July 1, 2012 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8B
© 2012 Evan D. Garner
A long time ago, in my first church job as an outreach assistant, my boss warned me, “We can’t fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.” That sounded like a weighty theological statement—something I should understand and agree with—so I nodded my head as if I knew what she was talking about. I don’t know why her phrase has stuck with me so long. Maybe it’s because I have spent the last decade trying to figure it out. Or maybe it’s because her insight has been proven right over and over again in my ministry. But, for whatever reason, I often find myself revisiting those words: “We can’t fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.”
That line echoed in my mind one Friday morning years later as I paced around our Montgomery house, holding our family’s phone to my ear. On the other end of the line was a man who called me with a tragic story. “I’m an Episcopalian from Wisconsin, and I need some help,” his story began. He told me about being stranded in Montgomery, separated from his wife and children. Predictably, his car had run out of gas, and he needed my help to get home. I was still young and naïvely patient back then, so I let him go on for over five minutes before I gave him the tough news: I don’t accept outreach requests when I’m not in the office.
Because I leave my cell phone number on my office voice mail message, I get lots of calls for financial assistance on my cell phone. Usually, when I tell someone who needs help that I won’t discuss their situation until I’m back in the office, they apologize for their intrusion and politely end the conversation, willing to wait patiently until I am in a position to return their call. On this Friday morning, however, that was not the case.
For starters, this man had somehow gotten my home number, which suggested to me that he was abnormally persistent. I tried to explain why I insist on handling those requests from the office—because otherwise my phone would never stop ringing—but he didn’t want to hear it. The conversation stretched on from five minutes to ten to fifteen. Finally, when he threatened to call my bishop and initiate an ecclesiastical disciplinary procedure because of my refusal to help, I laughed out loud. “Go right ahead,” I chuckled. “Here’s his phone number. In fact, if I had his cell phone number, I’d gladly give it to you because I have no doubt that my bishop will think even more highly of me after he hears that I spent a quarter of an hour on the phone with you.”
In this case, it’s easy for me to look back and confirm that it was right for me not to help him. I doubt that his need was genuine—plus, his demeanor suggested that, even if it were, making him wait was a good choice. But what about those moments when a sweet, humble child of God calls me at 7:00 on a Friday night with a real need—like a family who is about to be turned out onto the street by a landlord who hasn’t been paid? Do I drop everything and help right away, or do I politely tell a weeping mother that she will have to wait until Monday morning? Maybe I’m just anesthetizing my guilt, but in those moments I cling to my boss’ words: “We cannot fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.”
In today’s lesson from Mark, we get two stories that have been sandwiched into one tale of urgency. First, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come and heal his critically ill daughter. Then, on the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who has had a hemorrhage for twelve years. Boldly yet secretively, the woman slinks her way through the crowd and touches Jesus’ clothes. Instantly, he feels the healing power go out from him. So he stops and asks, “Who touched me?” After a brief search, the woman comes forward and confesses, which gives Jesus the chance to teach the crowd a lesson on faithfulness. But, by the time he sends the woman on her way, it is too late. Jairus’ daughter is dead. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” his associates ask. The moment for healing has come and gone. Now, the only thing to do is mourn the girl’s death and prepare her body for burial.
Jairus doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who had to wait very often. A leader of the synagogue, he was a prominent member of his community. He was respected by his peers and had assumed a place of prestige and power among them. That’s why it is remarkable to me that he came to Jesus and fell down at his feet, begging for his help. For a member of the religious elite, that was an unusual display of humility, which bordered on worship. That Jairus would come to Jesus openly and seek his assistance was a surprising display of faith, which might be why Jesus stopped what he was doing and set off toward the leader’s house.
But, on the way, something happened. A woman intervened, and, whether he did it on purpose or simply got distracted by the situation, Jesus stopped and put Jairus and his family on hold. He forced them to wait while he attended to the needs of this anonymous woman. Not even given a name, she lived by definition on the margins of society. Her hemorrhage had made her unclean, which means that for twelve long years she had lived as an outsider. She couldn’t share a meal with anyone else. She wasn’t allowed to come to the synagogue. For twelve years, her illness had put her life on hold, but, now, while Jesus paused to engage this lost daughter of Israel, her needs forced Jairus to wait.
And, while Jairus watched as precious minutes slipped past, the unthinkable happened. His daughter died before Jesus reached her. The thing he feared most had come to pass. That faith, which he had had at the beginning of the story, vanished with the news of his daughter’s death. But, of course, that isn’t how the story ends. Jesus looked at the leader of the synagogue and said, “Do not fear; only believe.” And, even though it was laughable to those who had gathered outside Jairus’ house, Jesus walked in and aroused the dead girl as if she were only sleeping. Although he had been forced to wait—even past the point of no return—Jairus received from Jesus what he needed: the gift of his resuscitated daughter.
When people in the midst of a crisis are forced to wait, their faith often turns to fear—especially those of us who aren’t used to waiting. We get what we want and what we need with relative speed and ease. Although we might have to wait a few months to get an appointment with a doctor, almost none of us knows what it feels like to wait twelve years for an answer. In this story, we are Jairus. And, like him, when we suddenly find ourselves in a life-threatening crunch and are forced to wait it out, our confidence evaporates, leaving us as a quivering lump of fear.
But our fear is not the end of the story. We might be unable to see how the story will play out, but, as people of faith who believe in a God who loves us even beyond our own death, we know that God will take care of us in the end. We may not know how or when, but we believe that God loves us and will never forsake us. When we fall victim to the tyranny of our own urgency, we allow out short-sightedness to strip us of our faith and replace it with fear. But what Jesus says to Jairus he says to us: “Do not fear; only believe.”
We cannot allow a moment of crisis to displace our faith in God. Just because we can’t see how they will end doesn’t mean that we should allow our challenges to overwhelm us. No, what we want or pray for doesn’t always come true. Sometimes, God’s salvation only comes after this part of our story is over. But, whether it comes in this life or on the other side of the grave, we know that God’s love will win. For us, who aren’t often forced to wait, the kind of faith that persists through delay doesn’t come easily. It’s something we have to work at. But that’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We walk behind him on the path that leads through death to resurrection. Even though we can’t see beyond this moment, we know that God’s promises wait for us. Amen.