a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B]
About fifteen years ago I got to attend a church conference in Cyprus, which is a small island in the eastern Mediterranean roughly about the size of Delaware. It is actually an island split in two with a wall running down the center of it, and it’s been split since about 1974 when the Turkish-leaning citizens of the north, feeling threatened by the Greek Cypriots in the south and concerned about where their country was going, declared themselves their own country. It is one of the world’s still-unresolved disputes, since only the country of Turkey recognizes that upper part as an independent country. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the United Nations set up an armed buffer zone between the two regions.
While I was there, my friends and I rented a car and drove around the southern part of the island for a few days and then decided we’d like to see the northern part. Americans were allowed to travel to the Turkish side, but we had to park our car in the parking lot and leave it there, walk through the checkpoint by the armed guards and leave our passports there. It was the authorities’ way of ensuring that we would eventually come back to the south side where we belonged. When I found out that I’d have to leave my passport behind, I suddenly felt a little nervous about the whole adventure. What if I didn’t get it back? What would they do with it while I was gone?
Eventually I overcame those fears and we walked on foot between the big walls of the buffer zone and through the checkpoint on the northern side. There we rented another car and drove off to see the sites we had in mind. But the clock was ticking because we had to be back by nightfall. As foreigners without passports, we weren’t allowed to stay in northern Cyprus. So, at the end of the day we dropped the northern Cyprus car off, walked back through the buffer zone, retrieved our passports, got back in our first rental car, and went along our merry way. It was like we had gone on a short detour in a very divided country.
Jesus makes all kinds of tricky border crossings in his ministry, and today we see him go on one short detour in a very divided country. However, the divided lands that Jesus crosses in this event are not bounded by buffer zones or armed guards or tall walls with barbed wire. They are the divisions of culture that are set up all over his world. And while on a trip to help with the family of a man who you might say lives squarely on one side of the human island, he makes a quick detour to heal a woman who lives on the total opposite side, and who is separated by all kinds of barriers.
There is a lot to focus on in this account of Jesus as he gets off the boat after traveling to the land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s basically two healing stories rolled into one, and I suppose that’s where most of the attention immediately goes. It goes to the way that Jesus is able to heal even without coming into direct contact with people. The woman merely touches the cloak Jesus is wearing and her hemorrhage stops. Jesus is able to feel this healing power go out of him, almost like he’s got static electricity.
Our attention also goes to the way that Jesus is really a master healer, popular throughout the land in a time when people sought out faith healers. But unlike other faith healers of Jesus’ day, Jesus doesn’t actively seek the healing, trying to make a buck, and—more importantly—he increasingly appears to be mentally moving on to something else, doesn’t he?
But perhaps our minds mainly focus on the way we identify, on some level, with each of these individuals. We know people who have dealt with some kind of medical condition for years that never goes away. It drains them physically, socially, and financially. They never seem to get the answers they seek and they end up just having to learn to live with it. I think especially of people who live with the disease of addiction, who often lose their friends and their other close relationships because they’re in the grip of something they can’t control. And yet God seeks to heal them. God loves them and they need our compassion, not our dismissal.
And then there’s Jairus, who is in a different kind of grip—the grip of worry for his child. I think anyone who’s ever cared for a child, or a loved one, whether their own or someone else’s, understands on some level what Jairus is going through, how you get to a point where you’ll do anything to help your child stop suffering. Your mind begins to go very scary places even when they just spike a fever. That’s where Jairus is, except he is already in the scary place with his daughter.
It’s easy for our minds to focus on this miraculous healing of that daughter, too—how Jesus takes her by the hand, even though it was taboo to touch dead bodies, and says, “Get up, little girl!” In her case—as in the case of the bleeding woman—she is restored to life. Their faith and the faith of those around them play a part in this. They see Jesus as their hope and salvation.
Jesus doesn’t really perform either healing so that people around them may believe. Notice he asks everyone to leave at one point. Yet these people’s relationship to him is this critical component to being well.
Faith in Christ makes us well in the sense it makes us whole. In some exceptional cases, that means we are physically restored somehow. Maybe doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are able to touch our bodies or use medicines and make us well that way. In other cases, however, the healing may look completely different. Being restored to life might mean being at a deep peace with things, or reaching a new level of understanding about life.
I remember my last conversation with Dean Zellmer, which was only a few weeks ago. He was in the hospital after having struggled with dysentery for several weeks. He had also been struggling with multiple myeloma and had lost most use of his right leg because it had gone numb. He had heart problems and had suffered damage to a valve. He had also had to move out of his apartment into assisted living in another part of town, which is a transition anyone could find difficult. But I could only describe as a miracle the way Dean spoke about his life and how whole he felt—whole in thanksgiving for the gifts he’d been given, for the opportunities he’d had, for the things he’d been able to experience in his ninety-two years. He had plenty of suffering to concentrate on, plenty of physical healing he could pray for, but he could only talk about his blessings, and was more interested to know about me and my family. He was a person of deep faith in Christ’s love for him, and Dean was ready to continue that relationship, no matter what happened next.
These are the places our minds go when we hear this story today, but perhaps the greatest healing Jesus is doing is actually the healing of those human divisions. While on the way to see Jairus and his daughter, He makes that short detour with the woman who is bleeding. And in one short day, Jesus engages both an important male leader and an overlooked outcast woman. He treats as equal a man with a given name, position, and authority and a woman with no name, no position, and no authority. He interacts with someone who is socially isolated, has no resources at her disposal whatsoever, who comes to him as she slips unnoticed through the crowd, and then he interacts with another person with a well-established support system by going into his house. He welcomes someone who grabs him in a clandestine fashion and someone who Jesus has to physically touch himself in order to heal. In just about every way imaginable, Jesus is able to span the divisions that separate people in society. Through faith, he is available and accessible to all. The healing and wholeness he embodies is for everyone, regardless of social status, gender, age, education level, nationality, or race. In spite of the sacrifice it means to himself and his identity, he is able to take the risk, cross the borders, and bring the kingdom of God and all its healing to all people.
And if it sounds today like Jesus is starting to move on from performing so many healings, like he’s got something else on his mind, another horizon to meet, it’s because he does. He is moving on to the point of true healing, the real border of division that needs to be crossed. He is not just a physical healer, but he is among God’s people to heal the big division between God and us. He will die on the cross as a ransom for our sins, bringing us all back to God’s eternal care, to unite what has been separated, to restore us all to life through the power of faith.
I’m not sure I could have chosen myself a more fitting set of Scriptures for the weekend before our nation’s Independence Day. As you know, we just use the Revised Common Lectionary to provide our readings, and this just happens to be the lesson falling on this Sunday. It wasn’t selected by anyone with the Fourth of July in mind. But yet it is a good word for us. We are living in a society whose divisions seem to be very pronounced right now—at least that’s what I’m hearing people saying. Several people I’ve spoken with recently in this congregation have shared with me how they keep their opinions to themselves more than they ever have before because they’re afraid of how they will be perceived and interpreted, especially by people who disagree.
I don’t have any great wisdom to offer on how to span our divides, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of contributing to the divisiveness, I’m sure. But I do know Christ is walking among us, running back and forth between the different groups, seeking out those who are hurting, those who need life. We have faith that even if the flag cannot seem unify a country at a given time, our risen Lord will always seek to bring God’s people together. He will lay down his life at the crosspoint, and venture to the wilderness of death in order to get it done.
And as people who follow him, our mission is to do the same. In such a divided culture, the church may be the last place where people of all different kinds can be served at a table no matter what our opinions are, no matter how we vote, no matter what our citizenship status even is. That’s something. Healed by our faith, we are called to look into the world, maybe even lay aside some closely-held ideas of ourselves, and see people as Jesus does—that is, less in terms of their status and rank, name or label, and more in terms of where the suffering is.
I suppose then, my friends, we’ll find that may be the most exciting and healing journey of all.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.