Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Dad and The Thief

I'm indebted to the writing of Emerson Powery ("Gospel" tab) and (big surprise) Kathryn Matthews Huey for insights and guidance in the following sermon.

Mark 5:21-43
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This is, in part, the story of a thief.

We’ve spoken before about how, in first-century Judea, as well as in most of the cultures of the day, women had no real legal or religious standing. In this patriarchal culture, women – and, truth be told, children – were often possessions of men, dependent upon husbands or fathers for their daily needs, with no prospects of being much more than child-bearers and caregivers their entire lives.

There were exceptions, of course, but that’s for another day. Today, our Gospel reading focuses on two people, both in deed of healing and restoration, both untouchable and beyond hope, but who stubbornly refused to give up hope, boldly pursued whatever avenues – including stealing – to get what they needed.

Jairus was used to having authority. Now, he doesn’t strike me as one of those people who got drunk on power, who saw his position in the synagogue as a birthright, and demanded others kiss his feet. But when things needed to be done, Jairus was the man who got them done.

At least, until the day his daughter got sick. After that, he wasn’t much use to anyone.

He was obsessed – going here and there, consulting physicians and rabbis, spending money like there was no tomorrow, because in his heart, if his daughter couldn’t recover, if she died, there was no tomorrow.

Yet no matter what he did, no matter how he prayed or which physician he paid, his twelve-year-old daughter, once so full of joy and energy, grew weaker and sicker.

Even in his panicked state, Jairus had heard about the rabbi, the man who had supposedly healed paralytics and lepers, and even driven out demons simply by telling them to go away. And now, his stomach in a knot and his beard wet with tears as he stood over his daughter, listening to the breath rattle in her throat, Jairus knew that there was one hope. Jesus of Nazareth.

It wasn’t hard to know that Jesus was back from the other side of the lake – the house fairly shook as the whole town seemed to stampede to the lakeshore at the news. So Jairus kissed his daughters ashen forehead and joined the rush.

Being a man of power had perks, and one of those was that when Jairus told people to move out of his way, they did. In short order, he stood before the healing rabbi.

Or rather, he knelt. He couldn’t have explained why, but the desperation in his heart was so heavy, his terror so unbearable, that this dignified, powerful man, this teacher of the Law and expert on proper worship and conduct, fell to his knees and begged.

And Jesus said yes. Without hesitation, he lifted Jairus to his feet and told him to lead the way, no small feat with the entire population of the town crowded in.

The thief was there, too. Like Jairus’ daughter, we aren’t told her name, just that the desperation she felt – and the absolute conviction that there was just one hope – was as deep as Jairus’.

Like the leader of the synagogue, she had searched and spent and hired and consulted, trying anything and everything to be cured. Like Jairus, she had found no help, no relief. For a dozen years, she had felt her life’s blood draining slowly from her, every day bringing another false hope, another failed cure, every day finding her degree weaker in body and spirit.

I can’t tell you why this woman didn’t have anyone to speak to Jesus on her behalf. Perhaps the nature of her disease, or maybe she was a widow who was self-sufficient. Really, it’s anyone’s guess. But she had no one to make her case before the healing rabbi. So she took matters into her own hands.

Like Jairus, like everyone in the region, she’d heard about Jesus, about the healings and exorcisms and miracles, and the more she heard, the more convinced she became that if she could see Jesus, if she could be touched by Jesus, she would be healed.

Her problem was more complex than Jairus’, though. As a woman in that culture, it was highly irregular to speak directly to a man, and to confess aloud what her condition was would have been disastrous – she would be labeled unclean, and shut out from worship and from interacting directly with anyone interested in attending worship in the synagogue.

Day after day, though, as she got sicker and sicker and spent every dime she had on ineffective cures, she thought about that touch from Jesus. It had to happen!

When she heard the commotion outside her door, the crowd clamoring to get to the lakeshore, she decided that, even if it meant embarrassment and exile, she would plead her case. Enough was enough, she had one hope left, and it was Jesus of Nazareth.

And there was the crush of the crowd, the mad noise of hundreds of people pressing in to see the miracle man, an impossible wall of humanity – she couldn’t reach the lakeshore, and though she could see Jesus between the wall of shoulders and backs, she just couldn’t push through to him!

He was talking to Jairus, she saw… poor Jairus was a mess… now they were moving, and coming toward her!

She said it aloud, though the words were lost in the noise of the crowd, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

And she pushed against the crowd, she reached as far as she could through arms and legs and elbows and bodies, and as Jesus passed by, she caught just the hem of his robe with the barest of brushes of her middle finger on her right hand…

And in that instant, the woman became a thief.

You see, it was one thing for Jesus to reach out, and by an act of his will provide that power which heals. This was his choice, a function of the mission his Father had sent him on, a way of proving who he was and why he came.

Yet as the hem brushed by, though Jesus didn’t touch her, that touch of the corner of his hem, that slightest wisp of contact was enough. She knew it! She knew she was healed! Her heart burst with joy! At last, she was free!

Ahead of where the woman had reached through the crowd, Jairus and the disciples were pushing through the crowd, trying to make a path for Jesus. They’d push, look back to make sure Jesus was near, then push again, a maddeningly slow process.

And now Jesus had stopped dead, and was looking around… no, he was glaring, searching the faces in the crowd! What had happened?

The crowd fell silent. Jesus spoke at last, loudly: “Who touched my clothes?” It was perhaps the strangest question the disciples had ever heard.

Peter cleared his throat. “Um, Teacher, with all due respect, um, I think everybody touched your clothes…”

But the woman, the thief, she knew what Jesus meant. As joyous as she had been at her healing, terror now gripped her heart. Shaking, she knelt in the dirt and, through sobs, told him everything. Everything.

Then a long silence, and, finally, Jesus touched her… lifted her to her feet… and gave her what she had stolen. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

No longer a thief, no longer sick, the woman melted into the silent crowd.

Jesus turned to see the already-pale Jairus nearing collapse. He’d just heard the news, the words no one ever wants to hear.

Jesus stepped up to the ashen, broken Jairus, looked deep into his eyes and said, softly, but with steel in his voice, “Don’t fear. Believe.” He looked to Peter, James and John, said, “Come with me,” and they were off.

Jairus’ house was already full of mourners – the professional kind, mixed in with the folks there for gossip and casseroles. Jesus walked into the middle of the wailing crowd and asked, “Why are you crying? The girl’s just sleeping.”

Their laughter was as loud as their crying had been. When Jesus next spoke, Peter, James and John heard the tone he used against the storm on the lake: “Get. Out.” Needless to say, the mourners found someplace else they needed to be. Quickly.

And Jesus took that tiny, cold hand, and spoke again, softly: “Hop up, little girl.”

What does it mean to have faith, to believe? Can we package it all up neatly in statements or doctrines, mental and verbal assertions that do little more than specify who’s “in” and who’s “out?” Jairus’ colleagues, the Scribes and Pharisees and Temple elite would certainly have thought so; though they approached the worship of the one, true Living God sincerely, in an effort to obtain perfection in worship they had instead arrived at something antiseptic and predictable. At best, their religion was a formula that treated the Almighty like a cosmic vending machine and, at worst, a malevolent and oppressive system which robbed the poor and marginalized of even the slightest hope.

Today we met two people who, in desperation, latched on to a faith that is wild, unpredictable, headstrong. The hemorrhaging woman threw out convention and propriety, taking what she needed by force – there’s really no other way to put it. Jairus looked utter despair – looked death itself – in the face, and boldly refused it.

And none of these people – the woman, the child, the terrified father – were outside of Jesus’ concern.

We who are sometimes needy, sometimes desperate, sometimes weak and drained of resources and direction, are not outside of Jesus’ concern.

And we who are the hands and feet of this healing rabbi, this crucified and risen Savior, must realize that no one who is needy, desperate, weak and drained of resources can be outside of our concern.

Jesus chooses not to leave people in the conditions in which he finds them.  And he has the power to alter that condition.

Do we? Can the Christian community alter the conditions of people's lives?  Can the Body of Christ, too, bring healing into troubled circumstances?  Must we not also cross boundaries –  whether they are related to ethnicity, gender, race, orientation, politics or anything else that divides our society – and advocate life-giving meaning and change?  May God grant us the courage to do so!

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes have found myself listening to a sermon and not really hearing what is said. My thoughts off on what to cook for lunch or some such deed that needs to be done. I took the time and read this and found what is being said touched me, and I said ahhh yes exactly to myself. Thank you