will be made known in the midst of the suffering. I had lengthy discussions with the wife who hoped for miracles. We talked about the nature of miracles, of God’s will, of the life that is to come. Together, we reframed her understanding of miracle, which is not manipulating God’s power for our own purposes, but is about being restored to communion with God. She and her husband were healed, even as his disease continued to tear at the fabric of their lives; even as his body died.
God will always do those things that we classify as miraculous and incredible. And, as long as my patient was breathing, the possibility existed that he may get up and walk. But most of God’s miracles are ordinary, touching us in the humdrum of our ordinary lives. It is faith that gives us the courage to look into the face of Jesus, to confess the truth to him, to hear his voice and to be touched by him. It is faith that carries us beyond our wish for a cure now to our hope for healing in the life to come.
Jesus is still the proclaimer of the Good News. In the Kingdom, we will see God face to face, and God will wipe away every tear and death will be no more. Here and now we still suffer, and yes, we still die. But there is yet hope for all of us, in the promises of God who loves us. We have already been healed through the graciousness of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We must not fear, but only believe.
To God be the glory. Amen.