St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

In Fear & Trembling

In Fear and trem­bling

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 6th. Sunday after Pente­cost, 1st. July 2018

Read­ings: 2 Samuel 1.1,17–27; Ps. 130; 2 Cor. 8.7–15; Mark 5.21–43

The Psalm set for today begins with the words, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.’ This is David’s cry from the heart as he mourns the death of Saul and more espe­cially the death of his dear friend Jonath­an, both killed in battle. It is a Psalm that speaks to any­one who is exper­i­en­cing deep sor­row. I remem­ber read­ing this Psalm at a very sad funer­al I took at Hunters Hill for a young couple who had lost a baby only a few weeks old as the res­ult of a rare vir­us. The sad­ness was mag­ni­fied by the fact that only 18 months before I had con­duc­ted the funer­al for anoth­er baby of theirs. On an occa­sion like that the words: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ are the only pos­sible response. But the Gos­pel read­ing also presents us with two people who cry from the depths: Jairus and the un-named woman with the haem­or­rhaging dis­order. These two char­ac­ters stand in sharp con­trast.

Jairus is described as ‘a ruler of the syn­agogue’. He has high status in his com­munity and is respec­ted. But his deep con­cern for his sick daugh­ter drives him to humble him­self before Jesus, the itin­er­ant preach­er, who has already aroused oppos­i­tion from the reli­gious author­it­ies. It has been estim­ated that in Jesus’ time, nearly sixty per­cent of live births usu­ally died by their mid-teens. Los­ing a child to dis­ease was a com­mon occur­rence in the ancient world but Jairus greatly loves this daugh­ter and is there­fore will­ing to do any­thing in order to save her. Des­per­a­tion drives him to Jesus.

The crowd’s interest is really awakened now and they press around Jesus as he quickly makes his way to Jairus’ home. But then comes an unex­pec­ted and unwel­come inter­rup­tion. Jesus is inter­rup­ted by a woman who is also in des­per­ate need. Unlike Jairus, she is a social out-cast. To under­stand her situ­ation one needs to remem­ber her cul­tur­al con­text. In the Old Test­a­ment tra­di­tion, blood was thought to be the con­tain­er of life. There were strict pur­ity laws sur­round­ing a woman’s monthly men­stru­al cycle – they are found in Levit­i­c­us 15.19–30. Women exper­i­en­cing their monthly cycles were con­sidered to be ritu­ally unclean for the dur­a­tion of the cycle and any­thing or any­one the woman touched was rendered unclean. In addi­tion at the end of her cycle a woman had to under­go a sev­en day puri­fic­a­tion peri­od and wash all her clothes to end the con­tam­in­a­tion. At a prac­tic­al level this meant that while a woman was unclean she could not leave her home, not sleep in the same bed as her hus­band or even sit on the same bench and she could not engage in any pub­lic activ­it­ies. So the woman who touches Jesus’ gar­ments is very mar­gin­al­ised, for she has been an out­cast for twelve years. Her ill­ness has also impov­er­ished her- Mark tells us that she has spent all her money on doc­tors and has only got worse. (Luke, the phys­i­cian, in his account tact­fully leaves out that detail!) One can only ima­gine the depths of des­pair of this woman. The decision she made to go out on that morn­ing and to take hold of Jesus’ clothes would have required remark­able cour­age. Who knows how many years it had been since she went out in pub­lic? Every per­son she touched was made unclean. But her faith in Jesus motiv­ates her-she has heard about him and knows that he is a heal­er and she thinks, I have noth­ing to lose.

We notice some oth­er things about her. The woman is name­less, the Greek text’s lit­er­al trans­la­tion is, ‘the woman being in a flow of blood.’ She is totally iden­ti­fied by her ail­ment; this is the only way oth­ers see her. We can think of her as rep­res­ent­ing all those whose lives have been defined by the labels soci­ety puts on them or the labels we inflict on ourselves. Labelling people is a com­mon tech­nique for exclud­ing them and mak­ing them feel worth­less: queue jump­er, drug addict, demen­ted. Secondly, we observe that the woman approaches Jesus secretly and cau­tiously, she is afraid of being noticed. To be seen and recog­nised would mean dread­ful humi­li­ation. So she pushes her way for­ward behind Jesus and in a one ter­ri­fied moment reaches out her hands and touches his out­er gar­ments. Instantly she feels dif­fer­ent. She knows some­thing has changed with­in her. For the first time in twelve years she feels nor­mal. Her inten­tion was to slip away as quickly as pos­sible. But then hor­ror of hor­rors she sees Jesus stop and ask the ques­tion, “Who touched my clothes?”

Although sur­roun­ded by a jost­ling crowd Jesus knows that some­thing sig­ni­fic­ant has occurred. The one who was with God at the begin­ning of cre­ation, has heard the cry of this unhappy woman. As Jesus sur­veys the crowd she comes for­ward in fear and trem­bling and tells him the whole truth. It is always lib­er­at­ing to tell the truth. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” We seem to be liv­ing in an age when truth telling has become rather rare. We have become used to Roy­al Com­mis­sions and ICAC hear­ings where pub­lic fig­ures, bish­ops, bankers and politi­cians sud­denly have severe memory loss and appear unable to speak the truth. In the world of fake news recog­nising the truth is not always easy.

The woman expec­ted cen­sure and shame but instead found com­pas­sion and under­stand­ing. She hears Jesus call her a daugh­ter and tell her that her faith has made her well, so she can go in peace. For the first time in twelve years, she belongs. Jesus has pub­licly affirmed her allow­ing her to return to the soci­ety from which she had been shunned. When we, like the woman, come to Christ in sin­cer­ity and truth we too are wel­comed into God’s fam­ily. In the com­munity of the church we find a place to belong, and there we learn how to love, how to for­give and how to serve.

The encounter with the woman has hal­ted the pro­gress towards the home of Jairus. Jesus and his party are about to resume the jour­ney when mes­sen­gers arrive with the news that the little girl is dead. They say to Jairus, “Why trouble the teach­er any fur­ther?” The situ­ation is hope­less. On hear­ing this news Jesus responds with the words, “Do not fear, only believe.” The Amer­ic­an theo­lo­gian, Bar­bara Brown Taylor com­ments that this word from Jesus was not just for Jairus’ bene­fit and not just for the early Chris­ti­an com­munity Mark was writ­ing to but for “all of us who suf­fer from the human con­di­tion, who are up against things we can­not con­trol.” Doubt is not the oppos­ite of faith for faith is fre­quently tinged with doubt. It is fear that is the real enemy. Time and time again Jesus coun­sels his hear­ers, ‘do not be afraid.’ It was a big ask for Jairus as he arrives home to find the pro­fes­sion­al mourn­ers already there mak­ing a great com­mo­tion. Jesus dis­misses them with the words, “The child is not dead but sleep­ing” and they laugh in his face. In con­trast to the heal­ing of the woman, which was a pub­lic event in front of a crowd, the heal­ing of the twelve year old girl takes place in the pri­vacy of her room with her dis­traught par­ents and three of Jesus’ dis­ciples. In the hushed quiet of that space Jesus speaks the words, ‘Talitha cum’ and gently lifts her by the hand. She gets up and walks to the amazement of the onlook­ers.

Both epis­odes are stor­ies about faith. Neither Jairus nor the sick woman artic­u­late any belief about Jesus but both of them risk everything on a des­per­ate gamble. Jesus respon­ded to the auda­city of their faith. Jesus lit­er­ally reaches out to touch those whose touch is sup­posed to render unclean and power flows in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion: they do not con­tam­in­ate him- he cleanses them. By his actions Jesus chal­lenges the pur­ity codes that under­pin his cul­ture and raises the ques­tion of wheth­er these people were ever unclean in the first place. (W. Pilcher, Com­ment­ary on Mark)

Let me con­clude with a brief com­ment on the epistle read­ing from 2 Cor­inthi­ans. Paul who had a troubled rela­tion­ship with the Cor­inthi­an church is try­ing very hard to be tact­ful. So tact­ful in fact that you may have missed what he is actu­ally say­ing. He is ask­ing the Cor­inthi­ans to give money- not to him but money for the sup­port of the church in Jer­u­s­alem-the moth­er church. While the Gen­tile churches had grown in num­ber and influ­ence the church in Jer­u­s­alem had fallen on hard times. They had faced strong oppos­i­tion from the Jew­ish lead­ers in that city and some Chris­ti­ans had been expelled from the temple and dis­owned by their fam­il­ies. People had lost jobs because of their Chris­ti­an faith and the church was hav­ing dif­fi­culty sup­port­ing those in need. In response to this situ­ation Paul encour­aged the Gen­tile churches under his care to give fin­an­cial sup­port to the Jer­u­s­alem Church as a way of show­ing their love for their Chris­ti­an sis­ters and broth­ers. The heart of his appeal is found in verse 9, where he writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This is one of my favour­ite texts in the entire New Test­a­ment because it sums up the good news of the Gos­pel so beau­ti­fully. Our giv­ing, be it in money or time or actions is in response to God’s grace and good­ness to us. To be part of a Chris­ti­an com­munity where you know that you are accep­ted, loved, and for­giv­en is a gift. We can afford to be gen­er­ous because God con­tin­ues to be gen­er­ous and mer­ci­ful to us.

 

Philip Brad­ford