Desperate Faith

Mark 5:21-43

"When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, 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.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat."

Prayer – God of steadfast love and grace – we come this day aware that there are times in our lives when all we see are dead ends, no way out. We cry out to you during those times because we hope, we believe that you will hear and respond to our cries in the wilderness. Remind us that we don’t have to wait, that you are with us each step of the way – amen.

Tuesday morning I got paged to NICU – one of our patients who came in with some minor health issues had suddenly deteriorated very suddenly overnight.  She had coded, meaning her heart and breathing had unexpectedly stopped.  She coded a second time early this morning.  Her husband and one of her daughters were by the bed.  The anxiety and distress in the room was palpable.  The husband was tearful and saying this had happened all too fast.  The daughter was tearful and saying she hated seeing her mom suffer so.  Both were literally crying out to God for an answer – relief from the strain of the moment.

A little later Tuesday morning a nurse asked me to see the family of an elderly patient who had come in with a serious stroke.  The patient had been in long term care with end stage dementia and had suffered a massive stroke.  The son and daughter were by the bedside; the daughter in tears and the son struggling with his emotions.  The daughter said to me, “I know you came in here to help me accept that my mom isn’t going to get better.”  I smiled to myself, “Well no, I’m actually here to find about what matters to your mom, what she would want if she could tell us.”  A conversation began in which the patient’s two children talked about her life, her strength, her courage and her desire to fight – of how she was the daughter’s best friend and she had spoiled her son.  Both were in distress and looking for answers to questions they didn’t want to face.  Both were asking for God to intercede, to bring healing and hope where realistically, that was not likely.

It takes a lot of courage to be a human being.  At birth, we are innocent, unaware of all the dangers and challenges out “there.”  As we grow older we learn that bees sting and roses have thorns and that other children push and throw rocks.  We learn that we don’t have a whole lot of control over anything – family moves, car wrecks, strokes, and sudden changes in life and in health. 

Still, we push against the limits and circumstances of the world, learning what will budge and what will not, gradually gaining a sense of our own power.  We learn that we can make some things happen and we can prevent other things from happening, we can make friends and we can make enemies; we can say yes and we can say no.  Sometimes we get so carried away that we begin to think we can control our lives and the lives of the ones we care about the most.  We go to school and figure out what we want to be when we grow up, or until we change our minds.  We open bank accounts and make financial plans for the future.  We have families and try to raise them by the book – all the while hoping that if we do everything right, then everything will turn out right, that human beings can really take charge of their lives.

Until something happens.  The income evaporates, the doctor finds a spot on the Xray, the child’s grades go down and down, and it is like being trapped inside a fine car when the brakes fail.  In a split second, everything changes.  One moment you are comfortably in command of your journey, and the next you are being flung down the road in an expensive piece of machinery that can’t stop but only crash. 

“I’ve lost control!”  That is what good people say when bad things happen to them.  “I’ve lost control of my life!”  Perhaps like me, you have said or thought the same things, but it isn’t true.  Human beings don’t lose control of their lives – what we lose is the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place, and it is a hard, hard lesson to learn – so hard that most of us go back to the blackboard again and again, because we think that there must be some way to work it out, to fix or master this human condition so that there are no leaks, no scares, no black holes. 

In my experience, it can’t be done.  Maybe that is why it is called the human condition.  Like asthma or near-sightedness, being human is a condition we live with AND it comes with some built-in limitations.  Some things will budge and others won’t at all.  We cannot fly and we cannot live forever.  We cannot control everything that happens to us.  We can’t protect our children and we can’t stop the dying process.  The human condition can be frightening because what that means is that we cannot choose all the circumstances of our lives.  All we can really choose is how we respond – with faith, or not – and that is why it takes a lot of courage to be human.

 There are some experiences that take us to the very edge of our ability to cope.  Our gospel lesson this morning presents us with a couple of people who had reached the end of their respective ropes – a father whose daughter is dying and a woman whose life has been almost literally consumed by illness.  Each of them desperate, desperate to have some sense of hope, some sense of control, some new thing happen in their lives that will make it all better.  Though very different circumstances, they had one common characteristic – they had a desperate faith that Jesus could make a difference in their current circumstances.

It seems to me that desperation, more than faith, drove the synagogue leader to Jesus, and he is suffering from the human condition in which he couldn’t protect his deathly ill daughter.  Into the midst of all of this comes the silent woman with a hemorrhage, without the religious leader’s boldness, simply hoping for a healing touch.  Faithfulness or fear, desperation or hope; there’s no alternative for either one of these people, and they do whatever they have to do, whatever it takes, desperate for the sake of healing and new life.

Jesus had been on the way to Jairus’ house, to bring healing and hope, when he was interrupted by another person in need.  His mission of mercy was interrupted, no doubt upsetting Jairus who was in a rush to get Jesus to his house.  For Jesus, the most important thing in that moment was to face the person who had touched him, to encounter her as a human being and not just an anonymous touch.  She just wanted to brush up against grace and Jesus stopped and blessed her desperation.  And it was in the moment that Jairus’ desperation became lost hope, lost faith, when the messenger arrives bearing news that his daughter has died.  Jesus offered the shortest sermon of his career – “Do not fear, only believe.” 

It’s not just a word for Jairus; it is a word for all of us who suffer from the human condition, who are up against things we cannot control.  Only believe what?  That our prayers will be answered?  That things will turn out the way we think they should?  That we get what we want?  That is the way it seems to work in the stories – people call on Jesus and they get what they want.  So we figure if things get desperate, just call on Jesus and everything we can’t control is now under control.

“Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus said.  What can we believe when we are desperately looking for some sense of faith, some sense of hope.  Jesus doesn’t say, but those are the two choices when human beings discover that they aren’t in control.  They can fear, or they can believe.  They can panic and fall overboard or they can ride out the storm.  The can despair or they can wait, very quietly for sanity to return.  They can be afraid or they can believe.  Judging by my own experience, it is almost never a matter of either/or.  I don’t know anyone who believes all the time, but I do know how different fear and belief feel, and there is a difference. 

Fear is a small cell with no air in it and no light.  It is suffocating inside, and dark.  When you are locked up in fear, one becomes pretty desperate to find some way out.  Belief is something else altogether, although it is not what some would have us believe.  It is not a well-fluffed nest, or a well-defended castle on a hill.  It is more like a rope bridge over a scenic gorge – think Mile High Bridge at Grandfather Mountain – sturdy but swinging back and forth, with plenty of light and plenty of air but precious little to hang onto except stories you have heard; that it is the best and only way across, that it is possible.  All you have to do is believe in the bridge more than the gorge, AND, there are others who believe it with you, and even some who believe it when your belief wears thin.

Each of us, all of us, at some time or another face something that leaves us feeling desperate and if Jesus is who he said he was, the bridge will hold.  Believing in Jesus will not put us in charge or get us what we want or even save us or our loved ones from harm.  BUT, and I rarely use that word, BUT, believing in him, we may gradually lose our fear of our lives.  Whether we take notice or not, miracles happen around us every day, and ‘every single breath we take is a free surprise from God.  Faith, even desperate faith, does not work miracles, God does.’ (BBT, The Problem with Miracles)  Thanks be to God – amen.