Saturday, June 23, 2012

On Healing and Wholeness

Mark 5:21-43

It was the Thursday before Father’s day when I stood in a hospital waiting room with a family.
We were waiting to hear from their daughter’s surgeon.  The child is 13 years old. 
The surgeon arrived and delivered the much welcome news that he believed the cancer was contained.  There appeared to be no other involvement.
After he left the import of this good news began to sink in. With a sigh, the child’s dad said aloud, “Now, that’s the best Father’s Day present I could get.”
I told that story in worship the following Sunday.  I spoke of how just as this earthly dad demonstrated the best of what it is to be a dad in how he loved his daughter, he was also, in that moment, pointing to who God is for all the children God so loves.  For even as our Gospel lesson today demonstrates in not only one story, but two, God not only yearns for us to be whole.  In Christ Jesus God makes it so.
Only as I told that story to the beaming faces of a people grateful for such good news, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of one among us struggling to keep her composure, but weeping all the same.  Even before I was done speaking, I remembered that her daughter --- a grown woman to be sure, but by all measures still young ---  had died of cancer the September before.  Tears simply streamed down this grieving mother's face as she received this story.  I know she was wanting to rejoice with those who found themselves so blessed, but her own still raw struggle and pain overwhelmed her anyway. 
To be sure, in any given congregation on any given Sunday morning we are likely to encounter such a mix of experiences.  And it is into precisely that varied mix that these stories in Mark’s Gospel are spoken.  They fall on the ears of those who like Jairus have been able to celebrate life even after it appeared all was lost.  They fall on the ears of those who like the hemorrhaging woman have cause to rejoice long after every conceivable medical option has been tried.  And to be sure, these stories also fall on the ears of those who have prayed desperately, who have thrown themselves into the presence of Jesus reaching out, even, to 'touch the hem of his robe,"  but for whom the much yearned for healing they hoped for does not come.  Who are tempted to say in the wake of such stories, "Why not me?"
I wonder how it is that we engage these stories among people who come to them with such varied hopes and hurts and struggles and joys.
And so I find myself recalling today a seminary professor who told us to remember that everyone whom Jesus healed did also one day finally die.  Jairus' daughter, if she was so blessed, outlived her father and grew to be a mother and grandmother herself.  The hemorrhaging woman, finally declared 'clean,' was able to return to a full life which had been denied her for twelve years.  No doubt both of them felt a deeper gratitude for God's gifts because of all they had experienced.  But in the end, like all of us, they one day died as well.  
So, to be sure, it cannot be enough to read these stories as simple miracle stories granting cures to earthly diseases. It seems we must dig deeper order to more fully understand their gifts for God's people now.
For instance, we hear in Jairus the story of a man who would go to any length to get help for his daughter.  His love compels him even to beg --- a posture no man in his time and place would consider if he felt he had any other choice.  More than that, we hear that Jairus was a leader of the synagogue.  What must it have taken for him to approach Jesus?  What other avenues must he have attempted first before he turned to Jesus.  Indeed, perhaps this story is told to remind us that Jesus receives our deepest hurts and fears and even if he is our 'last resort' still he simply 'goes with us' as he did with Jairus.  Or perhaps, as the story concludes, it is a reminder that God's power is greater than what you and I can imagine.  That in the face of the seemingly impossible, even in the face of our disbelieving laughter, God still works. Sometimes with results we can't even allow ourselves to hope for. 
In the story of the unnamed hemorrhaging woman we also hear of one so desperate she will go to any length to find wholeness.  I intentionally use the word 'wholeness' here because like any physical disease hers was one that isolated in ways you and I can hardly imagine today. And while, to be sure any one of us who has ever struggled with illness or what the world perceives as disability has some idea of what her life must have been, what would be different is in Jesus' day she would have been considered 'unclean' and therefore prohibited from entering the synagogue, the temple. She would not have been allowed to enter the 'holy places' of her time.  We can only begin to imagine how she was treated by her family, her community.  Indeed, we can be certain that her illness had broken more than her body.   And yet we hear that even in her desperation, she does not have the courage to go to Jesus to ask for what she needs.  Rather, she believes if she can just get close enough perhaps some of the goodness Jesus offers will also be hers.  It turned out that this was so.
Only the story doesn't end there.  Rather, it ends with Jesus turning to her and acknowledging the connection they now share.  It ends with Jesus' promise that her healing was not only physical --- but would now extend to all of her life.  And somehow that larger promise is only spoken and received in the relationship formed between them.  When they speak face to face. 
And so perhaps a deeper healing or sense of wholeness is the point of these stories in the end.
For Jairus maybe part of his healing or wholeness was discovered in his loving his daughter so much he would do anything to secure her life.  His wholeness was realized in his willingness to abandon much of what had defined him: his position and his sense of pride, to name a few --- and to turn without shame to Jesus who alone could answer his deepest need.  Perhaps Jairus was on his way to healing already even as he acknowledged and acted on his deep love for his child... Indeed, I wonder if this story is actually more about Jairus than it is about his child.
The no longer hemorrhaging woman realized healing or wholeness not only when the bleeding stopped, but when she finally looked into the face of Jesus.   In that moment she was lifted up from being one who felt she had to sneak up behind Jesus and anonymously receive the gifts of God to one who was recognized by and acknowledged by Jesus himself.  Who was not yet 'named,' but who was called 'Daughter:' one in relationship with Jesus.  To be sure, it seems her healing was not complete until then.  So perhaps this is the gift of this story.  That the healing we are blessed to receive in our physical beings can be, to be sure, the very gift of God --- but still that healing is only temporary.  On the other hand, the healing that comes to us as our relationships with Jesus deepen and grow leads to the sort of wholeness which somehow permeates our entire beings and all of our relationships and lasts far beyond the single earthly lives we have been given.

And so next Sunday, along with many of you, I will step into a whole mix of God's people for whom these stories will speak in varied ways.  I will do this, as I do most every week with equal measures of both trepidation and hopefulness.  My prayer will be that the Holy Spirit would work in and through all who speak and all who listen that we might more deeply experience God's healing, God's wholeness, whatever that may mean...  In the hearing of these stories once more and in our lives even more than that...
  1. Does one of these two stories hold more meaning for you than the other?  Why is that?
  2. What particular mix of experiences will these stories fall on in your congregation this Sunday? How will that shape your proclamation?
  3. What do you think of my seminary professor's assertion that all who Jesus healed would one day also die?  Does that cause you think about these stories differently?  Why or why not?
  4. Have you ever known yourself to be not necessarily 'cured' but still healed?  Consider how these stories might speak to that sort of experience.


  1. After a long reluctant journey to ordination in the Anglican church in Australia, I was diagnosed with an immune disease 3 weeks before my ordination as deacon. Moreover, I was in the 3rd and final stage of the disease. I struggled with the possibility of death quite soon, an apparently malicious God, and leaving my 2 daughters, then 11 and 14, to grow up without me.

    After a time, and medication, I went into remission, was ordained deacon, and later priest, and have now been in ordained ministry 16 years. My children are 27 and 30, both settled in good careers and beautiful young women, whom I have been blessed to see grow to this stage. I did receive an unsolicited healing 18 months after my initial diagnosis, but not a full cure. Due to the damage already done to my lungs, I can no longer run, dance, ski, swim or climb any slope except very slowly. Yet I am alive, I have been healed, I have had and continue to have a meaningful ministry in the Church, and I have had to learn to live around the damage from the disease, which has made me slow down and appreciate everything in my life far more. Now every day is a gift I don't take lightly. Best of all, I have learned how much God loves me and wants me to have that life in all its fullness Jesus said he came to bring us. So I do know what it is to be healed, yet not cured. My healing has been a much deeper, inner healing as I have journeyed through these past 16 years.

    1. Marilyn,

      Thank you so very much for sharing your story. Yours is, indeed, an example of precisely the kind of wholeness offered by Jesus in our Gospel stories this week.

      You have been blessing to me today. Continued peace and joy to you...