Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, July 22, 2012 Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 “Come Away”

As you know, I’ve just come back from vacation.

It was not your conventional vacation. Yes, Doug and I went to Ireland, but we didn’t wander around to the usual places – the Blarney Stone, the Cliffs of Moher, the Waterford factory, and the Jamieson distillery. No, it was a week spent in contemplation and conversation with poetry, with God’s beautiful and wild creation, with music that is as important to the life of the people as food and water, and with some thoughtful and intelligent people.

Ostensibly, this was a walking tour of West Clare with the poet David Whyte, but it really became something of a spiritual retreat. We hiked the Burren, a strange area of mountains called slieves with cracked and worn limestone marked by holes and breaks called clinks and grykes – shades of Harry Potter! As we hiked, we would stop periodically for a break. David would read a poem or offer a reflection on the place or something having to do with those who were close to the land. We might eat an apple. We might simply lie back on the grass, trying to recover from the work of climbing, listening to the rush of the wind and the soft sounds of the cows mooing on the pastureland below us.

And then we would gather ourselves, stand up again, and start off on the next part of the path, perhaps engaging in conversation with another of the group, perhaps remaining in silence.

Here’s what happens on a vacation like this: you start to hear things in your own heart – not just the wild beating after the physical exertion, but some deeper echo of what is within you.

You hear God’s voice, that thrumming undercurrent of vitality and joy.

Of course, you are also aware of the challenge of the walk itself. The Burren, with its uneven limestone blocks and slabs with space in between filled with earth and tiny flowers and grasses, is not an easy stroll. 
You have to watch step by step to see where your foot should go next. One wrong move and you could put your foot into a deep hole and twist your ankle, or worse. In such a walk, the world reduces down to the two square feet in front of you as you test the ground with your walking stick before placing your next step.

It is exhausting.

And then, after another hour or so, you stop for another break. Despite the cool temperature and bracing winds, you are sweating. You sit down and wait for your heart rate to slow down, and your breathing to return to normal…and you listen again.

You cannot do this kind of a walk without the rest periods, or else your legs become unreliable, and that’s when accidents occur.

And it is in the rest periods that you are able to hear something more, not while you are in the midst of the step by step negotiation with the terrain. It is in the rest periods that you are open, in your exhaustion, to what God has to say to you through the wind caressing you and the earth beneath you and the caw of the jackdaw overhead. Your resistance to hearing God is broken by the physical stress – you do not fight it, or interpret it, or question it. You simply receive it, because that is all that you are capable of in the moment.

And in the gift received, that subtle and sweet message from God, you find the strength to do the next part of the walk.

This is nothing new. Mark’s gospel reminds us how the disciples needed reminding form Jesus that, in the midst of the work, it was necessary for them to stop a bit, go somewhere and rest, be open to God’s healing and restorative love. Having had that moment, however brief it was, it was possible for them to continue on their journey of teaching and healing. The crowd still needed them, but they could not serve the crowd unless they had a respite, and Jesus recognized it and named it for them.

It’s a natural inclination for us to keep on working even when we are tired, because there is still work to be done. It’s an inclination that is encouraged in our society – “hang in there” seems to be the motto of the age, doesn’t it? But what can we say about those who keep on going past the point when they need a break? Often they do not do very good work under those circumstances, because their senses are dulled by exhaustion. Just as folks who keep on hiking without a rest period risk a serious fall because their legs are shot, so too people who work without a time of rest and recovery risk making a serious mistake because their brains or hands or hearts are tired. Current standards for maximum hours for medical residencies allow doctors to work an average of 80 hours a week, and that’s a reduction from the past. The likelihood of medical errors increases exponentially with fatigue. Would you really want the surgical resident who has been on duty for 16 hours straight to do a procedure on you? I think not.

It is equally seductive to believe that we are the only one who can do a particular task, so of course we need to push ourselves beyond reasonability in doing that task.  And that takes us into the realm of the ego – the belief that no one else can do it. When we state it that way, it sounds a little bit arrogant, doesn’t it?  Unless you are a nursing mother, I suspect that the task can wait, or another person can do it. Take a break. If Jesus Christ could tell his disciples to take a break – and Jesus regularly took prayer and rest breaks himself, and he was God – you can take a break.

Because, as we discovered hiking up on the Burren, it is not only physical restoration that happens when you stop putting one foot in front of the other, it is a restoration of the soul. In that silence, in that moment of catching one’s breath, is the space for the murmur of the Divine.

For me, the moments of stopping were disarming, because I was suddenly aware of something that had been bubbling around in my soul that needed attention – the Spirit was moving in my heart and soul. I never would have heard it without the break from the hike, the putting of one foot in front of the other.

And now, the good news: you don’t need to get on an airplane to Ireland to find that restoration of body and soul. You don’t need to hike over a mountain. You don’t need to walk at all.

You simply have to do what Jesus told the disciples: come away to a deserted place by yourself and rest a while. No television. No computer. No radio. No book, even. Be by yourself. Sit still. Feel the breeze of God’s spirit like a silken caress on your heart, and be restored.

The work will wait another day.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ballyvaughan Chronicles - Lost and Found

You know that moment, don't you, when all the other passengers on the airplane have left the baggage claim and you are still standing there? That moment when all the bags are gone except one, and it is not yours?

We were in the Shannon airport baggage claim. Tired, slightly ripe from a night crossing the Atlantic in a cramped plane (if I am uncomfortable at 5'2", I know that everyone is uncomfortably squashed). My bag was there looking only slightly worse for the wear. Doug's red bag was not.

Backstory: we had lent StrongOpinions our 24 inch suitcase on her last trip home, so each of us had a roll-aboard size suitcase for a week of hiking and exploring in Ireland. The suitcase would need to hold hiking shoes, rain gear, and layers to deal with the variable weather. For Doug, that meant fitting all his gear that he was not putting in his backpack into the roll-aboard suitcase, and that was a challenge. He does not over-pack for trips, but still he had to sit on the suitcase to zip it shut, even with the expander zippers unzipped and expanded.

At this point, you might ask the question "well, if they were the roll-aboard size bags, why didn't you bring them with you on the plane rather than checking them?" And to answer that question, consider this: everyone tries to bring their suitcases aboard these days, since often one is charged for checked baggage. The overhead bins are usually stuffed beyond capacity and the stowage area by one's feet is usually less than generous. Additionally, it was going to be a long flight, we suspected the seating would be tight (see above), and most important, we had ONE FREE CHECKED BAG PER PERSON! Bliss not to have to worry about the suitcase in JFK, where we transferred to the Shannon flight. So we checked those two roll-aboard suitcases. And like dutiful and experienced travelers, we packed a change of socks and undies, our toiletries and medications, and a book and iPod into our backpacks. Also knitting for me in my pack and the rain jacket for Doug in his.

And now we were at the airport in Ireland missing a bag.

But there was still one bag left on the carousel (such a playful word for the travelers' rack, no torture quite so exquisite as watching, watching, watching for your bag to appear on it). It was red, like Doug's, but it was not Doug's. A clue?

After a bit of searching, we found the baggage agent, not an employee of the airline but of a separate company - outsourcing? Oh the horror! The lovely blonde woman heard the story, noted the red bag - not ours - still circling forlornly on the carousel, and went to work. She tracked Doug's bag - it had arrived at Shannon with us. She looked up the owner of the remaining red bag - its owner had arrived at Shannon as well. It was likely the other gentleman had taken the wrong bag. She said in that bright voice reserved for service professionals who are trying to ward off breakdowns on the part of stressed-out customers, "He'll be noticing soon that he has the wrong bag, and then he'll bring it back, and it will be brought to you. Since he is the one who made the mistake, he will be responsible for getting the bag to you." She tried paging the fellow, in hopes that he was still on the airport property, but there was no response. We had no choice but to leave to meet our driver and hope the bag would get to us somehow, somewhere. We had left my cellphone number and the number of the manager of the cottages where we would stay. We hoped for news, quickly.

When we met our driver, the wonderful Moley, and told him the story, he laughed and said, "Sure they'll find it soon. Not to worry, lads."

Doug wasn't worried - he had his rain jacket, after all, and a change of the necessaries if this dragged on. And so we went off to Ballyvaughan and the tour.

So ended the first day.

On the second afternoon, when we had not yet heard from the airline, we called the airport and were told that they hadn't heard from the gentleman, but had gotten his US contact information from the Delta airlines records and were trying to get in touch with his family to figure out where he was staying in Ireland. All they knew was that he was an elderly Irish-American.

That evening, there was a call to the cottage manager from the Irish sister of the gentleman in question. The manager relayed the bits of the story and gave us a phone number to call to arrange to receive the bag.

That was good news - at least they realized they had the wrong bag and wanted to make things right. We tried calling the number, though, and kept getting a signal indicating that the number was out of service. We called the airline again, and no one was there to answer the call.

So ended the second day.

Meanwhile, Doug was borrowing one of my t-shirts to augment the few items of clothing he had. We bought him a sweater, since it was chilly. We had our morning meeting of the group, and called the airline again. They would try to get us the correct number and call us back. They did not call us back, but while we were out hiking, the sister called the cottage manager again. It turned out the number we had been given was off by one digit.

We finally reached the sister and heard the whole story. The elderly gentleman was returning to Ireland with the ashes of his dead sister, who had passed in America. Her final wish was to be buried back home, in Ballybunion. So he packed her up with his goods and his gear and, greatly upset with his loss, flew into Shannon. Where he picked up the wrong suitcase.

A cousin retrieved him at the airport and just tossed the bag into the car, and off they went to Ballybunion (no, that is really the name of the place). The old man was exhausted by the trip and immediately went to bed. His sister, trying to be helpful, unpacked the ENTIRE suitcase and hung everything up. It was only when he woke up a day later that they discovered what we knew...he had picked up the wrong bag.

The sister said, "Now I want ye to know I've repacked it, every little thing. It's all back in the bag, now."

Doug said, "I imagine that was something of a challenge."

A long pause. "Yes," she said. "I had to sit on it to get it closed. I hope that's alright."

"Of course. I had to do the same thing."

She sighed.

Then came the logistics challenge - the dear lady didn't drive, so a cousin would have to drive the  bag back to us. If you look on a map, Ballyvaughan and Ballybunion look pretty close. But since there is no such thing as a straight road in the country, it was quite a jaunt. One of our drivers, Padraig (Irish for Patrick and pronounced "Porrig" which is a story for another day), drove down and met the cousin halfway between the two villages for the hand-off of the well-traveled red bag.

That evening, Padraig handed us the bag as we listened to some wonderful music and recovered from another long hike.

We do not know if the ashes were in the red suitcase on the carousel, if the dear departed had wondered why she was going round and round and round ever so slowly and no one was retrieving her. We do not know if the Irish sister, unpacking the clothes, said "My, now, hasn't Tom gotten awful stylish in his clothing in his old age!" We do not know if they laughed after they cried when they realized what had happened...

...but we did.

It reminded us, once again, of how little we really need when we are on the road, and how strangers can help in the most surprising and marvelous ways. Everyone was willing to lend Doug articles of clothing if he needed them. Padraig was willing to drive to heaven only knows where on a rainy evening to meet the cousin, even though it meant he would miss most of dinner. The little SPAR market had the odds and ends of personal items he needed. And Doug now has a blue and cream Irish sweater which has quite the story attached to it. What was lost was found, in both households.

So ended the third day, and it was good.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ballyvaghan Chronicles - Identity

There have been times when I was doing my work as an Episcopal priest that I felt like a fraud.

Not in the sense that I was trying to do others harm by pretending I was something that I was not. I've done all the studying, all the test-passing, all the contextual learning, and have had the Bishop lay hands upon me. There is no question but that I am a legitimate priest in the eyes of the church.

No, it is more like I feel like a kid dressing up in grown-up clothes, that I am not really a Priest-with-a-Capital-P. Whatever a Priest-with-a-Capital-P looks or sounds or feels like.

Part of it is following in the footsteps of some very gifted priests who formed me. I have seen them preside at worship, preach, provide exquisitely sensitive pastoral care, share the gospel with others in ways that verge on the magical. When I look at my sometimes bumbling, sometimes tone-deaf self, it is no wonder that I think, "well, I'm not really a priest like X or Y or Z is, I'm just sort of a sorta-priest."

But I get up in the morning, put on the collar (most days) and pull out the Book of Common Prayer, and I stumble along, despite that occasional feeling of "who put ME in charge of this stuff?"

And then there are other moments.

One of the great "aha" experiences of the Ireland trip was one I never expected. Suddenly, my priestly identity was there, solid as a rock, making perfect sense to me, because it made perfect sense to some of the folks with whom I talked.

All without church walls, dog collar, vestments, formal liturgy.

As we reflected on the poetry of pilgrimage that anchored our trip, we were encouraged to engage with someone with whom we had not yet talked about how the poem spoke to us. The conversations were rich and deep, and time and again, people said, "wow, I didn't know why I said that. Thank you..." as if it were something I did that opened a door for them.

It was the Spirit opening that door for them. All I provided was the listening heart, a vessel to receive what they were offering and lift it up as good and important and worthy of attention.

And maybe that is at the heart of what a priest is, after all. We are vessels receiving what God and God's people offer, lifting up what we receive, affirming that it is good and important and worthy of attention. We are not in the judging business (God's job, not ours), we are not in the creating business (see item 1)...we are in the business of noticing.

Last night, Doug said something interesting: "You do something amazing. I don't know how you do it, or how to describe it, but there are at least eight people on that trip who would travel across the country or even from other countries to worship in your church, because of how you received them and talked to them."

I don't think I do anything particularly special, regardless of Doug's characterization. it just feels like a step beyond listening into the realm of noticing, hearing the subtext of the words, seeing the expression on the face or the glisten of an unshed tear or the intensity of tone. And this is not my gift, but the gift that God has given me in this work.

And that is what makes me a priest, I think. Something for which I don't need the external trappings, as beautifully symbolic as they are, or the official declarations, as affirming as they are.

A woman on the trip seemed to be discerning whether she is called to do something more in her own church and is taking it for a test-drive as a lay worship leader. She talked about how she thinks through the tasks that are set before her, what is hard, what feels uncomfortable, what she likes.

As we hiked together, she asked me, "What makes a good pastor?" I think she expected me to say something about preaching, since we had been chatting about sermon preparation before the question.

But it just came out of me, without thought : "They have to be able to listen, and listen deeply."

I thought of a moment with my own bishop, when he had come to confirm people at our parish, and how he and I spent some time alone with a man who was struggling with a terrible addiction, and how the bishop simply held him in his arms for a few minutes before speaking, hearing the man's words through his sobs. Listening deeply. The cope and the miter weren't what made him a bishop in that moment. It was the listening. The hearing. The noticing of the pain and the possibility.

The listening and the noticing are what really matter. The rest is right and good and necessary, but without the listening and the noticing, the rest is incomplete.

So I am grateful for the moment of realizing that this thing I do that my husband (himself no mean listener and noticer) says amazes him is what really is what has made me a priest. Not just an ordained person with the promise of being a priest in God's church, but a priest now and always.

Thank you to those who offer their stories to me, who allow me to notice what they might be too shy to offer others. Thank you to J and M, who asked me to renew their marital commitment in the lee of Galway Bay with poetry and words of blessing and water from the Seven Springs. Thank you to S and your questioning heart. Thank you to K and B, who were willing to listen to a clergywoman despite what the church has done to couples like them in the past. Thank you to C, who has forgotten more than I will ever know, but who offered some of his own journey, discovering new things even in the later years. Thank you to David, whose poetry sparked conversation in wildly diverse tangents.

And thank you, God, for whatever gifts you have given me to do the work. I am what I am, what God made me. A priest in God's church, for all God's people.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ballyvaughan Chronicles - Poet's Corner

The fragrant smoke of the peat rises from the hearth
   wraps around us all,
   cossetting us in a warm otherland
As the poet stands before us, tossing a lock of black hair artfully askew,
   seeking and securing our attention before reciting
   a poem of elegy and possibility
Repeating a line, a phrase, a stanza
  insisting that we swallow it and let it sink into the belly
  until it is a bolus of meaning, on its way to
  a digested emotion.
Repeating it until it is an image burned into our viscera.

And then it is completed, this recitation.

The poet shuts the book, looks at us all
   as if discerning whether we have absorbed it sufficiently
   heaven forbid we do not receive the gift of it most fully!

A breath, a half breath.

The group sighs a sigh of appreciation, of understanding.

We do not realize we have held our breath for much of this recitation until that
   outflow of breath...and then the "hmmmm" of pleasure
   akin to the sound we make after a square of dark chocolate, or a caress with precisely
       the right pressure of  the fingers on our skin.

And the moment is broken, with a question, and a conversation.

And the poet once again tosses that poetic black tress, and withdraws within himself
   as we toss around the remnants of the thought of the heart of the poem, of the story, of the place.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ballyvaughan Chronicles - Bread of Life

 In Eire they make wholemeal bread,
Of which, on occasion, ’tis said,
With butter spread thick,
It will cure you if sick,
And it just might awaken the dead.

At just about every meal in Ireland, we were served brown wholemeal bread. This isn't your hippie mom's whole wheat bread - it is a quick bread, made with coarse ground whole wheat and baking soda and buttermilk and such. Not everyone likes it - my friend P, who recently went to Ireland, Did. Not. Like. It. One. Iota.

But I did,especially with massive quantities of Kerrygold butter. That brings new meaning to the phrase "Be still, my heart." That butter probably would have stopped my heart but for the healing powers of the whole grains in the bread, or at least that is what I am telling myself. Top it with some Irish smoked salmon or with some jam, and you've got a meal and then some. Yes, you need a salad or an apple to go with, but that's not hard to do.

Bread. So good it can cure your body, or even, as the limerick says, awaken the dead. I doubt you'd get zombies if the dead were revivified by this bread - they'd more likely be mischievous leprechauns, whistling a reel as they snitched another piece of bread.

One of the fondest memories I will have of this trip is the morning bread delivery. One of the lads (Padraig, Van, Owen, Moley) would knock at the door around 8 am and call out, "anybody up?" Then they would bring either a loaf of the bread, still warm from the oven, or some freshly baked croissants, also still warm, enough for all of us in the cottage.

A digression: there were five of us in our cottage, four men and me. Ian (Londoner, CPA), Will (Pacific Northwest eye surgeon), Kyle (California guy, just graduated from UCLA), plus Doug and me. Reminded me a bit of the old days when it was me and StrongOpinions as the only females in a house with five males. However, these men all cooked and cleaned up after themselves, unlike the way it was in the old days. God bless them, every one. And the bread we received each morning was enough - just enough if we weren't greedy - for each of us to enjoy some. 

Yes, that'll preach.

Anyway, that gift of morning bread, feeding our bodies as well as our souls, was a particular delight. The thought of a couple of hours of poetry and reflection, then several hours hiking, was less intimidating with the bread in our bellies. Good bread, not that Wonder Bread nonsense made with air, sugar, bleached white flour, and no soul whatsoever.

Suffice to say, the bread will appear on our table and will wend its way into a sermon one of these days. After all, didn't Jesus say "I am the bread of life?" (John 6:35, if you want to check it out.)

Here's a link to a pretty decent recipe, if you want to try it for yourself. In Ireland, it wasn't in this round shape, it was in loaves. I think the recipe will translate just fine into loaf pans...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ballyvaughan Chronicles - 6-11-2012

Since I was twenty, I firmly believed in the line from one of Ezra Pound's Cantos: "That which thou lovest is thy true heritage." A natural reaction, I suppose, to the sense of rootlessness that comes of never knowing my biological parents, and having a tendentious relationship with my adoptive parents. So coming to Ireland  was in a way a challenge to Pound. Would I feel a sense of connection to where my people came from, or more of a sense of distance, of disconnection? Would my self-constructed heritage trump a biological one? Oddly, on this trip to Ireland I having been feeling both.

This morning we talked about lineage, its power to form us, as evidenced by whaat we have heard from the people who have come to talk with us, Owen and Moly, PJ, Patrick, Padraig, Noirin, and the musicians last night, Josephine, Tom, Paul, Mick and Blackie. It is clear that this place and the people who are a part of their DNA are the wellsprings from which they were formed. And I identify with the deeper vein of place that may have helped shape me in ways I could not imagine, even as an American child of Irish-American parents, both  biological and adoptive. Doug says that he understands me better having come here, that he sees this place in me and me in this place. It certainly resonates for me.

But it also shines a light into the empty space where knowing one's forebears lives.

This is certainly true in terms of my birth parents, about whom I know almost nothing. My birthmother was Irish - Edna Flynn - and the little facts I know about my conception are not happy ones. Given her age at my birth (a surprising 38) it is unlikely that she is still alive, and my one attempt to contact her to get a family medical history was rebuffed. It was one door shut to knowing who I was and where I came from, My adoptive parents, Ann and Joseph Brennan, had Irish blood. My father was pure Irish on both sides. My mother was more of an olio of Irish, English, Alsatian French/German. The Irish side - Joe's side - was predominant in our family life, presumably beecause he had extended family living near us, and there were regular family gatherings. My mother Ann always fought to give me a sense of myself as partly English and Alsatian, but with no living relatives anywhere near us, the sense of heritage was less reinforced. Heritage?  I had great confusion about who I was, what I was, how I fit into the world.  

It was no surprise, then, that the line from Pound's Canto spoke to me. If I could not know who I was by my lineage and heritage, I could construct one out of the things that I loved. Music, words, art, conversation with intelligent people, cooking...a heritage grounded in present experience rather than who my people were and where they had lived. It was, I know, a somewhat self-oriented view that placed me on a map that I had created for myself, not on one that had been bequeathed to me.I chose and built my heritage, or maybe it chose me in some mysterious  way.

But it would be wrong to say that this alone would sustain me, that there wasn't a hunger in me for what I saw in other families, in other people. Doug knows his family, can talk about family tree going back to the old country, understands both the joys and the losses in the long family saga. I have virtually none of that, except what I could adopt from Ann and Joe Brennan. For some people, that might be freeing, and in some ways, it is that  for me as well. But it is still a sense of lost markers to orient myself.

It was odd, then, last night, to see the uilleann piper Blackie. He looked so much like my father as a young man that it took my breath away for a moment. My father's hair would not have been long and curly like that - I have a picture of him at his confirmation with the black short hair slicked back as would have been the norm in 1926. But the shape of the face, the eyes, the thick dark was Joe Brennan reborn, not as the tired alcoholic with which I grew up, the man who would be in his grave by 57, the man who became the man of the house supporting his younger siblings when his parents died in his senior year of high school.. No, it was a different Joe - the possibility of youth and gift and energy that I never got to see in the Joe Brennan who raised me.

And the pain of never having known that part of him, if indeed there had been such a part, was strong, and the grief of knowing nothing about Edna Flynn, my birth mother, was equally painful. And the well of sadness of not being able to give my children these threads to weave into their own story was a particular kind of heartbreak, as if I had failed them as a mother by not giving them the whole of their story.

Perhaps Pound's line about true heritage will become my epitaph, that all that matters is that I have lived and loved and created and failed and helped and struggled, that I have found a deep love with someone who understands me mostly (just I can understand myself only mostly) and that I have raised remarkable children. Perhaps the lack of rootedness is what gave me the ability to move through a complicated life with tenacity and a sense of something waiting for me beyond the horizon and a willingness to be transformed at various points in my life as I am meant to be transformed. But there is still within me that hole, that empty spot.

In great sculpture, there is always the negative space that provides context and proportion and meaning to the metal or stone or clay that the sculptor wrests into its thing-ness. In music, there is the necessity of silence to allow the song to truly speak.  For me, then, it may be that hole which will have to suffice, rather than the latitude and longitude of knowing one's heritage, as I walk along my pilgrim journey to the next refuge.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, July 1, 2012 Mark 5:21-43 “Cure-All”

So did anybody around here think about healthcare this week?

Just kidding.

It was hard to miss, what with the Supreme Court sustaining the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Ever since Thursday morning, it’s been wall-to-wall coverage of the decision and what it means or doesn’t mean.

You can breathe a sigh of relief, because I am not going to talk about that.

But I am going to talk about healthcare, because that is what Jesus is all about in our gospel this week.


Jesus healing folks.

That’s a safe topic, right?

Well, it isn’t these days, and it certainly wasn’t in Jesus’ day either. On Thursday I posted a picture of Jesus with passages from Scripture where Jesus says we are commanded to go out and heal the sick, and I got comments that implied that I was endorsing a particular political view by quoting Jesus’ words. It was a little disconcerting. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jesus got some pushback, even from the religious leaders, when he first said those words. But he said those words, and he lived out those words in his own ministry.

Think about that gospel reading: it’s a busy piece of work. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the sea – they do a lot of crossings, don’t they? – and Jesus is teaching people on the shore. Suddenly a man approaches, a man who is highly respected in the community, a wealthy man, a righteous man, a leader in the synagogue, sort of like a Senior Warden. He stops in front of Jesus, and kneels before him. Unusual, that. Generally, the folks who are leaders in the religious establishment don’t particularly care for Jesus or his teachings. But this man Jairus is different, and for a very important reason: he has a sick daughter. He tells Jesus that his daughter is dying, and asks Jesus to come and lay hands upon her to heal her. Jesus agrees, and they start walking to Jairus’ home, with the crowd all following, hoping to see a miracle. The crowd is acting like all crowds do: they are crushing up against Jesus and jostling him. Everyone wants to get close to him, of course. And in the midst of this story of the healing of this dying little girl, another story intrudes.

There is a woman in the crowd. She has been hemorrhaging for many years, and all the money she spent on doctors was for naught. She still suffers from this illness, which is most likely something having to do with a menstrual disorder. This last fact is important, because such a woman would have been ritually unclean according to Jewish law. She knows that this is the law, that no one should touch her because of this ritual impurity. But she is so desperate that she claws her way forward in the crowd and reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’ robe. Immediately, Jesus stops. He stands stock still and says “who touched me?” The disciples think this is the most ridiculous question – after all, the whole crowd has been pressing in on him. Hundreds of people must have touched him as he walked. But he has felt something different from someone, a need drawing on him and his power to heal. So he looks around, and this poor woman, who up until a moment ago had been bleeding for years and now suddenly is healed of the disease, bows before him and says, “I did.” When she explains the whole story, he blesses her for her faith. He acknowledges that his power has healed her, despite the fact that she was unclean, someone with whom no good religious person should have contact.

And now we turn back to the first healing story, as some people from Jairus’ house show up and say that the little girl is dead, that there is no point in Jesus coming. But Jesus says, “Let’s go. Do not fear, only believe.” He takes only Jairus and Peter, James and John, as if he doesn’t want the crowd to see what he is about to do.

They get to the house, where there are family members and friends who are weeping and wailing over the dead child. Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? She is not dead, just sleeping.” All the mourners must be thinking “this guy is crazy” but they step aside. Jesus enters the house, takes the girl’s hand and says “Little girl, get up!” and the child gets up and is fine. And Jesus tells them not to tell anyone what he did, rather odd since he seemed perfectly comfortable announcing that he had healed the other woman.

On the face of it, we have two miraculous stories of healing. But there is something else going on as well: Jesus is perfectly comfortable healing the righteous wealthy religious leader’s daughter. The sort of family we all are comfortable with, that we recognize around us every day. No surprise there. He’s healing a “good” person.

But then in the midst of the healing of the “good” person, he heals someone who is an outcast, ritually unclean, someone the rules say he shouldn’t even touch. In the context of the time, most definitely not a “good” person. And he doesn’t think twice about it. He just does it.

He heals the woman just as he would heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman – a member of a people who were the enemies of Israel. He heals the woman just as he would heal a demon-possessed man, a man that was frightening to everyone around him. He heals the woman just as he would heal lepers, the most unclean of the unclean. He heals the woman just as he would heal Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, that dear soul who responds to the healing by getting up and cooking them all dinner. He doesn’t say that one person is worthy of healing and another is not. He just heals them.

He is clear that there is a cost in this: remember how he says that he feels the power going out from him when the woman touches his garment? But he also makes it clear that the cost, whether it is in power or time or the disbelief of the crowd that he would engage in contact with an unclean person, doesn’t stop him from doing the healing.

And he makes the point by announcing the healing of the woman that even those whom society despises can be healed, and by hiding the healing of the little girl of the righteous man He reminds us that we need to say out loud that all are deserving of healing.

He keeps on saying it, all the way through the gospels, as if he knows that we need reminding.

Jesus doesn’t care about our political wranglings over laws and rules. He simply cares about the hurting people in the world. Whatever happens in the national debate over reform of health care and health insurance, one thing remains true: Jesus says we have a responsibility to help, to heal, to care for those – even the ones we find hard to tolerate or whom we judge as unworthy – who are in need of health.

So pray today and every day that we do not forget that we are expected to use our power, whatever we have, to help those who are hurting. The “how” of it? We can disagree about that. But the “why” is clear: because Jesus did and told us to do likewise.