Sunday, June 28, 2015

God's Triage

Here's today's Gospel lesson, one of my favorites. It's from the fifth chapter of Mark:

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat* to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing* what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Below is my homily, which I delivered as a guest preacher in a Lutheran church this morning.


For many years now, I’ve volunteered in a local emergency room, offering spiritual care to patients and families. Most of you probably know that emergency rooms use a triage system. The most critical patients are seen first.  This means that someone with a painful but non-life-threatening fracture may wait hours for treatment, while an unconscious patient, or someone with severe chest pain, is seen immediately. I spend a lot of time explaining this system to irate patients who are tired of waiting, and who don’t understand why somebody who just showed up five minutes ago is being seen first. “That means that the person who just got here is sicker than you are,” I tell them. “Believe me, you never want to be sent to the front of the line in an emergency room.”

Much less often, I spend time with the relatives and friends of patients who have been sent to the front of the line. Being first in line in an ER means that you’re probably in immediate danger of dying. It means that you’re the center of a buzzing hive of doctors and nurses doing invasive, painful things to you that you probably can’t feel, because you’re probably unconscious. If you make it out of the ER alive, you’ll almost certainly go directly to the Intensive Care Unit.

The friends and family of these patients wait in a small, private room called the Family Consult Room. The Consult Room has subdued lighting, soft couches, a phone, and several boxes of tissues. Waiting here is agonizing. A doctor will race in, ask urgent questions about the patient’s medical history, deliver a five-second update on the patient’s condition, and race back out again. If the doctor approaches the room slowly, the news usually isn’t good. There are no words to describe the tension and terror in this place. Hell is a Consult Room.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel, which – if you’re Jairus, anyway – makes Jesus look like the world’s worst ER doctor. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, which makes him a VIP in the Jewish religious establishment. The fact that he’s willing to beg a street preacher for help shows how desperate he is. He’s already tried everything else he can think of, and it hasn’t worked. He’s prayed, made sacrifices in the Temple, and called in all the best specialists, to no avail. His beloved daughter still lies dying.

So Jairus humbles himself. He leaves behind his safe, respectable piety to seek out the renegade healer from Galilee. People do crazy things to get close to this guy, to get through the crowds surrounding him. Just last week, some people cut a hole in someone’s roof to lower their paralyzed friend into the room where Jesus was. It worked. The paralyzed man can walk now.

Right now, Jairus would give anything to see his daughter walking again, instead of lying in bed, thrashing and moaning with fever, too weak even to sip water. So he ventures into the streets to find the healer, and he grits his teeth and forces his way through the crowd surrounding Jesus. Jairus has to use his knees and elbows, and he probably wouldn’t be able to get through at all, if his social status didn’t make him an object of respect and a little bit of fear. Finally Jairus reaches Jesus, and asks him for help, and Jesus says, “Yes, of course I’ll come to your house.”

Jairus has made very clear to this slightly disreputable street preacher that his daughter is dying. If Jesus were a good ER doctor, Jairus’ daughter would immediately go to the front of the line. Everyone else can wait. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. It’s incredibly hot, and the crowd stinks of sweat and bodies. Jairus feels like he’s going to be sick, and his daughter has no time to spare. Can’t Jesus walk any faster? But he doesn’t walk faster: he stops. And then he turns around to ask, “Who touched me?”  

“Are you kidding?” his disciples ask. “In this crowd? It could have been anybody. Jesus, what are you doing? Come on. We have to go to Jairus’ house.”

But Jesus is still standing there. He’s talking to somebody, a gaunt, filthy woman who’s kneeling in the street, weeping and babbling. She tells Jesus that she’s been bleeding for twelve years – that’s as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive -- and Jairus can’t help but wrinkle his nose and take a step back, because according to Temple law, bleeding women are unclean.

Jesus keeps talking to her. She was the one who touched him, and the minute her fingers brushed the fabric of his robe she felt the bleeding stop, felt herself healed, and Jesus felt something happen too, which is why he turned around. And now she’s kneeling there, telling Jesus the entire twelve-year saga of her symptoms and sufferings, while Jairus’ child lies at home, dying. This no-account woman has already stopped bleeding. She’s not dying. She can wait. But Jesus just stands there, and listens to her.  

Take a moment now to imagine what Jairus must have felt as Jesus stood there listening to the bleeding woman. Imagine what Jairus must have wanted to say.

Well, probably Jairus did say all that. He probably yelled a number of things we don’t feel comfortable even whispering in church.  It’s entirely likely that he started tugging on Jesus’ sleeve, at the very least.  But Jesus didn’t budge; he stayed there, listening to this woman with no money and no social status, who until a little while ago also had no hope. Yes, she was already physically cured. Her bleeding stopped the moment she touched Jesus’ robe. But healing and cure are two different things. Healing takes longer, and goes deeper. Jesus listened to her until she’d told “the whole truth,” Mark tells us, and then he pronounced her well, and Jairus must have let out a huge sigh of relief and thought, “Finally!  Now we can get moving!”

But that’s the moment when the messengers come to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead.

I’m not going to ask you to imagine what Jairus must have felt then. I don’t think we can begin to imagine it unless we’ve been there.  Jairus didn’t have the privacy of a Consult Room: he had to go through hell in public.  He must have thought, “If only Jesus hadn’t stopped to listen to that unclean woman who’d already stopped bleeding, my daughter would still be alive.” When Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe,” Jairus must have wanted to punch him. How could he believe? What was left to believe?

We know how the story ends. It’s the happiest ending, the child raised from the dead. But I wonder if Jairus ever really recovered. How do you ever get over hearing that your child is dead, even if she’s then given back to you? How do you ever get over seeing her dead, even if a few minutes later, she’s skipping around the room and munching on a piece of bread? What lessons about God do you take away from this heart-breaking, terrifying episode?

Some of the lessons are obvious. The first and most important, I think, is that God wants all of us to be whole and healed. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. Like a good ER doctor, God treats everyone, both nameless outcasts and the children of the rich and famous. The lesson also reminds us that healing takes different forms for different people, and – just in case we’ve forgotten – that God’s time and priorities aren’t ours. How often, in extremity, do we abandon our illusions of power and control and beg God to help us, please help us, but God, you have to do it now, because there’s no time left! And how often, when God doesn’t answer on our timetable, do we rage and curse and despair?  

But another obvious lesson here is the value of perseverance. Both the bleeding woman and Jairus are stubborn and fiercely determined, pushing through huge crowds towards the One they know can help them.  Both of them have to wait: the bleeding woman for twelve years,Jairus for probably less than an hour. Neither of them likes waiting, but neither of them gives up and goes home before being treated, as I’ve sometimes seen angry ER patients do.

All of us can probably see ourselves in one of these characters, either the bleeding woman or Jairus. All of us need healing from something. And important as physical healing is, our afflictions and suffering take many, many other forms. The bleeding woman’s joy when she is healed is the joy, this week, of every gay couple in this country who has waited so long for marriage equality. It’s the joy that people of color – still facing violence, discrimination and institutionalized racism – can still only hope to feel, someday, when we finally manage to overcome our racial schisms.  Activists of all stripes need tremendous faith to believe that such joy is possible. That kind of perseverance takes more energy than many of us can imagine; anger, exhaustion and despair are ever-present temptations. Many of my friends, both gay and straight, never thought they’d see marriage equality in their lifetimes.  

But today’s Gospel offers another, subtler lesson. Because it’s so easy for us to hear this as a story about competition for apparently limited resources, we may overlook the fact that it’s also a story about people being pulled out of their usual social circles, out of their comfort zones, and into a space of common humanity. The bleeding woman, stigmatized and untouchable, normally wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a leader of the synagogue. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, normally wouldn’t have anything to do with such a woman. Their pain and desperation lead them to the same place. For a few moments, they are visible to each other.

The Gospel doesn’t tell us if they acknowledged or spoke to each other. The Scripture story is about Jesus’ relationship with each of them, not about their relationship with each other. But that story happened centuries ago.  Here and now, our faith calls us to be Christ to, and to see Christ in, everyone. We are Jesus in the crowd. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hearts but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world. Ours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good, and ours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

Our world, like that of the Gospels, is filled with all kinds of pain and tragedy: with people who need life-saving care in the next ten minutes and with people trying to overcome decades, if not centuries, of oppression. Seeking healing, we often wind up side by side with people whose own pain has made them desperate. How do we respond? Do we shut them out, or do we listen to them? Do we seek healing only for our own pain, or for everyone’s? Do we view our unexpected glimpse into other people’s lives as a startling gift, or as an unwanted curse?  Do we ignore those other stories, or learn from them?

ER waiting rooms are some of the most diverse and democratic places in the United States. On any given day, at any given hour, they are filled with people waiting in agony and in hope, the rich side by side with the poor, everyone desperate to be next in line. In the waiting room, and in the ER itself, I’ve seen predictable and saddening acts of selfishness: people cursing those who are seen before they are, threatening the staff, accusing doctors and nurses of every kind of favoritism.  But I’ve also seen acts of compassion and humanity: strangers from different walks of life giving each other cabfare, watching each other’s children when someone has to go to X-Ray, and – maybe most importantly -- listening to each other’s stories. I can’t tell you how often an ER patient, when I offer prayer, has said, “I want to pray for the person next door, who’s dealing with so much more than I am.” In the name of the One who wants all of us to be whole and healed, let us go and do likewise.