Sermon on Mark 5:21-43 for July 1, 2018, Pentecost 6 B Audio 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.
I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker kept making references to Dostoyevski’s book, The Brothers Karamazov. I had always felt bad that I had not read it, so I downloaded it as an audiobook and started listening to it when I run. It is like other Russian novels – there are way too many pages spent on drawing room conversations, too much blushing and flushing and hand kissing – it can get tedious, for my tastes.
But then you come to those scenes in which the most intense conversations happen, and it makes it worth all the drawing room pages.
Probably the most famous scene is the one about the Grand Inquisitor. It is a story told by Ivan to his brother Alexi, which you may be familiar with. But the reason I bring it up is what Ivan says just before the Grand Inquisitor story.
Ivan says he has made it a personal past-time to collect stories of human cruelty. He tells a number of them in horrible detail, like, for example, stories of what the Turkish soldiers do to civilians when they capture a village. It’s too ghastly to repeat here. (Book V, chapter 4 “Rebellion”)
Ivan makes several observations. He says that people call this kind of evil behavior animalistic, but that no animal is cruel for the sheer pleasure of causing maximum suffering the way humans are. It is an insult to animals. He also observes that enjoying the suffering of other people is completely mysterious. It makes no rational sense, and yet the stories of it are abundant.
The question about why bad things happen is always troubling, but the question of why humans cause unnecessary suffering is just as perplexing. Even if there are reasons given, they are never sufficient. Why does someone kill 5 people who work for a newspaper? Even if he has a reason to hold a grudge, still, that is nowhere near an adequate explanation for what he did.
Our Alternative World
We gather here to imagine and to speak of, and to proclaim an alternative to a world of violence and gratuitous suffering. So, we tell Jesus-stories, and our quest is to connect those stories to our world. That is what we are going to try to do today.
We read the text from the Gospel according to Mark about two events that happen in one day. It is like a sandwich. It begins and ends with a story about a prominent man named Jairus with a sick daughter whom he asks Jesus to visit and hopefully heal. In between Jesus’ response and arrival at Jairus’ home, something unexpected happens. A woman in the crowd around Jesus touches the edge of his robe in her quest for healing, and Jesus notices her touch.
You have heard me say that Mark embeds his stories with many symbols. He does that here too. First, he tells us that Jesus and his crew have crossed to the other side. Last week we noticed that Jesus’s sea crossings are always about going from Jewish to Gentile space or back, which is why they are always so stormy. Well, he has been on the Gentile side, so this return brings him back to Jewish space where the concerns are Jewish concerns, which we will see.
There are several parallels between the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and the sick girl. Both are called “daughters.” The Hebrew Bible calls Jerusalem “daughter Zion” – the city standing for the nation.
So are we to understand these two daughters as emblematic of the nation? Maybe so. The number 12 comes up for both of them. The woman has been sick for 12 years. The girl is 12 years old. So what? Israel has twelve tribes. The symbolism seems clear. So, is the nation sick? Is the sickness deadly, at least potentially? What would the disease be? Can Jesus do anything about it?
Touch is involved in both stories. The sick woman touches Jesus. Jesus touches the little girl’s hand.
The woman is sick with a blood disorder. Blood makes you impure, and impure people have to be isolated from others or their impurity is spread; not to trivialize it, but it’s like we used to think of cooties when we were children. When the woman touches Jesus she makes him impure.
The fact that he stops and draws attention to that touch makes his impurity a public fact. But he completely ignores it. Touching Jesus heals the woman instantly.
“He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Faith comes up in both stories too. Jesus credits the woman’s healing to her faith. When he gets to Jairus’ house and finds his daughter dead, Jesus says to Jairus,
“Do not fear, only believe.”
“Faith” is the noun. “To believe” is the verb. Both mean, essentially, “trust.”
Some have called this Jesus’ shortest sermon. We are not told if anyone does believe, but the healing works. Jesus takes the girl’s hand, tells her to rise, and she does.
So how does having trust in Jesus lead to healing and even to restored life?
One of the big ways that the nation of Israel, the “daughter Zion” was sick to death was their emphasis on purity. Impure people were excluded. This was a problem for Jewish people themselves, especially rural people whose lives put them in constant exposure to animals, from birth to slaughter, making them perpetually impure. But how much more were Gentiles impure.
But Jesus intentionally crossed the sea to the Gentile side, and when he returned, he completely ignored the purity taboos in the interest of bringing healing. In fact, it was his unwillingness to respect those exclusionary taboos that brought healing. Nobody was a touch-me-not to Jesus; Jewish or Gentile, sick, dead, contaminated or Synagogue big shot. Jesus’ interest was in bringing healing.
Are We Sick?
Let us bring this into our world. Is there any sickness we need to be cured of? Most of us, just like most faith leaders, including our Presbyterian leaders, and people in both political parties have been horrified by the practice of separating children from their parents. So we are all thankful that the policy of separation has been reversed, but we are all concerned for the children who have already been separated and how and when they will be reunited.
But where does this policy that caused so much unnecessary suffering come from? There are a set of rationals that have been offered. We are told there is an immigration crisis, that large numbers of immigrants are coming into our nation, that they are criminals, that they are taking American jobs, driving down wages, that they are straining resources, taking benefits without paying taxes, hurting our economy, and making all of us unsafe.
None of those claims are true. Even conservative sources like the Cato Institute say that crime statistics, in every category, are much lower for immigrants than for us natives. The number of migrants is near record lows and has been since 2010, so there is no crisis in numbers.
According to the George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, as well as plenty of more recent studies, immigrants are a benefit to our economy. They do not receive more services than the taxes they pay. In fact, they benefit many sectors of our economy, some of which, like agriculture, would be severely jeopardized if they were not doing those jobs that most natives do not want anyway. Additionally, their children assimilate to our language, our culture, and our way of living. They serve in our armed forces and fight in our wars.
The people making policy in Washington know these facts. They are readily available, and, to emphasize it, they can be found in conservative sources.
So if the reasons given for an anti-immigration policy are not real reasons, what other reasons remain?
Could it be that there is a sickness in our nation that can only be described as a kind of nativism that looks at non-natives as somehow impure as if they had cooties? It is hard to find an alternative motivation. If immigrants actually help us instead of harming us, why else do we want to keep them out? Why are we willing to cause such unnecessary suffering for families?
One thing is clear. Following Jesus means seeking ways to show compassion. It means crossing boundaries to include the other. It means seeking healing. It means doing the things that promote life.
And it means trusting that Jesus’ way is the right way. That kind of faith, the willingness to risk openness to others, the trust that God will be there for us when we do what is right and good, will be our healing, and the healing of our nation.