What we really need...
Ps 30; Mk 5:21-43
The decision to become a pastor in the United Church of Christ was complicated. First, the relationship of our parish with the UCC was complicated. Also, I wasn’t sure it was a good fit for me, liturgically. But I was faced with a bit of a professional crisis. Lisa had just applied for a position at Harvard—which, obviously, she did not get. But it freaked me out a little. I was an Old Catholic bishop at the time, and I realized, “If Lisa gets this job on the East coast, I’m going to be out of a job, without much chance of getting another!” I realized it was time to stop playing the indie and join up with one of the big-boy denominations.
I thought I was doing it for expedience, for job security. I thought it was professionally prudent. And I don't know, maybe it was. But what I discovered as I began to study for the reception process was something quite different. As I started going to UCC events, and meeting up with UCC people, I discovered a kindred tribe, I discovered friends, I discovered family. What I didn’t realize, when I started this process, was just how professionally isolated I was, how much I longed for support, how terribly lonely I was in my work.
The National Association has served our parish well over the years, but the parishes are so few and far between, that I always felt like the lone ranger. Once received into the UCC, however, we are part of a very present and very active family of congregations. I see my pastoral colleagues daily, I hear from them daily, I BBQ with them on our days off! I am held in community as I never have been before.
The thing was, I didn’t realize I was dying of thirst, alone in the desert, until I stumbled onto this oasis. I thought I needed one thing, but God knew I actually needed something much, much different. I wanted God to save me from one thing—that, it turns out, I didn’t actually need saving from—but God, in God’s wisdom and mercy, saved me from the thing I really and truly needed to be saved from. And for this I am eternally grateful.
But isn't that just the way God works? We ask for what we think we need, and God gives us what we REALLY need. I know I’m not alone—I’m sure most of us can think of examples of how God has done this in our own lives, if we look hard enough. And we see two examples right here in our gospel reading.
Jairus was the leader of the synagogue at Capernaum, Peter’s home town. His daughter was sick, and he thought he needed Jesus to heal her, so he boldly tracked him down and hopefully pleaded for Jesus to help.
We expect Jesus to take right off and make for Jairus’ house—and indeed Jesus tries to do this, but he gets waylaid by circumstances. Now this is a strange literary device we find only in Mark’s gospel. Mark likes to start one story, have it be interrupted by a different story, and then finish the first story. It’s a very cool and instructive construction, but pretty unusual. But the juxtaposition of the two interwoven stories is significant.
As I was saying, Jesus is making for Jairus’ house, when a woman with a persistent hemorrhage of blood interrupts him. He is surrounded by people, and all she can do is touch the hem of his garment.
And he stops.
Now, he could have just let it go—but he doesn’t. He could have spared her the embarrassment of calling her out in front of everyone with such an embarrassing disease—but he doesn't. He could have ignored her and got to Jairus’ house in time to save the man's daughter—but he doesn't.
Instead, he stops and makes a bit of the scene. In ancient Israel, when a woman is on her period, she was commanded by the Law of Moses to go outside the city, away from everyone else. During this time, she was forbidden to touch anything that a man might also touch for fear of making him ritually unclean.
Now that sounds horrible and sexist to us today…and perhaps it is. Jewish theology makes the issue more complicated, however, since touching the Bible also makes you ritually unclean—it’s not about dirtiness, it is about power, so much power that the ancient Jewish leaders considered it dangerous.
There is a very funny scene in A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically, where a contemporary Jewish man decided to actually follow all of the laws in the Old Testament for a year—all of them!—to see what would happen. One time, his wife got so angry at him, that she went and sat in every chair in the house. This makes little sense until you realize that she was on her period and he was not allowed to sit in any place she had touched, and so of course this meant that he had no place to sit for days on end.
But back to this poor woman. She isn’t just on her period—she's been bleeding for twelve years, nonstop. That’s bad enough, but now think of all that went with that: the isolation, the loneliness, the ostracization, the shunning.
She thought she just wanted to be healed of her flow of blood—but Jesus wanted to heal her of much more than that. He wanted to heal her of twelve years of being shunned, ignored, and invisible. He wanted her to know that he noticed her, that he regarded her as worthy of his time and attention, and he wanted to call everyone else's attention to her too. It wasn’t polite, it wasn’t seemly, and it wasn’t welcomed by anyone. He wanted to drag this woman out of the shadows she’d been hiding in, into the full light of day. He wanted to take her from a place of hiding to a place of truly being seen. It wasn’t comfortable for her, and I’m sure, in the moment, she did not welcome it. But hard as it was, it was healing. Jesus knew what she needed, and he granted it to her.
Let’s look now at Jairus. He is the leader of the local synagogue, which means he’s a powerful man. It also means he is an intellectual. We don’t know what religious faction he belongs to, but given his position, we can assume he is educated, urbane, and probably an accommodationist, meaning he is more-or-less friendly toward the Romans. Conservatives at the time might have considered him among the “liberal elite,” and the liberal elite at that time, like the liberal elite in our own, was not well-disposed toward supernatural beliefs like the resurrection—in fact the Sadducees were outspokenly against it. Reading between the lines, Jairus probably was, too.
So yes, Jairus’ daughter was sick, but Jesus saw something different that needed healing—Jairus’ faith.
On the way, Jesus is all but dismissed by Jairus’ friends. He probably gets asked some hard questions as he approaches Jairus’ house, not unlike the questions he encountered when Lazarus had died: Why didn't you come sooner? What kept you? If only you'd been here just a little earlier…
They mocked Jesus when he tells them she is only sleeping. And then, shooing everyone from the room except his closest friends and the girl’s parents, Jesus tells her to get up. And she does. She lives, she is no longer sick, and what is more, she proves it by eating in front of them.
Jesus knew what Jarius needed. If he didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead before…he sure did now.
Often, the thing we most want is not what we actually need. Often, the thing we think we need to be saved from is not what we ACTUALLY need to be saved from. Often, what we think we need healed is not what REALLY needs healing.
These things are often obscure to us—but they are not obscure to God, who knows what we need before we ask for it, and often in spite of what we show up and ask for.
When I look at what is going on around us politically these days, it looks like what we need is to be delivered of an insane policy that separates parents from the children. In fact we actually need is to wake up from a political nightmare that has cast a spell over our political parties.
Can God use one crisis to heal another? Can God bring good out of both situations? This is a matter of faith, but it is something worth trusting and hoping for. And don’t get me wrong, I don't mean this in the sense of some cruel instrumentalism. I’m not saying that God causes the crisis—only that God is really good at taking the messes we quite regularly make all by ourselves and creating from them opportunities for grace and reconciliation and healing.
The truth is, we don't always know what God is up to. And sometimes what God is doing seems just the opposite of what we THINK God should be doing. This is especially true when God doesn't rescue us in the way we want to be rescued. But God is bigger than we are. God is wiser than we are, God sees more than we do, and…let’s get real…God is more honest than we are, even to ourselves. We do not always have an accurate understanding of what we need or how we need to be healed. Often this is because our woundedness skews our vision. But God sees clearly. God know the true state of our soul, and we can trust God to heal us, even if we don’t always understand the means or the timing or the focus.
Does this take faith? Well, yes. It’s often hard to trust that God knows what God is doing. Is the healing painful? Often. Just ask the woman with the flow of blood if she wanted to be called out in the middle of the street. Is the healing we need off stage—are we even aware of what needs healing? I’m sure Jairus didn’t think that his faith was the biggest crisis on his horizon. But God is nothing if not a multi-tasker. And God knows we need healing. And God knows WHAT needs healing. Even if we don’t. Let us pray…
God, you often surprise us. You often care about things that we don’t, even things we’re not even aware of. Yet the healing you bring is powerful and profound. You heal wounds we do not even know we have. Help us to trust in your healing goodness, in your infinite wisdom, in your mad compassion that reaches into the hurt places we cannot even see. For you are bringing about the healing of all things, even us. We ask this in the name of the great physician, even Jesus Christ. Amen.