a sermon based upon Mark 5:21-43
Last Sunday I asked: How do we know what is God’s Will when someone is suffering? It turns out that it was a really big topic… so big that I promised to get back to it again today.
We heard two examples of suffering in this morning’s Scripture. The first was about Jairus, a synagogue ruler, who besought Jesus, saying “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:22-23) Here, a parent is pleading on behalf of his dying daughter. We’ll talk about that in a moment.
Jairus’ story was interrupted by a woman who had been menstruating for 12 years -- a woman who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had -- yet her flow of blood was no better, but grew worse! She came up behind Jesus in the crowd and touched his robe, thinking: “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” (Mark 5:25-28)
The two occasions of suffering in today’s text were (1) the death of a child, and (2) a chronic hemorrhage, for which the health-care cost had driven the woman into bankruptcy… and the illness had not been cured.
Those two stories deserve comment, and I will speak about them. But first, I want to draw a wider circle around the concept of “suffering”, because it comes in so many personal disguises. When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry degree, I invited a dozen people at my former congregation -- Seaside Community Church in Torrance, California -- to write stories of their own personal tragedies or occasions when they had witnessed others who suffered. Last Sunday I shared the story of Larry Elwood’s mother’s lingering process of dying, long-distance from her son.
That was one such story, but others told of the anger and disbelief which arose in the midst of their trauma, and they shared some of the ways they had come to grips with those deep questions about the meaning of suffering and how they perceived the role of God in it. I was grateful for their candor (and for permission they granted to report their experiences in my Doctoral Thesis!). Their remarks appeared as citations between the chapters of longer “theological” concentration, I called them “interludes.”
While writing that Doctoral thesis, I took a week away from writing to go Germany, to our farmer-friend Heinz and his family as he suffered from pancreatic cancer. They wondered “why” God would do this to a pious and hard-working dairy farmer -- the director of the local church’s brass band. Frankly, I had no answers for them -- and I had no cure -- but I had to be there, anyway. I suppose it was as much for me as for them that I came alongside them in response to such devastating bad news.
Yes, I proved to be of some help gathering the long grass into rows as Heinz drove the tractor, or breaking down the bales of hay and feeding their 70 cows in the stall.
Yes, I could drive Heinz to the doctor’s appointments and wait with him while the chemotherapy-drip worked its toxic magic. And I could drive him long distance so that he could visit his daughter and granddaughters. (Heinz slept as he rode in the car because of the painkillers. His wife & son took care of the cattle while we traveled.)
Because I was there, I was the reason given for Heinz and me to go to the neighboring farm for supper -- a cathartic visit which neither family knew how to initiate ever since the cancer had been diagnosed. Similarly, my presence was reason enough to get Heinz out of the house and into the village for a Strassenfest -- he came along in order to keep me company, of course -- which was the first time most of his neighbors and friends had seen him since the bad news had become known in their town.
On that Sunday, Heinz went with me to the church service and stayed afterwards to eat lunch with the Pastor… why? Because I was there! Because I was there, the local church band (in which I played the trombone for two years more than thirty years ago), rehearsed in Heinz’s barn and followed it with a grill-fest in which Heinz (their former director) and his wife were the guests of honor… in their own garage! There was laughter all around. No one had expected any of those “gifts of grace”.
Throughout that week, I never did try to explain anything about God’s mysterious ways when faced with suffering, even though I told them that I was (just then!) writing a paper on that very topic. Everybody just knew – unspoken! -- that some really important healing was happening… even where there was no cure. People just seemed to sense that what was happening to Heinz (and to them) had a reason as well as a cause.
When bad things happen, people want to know what “caused” it! Medical science, forensic science, arson investigations, and good old “police detective work” do their best to determine the “causes”. We want to know, for example: what kind of cancer is it? How far has it spread? Is it operable? What are the treatment options? What are my odds? Many people benefit emotionally as well as intellectually when they understand better what is going on, bad though it may be. “Not knowing is the worst,” I have been told (although I suspect catching the disease itself was, in fact, worse). A little research into the disease itself is of great help here.
It may be that Heinz had a genetic predisposition to cancer, since his mother had died of the same thing. (!) He (and she before him) may have contracted the cancer because of environmental conditions on the dairy-farm. Heinz, however, believed that he contracted his cancer through a series of recent stressful events, which is what his therapists had also suggested. Meanwhile, his son, Jan (who would eventually inherit the farm), knew that had to plan for a future without his father. Heinz’s wife, on the other hand, believed they should be optimistic and hope for the best, not plan for the worst! (!) Each one of them wanted to persuade the other that their approach was the right one, while all Heinz wanted them to do was to get along with each other… and stop arguing about it.
Discussing what is known of the “causes” of the disease (whether it is the coronavirus that originated in bats in Wuhan, China, and developed into COVID-19 respiratory failure in 40,000 US deaths, or any other illness) and seeking to understand how one’s own particular case is progressing, is all well-and-good. We like to track down the “causes” of our suffering.
You’ll notice that the woman in the crowd no longer tried to diagnose the “cause” (the etiology) of her condition -- she had already done that for 12 years with the doctors! -- she took action to get rid of it! When Jesus looked around to see who had touched him, the woman – knowing what had been done to her – came in fear and trembling (phobos and tromos), and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And Jesus said to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:32-34) He does not reproach her for touching him, as other holy men may have done. He calls her “daughter”… !
Jesus does not even take credit for the miracle. He says: “Your faith has made you well.” Faith, translated into action, made the difference. When Jairus’s daughter gets up, walks away, and gets something to eat, we remember Jesus saying to her father: “Do not fear, only believe.” Obviously, it is the faith of the family that empowers the healing in the end.
Knowing the “cause” of one’s suffering may be helpful in seeking a cure. But looking for “a reason” for your suffering requires a much deeper search than merely identifying the “causes.” “Reasons” have meaning attached to them. (!) One’s basic theology and sense of life’s purpose get into the conversation when you talk about “the reasons” for why some-thing is happening. It’s all speculation, anyway! It’s better to take the route of faith -- trusting God, and taking whatever action makes a difference. That’s what the woman was doing … reaching out to Jesus. That’s what Jairus was doing, too, reaching out to Jesus for help.
But in his case, there is more to what this parent was suffering than just the need for a healing. So, we need to go a bit deeper…
As sad as the death of our friend Heinz Blumhardt was, at least he was an adult who had raised four children to adulthood. Heinz had lived more than 60 years of life; he had been somebody, who left a mark.
The death of children, however, strikes a much deeper wound than the death of an adult does. That’s because the primary task of a child is to grow up and to make a future. Dying children cannot fulfill that fundamental task. The man in today’s text, Jairus, may have been one of the rulers of the synagogue, but in this crisis situation he fell at Jesus’ feet, imploring him to come and lay healing hands on his dying daughter.
Parents, for the most part, see their role as life-givers, guardians, & protectors of their children. The death of a child makes that role impossible.
When adults die -- whether in a sudden tragic event such as the 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, or the Washington, D.C. area sniper attacks in October the next year, or at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, or any of the mass shootings or tornados or flooding in the news -- or die in a longer, lingering manner such as a nursing home or from cancer, which forces loved-ones to rehearse the separation in anticipation of the final severance -- we console ourselves in the fact that the adults who are dying had grown up, had made a future for themselves, had shared our lives, & created lasting memories. In contrast, the death of children robs us of all such hoped-for goodness. The kids killed at Sandy Hook Elementary (or in the Parkland Florida High School) grieve our hearts all that much more.
When Jesus and Jairus -- and Peter, James, & John -- came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, they saw a tumult… people weeping & wailing loudly. Isn’t that what we would expect, when a child dies!? (!) When Jesus said “the child is not dead, but sleeping”, they laughed at him! For that reason, he allowed no one but the parents and his three disciples to enter the room. All the unbelief, weeping & wailing, & mockery stays out!
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 classic text “On Death and Dying” popularized the concept of “stages of grief” which include initial denial, some bargaining (presumably with God), as well as anger. Maybe the mourners thought Jesus was in denial. Maybe their laughter indicated the “bargaining” period with God was over. The messengers said: “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mark 5:35) But Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue: “Do not fear; only believe!” (5:36)
The need to understand what has happened becomes a priority for many people involved in suffering; quite often investigations are ordered. The need to blame someone (or said a little more nicely: “to hold someone accountable”), is also a frequent response to tragedy. Who caused this epidemic? Who was caught unprepared? Why is everything shut-down?
When we cannot blame the victim, because we know that would only add to our suffering of their loss -- and when there is no obvious perpetrator or villain who brought this tragedy about -- some people simply turn on God as the one who is to blame. Couldn’t God have “fixed” this? “Where are you, God? What’s going on here… people are suffering!”
Biblical Wisdom tradition (as represented in the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job) insists that our universe is both rational and consistent, guided by an all-seeing Wisdom (“Sophia”) or “Logos” (word).
Biblical Wisdom gives the answer that good things happen to people because they have lived in such a way as to deserve it -- blessings follow the way of the wise. (I’m sure you have encountered this way of thinking many times.) Bad things happen because we have either been “a fool” or we’ve done something wicked (sin). The consequences of ignorance bring ruin; the penalty for evil is the wrath of God. (This kind of theology seems to be pervasive in American Christianity.)
In either case, the suffering is perceived to be appropriate in order to “teach someone a lesson”. We insist on penalties -- paying the price.
That lesson (we are told) was the reason for the trouble regardless of what actually “caused” it… we come out of it either wiser, or more empathetic, or changed in some way for the good… or, (if we fail to learn our lesson) we are punished for that failure. That’s basic Biblical “wisdom”.
I dissected that way of thinking at length in Chapter 5 of my paper, hoping to lay it to rest, but it continues to find adherents. (!) Just last week, for example, in The Alpena News in a letter to the editor, Lauren Lisi of Rogers City, wrote: “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.” (Proverbs 22:3.) Prudence, please!” (Take precautions.)
Theologian John Cobb writes: “At first blush, speaking of [diseased] patients suffering in relation to such a moral law seems extremely cruel, but the situation is more complex. Many people can deal better with suffering when they think of it as just [something deserved] rather than seeming wholly irrational.”
I will not discredit those faithful souls who seek to find “the reason” for their pain -- folks who say: “There is a message for me in it, I know there is; I just don’t know what it is!” -- and I am happy to take the time to reflect back to them in a counseling setting their earnest speculations in the hope that a meaningful realization may come of it. But in the end, I prefer Rabbi Kushner’s frank observation (from his book: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) that “sometimes there is no reason apart from the workings of impersonal laws of nature”… and the Rabbi’s public admission that “life is not fair.”
I like to think that those hard times we go through (those struggles that life throws at us) present us with challenges that may lead to further growth. (Yes, even this corona-virus threat and the economic shut-down may lead to further growth – maybe by raising more empathy, appreciation for life, or recognizing that we are all in this thing together. Who knows…?) But if that’s so, then let’s approach it with faith, remembering that Jesus said (to a father who was facing the death of his daughter): “Do not fear; only believe.”
And to the woman who was healed of her chronic hemorrhage: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
That is my prayer for you, and for all who suffer in this time of coronavirus imposed isolation: Go in peace… and be healed of your disease, in Jesus’ name. Amen.