A Mission Interrupted – Br. David Vryhof
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You might have noticed that the gospel story read this morning contains two healing miracles, not one. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are interwoven – in fact, one story interrupts the other.
We find Jesus surrounded by “a large crowd” just after his return from a healing mission that had taken him across the Sea of Galilee. A man approaches him – not just any man, but a leader of the synagogue, a person of considerable social status and importance. He is desperate with worry and grief and, abandoning all dignity, he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly,” the gospel writer tells us,to come and lay his hands on his sick daughter, who is at the point of death. There is a mixture of desperation and hope in his eyes. He is convinced that Jesus has the authority to make her well, if only he will come, and quickly. So Jesus went with him. The crowd followed.
On the way a curious thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops and looks around. “Who touched me?” he asks. This strikes even his own disciples as an odd question, given that throngs of people are surrounding him and jostling against him. But he is “aware that power had gone forth from him” and he wants to know to whom it has gone. There is a pause, until a woman slowly comes forward and admits that it was she who reached out to touch his robes. Her situation is similarly desperate. The gospel writer Mark underscores the seriousness of her case by telling us that not only had she been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse”! Unlike Jairus, the man whose daughter was gravely ill, she has no high social standing. Her disease has impoverished her and isolated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have been rendered ritually impure. For twelve years she had been in pain physically and ostracized socially! It is no wonder that she took the risk she did in reaching out to touch the man of God.
The interruption must have been a test for Jairus. Realizing that time was of the essence he must have been eager to move on with Jesus to reach the girl before she expired. But Jesus isn’t finished. He wastes precious time to be with this woman, to hear her story, to express compassion for the suffering she has endured, and to recognize and commend her faith. And now he says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
He needn’t have stopped at all. Having realized that power had gone out of him, he could have assumed that a healing had taken place, but knowing the urgency of the mission he was on, could have continued without having to know the details. But he pauses… and listens…, and his careful and compassionate attention brings about a deeper healing, a healing that goes beyond physical wholeness… a healing of the soul. “Go in peace,” he tells her, “and be healed of your disease.”
The interruption has heightened the suspense. Will Jesus get to the sick girl in time? But now the word comes that he is too late. Messengers from the leader’s house arrive to say, “Your daughter is dead.” “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they ask. Hope is lost. Life has passed. Nothing can be done. Perhaps we might expect Jesus to put a hand on the man’s shoulder and say, “I’m sorry.” But instead, he challenges him to have faith. “Do not fear,” he says, “only believe.”
Can you remember a setback, a disappointment or a loss that made you feel that all was lost, that nothing more could be done, that there was no longer any reasonable cause for hope?
With Jesus there is always reason to hope. There is nothing – not even death itself – that can conquer or defeat us. “Do not fear, only believe.”
“The child is not dead but sleeping.” The mourners laugh at him; they know with certainty that she is dead. What possible reason is there for hope now?
He enters the room and takes her by the hand and says to her, “Talithacum,” which means, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. And then those tender words that reflect the real care and concern Jesus has for her, “Give her something to eat.”
There is no setback so severe, no disappointment so disabling, no loss so devastating, that God cannot bring healing and life from it. “Do not fear, only believe.”
The story shows us the kind of faith that is expected of us – a faith that is not easily abandoned or set aside, a faith that persists even when all seems lost or hopeless, a faith that will not let go of its deep conviction that with God all things are possible, a faith that stands firm in the face of evil and hardship and disappointments of every kind and boldly proclaims, “There is nothing in heaven or earth that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).
But this is not only a story about faith; it is also a story about compassion.
It is compassion that causes Jesus to stop and inquire about the one who has touched him. It is compassion that gives her the time to tell her story. It is compassion that cares about her enough to pay attention, even when urgent business is at hand. It is compassion that sees her, that hears her, that accepts and loves and affirms her, and sends her away in peace.
This story has something to say to a generation that sees interruptions as obstacles rather than opportunities. For most of us, interruptions are seen as negative events; we do our best to avoid them. They are obstacles that get in the way of our being highly productive and efficient. And yet we may be sure that they also present us with opportunities — opportunities to give our attention others, to listen carefully to what is on their hearts, to concern ourselves with their troubles, to identify with their pain, to recognize and honor them by taking time to listen, to be for them a channel of God’s compassion and peace.
Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer of the 20thcentury, once wrote, “…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work” (Reaching Out, p.36).
I love the story that Robert Coles, the well-known psychologist and teacher from Harvard University, tells of his first encounter with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and tireless champion of the poor. (You may have heard me tell it before, but I don’t mind repeating it because it so beautifully illustrates what we’ve been talking about today.) Having decided to write about Dorothy Day’s life and having received her consent, Mr. Coles travelled to New York City to meet the great lady and to learn her story. He tells how he entered the front hall of the Catholic Worker House on the lower east side of Manhattan and found Dorothy Day there, standing across the room, speaking patiently to a woman who was obviously mightily intoxicated. He says he watched for several minutes as Dorothy Day posed simple questions which launched tirades of irrational speech from the disheveled, inebriated woman. Dorothy would patiently hear her out and then state her question again, only to watch the nonsensical scene repeat itself. After several minutes of this, she excused herself from the woman and made her way over to where Robert Coles was standing. She walked up to him and said simply, “Are you waiting to speak with one of us?”
“Are you waiting to speak with one of us?” The question speaks volumes about how Dorothy Day saw herself and how she saw the people she served. She could have viewed conversation with this woman as a waste of time, an unnecessary and fruitless interruption in the course of a day in which she undoubtedly had many other things to do. But she didn’t. Like Jesus, she realized that interruptions are not always obstacles; sometimes they are opportunities. And if we fail to recognize them, we will miss the experiences of grace they are hidden in them.
Faith, hope and love.
“Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says to us.
With God there is always reason to hope.
And “be compassionate, just as your Father in heaven is compassionate.”
These are the things that matter.
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A priest told me recently that compassion is the entire message of the Gospel. Then he told me about how a woman approached him once and told him that his shoe was untied. He was using a walker and while he looked down at his shoe, the woman knelt and tied the shoe for him. A real illustration of compassion!