28 June 2015

Radical Giving

A Sermon for Proper 8(13)B

We all know, I think, how easy it is when we're sick or scared to fasten on something apparently extraneous in the hope that success there will lead to a good outcome to our situation. When I was a small girl, my mother had breast cancer and, while she was awaiting her surgery, she played a particular game of solitaire over and over. Many years later she told me that she somehow came to think that if she could just bring that game out as she wanted to, her health would come out as it should too. In fact her operation was a success, though I know the solitaire didn't have anything to do with it (and so did she when she was herself again).

We can't know of course but I think the woman with the hemorrhage was very nearly in that state of mind when she sought out Jesus from the crowd that was following close around him. We aren't told very much about her -- not her name or where she came from -- but her story is the middle portion, the filler, so to speak, in what we call a "Markan sandwich". That's the term used to describe Mark's habit of combining two stories with one in the middle and another told in two parts around it. Here the story of Jairus' daughter is the main one, forming the top and bottom 'slices' of the sandwich. As Jesus moves through the crowd of people by the lakeside to Jairus' home in the town, Mark takes advantage of the pause to turn our attention to another person coming to Jesus for healing.

What we do know about this woman with a hemorrhage is that she had been sick for twelve years and had exhausted all her resources for doctors who could not help her. In fact they made her worse. She fastens upon Jesus and thinks, "If I can just touch the hem of his cloke, I'll be made well." Is that magical thinking, like the solitaire game? On the one hand she doesn't seem to have hoped for any interaction with Jesus, not the touch of his hand nor a word from him. Just touching something that touched him. And yet. And yet it worked: God in God's generous compassion saw her desperation and healed her. Jesus felt her touch and knew that God's healing power had somehow been passed from him to her in that moment. He paused and asked about her and she, although fearful, told him everything: her hope, her fear, and her struggle, her broken life. His response is to tell her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

In that moment when the woman had been given her life back, free from the burden of her long illness, messengers come to Jairus as he escorted Jesus to his house to tell him that there is no more reason for Jesus to come. Jairus' little daughter is dead. As the story continues we learn that this is not true and in fact Jesus heals her. But in this moment when everything seems suspended between the two stories -- the healed woman, blessed with God's peace by Jesus, still deciding where to go and what to do now; Jairus, stunned by the blow; the messengers, anxious to get Jairus home to do all that would need doing -- Jesus says what they all need most to hear: "Do not fear, only believe."

Jesus offers them and us more than just the power of God to heal and restore men and women physically. He offers the gift of God's peace to all, the peace that, as he says elsewhere, surpasses understanding, the peace that comes only from right relationship with God, when God restores men and women to their true relationships to one another and to God. Jesus demonstrates to us a God of healing and a God of peace, but most importantly he demonstrates here a generous God, who spends God's power for us. 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 given to heal this woman with the hemorrhage.

The idea of God's generosity and power is also prominent in our readings from Lamentations and 2 Corinthians. The author of Lamentations was expressing his deep grief over the destruction of Jerusalem by invaders. He also feared that the individual and corporate sins of the people of Judah and their rulers were partly responsible for the unthinkable situation in which he and the rest of the survivors found themselves. But in the midst of disaster he nevertheless proclaims that God is always a God of steadfast covenant love. To the writer, and to the community for whom he wrote, God is rediscovered as a God of compassion, faithful and merciful. This is the generous God that Jesus also reveals in his work of healing.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the generosity of God as a model for the human generosity that he is urging his Corinthian followers to show to other believers, their poor brothers and sisters in Judaea. Speaking of Jesus the Messiah, Paul says, "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich". Here the wealth and the poverty referred to are not earthly poverty or riches, but the spiritual riches of heavenly life with God, which Jesus gives up for a time, becoming poor, that is, human and earth-bound, so that we might through his saving work as a human being, also become rich, that is, share in right relationship with God, the source of all spiritual wealth. The Corinthians can follow this example on earth by taking part in Paul's collection of money to support the impoverished communities of believers in Judaea.

Seldom has such high theology been used to justify a stewardship campaign! But Paul is making a good point here. In our call to be like Jesus, we are called (among other things) to be like him in his generosity, giving of our time, our talent, and also our treasure. Paul is careful to set limits on this giving, to be sure it is proportional to our actual means, so that people don't feel obliged to give more than they can. So Paul takes the idea of a generous God, the generous God that Jesus showed us by his life among us, and makes it a model for generous men and women, for a kingdom of God that is built on sharing the gifts of healing and peace that Jesus has given us.

How can we take this vision of a generous God, such as meets us in our readings today, into our hearts and give it form and reality in our lives? One way is by saying Yes to God's gift to us in Jesus. Sunday by Sunday we do this in the Eucharist when we give thanks to God for God's work in our lives, the life of this parish, the life of the world, and share the Lord's Supper together at this altar. We can also do this by the way we open ourselves as a community to share God's generous work of healing in the world. We do this through a variety of ministries such as the lunch programme, or our work through the AIWG to participate in the ministry of Reconciliation with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

Later today, men and women and children from this parish, gay and straight, will also show our commitment to God's generous work when we join other Anglicans in the Pride Parade. We witness there to the generous power of God through the diversity that makes us part of the Body of Christ, a church as diverse as the world for which Christ became poor so as to make us all rich. Male or female, gay or straight, black or white, aboriginal or settler, we are all part of the one Body. Without all its diverse parts, intricate and beautiful, the Body would not be able to share in the generous work of healing that we celebrate today, and everytime we meet together as the Body of Christ.

What makes Pride special is that it marks another opportunity, like material generosity in meeting one another's needs and our neighbour's needs here at the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor St, or prayerful willingness to commit to the work of reconciliation with First Nations, to joyfully welcome and share the richness of God's gifts to us all. Like the woman who was healed of her long illness and Jairus worrying about the fate of his ill daughter, we must hear the voice of Jesus saying, "Do not fear, only believe." Only a fearless faith will have the courage to embrace God's call to generous giving to heal the hurts of a broken world.