June 27, 2021, A Many Splendored Thing, Mark 5:21-43 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Before we moved to Norwood, we lived in Potsdam, on Cherry Street. We still had kids at home back then, and Victoria, our puppy-loving daughter, made friends with one of our neighbors who had just adopted a puppy from the shelter – a collie/husky mix just a few months old. Every day Victoria, who was about 8 at the time, would go down and “borrow” the puppy so she could take him for a walk. Well, one day Victoria came home with some news. She told us that our neighbors, who had a new baby in the house, had decided they couldn’t cope with a puppy at the same time, and they were going to get rid of it.
Now, that was a prayer. She came to us, her parents, because when you are eight years old parents serve a priestly function. But she was interceding for a puppy who was about to be sent back to the shelter. Thirteen years later, all our kids have grown up and moved out on their own, but good old Trapper still lives with us. And it all started with a prayer of intercession.
Prayer has been around as long as people have existed, ever since God walked with his children in the garden in the cool of the evening, before Adam’s sin disrupted the communion we were created to enjoy with God. You could say that prayer has been around forever, in the loving communion of the Trinity. But certainly, ever since the Fall of mankind, the history of our relationship with God has been the history of our broken communion with God being restored. And prayer is at the heart of it.
As Episcopalians, we have an embarrassment of riches to draw on when it comes to prayer. The Daily Office leads us to begin our day in communion with God, “Lord, open our lips; and our mouth shall proclaim Your praise.” And the service of Compline brings the day to a close in communion with Him, “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.” We have rich and meaningful liturgies for the Holy Eucharist on Sundays, for weddings and baptisms and burials. And we have at our fingertips dozens of prayers, not to mention 150 Psalms, to help us express every kind of thought and feeling and need to God. It is absolutely a huge blessing.
But it can also become a hindrance to us if we begin to think that communication with God is something that only happens if we use just the right words. What I want to do today is enlarge our concept a bit, of what prayer is, and what we’re doing when we pray.It is easy for us, especially, I think, for us Episcopalians, to think that prayer is best left up to the experts, and that certain prayers and certain pray-ers get better “results” than we do. It is perilously easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking of prayer as some kind of formula or technique that only “works” if we use the right words or say them just right. But the truth is, prayer is as simple as a little girl telling her parents about a puppy who needs a home. Prayer is as simple as two friends walking together in the garden in the cool of the evening. Prayer is communion.
In the gospel reading today, we see that prayer is also as simple as a father asking help for his sick daughter. Jairus, a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, didn’t take care to choose the appropriate verses or prayer formulas when he came to Jesus. He just fell down before Jesus, he wept, he babbled, “Please, please, please – my little daughter is dying. Please lay your hands on her. Let her live. Please.” He begged Jesus, repeatedly Mark tells us, not because he had to beg Jesus over and over or Jesus wouldn’t do anything, but because his heart was so full to overflowing with fear and sadness and desperate hope that his words just kept pouring out of him. That was his prayer. And Jesus, who understood perfectly, went with him, to heal his daughter.
But on the way, another prayer happened. Only this time, it wasn’t a jumble of words and begging and weeping. This time, it was a prayer with no words at all. Jesus and Jairus were heading back to Jairus’s house, and people were following them, crowding in on Jesus from every side. One of the people in that crowd was a woman, who had a bleeding disorder. In fact, she had had a bleeding disorder for as long as Jairus’s daughter had been alive – twelve long, painful, miserable years. When she heard about Jesus she had just one hope left. She crept up behind Jesus in that madding crowd and she took hold of the hem of his robe. That was her prayer.
And two things happened. All at once, the woman could feel in her body that whatever had been all wrong was suddenly alright; she was whole and well. And all at once, Jesus felt in his body that power had gone out from him. There were no words. The woman didn’t know any more about Jesus than the rumors that were flying around. Jesus didn’t know who it was who had touched him. But again, there was a connection. When the woman touched Jesus, healing flowed from him to her. “Daughter,” Jesus said to her, “Your faith (by which Jesus meant that simple act of taking hold, making that connection) – your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
And then, there is one more prayer to look at and think about. Jairus came to beg Jesus to make his daughter well. That was the first prayer. The woman with a bleeding disorder reached out without a word to take hold of him. That was the second prayer. But there was one more communication in our story, and that was with the twelve-year-old girl, Jairus’s daughter. She didn’t speak. She didn’t reach out. She couldn’t, because as all the neighbors told them, it was too late, She was already dead. “Why bother the Teacher any more?” they said to Jairus. “What good can it do?” But Jesus sent them all outside. He reassured the girl’s parents. And then Jesus reached out and took her by the hand, saying, “Little girl, get up!” And that was the third prayer.
It was a prayer of words, like the prayer of Jairus. And it was a prayer of touch, like the prayer of the woman with the bleeding disorder. But it was Jesus, not the little girl, who spoke. It was Jesus, not the little girl, who did the touching. And that may be one of the most important things we can learn from this story that is so familiar to us. Because sometimes prayer doesn’t begin with us. Sometimes prayer begins with God. Sometimes, more often than we realize, it is God who makes contact with us, and not the other way around. We tend to forget, I think, that prayer is two-way communication. Sometimes it’s God who speaks first, and we, if we are listening, who answer him. Sometimes it’s God who reaches out to us, and we, if we are paying attention, who rise up at his touch.
Sometimes when we want to pray, words fail us. But we never need to be afraid that God is limited by our inability to pray. When we don’t know what to pray for or how to pray, Paul wrote, the Spirit himself can intercede for us, with groanings too deep for words.
When my Dad was very sick, shortly before he died, he was troubled because he wasn’t able to pray. He was very weak, physically, and also he was struggling with depression. At the time, I reassured him that we were there to hold him up in prayer, my Mom and I, so that even when words or faith or hope seemed to fail him, we were there to speak for him and to hold on in faith on his behalf. And that was true.
But even if we had not been there to pray for him the reality is that Jesus was there to keep that line of communication open. Jesus knew and loved my Dad in all his weakness, just like he knows each and every one of us in our weaknesses. And if he was able to raise up Jairus’s daughter from death with his voice of invitation and a firm hand, I know for certain that he was able to speak peace into my Dad’s heart, and to bring him safely home no matter how sick he was, no matter how discouraged or fearful he was, no matter how small his faith was.
Prayer is neither more nor less than communion with God. We can speak to him with the beauty and power and majesty of the psalms or we can just fall on our knees and weep at his feet. We can entrust our hopes or express our thanks or give voice to our anger and despair. We can lift up our voices together as the people of God or we can come to him with the deepest, most private longings and fears of our hearts. But it’s a two-way street. God can and does take the initiative. He speaks to us too, in words or in thoughts, in gentle nudges or sometimes in the most seismic disruptions of our lives. It’s no small thing to have an open line of communication with the Almighty God.
Sometimes I think we fall into the trap of thinking of prayer as one of the spiritual skills that we’re supposed to work at, and get good at. And it’s true that having a discipline of a regular prayer time, like reading the Daily Office, can be very good and helpful. But yesterday morning, during a time of silent prayer, the window by my desk was open. It was raining gently, but steadily. There’s a fir tree right outside my window, and the raindrops were pattering down through the branches, before dropping down onto the dry ground below. Sometimes if we just sit with God in the quietness of our hearts we can be like that thirsty soil under the tree, soaking in the goodness and love of God as it falls gently upon us. And that is also prayer.