June 28, 2015
World Enough and Time
“You Can’t Save Every Puppy…”
In the television show, Blue Bloods, two of the beat cops are young and pretty tender-hearted. Every once in a while, when one of them will seem to be getting over-involved in a case, trying to help a kid out of trouble, or something like that, the other one will say, “You can’t save every puppy in the pound.” They take turns being the one trying to save another puppy and the one issuing the word about limits.
The word about limits is true: we do not have the time, energy, resources, wisdom to do every good thing we can imagine doing. But then, of course, there is the person in front of you: that kid arrested on a misdemeanor drug charge, that woman who just got evicted. Once their needs come into focus for those two young cops, one or the other of them will decide, even if they can’t save every puppy in the pound, in this case, they have to try to do something.
In the Gospel reading this morning, an immediate need is pressing on Jesus. Jairus is the leader of a local synagogue, and he falls on his knees in front of Jesus, begging for help. “My daughter is at the point of death!” Jesus goes with him, and so does a crowd of onlookers, eager to see what will happen.
As Jesus moves along, someone else finds him. She is a woman without resources and with a chronic disease that has left her on the fringe of society, Depending on how harsh local rules are about this sort of thing, she may not even be able to attend the synagogue.
How to Choose?
Presuming that both these people need healing, which should Jesus choose to heal? Maybe you think the woman is the better candidate.
- After all, she is right there, in the crowd. Jesus does not need to make his way to her.
- The word Mark uses to describe the woman’s predicament—that she suffered much—is used at other places in the gospel only to describe Jesus’ own suffering. Her ailment is not just bothersome; it is on its way to being unendurable.
- What is more, the woman has great faith, greater faith even than Jairus to whom Jesus will need to say, “Do not fear! Only believe!”
So maybe it makes sense that Jesus stops to interact with this woman.
Or maybe he should ignore the woman and help the girl.
- You could argue that the girl is more important because she has more of her life ahead of her.
- You might point out that the little girl’s ailment is acute, while the woman has been sick for 12 years—what will another couple of hours matter?
Or maybe it has occurred to you that the mistake Jesus made is pausing to listen to the woman, to seek her out, to wait while she knelt before him in fear and trembling and told him everything—how long did that take, I wonder. How long does it take to tell someone about your 12 years of suffering, and all the doctors you saw, and all the money spent, and all the failures of medicine to help, and all the isolation, and the hopes and dashed hopes, and the wild idea that if you could just get to that man’s clothes, just touch them, you would be healed?
Economy of Scarcity
The question about which course to choose is a question we ask when we sense limited resources. Can Jesus attend to the woman in the crowd and heal the little girl? And if he cannot, which should he choose? The question comes out of what we might call an economy of scarcity. When we find ourselves thinking, “There is not enough,” or “There will not be enough,” we are perceiving scarcity.
A lot of our civic conversations start from a sense of scarcity. For example, if new immigrants get jobs in America, will there be jobs for those whose families immigrated to America 2 or 5 or 15 generations ago? When we discuss this question nationally, we decide differently about it in some part based on whether we think people beginning new jobs will result finally in more jobs being available or fewer.
If Black lives matter, does that mean Causasian lives do not? Is heterosexual marriage less of a wonder because same sex marriage is legal alongside it?
Questions like this point to an understanding of our civic life as a zero-sum game. Honor, blessing, meaningful work, having your life matter: there is a temptation to believe that all of this is in limited supply, and if one person gets it, by definition another person has to lose it or never have it.
This kind of zero-sum game is what the messengers know when they say to Jairus, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” His daughter is dead. There is no more time. It’s too late.
The Reign of God
Except it isn’t. In the Reign of God, Jesus means to give us back to each other and to God, and he has all the time in the world to do it.
That woman who had been bleeding for twelve years should not have even been in a crowd of people. Because of the nature of her disease, she was constantly ritually unclean. To touch her, or be touched by her, even to sit on a chair where she had sat would be to share in that unclean state. No matter how ancient or modern the culture, disease always brings with it social isolation—think about who you shrink back from, or about a time when people have shrunk back from you. The woman’s disease would have isolated her for years.
In response to that, Jesus stops, and he waits while she tells him everything. When he does this, he begins to undo all those years of isolation.
Then, in spite of the reports of the little girl’s death, Jesus continues toward her, too. He takes her by the hand, commands her to get up, and when she does, he gives her back to her parents. He undoes the isolation of death as surely has he undoes the isolation of disease.
I remember at various points in my education in mathematics that it seemed like the game changed. You would be going along, mastering arithmetic using whole numbers, and then the teacher would introduce fractions. I had to rethink what I thought I knew. At some point, someone taught me to solve for “x”, and I realized you could discover amazing things—things I could not have imagined figuring out before—just by keeping both sides of an equation equal. Negative numbers opened a whole new vista. And that was all before college!
The Kingdom of God is like that. We think we understand the contours of it, the rules of the game, and then… it turns out to be wilder in all directions than we thought. The writer of Ephesians blesses God at the end of chapter 3 by saying, “Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever.”
God can accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
What We Can Imagine Here
So think what we can’t imagine… here at Good Shepherd. We have a lot of energy, for example, to be part of a Village Network startup to help elders stay longer in their own homes and match up volunteers with needs. Could we also imagine how we might reach out to people not in the last third of life but the first third?
We also have a lot of energy for social engagement in our community, and we are getting a solid reputation as a gathering place for people who want to improve life in general in Transylvania County, not just life for ourselves and people we know personally. Can we also imagine living in the presence of divine mystery and holiness? Our imagination there is maybe not as well formed—or at least we are not great at putting it into words.
The Reign of God: Not Just “More” or “Faster”
My point here is not that our church has to do everything all at once. In fact, my point is not about doing more or moving faster at all.
About five years ago, I decided to stop jaywalking in Minneapolis. I decided that it would be a good discipline to stop rushing everywhere, as if the 30 seconds I “saved” was worth the vigilance and adrenaline spent getting safely across the street against a light. Instead, I started waiting for the light to change.
I just stood there, and my world kind of transformed.
- I started to develop the capacity to listen a little longer to students before interrupting them.
- I arrived a little less breathless to my destination.
- I struck up conversations with strangers waiting for the same light, and began to strike up conversations in other places.
My point in talking about youth ministry alongside elder care, and fostering a sense of holy mystery alongside social engagement, is not that we should multiply programs as fast as possible. My point is that God’s imagination for the healing of the world works differently than ours—like the way math works differently when you introduce negative numbers, or base 7, and the way the world seems to behave differently when you stop running through it. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the one seated on the throne (Rev. 21:5).
Jesus stops to talk to the woman in the crowd, even when a different need is urgent.
Jesus keeps going toward the little girl even after he has been told she is dead.
Jesus came to give us back to each other and to God. To do that, he will mess with what we know about the way the world works. He will redefine how much is too little and how much is enough. In the end, he will open up whole vistas about who and what can be made new. Hold on. The ride is wild in the light of God.
Hymn of the Day: “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”