A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Last Sunday, we heard the amazing story of Jesus and his disciples being in a boat on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee. This morning we hear what happens when they have made the return trip to the Jewish side, that is the “safe” side of the Sea of Galilee.
We are told that a leader of the local synagogue, Jairus, comes to Jesus. Jairus’ daughter is sick to the point of death, and he is desperate. This is a bold step for this Jewish leader to take – to seek Jesus’ help is tantamount to endorsing his ministry, which might cause him some trouble with his fellow Jewish leaders. But not only does Jairus come to Jesus for help, publicly, but he even falls at Jesus’ feet and begs Jesus to come and heal his daughter. Jairus’ desperation is forcing him to put his prestige on the line. This is a very vulnerable moment for him, to seek the help of this itinerant and controversial rabbi in such a public setting. But Jesus agrees to go with him. So now we listen with expectation. Will Jesus arrive in time? Will Jesus be able to heal this important man’s daughter?
Suddenly, a strange woman literally intrudes into the narrative. And she is not just any woman – she is unclean. Like a leper, she is of no status in Jewish culture. According to Jewish purity codes, any woman who is menstruating is unclean, and she must separate herself from her husband and her family. She must wait to be cleansed at the end of her cycle. This woman has, as the King James calls it, “a flow of blood,” and has hemorrhaged for twelve years. She has had her period for 12 years, and has been, it would seem, condemned to be unclean forever, facing a life of rejection by society. In a sense her life is a living death – always sick, never healed, always outcast, never clean. As in the case of a leper, no one could touch this woman without themselves becoming defiled.
In one of those great moments in the Gospels, we hear just a bit of her internal monologue. She doesn’t intend to interrupt the proceedings. Jairus was bold. He falls at the feet of Jesus, making a very public display. But this woman is content to a much more secret encounter, “If I but touch his clothes.” Can you begin to see the difference on display here? This woman is all alone.
Jairus was an important man, a public figure. No doubt the news of his daughter’s illness had already spread through that region. All eyes were on Jesus and Jairus as they made their way to Jairus’ home.
Unlike Jairus’ daughter, however, this woman clearly has no one to go and get Jesus for her. She has no father, no husband, no advocate, at least none that we can see. She is unclean, an outcast. Her illness is old news. She had been to doctors and was only getting worse. Had everyone else in her life given up on her? If she is going to seek healing at the hands of Jesus, she is going to have to make it happen all on her own. If I can just touch his clothes, she thinks to herself, I will be made well. She makes her way toward Jesus through the mass of people surrounding him. It would take some effort.
Her faith is on display. She doesn’t even need Jesus to acknowledge her presence. She doesn’t need Jesus to say anything to her – she only needs to touch his clothes. Truly, it is her faith that makes her well. When she touches Jesus’ clothes, she knows that she has been healed. But Jesus isn’t willing to let her healing happen this way.
He asks this laughable question – who touched my clothes? Can you see the mass of people crowding around Jesus, clamoring for his attention, the disciples working to clear a path? Dozens of people must have been touching him all at once, and yet the touch of this one woman is somehow different. What did Jesus sense, her healing? Her faith? Regardless, new life has returned where there once had been only living death, and Jesus senses that power has gone out of him.
Jesus wants to know who touched him and she confesses with great fear. I am of the opinion that Jesus wasn’t quite finished with her. Her disease had been healed, yes, but there was one thing that she needed to truly make her whole. She is afraid when Jesus confronts her. Perhaps it is because she is unclean, and by touching Jesus she had made him unclean. Perhaps it is because she has interrupted the progress of Jesus to the house of someone far more important than she. But Jesus isn’t content just to heal her. He gives her something she hasn’t had for twelve years – not just life, but status. Before she touched Jesus, she was alone. Then this Jesus who healed her calls her “daughter.”
Jesus speaks to her as one who has worth, no longer outcast. Jesus shows her to be part of his family, if no one else’s. Is it any wonder the good news of Jesus spread even when he asked people not to say anything? This woman’s life is transformed in an instant, from sick to healed, from outcast to part of Jesus’ family all in one instant of faith. And Jesus doesn’t leave it there, he makes her faith public. This outcast woman is suddenly an example of faith to this throng of important religious leaders, the very leaders that had kept her at a distance.
Does this moment portend another coming showdown? Her faith is so great it healed her, but this kind of faith is very soon going to be in short supply. People from Jairus’ house come running up and say, “Don’t bother the teacher any more, your daughter is dead.” Can you hear the moans and the weeping that must have spread through the crowd?
I’ve always wondered if people in the crowd didn’t blame this woman for distracting and delaying Jesus. Who was she anyway? As the reaction of the crowd grows to the news of this girl’s death Jesus interrupts them by saying, “Do not fear, only believe.” The faith of this outcast and desperate woman has just brought about her own miraculous healing. Will Jairus have faith as well?
It’s interesting to me that Jesus gets rid of the crowds. We’ve gone from an unexpected but private healing to a very public healing, Jairus’ daughter. When Jesus arrives, he means to reassure Jairus’ faith by saying his daughter is not dead but sleeping. At this point the professional mourners who had gathered at the home turn from mourning to laughter. Jesus will have none of it and puts them outside.
It is now in this more intimate setting, Jesus brings this young girl back to life. Jesus does this not with a great show of power, but simply by speaking to her, telling her to get up, like Jairus must have done many mornings of her life. We are told that she is twelve, the same number of years as the woman suffering with the flow of blood – another connection between these two healings. In both cases, life has been restored, daughters have been healed. One family has been restored, and another family has welcomed a new member.
So we have before us these two stories of healing and faith. Life has been restored. Thanks be to God. We need to visit stories like these again and again. Faith requires action. We, like the woman with the flow of blood, like Jairus, must seek Jesus. We must reach out in hopes of touching him, in hopes of being healed.
This week, Jim Obergefell, a gay man from Cincinnati, was at the Supreme Court of the United States. He and his husband, Arthur, had been together for 21 years. They flew to Maryland to have a legal wedding in 2013, while Arthur was in the last stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. When Arthur died, Jim was named as Arthur’s sole beneficiary in his will. But Ohio refused to recognize their marriage or wills. Jim had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to see that his life with Arthur meant something.
When the decision from the high-court was read this Friday, Jim simply said, “I understood then that we mattered.”
St. Brendan’s and so many other churches across this country, rather than reject and marginalize people, have opened our doors and our arms of welcome to everyone, no matter their marital status or orientation.
This is why we gather here, not just to receive grace from God in worship and the Eucharist, but to minister God’s presence to each other. It is hard thing sometimes to receive love and compassion from others. It requires great patience and vulnerability.
Let us always remember how much we do need each other, whether we feel more like a religious insider or a societal outcast. Jesus saw no difference, and neither should we. Like the woman, we need the faith to reach out. Like Jairus, we need the faith to allow our need to be on display, to be vulnerable.
May we learn to live by faith, with these examples to lead us, to reach out, to touch and to be touched, to step out in faith. And then may we move from death to life as Christ calls us to stand before an amazed world, healed, whole, and fully aware that we are all daughters and sons of God. Amen.