For Sunday February 4, 2018
5th Sunday after the Epiphany
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
There are weeks when the lectionary readings resonate with my everyday life in ways that feel serendipitous and lovely. And then there are weeks when I sit down with the readings and think, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” This week has been one of those.
On Wednesday night, a dear friend of mine — an apparently healthy wife and mother in her mid-forties — collapsed at work, and died before her husband and daughters could even make it to the hospital to say goodbye. This is the second sudden cardiac death in my friendship circle in two years.
Two weeks before that, our sweet labradoodle puppy, seven months old, caught what looked like a cold, started having seizures, and went blind. Five days later, she died of viral encephalitis.
Meanwhile, our fifteen-year-old son is now approaching month five of a nonstop headache that spikes into migraines, keeps him nauseous, dizzy, and home from school, and baffles his physicians.
Should I go on? There’s my mother, who is steadily losing her hearing. My mother-in-law, whose severe diabetes might soon cost her a leg. My daughter, who continues to battle anxiety and depression. My husband’s patients, who crowd his E.R daily with all manner of painful and frightening illnesses. My fellow parishioners, friends of friends, acquaintances of acquaintances, and folks on weekly prayer lists who continue to hope and wait for healing.
And then there’s this week’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus goes to Simon’s house, learns that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick, and heals her instantly. But that’s not all. Mark goes on to report that as word spreads about the miraculous healing, the “whole city” gathers outside Simon’s door, and Jesus “cures many who are sick with various diseases, and casts out many demons.” And then, following a night of prayer, he travels throughout Galilee, “proclaiming the message" and casting out more demons.
I’ll be honest: right now this Gospel passage feels cruel. Or if not downright cruel, then at least inaccessible. What are we supposed to do with Jesus’s healing stories, here, today, now? Is it just me, or have things changed rather drastically since he walked the earth two thousand years ago, ushering in God’s kingdom with all manner of miraculous signs and wonders? Where has all the magic gone?
“The problem with miracles,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own. Every one of us knows someone who is suffering. Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.”
And so we theorize, theologize, and spiritualize: “God is using this sickness to build your character.” “He’s preparing you for something great.” “Satan is testing you — stay strong!” “You need to have more faith.” “Maybe there’s some secret sin in your life — have you tried confession?” “You should have so-and-so pray for you; he/she seems to have a direct line to God.” “God’s timing is different from ours — just be patient.” “Have you tried fasting?” “Send me/my church/my ministry money, and God will heal you for sure!”
Besides being insensitive and hurtful, these claims and admonitions encourage us to assume that health, wholeness, and comfort are the norms we should expect to experience in this life. Everything else by this accounting — physical pain, emotional pain, chronic illness, untimely death — is an aberration. No wonder people flock to churches that promise prosperity, healing, and happiness Sunday after Sunday — why not grab hold of the magic if it’s out there to claim? Why not demand glitter and spectacle?
Don’t get me wrong — I love many of the healing stories in the Gospels. I love the power and compassion with which Jesus touches the sick and the suffering, restoring them to their families, their communities, and their vocations. But sometimes I wish that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had included a few less dramatic stories in their books, too. Did Jesus ever, for example, visit a feverish woman, take her hand, and offer only the comfort of his presence — no cure? Did he ever tell a chronically ill child, “I can’t take away your pain, but I love you, and I’ll try my best to help you bear it?” Did he ever encounter an unclean spirit he didn’t or couldn’t cast out? Did he ever sit in the dark with a profoundly depressed man — just sit? Did he ever keep vigil at a deathbed, and cry with the family as they said goodbye? No resurrection — just tears?
Needless to say, we can't know the answer to these questions, but we do know that the Gospels only record about three dozen of Jesus’s miracles altogether. In this week’s story, the “whole city” came to Jesus, and he healed “many” — not all. Though the crowds continued to look for him the morning after he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, he left them unhealed and skipped town. In short, Jesus only healed a small number of people in one tiny part of the world before he died. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to eliminate the world's disease and despair. And unlike us, he never glamorized healing — if anything, he seemed embarrassed by the attention his miracles attracted, as if they were beside the point. Most of the time, he told people to keep their healings and exorcisms quiet.
What does this mean? Maybe it means that we’re the ones who’ve turned Jesus into a magician. Maybe it means that if we look more carefully, we’ll find a Messiah who is much more mysterious — elusive, subtle, quiet — than our consumerist and quick-fix culture wants to follow. Who, for example, is the Jesus of verse thirty-five of this week’s story, the Jesus who eludes the crowds, seeks out deserted places, prays in the dark, and hides from his disciples such that they have to “hunt” for him? Clearly, this isn’t a Jesus who will appeal to faith healers or prosperity preachers. But he is the Jesus of the Gospels.
When my son first started having headaches last October, I prayed every single day for God to heal him. I prayed for wisdom for his pediatrician and neurologist. I prayed for his acupuncturist’s hands as that healer administered the needles. I prayed over every dose of every medicine my son swallowed. Okay, who am I kidding? I still pray like that. I love my son, and I can’t stop hoping that God will grant us a miracle.
Likewise, I have prayed for years now for my daughter’s emotional and psychological healing. With words, without words, beyond words. These days, I go over to a side chapel in our church every Sunday morning during Communion, and I light two candles — one for my son and one for my daughter. The lighting is a gesture of faith, maybe. Of hope. But it’s also a gesture of surrender and exhaustion. As in, “I just don’t know what words to use anymore. My formulas haven't worked, and I don't understand. Please let these tiny lights be my prayers.”
In other words, I’m learning now — slowly and painfully — to live with the mystery of the “already-and-the-not-yet.” Yes, the kingdom of God has already come, and its inbreaking during Jesus’s time on earth was marked by all kinds of signs and wonders. I believe this. And yet, no; those signs and wonders are not my daily reality. Someday, somehow, all will be well, but all is not well yet. So the great task, the great sorrow, the great calling, the great journey, is to live graciously and compassionately in this vast and often terrible in-between. To offer the comfort of my steady presence to those who suffer. To keep myself from making promises that are not mine to make. To create and to restore community, family, and dignity to those who have to walk through this life sick, weak, and wounded — without cures. And to make sure that no one who has to die — and that’s all of us, in the end — dies alone and unloved if I can help it.
For most of my life, I've held out for magic, believing that it's the harder thing, the better thing, the more worthy thing. But it’s not. Magic is easy. Magic is the easy way out. The shortcut. Mystery is hard. Not knowing is hard. Living well in the tension between the already-and-the-not-yet is hard. But mystery is where Jesus is. Let’s pray for the courage to dwell there.