I don’t know how conscious you are of this, but every Sunday, at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People, I add a final prayer to sum up all we’ve said. I do this because there’s a rubric or direction printed in small italic letters at the end of each form of the prayers instructing me to do so. In case you wonder where those prayers come from, there are a number printed on pages 394 and 395 from which to choose. But the rubrics also allow flexibility in this so, on occasion, I’ll use a prayer from somewhere else. For instance, last Sunday on Father’s Day I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for fathers . When we observe Memorial Day, I use a prayer for those who have died in the service of their country from the Burial Office, and on Veterans’ Day I use one For those in the Armed Services our Country. But most of the time I use one from pages 394 and 395.
I try to vary which one I say, and pay attention to which ones may be more appropriate in a particular season of the Church year. But I have to confess that there’s one of the eight possibilities provided that I’m particularly fond of, and you have probably heard that one more often than the others during my time at St. James’. My favorite collect at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People reads like this:
Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask,
help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good
things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant
us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I like this particular prayer so much because it acknowledges that God knows what we need before we ever ask for it. It then it reminds us that we need to filter what we ask through the screen of what we know about God’s will. And finally, in case this “filtering” makes us feel kind of stymied about what it’s “proper” to pray for, the prayer concludes with the most beautiful petition. It asks of God: those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask…give those good things to us for Jesus’ sake.
In the gospel this morning we’re confronted with two very desperate people. One is a father who is frantic because his child is dying. His desperation is born of crisis, and time is of the essence. The other is a woman. Her desperation has been years in the making, twelve years the story tells us. The dictionary says that “desperate” is a word used to describe people who are without hope. I can well imagine that this father, in his position as one of the leaders of the synagogue in his community, has seen many a child grow sick and die. He knows full well the limits of the medicine of his day, and in desperation he comes to the teacher he’s heard about, the one who’s been healing people right and left everywhere he goes. I’m guessing that some of us have known that kind of frantic desperation, but perhaps many of us have not.
The woman, on the other hand, has seen every specialist in the yellow pages and then some. They took her money and subjected her to treatments that added to her suffering, but nothing they did healed or even alleviated her condition. After suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, can’t you imagine how anemic she is and how exhausted that anemia leaves her? Her desperation is not the frantic kind. Her desperation is the resigned kind. It’s the kind of resigned despair I’m guessing most all of us who are old enough have felt from time to time. Whatever is wrong and whatever we’ve tried to do about it, there is no end in sight.
Both these stories are about healing: the little girl from some deadly illness, the woman from a chronic condition; each situation generating its own kind of desperation. Both the father and the woman seek out this man Jesus as a kind of last resort; the father because it’s an emergency and the woman because she has no more resources for conventional medicine. It’s interesting to note that the Greek word sōzō which is translated as “make well” in three different places in this passage is usually translated as “save”. So what the father asks of Jesus is to come lay hands on his daughter that she may be “saved” and live. And the woman says to herself as she presses through the crowd and touches Jesus’ cloak, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be “saved”. And after hearing her story, Jesus himself says, “Daughter, your faith has “saved” you; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” The implication is that more is happening here than physical healing, and that implication is huge.
I think that implication is what the petition in my favorite collect to conclude the Prayers of the People is about. Those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask. How often do you and I refrain from asking God for those good things which we genuinely desire and which will make us whole and joyous because it may not be God’s will? How often are we so terrified in the moment that we forget we’re praying to the One who created us and wills nothing less than our wholeness and happiness? How often are we so blinded by the relentless pain of our situation, either immediately or over the long term that we just ask God for a band-aid, a little respite for the moment?
The thing about the terrified father and the resigned woman is that even in their desperation they acted. And because they did, you and I can know, as a commentator on the gospel of Mark once put it, “Desperation joined to hope and action is not despised.” On the contrary, the good news is that whatever form our desperation may take, God is willing and eager not simply to put a band-aid on it and make it all better, make it “well”. God in Christ Jesus desires to save us, physically, emotionally and spiritually from all that separates us from him and from the fullness of being that is our birthright as his children. This is a prayer which we can always “dare” to ask.
You and I take leave of one another this morning. We’ve journeyed together for seventeen months, longer than any of us expected. As I’ve said before, it was a steep learning curve for me in the beginning, but in retrospect I am amazed and gratified by how quickly we fell into an easy and respectful mutuality with one another. We have sorrowed and celebrated together. We’ve wept and laughed. We’ve shared frustrations and triumphs. When I began, I didn’t know what it would be like because I’d never been an interim before. As it ends, I realize that it has been more than I could ask or imagine. Through you, God has given me those good things I didn’t dare to ask for and was too blind to envision in the beginning when I was struggling to remember names…and figure out how the nine o’clock service worked. I thank you and I thank God for that. And I leave you confident that, in God’s good time, the search for your next rector will end the same way. I love you. Thank you for loving me back.