All three of our lessons this morning mention some sort of suffering. In our reading from 2nd Samuel David is mourning the death of his friend Jonathan and Jonathan’s father Saul. David’s love for Jonathan was more than his “love of women.” In the case of Saul, David’s grief comes from never being able to be reconciled to him.
In our reading from 2nd Corinthians the Apostle Paul suffers from the rift between the Jewish Christians headquartered in Jerusalem, and the Gentile Christians scattered in congregations from Macedonia to Corinth. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem have experienced financial hardship. Paul hopes that a collection for them taken at Gentile churches will bring reconciliation. He wants to see the Body of Christ reconciled through the act of financial generosity.
In our Gospel two females suffer, a little girl, and a woman who has hemmoraged for twelve years. The little girl, daughter of s synagogue leader, dies before Jesus can get to her. The woman who is hemmoraging desperately reaches out to touch Jesus’ cloak. Each one of these people desires healing and a reversal of the circumstances they currently find themselves in. While David wishes that his dear friend Jonathan was still alive and Paul prays for reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Jairus and the suffering woman pray for physical healing.
Wednesday night the PBS News Hour was doing an opening feature story on the Colorado fires. The most heart breaking footage took place when a man insisted on removing the flag in his front yard even when doing so put him behind in his evacuation from a threatened area. The interviewer asked the man why he was willing to risk his life to save a flag. The man told him that his son had been killed in Iraq, and the flag had been given to him in his son’s memory and honor. There was no way he was going to let the flames devour his flag. That segment not only exposed viewers to someone who has suffered mightily, but also to the price of war. This coming July 4 as we celebrate our country’s freedom from British rule with great joy and celebration, we also remember the suffering that convinced the colonists to break away from Britain, and all the lives lost during the Revolutionary War.
While most of us are usually aware of someone in our church, family, or neighborhood who is suffering, the amount of suffering and illness in the St. Matthew’s faith community seems to be increasing. Perhaps we are just more aware of what is going on due to increasing levels of trust and vulnerability, as well as the desire for our faith community’s prayers. Some members of our faith community are undergoing chemotherapy, others are mourning the loss of loved ones, and still others suffer from mental illness including depression. As Reed began to explore last week, where is God when we suffer, and why do some people experience physical healing or a cure while others do not?
When we are hurting physically, mentally, or spiritually, or when we lose a loved one or get that diagnosis we weren’t expecting, many of us move immediately to prayer. We pray for our very lives, and we ask others to pray for us. Often we have a definite answer to those prayers in mind – objectives we want God to accomplish. This is completely understandable, and I’ve made specific requests to God for healing for myself and others which include specific end goals. But I am wondering, especially as I contemplate our Gospel lessons and Jesus’ broad range of interactions with people in his day, if “healing” may sometimes be different from a physical cure. What might God’s healing look like if it doesn’t manifest itself through remission from cancer or a new lease on life? What sort of healing ministry is Jesus engaged in, and what does it reveal about God’s vision for life?
Our Gospel lesson contains a couple of brief statements that strike me as important and deep. They can easily be missed when reading or listening to today’s longish Gospel. In the first instance, I find it significant that when the woman who has been hemmoraging confesses that she was the one who touched Jesus’ cloak he says first, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Only in his second breath does he say, “go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Two sentences later, when Jesus learns that Jairus’ daughter has died, he says, “do not fear, only believe.” I wonder if Jesus is more interested in our spiritual healing than our physical healing. This is not to say that our physical well-being is unimportant to God. It is very important. In Christian theology the body and the spirit are not separate, competing entities, but a unity through which people experience God and participate in God’s work in the world. Without the spirit the body is a shell, and without the body, the Spirit is not embodied, concrete, located. What would poetry be without the senses, and what would the world be without the ability to reflect on its beauty and meaning? God works through both our spirits and our bodies to help us grow in the knowledge and love of God.
And yet, something very important is being said in these sentences about faith, and about fear. Faith is something that transcends sickness and fear as well as helping us move through them. Fear is something that will haunt and control us whether we are well or ill. Faith in God, knowing that something and someone outside of ourselves is interested in being in a life-giving relationship with us and others is hard to contemplate. Knowing that something and someone is working for our good regardless of what happens is overwhelming.
Almost every time I talk to someone who is suffering they ask “where is God” or wonder, “why is God doing this to me?” I personally don’t think God spends God’s time contemplating how to do bad things to us or others: “How can I trip Blair up this week?” “Should I make Dwight sick right now?” I can’t possibly imagine how the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us would want to make our lives more difficult or painful, or to keep us from living lives that are a sign, witness, and foretaste to God’s reality.
I do understand when people feel God’s absence, and wonder where God is in their pain. So many people will be scared off by their pain and suffering, it’s noteasy to imagine a God who would be committed to us through thick and thin.
Getting back to our Gospel story, I am imagining that for the woman’s faith to have made her well, God has given her a peace that all shall be well whether she continues to suffer, or is healed. That the difficult peace of which Jesus speaks comes from a freedom from fear. When we are able to know or sense that everything is in God’s hands, and that God is ultimately trustworthy, we are able to release our fear – at least somewhat. When we are able to hand over our fear to God we are able to rest in God and live in God’s present moment without distraction. When we are able to truly know, as the burial office tells us, that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s, then everything begins to look quite different.
In the same PBS news hour broadcast I was deeply moved by some of the local leaders in Mexico who are standing up to the drug cartels. In the midst of great fear, horrific violence, and terrible uncertainty, men and women are standing up to those who are terrorizing their communities and saying enough is enough. One nun, and one local leader in Monterrey both shared that the only reason they were able to stand up to those involved in the drug trade and corrupt police officers was because they were able to conquer their fear.
As the Beatitudes class discussed this past Thursday night, being able to mourn, and to conquer our fears is much easier and much less painful when it is done in community. Two class participants, one from Uganda and the other from Jamaica, described the important role played by the community in helping their friends and neighbors move through grief. In both cultures those who are suffering the loss of loved ones are surrounded by people around the clock. Their friends and neighbors come and sit with them. God works through the community to remind us of God’s unfailing love and compassionate concern.
Taking a truthful look at our deepest fears and asking God to help us face and transcend them may be the most important healing work God provides. Doing so is much easier when we are surrounded by a community that loves and walks with us. Fear is paralyzing and tenacious. Its roots run deep. Life in Jesus is ultimately about freedom from fear so that we can be freed to live for others. It is the release from what truly binds us and prevents us from living lives of abundance and generosity, come what may.
This morning, our Healing Team once again offers the gift of healing prayer for you or someone you love in the Library during the Eucharist. May God, working through our Healing Team, and the loving concern of our faith community free you from your fears and bring you the peace that passes all understanding. May God help us to believe that whether we suffer or not, God is with us, and will be with us always.