Tragedy or Statistic

Preached on 1 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 8, track 2

One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.
~Joseph Stalin

We get non-stop, instant news from around the globe.  It can be exhausting.  And numbing.  As soon as something happens, news crews are on the scene and we can be right there with them, live.  Even though there may be no information available yet, still, to fill dead air-time, we hear their speculations.

There’s a risk in this non-stop news, though.  We can spend so much time watching what’s happening on the screen, feeling more and more helpless and even hopeless, that we don’t engage in those actions that could actually help, that could effect change.

There is risk at the other end of the spectrum, too.  If we turn it off, disengage completely and go about our lives, our hearts may grow hard, we may close our eyes and ears to the suffering of others.  We may attribute their suffering to their own choices and ignore our own part in it.

Or we can open our hearts, allowing them to break, and to fill with compassion until our love for our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, the children in our community, until our love for the children of the world overcomes our fatigue and our desire for comfort, and overwhelms our fear and stirs us to act, to give, to heal, to restore, sustained by our faith and by hope.

I wonder if Jesus ever felt compassion fatigue?  Especially in Mark’s fast-paced gospel, the demands seem unrelenting.

Today, we come into the story with Jesus and the disciples arriving back on the western shore of the sea of Galilee.  Remember last week, we heard about them crossing to the eastern shore and a huge storm nearly killed them.  In between, these two crossings, Jesus goes to the land of the Gerasenes where he is taken to a man who has suffered for years, possessed by a legion of demons.  Jesus drives them out and the man is healed and restored.

And now, he has barely touched land and we hear one of Mark’s trademark story sandwiches.  He starts to tell one story and then interrupts it with another, and then finishes the first.  By juxtaposing the two, he allows them to interpret each other, in a way.  Today, we hear two heart-breaking, gut-wrenching stories.

Mark starts with Jesus arriving by boat to the western shore.  A leader of the synagogue pushes through the crowd, making his way to Jesus.  He is distraught, desperate. He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs for help.

Now, let’s get this into perspective.  As the leader of the synagogue, Jairus is an important, powerful, well-respected man in the community.  Jesus has made a name for himself and is attracting crowds, yes, but he is not exactly on the who’s-who list of the upper crust.  He’s a poor, itinerant preacher, often at odds with religious and political authorities.  But this man, Jairus, is so desperate, he kneels before Jesus and begs for his help.  His daughter is dying.  He feels helpless and will do anything to save her.  It breaks your heart.  You can feel his anguish.

Jesus’ response is immediate, compassionate.  Of course, he will go, despite the rumors that the leaders of the synagogues are plotting to bring him down.

Then, on the way, he’s interrupted.  A woman – about as different from Jairus as you can be.  Unlike Jairus, nobody knows her name.  She is excluded from the synagogue because she is bleeding, hemorrhaging, and has been twelve long years.  This makes her unclean and bars her not only from the synagogue but from ‘respectable’ society, from her community.  She is in pain and suffering. She is destitute from paying for doctors and medicine that don’t help.

Her faith gives her this tiny flicker of hope to desperately try one more time.  She makes her way through the crowd until she is just close enough.  She reaches out, touching his clothes.  She steals a healing.  How gut-wrenching!  And this act causes a crisis.

Immediately, Jesus feels it and stops, demanding to know who touched him.  Slowly she comes forward and explains.  “Daughter,” he calls her, naming her, claiming her as family, “your faith has saved you.”  She is healed; not only her body, but she is restored to her community, to relationships.  Her salvation is in healing and restoration.

Now, Mark returns to the first story; to another daughter.  Messengers arrive to say they’re too late.  Jairus’ daughter has died.  Can’t you just imagine the anguish of her father and mother; losing a beloved daughter, their little girl.  Imagine the rage welling up in him, blaming “this woman” for causing her death.  But Jesus calms him and assures him it’s not too late.  “Have faith, believe,” he says.  Arriving at the house, Jesus reaches out and touches the twelve-year-old girl and tells her to get up; and she does.  She’s alive.  She is saved; healed, restored to her family.

Two daughters; so different and yet both inescapably vulnerable.  One who had suffered for as long as the other had been alive.  Both receiving Jesus’ compassion and healing.  Both receiving salvation.

When there is distance of time or space between ourselves and stories like this, particularly when we have heard them over and over, it’s easy to distance our hearts as well.  If this were happening to a family member or a friend, our hearts would break.

How do we keep ourselves from seeing stories like these as statistics instead of as individual tragedies?  And at the same time prevent our slide into compassion fatigue or despair?  I don’t know the answer to that question, other than to hold them before God.

Mark has shown us a way to set two stories alongside one another to interpret each other.  We can set the stories, the experiences of our lives and of our world alongside these Scriptural stories, not as a way to make sense of them, but rather as a way to hold them before God; as a way to look for God within our lives, active in our world.

Do you have a story to set alongside this one?  Maybe it’s a personal experience of loss or tragedy or illness.  Or maybe it’s the seemingly endless tragic stories that bombard us in the news.

They are stories of faith, whether faith in God or faith in democracy or American ideals or the basic goodness of humanity or myriad other possibilities, but faith born out of desperation that doesn’t allow them to give up, to surrender.  It is the faith that spurs them to carry on in hope, to do whatever it takes: a father begging for his daughter’s life, a woman stealing a healing.  People desperately seeking salvation; life, healing, wholeness, restoration, community.  That’s what faith looks like – white-knuckle desperation as one person phrased it.

What is the salvation they need?  In these cases, it’s healing and wholeness.  It’s restoration to the arms of family and to participation in the life of the community.  This is not about Jesus being nice or kind.  This is Jesus raiding the household of the strong man we heard about a few weeks ago and freeing his captives.  Where do we see signs of salvation in the world around us, in the lives of people?  Where do we see restoration, healing, wholeness, community?

How do we open our hearts, allowing them to break over and over again, so that they may fill to overflowing with compassion until our love for our fellow human beings overcomes our fatigue, overcomes our reluctance and fear and stirs us to act, to give, to heal, to restore, strengthened by faith and filled with hope?

I think the answer, in part, is to balance the tragedies with the stories of hope and joy and celebration that are also all around us.  Yesterday, I went to a baby shower and was reminded once again of the hope that is in us.  My hope is renewed every time I see moms and dads with their kids – loving them, playing with them, caring for them, doing their absolute best to help their children thrive.  My hope shines brighter when I see moms and dads doing everything they can, risking their very lives, even, for the sake of their children; to give them a good life, to save them.

Children and babies are signs of hope.  Not only the hopes and dreams that the parents and even their extended families and communities have for those kids.  But more important, they are signs of God’s hope in us.  Every time a baby is born, it reaffirms God’s hope for us, God’s faith in us, and God’s boundless faithfulness to us.  Every baby is a sign of God’s steadfast love for us.  Every. Single. One.

Thanks be to God.