Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 2006 (Proper 8B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on July 2, 2006. 
Based on Mark 5:22-24, 35b-43 (Proper 8, Year B).

The bedtime routine at our house is not for the faint of heart. It begins with the nightly attempt to shepherd the boys upstairs. Which goes something like this: “Boys it’s time to get upstairs for PJ’s.” “But we’re starving.” “You just had dinner. Get upstairs.” Once we’ve finally made it to the summit and we’ve wrestled them into their pajamas, the battle over the brushing begins. Every night they act as if brushing their teeth is some newly invented activity. As if they haven’t been doing this every single night since their first baby tooth. 

Then comes the book – which is the fun part. But that’s followed by the requisite cup of water and the pronouncements of “I’m not tired” and “I can’t sleep.” In Ben’s case, the ever-expanding bedtime routine now includes something called the Synonym Game. I say a word like “jump” and Ben says “hop.” Or I say “blanket” and he says “covers.” We go on like this for awhile until we shift to the Antonym Game. I’ll say “fast” and Ben will say “slow.” We haven’t graduated to the Homonym Game yet — you know two words that sound the same but have different meanings, like pain and pane — one hurts and the other’s a window. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Anything to push back bedtime.

I thought about this as I looked at Jesus’ own word association in this morning’s passage. “Do not fear, only believe.” Now at first glance it’s not clear how this combination fits together. Fear and belief are not synonyms; they obviously don’t mean the same thing. But they’re also not antonyms, they are not opposites. The opposite of belief is usually doubt. And the opposite of fear is, maybe, confidence. Yet Jesus says “Do not doubt, only believe.” An unusual pairing of words.

But it is fear that is so often the great barrier to belief. It’s not doubt. We often must endure doubts in order to first test and then strengthen our belief. But the same thing can’t be said about fear. Fear simply leads to paralysis. When we fear failure, we don’t try things. When we fear death, we don’t fully live. When fear prevents us from trusting God we cannot become true believers.

In this story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter, the unbelief of the bystanders stands in direct contrast to the strong faith of Jairus. Jairus believes without a doubt that Jesus can heal his daughter. And what makes Jairus’ faith even more compelling is that he was a leader of the synagogue, part of the religious establishment. Certainly not a man who should be chasing after a rogue religious leader. But he was desperate. His daughter was at the point of death, a hopeless case. And so out of a desperation rooted in his love for his daughter, he sought out Jesus. He set his fear aside – fear of being wrong about Jesus, fear of being ridiculed by his peers – and came to Jesus not out of fear but out of belief.

This is, of course, also a story of healing. A little girl is brought back from the brink of death at Jesus’ command. But Jesus isn’t a magician. Jairus’ daughter isn’t brought to life through magical powers but by the power of God working through a person of faith. For a healing miracle to fully take root, the ground must be fertile. And Jairus was fertile ground. He was receptive to the miraculous healing power of Jesus Christ and it came to pass.

But what happens when we are faithful and we don’t receive the anticipated miracle or healing in our own lives or those of our friends and loved ones? We’ve all prayed for people who have then gotten sicker or died. That doesn’t mean we should have prayed harder or been more faithful. We can’t go around saying, “if only I was a better prayer, my uncle wouldn’t have died.” That’s not the point. God’s power working in us doesn’t rely on our own perceived depth of piety. 

But neither is our faith based solely upon miracles. In fact, even if Jairus’ daughter had died, it wouldn’t have minimized Jairus’ own act of faith. He sought Jesus. Nor would it have minimized Jesus’ faithful response to both Jairus and his daughter. He was present; he was with this family in their time of trial and need. Just as Jesus is with us whenever we call upon him. Even when the results don’t mesh with our own requests and desires.

Perhaps this is best illustrated in the word used for “get up” in the passage. “Talitha cum” Jesus commands. “Little girl, get up!” In the Greek it is the same word used for the resurrection. And so whether or not the girl rises to life again in this world, Jesus is offering her the promise of resurrection to eternal life. Belief goes beyond what we see in the natural world. Faith transcends our limited vision.

But to silence the doubters, to quell the mocking, Jesus does indeed raise the girl from physical death back to physical life. So that the bystanders in this story, and so that you and I, may not fear but only believe. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

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