Sunday, July 1, 2018

God’s Healing Touch (A sermon from Mark 5:21-42)


In our text today Mark begins a story, then that story is interrupted by another story, a second story, after which Mark returns to complete the first story. This sandwiching technique in telling stories is common in Mark. Mark wants us, his readers, to find common features and themes in the two stories. So as I read the text perhaps you can look for features that are common to both stories.

Fred Craddock tells a wonderful story about arriving at a hospital to make a pastoral visit, but in the corridor he sees a woman.  Her head is against the door, and both fists are beside her face, and she is banging on the door: “Let me in, let me in, let me in.”  When he gets over to where she is he could see that it was the chapel door. Fred stops a worker, “This chapel is locked.” The worker says, “We have to keep it locked. There were some kids that trashed it and we had to get all new furniture. We can’t afford to keep doing that, so we have to keep it locked." Fred says, “Well, find someone with a key?” She comes back with a woman who opens the chapel, so Fred and the woman who was banging on the door go in. 

Fred notices that the woman had come to the hospital suddenly; she has no make up, her hair had not been combed, it was obvious that she just got there quick.  She has a look of desperation on her face. Her voice is the voice of desperation. She says, "I know he’s going to die, I know he’s going to die.” “Who?” asks Fred. “My husband.”“What’s the matter?”“He’s had a heart attack.”

Fred tells her who he is and asks if he could pray. She says, “Please.” Fred starts to pray for her and her husband, but she interrupts; in fact she takes over. She starts praying herself. Fred must have been too quiet or slow or saying the wrong thing or something, because she takes over. She says, “Lord, this is not the time to take my husband. You know that better than I do, he’s not ready. Never prays, never goes to church or anything. He’s not ready.   And what about me?  If I have to raise these kids, what am I going to do?  I don’t have any skills, can’t find any work. I quit school to marry him. If I’d known you were going to take him I’d have stayed in school!  And what about the kids?  They don’t mind now with him around. If he’s gone, they’ll be wild as bucks. What about the kids? This is not the time to take my husband!” She was desperate.

Fred stayed for a while; as long as he felt useful. Then, he went back the next morning. She had on a dress and make up and looked real nice says Fred.  She was in the hallway outside intensive care. Before Fred had time to even ask she says, “He’s better.” She smiles, “I’m sorry about that crazy woman yesterday.”Fred says, “Well, you weren’t crazy.” She says, “I guess the Lord heard one of us.” Fred says, “He heard you.” Fred makes this observation: “She had God by the shirt collar with both hands, and was screaming in God’s face.”  That’s desperation.”

Faith is sometimes born in a time of desperation. One of the shared characteristics in these two stories is that both Jairus and the woman who touches Jesus are desperate for help. When one is desperate one may turn to God and cry out for grace, for healing, for help. Sometimes healing comes and sometimes it doesn’t. 

I do not think that these stories were intended to teach that all cries of desperation to God are met with intervention and healing. Because quite certainly, God does not work that way in the world. God cannot work that way for reasons we do not know, and may never know. But I do believe God honors faith born in desperation. Sometimes faith born in desperation doesn’t last. But then, sometimes it does. Sometimes it develops into a more complete and mature faith. Sometimes in our desperation we realize that the faith we thought we had just doesn’t work in light of the contradictions and difficulties of life. And if we are willing to follow it through, the Spirit may just be able to shine through the cracks and enlighten us to truth that we were blind to, and fill us with a love and compassion that we did not formerly know and possess. If we stay with it and keep on the journey, our desperate faith may develop into a more mature, healthy, liberating, and transforming faith. 

The Quaker educator, writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book, “Let Your Life Speak” tells about his descent into the dark woods called clinical depression. He describes it as the ultimate state of disconnection, between people, between mind and heart, and between one’s self image and public mask. Parker says that after many days and hours of listening, his therapist offered him an image that eventually helped him to reclaim his life. He said to Parker, “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?” What if we looked upon our fears, our insecurities, our moral failures, and our addictions the same way.

Parker also shares an experience he had while engaged in a course called Outward Bound at Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. One of his tasks, a task that he feared the most, was to rappel down a 110-foot cliff. As he slowly made his way down the cliff face he came to a deep hole in the face of the rock. Realizing he couldn’t go around it he became suddenly paralyzed by fear. He hung there in silence for what seemed to be a very long time. Finally an instructor shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?” In a high squeaky voice he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That’s typical isn’t it? We don’t want to face our fears, sins, insecurities, and so forth.

At that moment the second instructor jumped in and said to Parker, “It’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.” Parter thought, “I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” But then she shouted ten words that have had a lasting impact on his life. She said, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” If you can’t change your situation, if you can’t get rid of your fears and failures and insecurities, then dive into them. Don’t give up. Press through the crowd that is pressing you to deny or ignore or hide your fears and your worries. The woman who had suffered for twelve years and found no relief didn’t give up. Mark says that when Jesus asked who touched him, because he felt healing power go forth, the woman “came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” And then Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole, your faith has made you complete.” When our desperation leads us to a place of confession, a place of honesty and forthrightness – with God, with ourselves, with others – then  we are on our way toward healing and wholeness.  

Sometimes the healing grace of God comes to us as we persist in hope and trust in spite of all the setbacks and obstacles as in the example of this woman who refused to give up. But then again, sometimes it comes to us through others.

Clearly one theme that is common to both stories is the power of touch. When Jairus presses Jesus to come with him to his home he says, “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.” The woman who presses through the crowd is healed when she touches the cloak of Jesus. Jesus then says, “Who touched my clothes?” When Jesus heals Jairus’s daughter he takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up!” This emphasis on touch is symbolic of all personal engagement with another. We should ask, “In what ways do I need the personal touch and engagement of others in order to connect with the healing, liberating, and transforming power of Christ?” And then, we must also ask, “In what ways do I need to personally touch and engage others in compassionate, redemptive, and liberating ways?” I need the touch of others, and others need my touch as well.

There are times when our healing depends on the faith and personal touch of others. I’m sure you have heard faith stories, we use to call them testimonies, of people who have said, “I’m glad so and so didn’t give up on me.” It could be a parent, or a brother, or sister, or a good friend, or perhaps even an ex-husband or ex-wife. Like the ex-wife who had remarried, but said to her former husband, “Your daughter needs a father, so get your blankity life together. I’ll help you.” And she did and he did. And he is now a good father and a better person. Sometimes we need someone to say, “Get up and walk, and then take us by the hand and help us to walk.”   

Sometimes we must press through the challenges and obstacles blocking our path like the woman who pressed through the crowd to touch Jesus. But other times, when we have no energy or ability or will to press through on our own, we are like the little girl who is dependent on the persistence and faith of others. Sometimes we are just too sick, too depressed, too fearful, too insecure, too this or that, and we need someone who embodies God’s presence to touch us and help us get up.

John Philip Newell in his book The Rebirthing of God says that in the last months of his father’s life, as dementia was consuming his mind and memory, he witnessed a river of feeling flowing strong in his father. Throughout his father’s life, his father loved to extend what is sometimes called the Priestly Blessing, part of which I like to use in my parting words. As the current of feeling began to well up in his father, his father wanted to extend that blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.

During John’s last visit to his father in Canada before his father entered a nursing home, his sister asked him if he would help sell the family car, which his father was still trying to drive, illegally. So John called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. He made a point of saying to the car salesman, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”

The young salesman totally got the point. There was a playful banter between them. Even in his dementia John’s father had not lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation. John’s father said to him one time, “Now, how much money do I owe you for this car?” The salesman responded, “No, no Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” John’s father looked at John and said, “This is very generous of them.” (And those of you with parents or other loved ones suffering from dementia you know how that can be).

At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to John’s father, John said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So, with the three of them standing in the middle of the car showroom, John’s father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” When John looked up at the young salesman there were tears streaming down his face. He would never forget that moment.

You know, sisters and brothers, everyone of us carries with us every day the potential to be such a blessing to one another. There is a well-spring of potential grace and blessing and healing within each of us just as there was in Jesus that can flow out to others at any moment if we are ready and willing to carry that blessing.  Sometimes we need to receive that blessing from others. Sometimes we need to extend that blessing to others?

One final note about these two stories. Both stories emphasize the need for persistence – to not give up. The woman exhausted her finances seeking a cure. Twelve years she suffered from her condition, but she never gave up the struggle. And when she thought there might be some hope, she plunged through the obstacles and found her source of healing. Jairus was told that his daughter had died and not to trouble Jesus any more. But Jesus gave him hope and against all odds, Jairus trusted and persisted. There were those who scoffed and laughed at the possibility, but Jairus kept on.

Can we continue the struggle of faith against all odds and obstacles? The challenges we face may stem from our own doubts, fears, and worries. They may be physical or emotional or spiritual in nature. They may emerge out of our cultural context. We may have to leave the scoffers behind, as Jesus did when he sent them outside and would not permit them to experience the healing and raising up of Jairus’ daughter. We may have to swim against the current of our family or community. We may have to contend with a corrupt, unjust system. Can we stay the course? Can we let go of the old to embrace the new? And when it comes time for the ultimate letting go, can we offer up our life to God in peace, in faith, and in hope of God’s ultimate healing?

And can we extend our hand to others who desperately need someone to help them. Can you think of someone today who may just need someone like you to say to them, “I understand how you feel. If I were in your situation, I probably would want to give up too. I’m not sure I would make it. But, I’m here and if you want to live, if you choose to live, I will help you live.

Oh God, may we not give up. Give us the will to forge on. We may need to press through many obstacles to be touched or to touch others with your grace and peace. We may encounter scoffers and those who would question or even laugh at our persistence. But there are those who need our touch, and we certainly need your touch that comes to us through many different persons and in many different ways. Give us strength for the struggle and guidance in our journey. Amen.

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