Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Faith and Fear in Ambiguous Situations

Proper 8a.09.Holy Trinity/St. Alban’s
The first Christian theologians taught
that each passage from Scripture
has several levels of meaning.
You can read the lesson
first, as a literal historical account;
second, as a story with a moral point
telling us something about how to be human;
third, as a story with a spiritual point
telling us something about God;
and finally, as a story with an ecclesiastical point,
telling us how to be the Church.

I believe the key is to start with the story,
then get on to the other meanings.
It’s not good to put the cart before the horse.
Here’s what I mean.
Sometimes, we think we are reading the literal historical story,
but we aren’t.
We start with a theological assumption,
and twist the story in our minds to make it fit.

If we start with the theology and make the facts fit,
we may miss the actual facts and get the theology wrong.

Take today’s lesson.
It seems to be the story of resuscitating a dead child.
But is it really?
When Jesus raised the dead son of the Widow of Nain,
the young man was decidedly dead.
It says so right there on the face of the story. Luke 7: 12.
“A dead man was being carried out ….”
V. 15 “and the dead man sat up . . . .”
That’s resuscitation.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, Lazarus was definitely dead.
John chapter 11 verse 14, “Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”

But in this story, Mark never says Jairus’ daughter is dead.
Jesus explicitly states, “She is not dead, but sleeping.”
We hear from some messengers,
“Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher further?”

But Jesus said to Jairus, “Do not fear. Only believe.”
And he went to where the little girl was.
When he got there, he found a big commotion of grief.
But Jesus told them to cut it out.
“The girl is not dead, just sleeping,” he said.
But they wouldn’t hear it.
They had death stuck in their hearts.
So they went on wailing.

Jesus shook his head – “What can you do with such people?”
– went inside and woke the kid up.
Had she been dead, in a coma, or suffering from narcolepsy?
The folks outside the house said she was dead.
Jesus said she was not dead, but sleeping.
Who are we to believe?

When there’s a difference of opinion in Scripture,
and Jesus has taken a side,
I usually like to go with Jesus.
So let’s assume this child was not dead,
but she was pretty bad off and she was unconscious.
That’s enough to put any parent in a panic.
Sometimes we assume the worst, or just fear the worst.
That’s how it was for Jairus and his family.
They were in an ambiguous situation and they were afraid.
But Jesus said, “Do not fear. Only believe.”

That is a fair summary of Jesus’ teaching
about the proper attitude to take in life.
The commandment he gave most often was just this,
“Do not fear.”

In today’s lesson, he adds, “Only believe.”
Ok, but believe what.
We have gotten the word believe tied up with opinions.
I believe that the world is round, that 2 + 2 = 4;
and that parallel lines do not intersect.
But Jesus is using the word differently.
It’s not “I believe that.” It’s “I believe in.”
He means trust.
“Do not fear. Trust.”

We have come to the moral point of our story.
How shall we live? How do we dare to live a human life?
Answer: Do not fear. Only believe. Just trust.
There are a lot of ambiguous situations in life
– like this one where we don’t know if the girl is dead or alive.
There are a lot situations where we don’t know
how it’s going to turn out.
The future is unknown. We can’t see over the hill.

Every time we drive over a hill we can’t see past,
we have to trust there is a road on the other side.
I suppose we could stop, get out, and walk slowly up to the top
of each rise in the road and take a look.
But that would be a pretty tedious drive.

Some folks get through life just that fearfully
and their lives are just that tedious.
But that isn’t the Christian life.
We live more boldly.
We live boldly because we trust God.
That’s the moral point.

But the moral point of our story depends on the spiritual point.
How can we trust God if we can’t see God?
Answer: We have seen Jesus.
Jesus shows us God and he shows us a God
we can believe in, a God we can trust

That doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen.
It doesn’t mean we won’t ever get hurt.
It’s during the bad times we need those words of Jesus,
“Do not fear. Only believe.”

What do we believe?
We believe in Jesus. We trust in Jesus.
We trust him because he has been to the cross too.
Whenever our life comes to a suffering like the cross,
he goes there with us.

And he doesn’t just go there so we will have company.
He goes into the tomb with us so he can raise us up.
He raises us up from the tomb of despair day after day.
And he will raise us up from our last tomb on the last day.

That’s the spiritual point of our lesson.
This lesson shows us who God is.
It shows us a God who doesn’t panic, or fall into despair
or lose himself in grief.
He walks into the room of our grief,
calmly and kindly, to say, “Rise up.”

And this brings us to the ecclesiastical point.
We know who God is because we have seen Jesus.
But, in times of stress, we tend to forget.
We tend to panic.
That’s when we need the Church to remember for us.

It’s very hard to walk calmly to the exit
when you are in a crowd that is stampeding.
We need a faith community, a community that walks calmly.
We need that kind of community
because our individual faith is apt to falter.
But the Church remembers.
The Church’s remembrance is called anamnesis.
That’s part of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist,
we tell the old, old story.
We remember who God is
and what he has done for us.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said.
He didn’t say that because he had an ego need
to leave a legacy or be a legend.
He wanted us to remember him so that we would not fear,
but only believe.

So remember Jesus, brothers and sisters.
When life is hard, and death is at our door,
when despair is at our side and hope seems lost,
remember Jesus, do not fear, only believe.