Archive for July, 2012

Mark 6:14-29

July 15, 2012

What is a soap opera doing in the middle of Mark’s Gospel?  We are so used to hearing the story of the beheading of John the Baptist that it no longer strikes us as strange; but think about it.  For one thing, paper, or its equivalent, cost a lot in Mark’s day.  For another, Mark wrote the rest of the Gospel in a terse style, but here he writes at length and in gruesome detail.  Why did this story matter so much to Mark? (more…)

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Mark 6:1-13, II Corinthians 12:2-10

July 8, 2012

Does prayer have the power to heal?  I believe it does; but I have questions.  For instance, did Jesus heal every person, every condition, that came to him – I mean apart from this group of skeptics in his home town?  Did no one have Type I diabetes in his day?  Or pancreatic cancer?  Or clinical depression?  In his home town, where everyone thought they knew him, he could not overcome the power of their negative expectations.  In every other case, however, the Gospels report uniform success.  Are we meant to take that at face value?  Uniform success?  This sermon addresses that question. (more…)

Mark 5: 21- 43 July 1, 2012

July 1, 2012

On the surface, today’s Gospel tells of two miraculous healings, and yet there is more to the stories than that.  You notice that one story is embedded in the other; it interrupts the other.  This is no accident.  The form the passage takes signals us to dig for deeper meaning.

The first story is this.  Jesus has had a busy day.  Earlier, he had been in the territory of the Gerasenes, across the Sea of Galilee.  There he had exorcised a demoniac and caused a herd of pigs to rush into the sea.  Then he and his disciples sailed back across the sea.

As today’s reading opens, Jesus has just stepped off the boat when Jairus runs up and throws himself at Jesus’ feet.  We may judge Jairus’s desperation if a man of his stature — let’s say the Bishop Sisk of his day — loses all sense of his dignity in this way.  His daughter is so seriously ill that they fear for her life.  He entreats Jesus to come and heal her.  Immediately Jesus sets off with him, followed by a crowd.

They are on their way when story two interrupts.  An equally desperate woman sidles up to Jesus wanting a healing for herself.  Being dirt poor, she was used to rebuffs; for not only was she destitute, but she was sick.  She dares not call attention to herself, but she thinks that if she can just touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment, she will be healed.  She doesn’t get away with it though.  Jesus catches her.

Now the story takes some strange twists.  First, the audacious woman is not rebuffed.  Second, Jesus treats one of society’s no-accounts on a par with one of society’s most prominent members.  Third, in spite of the urgency of Jairus’s need, Jesus takes time — quite a lot of time — with this woman.  I say that, because she told him her whole story, to the point where he could recognize a deep and sincere faith in her.  So, in spite of the surrounding context — the urgent need to save Jairus’s daughter — Jesus stopped and gave this timid woman his whole attention.

Put yourself in her place.  Here is someone listening to you with his heart; someone with the capacity to feel a fundamental bond with you; someone who can see the whole of you, not just your pitiable condition at the moment; someone who is able to give you his complete attention; someone who values your uniqueness and teaches you to do the same; above all, someone who sees meaning in your meeting.

Let me give you a present-day example of one story interrupting another in this way.  It comes from the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen.  Remen is a medical doctor, who also counsels medical practitioners.  Harry, an emergency room doctor, told her how, one evening on his shift, a woman was brought in who was about to give birth.  Her obstetrician was on the way, but arrived too late.  Harry was actually pleased, because even though he had delivered hundreds of babies, he still enjoyed the challenges: making quick decisions, sensing his own competency, moving with speed and skill.

The baby girl was born, and as usual Harry held her along his left forearm, with the back of her head in his hand.  With his right hand, using a suction bulb, he began clearing her nose and mouth of mucus.  Suddenly the baby opened her eyes and looked directly at him.  In that instant all of his technical expertise fell away, all of his medical understanding.  A new realization swept over him: he was the first human being this baby had ever seen.  His thinking mind became still, while his heart went out to her in love.  With tears in his eyes, silently, he welcomed her into the world.

Later he told Dr. Remen that never before had he experienced the meaning of what he was doing.  This baby felt to him as if she were the only baby he had ever delivered.  For the first time he was there as a human being, not just as a physician.

This is the spiritual challenge these stories put to us: that we learn to live in the present moment.  Jesus gives a dramatic example of doing just that.  To the ears of almost any audience it was obvious what he should do: ignore the no-account woman, whose condition was chronic, and dash on to the emergency.  But Jesus didn’t do that, because he was alive in the present moment, always.

Harry, too, became alive in the moment.  At first, as he was holding the baby, his mind was elsewhere.  He was thinking about the other emergency room needs.  Suddenly he was interrupted by a look.  He could not ignore it and get on with his preoccupations.  Like Jesus, he stopped and gave his full attention to the moment: he opened his heart; he felt his fundamental bond with the infant and through her with the entire universe; he saw with wonder the whole of her, not just her fragile being in the moment.  Above all, he felt the meaning in that meeting.

The stories in today’s Gospel are embedded, one within the other, to highlight a spiritual challenge.  It is this.  Like Jesus, we make plans, set goals and agendas, have schedules, have intentions.  His immediate plan and intention, for instance, was to go to the house of Jairus and heal his daughter.  Then some interruption occurs.

This happens to me all the time, and I feel sure it happens to most of you.  I do make plans, have schedules, etc.  But things come up, which, if I allow them to interrupt me, will put at risk what I had hoped to accomplish.  More often than not, I brush them aside and get on with my  agenda.  Once in a while I do turn my attention to the disruption, and I become so wrapped up in it that I lose track of everything else.  I missed a plane once that way.

Many of us are like that.  If we are engaged in a task, our minds have already jumped ahead to its completion.  If we are in conversation, we are not attending to what is being said, but framing what our own response will be.  An interruption, then, could serve to call our mind back to the present moment.

Part of what made Jesus our Christ is that he dwelt continuously in the present moment, giving the present moment all the attention that Harry gave that baby girl.  That is not to say he lost touch with the overall context.  He also dwelt continuously in the flow of time.  He did not forget Jairus’s daughter.  He always responded to the present moment, but without betraying other, overarching concerns.

These two stories in the Gospel passage challenge us to practice our faith in a new way.  They are asking us to go through life aware that every passing moment — if I could put it this way — is reaching up to touch the fringe of our garment, asking us to open our hearts to it, wanting us to feel our bond with it, to recognize the wonder in it, the meaning in it.  To put it another way, this is a call to live simultaneously in eternity and in time.  Eternity is found only in the present moment; time surrounds the present moment.

To practice our faith in this way calls for training.  We need to learn to call ourselves back to the present moment again and again, until it becomes second nature.  But at the same time we need to stay aware of where we are, and what time of day it is, and what the surrounding needs are.  This is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, but it begins with the first step.  One simple, doable step is this.  Set aside ten minutes each day, find a place that is still, and spend that time just being in the present, gazing, so to speak, into the face of God.