Sermon notes: Miracle sandwich

Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. (Image from the catacombs of Rome.)

Sermon on Proper 8, Year B (July 1, 2012) Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Louis

Most gospel readings that deal with the healings or other miracles of Jesus focus on just one marvel at a time. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is a little different: it gives us a sort of healing sandwich, with one miracle enfolded inside another.

By this point in his story, Jesus is a celebrity. He no sooner gets out of the boat than he is mobbed by people who want to see him for themselves, to hear his teachings. Perhaps they hope to witness Jesus work wonders; perhaps they want to be the focus of a miracle, to be fed, or to gain healing for themselves or a loved one.

We meet two particular miracle-seekers in these verses. One is Jairus, an important man, a wealthy man, a leader of the synagogue, begging for his little daughter’s life. The other is a poor woman, a sick woman, not important at all, who decides to take the matter of her healing into her own hands.

Jairus is so desperately concerned about his child that he goes to meet Jesus himself, rather than sending a servant. He falls at Jesus’s feet, and says, “My little girl is dying. Come and lay your hands on her and make her well, let her live.” And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd, sensing a chance to see or hear something remarkable – go with him.

In the midst of this, the nameless woman sees her own opportunity, and takes it.

In first-century Palestine, life expectancy was short; if you made it out of childhood alive, you might hope to hit your 50s. There were no hospitals, and there were many, many ills, from skin diseases and eye diseases to epilepsy, death in childbirth, parasites to cancers. Too many of them had no cure.

Although there were physicians, the first step in treatments for most illnesses was still incantations and sacrifices. Greek innovations in medicine were much celebrated in Rome, but it’s not clear how deeply those innovations had penetrated in backwater provinces like Palestine.

If conventional treatments didn’t work, you might seek out a magician. Demons were generally thought to be responsible for causing not only madness, but heart trouble and asthma, among a host of other troubles. Or it might be that your sins, or those of your parents, were responsible for your suffering. We see that in the case of the man blind from birth, whose healing, recounted in the gospel of John, so irritated the Pharisees.

The woman in the crowd had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years – which, interestingly, is the age of Jairus’s daughter – and spent everything she had on physicians. They had not helped her.

Besides being poor, she was probably physically weak from her condition. She was almost certainly a social outcast: Anyone with a flow of blood such as she had was considered ritually impure. Anyone who touched her would be ritually impure as well, and face time-consuming rites, with a seven-day purification period, in order to be clean again. (Who could afford the time to be her friend?)

Imagine suffering all this for so long – and imagine realizing that perhaps someone who could repair your physical brokenness was at hand. She knew about Jesus and his healings, and when he stepped off the boat she saw her chance. In what must have been a mixture of faith and deep-seated desperation, she burrowed through the crowd until she got close enough just to touch his cloak. And she was healed.

And here we get one of those disciple “duh” moments, when the very men who have been traveling with Jesus and listening to his teachings and observing his miracles demonstrate how little they really understand of him. Jesus feels the power going out of him, and asks, “Who touched me?” And the disciples say, “What? Look at this crowd. We can hardly move. Are you kidding?”

But the woman knows what he’s talking about, and kneels in front of him to confess. And Jesus calls the pariah “daughter,” and tells her that her faith has made her well. Probably no one but the two of them and a few disciples even realized what had happened.

Then he is gone, with Jairus and the disciples and the crowd, tells the mourners who have already gathered at Jairus’s house that they are mistaken, that the child is sleeping. He raises the little girl from the dead, and, compassionately, orders that she be brought something to eat.

The way these miracles are juxtaposed shows, in compact form, that Jesus and his love were available to all, of both high rank and low. The important may have had easier access to him, but Jesus never turned his back on those in need.

We see, too, that Jesus put all classes on the same level, that he imposed an unheard-of equality on those he encountered. In this, in his calling an outcast “daughter,” we see the truth of what Paul would later write in the letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And this radical equality in Jesus is one of the things that sets Christianity apart. Whatever our status in the world outside the Church, within it we are all accounted equal. We all share in Christ’s love to the same extravagant extent, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, status-heavy or status-free.

The world and human nature being what they are, the Church has struggled with staying true to this concept. Right in the very beginning of the movement, the well-to-do would come to the house churches for the common meal, and eat their own dainties without waiting for others, not sharing with those who had less. We only need to glance at the later history of the Church to see even more egregious examples of a class-based structure within it.

But Jesus calls us to step outside social expectations, to recognize and greet our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers. He calls us to help those who are in need, not only with our checkbooks but with our time and energies. Jesus calls us to be as radical and inclusive in our love as he was. If we truly intend to follow him, we can do no less.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: If God is for us, who can be against us?

(Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis)

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

A lot of possibilities may spring to mind in answer to that question: the list of people and things that cause us pain – from endless wars to deadly diseases, from an economic disaster that has taken a terrible toll on our country to a series of natural disasters – may seem endless. Some days, it even seems as though the only possible response is, “What isn’t against us?”

In one of the most meaningful sections in the Letter to the Romans, the greatest of the epistles, Paul addresses that question.

Although the worst was yet to come, the Christians of Rome already faced oppression on every side. Persecution came both from Jews who saw Christianity as a dangerous heresy, and from Roman authorities and others who saw it as a serious threat to a society which placed a premium on everyone worshiping in the same ways, as a unifying patriotic force.

Paul himself had already suffered for his witness for Christ. He would meet his death as a martyr in Rome, something he certainly knew to be a possibility when he wrote this epistle. But he went forward with confidence, and with logic that is, for a committed Christian, unassailable.

God, after all, did not withhold Jesus, but gave him up for our sakes. Then, asks Paul, won’t God give us everything else that we need? It is God who justifies us; it is Christ who intercedes for us.

This phrase is sometimes misconstrued: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It may not always seem that way to us. It’s hard to reconcile Paul’s statements with the evil we find all around us in the world.

Paul was speaking specifically of the persecution of Christians, and there’s certainly still plenty of that going on in the world. Proportionately, there’s as much of it as there was in Roman times. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s far worse today.

Islamists burn churches and riot against Christians in the faith’s first homes, the Middle East and Egypt. Christians are marked for violence and prosecution in Pakistan and India, while the governments of China and Vietnam seek to control or suppress expressions of Christianity. Christians have been targeted in many parts of Africa; in Sudan alone, it is estimated that 1.5 million Christians have been killed since 1984.

There’s not much overt persecution of Christians in this country, but there are plenty of other things to try our faith. The loss of a job or of a loved one can leave us asking how God could let this happen. We wonder where God is in a natural disaster like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or in the tornado that struck Joplin.

How do you reconcile “All things work together for good” with an act of human evil like Friday’s horrific murders in Norway? How do you reconcile it with monstrous acts of child abuse? We question God’s love for us when we or someone we love are struck down by an implacable illness, or injured by someone else’s carelessness.

But the Spirit is there to comfort us when we call. Jesus walks with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

As many of you know, in November I was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and received an equally aggressive treatment for it.

There was a period of several weeks last winter when I became horribly sick, when my doctors didn’t know what to do, when I realized that I might well die. In my darkest moments, I felt God’s presence; I felt God’s light and love. I knew then that all would be well, whatever happened to my body.

The Love of God is always there for the asking, even when we don’t have the words. The Love of God is always with us to sustain us and comfort us, even when we don’t get the answers we desire.

And it is God’s love of which Paul is writing here. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The short version of the answer to that is that no one can separate us, no circumstances can come between us, unless we ourselves allow it to happen.

The power of the love of God gives us strength to keep going through the most difficult times. The brilliance of the love of God gives us light to find our way through the darkest passages. The creator of all that is, from the tiniest particles to the grandest galaxies, God still cares for each of us, giving us Jesus as intercessor and the Holy Spirit as comforter, with a love that is larger than this universe. And there is nothing at all that can separate us from that love.

Lord, help us to know your everlasting love in our most joyous moments and in our times of grieving, to remember that you support us in sickness and in health, and that we are called to love and praise you in return. This we ask in our Lord Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

“Why me?”

Most of us have a highly developed sense of the fair and unfair, at least as the terms apply to our own special selves. For evidence, watch any small child when goodies are being divvied up: no scientific scale exists that can measure cookies with the exactitude of a suspicious six-year-old.

This same sense usually comes into play when something bad happens to us: “Why me?” Why should I be sick? Why should I be burdened with a parent with Alzheimer’s? Why should my child have emotional or physical problems?

It’s a perfectly natural question, particularly when we’ve done our best to live good and healthy lives. It’s the wrong question, though, if we haven’t asked it when we are blessed: Why should I have the talents that I do? Why should I have such a loving family? Why should I have been hired over another, equally qualified?

Since I tend not to ask “Why me?” about good things, it seems to me hypocritical to ask it when the news is negative. No life is without sorrow; no life is without pain. Jesus never said it would be easy; he only said we’d have comfort and assistance when things got dark.

Better than complaining, it seems to me, is to say, “Thy will be done. Lord; I can bear this burden only with your aid.” Ask for God’s help, and it will surely be granted.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The FMS

A member of the Feline Ministry to the Sick living her vocation.

There is a school of thought which holds that animals don’t – or can’t – really love the people with whom they’re associated, that the (alleged) affection they display is based strictly on such pragmatic drives as gaining food and warmth.

Those of us who share our lives with pets know the scientific response to that theory: Piffle.

In fact, science is catching up with what we’ve known all along; a rash of recent newspaper articles cite various studies that show that cats and dogs, at least, genuinely love the people with whom they share their lives.  (I’m not so sure about ferrets, but then I’ve never cared for weasels.)

Finding the evidence is as easy as getting sick and taking to your bed. When you’re genuinely unwell, if there’s a cat in your home you’re pretty sure to find yourself with a concerned and cuddly companion. They know.

My friend Margaret and I call this “the Feline Ministry to the Sick,” and as little as cats are known for pure altruism, this is an area in which they shine. I have sometimes had all three of the resident purrballs perched on and around me on my bed; at other times, they take it in shifts. But when I’m ailing, I’m seldom without furry companionship.

Some will hold that they’re doing it only to encourage us to get functional again, so that we can attend to their food dishes. I don’t think so. I believe that the unconditional unjudgmental love and concern shown by cats in their FSM mode is a reflection of God’s love, the divine love that runs through all creation and binds it together. Deo gratias.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Little friend of all the world

Liu, in a characteristic pose.

Lately I’ve felt a little like a comic book character caught in a fight with a crew of caped baddies: POW! Pay cut! BIFF! Injury! ZAP! Laryngitis!

But this one crept in on (as it were) little cat feet: A death sentence for my fluffy companion of the last eleven years, Liu, the sweetest, most amiable feline I have ever known; Liu, little furry friend of all the world.

Lifespans being what they are, we know going into the relationship with a pet that it will be relatively brief, that the levitating kitten or frolicksome puppy of today will be the fragile old cat or weary aged dog of tomorrow. We know that we will be wracked with grief when the time comes to let them go, that our hearts will nearly break with the pain of such loss. And yet we willingly let them in, because the gift of that shared love is too great to refuse.

I first held Liu on the morning she was born, the smallest of Chula’s second and final litter of four tiny blind Birman kittens. Her brothers were great fun, but Liu was always special, always dear, always mine.

I sold the boys, reluctantly, but kept Liu, who climbed under the covers with me and curled up to sleep like a baby. Eleanor, then six, put the kitten in her doll stroller, and pushed her around the house. Liu liked the stroller, sought it out, and willingly sat there for disbelieving guests. She became known for this party trick, and sat blinking her blue button eyes as a mob of squealing 14-year-old girls whipped out their phones to take pictures: “Omigod, she’s so cute!

Her mother Chula is a drama queen, show-quality beautiful but neurotic, and given to unfortunate lapses. Liu is “pet quality,” in every sense of the phrase. She never quarreled with anyone until we brought home bumptious Iris four years ago. Liu showed her hurt at our betrayal: “Why would you want another kitten when you have me?” and went off to mourn.

Now we mourn the loss we know is coming. Liu did not complain; she withdrew. I noticed that the water bowls were always dry, that her appetite was down, that she wasn’t purring, that her bones were sharp beneath her fluffy bunny fur. The kind young vet confirmed the diagnosis: Chronic renal failure. It is invariably fatal.

We’re medicating her to treat the accompanying urinary tract infection, and then we’ll see where we stand. Because this is Liu, she doesn’t hide from us, or struggle, or hiss when we pick her up and gently insert the dropper full of Clavamox into her mouth. She accepts.

Friends have come forward with suggestions and websites, sympathy and kindness. Eleanor and Liu and I had a glorious early-morning lovefest in the sunshine on my bed: we patted and praised, she purred.

While she still feels well enough to enjoy her life, we will do everything possible to make certain that she does. When her life becomes a burden to her, we will let her go and grieve our great loss. A good heart is a gift from God, wherever it is found. Liu’s heart is of the best.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Voiceless/powerless

WikiCommons image, in the public domainIt was not a good weekend.

First, I got sick. Looking back, it actually started during the 10:30 service last Sunday, when my voice curdled bizarrely during the anthem and never quite returned.

It was official by Wednesday, when I acknowledged that Something was Wrong and called my doctor. He listened, and said, “Sounds like a virus. There’s not much we can do for that. Just take it easy; take some Mucinex, and try drinking tea and lemon.”

Huh. Even after treating me for 12 years, he doesn’t get Singer Panic. It’s a state to which I readily revert (understandably, perhaps, after a couple of decades of earning my living by my voice), a form of  (mostly) justifiable hypochondria for those who cannot work, and therefore do not earn, if they cannot sing.

So I drank hot tea with honey and lemon (and, occasionally, just a touch of rum) by the pint; I gulped Mucinex; I mixed fizzy patent vitamin-rich mixtures into glasses of water and slugged those down, too; I went on vocal silence; I looked up prayers to St. Blaise, alleged heavenly protector against throat ailments. I even got some sleep.

St. Blaise and I are not presently on speaking terms, even if I could talk. None of the rest of it worked, either. I had to cancel the solo I was supposed to sing on Sunday, and took minimal comfort in the responsible grown-up act of having given the choirmaster adequate warning to find something for the choir to sing in its place. To top it off, let it be noted that more than one editor is impatient with my current inability to conduct telephone interviews.

My voice is an integral part of my identity, of me; losing it is, for me, like an athlete being deprived of the ability to walk, or an accountant’s knowledge of numbers. It’s more than inconvenient. It brings on introspection, and who wants that?

And then the power went out.

It went out during a bam-pow-wham rainstorm on Friday night. Coming home from an opera through buckets and sheets of rain that resembled (as the friend who was driving remarked) “a summer blizzard,” lit up by a vivid electrical storm, I said a prayer for all the people who would lose their power – and pulled up to the house to discover that they were me.

Said power played a cat-and-mouse game all weekend: now on, now off. I gave up on resetting the clocks. I got to know my neighbors a little better when a group came out of hot houses for a confab in the street.

This morning the power came back and stayed on. I cleaned out the recently deceased foodstuffs from the fridge, and quietly cursed the fact that trash pickup isn’t until Friday: that bag will stink powerfully by the time we can legitimately lug it down to the curb.

And I put it all into perspective in my mind. There are so many things we take for granted, in ourselves and from technology: the ability to talk and to sing, power – for air conditioning and lights, for sound systems and telephones – that requires only the flicking of a switch. Yet it is all surprisingly fragile; a virus, or a broken part on a transformer, can take it all out.

It was a minor outage. It didn’t even make the paper.

We aren’t accustomed to hardship; we are greatly blessed. Experience has taught us that a call to the doc, or the power company, will make it all right. But it’s a fragile balance.

It’s easier to take the ups and down and wreckages of life – and, on a scale of one to ten, my set barely rated a two – if we’re firmly anchored in faith. It reminds us of the greater vicissitudes that our predecessors stood down; it reminds of the greater vicissitudes that we still may face.

Perhaps the trick is to take it all in stride and in prayer, to remember how much we have even at the worst of times. Not being able to sing along with the English church anthems I could finally hear tonight will make me more mindful when I get my voice back; not having power for a couple of days makes me appreciate what others endure on a regular basis. Thank you, Lord, for giving me perspective.

– Sarah Bryan Miller