Religious Grounds

Java for the journey.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sermon Pentecost 4

I will be in San Antonio, TX from July 5-9 at the ELCA National Youth Gathering, with 12 kids and two other adults from my congregation. I'll post here about what I hear from Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and the Bible studies.

Following is a sermon I preached on Sunday. The texts I focused on were Lamentations 3:22-33 and Mark 5:21-43. It is helpful to know that I was ministering during the week before to a family with a three-year-old dying from an infection, whose immune system was weak due to chemotherapy for leukemia. She has since died (Requiescat in pace, Hannah).

There are two errors that we may make
when we think about today’s Gospel lesson.
The first is when we assume that it always happens this way.
The second is when we assume that it never happens this way.

For many, these stories of miraculous healings and resurrections
are painful –
for we may recall times
when we have prayed for ourselves or for others,
when we have longed for healing, relief from suffering,
salvation from death for a loved one,
and the prayed-for release did not come.
These might cause us to question our God,
or to question ourselves and our faith.

We have the story of two different encounters with Jesus,
both of which result in instantaneous healings.
But I’d like to remind you of two encounters with Jesus
that did not produce those instant healings
and which still bore the marks of genuine faith.

Both of them involve St. Paul,
one of them personally.
When the apostle Paul wrote in Second Corinthians, chapter 12,
about the visions and revelations he experienced in the Lord,
he also tells his readers about
the thorn in the flesh which followed upon them,
which he describes as “a messenger of Satan to torment me.”
He tells us that he prayed three times for it to be removed.
We don’t know what that thorn in the side was.
I have seen it described as an illness, a besetting sin,
even as a troubled relationship.
But whatever it was, Paul wanted it gone,
he wanted it healed,
and it was not healed, not removed.
Was such an occurrence a crisis in his faith?
No. Instead it strengthened his faith.
Paul heard God saying to him, “My strength is enough for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Instead of relying upon his perfect health or his sinlessness,
whichever was in question,
Paul had to rely upon God.
And so it was that he had to deal with a constant, nagging problem,
and yet did not lose hope.

The second has to do with one of Paul’s churches.
The church in Thessalonica
was concerned about those of their community
who had died before the Lord Jesus returned in glory,
which they were expecting any day.
Had they missed the great party
that God had planned for the return of the King?
No, Paul reassured them in chapter 4 of 1st Thessalonians.
Instead, he said, the dead in Christ rise first,
and we meet them with Christ in glory.
It was only twenty or so years
after the Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension,
even before the Gospels were written,
that Christian believers were grappling with the question
of untimely death and what that meant concerning faith.
And the universal witness of the Church
has been that death, even untimely death,
does not mean that God has turned his back upon you.

Why then, do we have these Gospel stories at all?
The second great error is that we will not take these stories to heart.
For in these stories we see Jesus as not merely another movie-screen superhero,
but as God present among us.
In the Gospels, Jesus comes among us as the one who does the things that God does:
he tames nature, he forgives sins, and he heals disease and raises from death.
And he does so for those who seek him.

I called the healings “instantaneous” beforehand,
but that is really not true.
For the woman who was healed
had been suffering for twelve long years,
and, it is told us, “she had suffered much under many physicians
and had spent all that she had.”
The more things change, huh?
she had been seeking healing for many years.
There is something for us to hear about persistence, about patience,
but also about our active participation
in whatever healing we are seeking.
Too often we see God as a divine applicator of band-aids,
as if he might heal us magically, without our consent, without our willing it.
But is this how healing happens?
Ask anyone who’s gone through knee surgery –
the rehab is a little bit of effort, no?
It is God who heals, and he heals in and through us,
working in and through us to transform us from inside out,
so that we might be whole and healthy –
physically, mentally, and spiritually.

So when we seek healing and resurrection from God,
we seek it wholeheartedly.
We seek it wholeheartedly whether we are asking for physical healing
or the healing of a relationship with God or another person.
We seek it from God as wholeheartedly as the diseased woman
or the man in distress for his young daughter.
And we seek it believing that the balm we seek will be given –
whether we can see it as healing or not.

For God’s promise through Christ
is for the reconciliation of the world,
the Church, our lives.
We do not see this full reconciliation yet,
but we trust that in Jesus God has won the victory
which is yet working itself out in the universe.
Everywhere death seems to hold sway,
and yet with the author of Lamentations,
surrounded by the ruins of Jerusalem,
we cry to God, “great is your faithfulness.”
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
The cry of Christ from the cross was a lament,
when he cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
he did so knowing that the words of the Psalm he prayed
ended in praise to the God of redemption, not of forsakenness.

And so it is that we lament our thorns in the side,
we see the Church filled with strife
and the world in love with death
and yet we say,
“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
We have not his clothes, but we have his name – Jesus, Jesus –
the one who came among us as God-with-us
and now is hidden in the presence of God,
his ear always listening for our prayers.
If it is that God, as he did in the pages of the Gospel of Mark,
shows us a sign in this age
of his great and unquenchable will for our healing and resurrection,
well and good.
But if not,
then we know, as the biblical writers knew, as Jesus knew,
that God’s strength can be made perfect in our weakness,
that the Lord does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone,
that the mercies of the Lord are new every morning,
that beyond death there is healing and resurrection.