Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Several months ago, I told a story about our family vacation in Montana last summer. My extended family got together for a long weekend in Big Sky, and we decided to combine some family camaraderie with a little adventure and learning. As we planned the trip, we talked about white river rafting or zip-lining. I had never done either one, and while a part of me knew that I am, largely, risk averse, another part of me spoke with bravado and declared, “We absolutely should engage in some high adventure activity because… we can!” So when it came time to buy tickets for an afternoon of zip-lining, I swallowed hard and said, “Sign me up.” With fear and trepidation, I donned a helmet and a harness, and I learned the essential steps for a safe but exhilarating ride across the sky on a thin cable suspended between two trees straddling a valley. For me, it was more than a thrilling ride or the chance to check something off my bucket list; it was a metaphor for the life of faith. If I am going to come to this place and say something to you about the promises of God, it seems to me, I need to be reminded in a tangible way periodically that there is a thin line between fear and faith, that besides the zip-line cable that is literally a thin line between anxiety and trust, these two experiences of fear and faith stand side by side, and that in turning from one – in turning away from fear and stepping out in faith, we experience unimaginable new life.
Of course, it’s fine for me to voluntarily engineer an experience that reminds me of this juxtaposition of fear and faith. But real life can fling us into this tension with little or no warning….
This watch is one that I wore on my wrist 22 years ago. The band has long since worn out, but I’ve kept the face of the watch as a reminder of a time when fear and faith stood side by side, and I wanted so badly to live in faith, but I knew the grip that fear had on me.
When my son, Matt, was an infant, just 11 days old, we discovered that he had a heart condition that caused his heart to beat twice as fast as it should, sending us to the emergency room and intensive care for almost a week. The upshot is, he needed medication to regulate his heart for most of the first year of his life. There were 2-3 different kinds of medication to be administered 6 times a day. Long before the advent of the iPhone, I went to the jewelry counter and asked for a watch with as many alarms as possible. This was it – a man’s watch with 5 alarms – almost as many as I needed. I lived through those days fully aware of the thin line between fear and faith.
We are in the midst of our sermon series right now called, “All In.” We are reading the Gospel of Mark – the story of Jesus and how God came to us in the incarnation, how God fully invested Godself in a relationship with us and took on human form. And we’re asking, What does it mean for us to be “all in” with God?
As Jesus began his public ministry, he proclaimed one of the shortest sermons ever, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; turn, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) — The reign of God has come near. What in the world does that mean? And how is it good news? Jesus is going to show us.
If we had just two words to describe the work of Jesus so far we would say that Jesus has been teaching and healing. He teaches with authority, and he brings wholeness to those who are not well. In today’s story, we encounter a story of two healings.
The story begins with a man named Jairus, a leader in the community, a leader in the synagogue, whose daughter is gravely ill, and he is desperate, as desperate as I was when my son Matt was an infant. He sets aside all manner of pride and comes to Jesus and begs him to help his daughter at once. Jesus responds positively and is headed to the home of Jairus when he is interrupted by someone else who has come seeking his aid.
A woman comes quietly up behind Jesus and touches the back of his cloak – a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. She is ill, she has been to doctors, and they have not been able to help her; she’s been wiped out and worn out by her condition. She is weak, uncomfortable and exhausted. When biblical scholars look at this text, they point out that this woman was ritually unclean, that her flow of blood would have left her isolated from human community. But regardless of the religious and community ramifications, we can imagine the shame that she feels. It’s not hard to imagine that she prefers to live under the radar.
The particulars of this woman’s situation may not coincide with yours or mine, but countless women today have a complicated relationship with their bodies. Whether we’re too thick or thin, top heavy or wide around the middle, dark- or fair-skinned, whether our muscles are toned or soft, it’s quite possible that there’s a bit of self-loathing that whispers a cruel word in our ear: “You’re not enough. You’re not thin enough, tall enough, attractive enough, smart enough. You’re not confident enough or capable enough….Oh yes, it doesn’t end with our physical bodies but extends to our way of being in the world. (I suspect that women are not alone in this.) For women, social scientist Brene Brown says the shame we feel is related to the need to do it all, to do it perfectly and to make it look easy. It’s a web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectation about who we’re supposed to be. Men experience shame, too, but it’s organized differently. For men, shame is being perceived as being weak, she says.
When the woman who’s been bleeding for 12 years creeps up on Jesus and reaches out to touch his garment and thinks to herself, “I’ll just stay under the radar,” we get it. Sometimes that’s exactly where we want to be. But then Jesus glares into the crowd and asks “Who did it?” There’s this look on Jesus’ face. It’s not the only time he does it. Five times, as Mark tells the story, Jesus responds to whatever is happening around him, and he narrows his eyes and he gives the look – that intense look that always made you squirm when you saw your teacher or your boss or your parent do it. It’s the look that says, “I saw that.” Jesus was a truth teller. Core to who he was is that he speaks truth. And so in this interaction where Jesus senses that his power has somehow flowed out of him, he looks intensely into the crowd and asks, “Who touched me?” Who triggered this release of power?
The woman had come to Jesus hoping to be made well, but here she was, still gripped by fear. With no small amount of trepidation, the woman comes forward and says, “I did.” Jesus looks with mercy and says, “Woman, your faith has made you well.” Mercy. Mercy is being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to look with eyes that see another person’s needs, and say, “I see you. I see what you’re going through. And your needs matter.” Jesus treated her with mercy.
The woman came to Jesus hoping to be cured, and she received something so much more. “Daughter,” Jesus named her. “Your faith has brought you healing. Go in peace.” Not only are you freed from your physical or emotional or spiritual malady; you are a child of God, holy and beloved. All that separates you from God is lifted. Go in peace.
This story is enveloped by another. The two stories are woven together. One interrupts the other, and their themes lift up and support each other. The story moves back to Jairus, an important man has come to see Jesus because he is desperate for his daughter who has fallen ill, and so he comes with a sense of urgency and falls on his knees and asks Jesus to help him, only to have Jesus delayed by the encounter with this woman. Jairus has come to that place where the thin line between fear and faith is palpable. We know Jairus’s story, too. We want so badly to live our lives by stepping forward in faith, and saying ‘yes’ to God and to the future no matter what. We know that’s the way we’re “supposed” to go, but we’re so afraid of losing someone or something we love so much.
Word comes to Jairus that his daughter has already died, but Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. Trust. Walk forward in faith.” “Stop being afraid. Go on living by faith.” Jesus has the power to transform these two people’s experiences of fear to trust, to move them from desperation to new life.
When we encounter grave illnesses in our lives, we tend to hope for one kind of healing, for a restoration of health. But Jesus can bring new life in the midst of tragedy.
Ed Dobson was a pastor and author from Grand Rapids, MI, who lived with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – for 15 years. ALS (Amyotophic lateral sclerosis) is a progressive disease that affects nerve cells in a person’s brain and spinal cord, and eventually deprives the brain of its ability to initiate and control muscle movement. Fifteen years is a long time to live with ALS. When his disease was first diagnosed, Ed Dobson was told that he would likely live just 2-5 more years. The miracle of Ed’s life, however, was not that he was cured of his disease or that he outlived his life expectancy. The surprise and wonder of his life was that despite his fatal disease, he experienced healing that transformed his life.
Ed shared a story about going to a healing service at another church in his town. The pastor said to him, “Sometimes there are cures, and that happens. But don’t become obsessed with healing. Get lost in the wonder of God, and who knows what God will do for you.” “That was so helpful,” Ed said. “Healing is more than a cure. It’s wholeness with God, (wholeness with)others and (wholeness with) yourself. That’s healing to me.”
For Ed, his illness was a reminder of what little control we have over life. We are always at the mercy of something other than ourselves. Acknowledging this lack of control is perhaps the key to understanding the notion of healing.
“I discovered in the Bible, there’s a difference between being cured and being healed,” he said and cites the story of 10 lepers. All 10 were cured, but only one came back, and when he did Jesus said, ‘you are healed.’” Just like the woman in today’s story when she returns to Jesus. “Your faith has made you whole. Go in peace.”
“It helped me understand,” Ed said, “that as much as I would like ALS reversed, it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is (to be) “under God’s grace.”
Our bodies are mortal. We will one day die, all of us. But there is a healing that we can experience even in the midst of illness that will take our lives. It is a beautiful, gracious gift from God. It is found there at the thin line between faith and fear, that place where we say, “Not my will but yours,” when we say, “I place my trust in you.”
In a few minutes, we’ll come to the part of the service we call “the Prayers of the People” when we pray for the church, the world and all of God’s people. The prayers today will center on healing. Then at the end of the service during the music that follows the blessing, there will be an opportunity for you to come forward for a prayer for healing for you, if you would like. Members of our Care Ministry team will be at the altar rail and will offer a prayer for each person who comes forward. Following a very old tradition of placing their hands on your head or your shoulders and touching your forehead with oil, they will say a word of prayer for wholeness in your life. It is completely voluntary, of course, and you do not even need to name the healing for which you desire prayer. Please know that if this invitation speaks to you, you are welcome…and that if a more involved conversation is desired, we can arrange that, as well.
We don’t know what the future holds. It is the character of faith to live with uncertainty. This promise is this: “The kingdom of God has come near; turn, and trust the good news.” Jesus came to tell us, to show us…to effectively remove all barriers that separate us from God. Fear doesn’t have to define us or our relationships with God, with ourselves or with each other. It can be transformed by God. We can live in the fullness God intended. Let God’s healing touch work in you and through you, and through us for the good of the world. Amen.