Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When Only Faith Will Help

January 30, 2018 - Tuesday in 4 Epiphany

Have you ever been with a parent when she lost her child? Have you ever heard the kind of grief that pierces not only your ears and your mind but also your heart and your soul? That the weekday Eucharistic lectionary pairs these two readings--the death of Absalom and the healing of Jairus' daughter--fascinates me. I often weep quietly when I read the story of David's grief in 2 Samuel, and I am usually encouraged when Jesus says to the crowd of onlookers, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but only sleeping." But, when you put the two readings together, you get a strange confluence of devastating grief and unbelievable relief, and it's hard for me to sit with both of them at the same time.

I think it's a mistake to let them speak too closely to one another just as it is a mistake to compare one parent's loss with another's miracle, but the overpowering grief of David helps me hear the paralyzing anxiety of Jairus a little more clearly: "Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, 'My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.'" Even before we read the end of the passage, we know how things will turn out for Jairus and his daughter. We know that he will make sure that everything ends up well, and that makes it hard for us to hear the true fear in his request. "Please, please, I beg you: come and heal my daughter. You are the only hope I have."

On the way to Jairus' house, Jesus is squeezed in by a crowd. Everyone wants to be with Jesus, and, in the midst of the chaos, a woman with a menstrual hemorrhage comes up to him and touches the end of his cloak--an act of pure faith--and at once she is healed. She, too, was desperate. For twelve years, she had suffered from this ostracizing discharge. She had seen many physicians and spent all her money on cures that did not work. Her desperation led her to do the unthinkable: to reach out and touch a man. According to the Jewish law, she would have made anyone she came into contact with ritually unclean, and to infect someone with her impurity was a crime. But there was nothing else she could do. She had to touch him.

In the meantime, Jairus' daughter had succumbed to her illness. She was dead. Messengers brought word to the synagogue leader that it was too late--that there was no reason to trouble the rabbi any further. But Jesus overhead the messengers and said to Jairus, "Do not fear; only believe." As Jairus' worst fears became a reality, Jesus said to him, "Do not fear; only believe." Believe what? Too late means too late. Were anyone but Jesus to say those words, they would be an empty grasp at hope--a "maybe it's not as bad as it seems" even though we know that it is.

It's easy to think that faith is a certain confidence that everything will work out right. We see people whose confidence in God enables them to ride through the worst storms imaginable with a sight only for the good news that waits on the other side. We fool ourselves into thinking that that's what faith is and that anything less--even the slightest doubt--is a failure on our part. Sometimes, predatory preachers and their flocks maintain that a miraculous healing will only happen if we put all doubt aside and believe unwaveringly that our spouse will be healed, that our daughter will come to her senses, that our diagnosis means nothing. But we cannot believe in a God whose salvation is only given to those whose struggles end the way that they want them to. Yes, God has the power to heal the sick. Yes, God sent his Son into the world to bring salvation--true, real bodily healing--to the world. But faith doesn't mean claiming that kind of miracle for yourself. Often faith is a desperate turn to God when there is no where else to turn and hardly any hope left.

The invitation that Jesus gives to Jairus is the same invitation that he gives to us: "Do not fear; only believe." That doesn't mean that those whose belief is pure and free from worry receiving healing while the rest of us don't. It means that in him, no matter what happens, there is always hope. We believe in a God whose salvation is bigger than our diagnosis, bigger than our cure, bigger than our illness, bigger than our death. The woman had no where else to turn, and, when she grabbed onto Jesus, she was healed. There was no one else who could help Jairus' daughter, and Jesus brought her back to life. David hoped beyond hope that his traitorous son might escape death and somehow be reunited to his father, but death found him first, and then unsurpassed grief followed, yet David still clung to God in faith. Sometimes, when the trouble around us surpasses even our confidence in God, we turn to him in desperation, and God is always faithful, always with us. Faith in God does not mean thinking that everything will turn out just fine but turning to God when we have no where else to go.

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