Sunday, July 1, 2012

Stories of Grace

Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time –– Cycle B
Wisdom 1:13–15; 2:23–24 / 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13–15 / Mark 5:21–43
Stories of Grace
I have preached hundreds of sermons, but now I find myself in new terrain. I first came to South-Central Pennsylvania in 1980 as an Associate Pastor of the Grantham Church at Messiah College –– just a few miles from this current new beginning. I would have thought it preposterous if  someone had told me then that I’d be a Catholic thirty years later.  Yet here I am at the inception of an assignment as Pastoral Associate at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.  I have much to learn, and yet I also trust that the graces I’ve received over the years will help all of us grow more and more into the fulness of what it means to belong to Jesus Christ. In the epistle reading, Paul wants those who follow Jesus to excel in every respect.
I will be sharing more of my own Christian journey over the next weeks and months (and perhaps years). Christian Faith is not only a series of concepts expressed in a Creed (although that component is certainly there); Christianity is personal.  It is personal because God is personal –– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christianity is personal because it is rooted in our being created in God’s image: the image of his own nature he made him (Wisdom). Christianity is personal because God the Son entered our world by becoming fully human, thus enabling the Spirit of God to dwell in Man (and I use that term in the technical, theological sense). We are here today because God calls us to know him, and he has done amazing things to make that possible.
As you and I come to know God in and through Jesus Christ, we have a story to tell.  If you are a Christian, your life is a story of grace –– and you need to know how to recognize your story and to tell your story.  No two stories are exactly alike, and each of our stories contribute something to the full picture of what God’s grace can do.
We each have our faith journeys. We each have our strengths and weaknesses. Maybe that's one reason Mark incorporates these two people into the same story. Here we find two vastly different people who show faith. Being different people, they expressed their faith differently, but both give us good models of faith. They help us to see that the basic issue in Christian Faith is reaching out to Jesus, and not so much the personal circumstances on which we tend to focus.
Jairus was the ruler of the synagogue.  This meant he was the leading elder in the local fellowship of the Jews. Here was a man of religious prominence and probably some degree of wealth and social prominence. He was one for whom things usually went right without much fuss or bother, but now he found himself in a situation where wealth and prominence offered no help. 
Sometimes it takes a back-to-the-wall situation for us to see the relative unimportance of temporal success. What good are wealth and prestige to a man who is about to lose his child? Mark says this prominent ruler of the synagogue publicly went out to Jesus and fell at his feet. The word he used can be translated, "I beg of you, please!" Ruler of the synagogue or not, social prominence aside, Jairus found himself on the dusty dirt before Jesus when the issue was the life of his daughter. What might it take for us to get beyond standards of public “respectability” and seek God in desperation –– even publicly?  Scripture says that God gives grace to the humble.
But before Jairus and his story of faith can be resolved, we are interrupted –– as Jesus was ––with someone else. It was this woman who had a chronic hemorrhage. Her approach wasn't like that of Jairus. While Jairus did humble himself to approach Jesus, maybe it wasn't too hard for him because he had so many other advantages. Yet it’s true that humility does not come easy, and Jairus is willing to embrace humility (and, again, that is a good way to get God’s positive attention).
The woman did not need any further humiliation. For twelve years she had been a "nobody."  She was "unclean" according to Mosaic Law (Lev 15:25). This meant that no one could touch her.  Imagine not being touched –– being avoided ––for twelve years!  She had learned to be figuratively invisible. 
We have people like that today. There are people who have been down for so long, and kicked while they're down, that they have little or no hope of ever getting up. Can we imagine their hurt and despair?  There are the people in our culture who literally match this woman in her predicament –– overlooked.... ignored.... despised....
Jesus has a heart for desperate people. This woman found that out right away. She had been invisible for so long that she assumed Jesus himself would ignore her; she hoped for an anonymous healing. Our Lord does not operate on an impersonal basis. The whole retinue stopped right there while Jesus identified the woman and allowed her story to come out. Something else came out, too: the affirmation of her faith. It was because she believed in Jesus, and acted on it, that she was healed. Yet we still do not know her name –– only that she knew Jesus and Jesus knew her. Here we see that Jesus loves people who are so desperate that they cannot believe anyone really cares.
Now the scene switches back to Jairus. Don’t you think he was overwrought with the delay? Minutes seem like hours when there's a crisis, and Jairus’ desperation was surely escalating. Yet Jairus had just witnessed something amazing. Maybe he took some brief consolation that this man Jesus was indeed the answer for his daughter.... but his assurance was quickly put to the test. Just as his confidence was perhaps building, the report comes that his daughter is dead.
We know the story. Again, there's a miracle. Jesus went to the home, took the little girl by the hand, told her to get up, and she did! Yet this does not seem to be the driving point of the story! Instead, there is the juxtaposition of Jairus and the woman.
That points to the issue here for us –– who Jesus is, and how we respond to him. It doesn't matter if you are wealthy and have influence as Jairus had. Nor does it matter if you feel as rejected as the woman. Neither is the issue whether or not God will do a sensational miracle in your life or before your eyes. What counts more than anything else is having a heart that reaches out to Jesus Christ, willing to believe he is truly the Son of God.  Jesus wants us to know him in that way.
If you believe that, then you have a story of grace that is being written in your life right now.  Your story may not seem as miraculous as either of these St Mark tells in today’s Gospel, but if you can have hope in the face of despair.... that is no small thing. Some might even see it as a miracle. And if you can show love where many others would lash out in retaliation (or merely ignore another’s need), and if you sense a desire for holiness as you live in this world that seems to celebrate selfishness and debauchery, then you have the makings of a story of grace.
God reaches out to all kinds of people:  people who the world ignores and thinks are worthless, as well as people who have position and prestige. But let’s remember that we live in a world where, eventually, something awful will seem to strip everything else in life away. In their pain, Jairus and the unnamed woman, different as they were, each reached out to Jesus. They each found out who Jesus really is. God reaches out to all kinds of people  –– people like you and me. Every one of us needs the mercy of Jesus Christ, and he is ready to make every one of our lives a story of grace. Do you believe Jesus can do that in you?

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