Sunday, July 08, 2012

July 8, Proper 9, "I Do Not Know, God Knows"

Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-20, Mark 6:1-13

Ezekiel was the prophet of the exile. He lived in Babylon, outside the Promised Land. He had some normal prophecies which he preached to the people around him, but he is better known for his visions, detailed visions, fantastic visions of the future and of the mysteries of heaven.

I wonder if the vision that St. Paul writes about was like the visions of Ezekiel. We do not know, because he does not convey the vision, he just informs us, under pressure, that he had had it. What precisely he means by “the third heaven” and by “the Paradise” we can only guess, but we don’t know; God knows.

St. Paul doesn’t tell us because he believed that his vision was private and not intended as a prophecy for the people like Ezekiel’s visions were. It was not for the consolation of the church. What he regards as meaningful for the church is the opposite, the opposite of his exaltation, and that was his desolation. His thorn in the flesh. That suffering which made him agonize in the lonely darkness of his room at night. He calls it a messenger of Satan, because it tempted him, it tested him, it caused him to doubt the goodness and the providence of God. And he held God responsible for it, like in the Book of Job, where it’s God who allows Satan to test the flesh of Job. And for St. Paul, it was this thorn in the flesh, not his exalted vision, that drove the apostle to sound the depths of the grace of God.

What was this malady precisely? He does not tell us. Scholars have ventured many guesses, but we do not know; God knows. What we are to know are the insights he got from suffering his malady, which is that precisely in our weakness is God’s power best made known, and also that the nature of God’s power is grace, which must suffice for us. We usually want more, we naturally want more, we like to have a relationship with God which gives us results and successes and powers we can be proud of, but the harder lesson is that our only boast is that we live with God by grace, and doesn’t wisdom tell us that’s a better consolation and relief?

I am not saying it’s easy—to live by grace. It feels unnatural and unstable. Like walking on water. Like sitting in a boat with Jesus in a storm. To live with fear. To be so free with such uncertainty. When people consider living by grace alone, I can well imagine that they might say, “No thanks, who needs it, I prefer a normal way of life.” St. Paul recommends it, but of course we ask if it adds up. We naturally calculate the plus and the minus of God’s offering, to reckon whether we want it? And how do you identify within your life what is the grace of God? How do you classify your experiences to say this is grace and that is not? How do you classify your experience of the world to say that this of God and that is not? Or even more deeply, that God is like this and not like that? It’s natural to want to classify these things, but we have to be content to say, “We do not know; God knows.”

Jesus did not fit their classification. I mean the natural classification of his hometown of Nazareth. They had good reason for him not to fit. Maybe for the last few months he was doing great things down there at the lakeshore at Capernaum, but they have lived with him for twenty years, and they feel they really know him. It’s not that they don’t believe the reports of all the great new things about him, it’s that they already have their hometown information which they can feel more certain of. They know. God knows they know. That’s why they do not bring their sick to him like other synagogues. For twenty years he had never tried to heal the sickness of a single one of them. He was their carpenter, they knew why his hands were as rough and calloused as they were, and not the hands of a rabbi or of the upper class or royalty. So he certainly does not fit the classification of a Messiah.

They don’t mind him taking his turn in the synagogue, like he had always done. But now they are astounded at the new authority he claims. Who does he think he is? The tone they take with him is sarcastic, and with what they know they know about him they build a barrier against him. Does he think he’s so much different than his brothers and sisters whom we see every day? “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” those carpenter’s hands. By Jesus’ reaction you have to wonder what he had expected. He marveled at their unbelief. It surprised him. It certainly unsettled him and threw him off his game. He suddenly went into a slump. St. Mark is not afraid to report this, even though it wonderfully complicates the doctrine of the Incarnation. It seems that the reaction of his own beloved people made him doubt himself. Not that he denied within himself that he had really stilled the storm and raised the dead, but this was now in front of him, and how could he fit it in.

He could understand the scribes and the Pharisees, who had a system to defend. Their opposition he had anticipated, which we deduce from his having been baptized by John. But these were his beloved people, and until just a few months ago he had shared with them so many years of closeness and companionship. Their reaction must have been a thorn in the flesh to him. Like another temptation from Satan—to make him doubt the will of God within his life. A thorn in his flesh to bring him down, to force him to face his weaknesses. What was it like for him to be so suddenly powerless? Or only as powerful as an ordinary Christian minister today, like me, who can preach the scriptures and lay my hands upon a few ailing people, but not much more. How did it feel for him? We do not know; God knows.

So if I were one of the twelve disciples watching this, I would have some hesitation when he sends me out to the villages around to cast out evil spirits. I have just seen his sudden weakness, and how I’m going to go out and do this daring thing as under his authority?

Well, dear church, that’s how it really is for us, you know. We are sent out to do our mission in the world, our mission of announcing and cleansing and healing, despite the weaknesses of God. I’m not just talking about the usual and painfully public weaknesses of the institutional church, or even the powerlessness of Jesus Christ, which of course we are supposed to be already familiar with from his dying figure on the cross, but I mean the powerlessness of God. Which is what Jesus must have felt that day: the powerless of God.

What I mean here is that when God gives a prophecy to Ezekiel, and he announces it, many people don’t believe it, and God does nothing about it. I mean that after St. Paul left the congregation he founded in the city of Corinth in order to start one in Ephesus, some other leaders come to Corinth and troubled the congregation and discredited St. Paul so that the congregation was a mess, and God does nothing about it. I mean that the home congregation of my wife Melody, which did invite her to preach there some years ago, will not invite her now, and she is a prophet without honor in her own hometown, because the leadership which took over that church has made it so much more sexist, and God does nothing about it. How can you be so powerless, O God? Well, let me say it again, my grace has to suffice for you.

When the disciples are sent out on their journey, they are dressed and equipped as if they are just going out for an hour’s walk and then come home. Even on the road, they are to regard themselves at home. At home in all the villages, at home in every person’s house, and when they are rejected, to shake off the rejection and may leave the judgment up to God. They are free to be at home in the world. We may have great visions but we are also to be at home in the world. Our thorns in our flesh are what help to keep us at home in the world. We have missions to the poor and the homeless and the outcast and the downcast, and the results may seem so paltry if you think about the need, but we can be at home with what we do because we have enough to go on with God’s grace. We watch how Jesus was suddenly powerless, and we are comforted by this, and even encouraged by this. Because once having seen it, it seems so right. This is how it is to be at home. Okay, we can do this, we can do this. All the success we really need is the encouragement of God’s grace. We accept it as the comfort of God’s love. What we live for is love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, July 02, 2012

July 1, Proper 8: Jesus Touched (for Corinna's baptism)

Psalm 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

The daughter of Jairus was twelve years old, and for those same twelve years the woman was sick, and the story of the one is sandwiched in the middle of the story of the other, which is a favorite device in the Gospel of Mark. Also, Jesus calls the woman “daughter” too.

These daughters are both “unclean”, but for different reasons. The woman is unclean from her disease, according to Leviticus 15:25-27, and so, untouchable. She contaminates anyone who touches her, so she cannot worship in the synagogue. If the crowd around her knew her secret they would be enraged, for in the press she has made them all unclean. And their legal uncleanness is not cancelled by her having been healed, so it’s no wonder she still keeps hiding even after her healing.

The daughter of Jairus was unclean because she was dead, a corpse, and according to Numbers 19:11-13, whoever touches her corpse becomes unclean. Jesus touches her and gets unclean. But he’s already been contaminated by the woman, and he hasn’t washed or changed his clothes. So Jesus connects their uncleanness. He accepts it, he takes their uncleanness upon himself.

Some of their connections are opposites. The father is named, Jairus, but the woman is unnamed. The father is the ruler of a synagogue, the woman was an outcast from the synagogue (maybe by Jairus himself!). The one is an insider, the other an outsider. The one is a model of uprightness, the other is traif, dirty, and she must bind her legs in rags beneath her skirts. The one was blessed for twelve years, the other was cursed for twelve years. The one comes to Jesus publicly, with the support and interest of the crowd. The other comes shamefully, hiding from the crowd in the crowd.

Both of them are driven by that combination of fear and faith of which I spoke last week: like two blades of a propeller, fear and faith, driving them to seek the help of Jesus. Their faith is similar, but their fears are different. What Jairus fears is the death of a child. It is the fear of losing someone you love, the loss of something good and sweet. This kind of fear you can be public about, you can share it with other people, and sharing it can comfort you.

But the woman’s fear she cannot share, it is the fear of shame and guilt, of loneliness and rejection. When you’re out in public you hide the truth about yourself, and by living your lie you compound daily your guilt and shame (Heidelberg Q&A 13), but what choice do you have? The fear of discovery and humiliation may be worse than the fear of losing what you love. Jairus doesn’t know the half of it.

The woman’s fear was deep in her body. And then as soon as she touched the robe of Jesus, “she felt in her body that she was healed of the disease.” Jesus also felt it in his body. Both of them felt it in their bodies. This is unique in the gospels. What did Jesus feel in his body? The “power of the resurrection”? The energy of the new creation? We are not told; it seems to have taken Jesus by surprise as well. But after all her years of quiet desperation, it might have felt to her like maybe rising from the dead. Her healing was less amazing than raising up a dead girl, but it was no less powerful in her life and no less wonderful for her.

Jesus says to her, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” I’ll bet his saying that surprised her. She did not know that it was faith she had. It felt to her like desperation. If she’d thought she had faith, she would have approached him openly, as Jairus did. She had touched his robe in desperation. Yet Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.”

The point of faith is not that it is strong; the point of faith is where you put it, and maybe you have no other place to go to but to God. That’s what my faith often is. Sometimes my faith is only this: “I believe in you because there’s no alternative; if it’s not you, then there’s nothing.” The faith the woman had was the faith of desperation, and that was fine with Jesus.

Jesus does the healing, that’s Jesus’ part in the exchange. We do the believing. That’s our part in the
exchange. God does the saving, you do the believing. God uses your believing as the conduit for God’s action. Your faith is the extension cord, and God is the giver of the energy. Your faith is how you touch God, so that God’s energy can flow into you, and Jesus can say, “Your faith has saved you,” even when your faith feels like nothing more than desperation.

Don’t misunderstand him here. Don’t believe it when you hear that if you don’t get healed, it’s because you didn’t have enough faith. Jairus’ daughter got resurrected, and she had no faith—she was dead. Who gets healed and who doesn’t does not depend on how much faith you have. If God does a healing, it’s because of what God wants to show the world. And in these miracles Jesus us shows us God’s attitude toward sickness and death. Our deaths and our suffering are not God’s desire for us. But more than that, our guilt and shame are not God’s will for us.

There is wisdom in this story. The best thing Jesus does for this woman was not the healing of her sickness. The best thing he does for her is to call her out of her shame and hiding. Yes, her body is healed, she can feel it, but she tries to run off, she’s still afraid. She fears his face. She fears further contact with him. And she fears the crowd, who will consider themselves still contaminated. The grip of her shame is still upon her. Jesus has to deal with that as well.

He calls her to reveal herself. He calls it out, “Who touched me?” Now her guilt overwhelms her, she comes to him and falls at his feet. You cannot separate her faith from her fear. She begs for mercy. She dare not hide from him, she gives him the whole truth. He gives to her his peace. Shalom. Wholeness. Completeness. Openness. Acceptance. No more hiding anything, no more shame within the crowd.

And lest the crowd now not accept what he has done for her, he pronounces it publically. “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” In other words, “I have restored you back to Israel, I have restored you to the synagogue.” At long last she can go back to worship, openly, publically, in the midst of the congregation. He has made her a human being again, she is now able “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

You see what Jesus offers us, to heal our souls today and in the end to resurrect our bodies and our souls. That we can be his daughters forever.

Today we give the miracle of baptism to a little girl. I call it a miracle, because it’s a sign and because of the power of God within it. We give it to Corinna, the daughter of Steve and Susanna. The miracle is given to their faith, which is like the faith of Jairus. Doesn’t this story express what we desire when we baptize our children? Steve and Susanna, as you bring up Corinna in the Christian faith, let her know that this particular Bible story is her own story in a special way. “Little girl, get up.”

And if Corinna has the role of Jairus’ daughter, and Steve and Susanna have the role of Jairus, then the rest of us play the role today of the unnamed woman. When we look upon this baptism, we will see again the sign of the cleansing of our guilt and the covering of our shame, the weekly miracle of God’s grace, which is no less a miracle than the raising of the dead. (Canons of Dort, III/IV:12)

One last thing: this power that goes out from Jesus’ body, the power that goes out through his hand when he touches the little girl, the power that he exerts by his will and by his purpose, the power that fills his body so fully that it electrifies his clothing—this power is not just raw power. It is called by St. Paul the power of the resurrection. It’s called by St. Mark the power of the Kingdom of God, and it’s called by St. John the power of God’s Spirit and God’s love. This is Love that fills his body here and which electrifies his robe, this is Love who holds the little girl and speaks to her.

You cannot ever separate the power of God from the love of God. I invite you seek the power of God within your life by seeking the love of God. You can know that desire of God for you is a loving desire, no matter what your shame or guilt, your deadness or your desperation. It’s always Love. From this God, the God whom we see revealed Jesus, it’s always Love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.