The Urgency of Mercy


David Zahl


Mark :21 - 5:43

Music, it turns out, is not the only thing that can harmonize. We learn this morning that stories can harmonize, too. As the passage in Mark profoundly illustrates, the stories of two separate healings complement one another. They are juxtaposed. They’re intertwined. They’re meant to be read together. Literary people would call this a framing narrative. There’s a beginning of the story, then there’s a completely separate story, and then there’s an end of the first story. When you put them together you get something remarkably comprehensive and actually very good.

The first thing that happens is that Christ is coming across the Sea of Galilee, and he sets foot on shore and is almost immediately confronted by one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus. This would have been a man who would have occupied a relatively high station in that society, and he is a man who is in a state of emergency, of crisis. His daughter is on the brink of death.

This emergency has driven him to overcome all obstacles in order to get to Jesus. And not just the physical obstacles, but other less tangible ones like ego and pride. The text tells us he falls at Christ’s feet. This esteemed figure is humbled, nearly humiliated, begging Jesus to heal his sick daughter. A young, privileged girl would have been seen as an innocent party, a very sympathetic situation, and Christ seems to comply. It says, “he went with him”.

Before they get far, though, a second incident occurs. A woman–nameless, as if to indicate her lowly status–approaches Jesus and touches the hem of his garment. She occupies the opposite end of the social and religious hierarchy from Jairus. She has been suffering some sort of bleeding, hemorrhaging for 12 years, a chronic problem that would have disqualified her not only from marriage and family but religious favor. She would have been seen as unclean, guilty, worn out. She has reached a tipping point. We also learn that she’s spent all of her money on doctors. She is poor, in other words, and the slow cumulative effect of years of suffering has brought her to the end of her rope. So much so that she barges through the crowds and grabs a hold of Jesus’ robes.

Unlike Jairus, who prostrates himself and begs, the woman takes. She takes matters into her own hands. Her approach is interruptive. It feels almost like she’s stealing power. Jesus actually stops and says, “Who did that? Who took power from me?” And the disciples, of course they’re incredulous, as they tend to be. They say what does it matter how? How can you tell? There are so many people around you.

Those are the differences between the healings. The two figures are coming from opposite places, and in opposite ways. But there’s also something very similar about what’s going on.

First of all, healing faith. In both cases, Christ comments on the strength of their faith. Their faith flows from urgency, that is, urgent need. Their faith is born in desperation. Not in goodness but in need.

I am reminded of the memoir that Heather Kopp wrote, Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk. A mother of five, she recalled the desperation she felt after her first relapse. She had been to rehab and thought she had gotten better, but then she finds herself drinking in a closet one day. She writes, “I couldn’t remember experiencing true spiritual desperation until I admitted I was a helpless, helpless alcoholic. Up until that day when I got on my knees and sobbed beside my bed, God’s grace had been a nice option, a convenient option but not my only option.”

Urgency that we experience in life may be an out-of-the-blue crisis like a sick child or a terrible turn of events at work. But it could equally be a slow burn, five-to-ten year simmering issue that explodes one day. That’s more common. Oddly enough in Jairus’s case, Christ puts him on pause. Christ’s lack of urgency appears to fail Jesus. We’re taken a little aback.

But that’s not the only similarity. There’s also the fact that both parties here suffer resistance. Their faith is met with opposition, with resistance, incredulity, crowding out. “Why trouble the teacher further?” is what Jairus’s friends tell him after his daughter has died, before laughing at Christ coming to the daughter’s bedside. In the woman’s case, not only do the crowds represent a significant roadblock, the disciples question Christ’s ability to know that something has happened.

This strikes me as very true to life today. The real nature of faith meets with resistance from the world. And not just the world but the Church. Those who are closest to Christ are often the ones who seem to be the most incredulous about the fact that these people want to and are getting well.

But the third and most important similarity in these two episodes is that they both get the same result. In both cases, the asking as well as the taking, the high as well as the low, the innocent and the guilty, these people are healed. They’re given a way forward. In the second case, there is a physical resurrection and in the first case, it’s a spiritual one. What is unclean is made clean.

This predicament of urgency being the engine of healing faith–we caught a glimpse of it in our society the other day, unlike I’ve seen in a very long time. A deeply hopeful instance, not just of faith but faith in a God who is gracious. Faith born in the urgency of a crisis: in this case, the shooting of 9 people in a church in Charleston, which also revealed the slow boil of systemic racism that has been bubbling up everywhere in our country for a long time.

Yet the most miraculous thing happened. The relatives of victims’ families schooled us in the heart of the matter. They showed us what Christianity is really about. They showed us what it means to display love in the midst of deserved judgment. They taught us what grace and mercy and forgiveness actually look like.

I’m a person who gets up and talks about this all the time. And yet I was completely floored by what I heard and saw. Maybe you were too. When Nadine Collier, whose mother, 70 years old, was shot, addressed Dylann Roof, the killer, at the bail hearing, she said, “You took something very precious away from me, you hurt me, you hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Her sentiments were echoed by almost everyone effected by this tragedy. And this wasn’t some, contrived, staged forgiveness. It was a knee-jerk act of mercy that could only come from people who have heard Psalm 130 over and over again and actually believe it. That God has come to offer us “plenteous redemption.” That in him there is forgiveness of sin.

The brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd, another one of the ladies who was killed, said to The Washington Post: “Having her in Church that night at bible study taught me about the Lord. If we had to lose our sister, losing her in church was the right place. She was in the company of God. She was trying to help somebody. She was not a victim. she was a Christian.” Can you imagine saying something like this, ever? Especially in these circumstances?

People want to explain it away. They want to say that it is somehow a racial response to years of oppression. They want to write it off because it’s too radical. But I’m with Peggy Noonan, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal, that “the confounding forgivesness given voice in that bail hearing, the radical love contained in those statements, was not cultural, sociological or political. It was theological. It was about Jesus Christ. They did not forgive to express the values of their race or the character of their country but to be faithful to their God.” They could not have made that any more clear in their statements.

Again, their response has been met with incredulity. Surely they are jumping too quickly to forgiveness. What about accountability? We are letting people off the hook. Not only Dylann Roof, but an entire system that perpetuates racism. Well, that is precisely the same resistance and incredulity we see in the gospels. And it represents a profound misunderstanding of the nature of faith.

The members of this church understood that to claim forgiveness, that God forgives, at a time like this, is to say that unlike us, God is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I don’t know about you, but at a time like this, I need to know that there is something in the world more powerful than sin, guilt, hurt, shame, revenge.

After all, guilt and fear lead us to protect, to defend. Grace is the only thing that ever allows a person to look at his or her own part in societal forces that makes such a thing possible. Free from threat, we can acknowledge our own culpability and complicity. We can seek to address wrongs not from a place of guilt but from a place of gratitude and love. It is no coincidence that the healing that has occurred in the wake of these remarkable statements has been swift and conflict-free and profoundly helpful.

But this actually isn’t a sermon about racism. What I’m saying is that what these people understand, and what the passage illustrates: God’s mercy is not reserved for the righteous. It is not reserved for lesser forms of wrongdoing or only personal forms of wrongdoing. The stunning, offensive thing about the grace of God is that it is not dependent on context. Meaning it’s not dependent on you; instead, it is dependent only on Jesus Christ himself. Which means it meets both the askers and the takers, the highborn and the low, the privileged and the oppressed, the guilty and the innocent in both the tragedy and atrocity.

The grace of God does not wait for the correct response. It produces the correct response.

So perhaps today you have something urgent that’s going on in your life. There’s a crisis that has brought you to church. Or, more likely, you’re sitting on something that has been boiling for a long time, and you’re afraid it may explode someday. Maybe it’s related to systemic injustice. It could be purely individual. You may be the victim. You may be the perpetrator. I am here to tell you that the way that Jesus met those two sufferers is the way those families met Dylann Roof. It’s the way that he meets you in your own desperation, your own urgency. Which is not with recompense, but with “plenteous redemption,” as the psalmist says.

Of course the timing may not be what you want it to be. It may be more like Jairus than the woman touching the robe. But His mercy does not depend on context. It does not depend on you. It depends only on He, Himself. So wherever you are this morning, whatever you’re going through, there is a way forward. And it has to do with the One, the only One who, while we are faithless, is faithful. Amen.