A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015, preached at the Church of the Atonement, Chicago. The lectionary readings from the Book of Common Prayer lectionary are Deuteronomy 15: 7-11, Psalm 112, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, and Mark 5:21-43.
To listen to the sermon, click below:
The other day I was at a birthday party where there were several little children scrambling among the adults. One little girl was a speed demon. It turns out that Nina is 18 months old and was testing her navigational abilities as she would run into things, fall down, and get right back up. At one point, she came near us and looked up at a stool that she obviously wanted to stand on, and so she reached her little arms up in an unmistakable request, “Help me.” Several of us saw her and understood what she wanted, so her daddy picked her up and helped her to stand on the stool.
As I watched her so easily and naturally ask for help, I wondered, “At what age do we stop doing that?” When do we begin to learn that it’s NOT ok to ask for help or that we should do everything ourselves? How often are we like that little girl—wanting something, perhaps desperately needing something—and yet, we don’t ask?
Today’s Gospel introduces us to someone who asks for help. But in order to ask for help, he must have overcome a lot of internal and external resistance. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue. He’s well known and probably successful in whatever he does. He’s someone people look up to, the sort of person you’d want running stewardship or chairing a mission project. He gets things done (and sometimes that means doing them yourself if you want them done right.) He is probably responsible and organized and runs a tight meeting.
But suddenly, with his little girl sick, he’s out of his field of expertise. He can’t control, manage, or direct. He can’t fix or persuade. He’s at his wit’s end. His daughter is getting worse and some are saying that she is going to die. Finally, out of resources, out of ideas, with no more options, Jairus reaches out to Jesus. Jairus asks God for help, and healing comes.
This story has a happy ending, but it’s the kind of story I sometimes worry about people hearing. Does this story always promise a happy ending? If a young parent with a very sick child comes to me, do I tell them this story as a means of hope, or do I carefully avoid talking about Jairus and his daughter, in case it gives false hope, in case it gives the impression that God always shows up right when we need it and that healing always comes with a cure?
Perhaps here is where we might recall that healing CAN involve a cure, but doesn’t always. If healing has to do with wholeness, with shalom, with God’s bringing things to a loving completion, then we will need to acknowledge that sometimes healing end s in death. That’s one aspect of the vast spectrum of healing, but we (and others in this room and beyond) also know that miracles of healing happen. People get better. A parishioner who risked losing her eyesight had surgery that included the doctor placing a tiny bubble in the back of her eye. The bubble filled the hole somehow and sight was preserved, a miracle made. Sometimes miracles involve medicine, and sometimes they are simply unexplained.
Miracles happen with prayer and with medical care. But today’s Gospel also points to the more mundane miracles in our lives—the ones that involve healing when someone asks for help.
After Jairus asked for help, his daughter is healed—but that’s just the most obvious part. The Gospel doesn’t go into detail about the other ways that I’m sure Christ brought healing—to Jairus, to his family, to their community, and on and on the healing circle goes. That’s the way healing works when we are humble enough to ask for help—it expands in all kinds of unimagined directions.
When I think of this kind of healing I think of a parishioner named Mary Beth. Mary Beth was middle aged and never married. She had no living family except for one or two distant cousins. When she first received a diagnosis of cancer, she began on a course that would create miracle after miracle. She asked for help.
First Mary Beth asked friends for help understanding the diagnosis. Which course of treatment might be best? What were others’ experiences? In order to ask for help, she had to get to a new place of humility of realizing that there was no way she could absorb all of the information, do all the research, and weigh every detail alone. She needed help. But that was just the beginning.
Over the next five years, Mary Beth’s health had ups and downs. She continued to invite other people to help her—doctors and nurses, but also friends and new friends from church. She had one of these amazing spirits that would smile in the face of fear and make a joke about losing her hair during chemotherapy. Each time she got a new, dire diagnosis, she would plan a trip, and that really involved asking for help. In her last year of life, the doctors told her there was no way she could make a dreamed-for safari to Africa. But she felt ok and just kept praying and asking for help. She navigated transporting her medicines across international borders. She lined up emergency insurance and medical support. She had friends praying for her. And she made her trip, taking beautiful photographs that are now shown in an exhibition at our church.
After a long series of ups and downs, Mary Beth eventually died—peacefully. In the process she had empowered friends who had no idea what they were capable of. She had raised new issues and concerns about the retirement complex where she lived, including other voices and changing procedures and rules for the future. She slowly gave her two animals (probably her very best friends) to other friends, blessing those families with new life and adventure. And she gave her priest (me) the kinds of conversations one usually only imagines in seminary: “What do you think heaven will be like? How do I pray for people who have wronged me but who are dead? Did I fulfil my mission in life?—on and on the questions went, and the conversations continue to live in my head and heart. They sustain me and guide me in talking with others.
Healing that comes from the humility of asking, from a place of emptiness. But the other side of healing encourages generosity and the expansion of inner and outer resources people never dreamed they had.
We see this kind of generosity in our first two scripture readings. The reading from Deuteronomy encourages generosity: “Is anyone among you in need?” Help them, don’t put it off. Don’t make excuses. Just offer help. “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” That’s just the natural economics of helping—humility allows for the asking, but the giving creates even more generosity and blessing.
In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he sort of shames them by telling them about the Macedonians. Look at the Macedonians, he says. They’re poor as church mice, but look how they insist on being a part of every campaign—they’re giving and making and serving and showing up. The Christians in Macedonia had created a culture of generosity. Even though they didn’t have much to share, they shared what they had. As anyone who has ever lived or served among the poor knows, it’s often the poorest of the poor who are the most generous. That’s because they’re used to asking for help. They live more often in a place of humility, so generosity is just that much more obvious.
I hope that this connection between healing and asking for help is something kept in mind as our General Convention meets this week in Utah. After the tragedy of Bishop Heather Cook’s driving and killing a bicyclist while she was drunk, the church has jumped into high gear to try to “fix” this situation. New rules, guidelines, and processes will surely flow out of the General Convention as they hear the recommendations of a special task force and the delegates pray and think about this important issue. But I hope they’ll listen to the people among us—in all our church basements, in our pews, and pulpits—who are walking miracles of sobriety and serenity because they asked for help. The power to deal with addictions comes first from admitting powerlessness. Groups of people in recovery are places of generosity that are eager and ready to help others. Very often these communities are filled with people who have been broken and defeated. Some have lost material things (families, jobs, freedom), while others have only lost internal things (integrity, honor, or trust). But from the place of humility comes generosity and from that generosity flows the healing power of God.
This weekend is filled with celebrations for many of us: the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, the LGBT Pride events in Chicago and New York, and later this week, Independence Day. It’s natural that much of our celebrations have to do with strength and success and perhaps newfound power. Those can be good things and we do well to offer thanks. But also, in our own lives and in our corporate lives, may we also be clear about our weak places. There are so many places individually and corporately where we need healing—around race, violence, families, how we age together, how we encourage the young, on and on our list could go on and on.
May the Spirit enable us always to ask for help, to reveal our deficiencies, our inability to fix everything and control everyone. May we encourage communities of generosity so that we may be a part of God’s healing and resurrecting love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.