Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sermon for Year B: Proper 8


Mark 5:22-24, 35b-43
St John’s, Albion & St Mary’s, Robinson

We can feel his pain. On the list of gut-wrenching experiences a human being can potentially have, losing a child is probably at the top. Jairus’ little girl, one of the lights of his life, is very sick, and appears to be dying. He’s heartbroken. He’s desperate. He’s willing to try anything. We can empathize with the situation he’s in. About 30 years ago, there was a drug called Laetrile that some thought was the silver bullet against cancer. But it wasn’t approved for clinical use in this country, so countless numbers of people took their sick loved ones to Mexico in order to obtain it. There wasn’t any good science behind the drug’s effectiveness, and it was kind of an irrational thing to do, but we can understand what drove people to do it. Desperate people often do irrational things.

When we’re desperate, we’re only a step away from surrendering to the grip of fear, and fear can lead us into all sorts of irrational and reactive behaviors. One way of describing this sort of behavior is “reptilian.” In other words, we behave like reptiles, who have very unsophisticated brains—actually, not much more than a brain stem. All they’re capable of doing is reacting to their immediate circumstances—mostly, running from danger and running toward food. Reptiles don’t have all the parts of a brain that humans have, but humans have all the parts of a brain that reptiles have, and when we’re under immediate stress, we can have a tendency to forget to use our whole brain and act like reptiles. Of course, we’re never at our most attractive when we’re behaving that way, and when we do or say things that we later regret, it’s usually because we were being reptilian.

Jairus was being reptilian. He was, after all, one of the leaders of the synagogue in his hometown. He was an important fellow. And Jesus was…a nobody…more or less. He was an itinerant preacher, of which there was no shortage at the time, and slightly kooky to boot. It was not very seemly for someone of Jairus’ standing to place himself in the position of being a supplicant to someone like Jesus. But his little girl was dying, and he was desperate.

Jairus would never have understood or expressed it this way, but his daughter’s mortal illness was evidence of none other than the cosmic power of Sin. And this is something quite apart from the individual acts that we commit or fail to commit and then label as “sins.”  Sin—capital ‘S’—is a force, a power, that is loose in the universe and foments rebellion against God. Sin is a “lame duck,” in that it has already been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and will, at the end of the age, be eradicated. In the meantime, Sin manifests itself in a number of ways, including sickness, suffering, and death—including whatever it was that was afflicting Jairus’ little girl. Sin works against faith; it tries to prevent faith. Sin causes us to go reptilian. Sin limits our perspective on our experience to the present moment. It causes us to act like the only thing that matters is what’s in front of us right now. Sin prevents us from taking a long view. It tries to keep us from using our whole brain. When the power of Sin succeeds in its mission, it causes us to fall into “reptilian” reactivity and fear.

In a strange way, then, it was the power of Sin that caused Jairus to turn to Jesus for help. He was driven by fear and panic to do something that, in his world, was completely irrational. Fortunately for Jairus—fortunately for us—Jesus is in the business of redeeming people from the power of Sin. After Jairus first made his request of Jesus, the situation got even bleaker still. Word arrived that the little girl had died. Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” By the time Jairus and Jesus—along with the disciples Peter, James, and John—reach the house, the rituals of mourning are already in progress. Jesus says to those who are weeping and wailing, “What’s all the fuss about? The kid’s only taking a nap.” Or words to that effect. People laugh at him. Understandably. What could he have been thinking?

Here’s what Jesus was thinking: He knew that the child was really dead. She wasn’t literally asleep. Jesus was making a faith statement. And it isn’t only that he knew he was about to restore the little girl’s life, although I think we can assume that’s what he intended to do. Rather, he was taking a long view. Jesus was looking at what was happening in the present through the lens of what would happen in the future—namely, his own death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. So, from that perspective, he could say that the girl was only sleeping.

Of course, for Jesus to see the plight of Jairus’ daughter from the perspective of the defeat of the power of Sin through the cross and resurrection, he had to look into the future. You and I have the luxury of seeing the cross and resurrection as accomplished facts. And when we keep those facts in view, the power of Sin isn’t quite so…powerful. In fact, it’s power-less. When our eyes are on the cross and the empty tomb, faith arrives and fear is banished. When our eyes are on the cross and the empty tomb, hope arrives and anxiety is banished. When our eyes are on the cross and the empty tomb, peace arrives, and panicky, reactive, reptilian behavior is banished. We are able to exercise the gift of faith, and know Christ’s healing and restoring presence with us “no matter what.” In Jairus’ case, what he received was what he wished for—the life of his daughter. In the economy of God’s redeeming love, it doesn’t always work just that way. We have disappointments. Nonetheless, the fact of the cross and the empty tomb offers us the opportunity to know the loving and healing touch of Jesus even when the outcome at the time is not what we hope for. It enables us to rise above the level of snakes and alligators and turtles and use the entire brain that God gave us. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.   

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