This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 1, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. (Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 8B: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15;2:23-24; Lamentations 3:21-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43.)
Our first reading this morning is from a little book from the Apocrypha called The Book of Wisdom. At one time church tradition ascribed authorship to King Solomon, but it is now believed to have been written sometime in the first or second century before Christ by a Greek-speaking Jew of the Diaspora. It is found in the Greek-language version of Jewish scriptures, not in the Hebrew version, and is therefore not considered as canonical scripture by Jews or by Protestants. Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do accept it, and we Anglicans take a middle course, saying that we read them “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet [we do] not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (Articles of Religion, Art. VI, BCP 1979, pg. 868). Well, here’s an example of life, then:
God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome….
God, says this odd little book, created human beings for immortality.
So here’s some “instruction of manners”: when something bad happens to someone, particularly if someone’s loved one dies, if someone has a miscarriage, if someone is diagnosed with a serious illness (like, say, terminal cancer), do not say, “Well, it’s God’s will. We may not understand it, but it’s part of God’s plan.” And if anyone says that to you or to a loved one or to a friend or even to a stranger, tell them they’re wrong. In fact, if it will make you feel better, you tell them to stick it in their ear! Death is not God’s will; it never was and it never will be! “God,” as the Book of Wisdom says clearly, “did not make death.”
But, of course, someone will say to me, “Wait! You’re making a doctrinal statement based on an apocryphal text and we Anglicans are not supposed to do that.”
OK, yes, that’s what I’m doing, but my “doctrinal statement” is not based only on this small portion of Wisdom. We also have Lamentations in the Lectionary texts this morning: “The Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” God is not in the business of causing grief and suffering; the Prophet Ezekiel, as well, assures us God takes no “pleasure in [even] the death of the wicked, [but would] rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23) In other words, God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.
In addition, elsewhere in Scripture, we have the promise of God through the Prophet Isaiah that “he will swallow up death forever,” (Isaiah 25:8) , that the “dead shall live, their corpses shall rise . . . . and the earth will give birth to those long dead,” (26:19), that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth.” (65:17) In that new reality, “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed . . . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . . They shall not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain [meaning everywhere].” (65:20,25) In other words, God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.
This is what our Gospel reading today assures us in these two stories of Christ healing two women: the daughter of the synagogue ruler Jairus and the unnamed women who touched him in the market place. Jairus had faith that God’s will for his daughter was healing and so he came to Jesus; the woman with the hemorrhage had faith that God’s will for her was healing and so she thought, “If I could just touch the hem of his garment . . . .” God’s will for us is healing; we just have to have faith in that promise.
Faith, however, does not mean believing the unbelievable; it means holding on to God’s promise, despite whatever present realities call it into question. To the writer of Lamentations, which was written in the 6th Century before Christ at time when the Temple (indeed the whole of Jerusalem) had been destroyed and it seemed all hope was lost, such faith meant holding to the credal and communal memory of what God had done for God’s people in ages past. It meant calling God’s mighty works of healing and strength into the present through prayer and proclamation.
For Jairus and the women in the market place, it meant holding fast to God’s promise that he would bring “recovery and healing” to God’s people, that he would “heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security” (Jer. 33:6), and believing that that promise was made manifest in Jesus of Nazarth. It means the same for us today. It means laying claim to Jesus’ works of healing and strength, and bringing them into the present through prayer and proclamation in the context and community of fellow Christians who support and restore our faith, who recite it with us in the creed, who proclaim it to us in the sermon, who sing it with us in the liturgy and hymns. Even in times when it appears that all is lost, the community of faith helps us to hear the voice of faith saying, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him [God] does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” God is not in the business of causing death! “God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome.” God is in the business of healing and life.
This, of course, just raises a question: what if we have faith and pray for someone who is ill, but the sick person does not get better? What if we pray and pray and despite all of our prayer, the person die? Does that mean that we did not have faith or did not have enough faith?
Well, as another preacher has remarked
. . . that depends. Is God obligated to His creatures to answer all prayers with Yes? Is God no more than a cosmic Coke machine, who must dispense what we want when we put in the proper amount? Or does our God have His own will, His own plan, and His own wisdom, which may transcend ours? Personally, I am more comfortable with the idea that God would override any requests I make, if He deems them not in my best interest. What if I ask for something that will cause me great damage, mistakenly believing, in faith, that I need it? Would it not attribute great cruelty and maliciousness to God if we supposed that He were obligated by some scriptural contract to give me what I ask for, no matter what? (Ken Collins, Faith Healing)
If there is healing in response to prayer, we know that it was God’s will to heal, but if there was no healing in response to prayer, the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps healing at a later date would do more good. Perhaps the illness, if prolonged, might lead to fruitful introspection and a new spiritual awareness. Perhaps the person’s earthly life, if prolonged, might be a source of pain and misery for that person or another. Sometimes the answer to prayer is “No” and we cannot know why. “We have to give God credit for being smarter and wiser than we are, and we must acknowledge that we cannot always immediately apprehend [God’s] designs.” (Ken Collins, Faith Healing) But we can know this: God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.
As the Book of Wisdom poetically reminds us, “God did not make death . . . but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” One of the great illusions of our time, some would say that is one of Satan’s great lies, is that through our own effort, through our own science, through our own better medicine, we can live forever. It makes us feel that death is wrong. It comes as a surprise, even when we say that we expect it. We are always surprised by death! But in our Gospel story this morning, we learn that Jesus views death differently; Jesus treats death as if it were simply like falling asleep. Last night (assuming your neighbor was not shooting off fireworks prematurely) you went to sleep. This morning you woke up to a new day. “Death,” says Jesus, is like that.” You fall asleep . . . you wake up. In this Gospel story the young girl wakes up. Jesus shows us that death, the devil’s creation, Satan’s great illusion, is not fatal. Death is merely another form of sleep, because God did not make death; God is not in the business of causing death! God created all things so that they might live. God created human beings for immortality. God is in the business of healing and life.
Let us pray:
O merciful Father, you have taught us in the Holy Scriptures that you do not willingly afflict or grieve anyone: Look with compassion upon all who are in pain or sorrow, all who are troubled by illness, all who tend any who are dying; remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, and comfort them with a sense of your goodness; empower us, O Lord, to minister to their needs and to offer support for their faith; that all may be strengthened in times of weakness and have confidence in your loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.