Updated: Jul 1, 2021
St. Philip Lutheran Church
27 June 2021 + Lectionary 13B (Pent. 5)
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
It was a quiet morning at the Cleveland Clinic, and I was near the end of an overnight on-call shift as I made my way to visit the family of a patient who had just died.
It was at that point that I got trapped in an elevator for the second time in my life. It’s not like my delay was going to change the outcome of my patient visit - he had already died - but the claustrophobic experience of what felt like an eternity but was, in actuality, probably less than five minutes already had me frazzled when I stepped off the elevator into the ward where the family was waiting for me.
There were maybe four or five family members - including the man’s wife and step-children - when I walked into the room. After I introduced myself, it was clear that this wasn’t a bereavement visit … or at least not yet.
As I sat there and talked with the family and listened to their stories, it wasn’t lost on me that they continued to speak about their spouse and parent in the present tense. Because the doctor had not yet come, he was not officially pronounced dead. “We need verification,” they kept saying, holding out hope for a “miracle,” the man’s wife repeated.
Up against real life stories like these, it can be difficult to hear stories in the gospels of miraculous healings. And these stories are miraculous. They are profound, beautiful stories.
Twelve years. That’s how long the woman with hemorrhages had suffered. Isolated from her community. All her resources and the medical knowledge of her day exhausted. Exasperated and out of options, she makes a desperate attempt … If I can just touch his clothes…
Twelve years. That’s how old Jairus’s daughter is. We don’t know the details of her condition, or how long she had been sick. But at only twelve years of age, she’s “at the point of death.” If the woman with hemorrhages had spent all she had, then surely Jairus - a leader of the synagogue and a man with great privilege and resources - had spent even more. Exasperated and out of options, he finds himself no better off than this other woman.
Two very different people, in different situations, both desperate, seeking healing at a point where there doesn’t seem to be a reason for hope, when death is lurking and twelve long years have passed with no answers, turning to the one last place they can think of for help. Who among us wouldn’t try every last option?
That desperation makes the experience of healing, when it comes, even more profound. When all hope seems to be lost, Jesus steps in and makes a long-suffering woman well again. And when Jairus’s worst fear comes true - when Jesus’s delay costs Jairus’s daughter her life - even in the face of laughter, Jesus orders her to get up … and immediately she does.
The stories of the healing of the woman with hemorrhages and the raising of Jairus’s daughter are completed miracles, as one fellow preacher this week puts it. But what about incomplete miracles?
Like my experience of sitting with a grieving family, when the doctor finally comes to pronounce their spouse and parent dead, we know incomplete miracles all too well:
When the diagnosis comes… it’s cancer.
When the phone rings at 1 AM… she’s in the hospital.
When the doctor walks into the waiting room… he didn’t make it.
We all know people who have lived with untreatable illness. We have all lost loved ones to death, and not seen them brought back to life in this world. We know incomplete miracles.
Why could there not be just one relatable story in our gospels of a person who died and was not raised, or who was sick and not healed? What promise do these healing stories hold for us in these moments?
It’s easy to fall into the dangerous trap, when talking about healing stories in the gospels, of putting our focus on the physical cure. A trap because it’s not really the point, dangerous because it only leads us to question why healings like that don’t seem to happen anymore.
In this pair of healing stories, though, the emphasis is much more on what the healings mean. Jairus is deeply grieved over the very real possibility of losing his daughter, being separated from his family. The woman with hemorrhages is exasperated, having exhausted every attempt for medical treatment for a condition that has only gotten worse, leaving her as an outcast, cut off from her own community. When Jesus heals them, yes, he cures them physically, but, more importantly, he also restores them to community.
That’s what healing stories in the gospels are all about: restoration to community … and the promise of life going forward.
To borrow from the world of improv theatre, these healing stories are about “yes, and.” Yes, a girl is raised from the dead - and she is restored to her family. Yes, a woman is healed of twelve long years of bleeding - and she is called “daughter,” sent forth in peace, and reunited with her community.
So what of the incomplete miracles then? Where is the healing and the promise for the family of the spouse and parent finally pronounced dead?
Last week, the miracle wasn’t that Jesus calmed the storm. The miracle was that Jesus was present in the boat with the disciples in the midst of it all.
This week, the gospel promise is similar: The miracle isn’t the medical cure. The miracle is the presence of the community made well and whole by the word of Jesus. The miracle is in the community that surrounds us, that supports us, that keeps us going forward, no matter what.
Yes, Jesus did complete many miracles in the pages of the gospels - and we know where this story ends. Jesus himself entered fully into loss, suffering, rejection … all the way to the cross. Through the cross, God knows well the pain of incomplete miracles. And we know that even there God is with us. And through the resurrection, Jesus promises the completion of the incomplete miracles.
The story of these two healings, leading up to the cross and resurrection, teaches us that in this world of now and not yet, God’s promises still prevail. Community will replace our isolation. Abundance, not scarcity, will be a reality. Miracles that are incomplete will be completed. And even in the face of death, God brings new life - to us and to all of creation.