Sermon on Zechariah 2:10; 9:9-10 and Mark 5:21-43 for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, B, June 28, 2015
Zechariah 2:10; 9:9-10
Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion!
For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the LORD.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
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.
So, we just read a story in which a child who had died is restored to life. Last week we saw Jesus cross over from Jewish space to gentile space, and now he crosses back to the Jewish side. What is the point of this story? Surely is is not that we should all expect a miracle at the point of our deaths.
My expectation is that no matter how successful I am at staying healthy, someday I will die. After that, I do not expect that someone will come along and bring me back to life in this world so that I can have a few more years to live. I am not alarmed by that. I do not fear death.
But I have already lived long enough to have married and have children who are adults, so maybe it is easier for me to be sanguine about death than it would be if I were younger. Certainly, the death of a child is an enormous sadness. You can feel the sadness in the story as Jairus, the synagogue leader falls at Jesus’ feet, imploring him to come and heal his little daughter.
Whatever this story is about, it starts as a sad story. Why tell this story, and why tell it this way? Before we can understand why telling a sad story was necessary, we need to notice some things.
The story has several problems that make it odd. Imagine it: a leading family, the leader of the Synagogue, has a little girl; everyone in the village knows her by name. Probably many knew she was ill.
How long was she ill? We do not know. How long did it take Jairus, her father, to get to Jesus? We do not know – but there is a serious timing problem here. In the time it takes for Jesus to walk to his house, not only has the girl already died, but already a lot of people have heard the word of her death and have gathered to begin the communal lamenting.
Some scholars tell us that it would have been normal back then for the family to hire professional mourners. If they did that, time would have been needed to organize it. So it is at least odd that they all instantly appear with full knowledge of the girl’s death, and the mourning is already in process when Jesus arrives. Maybe this timing anomaly is one early indication that we should be reading this story as a parable, and not literally.
The ending is even more odd. All of the people who gathered to mourn her death would then see that little 12 year old girl alive after Jesus raised her up. She would have bounded out of the house like kids do, and run off to find her friends and start playing. This would have caused a huge stir. Remember, they really believed she was dead – they even scoffed at Jesus’ suggestion that she only appeared dead, but was merely sleeping. So, there was no way in the world this would ever be kept quiet, as Jesus strictly commanded them to do.
The news would have spread like wildfire. Then, parents who had lost children or people who had lost spouses, or anyone who was in grief over the loss of a loved one, would have flocked to Jesus demanding he raise them back to life. But that did not happen. Maybe this story should not be read literally, but should be read as a parable.
If so, then it is a parable that starts with a great sadness – the daughter is sick, and at least very near to death. What could a parable of a sick and dying daughter be about?
I selected our reading from the Hebrew Bible from the prophet Zechariah for a specific reason. In this text, now famous as the Palm Sunday reading, the nation of Israel is called “daughter Zion” and the “daughter of Jerusalem.” The prophet pictures the nation as a little girl, a daughter, named after Mount Zion, the location of Jerusalem, the capital city, adorned with the one and only official temple to Israel’s God. The prophet imagines a future with hope and sings,
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey”
Zechariah is not unique; other prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah also picture Israel as a daughter. Zechariah pictures a distant future of hope, but before the hope comes true, the prophets picture the daughter as a victim of horrible violence, nearly dead. The nation, Israel, is at death’s door.
So we just read a story, not set in Jerusalem at the temple, but out in the countryside were the temple is represented by the local synagogue in which the Sabbath is observed and the Law of Moses is regularly read. The death in this story happens to the daughter of the leader of that synagogue. This detail cannot be accidental in this parable.
In the middle of this story in which Jesus raises the dead, or at least nearly dead daughter of the Synagogue leader, we find another story of sadness. A woman who has been the victim of both a disease and a health care system that has left her destitute, comes to Jesus, seeking healing.
Should we read this as a parable also? If we do, what details do we begin to notice. First, that she is not just sick in general, she has a blood problem. According to the Law of Moses, this makes her impure, and anyone whom she touches becomes impure as well (Lev. 15).
The oddness in this story is the whole role played by the issues of secrecy and public knowledge. This is not just a healing story. It is the story of an attempted surreptitious healing, and then of a public revelation. She wanted her touch to be undiscovered, but it was not to be. At the moment when Jesus is surrounded by people touching him, he asks the oddest question: who touched me? The disciples even point out how odd the question is. “Everyone is touching you.”
By this device, her touch is suddenly revealed to the whole crowd. She is identified, and now everyone knows that this impure woman has touched Jesus. Everyone knows that Jesus is now impure too.
So now, no matter what happens to that poor lady, if Jesus ventures on to Jairus’ house and touches anyone, they too become impure. But that is what he does. Remember, Jesus does not just say odd sounding Aramaic words to the girl, Mark tells us he took her “by the hand.”
But anyway, as soon as the impure hemorrhaging lady was discovered touching Jesus, what was his response?
“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Did you hear Jesus call her “daughter?” She too, was a “daughter of Zion,” a representative of the nation. There is another detail to notice. She had been sick for twelve years; as many years as the other daughter had lived; sick for as many years as there are tribes of Israel. The parable makes the point clear.
What’s the Problem?
So what are these sad stories of sickness and death, or at least nearness to death, about? If these daughters represent the nation, what is the illness that needs curing? What is killing them?
Their understanding of God and what God wants from them is killing them. Jesus is transforming their whole orientation to God, their entire understanding of what God wants from people. Following the prophets of Israel even further down the trail they started to blaze, Jesus understood that the purity laws of Moses were only the surface. In fact, not only were they the surface, their time of relevance had expired.
Moses had played his part. He had accomplished something huge. He had replaced polytheism with monotheism. He had formed a community of people bound together by covenantal obligations and social responsibility. He had inculcated in them the strong sense that unlike Baal or Zeus, God had moral concerns. God cares about human behavior.
But now, the time had come to say what the prophets said, and to say it loudly and clearly.
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6).
“Let justice roll down like waters.”
God does not want rivers of sacrificial oil or thousands of lambs sacrificed to remove the stains of impurity. As Micah said, instead of those,
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6)
Jesus Shows us God
Basic to our theology is that Jesus gives us our sharpest, clearest view of God. In what Jesus does and says, we see God’s will and purpose.
God is unmistakably on the side of breaking down walls and barriers between people. Just as Jesus “crossed over” to the other side, to the gentiles, in spite of the storms of opposition, we see in these stories he he crossed over to women to meet their needs, and he crosses lines of purity taboos.
What God wants most is not for people to keep clear of the sick, the impure, the sinners and the lepers, but to reach out to them with healing love. The point of Jesus’ ministry is to form a community, not of perfectly pure people, but of repentant people. People who had come to the conclusion that this could be the kingdom of God, here and now, if we could open our eyes and our hearts, and start receiving it as a child, welcoming the “other” without judgmentalism or disgust, repentant at our past divisiveness and dualism.
And, like those characters in the stories, there is still a lot of sickness left in us all; we all need healing and recovery. There is no shame in admitting it. In fact there is shame only in denial – ask anyone in recovery from addiction. When the disease is faced, and named, then the healing process can begin.
This has been an amazing couple of weeks in our country. Our attention has been drawn to the sickness of racism that can still produce death, but also to the hope that the kingdom of God represents, in the form of people committed to breaking down racial barriers.
I am so proud of our governor for single handedly removing the confederate flag from the state capital. Regardless of the fact that it was not historically the flag of the Confederacy, for most people, including the Charleston shooter, it had become a symbol of racial hatred. Recognizing that obvious fact, the governor removed it. There is hope for healing of this tenacious disease.
I am also proud of our supreme court which has removed the barrier to marriage that kept our LGBT sisters and brothers from experiencing equality under the law. I am proud that our Presbyterian church had recognized that injustice and helped lead the way.
I am proud of this congregation as I have watched you all open your hearts to people of color and and LGBT people. I am proud that this is a congregation that is on a journey and growing in the kind of boundary-crossing, healing love that Jesus demonstrated.
We are all in processes. We are all becoming, not just being. We have come a long way. As we practice the spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, worship and communion, we find increased capacities for compassion and empathy. As we stay open to the voice of the Spirit that is still speaking, we are drawn to see that in every category, love wins. The love of God that brings healing and restoration to our own souls flows though us to bringing healing and recovery to our world of “others”.
And when it works, when strangers become friends, when delight replaces disgust and exclusion becomes embrace, when hostility is exchanged for hospitality, then God becomes present; the impossible becomes possible, mercy triumphs over judgment, and the kingdom of God is at hand, the dead live again, and lamentation gives way to joy.