Mark 5:21-43; 5 Pentecost B 2021
All good sermons can be illustrated by referring to an episode of the television series, M.A.S.H. In “Showtime,” the episode that concludes the first season, Father Mulcahy is troubled by his apparent uselessness in the camp. Mulcahy and Hawkeye Pierce sit together in the mess tent.
“You’re not eating, Father,” Hawkeye begins. “You know something I don’t know?” Mulcahy furrows his brow, “Something’s troubling me.” Pierce leans into the conversation, “Think of me as your mother, Father.”
“May I make a confession?” Mulcahy asks, oblivious to the wisecrack. “As long as you don’t use any real names,” Pierce responds.
“For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings,” Mulcahy muses. “Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean,” he continues, “you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes…most of the time…I honestly don’t know,” he sighs, “whether I’m doing any good or not.”
Pierce offers some encouragement about an old medical school saw that God does the healing and the physician collects the fee. Mulcahy is not particularly persuaded.
Later, Pierce and McIntire are operating on a patient. The surgery is not going well, and the patient is dying on the table. “It doesn’t look good, Trapper,” says Ugly John, the anesthetist. Trapper John muses about originally wanting to be an architect. Pierce, the happy pagan, gestures to Mulcahy. “Over here, Father. We need some cross action.”
Mulcahy takes the patient’s hand, closes his eyes, grasps his rosary, and begins to pray. The patient briefly opens his eyes and moves a bit. “The blood pressure is still low, but it’s better,” observes Ugly John. “Hang another unit of blood,” orders McIntire.
“What was that about not being sure you did any good?” Pierce asks with eyebrows arched.
“It’s not supposed to work that way, you know,” Mulcahy replies, not knowing whether to be joyful or embarrassed.
“Often trust begins on the far side of despair,” Brenna Manning writes in his book, Ruthless Trust. “When all human resources are exhausted, when the craving for reassurances is stifled, when we forgo control, when we cease trying to manipulate God and demystify Mystery, then – at our wits’ end – trust happens within us,” he declares (page 117).
Perhaps it is supposed to work that way, you know – at least, sometimes.
Mark is presenting the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Jesus, the Reign of God is drawing near and is even now effective among us. In response, we are invited to get a new way of seeing the world and to put our trust in that Good News in life and in death. That trust seems to arise most readily in situations of despair and death. That’s one of the themes in our text this week – and throughout the first two-thirds of Mark’s gospel.
Jesus is not in the business of delaying, deferring, and/or denying the power of death. Those are modern games that we play too often and too well. The desperate woman in the crowd succumbed to mortality at some point in the future. The funeral for Jairus’ little girl was rescheduled, not repealed. If it were up to me, I would always negotiate for another second, another minute, another day with a loved one who was dying. But merely extending existence is not what we mean by “eternal” life.
Miracles of healing do happen – although they may be described in a variety of ways depending on one’s frame of reference and reality. When they do, we who follow Jesus see them as pointers to the greater healing of the cosmos – the defeat of sin, death, and the devil for good and all in the New Creation.
“Just as Jesus wasn’t coming to be a one-man liberation movement in the traditional revolutionary sense,” Tom Wright argues, “so he wasn’t coming to be a one-man emergency medical centre. He was indeed starting a revolution, and he was indeed bringing God’s healing power, but his aim went deeper,” Wright continues, “these things were signs of the real revolution, the real healing, that God was to accomplish through his death and resurrection. Signposts are important, but they aren’t the destination” (Kindle Location 1274).
Disease had attacked the woman in the crowd and penetrated her body. Death had attacked the home of Jairus and penetrated the body of his daughter. They were each faced with hopeless situations as they pursued the one, last, desperate strategy of recruiting Jesus to mount a rescue. There was no point in bothering Jesus further, the messengers said. After all, dead is dead. And that is that.
Jesus is undeterred. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells Jairus. “Just keep on having faith.” There is that theme of resilient reliance that we have encountered in Mark’s account. It seems clear that in Mark’s faith community, there was a definite danger that disciples were on the point of giving up their trust in Jesus in the face of suffering and adversity.
Mark, the pastor and gospel writer, has some clear encouragement here. Just pay attention to what Jesus has done and keep on believing.
Desperate faith; ruthless trust; courageous hope – these are marks of what an authentic relationship with Jesus looks like. On the front end, it can be scary. Perhaps, like the woman in the crowd, at times we fall on our knees, trembling. That’s all right.
“The awareness that the eternal, transcendent God of Jesus Christ is our absolute future gives us the shakes,” Manning writes. “One day out of the blue comes the thought of our inevitable death, and the thought is so troubling that we want to live the rest of our lives in a shoe” (page 76). But life in a shoe is the same as death in the open. God wants far more for us and far more from us.
“The basic premise of biblical trust,” Manning suggests, “is the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience the fullness of life. However,” he cautions, “this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and most often through a series of crises and trials” (page 9).
Ruthless trust is sort of like the way my dad described wisdom. Wisdom comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, experience usually comes from bad judgment. I can testify to the truth of that observation.
Ruthless trust comes from experiencing, over and over, God’s reliability in Christ by the power of the Spirit, in the midst of trials and tribulations.
That’s grace. God loves me for nothing. And God invites me to trust that unconditional love. “Trust is our gift back to God,” Manning writes, and God “finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If only we Jesus followers could live that way and declare our message in those terms.
Instead, we want our trust and hope to add up, to be reliable, to make sense, ready to be locked in our spiritual safe deposit boxes. “All that is elusive, enigmatic, hard to grasp will eventually yield to our intellectual investigation, then to our categorization – or so we would like to think,” Manning notes. “But to avoid mystery is to avoid the only God worthy of worship, honor, and praise,” he continues. We are really searching for “a God worthy of awe, silent reverence, total commitment, and whole-hearted trust” (page 57).
We meet that God in these stories from Mark’s gospel. We know these stories because they were told. They are not merely stories of healing and resuscitation. They are stories of transformation and salvation. I know people who have experienced genuine healing and transformation in their meetings with Jesus. I think that our worship services need more times for such testimonies to encourage us all not to fear but just to keep on trusting.
Speaking of transformation, we can see that encounters with Jesus cannot be merely transactional. That’s an important word for us, perhaps. Too often we disciples come to Jesus with our part of the bargain well in hand. We expect to do our part – whether in piety, practice, or payment – and to get our reward in return. We may expect our circumstances to improve, but we don’t really wish for our lives to be changed.
What if we come knowing that any and every genuine encounter with Jesus changes us in body, mind, and spirit? What if we come expecting to be challenged and changed whenever we meet Jesus? How would that impact my experience of hearing sermons and receiving the sacrament? How would that change my interaction with God’s Word in Scripture? How would that change my expectation of what happens when I meet Jesus in my neighbor?
What if the result of meeting Jesus is desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope?
The word to Jairus is clearly the word to us as well – do not be afraid! Just keep on putting your faith in Jesus. In that relationship Jairus is changed, as is the woman in the crowd. That’s the risk and the reward of desperate faith, ruthless trust, courageous hope.
So, the stories leave us with a question for the week. What if we come to our encounters with Jesus expecting never to leave the same as we arrived?