June 28, 2015
Years ago, I was meeting with my boss, Pastor Phil Stenberg, to plan worship. As we worked together, it seemed that a constant stream of people came in and out of Phil’s office, calling him away from our work. After yet another person had stopped in, I asked him, “How do you ever get any work done, with all these interruptions?” He leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “The interruptions are where real ministry begins.”
In today’s reading, Jesus returns to the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, having driven a Legion of demons into swine on the Gentile side, having calmed a storm and raised holy fear in his disciples, and having taught about the Kingdom of God through a series of parables a couple of days before.
We need to keep this bigger picture in mind as we hear today’s gospel lesson. The parables Jesus used to describe the Kingdom of God had to do with exponential growth, something unexplainable and unexpected happening right under our noses. Then there was that trip across the Sea of Galilee we heard about last week, a trip that the disciples would have never embarked on if Jesus hadn’t told them to do it.
It was the wrong time of day to head out across the lake, instead of hugging the safety of the shoreline. They weren’t really surprised to encounter a violent storm, but that storm certainly raised great fear in the disciples. Then their fear of the storm was replaced by a holy fear when Jesus stood and told the wind and waves to “be still!” There probably wasn’t much idle chit-chat in the boat after Jesus interrupted the storm, as they continued to the other side of the lake, into Gentile territory.
And it’s here, in Gentile territory, where the R&R they had been anticipating is interrupted before it can even begin, by a demon-possessed man coming toward them out of the graveyard. Jesus throws the Legion of demons into a herd of swine, and they drown themselves in the lake, creating quite a disruption for the owners of the herd and the villagers who cared for them. So it’s back in the boat, and back across the lake for Jesus and his followers. So much for break time. This is where we pick up the story.
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 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 round 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. (Mark 5:21-43)
This isn’t the first time Mark uses a story within a story to get his point across, and it won’t be the last. (3:19-35, 6:14-29, 11:15-33). For Mark, these stories inside other stories help explain each other, so let’s take a look at the stories of the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter, to see what they have in common.
First, there’s the number 12. The woman has suffered from her illness for 12 years, and the daughter of the synagogue ruler is 12 years old. Twelve is a significant number on many levels, but here it might simply be pointing us to two women at either end of their child-bearing years. One is just entering puberty, and the other has quite possibly been prevented from bearing children because of her hemorrhaging.
Both the girl and the woman are ritually unclean when they encounter Jesus, just as the demoniac known as Legion was ritually unclean – he was a Gentile, demon-possessed, naked, and living among tombs. Even his deliverance has an unclean element in it. His demons are sent into a herd of unclean animals, pigs.
The woman’s hemorrhage sets her apart as unclean, and the girl’s death makes her unclean. So there’s a lot of uncleanness going on here. But Jesus doesn’t flinch from it. In fact, the element of touch – something you would never do to an unclean person or animal – plays a big role in both of these stories. The woman touches Jesus’ clothing, and Jesus takes the girl’s hand. The barrier between clean and unclean is broken by a simple touch.
Perhaps the most telling detail these two stories have in common with the story of the demoniac is the way Legion, Jairus, and the unnamed woman all fall at Jesus’ feet. They recognize his authority – something his own disciples are just beginning to grasp – and they appeal to that authority, having exhausted all other resources.
There are some significant differences between the hemorrhaging woman and the daughter of Jairus, too. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue. He enjoys a high social status, and is wealthy enough to employ servants.
Mark tells us that the woman who approaches Jesus is just the opposite. As a woman, she has no social status, especially if she cannot bear children. She is poor, having spent all she has on doctors and treatments that did her no good. Most significantly, she is ritually unclean, and has been excluded from her community for as long as Jairus has been a father to his young daughter.
While Jairus is used to having power, the woman is used to having none. They each approach Jesus out of desperation. Jairus humbles himself, falling at Jesus’ feet, exposing a vulnerability that may have surprised those around him. The woman, accustomed to keeping her distance from others, pushes through the crowd with a boldness that may have surprised those who knew her.
She overcomes her own vulnerability, and takes advantage of an opportunity to steal just a little healing power from this man Jesus, who is suddenly within arms’ reach. Who will know? she thinks. If we were to translate the Greek more or less literally, we would find a string of participles describing this woman. Verses 25-27 would read:
“And a woman—
having been bleeding for twelve years,
and having suffered greatly from many physicians,
and having spent all she had,
and not having benefited at all,
but rather having gone from bad to worse,
having heard about Jesus,
having gone into the crowd from behind …
–touched his clothes.”
The interruptions are where real ministry begins.
Jesus knows immediately that power has gone out from him. His disciples think he’s got to be kidding when he asks, “Who touched my clothes?” In the pressing crowd, it would make more sense to ask “Who hasn’t?” But the woman knows she’s been caught, and this is where the story gets interesting.
She could have made her way out the same way she came in, and no one but Jesus would have been the wiser. She could have quietly gone to the priest and undergone the ritual purification that she had missed for twelve long years, and then gone about her business. But she didn’t. Like the demoniac in the graveyard, and the synagogue ruler Jairus, she falls at the feet of Jesus, and tells him “the whole truth.”
Here, at the heart of Mark’s story-within-a-story, we find the point he wants to make. Healing is salvation, and if we would be saved, we have to start on our knees at the feet of Jesus, confessing the whole truth of who we are, what we’ve done, and how Jesus has changed us into new people. The Psalmist writes, “the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.” (Psalm 145:18-19)
Jesus calls the woman “daughter” and sends her away in peace, confirming her faith.
But the story isn’t finished. James Boyce writes, “In mid-sentence, while Jesus is still mouthing his benediction on the woman’s faith, people arrive to say that the leader’s daughter has died. In the same instant one person’s hopes have soared; but another’s have been dashed to pieces. One has been claimed as a daughter; another’s daughter has been lost. Faith is clearly at risk. The people put it so clearly, “Why even trouble the teacher any further?” What hope is left?”
And just as surely as our response to Christ’s saving grace must be to fall at his feet and confess the whole truth, Christ’s response will always be the same:
“Do not fear, only believe.” Stop being afraid. Keep on believing. It’s what he told the disciples in the boat as he calmed the storm. It’s what he tells the synagogue ruler Jairus when the news of his daughter’s death threatens his faith. It’s what he tells you and me when our own uncleanness is met with his touch, and our souls are cleansed of all unrighteousness. Our spirits are healed by his hand.
Jesus goes on to the house where mourners are wailing. He throws them out and takes only the girl’s parents and Peter, James, and John with him. “Little girl, get up,” he says, as he takes her hand. And she gets up. “Giver her something to eat,” he tells her astonished parents. “She must be famished. And don’t tell anyone what you just saw. What happens in Jairus’ house stays in Jairus’ house.”
A woman touches Jesus in her uncleanness, and is healed. Jesus touches an unclean dead girl, and she lives again. Both touches should have made Jesus unclean, but instead, he makes them clean.
And that is what he offers to us. Not everyone who asks for healing will be cured, but sometimes healing takes a detour through a different need in our lives. My friend and teaching colleague, Paul Isaacs, complained to his doctor for several years about a pain that bothered him, but the doctor could find no cause for the pain, no evidence that there was anything wrong. By the time they found Paul’s cancer, it was so far advanced that there was little anyone could do for him. Surgery was out of the question. He followed a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation in hopes he could keep teaching through the end of the school year, but by February, his situation had worsened.
The interruptions are where real ministry begins. For Paul, cancer had interrupted his teaching year, but it gave him a new lesson to teach his students: how to live a life of faith to the very end.
His church – our church – held a service of healing prayer for him, and many of his students and former students attended the gathering. By the end of the evening, Paul was exhausted, but at peace. A few days later he told me his prayers had changed. He no longer prayed for God to take away his cancer. That was in God’s hands, he said. What he now prayed for was the peace to accept God’s divine will. What he discovered, as his prayer changed, was that he did experience a kind of healing, but it wasn’t healing from cancer. It was healing from fear.
Stop being afraid. Keep on believing.
Sanctuary Church, a small church about our size in the northern suburbs of Sacramento, California, decided to re-plant itself in the heart of the city. According to pastor David Beck, one of the first things the church wanted to do was connect with its new neighborhood. They had moved to a community center in a prominent park.
“The park is ringed with a jogging track, and the track flows with a continual stream of runners and walkers. Inside the jogging track are thirty-two acres of grass, trees, playground, recreational areas, and a community center. Many of these joggers and recreationists are active urbanites from the neighborhood – exactly the sort of people we wanted to reach. They tend to be educated, creative, and socially engaged. many of them are professionals. We pictured being a church they could call home.
“In order to make an initial gesture of friendship, one of our leaders purchased a few dozen water bottles, stuck on a label with Sanctuary’s name and information, and handed them out on a Saturday afternoon. We hoped a few runners, soccer players, or playground moms would show up for worship. As far as we know, not a single one of these people ever came to church.”
Beck goes on to say that, “If you think of church as a dinner party, we had invited the neighborhood’s most shiny citizens.” But that’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus would have done. Jesus was all about inviting the poor, the outcast, the “unclean.” While Sanctuary Church was busy trying to attract the young urban professionals who jogged past every day, Jesus was busy inviting a completely different crowd.
A few blocks from the community center is a women’s in-patient facility for recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. On the day Beck’s church leaders were handing out water bottles, a few of these women were walking through the park with a house mother from the rehab facility. They saw the water bottle give-away and got in line. The interruptions are where real ministry begins. The next Sunday, five of those women showed up in church. Now, Sanctuary Church is blessed with a new ministry to women who are in recovery. It’s a ministry they never would have planned for themselves.
Remember those parables Jesus was using earlier in Mark’s story, the ones about the Kingdom of God? This is what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s like a nuisance weed that grows everywhere, whether you want it to or not. It’s like a seed that the farmer plants, and it grows on its own, bearing tremendous fruit.
The Kingdom of God is like a demon-possessed Gentile suddenly getting his right mind back, and telling everyone how much God has done for him. It’s like a woman who has run out of hope and options, reaching out to grab a swatch of cloth, then falling on her knees and telling the whole truth of what she has done, and what God has done for her. The Kingdom of God is like a young girl taking Jesus’ hand, and rising from her deathbed, feeling a little hungry.
So be on the lookout for the interruptions. When their strangeness makes you afraid, keep on believing. You can’t predict how God is going to act, but you can be certain that he will. It will be in the interruptions, the nuisances, the disruption of our best-laid plans. It will be when we fall at his feet and claim his authority over our lives. When we stop being afraid, and decide to keep on believing no matter what, we will experience the Kingdom of God at work in us, and around us. Amen.
 T. David Beck, “Crashing the Party” in The Covenant Companion, vol. CIV No. 4, July-August 2015, p. 30.