Third Sunday after Pentecost Sunday June 28 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary
Proper 8B/Ordinary 13B/Pentecost 4 Textweek
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Revd Richard Pengelly
This morning’s gospel brings us two interwoven human stories about breaking down barriers. They follow hot on the heels of two great cosmic stories about the battles between good and evil and order and chaos in the form of last week’s stilling of the storm, and the story preceding this one which was about casting out demons. In the preceding stories Jesus is portrayed as God himself, the one who has the power to order creation and take on all the forces of evil. In today’s stories, again beautifully nuanced and crafted by the writer or writers we call Mark, Jesus is seen in his full caring humanity with the power to redeem and transform suffering. And the suffering in these two cleverly interwoven stories that build upon each other is profound and gender related. In fact, they both hinge on the particular suffering that women in many cultures still face with misunderstanding and even judgement with regard to gynaecological problems and the advent of menstruation and womanhood. The older woman whom we meet first has been bleeding for twelve years. Further, we are told she has spent all her money on physicians, who have made her problem even worse. Hidden behind the text is the language of Leviticus 15: ‘A woman who has a discharge of blood shall be declared unclean for seven days; and anyone who touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she touches, wears or lies on will also be unclean and will require, like her, ritual purification.’ Can you think of a more dehumanizing response to one of the most natural and necessary ways of being human, and particularly female?
Family physician, faith healers and religious leaders were all unable to help this poor woman and to make matters worse, she would have been completely shunned by them as well. This is the Jewish milieu into which her actions and Jesus’ response speaks. Her embarrassment and desperation are such that she hopes to anonymously receive some kind of healing power by simply touching Jesus’ cloak in a crowd. Instantly, the story goes, she is healed. Joy of joys, she must have thought: twelve years of humiliation and suffering gone in an instant. But then a terrible thing happens: Jesus stops and in front of the whole crowd says: ‘Who touched my clothes?’ The disciples go, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! There are hundreds of people pressing in on us; what do you mean, “Who touched my clothes?”’ Don’t you love the disciples? They’re so real; they get it wrong all the time, just like me.
But Mark is setting up a confrontation; he loves confrontations. Discomfort, dis-ease, disorientation – these are the places where transformation occurs. When things are cruising along nicely, why question, why change anything? And then something really amazing happens, I reckon. What would you have done? I can’t speak for the woman but I reckon I would have bolted – taken the healing and run! There’s no way I’d want to stand in front of a crowd and own up to a condition that’s delicate at the best of times. But no, this remarkable woman comes forward. I think this is an amazing part of the story. And I quote again, ‘in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. Can you imagine, in that culture: told him the whole truth. Have you ever heard or pictured that before? It really struck when I read this. It is a truly transformative moment, as womanhood and holiness meet in the dust. Let me say that again – this was radical for that culture: as womanhood and holiness meet in the dust, in utter humility, rather than humiliation. And Jesus lifts her up with the words, ‘Daughter’, not woman as we sometimes hear quoted in the gospels, daughter; it’s soft it’s intimate. "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." Isn’t that lovely? Can you see why the bitter old men who ran religious things hated Jesus? ‘Your faith has made you well’ – he even hands her back the initiative, graciously, gracefully, the credit, the power; she goes on her way healed, restored, heard, proud and loved. It’s remarkable.
The second part of the story introduces us to Jairus - we’re told he’s a synagogue leader – and his family. Significantly, Jairus’ twelve year old daughter is a the point of death and Jesus’ delay in interacting with the woman who’s been haemorrhaging makes him too late to help, in fact, some of Jairus servants tell him not to bother – “It’s too late she’s dead.’ But in typical Markan fashion, Jesus gathers his inner circle - another subtly in the reading - Peter, James and John, indicating that something big is about to happen. When he gathers the inner circle, this is big. He shoots an encouragement to Jairus: ‘Do not fear’, Jesus’ constant refrain, ‘Do not fear only believe’, and they dash off to the house.
There he finds a classic Middle East mourning in place, “he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly’, probably professionals some of them and they in fact at him bitterly when they suggests that the child is not dead but only sleeping. Again, Mark has set up a very tense, awkward situation. Taking only the girl’s parents and his closest friends, he enters the room. You can imagine the grief, the pain, the wanting to believe and hope and in the end utter despair. This is a twelve-year-old girl on the threshold of womanhood, a direct link to the previous story; this is how clever these writers were. A symbol of the financial and childbearing hopes of this family – remember dowries, in that culture? This is financial and childbearing, this is keeping the family going.
Jesus, the story goes, takes the little girl by the hand and says, "Talitha cum," in Aramaic (Mark’s the only one that uses Aramaic), which means, "Little girl, get up!" Echoes are meant to abound of Elijah and Elisha raising children from the dead, because this is the greater prophet, this is the greatest prophet, God himself, Mark wants us to know. And so the girl gets up and walks around a bit (probably some first century humour here, little bit of slapstick) as she walks around), proves she’s alive and well. And Jesus, in keeping with his compassion throughout this whole passage, tells them to give her something to eat. It’s a lovely little touch. Mark also throws in his little Messianic secret bit, a theme that runs through Mark, and says “Don’t tell anyone about this.’ Yeah, right!
Friends, these are good stories, these are clever, well-crafted and a deeply meaningful stories. Whether Jesus could raise a little girl to life or heal a woman with the touch of his robe, are not hugely helpful questions in my opinion. At one level I think it restricts them to historical stories about the God-man who was amazing two thousand years ago, but isn’t likely to walk through these doors this morning. I’ve been with a family this week and anointed their beautiful seventeen-year-old son just after he died of cancer, so full of promise, just like the girl in the story, and I think it would be cruel to assume or offer a literal resurrection hope. No, these stories are for all time; they are stories about the human yearning for new life that can find its fulfilment in Jesus. These two stories, in particular, celebrate the reality of women in community, so often forced into second-class citizenship, of emerging womanhood, menopausal womanhood, of equality in God’s eyes of the full embrace of the Gospel for anyone who feels marginalised or disenfranchised. These are beautiful stories of inclusion.
This is a very inclusive parish; I have long admired the work you do in this place and in your community and beyond, but there are people who are not here this morning who would like to be. Who are they? Where are they? Are we ever as inclusive as we like to think we are? There are people here this morning who feel judged, unloved and unheard, if not in this community, at least in parts of their lives. There may be women who know the pain of exclusion, perhaps even especially by the church in their own lives and there are aching bits of all of us who know the grief of broken dreams, represented by the twelve year old girl, the shame of unspoken suffering, (the haemorrhaging woman) and the yearning for new life, for healing and for wholeness. Sometimes it seems overwhelming, sometimes it seems too much. Let’s have a moment of silence to actually get in touch with some of these issues for us or someone we love. A moment of silence: for grief of broken dreams, the shame of unspoken suffering.
Friends, into all of these situations these wonderful gospel or good news stories, God breathes life and hope. They remind us in fact of the unique genius of Christianity, that we have a God who walked with people, felt their pain, who heard their cries and who loved them back into dignity and wholeness. So what can we do about it? Let me leave you with a story from Anthony De Mello, a little story and a thought:
A woman walking through the forest saw a fox that had lost its legs and wondered how it lived. Then she saw a tiger who came in with game in its mouth. The tiger had its fill and left the rest to the fox. The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The woman began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to herself, ‘I too shall just rest in a corner, with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need. She did this for many days but nothing happened and she was almost at death’s door when she heard a voice say, ‘Daughter, open your eyes to the truth: follow the example of the tiger, and stop imitating the fox. And De Mello adds, on the street I saw a naked child, hungry and shivering in the cold. I became angry and said to God, ‘Why do you permit this? Why don’t you do something?’ For a while, silence, then in my prayers, a voice spoke: ‘I certainly did something: I made you.’