Sunday, February 02, 2020

Reach out with intent — a sermon on Mark 5

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s / Greenock St. Margaret’s
Reach Out With Intent
Mark 5.21-34 (NIV)
2 February 2020, NL2-22 (Epiphany theme: 2020 Vision)

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered round him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, ‘My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’ So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed round him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’ Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realised that power had gone out from him. He turned round in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’
‘You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, “Who touched me?”’
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ they said. ‘Why bother the teacher anymore?’
Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, ‘Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.’ But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.


Back when I was training for ministry, during our first year everyone had to take a preaching course. The very first passage that every single student at Columbia Theological Seminary is assigned to preach on is this very one, these two intertwined stories from the second half of Mark chapter 5. 

Which means that the professors had listened to literally hundreds, probably thousands, of sermons about this story, and the vast majority of them were likely terrible, because most of us had never done anything like this before. And these 20-ish verses actually contain nearly every theme that Mark is trying to get across in his gospel — this half of a chapter neatly illustrates much of what Mark wants us to understand about Jesus. Which makes it really difficult to narrow down what to preach about, so all those first sermons were opportunities for the professors to teach us that we can’t talk about everything in a text on our first go. We had to learn to focus on one or two bits, and let the rest of the story speak for itself — it will still be there when the lectionary comes around again, or it will still be there when we have a Bible study or a youth group lesson. But that didn’t stop us from trying to cover it all....and it may not stop me from trying today!

It began in a boat, on the water, the symbol of chaos — because last week Jesus and his disciples were over on the other side of the lake, the Gentile side, where they encountered the demon that Jesus sent into the pigs. That story ended with the healed man being told he could not come along with them, but instead had to go tell others what God had done for him...and with the people who lived in that region begging Jesus to leave because they couldn’t handle the change his presence caused.

So Jesus went home, and immediately found himself surrounded by a crowd. But unlike other crowd experiences, this time they parted to allow Jairus, a leader of the synagogue (like an elder of the congregation) to come through. He was an important man, and probably well-off too, but he had a problem. His twelve year old daughter was so ill, she was on the verge of death.

Jesus, of course, went immediately. Who wouldn’t, when asked to visit a dying child and her parents? It is one of the worst things people can experience. 

Which, paradoxically, means that actually most people wouldn’t go. To have such trauma, such grief, is extremely isolating. People don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. Or they start well, but then the grief goes on and it feels awkward, so they stay away. All the while, the pain is overwhelming, and it feels as if the world can never be right, and bereaved parents are in it alone.

But Jesus isn’t most people. He went with Jairus. And so did the crowd.

It isn’t clear if the crowd was following because they wanted to see what he would do at Jairus’s house, or if they even knew where he was going. Maybe he continued to teach while they walked. Maybe they were just curious. Maybe they wanted to stay close in case something interesting happened. Maybe it was just the mob mentality where the crowd moves without much thought. 

In that crowd was a woman who had heard about the great things Jesus had done, and what people were saying about him. She’d tried everything. She’d been taken advantage of by every medical professional in town, she had spent all her money and more, and she too was isolated. To have an illness that goes on for twelve years is to be estranged from normalcy, from everyday life, from friends and family. She couldn’t do the things everyone else did, both because her body wouldn’t let her and because her money had run out, not to mention her energy....and probably if anyone had looked away from Jesus for a minute and seen her there, they would have protested that she ought to be at home in bed, alone, not out there where they might catch whatever she had. Much like people in China right now are confined to their homes, speaking to each other through windows across the often illness keeps us apart through a combination of fear and despair and not knowing what else to do.

But this woman trusted Jesus enough, and trusted herself enough, to just reach out...and as her hand stretched toward his cloak, she felt her body healed.

Only then, after her body was healed, did Jesus feel something in his own body. And then he did the unthinkable. He stopped. On his way to the dying girl’s bedside, he stopped in his tracks and looked around and asked to see the person who had touched him.

Probably a lot of people had touched him....the disciples even say people are pressing in on him. But they are blind to the fact that one person touched him with faith, hope, and trust. With intent. And he needed to see who it was.

The woman was afraid when she made herself known — perhaps she was afraid of being accused of stealing the holy man’s magic? Or perhaps she was embodying the very thing that the Bible teaches about approaching God with fear and trembling. She was shaking like a leaf, but she told him her  story.

And standing there in the street, surrounded by the crowd, with the important leader of the synagogue standing impatiently nearby, looking anxious and trying not to cry, Jesus listened. He listened to her whole truth. 

Jesus placed the needs of the poor marginalised woman on a par with the needs of the wealthy high-status family, right there in the middle of the street, while everyone watched. He didn’t just say it was all fine and let it go because he was in a hurry, he stopped what he was doing, looked for her, listened to her.

And then he said perhaps the most remarkable word in this whole story. He called this woman “daughter.” He drew her from the margins of society right into his own family, narrowing the space between them. He named her as one who is just as precious as Jairus’s daughter. He brought her in, drew her close, and changed her reality. Her body had already been healed, but now she was whole, included, loved.

This is what happens when Christ is in our midst. Not just magic clothes, but the actual presence of God, in the flesh, right here and now. The kingdom of God is here, he said — and in his Body, it is. The suffering are made whole, the isolated are brought into community, and love overcomes  boundaries.

In the meantime, though, tragedy has struck at Jairus’s house. While one woman’s suffering was ended, another family’s suffering was just beginning. You can imagine Jairus thinking terrible thoughts about that woman who had stopped Jesus’ progress toward his house, and about the disciples who couldn’t move him on, and even about Jesus for choosing that lower-class woman over his daughter. And we know that Jesus can see the hearts of those around him....but still he goes on, offering Jairus perhaps the most useless of all advice in such a heartbreaking moment: “don’t be afraid.”

At last the crowd was left behind, with only three disciples following Jesus the rest of the way. The people at the house could not see what Jesus saw—they laughed at him, in fact! Everyone knows the difference between death and sleeping. Everyone knows that one is restorative, and one is a separation we cannot overcome ourselves. 

But again, Jesus is in the business of overcoming separation. He makes people family, and this is no exception. Just as the woman in the crowd reached out to him with intent, despite her status as unclean and isolated, now it was Jesus who reached out with intent, despite the girl’s status as unclean and removed...and he brought her back into community too. He restored her to life, and their family to wholeness. The poor woman in the street was just as important a daughter as the wealthy girl was, and so too this child was just as important a daughter as the woman whose healing stalled his journey. Neither of them is more or less than the other — both are beloved, both are included, both are drawn in to the presence of God in Christ.

In these days of isolation, loneliness, and separation — whether due to illness, age, politics, grief, or something else — perhaps we, the Church, the Body of Christ, could be the ones who reach out with intent. The ones who make manifest, in our own bodies and in our community, the presence of God, overcoming barriers and drawing people in. Because when God is in our midst, we will see clearly. And people who are so often excluded, left behind or forgotten, people who are put away because of our own fear or discomfort or busy-ness, will see too, and know that they are loved, that they are valued and wanted, and that all of us are equally and wholly members of the kingdom of God.

May it be so. Amen.

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