Sunday, July 01, 2012

Only Believe

Only Believe
Mark 5:21-43[1]
There are some experiences in life that take us to the very edge of our ability to cope.  You lose your job and wonder how in the world you’re going to find another one.  Or you learn that the cancer has metastasized.  Or you look at the person you’ve shared your life with and realize that it’s over.  It may take a while, but in situations like that, the stress you feel can easily push you beyond the limit of what you think you can endure.  We have a word for it: finding yourself at the end of your rope.  Most of us at one time or another either have faced or will face this kind of situation.  And, unfortunately, In those kinds of situations, our faith can seem pretty empty.
Our Gospel lesson presents us with a couple of people who had reached the end of their respective ropes: a father whose daughter was dying and a woman whose life had been almost literally consumed by her illness.  The lesson begins with a prominent man in the community coming to Jesus and asking him to save his daughter.  As they were on the way, however, a woman who had been afflicted with an illness for 12 years came and touched Jesus. The woman was so desperate, she believed that all she needed to do was touch Jesus’ clothes, and she would be healed.  And in fact, she was!  Jesus told her that it was her faith that healed her. 
It’s hard to know what it was she believed in.   The fact that she thought she would be healed if she only touched Jesus’ clothes makes it sound like she had some kind of magical view of who Jesus was and what he could do for her.  But I think more important is the faith and the courage it took for her to take the step of venturing into the crowd and reaching out to touch Jesus.  Her particular illness rendered her, for all practical purposes, an outcast.  She was perpetually “unclean,” and therefore unable to take part in any of the normal activities of life, even the worship of God at the synagogue![2]  Rather than giving up, she had the faith and the courage to seek the one who was healing people in God’s name.
Unfortunately, although the father came to Jesus first, during the time Jesus was healing the woman, his daughter died.  One would think that would be the end of it.  But Jesus told the father, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk. 5:36)! That seems to me a strange response to death.  Normally we would say something like, “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”  Or “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” But to say, “Do not fear, only believe” strains the imagination.  The fact that he, an influential leader, came personally to beg Jesus for healing suggests that he was just as desperate as the woman.[3]  What was this father supposed to believe in now that his daughter was dead? 
I think the answer has to do with the whole purpose for miracles in Jesus’ ministry.  They were not meant for show, or to convince skeptics, or to gain notoriety.  They were acts of compassion in response to human need.  But they were also more than that.  They were individual demonstrations of the new life of God’s Kingdom. [4]  So in a very real sense, what Jesus was asking this grieving father to believe in was that God had begun working to make all things new already in the here and now.  And that Jesus was the agent through whom God was bringing this new life into our world.  And that somehow that would make a difference even for him.
What do we believe in when we reach the end of our ropes?  Many of us these days have a hard time believing in miracles.  When life brings something so painful, so devastating that it feels like you’ve gone beyond what you can humanly endure, what then? For many of us, if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that our faith tends to evaporate.[5] But is there some way to face that kind of devastating loss without giving up our faith?  I guess what I’m asking is what we can believe in when it seems like we have nothing left to believe in. 
We may have to start with the people around us.  We can believe in the people who continue to show us love and compassion and support—and that they will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  That’s something we can believe in.  And we may also have to take a hard look at ourselves.  When we go through our own end-of-the-rope situations, we can believe that our life isn’t over.  One chapter may be coming to a close, but as it does, it opens the way for another chapter to begin.  Ultimately, however, I think what we can believe in is that the one who has carried us from the day of our birth will continue to carry us all the days of our lives.  We can believe that God can and does bring something good from what seems to be our worst nightmare come true.[6] We can believe that God is working in and through all the heartbreak and suffering in this world to bring new life. 
There are times in our lives when things happen that press us to our limits and beyond.  When that happens, we have a choice.  We can pull the covers over our heads, isolate ourselves, and try to escape from it all.  Or we can embrace what we’re feeling and move forward in faith that God has a future for us.  Just because we experience devastating loss doesn’t mean our lives are over.  It could very well mean that our lives are just about to truly begin!  If we can only believe, and open our hearts to see the new possibilities, it may just be the greatest miracle of all!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/1/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:587-88.
[3] Cf. Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:588. Cf. Adela Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 284-85, where they suggest that the story of the woman’s faith serves as an example of what he was supposed to believe in.
[4] Cf. Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:588: “ healing reflects the presence of God’s saving power … and Jesus’ saving and healing presence demonstrates that the kingdom of God is near.”  Cf. also Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 305.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:598, where he says, “Fear is the resignation from which there can obviously be no road forwards.”
[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:600: When we give into our fears, “We have obviously failed to see that God is for us, and that therefore no one and nothing can be against us”!

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