Brushing Up Against Grace
Sunday, July 1, 2018
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 8)
Brushing Up Against Grace
Companion in life and death, your love is steadfast and never ends; our weeping may linger with the night, but you give joy in the morning. Touch us with your healing grace that, restored to wholeness, we may live out our calling as your resurrection people. Amen.
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.
All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 1:1,17-27 Psalm 130 or
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
1. What miracles have you seen in your own life?
2. What miracles have you missed, only to perceive them as such much later?
3. Do we participate in miracles? If so, how?
4. How might this story apply to the life of a community today? For example, are there churches that appear to be dying or even dead, that might yet “rise up and live”?
5. How do you respond to John Pilch’s definition of healing as the “restoration of meaning to people’s lives no matter what their physical condition might be”?
by Kate Matthews
Our New Testament professor in seminary taught us to read the Gospels between the lines and behind the words. There’s so much meaning there, in the text, right before our eyes and yet we quite often miss it entirely. For example, the crossings over the sea: whenever I read or heard about them, I focused more on the small picture, what was happening right then to someone once Jesus arrived at his destination. There was always plenty to concentrate on, but the bigger picture escaped my attention.
What did it mean, my professor would ask, that the crossings were stormy? And what did it mean that one side of the sea was Jewish territory, and the other Gentile? Can you feel the tension and the risk, even danger, in going somewhere less hospitable, less comfortable, less safe? If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, would you have needed anyone to set the scene for you?
Feeling the tension
Probably not, she said; you would have felt the tension as you listened to the story. And the storms and the risks were something the early Christians would have understood metaphorically as they faced challenges in their life as the church, taking the risk of opening itself and reaching out to that “other,” the Gentiles. It wasn’t an easy crossing for them, either, just as it isn’t for us, today, when we reach across the boundaries that separate us from our own versions of “the other.”
This tension runs underneath the narrative in many of the stories in the Gospel of Mark. After spending time on Jesus’ preaching with words, Mark turns to the way Jesus preached with his actions, in a sense, showing, not just telling, people what the reign of God looks like. Jesus goes back and forth across the sea, doing many works of wonder and yet not always receiving a warm reception. Another theme that runs throughout these stories is really a way of describing that reception: faith, or no faith. Faith, or fearfulness. Faith, or confusion or hard-headedness or maybe even hard-heartedness.
The point between faith and fear
Our text this week sits on that point between faith and fear as it tells us two stories in one, both of them taking place on “this” side of the sea, after Jesus has returned from Gentile territory where he was (perhaps politely but definitely with fear) asked to leave. Instead of rejoicing when they found the man who had “had unclean spirits” sitting there calmly, they were afraid and panicked. (It’s surprising, isn’t it, that they didn’t flock to Jesus in hope of more miracles!)
In contrast, the former demoniac responded by wanting to leave everything behind and follow him. In that case, we get to hear about what happens later to someone whom Jesus has healed, and how his life has been transformed: he goes about the countryside telling everyone what Jesus had done for him, “amazing everyone.”
Two stories in one
This week’s passage contains two stories that are, for very good reason, woven into one. Just as the sea crossings hold more meaning than we might perceive at first, this narrative of healing and restoration of life is full of contrasts and connections that tightly weave the two incidents together. You might say that these two incidents together help us to understand each of them.
Both stories involve women in crisis–in fact, we don’t know them by their names but by their needs–both “daughters” of Abraham, neither one an outsider to begin with but both now subject to the taboos around the mysterious power of life (blood) and the even more mysterious (and seemingly unconquerable) power of death. There were those, indeed, who believed that bleeding women and dead girls should not be touched, at the risk of conveying their uncleanness to others.
Reaching out for new life
The number twelve is significant in Jewish thought (for example, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles), so it’s no coincidence that the woman has been bleeding (and therefore cut off from life) for twelve years. Richard Swanson says that blood is “the place that God’s first breath is understood to inhabit a human being, the place also from which we give life back.” He finds it intriguing that the word “flow” could also be translated as “river,” as “this woman’s life is swept along by a condition that persists for far too many years.”
However, I think a good word for her is “tired.” A flow of blood for ten years would exhaust a person, as if her life force were draining away. On top of that would be the discomfort and, worst of all, the feeling of isolation that comes with uncleanness and the taboos around it. And yet Jesus ignores the taboo for the sake of relationship and, perhaps, honor.
Letting himself be sidetracked
He doesn’t permit this touch to remain an anonymous, passive healing on his part; he lets himself be sidetracked from hurrying to the synagogue leader’s home long enough to find the person who has reached out to him with a touch that is more specific, more intentional, than merely jostling him in the crowd. Perhaps the crowd wanted to get near a celebrity, but this woman was reaching for her life. Jesus felt both her weariness and her deep hope. How could he simply walk away?
The other nameless woman in need is barely a woman, just twelve years old (that means the older woman has been bleeding during this girl’s entire lifetime) and ready to begin adult life, ready, in her own turn, to produce life through children. However, an unknown illness has struck her down, driving her father to extremes in his desperate search for help. He’s a person with a measure of prestige, respected in his community, accustomed no doubt to being listened to by people not as highly placed as he is, people without his knowledge and the power that it brings.
Even though this man is a leader, a religious leader, his precious child’s illness has weakened him, lowered him to the ground in front of a traveling folk healer in a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst from happening. This man’s name, of course, is known to us: Jairus. Megan McKenna tells us that his name (onomati ‘Iairos) in Greek is “a clue to what is going to happen”: it means “he who will be awakened or he is enlightened.”
A gift too precarious
I once read in a history book that before the scientific age parents did not allow themselves to get too emotionally attached to their children, because so many of them, before vaccinations, hospitals, and maternal/prenatal care, died young. John Pilch observes that in Jesus’ time “60 percent of live births usually died by their mid-teens,” which suggests that those parents were wisely insulating themselves from hurt.
The gift of a child must have seemed too precarious to invest in wholeheartedly, yet this man couldn’t bear to lose his little girl even, Charles Campbell writes, “at a time when daughters were not valued as much as sons.” By going to this itinerant preacher-healer who is already in trouble with the authorities (authorities like him, in fact, his colleagues and perhaps even his friends), he risks being ridiculed, and he risks missing the last few precious moments in his daughter’s life.
Something that might change their whole lives
It seems to me that desperation, more than faith, drives the synagogue leader to Jesus (we should remember this in a few weeks when we read the story of the Syrophoenician woman), and his moment of faith comes a little while later, when the news arrives of his daughter’s death. Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, then preaches the “shortest sermon of his career: ‘Do not fear,’ he says to the grief-besotted man, ‘only believe.'”
Do not fear; only believe. Taylor says this sermon was not just for Jairus’ benefit, and not just for the early church Mark addressed, but for “all of us who suffer from the human condition, who are up against things we cannot control.” The narrative is so spare, and we wonder what’s going on in the minds of those in the story: the synagogue leader, both worried and hurried; Jesus, who might have had other plans but has dropped everything, silently, and gone with the father in distress; the disciples, struggling as usual just to keep up; and the crowd, watching all of this, all of them hoping for something, whether it’s just for a good show or something much greater, something that might change their whole lives.
Enter the woman onto the scene
Into the midst of all of this comes the silent woman with a hemorrhage, without the religious leader’s boldness, simply hoping for one healing touch. Faithfulness or fear, desperation or hope: there’s no alternative for either one of these people, and they do whatever they have to do, whatever it takes, for the sake of healing and new life.
We can connect this woman with the young girl at home, who lies dying, but we can also connect her with three other nameless women in Mark’s Gospel. GÈrald Caron notes that, like this woman, “the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-31), the poor widow (12:41-44), and the anointing woman (14:3-8)” are all positive models of faith in contrast to the (named) male disciples. In their “initiative, boldness, theological insight,” Caron writes, they embody what it means to be a disciple. You might say that they “get” who Jesus is.
“Jesus the Multi-tasker”
Right there, on the road to one work of mercy, “Jesus the Multi-tasker,” as Beverly Zink-Sawyer calls him, encounters another person in need. His mission is interrupted, no doubt distressing the synagogue leader who is, understandably, in a rush to get Jesus to his home. Matthew Skinner invites us to “consider a theology of interruptionsÖ.Grace means that God has no task more urgent than to bend to assist those who seek help.”
How often do we have an agenda for our day that gets interrupted in unexpected (or predictable) ways, and find that our response to the interruption is more important than our original plans? Zink-Sawyer suggests that this text challenges us to consider our priorities, and who and what gets to the top of that list, and how we make that decision. Perhaps, she says, “those who are the most deserving of our attention may be the least visible ones.”
For Jesus, the most important thing in that moment is to face the person who has touched him, to encounter her as a human being and not just as an anonymous touch. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates his words in this way: “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague.” Like her, we long to “brush up against grace,” as our theme suggests.
Is it ever “too late”?
Faith: during the delay, the synagogue leader gets the bad news that his daughter is already dead, and Jesus is no longer needed. “Don’t bother,” the messengers say, “it’s too late.” Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned with losing face in front of the crowd. Instead, he speaks quietly, personally, to Jairus right then, reassuring him, as Peterson again translates: “Don’t listen to them; just trust me,” and when they arrive at Jairus’ home, they make “their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing casseroles” (The Message).
Perhaps Peterson makes the crowd sound like some of us church folks today, but Mark E. W. Edington reminds us that in those days it was the custom to have “hired mourners,” and compares Jesus’ manner to the way he spoke to the disciples back in the boat, during the storm. Where is their faith? On the other hand, Frederick Buechner’s sermon on this text is a bit more sympathetic to the mourners, who “wept and wailed because they didn’t have it in them to pretend that the death of a child is anything but the tragic and unspeakable thing that it is, and Jesus didn’t say anything to make them change their minds, didn’t tell them that it was God’s will or anything like that.”
The possibility within the quiet
Unlike the noisy, dramatic, terrifying storm, it must have been a tender scene inside that house, in the quiet that surrounds the sorrow for a dead child, yet Jesus is once again calm and confident. Instead of raising his hand to command the sea to calm down, he reaches down to invite the little girl to rise up and live. This is one of those times when Jesus uses a formula, as was the practice of ancient healers, John Pilch writes, and the Aramaic words (“Talitha cum”) in the Greek text illustrate “the ancient belief that power is in the original words and not the translation.”
And the little girl does get up “immediately,” and walks around, to the amazement of all. Jesus has to be the one to remember that she might be hungry after her ordeal, and tells them to feed her. He doesn’t miss the most ordinary details of compassion.
Wrestling with the questions
One can not read this text and easily avoid the question of faith and healing, or the related question of prayer. Most painfully, we ask why everyone who suffers is not healed, even when they do have faith, even when they pray and believe and trust God, even when they are as desperate as that religious leader, or that unnamed, long-bleeding woman. This question is most painful when it comes from your own child as he watches his little girl, his beloved daughter, suffer with a life-threatening illness. Trust me, neither the pastor nor the mother finds an easy answer at such a moment, and this text does not provide such answers, either.
However, perhaps our question is better, “Why is Mark telling us this story?” Barbara Brown Taylor, among others, sees Mark’s purpose as establishing Jesus’ identity, for these stories tell us “who God is, and how God acts, and what God is like.” According to Taylor, Mark is saying “‘This man is the son of God. Believe it.'” Holding on to that knowledge would sustain Mark’s community and the church today, all of us, and give us “strength to meet the days to come….[and] not lose heart.”
The tension within prayer itself
We might take this opportunity, then, to explore the tension in prayer itself, its “goal,” however shaky, of getting God to do what we want and give us the things we believe would be best for us, and its uncanny ability, on the other hand, to center us in God’s will, to be changed ourselves rather than thinking that we can change God, or God’s mind about things. Barbara Brown Taylor notes that Jesus himself prayed for a miracle, for deliverance from suffering, the night before he died, but he did God’s will in any case and trusted God’s goodness all the way to the end.
Doesn’t that mean that prayer is more about relationship than anything else? Miracles are not always what we imagine, and neither is healing. In fact, John Pilch takes a broader view, reminding us that healing itself might be experienced as “the restoration of meaning to people’s lives no matter what their physical condition might be.”
Living in trust and openness
It seems to me that the scholars are reading in this text a lesson about trust and openness. They find in this story a basis for our lives to be led in ways that are generous: generous with ourselves and with what we have, with our time and our money and our gifts, generous and open to those who come into our lives (note the reading from 2 Corinthians about generosity and sharing).
Megan McKenna reminds us that Jairus’ daughter lies dying today in little girls jeopardized by illness, lack of food and water and the necessities of life, the safety and security they deserve. It is no great leap, this month, to consider the plight of little girls kept in places we are not permitted to see, on our own border, little girls considered beyond the circle of our shared concern.
What sort of miracle is required?
What sort of miracle would it take for us to transform the world’s systems, and the hearts of its people, so that all children in need can rise up to new life? We might feel overwhelmed by the suffering of children around the world, and find ourselves accepting it, if only passively, out of a feeling of helplessness. However, McKenna observes, Jesus reminds us that all of these suffering people are on God’s mind: “[Jesus] refuses,” she writes, “to accept that human misery and the human processes of begetting and child-bearing, of being ill and dying, put one outside God’s concern.”
The question we have to ask ourselves, then, as individuals and as the church, is whether they are outside our concern. Jesus refuses to keep himself removed from those who are declared unclean by others, and clearly, he calls us to follow in those same ways. How do you think we are doing with that call?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, 21st century
“The fragility of our era is this, too: we donít believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.”
William Paul Young, The Shack, 21st century
“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 20th century
“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”
Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.”
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, 21st century
“‘I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.'”
Cecelia Ahern, The Gift, 21st century
“‘What is it with science these days? Everyone is so quick to believe in it, in all these new scientific discoveries, new pills for this, new pills for that. Get thinner, grow hair, yada, yada, yada, but when it requires a little faith in something you all go crazy.’ He shook his head, ‘If miracles had chemical equations then everyone would believe.'”
Noah Benshea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom For a Complicated World, 21st century
“A miracle is often the willingness to see the common in an uncommon way.”
David Kinnaman, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters, 21st century
“Surprisingly, the Christian faith today is perceived as disconnected from the supernatural world–a dimension that the vast majority of outsiders believe can be accessed and influenced.”
Gary Rudz, 21st century
“No one ever sees or hears a miracle when they are talking over it.”
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