Ready and Eager: A Sermon for Proper 8(13) B
28 June 2009
This Sunday we have an abundance of challenging readings, and none more so than the Gospel, which recounts two miracles of healing that Jesus performed not just on the same day but very nearly in the same hour, healing a child who had been given up for dead by all but her parents and a woman on whom all had given up except herself.
This story follows right after Jesus and his disciples have returned from the farther shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he had cured a man possessed by demons when he sent the whole crew of demons into a herd of swine. Presumably they had returned to their 'home port' of Capernaum, although it never says so explicitly, where everyone was familiar with Jesus and his deeds. No sooner were they out of the boat then a crowd formed, presumably hoping either to hear Jesus preach or to see some act of power, but the scene was dramatically interrupted by one of the leaders of the local synagogue, Jairus, who begged Jesus to come and heal his dying daughter.
Jesus set out to do just that and the crowd followed to see what would happen. At this point in Jesus' career in Galilee, it seems he could hardly move without attracting an audience. Some of the people came to hear the message he brought, I'm sure, and others were bringing the sick to him, but I suspect the majority were there purely for the excitement, glued to the unfolding spectacle just as we get glued to a reality show or the 24-hour news cycle. But this particular crowd contained at least one person that was different -- an otherwise unknown and unnamed woman, who had been ill for twelve years. Not only would she have had to bear a long, debilitating physical illness, but she had had to bear up under two severe psychological blows. Despite visiting many doctors and spending all she had on their treatments and fees, she didn't get any better; in fact she got worse. And because of the nature of her illness (a flow of blood that did not heal), she would have been surrounded by the barrier of ritual uncleanness, cut off from ordinary human interaction with neighbours, family, and friends.
The most amazing thing about this woman is that she hasn't given up, not at all. She has realised that physicians cannot help her but she had heard enough about Jesus to have faith that he could help. "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well," she said. She didn't want to talk to him or have him lay his hands on her as Jairus wanted for his child -- she just wanted the barest, most anonymous contact.
It sounds almost like magic, and I imagine that if she had told anyone they would have been horrified by her proposing to spread her ritual contagion through the crowd as well as to Jesus himself for some kind of mumbo-jumbo. But she knew, and more importantly, Jesus knew, that there was more going on there. The key was her faith that Jesus could make a difference where no-one else had made a difference. That's why Jesus noticed that she touched him in particular at a time when many people must have been jostling against him.
Jairus too is in a desperate situation -- just when Jesus sent the woman away healed because of her faith, messengers had arrived from Jairus' house to tell him to stop troubling the teacher, since his daughter had died. But Jesus told him, "Do not fear, only believe". Like the woman with the hemorrhage, Jairus refused to accept the limits that others put on God's ability to heal. And in response, Jesus went on to his home, brought him, his wife, and three of the disciples with him into the sickroom, and called the child out of bed to life and health.
This is one of the times in the gospels when we get a sense that the act of healing demanded something from Jesus as well as from the person in need of being healed. Mark tells us that Jesus was aware that power had gone forth from him. What does that mean? I think the clue lies in the word 'power'. That's the word ('dunamis' in Greek, from which we get 'dynamic' and 'dynamo' in English) that Mark characteristically also uses to describe acts of power, what we call miracles. The divine creative energy which the Word and the Father used at Creation is the same energy that the Word made flesh used to heal and transform those who came to him in faith. And that is the energy that is spent in healing this woman with the hemorrhage.
In the epistle, Paul holds up as a model for us to imitate 'the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich'. He's thinking primarily of the change from the situation of the Word dwelling with the Father to that of the Word made flesh as a mortal man (what he talks about in the beautiful hymn from Philippians, when he speaks of Christ Jesus emptying himself and being born in human likeness). But Paul's words can also be applied to the generous giving of that divine creative energy that we see at work again and again in the gospels, in acts of healing, in the welcome extended to those on the margins, in the transforming of lives.
Paul is writing here to his 'problem children' in Corinth. He had a troubled relationship with the church he had founded in Corinth that expressed itself in a long correspondence (of which we only have part) and several visits, some of them unpleasant. The root of the difficulty seems to have been in the growth of factions and divisions, probably among individual house churches. But after the attempt to settle some of the difficulties and bring people together that we see in 1 Corinthians, things seem to have turned downright nasty, involving personal attacks on the honesty and authority of Paul and his representatives. That is where we come in, because 2 Corinthians involves Paul's attempts to refute those attacks, especially the ones that threaten his beloved project, the collection.
The Jewish-Christian communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine had fallen on hard times and Paul conceived a truly brilliant idea, one that would help to create the unity he longed for between those communities and the Gentile-Christian communities that he had founded or fostered elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. He would take up a collection from his churches for relief and aid for the Jewish Christian communities and forge bonds of concern and gratitude that would help bind the two groups together into one body in Christ. Despite their internal difficulties, the churches in Corinth had been on pace to be particularly generous but now Paul's opponents are saying that once they give the money to Paul or his delegate, not only will the Corinthians never see it again, neither will the distressed Jewish-Christian communities. Instead they imply Paul and his cronies will seize on to the collection and use it themselves.
So Paul has to defend his honesty and that of his mission partners and also defend the whole idea of Christian giving. That's what takes this piece that we heard this morning beyond the particular context of Corinth and the relief collection and gives it a wider application. For instance, here at Redeemer those of us who are able are being called upon right now to dig deeper in accordance with our abilities and give more for our church and the work of our Christian community in our particular context, as we've been reminded in the mid-year report given last week. And Paul's words have as much relevance in our situation as they did for the different situation of the Corinthian church -- "For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has -- not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance."
Paul says, "if the eagerness is there", and it is to create that eagerness that he offers the example of Jesus' generosity. In fact, he seems equally convinced of two things, that all Christians really need to incite them to generosity is the example of Christ, and that over time there will be a dance of reciprocity in which my abundance meets your need and your abundance meets mine. So far my experience of Christian community has led to the same conclusions!
But the generosity Paul is talking about is more than financial and the abundance he speaks of is more than material. Jesus' own self-giving was an essentially spiritual action, not a material one, and by emptying himself of divine privilege for a time to embrace humanity in all its neediness and its beauty he made it possible for us to share in the divine abundance. We are called to share the same abundance with one another and the world in the diversity of our creation, our gifts and talents; the love we have for one another and for Jesus; the love that overflows to all. That is the same generosity that Jesus showed to the woman in the crowd and Jairus and his daughter.
Later today, men and women and children from this parish, gay and straight, will also show that same generosity by joining other Anglicans in the Pride Parade. We witness there to God's love and power in Creation, to Jesus' love and power to transform and welcome. Whether in our material generosity meeting one another's needs and our neighbour's needs here at the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor St or in our joyful welcome to the richness of God's creative power expressed in the diverse community of this city at Pride, we are called by Paul and by Jesus himself to show eagerness to give and to serve. May we always be ready and eager to respond as Christ did!