I preached last Sunday (Feb 5, 2023), the Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, using the texts from Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary: 2 Kings 5:1-4, 9-14; Psalm 30; Acts 16:16-24; and Matthew 9:18-26. The sermon text is below, and you can find the 17-minute sermon audio here.
The Collect for today cries out to God for freedom from our bondage and for “the liberty of that abundant life which has been made known to us in Jesus Christ…”
This is the fundamental cry of humanity, is it not? To be freed from suffering and experience flourishing. Freed from anxiety and depression and OCD and other mental maladies. Freed from incurable diseases and chronic pain. Freed from loneliness and the heartache of being estranged from loved ones. Freed from entrenched systems of oppression and violence.
What bondage or suffering are you most in touch with today? Your own? Someone else’s? Take a moment and hold it in your mind in God’s presence, and hear this good news:
In the midst of these sufferings and these longings, beloved, today we proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ, risen and present with us now, is responsive to our cries for mercy in the midst of suffering. When we find ourselves at the end of our rope, we find Jesus there; compassionate and eager to set us free from our bondage and bring us the liberty of the abundant life of God’s reign. We don’t have to hedge our bets or whip up more faith or explain the results. Beloved, let us simply ask Jesus for help, and trust God’s power to raise us from death to life.
Tokens of the abundant life referred to our Collect are given to marginalized people in each of our Scripture readings. A Gentile army commander is healed of a skin disease because of the word of an enslaved girl. Another enslaved girl used by men to make money is set free from her bondage to demonic spirits (disturbing the “peace” of the city). A precious little girl is raised from the dead, and a hemorrhaging woman is healed and released from her suffering when she touches the fringe of Jesus’s clothing.
This story from Matthew’s Gospel is a healing-story-within-a-healing-story.
A leader (probably of the synagogue) comes to Jesus for help because he realizes he’s at the end of his rope, powerless to prevent his daughter’s death. He gets an idea in his head (well-founded) that Jesus can raise her from the dead, and so instead of accepting his fate and joining the mourners, he leaves to find Jesus, and advocates on behalf of his daughter: powerless and marginalized by her gender, her age, and now her death.
In contrast to the “rulers of the Gentiles” that Jesus will speak of later that lord it over others… this leader recognizes his limitations and seeks Jesus’s help on behalf of a marginalized, powerless person. And Jesus responds to his cry for mercy… he gets up and goes with him.
But the story is interrupted by another story. “Then suddenly a woman…” The text doesn’t tell us much at all about her… only that she had been suffering for 12 years from some kind of hemorrhaging. She comes up behind Jesus to touch the fringe of his clothing, because she is also at the end of her rope, and somehow has gotten the idea into her head that if she touches Jesus’s clothing, she will be healed.
Her touch gets Jesus’s attention: he turns and sees her… and publicly blesses her: “Take heart, daughter – your faith has healed you.” And she is healed. Jesus again is responsive to the desperate cries of the suffering, and God’s power is released to bring healing to this woman, a token of the wholeness that will mark the abundance of God’s empire.
Then the other story picks back up. Jesus gets to the leader’s house, and they are already mourning her death with music and lament. Death’s finality is being observed. But the girl’s father had come to ask Jesus to do something, and Jesus intends to respond to his request, and tells the mourners “Y’all can leave now, because this precious girl is not dead, she’s just sleeping.”
They laugh at him. They know what death is.
Jesus, undeterred, exercises his authority to do what he’s been asked to do: he makes them all leave, and then takes her by the hand, and “the precious girl arose”, raised from death to life by the power of God. A token of the empire God is coming to establish: a sovereignty that sets us free from the dominion of death, and brings life to the whole world.
Notice with me how utterly beautiful Jesus is!
To those who ask him for help, Jesus responds with simple service: “Please come and raise my daughter” – “OK” – “If only I can touch his clothing, I will be healed…” – “Your faith has made you well.”
Very often in the Gospels, Jesus does stuff because someone asks him to. Teresa Of Ávila said: “When one reaches the highest degree of human maturity, one has only one question left: How can I be helpful?” We see this maturity and grace in Jesus, and it reflects who God is.
Behold also the humility of Jesus! He downplays his own role and power in these stories, and instead affirms the faith of those who ask for help. Not “My power has healed you” but “Your faith has healed you!” Not “Watch everyone; I’m going to raise a girl from the dead!” but “Leave everyone!! She’s just napping – I’ll wake her up.”
Such glorious humility. Always seeking to see, to heal, to bless, to bring life.
Jesus Christ, risen and present with us now, is also responsive to OUR cries for mercy in the midst of OUR suffering. When we find ourselves at the end of our rope, we find Jesus there; compassionate and eager to set us free from our bondage and bring us the liberty of the abundant life of God’s reign. We don’t have to hedge our bets or whip up more faith or explain the results. Beloved, let us simply ask Jesus for help, and trust God’s power to raise us from death to life.
This good news might be hard to hear, though, because most of us have cried out to God in a time of need and NOT received the result we hoped for.
The child with leukemia has a setback, yet another Black person is killed by police, the long-standing health condition just keeps getting worse, the loneliness becomes debilitating, yet another potential employer says No, the house you hoped would be your next home goes to someone else.
It’s tempting to believe we are foolish to pray for healing, for provision, for help in our suffering. If prayer doesn’t “work” then why bother?
But, beloved, prayer is not a technology. It’s not something that “works” or doesn’t. It’s not something we can figure out or master or control. It’s not a technique we can use to obtain desired results. Prayer a mystery we enter into. It’s a communion we participate in. An encounter we surrender to.
So why are people sometimes healed when we pray and sometimes not? I don’t know. I’ve got stuff I’ve been praying about for years that I’m still confused about. Right now I’m asking God to help me in a few very specific ways, and I’m constantly tempted to believe I’ve been a fool to trust Jesus, that I was stupid to give my life over to God’s call 29 years ago.
I get weary showing up day after day to pray again for daily bread, for creativity and vision, for endurance and wisdom, for healing and justice. But that’s faith: Coming to the end of your rope, and asking Jesus to help.
That’s all the synagogue leader had. That’s all the hemorrhaging woman had. No matter how much we grow in our faith, we never outgrow the simplicity of this kind of prayer. Through these kinds of prayers, we get to participate in the healing of the world – even if we don’t often get to see clearly the results of our prayers.
God invites us to be part of bringing abundant life to the whole cosmos, and our prayers are part of that, whether for ourselves or others.
So we’ll respond today by praying the prayers of the people together. We do this every Sunday, and it’s an opportunity for us to exercise faith together, advocating before God for ourselves, each other, and the marginalized.
We are receiving new members today, and part of what it means to be members of one another is that we stand in solidarity with each other, praying for one another’s needs as if they were our own. I see this happen almost every day in our community, and it’s part of how we participate in God’s reign.
What suffering are you most in touch with today? Where have you reached the end of your rope? Where do you see the need for freedom and life? Perhaps it is for yourself, like the woman with the issue of blood… Perhaps it is for someone else, like the synagogue leader…
Hold that situation or person in mind, and when we get to the prayer that says “Comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit…” we’ll create some extra silence for you to lift yourself or someone else in prayer. Let your prayers escape your lips. Speak the names of loved ones out loud as a way of holding them in God’s presence for healing and freedom.
Jesus Christ is with us now, and is responsive to our cries for mercy; compassionate and eager to set us free from our bondage and bring us the liberty of the abundant life of God’s reign. No need to hedge our bets or whip up more faith or explain the results. Beloved, let us pray together for the church and for the world.
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