Pray Hard! And Without Ceasing!
Our gospel this morning offers us a two-for-one special on miracles. One healing story is sandwiched in between another healing story. More than a healing really, as a girl is raised from the dead. Jesus has returned from the stormy trip across the sea in last week's gospel reading, where he expelled demons in Gentile lands. Now Jesus is back in Jewish territory, and as is often the case, a crowd has gathered.
A leader of the synagogue named Jairus makes a request of Jesus. We should not automatically connect this man to the scribes and Pharisees, the usual opponents of Jesus. We should realize, however, that Jairus represents religious leadership, and probably enjoys wealth, power, and influence in the community. He risks ridicule from his peers as he makes a humbling and public appeal of faith on behalf of his daughter ... "Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well." Imagine his joy when Jesus agrees and heads toward Jairus' house, crowd in tow. Based on Jairus' faith, I'm sure he imagines the healing of his daughter is a done deal.
On the way, a unnamed woman presses through the crowd. She has been bleeding for 12 years, no other healers could cure her, she is ritually unclean, likely scorned and cast out from society. She makes her own appeal of faith, but privately to herself. "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." She is rewarded for her efforts, for as soon as she touches a bit of cloth she can feel she has been healed. She is not the only one who felt something. To dispel the idea that Jesus is merely wearing a magic cloak, Mark tells us Jesus immediately felt power go from Him to the woman. The woman had connected to Jesus directly, and healing power was provided where it was needed. Jesus questions, "who touched me?" Perhaps in his humanity and the pressing crowd, he did not know. We understand a God to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid. Perhaps in Jesus' divinity he offered the woman an opportunity to come forward and connect directly, even more deeply. Amidst her fear and trembling, she musters the courage to approach Jesus and is rewarded. Jesus affirms her faith and healing, and bids her peace.
At this point Jairus must be going out of his mind. He had mustered his own faith and courage to beg for the healing of his daughter, and because of this outcast, marginalized, unclean, unnamed woman ... Jesus has been delayed. Jairus' worst fears are realized when people coming from his house announce his daughter is dead. The faded faith of the messengers is clear. "Why trouble the teacher any further?" Jesus provides words of comfort that echo through our trials and troubles still today. "Do not fear, only believe."
Then Jesus acts as prudent pastor, surrounding the child's father and mother with Peter, James, and John ... a community of faith ... they enter the house. When Jesus claims the child is only sleeping, the lingering crowd laughs at him. So, he puts those outside the circle of faith ... outside. Just as human life is created at the word of God, Jesus restores the little girl's life with his words, and the touch of his hand. Jesus continues to sustain the girl's life by ordering her to be fed.
On the surface, these could be stories of God's miraculous healing power. Jesus demonstrates his kingship over the world, the forces and laws of nature, even death. These stories also tell of the power of faith, even when surrounded by fear and doubt. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, insider or outsider, righteous or ritually unclean ... God is available to us all. These are all truths of the gospel. But today’s stories go deeper for you and me. These stories tell of the power of prayer to build our relationship with God, thus a different kind of miracle.
My seminary professor Tom Long once shared a story of radical prayer. One day a pastor friend of his received a disturbing phone call. A part-time staff member of his church was out walking his dog. He was mugged, stabbed in the heart, and admitted into intensive care with virtually no prospect for survival. Word spread among the church staff and they gathered spontaneously, desperately, helplessly to do the only thing they could ... pray. Gathered around the communion table, each person prayed. The pastor and other staff members in turn offered sincere prayers, but mostly polite and mild petitions, speaking of comfort, healing, hope, changed hearts, and God's will be done. These were prayers that had already faced the hard reality of an almost certain death. Then the custodian prayed. The pastor reported that this was the most athletic prayer he had ever witnessed. The custodian wrestled with God, shouted at God, anguished with God. His finger jabbed in the air and his body trembled and shook. "You've got to save him! You just can't let him die!" He practically screamed at God. "You've done it many times, Lord! You've done it for others, you've done it for me, now I'm begging you to do it again! Do it for him! Save him, Lord!" It was as if he had grabbed God by the lapels and refused to turn God loose until God came with healing wings. The rest of the church staff hearing this earnest, radical appeal knew God would indeed come to heal ... as if in the face of that desperate cry for help, God would have been ashamed not to save the man's life.
This is Jairus' desperate cry of prayer. A powerful religious leader falling at the feet of an itinerant preacher and healer, begging him to heal his daughter. This is the radical prayer of an unnamed, unclean, outcast woman who risks scorn or even her life to reach out and touch Jesus' cloak. With great faith, both of these approached the divine. Each received healing, but more deeply, their lives were changed. Beyond being restored to health and life, their very existence had changed. One cannot be so profoundly touched by God and not be different. And so it was with the custodian's fervent prayers. His friend was healed and returned to his community. And his community was also changed, through their experience of being touched by God's grace. Miracles do happen.
But is that how we measure the success of our prayers? Is a prayer successful only if the miracle comes? After our prayers do we hope to proclaim, "Got what I wanted!" as if we are playing the card game "Go Fish!"? If we don't get what we ask, what does that mean? If the miracle we request never comes, is God listening? Or as the disciples in the middle of a storm asked Jesus in last week's gospel, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" Jesus praises the faith of the healed woman who desperately reached out to touch his cloak. He states that her faith had made her well. But was it her faith that cured her? Or was it her encounter with and the will of the Divine? "Do not fear, only believe."
I imagine every one of us has prayed to God for intercession, and we believe we do so faithfully. We pray to God for a particular outcome. We bargain with God in the midst of grief. "God, if only you will do this, I promise to do that." Scripture tells us of God's ultimate and limitless power. Lord, can I just get a little of that power my way? In the most vulnerable times in our lives, we appeal to God. In the words of Mick Jagger, "You can't always get what you want." This can be a very trying place for our faith. It is trying because we measure the success of our prayer in the outcome. The Rolling Stones continue, "If you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need." On the surface this sounds like a lesson in recognizing and being satisfied with our blessings. The problem with these lyrics is that they place the burden of the outcome on our trying ... on ourselves. Where are we left when we don't get what we ask? I should have prayed harder; I should have had more faith. What did I do wrong? Why am I being punished? This is the trouble with basing the outcome of prayer on our own efforts and faith. It is uncomfortable and un-comforting to realize we do not always get what we ask. Why not? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are there horrific natural disasters? Why does division and injustice continue? Why do people violently terrorize or take the lives of others? Why does hate and evil in the world sometimes seem to win? I wish I had words to explain. I simply don't know.
Perhaps in our human condition we forget the most important participant in prayer ... God. The purpose of prayer is less about getting what we want; more about reconciling with God. Maybe we can understand this as the difference between receiving a cure and receiving healing. Perhaps healing is peace and acceptance in the face of disappointment. Perhaps healing is an awareness of the continuing presence of God in the midst of despair. Perhaps the strength of our faith is to claim God's promise of hope, healing, and wholeness for ourselves. Perhaps this is manifest in how we empower others to do the same.
What can we learn about radical prayer from the stories today? How shall we pray? What shall we pray for? We pray for miracles; what we seek is healing. Healing is not bending the divine will toward our own hopes, needs, and desires. Healing may be that in asking something of God, we express our utter dependence on our Creator. Healing might be edging into deeper relationship with God. God's mind may or may not be changed, but our heart and mind, our very selves, just might be changed. Though we do not always understand how, our prayers are always heard and answered. The answer, the miracle, is the deepened relationship with God and each other. Through prayer, we reach out to touch God, and by grace, God is always reaching back, reaching out to touch us.
We have much to pray for. We pray for this parish, our people, and our ministries. We pray for the Church to be and spread the light of Christ. We pray for our community and the world, to end division, hate, injustice, and all that separates us from the love of God. We pray for the brokenness of the world, that God might provide healing and make us whole. We are to pray with faith, hope, and love. We are to pray together. As contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray phrases it, "I need you in order to be myself." Humanity is made whole in relationship with God and each other. This is the "holy touch" that heals us, and makes us complete.
We are to continue reaching for the cloak of Christ, falling on our knees and begging repeatedly for God to touch us so we might live, grasping God by the lapels refusing to let go until healing comes. We are to pray radically and without ceasing. We are to bring all our brokenness and lay ourselves at God's feet in utter dependence, so that God might pick us up and help us bear the burden. This is the answer to our prayers. Aligned with God and each other, we can endure ... whatever may happen. “Do not fear, only believe.” Amen.