Sunday, November 4, 2012

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 3:17-21; 4:1-3 / Matthew 9:18-26

Lord, my daughter is even now dead; but come lay Thy hand upon her, and she shall live.

Do we dare to hope for what we have no reasonable expectation may come about? When our reason tells us that an undesired outcome is all but certain, is it right or proper to set our reasoned objections aside and pray, with real expectations, of a divine deliverance? Ought we not, when faced ourselves with an unpleasant truth, or even more when those we love must face unhappy and heartbreaking facts, rather prevent the holding out for a divine rescue, for some deus ex machina of ancient Greek theater, and instead promote the acceptance of the real state of affairs, however terrible it might be?

In our piety, we may be happy to assert that nothing is impossible for God, and that we ought always to wait in hope. Even so, we know those times in which holding on to a preferred outcome, rather than the unhappy truth of facts, is unhealthy, both psychologically and spiritually. The dying patient who insists on every possible procedure on the grounds that it might work, and when these are exhausted spends all her energy on seeking healing from God, refusing any talk or counsel to prepare her for death, is but one example. Men who have lost their jobs and have no reasonable expectation to regain any like means of restoring their families to the style of life they had known before, students whose challenges at home have prevented success at school and so whose prospects for attending prestigious universities are essentially non-existent, mothers trapped in war-torn lands where the conflict has been, and shows every reason to be, intractable, trying to provide a safe haven for their children. While despair, in the moral sense of refusing to hold out that God can give to us those difficult goods for which we most deeply long, is indeed a sin, and it would surely be sinful to counsel despair, can we really, in good conscience, allow those we love to cling to hoped for goods that right reason tells us simply will not come about?

Yet, as reasonable as all of this is, we are confronted by the witness of the Gospel, of the saving power of Jesus Christ. We come face to face with the petition of the ruler of the synagogue: Lord, my daughter is even now dead; but come lay Thy hand upon her, and she shall live. We hear the desperate hope of the woman who was troubled with an issue of blood twelve years: If I shall touch only his garment, I shall be healed. On the other hand, those who speak of reasonable limits, who would limit what we might ask of Jesus Christ, laughed Him to scorn. How do we act, then? Do we disregard what reason tells us must come to pass, and so risk a foolhardy and naive hope of deliverance from every ill? Or, do we dissuade others and ourselves from such a hope in the saving power of Jesus Christ, so much as even to mock it, so as to keep us from painful disappointment?

The truth can be found, at least in part, in Jesus' words upon coming to the house of the ruler: Give place; for the girl is not dead, but sleepeth. The first thing we need to notice here is that neither the ruler nor the minstrels and multitude who laughed at Jesus understood the situation rightly. None of them understood that, insofar as Jesus had already intended to bring her to life, she could not rightly be called dead, but only sleeping. So also we must admit that, when confronted with ills for which we can find no reason and no solution, there may well exist goods in the mind of God, in the saving will of our Lord Jesus Christ, that exceed and undo our best descriptions of what we take to be the facts.

From this deep truth comes and even deeper truth, expressed by Jesus as a command: Give place. It is certainly true that we cannot will as good what we can only see as evil. We cannot adopt as an object for our own longing the ills that we suffer if we cannot see any way that such ills might direct us to the goods for which we long. All the same, we can give place. We can yield our wills to that of God. We can, without pretending to know the good God wills to accomplish in our lives, nonetheless quiet our wills and our longing, giving place to what God will bring about.

This is the attitude upon which true hope is grounded. We must always act on the basis of what we know to be best, and so it is folly, indeed sin, to pretend as though what is unreasonable to expect we should nonetheless pretend to be just around the corner. All the same, we must be ever ready to give place to the deeper and more profound wisdom found in the mercy of God, a mercy so wide and so deep that it would swallow the most incisive and keenest insights of our reason, were it not God's will to elevate our reason to share in his own. This is why, at one and the same time, we must act on the basis of the best that we can see and, without undoing that act in any way, be open to, and indeed pray for, a deliverance and visitation beyond any reasonable expectation.

Amen I say to you, whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive and it shall be done to you.

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