July 1, 2018, A Tale of Two – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000087
Of all the acts of our lives as Christians, it is very likely that prayer is the most purely an act of faith. When we come together for worship, we hear the music, we see the candles, we are surrounded by people we can see and hear, people we can hug. When we take communion, we see and smell and taste the bread and the wine. We can chew and swallow it. When we serve at Community Dinners, like we did this week, we dish up macaroni salad and sliced ham onto the plate of a person we can talk to and smile at. We call our friend on the phone to cheer them up and we hear their voice, we visit our next-door neighbor who is sick or lonely, we fold clothes at the Thrift Shop, we buy canned soup for the food pantry. It’s all pretty tangible stuff.
Sometimes when we pray, by the grace of God, we have a physical sense of his presence with us – maybe a feeling of warmth, or a kind of tingling, sometimes even something as dramatic as what we call being “slain in the Spirit”. But I believe that most of the time the act of prayer calls us to step out in faith. We sit, or we kneel, or we drive along in the car, and we begin to pray, and the only voice we hear is our own. Prayer can sometimes feel very much like standing on the edge of a cliff and yelling into the void. The only answer we hear sometimes is the echo of our own voice. To pray is truly an act that requires faith on our part.
But calling prayer an act of faith doesn’t mean that all prayer is just thinking nice thoughts or wishing really really hard that good things will happen. Our claim is that prayer is always two-way, that when we speak God always hears. And we all know that. We might never be bold enough to say out loud that there are times when we feel like we are wasting our time when we pray. But if we are honest – and we should always be honest, because who are we fooling, really? – if we are honest, sometimes we do feel like that. Sometimes we need reassurance, something we can hold onto, that reminds us what this whole prayer thing is really all about. And the two intertwined stories that we read this morning, the story of the synagogue ruler whose daughter was dying, and the story of the woman who suffered from a flow of blood – those are stories that are recollections of real events, but they are also wonderful images for us of what is really happening when we pray.
Even though Mark writes the two experiences as a single story, the people in the stories are as different as two people can be – one, a man of high social standing and the other, an outcast whose life is in ruins – but both of them come to the same place, at the feet of Jesus.
Jairus the synagogue ruler comes to Jesus directly, with confidence. He doesn’t make any apologies, he doesn’t hesitate, he just comes to Jesus with his plea. And he is in great need. His twelve-year-old daughter is on the point of death. And this is not the age of state-of-the-art medical care. He has left his little girl lying in her bed at home, knowing that her life is hanging by a thread; because death, especially the death of a child, would have been nearly an everyday occurrence in that time and place. But we aren’t allowed to think it is any less painful for Jairus than it would be for us. Jairus feels what we would be feeling if our own child’s life was in danger.
He is a man who commands the respect of everyone in the community, but in his great need he doesn’t think of his status or his dignity. He only thinks of the daughter he loves, and Jesus is his last hope. So he falls on his face before Jesus. Marks says he “implored him earnestly.” He begged Jesus, “Please, please come with me and lay your hands on my daughter.”
Jesus is in the midst of a great crowd of people, but in all the crush of humanity, Jesus hears his voice and he comes with him at once. Sometimes our voices might feel pretty faint and unimportant amid all the needs and clamor of the world around us. Why should we think that God will hear us, when there are so many other voices out there. But when we are tempted to think that, we can remember Jairus, and how Jesus heard his voice even in the midst of a great crowd, and how he turned and went with him at once.
Then, on the way to Jairus’ home, the story is interrupted by a woman. Mark doesn’t even mention her name. She isn’t anybody of importance in the community, like Jairus. In fact, she shouldn’t have been in that crowd at all. We are told that she has been suffering from a discharge of blood for twelve years. She has been sick for as long as Jairus little girl has been alive. And that sounds horrible enough, even for us, but in Israel it was worse, because having a flow of blood made her unclean.
For twelve years, if anyone had touched this woman, they would become ritually unclean. If she sat on anything or lay down on a bed, it became unclean, and anyone who touched anything she sat or lay upon would become unclean. They would have to go and wash and remain unclean until sundown of that day. Basically, she would have been living in isolation for twelve years, like a leper. And on top of all that she had spent every penny she had on doctors who only caused her more pain, and who had left her more ill and in poverty as well as alone and friendless.
It was against the law for the woman to even be in that crowd of people, where she was sure to come in physical contact. But she was desperate. She had heard rumors about this man Jesus. She was terrified, but something in the stories she heard had given her real hope. She certainly didn’t feel worthy enough, or bold enough, to fall at Jesus’ feet as Jairus did. But she thought if Jesus was what people said he was, then if only she could just touch – not him, that would have been too bold – but if only she could just touch the hem of his robe she would be well at last. And that hope gave her the courage to defy the law and to press in among trampling feet of the crowd, coming up behind Jesus, to reach out and touch his robe.
And Mark tells us that even though Jesus didn’t see that woman or notice her touching his robe, he felt at once that power had gone out from him. Something real, something physical happened at that touch, to Jesus as well as to the woman. And notice that the woman said not one word. She didn’t plead, she didn’t call out, she did the only thing she had the strength and the courage to do – she reached out a hand and she touched the hem of his robe. Sometimes we have no words to pray. Sometimes our need is so great, sometimes we are so tired, so worn out, so afraid, that words fail us. When we feel that, we can remember that it only took a touch, just reaching out a hand in hope, no matter how weak or invisible or unworthy she must have felt. That reaching out was her act of faith; that touch was her prayer, and that was all she needed to do. Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Literally, the Greek says, “Your faith has saved you.”
The two stories of Jairus and the woman are very different in a lot of ways, but in some ways they are very much alike. Both of them had to face the opposition of the world to come to Jesus. When Jairus was still on his way home, well-meaning friends came with the news that it was too late: to tell him to give up hope, to stop bothering Jesus, because his daughter had already died and the matter was beyond hope. It must have taken all the faith Jairus had just to keep on leading Jesus toward his house. The woman had to brave the censure of her whole society and of her religion, everything she had been raised to fear and honor, that had labelled her unclean, an outcast, unworthy of belonging.
Because what really makes the two stories into one story is Jesus. Essentially, they’re both stories about bringing hopeless problems and broken lives to one person, Jesus. And what makes these individual stories into pictures that are meaningful for us all these centuries later, is that when we pray we are bringing our own hopeless problems, our own broken lives, to the very same person. When we say that prayer is an act of faith, we don’t mean it’s an act of wishful thinking, or an exercise of our will and positive thoughts. We mean that prayer is an act of faith in a person. Prayer takes the same kind of faith it took Jairus to fall at the feet of a complete stranger and beg him to come to his dying daughter. Prayer takes the kind of faith it took for a woman who wasn’t allowed out in public to push her way into the crowd, to risk shame and censure and possibly to risk getting trampled, and just to reach out for the hem of his robe. That was prayer.
We don’t need beautiful words. We don’t need a lot of words. We don’t need just the right words. We don’t need words at all, really. We just need to reach out to the one who hears us, even in the crush and clamor of so many needy voices. The stories of Jairus and the woman remind us that Jesus hears every one of the multitude of voices that cry out to him. He senses the touch of every hand that reaches out in desperation. And in our acts of faith, in our prayer, the one who raised the dead little girl from her bed, and the one who turned in love and compassion to the woman in the crowd and healed her – that very same person is present with us.