Grant us, almighty God, to be a holy temple acceptable to you.
Like a lot of other people who end up in strange careers, I was an English major in college. This meant that I spent a lot of time studying Shakespeare. I forgot most of what I learned in school, but my appreciation for the bard was rekindled about ten years ago when I discovered the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland about ten years ago.
Today’s gospel reminds me of a literary plot feature which I’m sure Shakespeare didn’t invent, but of which he was a master: the play within a play. I’ve got two famous examples. The first is in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the rowdy, raggedy actors put together a hilarious version of the greek tragedy, Pyramus and Thisbe. In this play within a play, the story of forbidden affection and lost lovers serves to highlight the action of the real play, in which loves are lost, disguised, discovered, and loved again. Something like that.
In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is haunted by his father’s death and his uncle’s recent marriage to his mother. He stages a play about someone who poisons his brother in order to wed his sister-in-law. This gives Hamlet the occasion to coin that famous phrase: “The play’s the thing” in context. “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” And he does. The play-within-a-play is a climactic moment that moves the plot along and clarifies for Hamlet and for us what is happening.
The same is true in today’s gospel. We have not a play-within-a-play, but a healing-within-a-healing. The first healing story takes place on the shores where Jesus has just returned from that harrowing journey storm-tossed journey we heard about last week. We don’t know what he was doing or where he was going, only that the ever-present crowd gathered around him and a leader of the synagogue, named Jairus, begged him to come heal his daughter.
It’s worth mentioning before we even get to the healing-within-a-healing that it is likely Jairus interrupted Jesus while he was doing something else or heading somewhere else. Several people are famously and not-so-famously quoted saying “my interruptions are my work.” It’s important to remember that this is true for Jesus, too. Whenever we think we’ve got our agenda all sorted out, someone comes along asking for—and deserving—our attention. It happened to Jesus all day, every day, and if we’re lucky, it will happen to us.
So there’s Jesus, interrupted by Jairus. Jairus was a powerful, respected member of the community, and it was a big deal for him to fall at Jesus’ feet and beg. It is a testimony to how much he trusted Jesus and how desperately he wanted his beloved little daughter to recover. He loved her so much, he was willing to try anything, even this crazy prophet whose own disciples had so much trouble understanding him.
Jesus agrees to go with Jairus, and on their way, he is interrupted again, by a woman who suffered from what was probably some kind of menstrual disorder. Now, perfectly healthy women of child-bearing age were considered “ritually impure” and excluded from polite society every month when they had their periods. The woman we meet in today’s gospel would have been excluded from society and from practicing the rituals of her faith all the time, not just a few days each month. She would have been on the outside, excluded from the very synagogue where Jairus was one of the chief mucky-mucks.
Jesus grants her healing with the same quick deliberation with which he heals everyone. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.
Just like Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, in this healing-within-a-healing, we are shown a fuller picture of what Jesus is about. He came not just to care for people like Jairus, the officials within the socially accepted religious establishment; he came also to care for those who are cast out. And the reverse is true, which is worth remembering: Jesus came to liberate the poor and the rich.
Jesus is about the whole range of human experience and the whole range of human need. Both the woman with the flow of blood and Jairus’ daughter are included in the whole household of faith, the economy of God. When we pray, as we did in this morning’s opening collect, that we might hang together on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, with Christ the chief cornerstone, we’re praying to continue to grow and nurture this inclusive household of faith.
If what we are to be about is continuing the ministry of Jesus, that ministry must healing. This is a tough one for some of us, especially those of us who came into the church at a time when the ministry of healing was the special property of a special few. I’m not sure Jesus really expects all of us to take away every illness with a particular prayer or a certain touch. But I do believe that as disciples all of us must do our best to take away suffering, to take away the dis-ease that comes from being excluded or separated from community. The good news of salvation is the good news of healing and wholeness. (In fact, if you do a word study on salvation, you get words like healing, wholeness and safe-keeping.)
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Recently I heard someone say that Jesus asked the disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and the best they could come up with was a church. Sometimes our church doesn’t quite look like a temple of healing, wholeness, and salvation. Tomorrow I leave for our church’s General Convention in Indianapolis. The General Convention is the governing body of the Episcopal Church; it meets every three years to work through mountains of legislation, pass a budget, and elect those people to help run the national Church between conventions. While there are a lot of joyful things coming before us this year, our national Church is faced with significant budgetary challenges and the opportunity to rethink how we’re organized as an institution. We who serve the Church through General Convention would do well to remember that all that we enact is a play within a play, a small story within the Great Story that is the Good News.
Healing, reconciliation, boundless grace. At times like this it is always good to remember what Jesus had in mind when he asked us to preach the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. When we think of our own ministries, our own diverse ways of proclaiming the kingdom, look for the play within a play, interruptions within interruptions, healing within healing. I pray that our church—this parish and the whole household of God—might always be a holy temple that includes all kinds of faith and all kinds of healing.