Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Children of the Heavenly Father

Sermon preached Sunday,  July 1, 2012

The author of the gospel of Mark uses this technique where he takes two apparently unrelated stories and sandwiches one in between the other and uses them to highlight aspects of each other. The best example is the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, curses a fig tree for not bearing any fruit, then cleanses the temple, and then passes by the same fig tree on his way back to Bethany and it has withered: the implication being that the temple, like the fig tree, is not bearing fruit and will be destroyed.  

Today we get two other stories: we begin with Jairus, who falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal his daughter. Then we get the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years, who touches Jesus’ garment and doesn’t even say anything—but knows through her faith that she can be healed, and she is, and then falls at Jesus’ feet to tell her story. Then we’re back to Jairus, word comes from his home that his daughter has died, and Jesus says “Do not fear, only believe” and goes to the house, and raises up the 12 year old daughter back to life. 

The connection isn’t as obvious in this case—they are both healing stories, and they are both about faith, but it’s a gentler dialogue. I hear it more about how Jesus does not turn us away when we come to him. In both cases, he is encountering people who are ritually impure—the woman would not have been able to be touched by other Jews for 12 years. What an incredible exclusion—and yet she touches Jesus and his response is not anger at the transferred impurity, but the healing of that infirmity and a desire for identification. Once Jairus’ daughter died, she would also have been unclean, and yet Jesus goes in to her and takes her hand. Jesus goes with us where we need him to—whether or not it is impure, or costly to him, or understood by the crowd.  

But the idea that I really get out of the interplay of these two stories is that Jesus is never too busy to hear us—he doesn’t get so focused on Jairus’ daughter that he doesn’t have time to heal the woman with the hemorrhages. And after healing her, when the girl has died, and the crowd thinks it’s too late and Jairus should just leave Jesus alone, Jesus continues along to Jairus’ house.  

A friend was out with Jonathan and I a month ago, and we got on the topic of multitasking somehow and my friend said something about how he thought maybe God was too busy to hear his prayers: imagine the number of prayers ascending to God at any given moment—how could God possibly hear, much less respond, to all of them. And then one of us made a joke about my friend’s prayers getting stuck in God’s spam filter. And I know what that feels like—God has not always answered my prayers in the timeline and with the answer I wanted. But hear how dedicated Jesus is to the people who call out for his help in these two stories today—when Jairus’ daughter dies, and the crowd basically gives up and says “don’t waste his time,” Jesus responds, “do not fear, only believe.” God does not have a spam filter for our prayers—they all get there. 

As many of you know, last week I went with Jonathan to the Augustana Heritage Association gathering at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Augustana was the Swedish Lutheran church before it joined with other ethnic Lutheran churches and formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It included an event that had the potential for the headline, “Fatal stampede of octogenarian Swedes on their way to Garrison Keillor hymn sing.” Seriously, there was a lot of pushing for position when they opened the doors an hour before the event, and we were the youngest people there by several decades. 

But at that hymn sing, we sang one of the Swedish classics-- Tryg­gare Kan Ing­en Va­ra—Children of the Heavenly Father. The first verse goes like this: 

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.


It’s one of those hymns that sends Jonathan weeping whenever it’s sung. Hymns have beauty in and of themselves, but they’re also beautiful for what they mean to certain people at certain times; Amazing Grace is appropriate for almost any context, but when you picture it as a testament to being convicted by the horrors of the slave trade, it really takes off. Gospel songs are beautiful in and of themselves, but their meaning in the context of slavery usually becomes deeper and more complex and emotional. Because we were in the midwest—and continued on to South Dakota—I had this real sense of how harsh life was for these American Swedish Lutherans— visions of farmers out on the prairies with all their struggles: crop failures, children dying, sickness, ”Plague, pestilence and famine”... and this is what they sang to give themselves the courage and faith to persevere. And the story of the hymn itself mirrors that. Carolina Berg wrote the hymn in part to process her grief upon witnessing her father drown when he fell off a boat.
Life is hard, whether you’re a woman with a medical condition in the 1st Century, a parent whose child is sick in any century, or a farmer on a windswept prairie, or a NYC resident in the 21st Century. It might be differently hard now than it was in earlier times—medical treatment, opportunities for women and people of non-Europrean ancestry, the privilege for many of us (though not all of us) of not worrying about where our next meal is coming from. But we suffer—we love, we lose those we love, we work, our work is unsuccessful or disappoints us, and we have to reconcile that with our faith in the loving God who today heals both people who come to him, and says “do not fear, only believe.”

Which brings me back to this hymn... platitudes about ”if you just believe, it will be alright” can be pretty cheap when they come from well-intentioned people who have not known loss or suffering. But coming from Carolina Berg, and the generations of Swedish Lutherans who held on to these words through countless disasters, they bring comfort and inspiration to me because they don’t diminish the reality of anguish or trivialize loss, but they do point to the mercy that can exist alongside suffering, and the confidence that God does not forsake us even in our darkest hours. Just imagine that I am 600 Swedish Lutherans singing this a capella in four part harmony, led by Garrison Keillor.

God His own doth tend and nourish;
In His holy courts they flourish;
From all evil things He spares them;
In His mighty arms He bears them.

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.

Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.


 Here is an audio version of the hymn so you can hear the tune: 

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