Everyone loves a story that has a happy ending. Certainly the film industry knows this very well, and the biggest box office hits are always the ones that have happy endings…or at least a really satisfying conclusion…and maybe a big car chase or shoot-out scene where the good guys clearly triumph.
We like happy endings – particularly when they are clear-cut. And how could we not like them? Happy endings remind us that things can go right in the world, that good can flourish, that hope is not in vain; and if what we see in the movies is painted more broadly, and a little less believably than in real-life, maybe that’s because life takes a whole lot longer to live than the two hours you might spend in a movie theater, or watching a DVD.
So I wouldn’t be surprised if you got to the end of this morning’s Gospel reading and thought to yourself: “Oh good - a happy ending. Jesus healed that woman and raised the little girl back to life, so everything’s OK; no difficult or troubling sayings from Jesus this week!” And perhaps we’ve heard this story often enough that – because we know the end – we gloss over what the beginning and middle are really like.
This story is really two stories entwined or sandwiched together. The outer layers are the story of the twelve-year-old girl who is deathly ill; the middle layer is the woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Both are in need of healing, both are vulnerable, neither one had any hope or resources left.
Jairus, the girl’s father, was a prominent man, a leader in the local synagogue, it is likely that he was giving this new itinerant healer and rabbi a wide berth, lest he stir up a commotion amongst the members of his synagogue. And yet, Jairus became desperate enough as his daughter’s life was hanging in the balance to try anything, to engage whatever healer or teacher might be available.
He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and begged him repeatedly to come and heal his daughter.
And the woman with the hemorrhage had tried everything she knew; she had spent all her money on doctors, and probably went through some painful and even humiliating treatments – all to no avail. But when she saw Jesus she felt certain that he could help her; she wouldn’t even have to bother him or speak to him, she only had to touch the edge of his clothing – she was sure of it.
Both Jairus and the woman were playing their last cards, they had no other options. And in each case Jesus did heal, but not in the way that was expected, or even wanted.
The unnamed woman had hoped just to fade away into the crowd that surrounded Jesus, had wished not to come face-to-face with him, or have to explain herself; but in fact Jesus felt the power go out of him, even as the flow of blood stopped, and he made sure he identified the woman, and spoke with her. She told him the whole truth – all about her illness, and the doctors, and the money and the futility of it all – until she had seen Jesus and felt on a gut-level that here there might be hope and healing. And Jesus commended her faith, and bid her go in peace and continued health.
Meanwhile, poor Jairus must have been beside himself with anxiety and frustration, for he knew that every minute Jesus spent with this unnamed woman from the crowd was one minute closer to death for his daughter. And sure enough, a messenger came from the house that the girl had in fact died and there was no reason to bother the rabbi any longer.
But Jesus was not deterred; he continued on to Jairus’ house, taking Peter, James and John with him, and brought the girl back to life by telling her to wake up, and taking her by the hand, and telling her parents to give her something to eat. Jesus certainly didn’t heal the girl on her father’s timetable, or even in order of his social standing. Once again, Jairus got the healing he so greatly wanted and needed, but not exactly on his own terms.
This whole passage is an example of Jesus showing the disciples, and the people involved, and us – his disciples in the twenty-first century – what the Kingdom of God is like. Rather than preaching about it, or teaching about it, Jesus was living it out, enacting it so that we could clearly see and recognize God’s Kingdom in the world. Jesus was showing us that serious illness, and even death, is not an obstacle to God’s purposes and God’s gift of life.
In God’s Kingdom, human life and flourishing and well-being are valued and upheld as part of the redeemed creation. Our souls are important, but so are our bodies and our physical needs. Jesus is teaching us to live with spiritual values, but they are values which start here and now; which encompass earth as well as heaven. The Kingdom of God is the original wholistic approach to life – whether that be about medicine, or poverty, or politics, or relationships, or care for the earth. God has for us his people as part of his creation, a vision of wholeness and redemption and new life that isn’t just about “what happens to us when we die.” God invites us into this marvelous and life-giving vision, and we enter it by faith – with the help of sacraments and Scripture.
But there’s a catch, and the catch is this: we have to participate. We don’t get invited into God’s Kingdom only to sit on the sidelines, only to focus on our own feelings or health or well-being or relationships. God has called us to be his disciples – just as surely as Peter, James and John were called – but the Kingdom is not for our benefit alone. Just like Peter, James and John, we have work to do – the work of God’s Kingdom: loving, giving, teaching, caring, advocating, standing alongside, praying, helping, leading, suffering for the good of all who have been made in God’s image, for the benefit of all for whom Christ died and rose again.
That’s a very big job! Left to our own devices we are probably not up to the task. But the happy ending here is that when God calls us and invites us to step out of our comfort zone (which is what it means to respond in faith), he will always equip us, give us his power and strength and wisdom – and, most importantly, walk with us every step of the way.
Let us pray.
Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ Book of Common Prayer, page 826
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012