June 28, 2015 – The Law Writ Backward
To listen to this sermon, click here: 111105_001
This year is the second year, year B, of the Lectionary, so we’ll be reading through the gospel of Mark, from the Pentecost season we’re in now up to next Advent, which marks the beginning of the new Church year. So we’ll be getting familiar with what makes Mark different from the other three gospels. First of all, Mark was the first gospel that was written, probably about the year 50 or 60, so it’s the earliest and also the shortest of the gospels. Mark wrote what he learned from the preaching of Peter, who shared his memories from his apprenticeship with Jesus, as he taught the Christians in Rome. And just exactly as you’d expect from Peter, the man of action, Mark’s gospel deals with what Jesus did more than with what he taught. That makes it a particularly readable story, very fast-moving.
The passage for today uses a form that Mark used quite a lot throughout his gospel. Commentators call it a “Markan sandwich” because Mark had a way of telling a story within a story, so that each story helps to explain the other. Today we read the story of the synagogue leader, Jairus, who came to ask Jesus to help his sick daughter. But inserted into the middle of that story is the story of a woman who was suffering from some kind of bleeding disorder. It was a significant event in the ministry of Jesus, so much so that Matthew and Luke also include these stories, and in very much the same way.
We begin with a man coming to Jesus and falling at his feet to beg for his help, because his only daughter, a girl of 12, is dying. This man was an elder, one of the leaders of the Jewish synagogue, and he was risking his reputation in coming to Jesus but he was desperate. He had no one else to turn to. And so, with disciples and with crowds of curious people pressing in around them he fell at Jesus’ feet and begged for help. And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd – came with him at once
But then comes the filling of the sandwich, because as they headed towards Jairus’ home, walking along the narrow road, with people swarming around them, Jesus suddenly stopped and said, “Somebody touched me. Who was it?” And his disciples thought he was a little crazy. What do you mean somebody touched you, of course somebody touched you in all this mob. But Jesus wouldn’t budge, until a poor woman, trembling in a mixture of fear and amazement, came up to confess. She told her whole story, how she had suffered from this bleeding disorder for years – 12 years (and just imagine, that’s as if you had become sick in 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was captured, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, and had been terribly ill ever since then: a long time) – and she had spent every penny she had on doctor bills but just kept getting worse and worse.
And that all sounds terrible enough, but you have to know that according to Jewish law, anyone with a bleeding disorder was considered unclean, so that if anyone touched her, or if she touched anyone, or if anyone touched her bed or anything she had even sat on, they would become unclean, too, and have to go wash and remain unclean for the rest of the day. That means that she had lived in growing weakness, in disgrace and in lonely isolation for twelve long years, until she heard rumors of this traveling preacher who had been working miracles of healing and casting out demons. And she had screwed up her courage and decided that if she could only sneak up behind this man and just touch the fringe of his robe maybe, just maybe, she would finally be healed. And wonder of wonders, the moment she touched the fabric of Jesus’ robe she felt, she knew, that she was well.
And it almost sounds like some kind of magic or superstition, that the woman was healed by touching Jesus when he didn’t even know she was there, as he clearly didn’t. You might think that Jesus had to choose to heal someone in order for them to be healed. But if you think about the whole uncleanness thing it makes perfect sense. Remember that according to Jewish law, anyone this woman touched automatically became unclean – even touching what she touched could make a person unclean. But one of the surprises Jesus had for us is, it turns out things work exactly opposite to that; if a person was unclean, or sick, or even dead, and if they touched Jesus, it could work backward, his cleanness making them clean, and on the day this woman met Jesus, that’s exactly what happened. When the woman reached out to touch the hem of his robe, instead of Jesus becoming unclean, his goodness and cleanness and life entered her body and healed it. It wasn’t an automatic thing – there were people crowding all around, and lots of them must have touched Jesus accidentally as they walked along, and as far as we know nothing particular happened to them. The essential connection was that she touched him in faith – believing, hoping, that by touching him she would be healed. And she was.
She poured out her whole story to Jesus, and he spoke to her so tenderly, calling her “daughter” – the only time the gospels mention him calling someone by that title – “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” In other words, don’t be afraid that this is just a brief respite from your illness. It’s gone for good; your suffering is over; you are really and truly well.
And that ends the filling part of Mark’s story sandwich, and brings us back again to the story of Jairus and his daughter. Because in that wonderful moment of joy and healing, someone arrived with a message for Jairus – bad news, the worst news. There was no need for the preacher to bother coming any more, because his daughter was already dead. I can’t even begin to imagine the agony in his heart as he thought about the precious moments that had been lost because the woman had delayed Jesus. And now everything was lost. It was too late. And aren’t those the worst words in the world – too late. All hope gone forever. But Jesus overheard the messenger and he turned to Jairus and said, “Don’t be afraid. Only believe.”
And it’s really important to know that when you read the word believe in the Bible, and when you read the word faith, and when you read the word trust – those are all the same Greek word. Believing doesn’t mean deciding if what Jesus said is true or false and faith doesn’t mean knowing about Jesus, though those are part of what it means. But what belief and faith and trust in Jesus really mean is staking all your hope and all your joy and your whole life on this one person, kind of like you might put your entire life savings on one number at the roulette table because you know it’s the winning number. For the woman in the crowd, faith meant risking being trampled by a mob just so she could grab hold of the hem of Jesus’ robe because that was the only way to life and health. For Jairus, faith meant that “too late” and fear and death didn’t get the last word. That’s what faith means.
And Jesus was so merciful, and he must have understood the pain Jairus was in, just the agony of being torn between hope and despair, so he turned the crowds away – and who knows how he was able to do that, but it must have taken great authority to stop them following – and he just took his three closest friends, Peter and James and John, along with him to Jairus’s home, which was surrounded by more crowds of weeping and wailing friends and neighbors, and flute players, all there to grieve with Jairus and his wife for the loss of their little girl. When Jesus told them the girl wasn’t really dead they just laughed at him; they knew better than that. Clearly she was dead; it was obvious. What was Jesus playing at?
But he put them all outside until it was just the seven of them in the quiet house: the father and the mother, Peter, James and John, Jesus, and the little girl lying white and still on her bed. And then Jesus took her by the hand and told her to get up. Like the woman with the bleeding disorder, a corpse was unclean. Jewish law said that to touching a dead body made a person unclean, but Jesus took her by the hand anyway, and suddenly she was alive again and she sat up. Peter remember Jesus’ exact words – how could he possible forget a single detail of that amazing day – and he told it to Mark just as Jesus had spoken, in the Aramaic dialect they all spoke, “Talitha, koum.” Talitha is an Aramaic word that means lamb, and people used it to speak of children very much like we use the word “kid.” “Talitha koum!” “Time to get up, kid!” And she did. She stood up and she walked around the room and I’m pretty sure there must have been a lot of tears and a lot of hugging going on in that room. And Peter remembered that Jesus told the parents to give her something to eat, which makes perfect good sense, because 12-year-olds take a deal of feeding.
And that’s the story sandwich. A family received their only child quietly back from the dead and a woman who had been an outcast for over a decade was made well in the sight of a multitude of people. Jesus touched, or was touched by, people who were considered unclean and untouchable by the religious establishment and by tradition and the general attitudes of the society in which he lived. He did that a lot, touching lepers and chatting with foreign women and having lunch with tax collectors and prostitutes. He broke the rules, he offended the sensibilities of respectable religious people, and the result was that the impossible was suddenly possible, and the curses of the Fall began to work backward. Because Jesus touched the unclean, suffering became wholeness and death turned to life and grief was swallowed up in joy. That is our Lord, that is the one we serve, not a God who keeps his distance and avoids being contaminated, but a God who reaches out and touches us in our uncleanness, so that we might become clean – so that we might share his perfect and abundant life.