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.