*Sermon preached on Sunday, 01 July 2018 at First Christian Church of Hampton VA. – Vinson
Gospel of Mark 5:21-43 (New Revised Standard Version)
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
He was up in years. Moving toward 90, this old farmer.
Not a member of my congregation, but he called up the church one day and asked if I’d come see him. He indicated that he didn’t think God would want him in the building, but he wanted to talk.
In that crossroads, folks knew each other. It was good and bad. To be known can open doors or just as easily close them.
He lived a few miles from the church, but he was known.
Well, not to me. To me he was simply a man who wanted to talk.
I didn’t know his history before we met. There can be something freeing about that, I think, to be a student of people without already formed opinions.
He had become reflective. A hard-bitten man, he was anything but a smooth talker. There was directness in his speech. Of his life’s course, he was unsparing. A path taken out of a bitter youth, he had become his father’s son, a life he admitted to be absent of a generous heart, a grudge-holder and unkind to many.
Decades before he been married and had a daughter who hadn’t had much to do with him. Who could blame her, he said.
When he had called the church, he really didn’t think I would come see him. There had been no church connection, though he had attended my church as a small child, nearly 80 years had passed. But it was his reputation. He knew it. It was his prison, as he saw himself this way and he knew that everyone else did too.
The imprisonment of himself had to come to an end, but how?
WHY I BRING THIS UP
In the reading of the Gospel of Mark, we hear of a different kind of scenario. But in a sense, whether it is one’s own actions or things beyond one’s control, the man I once knew or the woman Jesus encountered, the matter at hand is how the Gospel touches upon what are the same notes of isolation and rejection familiar to all who live on the margins.
And so, Jesus steps ashore.
I am certain that after the adventure they had crossing the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were delighted. Having experienced the authority of Jesus amid wind and wave, asking themselves “who is this… “ they now encounter this crowd on a mission.
Everyone there knows what is about to happen. They think.
We are talking about a principal leader in the community, and it is his daughter that has a death-dealing fever. At 12 years of age, strange as it sounds to our modern ears when the lifespan isn’t 35, but in the mid-70s, it would be like her being a 17-20 year-old. Soon she would be eligible for marriage. She was in the inside circle of the community, and she was dying.
The crowd parts, as Jairus approaches and pleads for Jesus’ assistance.
The crowd presses against them, as they walk towards Jairus’ home.
Interrupted by a touch, a gift of healing Jesus did not command, but was taken from him, accompanied by no plea.
Sometimes people do that. The lessen they have learned in life is that they will be turned away if they ask, so they don’t. People don’t fear rejection absent of some element of trauma.
The woman had snuck into the crowd, unseen in the commotion. We do not know her name, but everything else about her… How she had tried all of the doctors’ many remedies. Nothing had worked. How her resources are gone. Nothing left to her but a desperate act. How that act risked moving her even further outside the circle of community.
Mark, who writes in a just-the-facts manner, speaks of a 12-year old child in need of healing, the daughter of Jairus, while also speaking of a woman having bled for 12 years. The gospel writer leaves it to us to connect the dots, but I think it no coincidence this echo of 12 years.
It is not unreasonable to speculate. Never healed from birthing her daughter, she would have remained for all those years in the “Red Tent” away from husband and family. If she had economic means, it may indicate she was on her own, her dowry returned to her in a divorce and now spent.
What is certain is that she is considered unclean in the ceremonial Law of Moses. She would have been in the outside loop of the community, and in the context of that day this meant:
12 years of medical misery, without solution.
12 years unable to go through the required rite of purification.
12 years unable to participate in worship, because she was unclean.
12 years unable to be with her family, as the Law prescribed.
12 years of exile to what was not her home.
12 years of watching other women come and go in a matter of days, from the Red Tent, but always being the one remaining behind.
12 years in which no one could touch her, hug her, risking their own contamination.
In hearing these words, we must wonder who we encounter that’s too sad, too afraid, too burned by humanity – who hesitate to readily meet our gaze and have their humanity acknowledged.
In hearing those words, we must open our eyes to those whom our society has pushed so far to the margins that they have become in some sense – untouchable. Alive, but not connected. Human, but not welcomed.
Not wanting to slow Jesus down, but seeing a last ditch chance to enter back into the community… to no longer be outside, but inside… to be whole and reconnected, the woman interrupts the steps of Jesus. If she just touched the hem… the frills that decorated the bottom of the garment worn by Jesus.
Not expecting him to stop, but experiencing his looking around with what can best be translated as a “glare,” she stepped forth, as Jesus now intentionally touched her, with the affirming word: “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
The 12-year exile was over.
Bringing the woman into the center, just as a messenger delivers the news that Jesus had taken too long, the girl is dead and she who had been at the center of the community moved outside for the 12-year old growing cold was now unclean. For her, it was in the darkness of death, of isolation, until she received Jesus’ healing touch and restoration to life.
And this is the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God. Those on the outer margins brought into the center of the community while the elite and privileged experience the death of that status. We forget this is how God works His justice and mercy. It is the Jubilee embodied in Christ.
The man I got to know over the span of a couple weeks had lived life like it was a ledger, and all things were transactional. Quid pro quo. You do this, I do that. Such thinking has come to dominate our nation in too many ways. In religion and in governance. Trampling down the least of these, as seen as having nothing of consequence to offer. In this man, there was no hiding left, as he accepted the forgiveness of Christ and teared up. He had nothing to give back and it just threw him. That how it is when one actually embraces Christ. It isn’t business as usual.
We realized that he wasn’t going to make it into the doors of the church to be baptized anytime soon. His was expected to be a long stay and so I arranged for us to use a shower room in the hospital. When I arrived, things had changed overnight for much worse. “Preacher,” he asked, “can you baptize me now?”
A nurse slipped me a bottle of water, put a plastic sheet under his head on the gurney as he was being taken for emergency surgery. As we moved down the hallway, I asked him if he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, poured water over his forehead, and seconds later I saw him disappear into the operating suite. He would never regain consciousness and by evening I would be holding his hand as he passed into eternity.
I said we would give him a church funeral. I heard grumblings. Didn’t I know how bad a man he had been? Yes, but that was past. A man thought of as unclean. At the front of the sanctuary? He didn’t deserve a church funeral, it was said by some. That was for folks who had all the credentials, it was implied.
We did it anyway.
Writes the Rev. Robin Meyers in Spiritual Defiance, people have not fled churches “because they lost their deep hunger for a spiritual connection and participation in authentic faith communities. Rather, they are fleeing because so many churches now seem bereft of the very spirit that birthed them in the first place… the spirit will move with or without us. A disciple,” he writes, “knows joy and clarity only by doing the gospel.” [p.105]
It has been said that “The longest journey a person can ever undertake is the trip between the head and the heart. Christianity’s answer is not a better roadmap or a new interpretation. It is the incarnation.” [p. 55]
When his body was brought in, something happened. We were confronted with living in the realm of God.
Did we really believe in forgiveness, or was it an act?
Did we really accept people, or was that for pretend?
Did we really think the Gospel was for everybody, or just those that made us comfortable?
A friend of a friend has said it simply: “We must choose. We must choose between right and wrong. We must choose between light and darkness. We must choose between love and indifference. We must chose between mercy and cruelty. We must choose between truth and lies. We must choose between integrity and hypocrisy. We must choose between inclusion and bigotry. We must choose between justice and injustice…. WE MUST CHOOSE.”
Everything we are dealing with as a society comes down to such choices. It always has, but there are seasons that bring this into sharper relief and wrestling with the meaningfulness of following Jesus much more intensely. We are in such a season, without a doubt.
Perhaps this is why the prophetic words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer resonate more deeply now. Not many years before he was imprisoned by Hitler, he wrote: “Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless and the infinite worthlessness of that which is so seemingly valued.“ It is to, in his words, “learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
In such discipleship of Jesus, we discover the authentic Gospel.