Sermons

Be Made Well

(A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost    June 28, 2009    Psalm 30; Mark 5:21-43)

In the midst of a game of kickball so rousing that a youth leader knocked one of our boys right off his feet at first base, I turned to another youth and said, “I may not be athletic, but I am competitive.”

It’s a bedeviling combination. There’s no question I grew up in a time and a place and a family that encouraged a belief that striving would bring success.  Where I come from, everyone played to win, and we expected little children to learn to want it by not having it. Take one not-particularly-coordinated sister and one highly athletic brother together in a family with a dad who was modestly gifted at tennis but no other sports, and you can imagine the attention put on the little brother. Every opportunity to let him show off had to be taken, and this meant many vacation evenings spent on tiny little artificial greens playing miniature golf.

It didn’t occur to me until she mentioned it on the way to Pirate’s Cove the other night that my 14-year-old daughter had never handled a golf club or held a golf ball or walked a golf course. My miniature golf PTSD, you see, made me practice avoidance for my own children. Night after summer night, at Myrtle Beach and Nags Head, my family would drive to the miniature golf course, where towheaded Tommy would hit numerous holes-in-one while his older sister just missed the cup over and over again and took a six more times than she cares to remember.

I did not enjoy losing. I remember the boiling feeling in my stomach, and the intensity of my desire to be better, to beat that darned brother of mine, just once. But just wanting it was not enough to make me win at miniature golf, anymore than praying to remember the Periodic Table will help a science student who neglected to study.

(Yes, that may have been me, too.)

 “I may not be athletic, but I am competitive.”

I like to win.

Although I have been parenting and pastoring in an era of non-competitive games and cooperative efforts, I can’t seem to help it. And while most of us like to win, and there’s probably nothing wrong with being competitive on the court or the field or even the miniature golf course, taken to extremes this perspective on winning can become a problem.

“I may not be athletic, but I am competitive.”

I’ve come to a more nuanced view, thanks to age and experience, but we still hear that philosophy espoused, the idea that people can overcome anything if they simply make enough of an effort.  It’s what keeps teams playing and groups working and individuals studying, researching, and reaching for the goals that matter most to them.

But there is a fallacy inherent in the notion, an assumption that certain rules will always hold true. We may like to forget that every rule has exceptions.

Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, lived a privileged life, at least within his first-century context. To be in this position meant he had the means to practice his religion properly. It placed him at the top of the social order, in a system where your access to the synagogue meant acceptability.

It meant he had some power to determine whether other people were acceptable, or not.

The woman with a hemorrhage was most decidedly not acceptable. As we sit here nearly 2000 years later, we still don’t love the idea of talking about her *too* much, do we? We would rather she had almost any other ailment. Leprosy would be more comfortable to define. But “women’s problems” shut a woman out of society as surely as did a skin disease, because the religious rules governing spiritual cleanliness included physical cleanliness as a component. And a hemorrhaging woman could not be considered clean.

An unclean person lost the privilege of being part of the faith community, as if her illness might soil others. An unclean person might well spend all her resources trying to find healing, and after twelve years of searching, we can well imagine those resources having been spent down to nothing.

Jairus expected to be able to get Jesus’ attention. He knew he could. As a person of importance, he was used to getting what he wanted! It came naturally to him. And certainly, he won his ear and turned Jesus toward his house and his dying daughter.  But something happened, something unexpected, when the woman who needed her own healing, the woman who narrates her own story, reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Jairus may well have felt the competitive adrenaline, as he saw Jesus turning aside. He wanted the rabbi to move along, to get to his house in time. At the sight of the mourners, he thought he had lost.

There is a danger in taking these stories literally. I believe they have fed the understanding that we get better, that we win over illness simply by asking for healing in the right way, with the proper level of intensity, with the right shade of faith. Just pray a little harder, say your prayers a little better, mean them more sincerely, and you will get what you want. But this is not a history lesson or a medical text. It is a story about our faith, a story that reminds us even when we don’t get the answer we sought, even when we have to wait, the healed attitude matters as much or more than the healed body.

At Wellesley’s Commencement this year, the graduates heard from Kimberly Dozier, a correspondent for CBS News, who wondered aloud why she had been invited to speak:

"You chose a Wellesley grad who spent the first decade of her career broke, begging for freelance work, who constantly heard that she was under qualified or, later, overqualified (that means old) or basically just plain wrong for whatever it was she wanted to do. She eventually ended up with a really great job, doing exactly what she wanted to do, exactly where she wanted to do it: in the Middle East. And she got hit by a car bomb; they nearly took her legs off. She had to come back from the dead, roughly five times, and learn how to walk again. So it tells me a lot about you and your current state of mind that you all thought you needed to hear from me, with whatever lessons I had to offer from those experiences, as you leave college for the rest of your life. In short, you all want to know how to be bomb-proof, right? So, you're right: I learned a lot. Most of all, that every time I ran into a wall, I had two choices on how to face it: hope or fear." 

Friday night I sent my inexperienced daughter off regretfully onto the miniature golf course and I waited with the other chaperones for all our groups to go ahead of us. I determined to make the best of it. And then we started to play.

How many years has it been since I watched the toe-headed boy please our father with his athletic prowess? Thirty, certainly, and maybe more. One way to avoid being challenged is, well, to avoid it! I did not expect to excel at miniature golf. I took a friendly bet that the high-scorer in our group would stay up until all the kids were in their cabins. I expected, cheerfully, to be that person.

And then we started to play. And I realized that while I did not miss a calling to play professional golf, something felt different. Despite three decades without holding a club, despite a bad shoulder and a generally acknowledged lack of athletic prowess, I seemed to be able to get the ball into the cup. And let’s just say that in the end I got to go to bed first.

I have the score card to prove it.

Why was this so different? It
s a small thing, on the surface, but it’s of these small things that the world is made. We fear that we will lose, whether it’s a game or a contract or a person we love or a way of life. We fear the competition from our little brother or the new guy at the office or the country on the other side of the border. We fear the difference in the way he talks or she thinks or they dress. We fear the decay of the way things have always been.

I’ve told you a somewhat silly sounding story about miniature golf, but the pit-of-the-stomach fear of losing I felt at fifteen, the burning desire to not be the one at the bottom or the one left out of things, it hampered me in other areas, too. I wish I could tell you that thanks to a fulfilled and completed relationship with Jesus, I never feel that way anymore, but that would be less truthful than I hope to be in a sermon. In the health of the spirit, healing comes gradually, sometimes so incrementally we don’t even see it. I can only confide that it’s better than it used to be, while admitting that most of the time, the things we fear are not as easy to avoid as miniature golf. Most of the time, the things we fear losing are closer to home.

And in the irrational passion of fear, it can be hard to sort out what we need to do. It can be hard to steady our hands or keep an eye on the ball—believe me when I tell you that—and it can be hard to see the bigger picture, the slant of the green or the irregularities in the landscape. Sometimes we can only see the rough, whether it’s the actual sand trap of the golf course or the faux sand shag rug at Pirate’s Cove or the pits of despair both material and emotional.

They couldn't have been more different, Jairus and the woman who bled for so many years. He embodied power in their community while she lived out powerlessness. They couldn’t have been more different, except in this: in the midst of losing, they chose hope over fear.

Jesus captivated them. He embodied not winning, in the sense of being better than others, but victory over our fear that nothing will ever be right again. And in the moment of crisis, at the near-death of a child, at the bitter end of illness and exclusion, they found in him something different than what the world teaches. He exuded possibility. He radiated hope. And these two people, so differently situated, felt that hope and reached out to touch it.

We can do that, too. And when we do, reaching out from that fearful pit toward the light of hope, we will be made well. Amen.

7 thoughts on “Be Made Well”

  1. I think this is marvelous. Love the last line, especially, though it is all good.
    Glad your return to the putting green was more pleasant than the memories of it.

  2. the opposite of silly? this is it.
    thanks so much for sharing it.
    I’m going in a total other direction, but have found it inspiring, nonetheless.

  3. Today we don’t have a pastor for our service, and we decided at council last week to try something new this week. Our worship service will be cast more as a Bible study – opening prayers, some hymns, and then reading the Gospel lesson, and asking the congregation to share their thoughts/inspirations, etc. We “warned” folks to read and wrestle with the lesson, before coming to church, and that they’d be asked to share. [So I’m guessing attendance might be sparse ;)] I’ve been stuck most of the week on this passage – so thank you for a new way to approach it. Hope over fear, our congregation really needs this.
    (Now, next week it’s my turn to lead the service; maybe if this is successful, I’ll do the same thing!!)

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