Text: Mark 5:21-43
Date: June 27 2021
Where you read Scripture matters. With whom you read Scripture matters. This morning, I want to look at Mark’s intertwined stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with hemorrhages. I want us to read this story together three times; each time we will be reading it from a different imaginary position. Because I want us to see how where we are when we read Scripture not only alters how we understand these stories but how we understand our faith. This morning, I want to start by imagining that we are reading this story at home, sitting alone, with the Bible on our desk, or on our iphone. I want to start with what one may call the Reformation position. But before we get started, let us pray.
Most of us read the Bible most often by ourselves. Maybe in the morning when you wake up as a way of focusing your day. Or at night, as a way of giving thanks for the gifts the day brings. And when you read stories by yourself, more often than not you are struck by the parts that resonate with your experience.
When I read this story, I can’t help but notice the jarring juxtaposition between the two main characters, Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman. Jairus is a wealthy and powerful man, a major figure in his synagogue. He has no hesitation in coming before Jesus. He’s the kind of person who calls Glen Guyton, executive director of our denomination, and assumes he can get a meeting that same day. But catastrophe has struck and his beloved 12 year old daughter is sick; she is close to death. He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs for Jesus’ help. When we read this, it puts us in touch with our own deepest needs. Is this how we pray to Jesus? Do we fall on our knees and beg? Maybe we should.
However, the woman with hemorrhages isn’t the kind of person who assumes Jesus will clear his calendar to meet her. She doesn’t believe she is worth a moment of his time. So she has to take a different approach. In order for her to see Jesus, she pushes her way through the crowds, sneaks up and comes from behind. She touches the hem of his cloak. One person comes to meet Jesus face to face, demanding his attention; the other person sneaks around back, not daring to meet his eye. Which way do you come to Jesus? Which way do you pray – through articulate requests or silent touch?
And then I notice how different the support systems are for each character. The first thing Jairus says to Jesus is ‘My daughter’. The young girl who comes to Jesus is a member of a loving, supportive family. She has a dad who will do anything. By contrast, the other woman comes alone in fear and trembling. She has no support team, no network of love and trust to help her. But when Jesus greets her, he says that same word: “Daughter”.
And both stories also involve touch, but it’s a different kind of touching. Jesus touches Jairus’ daughter; he takes her by the hand. But in the case of the hemorrhaging woman, it’s the other way around. She touches him. This shows us something wonderful. With Jesus, it is not just that he touches us – moves us, restores us, inspires us, forgives us, heals us. It is also that he allows us to touch him. He is moved, affected, touched by our gestures, neediness, our faith. Jesus also notices the difference made in his life by a poor, outcast, friendless woman.
And lastly, look at the subtle difference between the prayer of Jairus and the prayer of the woman. Jairus’ prayer is for someone else; it’s for his daughter. The woman’s prayer is for herself. Both prayers lead to healing and salvation. We see the faith of Jairus and the faith of the woman. We know nothing about the faith of the young girl. The young girl is saved by the power and love of Jesus and by the persistent faith of her faith.
I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us, when we look at these stories through our own experiences, we resonate more with Jairus than the hemorrhaging woman. For most of us here live fairly comfortable lives. We don’t face the social exclusion that the woman with hemorrhages knows every moment of every day. Sure, we may face personal torment, like the agonizing illness of a young daughter. But in this story, we know that we are a lot more like Jairus.
Well Jairus shows me what it means to be a Christian with incredible privilege. It means getting on our knees and pleading with Jesus for the sake of the desperate and those who find themselves at death’s gate. It means putting others first; it means using our power in order to bring healing and hope in this world for those who have less privilege. It means devoting our lives, using our wealth so that the excluded and marginalized lives are transformed and to ensure they receive the same dignity, equality, well-being which God grants everyone. This is why the Prayers of the People is perhaps the most important thing we do at Glennon Heights. Because as a church full of people like Jairus, we aren’t called to pray to God primarily for ourselves. We are called to look out at the world, and bring all the hurt, all the pain which we see before our God on behalf of others. That’s what it means to be a Jairus church on its needs before Jesus.
There is so much in this story which can be read from the Reformation position, when we are home alone. And when we read it this way, I think we see that faith is about devotion. Faith is about prayer. Faith is about bringing others before God believing that God always provides salvation.
Now I want to read this story again from a different place. I want us to imagine that we are reading it with a group of Christians who are in an active, costly relationship with each, committed to friendship with the poor, searching for ways to witness for justice among the powers. I want to imagine that we are reading this story among people who deeply believe that God is transforming the world before our eyes. God’s reign is active and alive, making this world more peaceful and just. We could call this reading the Bible from the Liberation position. What do these people see in this story?
When we read this story alongside people working for peace and justice, you can’t help but notice how different everything is depending on who has money and who does not. Jairus is a big shot, a leader, a rich man. He gets straight in to see Jesus. Five times, in the first few verses of this story, Mark mentions the crowd. They are surrounding Jesus. But Jairus gets straight through to the boss. The woman with hemorrhages, on the other hand, is about as excluded as one can get. She had been bleeding, and thus, unacceptable in public, for a very, very long time. She had spent all her money on the only doctors she could afford, quack doctors, who only made her worse. She was poor, sick, unclean and alone.
Not much has changed in 2000 years. As the pandemic revealed so vividly to us, in this country today, to be sick often means to be poor, and to be poor means to be sick, all too often. To be poor and to be sick means to be heavily dependent on a strong network of family and friends. But if you had a strong network of family and friends, you most likely wouldn’t be poor, or at least not as poor as this, and quite possibly, if you weren’t this poor, you wouldn’t be this sick. The woman with hemorrhages is trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and sickness.
But this isn’t just a story about wealth. This is also a story about cleanliness, about purity. Jairus is in despair; he has a problem that money can’t solve. In our country today, such problems are becoming an increasing challenge to our imagination. For America’s goal is to reach the palace where there is no problem that money cannot solve. But here, Jairus learns that often, at life’s most critical moments, not even wealth can protect us. His daughter dies and she becomes ritually unclean, just as the hemorrhaging woman is ritually unclean.
And that brings us to the heart of the story from a liberation perspective. For this is fundamentally a story about purity, about holiness. Both of these women are unclean which by Jewish law ought to make Jesus unclean when Jesus comes into physical contact with them. But astonishingly it doesn’t. Rather than their impurity making him impure, the opposite occurs. Jesus’ holiness makes them holy. As with Jesus’ relationships with Gentiles and sinners, it is Jesus’ holiness, not their impurity that is contagious.
I want us to think for a moment about how revolutionary this is. The church has never truly grasped what Jesus teaches about purity, about holiness. Even 2000 years later, we tend to think of holiness in terms of separation. It’s about disassociating or disconnecting from others in hopes of remaining pure and blameless. Often we conceive of holiness as a personal thing, a form of status, an attribute, that sets you above the rest. This is why purity today remains fundamental to the rhetoric of race. Here, in our country which is famous for being a melting pot of cultures, many still believe in the idea of a pure race. Everyday we see how powerful whiteness remains on our society’s imagination. The belief that somehow those with lighter skin are more sacred and worthy continues to lead to the discrimination, the explotation, the destruction of so many.
And purity and holiness too remain powerful ways we narrate church. Mennonites especially have a long history with holiness. Often we have narrated our separateness as one allowing us to be “a city on the hill,” to be a people unblemished by the world. Most of our schisms have occurred when one group believed that the church was becoming too worldly. Similarly, far too often churches have used the ban as a way of protecting the church’s reputation and promoting purity instead of bringing restoration and reconciliation. We’ve often turned to the language of holiness in order to justify our disconnection from others.
But what’s so interesting is that Jesus shows us that purity is not something we are in constant danger of losing. No, purity is a gift we are constantly offered the chance of receiving. Holiness is infectious; purity is contagious. We must not overestimate what a revolution this is to the way most people think about religion. Jesus has so much love, so much healing power, so much compassion, that when the unclean woman gets anywhere near him she is infected with holiness. Surely, this is what we long to be as Christians. Not frightened shadows who fear relationships because they might make us dirty, but a people so full of compassion and a longing for justice that holiness infects anyone and everyone near us. We long for a contagious purity, the purity of forgiveness and healing.
When we read this story alongside people committed to justice, to friendship with the poor, to making God’s reign possible, here and now, we are reminded that faith also means action. For Jesus’ movement of holiness is one that places the poor, the outcast, and the unclean into the very heart of God’s story. It teaches us that they are the children of God too. And God’s holiness calls us to participate with God in bringing healing and wholeness to all of God’s creation.
As great as it is to read the Scriptures alone, in the morning, or with a group of believers striving towards justice, there is a third place in which reading the Bible is vital and life-giving. And this place gives faith its third dimension. And that is the church, as we are doing now. We could call this the liturgical position.
What do we gain when we read these stories together, in church? When we gather, we are called to read the ministry of Jesus in the gospels in light of all the stories of God’s relationship to Israel recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as God’s destiny for the church set out in the rest of the New Testament. It also means remembering that each week we are hearing these same stories alongside millions of other Christians, often with much different beliefs than ours. This is why I love preaching the lectionary. Chrisitans everywhere wrestling with the same stories, as a way of testifying that we need your perspectives; you need ours.
And when we read the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman in church, this is what we find. We realize that the number 12 is vital to both halves of the story. The young girl is 12 years old and the woman has been bleeding for 12 years. In Scripture, 12 is a very important number for 12 refers to Israel, the nation of 12 tribes. So together, we recognize that both stories are really about God’s beloved daughter of God – Israel. And this dearly beloved daughter is sick, indeed close to death. She is desperate. And the deepest desire of Israel’s faithful people is for God to save her.
And that is exactly what Jesus does. He comes into the story to save Israel. To restore her to health and relationship and wellbeing. Jesus can’t help but be moved to compassion when he sees the overwhelming breadth and depth of human need. And he will not stop until everyone, the poor, the outcast, the unclean, the excluded, the lost receive the salvation, the life, that they were created for. Jesus rescues them from death. Then he offers them abundant life.
And what God does in this story is what God always does. God always comes. God always restores God’s people. God always offers them salvation. Here we are reminded of the third dimension of our faith – worship. We worship the God who comes and comes again to bring us salvation. We worship the God who refuses to let death keep us from the life which God has planned for us.
Where we read Scripture matters. With whom we read Scripture, matters. This morning, we read the same story, from three different places – alone, with people striving for justice, and in Church. Each showed us a different dimension of our faith – devotion, in action, in worship. The stories of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman show us that there is no one right way for us to come to Jesus. They show us what it means to pray for ourselves and for others. They show us that Jesus transforms both the rich and the poor. They revolutionize our understanding of purity, showing us that in Jesus, holiness is wildly contagious; and this holiness is for everyone. And they offer us the whole history of salvation, placing God’s desire for all to receive God’s life at the heart of God’s love for Israel and the church. This is what it means to read the Bible in three-dimensions. Now it’s up to us to live it.