Tragedies; Touched & Transformed - Sermon for June 27, 2021 (Fifth Sunday After Pentecost)
Scripture Readings: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 8:7–15 | Mark 5:21–43
"Do not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36)
This week we’ve been given another glimpse of the tragic side of our country’s story: more than 750 unmarked graves were found at the old site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. As horrible as this fact is, there’s likely to be more such discoveries in the days to come, bringing to light the heart-rending traumas so many indigenous people, families, and communities have faced over the years… stories we are all tied to as both Christians and Canadians. It was our Christian organizations and our Government that were responsible for running these schools; enacting policies and plans that we now know were designed to destroy. As the gravity of these tragedies begins to be widely recognized, it’s still unclear to many of us how best to bring about restoration. But it is clear that this work needs to happen… to begin and carry on… and that we are all required to be a part of the healing work ahead.
At it’s heart, the Christian Gospel, after all, is a story of healing and hope… of life being restored and renewed, even when that seems impossible. Today, our reading from the Gospel of Mark points us in this direction, with the stories of two women… two daughters… whose own tragedies were turned upside down by the touch of Jesus. Last week we heard St. Mark describe Christ as the Lord of Creation; completely calming the terrible storm, simply with a word. Today we hear St. Mark describe Christ’s power over sickness and death… portraying Jesus as the one and only Lord of Life, by tying together the stories of two very different lives.
St. Mark starts off by introducing us to Jairus: a local synagogue leader, who comes to Jesus looking for help. We’re told his 12-year-old daughter is on the verge of death. As a parent of a young daughter myself, this part of the story makes me tremble. Few things can frighten parents more than to have their children suffer, and be helpless to stop it. So, throwing public opinion to the wind, this desperate father throws himself at Jesus’ feet, and begs Him to come and rescue his girl before it’s too late. Here is this honoured, respectable man, urgently, publicly pleading with Jesus on behalf of his beloved child, who cannot plead for herself. “My little daughter is at the point of death”, he says to Jesus. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:23). And just as we’d suspect, Jesus is moved by this man’s pleas. And so they head to Jairus’ house, followed by a crowd.
It's here, on the road, that St. Mark introduces us to another character: a women, also in need of help, but with a very different story. St. Mark doesn’t tell us her name, only that she has been suffering… hemorrhaging, bleeding continuously for years. As her story unfolds, it’s clear that she’s in desperate need as well: having spent all that she had, seeking medical assistance, though her condition only worsened, with no sign of relief. But unlike Jairus, who came to Jesus directly to plead for his daughter, this woman could only dare to approach Jesus while hidden among the crowd. Unlike the daughter of Jairus, we don’t know how old she was, only that she had been suffering for 12 years, as long as the first child had been alive. Unlike Jairus’ daughter, who had a prominent parent to plead for their beloved child, this women had no one to help her… she’s pictured as being alone. But just like Jairus, this women had also placed all her hope in Jesus, trusting that she could find the healing she needed… if she could only connect with Him.
While Jairus publicly begged Jesus to lay His hands on his little girl in order to restore her to life, this woman could only whisper to herself: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). And so, well hidden among the crowd, this desperate woman reaches out to Jesus, touching His cloak as He passed. And then everything changed.
After all, who knows what will happen if we reach out in faith to Jesus? What kind of power we might encounter? What new twist might appear in our stories?
For this suffering woman, the instant she touched Jesus she knew she had been healed. All of her hopes came bursting to life… but along with them came fear. Something had happened that she hadn’t counted on: her healing hadn’t stayed hidden! Jesus had stopped in His tracks, and turned around asking aloud: “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30). Even in the crush of the crowd, Jesus had noticed that someone had reached out to Him… and even though she had been healed, and her long suffering would now be at an end, the woman now finds herself facing Jesus and trembling with fear.
Why? Why was she now so afraid that her act of faith would be found out? She had just received a miracle that had given her back her health. You’d think she’d be excited, overjoyed, eager to spread the news. Was she shy? Intimidated by being singled out by this important and powerful rabbi? Was she worried about what others in the crowd thought of her faith? After this truly life-changing moment, why is it that she’s afraid? Though the answer isn’t as obvious to us as it would be to folks back then… it’s clear there’s much more to this woman’s story… much more pain, and shame, and suffering… that she had faced, and which all made her uncertain her act would be welcomed by Jesus at all. She was afraid because she had crossed a serious line by reaching out and touching Him.
What line? The line of holiness. Of spiritual sacredness. Laid out in the Laws of God, given to Israel long ago. In the book of Leviticus, the Laws set out some very specific rules for how to avoid becoming ritually unclean, that is, unready to enter into the presence of the Living God, as well as how to be made clean again, which happened fairly regularly. Because of its connection to both life and death, blood and other bodily fluids had strong symbolic meanings, not only in Israelite culture, but among many ancient Near Eastern peoples. In that context, something as natural and frequent as menstrual bleeding would make women ‘ceremonially impure’, or ‘unclean’ for a brief time. But in Leviticus 15:25, the Law addresses another scenario: if a woman keeps bleeding, she keeps on being considered unclean. “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.” Because of the nature of her illness, because her bleeding never ceased for 12 long years, she was considered unclean for all the years of her suffering. There was no chance for ritual restoration; instead she was cut off from the spiritual life of her community, and close contact with others as well. Religiously speaking, she was untouchable.
Much like we have been practicing ‘social-distancing’ in these days of COVID-19 in order to keep the virus from spreading from person to person, there were rules back then about not coming into contact with those who were ritually unclean, or else you risked becoming unclean as well… at least for a time.
Think of that for a minute. We’re all getting tired of the isolation and distance we feel from one another after cutting down our close contact with those we love for a little over a year. Imagine this woman, cut off for 12 years, while everyone else around her could go on with life. For her to step into that busy crowd, she was breaking her self-isolation, openly spreading her ‘unclean’ state. More than that, she was intentionally making Jesus, a powerful rabbi, unclean. She planned to secretly reach out to Him, even though this would still be considered wrong. Her desperation led her to draw near, hoping that nobody would notice. But Jesus noticed. Jesus stopped and sought out the one who had reached out to Him. So trembling, she falls down before Him, and confesses everything. She tells Him her whole sad story… unsure of what will happen next.
This too is a sacred moment: the opening up of a heart, sharing a story filled with pain, and hopes, and shame, and longing. It takes faith to reach out… to seek to make that first connection. And it takes faith to entrust our stories with somebody else. To give them our whole story, with all of it’s joys and tragedies.
In the midst of that crowd. In that time of urgency, Jesus stopped to receive the story of this scared and suffering woman. And instead of dismissing her, or condemning her deed done in desperation, Jesus reaches out to her in her pain and isolation, and draws her close, reminding her with a word that she is welcome: “Daughter,” He says to her. No longer alone. No longer cut off. She belongs! She is welcome! She is blessed, and brought back to life! “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34). Untouched by her uncleanness, Jesus makes her holy, and whole again. Restoring her to life in every sense of the word.
Right here, the story switches again, as messengers come from Jairus’ house telling him that they’re to late. That his beloved daughter has died. This time Christ doesn’t hesitate one second… calling this desperate father to trust Him. “Do not fear, only believe.” (Mark 5:36). Remember the miracle that had just taken place before his very own eyes, and trust in the One who had just restored that woman to life … the One who was still with him.
In the words of the scholar Donald English: “If Jesus remains with you, there is no ground for fear. Trust the person, not the circumstances. Jairus had just witnessed a lonely, sick and shunned woman manage to do this very thing. He must also believe, because Jesus had shown his intention to make the girl well. It is significant that the tense for believing means ‘keep on believing’… The bridge from the one to the other is Jesus’ presence to heal the girl. Jairus had begun well... He must not lose faith now.” At this crucial moment, when all hope crashes down, and darkness is all one can see, Jesus called Jairus, and calls each one of us to keep trusting Him. Sometimes restoration happens all at once. Sometimes it’s a long hard journey. Sometimes it seems like the whole world will have to change for the story to turn out right.
But these stories from Mark’s Gospel remind us that we can entrust our stories to Jesus. That we can draw near to Him, in whatever way we can, and place our pain, our hopes, our shames, our whole lives in His hands… and that His touch can transform even our darkest tragedies. That in Christ we encounter the compassionate power of the Living God, and find ourselves embraced by the Risen Lord of Life.
As we look around and find ourselves facing our world’s desperate need for restoration… for genuine healing, and enduring hope… our task is to trust in our Saviour, Jesus, and let Him reach out through us so that our neighbours, our loved ones, and strangers, can come into contact with His rescuing love. To stop and attend to their stories that stand in need of our understanding, gentleness, courage, and even our own confessions… confident, that Jesus, the Risen Lord of Life wants to work through His people, bringing the truth to light in order to bring God’s restoration and wholeness to His broken world.
When Jesus finally drew near the beloved but now lifeless daughter of Jairus, He reached out and gently took her hand in His own and said: “Little girl, arise.” Beyond all hope, He raised her from the grave and gave her life again. Through His Spirit at work in us, may we too trust Jesus and reach out our hands so that He can help all those around us to rise again and find New Life. Amen.
 Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 115–116.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School