This homily was inspired by a valley. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago in my sermon “The Great Irony of Life,” I shared a revelatory moment that happened on a CBF Youth Passport Missions trip several years ago, which took place in Jacksonville, Florida. This Passport Missions trip was located on the Jacksonville University campus, and I think there might be only one hilly spot in Jacksonville, Florida — and Jacksonville University happens to be situated on it. So every day our youth, Melissa, and I were constantly traversing a valley, always going up a hill or down a hill, to the great consternation of some of our campers who found this hiking terribly burdensome. When we would hold our church devotionals in the evening, and go around the room citing low points and high points for the day, you could be sure that someone was going to grumble about all the walking we had to do up and down hills in the heat, humidity, sand and dust.
But here’s the thing: the Jacksonville University campus is also amazingly gorgeous. It sits hard by the St. John’s River; you can watch magnificent ships and tugboats sail by. The campus abounds in magnificent live oaks adorned in Spanish moss. The perceptive eye can see scurrying lizards, colorful birds, even acrobatic raccoons. If people were of a mind to notice such beautiful things, they could be so engrossed in cataloging these fascinating details they would hardly have time to notice that they were walking uphill or downhill. Everyone walked the same walk. The distance across campus was the same for everybody. But what was an intolerable burden to some was a delightful stroll for others. The determinative difference in how one approached the valley was one’s attitude. What made the walk a delight or a burden depended upon your internal compass.
That insight helps us understand this powerful little passage. Jesus has been recruited by the prominent leader of a Jewish synagogue to come to the aid of his dying daughter. A huge throng of onlookers accompanies Jesus and the disciples, curious to see how he would handle this crisis, and this rude crowd jostles Jesus and his disciples in the process. Suddenly, amidst the crowd Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples look at Jesus, incredulous, and note, “Look, we are all playing human pinball here. You’ve been touched by fifty people. Why do you ask ‘Who touched me?’ ”
But one person in the crowd knows the answer to Jesus’ question. She has come to Jesus out of desperation, having suffered an unmanageable flow of blood for twelve years. She has spent her entire livelihood recompensing doctors who promised to cure her of her condition, but no one could deliver on their word. However, she has heard about Jesus and has said, “I believe if I just touched the hem of his garment, healing will come to me.” Of course, according to the rules of her religion, her condition has rendered her ritually unclean, unfit for pious company, excluded from worship fellowship, ostracized by her unique curse. But she has come to Jesus with an attitude of faith and hope. She has managed to negotiate the mass of humanity in such a way that she could touch Jesus’ garment. Suddenly, she receives a flow of his transforming energy into her body. Surreptitiously, she has gained the power of health – and only Jesus and she know it. Sure, fifty people had touched Jesus, but only one had touched him in an attitude of faith and hope. Only one had touched him with an expectation of healing – and that made all the difference. When she comes forth and falls before this holy man in fear and trembling, afraid that she has improperly acted to steal the transformative energy of life, all he does is pronounce benediction upon her. Jesus says to her, “Your faith has made you whole.” More exactly, her attitude of faith and hope had opened her up to healing power. Jesus says to her, “Go your way in peace.”
On that CBF Youth Passport Mission trip several years ago, Melissa and I were assigned supervisory roles at mission sites that had youth gathered from all over the country. After a day of working with the kids, Melissa made this apt observation: “You know, I learn these kids’ personalities before I learn their names.” She was absolutely right. When you are assigned to accomplish a difficult task with a group of strangers, you quickly glean the attitudes with which people approach life. You instantly perceive those kids who are focused upon all of the potentially negative circumstances – the heat, the humidity, the dirt, the dust, the bugs. But you see other youngsters whose eyes are bright with anticipation, even joy. Their attitude is, ‘We’ve come from all over the country to do a difficult job – now, how do we accomplish the task?’ The external conditions were the same for everyone – but the critical factor in how they responded to the challenge was the internal attitude by which they approached life’s circumstances.
I tried to communicate to our young people during our devotional time how their attitude toward their life, their attitude toward their God, their attitude toward their faith would be pivotal in how they approached the whole of their existence. In truth, every life encounters highs and lows, moments on the mountain top and times in the pit. We all will know joy and sadness. There will always be circumstances about which we could complain. But the critical factor in facing challenges of success and adversity is our attitude. Paul talked of being shipwrecked, scourged, stoned, snakebit, and beaten with iron rods. Yet none of those harsh circumstances quenched his joy and zest for life or his service on behalf of Jesus Christ. Why? Because his attitude was, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me!” He lived with the confidence, “Nothing can separate me from the love of God.” When the attitude of faith at the center of our being is ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ when our core approach to living is the belief that ‘nothing can separate us from Christ’s love,’ then we can rise above any and all circumstances, and nothing can quench our zest for life, our hope, our joy and our faith.
I would add that a consistent attitude of faith in situations of adversity ultimately builds an empowering confidence. The more you find that Christ gives you the strength to handle difficult circumstances, the more you find that attitude of faith empowering you — the more competent you become amidst situations of challenge and turmoil. Our Lord lived a difficult life. He was the Son of God, but his every day was filled with negativity, adversity, resistance, and resentment. He shared his Last Supper with friends while knowing that forces of injustice, hatred, violence and fear were soon to overwhelm him. But as he gathers his friends around the table, his attitude of faith has given him confidence in his Father’s providence for him and the spiritual imagination to look beyond these negative circumstances to God’s ultimate triumph. So he could say to his friends, ‘Yes, my body will be broken for you; yes, my blood will be spilled for you. But even these gruesome events are to be symbols of God’s expressive love. Do not despair. I will rise.’ When we approach our Lord’s table with an attitude of faith, when are truly believe that we can accomplish all things through Christ, when are sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love, then we can ponder the broken body of our Lord and his spilled blood as expressions of God’s divine self-giving unto us. Then we can feel the very power of transformation that the woman felt when she said, “If I can just touch the hem of his garment, I can be made whole.” Some of us acutely need that power that makes us whole. So as you come to this table, in this place where you are not a stranger, but a child at home, I invite you to approach this table with the same attitude of faith and hope as did that woman so long ago.