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[Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43]

“The Medium is the message.”  I dare say that not many of us discovered this iconic statement from reading the book in which it first appeared.  Like most of us, I learned of that famous insight by way of its dominant presence in our cultural life.  Marshall McLuhan, the 20th century Canadian communication theorist, was the first to coin the phrase that continues to speak to human expression and our pursuit to convey meaning. 1 

The gospel of Mark, in general, and today’s gospel lesson, in particular, are prime examples of the significance of how a story is told and conveys the message at hand.  For instance, Mark’s gospel begins rather directly – even to the point of being blunt: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” [1:1]  There’s the message.  Yet, the way Mark fleshes out this opening headline, how he conveys his understanding of Jesus is fundamentally a function of his style of writing (that is, how he tells the story).  

In today’s gospel, we encounter Mark’s distinctive way of communicating what it means to trust that Jesus is the Christ of God, the Son of God.  Biblical scholars have come to refer to this messaging medium as the “Marcan sandwich”.  As with any good sandwich, there are two pieces of bread that hold a defining filling between them.  In Mark’s literary “sandwich”, two stories are presented with one story functioning like the bread and the other like the centered filling.  More to the messaging point, the deeper meaning of the “sandwich” speaks to how the bread and the filling marinate together to produce a more rich and alluring taste.  (It’s getting close to lunch time, and this sandwich metaphor is making me hungry! – which I think is its point – to be hungry!)

The “bread” of today’s gospel “sandwich” comes in the form of the encounter between Jesus and a man named Jairus; and the sandwich making process begins by telling the compelling story of a desperate father.

As we will soon see, Jairus’ story comes in two parts, two pieces of bread.  The first slice of bread comes to us in terms of Jairus, the father being deeply distraught because his daughter is sick unto death.  He has come to Jesus to ask for his saving help.  Additionally, Mark tells us that this panicked man also happens to be a leader of the local synagogue – a kind of parish warden, if you will.  As such, he is publicly known and respected in the community for his position.  That Mark provides us with the man’s name (Jairus) is highly unusual because secondary gospel figures are usually not identified.  Clearly, this man and the ensuing incident with Jesus are not meant to be anonymously noted.

So it is that Jairus unceremoniously drops to his knees and begs Jesus to rescue his daughter from death’s door.  “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” [5:23]  In a strange and rather dry, factual manner, Mark artlessly informs us that Jesus “went with him”.  But as you might suspect, there is more to this encounter than just one piece of “bread”.

As it turns out, the beginning of the Jairus story contains sharp consequences.  One centers on the matter of Jairus’ dropping to his knees in front of Jesus and begging for his intercession.  Jairus, leader of the synagogue, was desperate enough to cross the increasingly firm line between the synagogue establishment and Jesus.  Can you imagine how many smartphone videos were recording this apparent breach of religious party line loyalty?  Plus, I feel certain that the poser “King of the Jews”, Herod Antipas (the Christmas baby-killer’s son), would also be interested in any evidence that challenged his position or that of his Roman military occupiers.  This is to say that Jairus’ simple (albeit, understandable) begging at Jesus’ feet held some expensive political, social, and religious consequences.  Dealing with Jesus has a cost!  

With the relatively short walk to the other side of town to Jairus’ house (remember, Capernaum is a small village), Mark tells us that a large and curious crowd followed Jesus, to the extent that they began to press hard upon him.  Personally, being in a large crowd always raises the concern of a sudden panic streaking through a crowd, resulting in a stampede that destroys all sense of order – and often life.  It’s a good bet that this was also on the minds of the Twelve, as they attempted to function as crowd-control bodyguards, protecting Jesus from this potential human herd.  And then, it happened.  Not a stampede of panicked people but the action of just one woman.  At which point, Mark introduces us to the “filling” of his gospel sandwich.  

In the midst of a mosh pit of people, the woman, like Jairus, is in a desperate situation.  She needs to be healed of her long-term hemorrhaging, something no human authority has been able to assuage.  So, hidden in the pressing crowd and believing (or needing to believe) that a simple touch of the hem of Jesus’ garment would heal her, the woman snuck her hand out and touched the fringe of Jesus’ prayer shawl.  

Let me pause here to say that in the Jewish tradition, that “prayer shawl” Jesus wore is called a “tallit” [tal-EET].  It is the long, rectangular scarf worn around the neck and down the body front that a practicing, male Jew would wear.  It is not unlike the priestly stole I am wearing as the Priest-Celebrant of this Eucharist.  It outwardly reflects a prayerful harnessing with God in the midst of the Holy One’s people.  It was the fringe of Jesus’ tallit that the desperate woman sought to touch, as if the prayers of Jesus would be activated in her.

On the surface of things, her hemorrhaging caused her significant experiences of painful isolation.  Just as we would be loath to have someone, whose body constantly issued a flow of blood, functioning as the social director of the neighborhood, so, for twelve years, had this woman suffered such estrangement.  Moreover, in her attempt to gain relief from the appropriate medical resources, her doctors’ bills drove her to personal bankruptcy.  She had nothing else to do, nothing else to lose but sneak a touch of Jesus’ tallit in hopes that the integrity of Jesus’ prayer would heal her.  Like a thief in the night, this is precisely what the woman did.  And Mark’s “sandwich” begins to take shape.

“Who touched my clothes?!”  Immediately, in the midst of the unrelenting crowd, Jesus barked this perplexing question.  All of us can imagine the Disciples’ vexation at such an inquiry.  “What do you mean, ‘who touched my clothes?’  Everyone here is reaching out to get a piece of you!’”  

It borders on the wonderful to recognize that (as Mark says) in that unobtrusive touch, Jesus was immediately aware that power had been discharged from him.  Even more than this, Jesus began to look at the crowd to see who had touched him.  You get the feeling that in his looking over the crowd was a matter of his zeroing in on the culprit.  It would be as if in touching Jesus’ vesture, the woman had a tracking device placed upon her person.  Sensing this telltale reality and before Jesus could call her out, the woman gave herself up.  She could hide no longer.  And in terms of Mark’s sandwiching, the quiet message of the medium conveys is this point in the story.  It is the point at which the “bread” begins to soak up the marinating taste of the “filling”.  

“Daughter.”  This is what Jesus called her as she emerged from the crowd.  How long had it been for such tenderness to be directed toward her?  “What’s in a name?  New life and wholeness.  Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace…” [5:34]  Confirmation of her true identity, along with tender encouragement.

Meanwhile, our attention is unavoidably wrenched by the story’s second interruption, which is the application of the second piece of the sandwich’s bread.  Mark reports, “While he was still speaking” (to whom? and about what? We are not told), some people who had been at Jairus’ house came up to Jesus with some very bad news.  Jairus’ daughter was dead.  “Why bother the rabbi?” they sheepishly said. [5:35]  “Nothing more can be done, save perhaps asking Jesus to set a time and date to officiate at the twelve-year-old girl’s burial.  Under these circumstances, surely he would waive his usual fee.”

From the desperate woman, Mark reintroduces Jairus, the desperate father.  Having humbled himself publicly before Jesus and perhaps even sunk his synagogue career in the process, what do you think Jairus was feeling and thinking at this news -- the very news he had sought Jesus to remedy?  More to the point, in his shoes, I would want to know the reason Jesus allowed himself to be interrupted and distracted from what he said he would do?  “Focus, Jesus!  Really?!  Life is on the line!  What about my little girl?”  

“Do not fear, only believe.” [4:36b] is all that Jesus said.

Dispersing the gawking crowd and only allowing his inner circle of disciples (Peter, James, and John) to follow him to Jairus’ house, Jesus faced yet another pressing crowd.  This one had gathered in a pre-funeral ritual to express their deep grief over the girl’s death.  Weeping and wailing at the top of their lungs, Jesus entered this riotous fray.  Pushing his way through the gossip and all the funeral casseroles, he asked what appears to be another of those seemingly stupid (sorry, Lord) questions: “Why are you weeping and carrying on so?” [5:38]. And then the kicker: “The child is not dead but sleeping.”  Not what anyone expects as pastoral care at the time of death!

Perhaps Jesus was fortunate that at this comment the assembled group of mourners merely laughed in derisive mockery.  Undeterred and quite focused, Jesus summarily put the busy-bodies out of the house, and he and the girl’s grieving parents went to the child’s room.  

She was laid out on the bed, still and lifelessly pale.  Nonetheless, taking her by the hand, Jesus spoke these words to her: “Little girl, arise!” [5:41]  

With Mark’s usual style of urgent writing, he reports that the girl immediately got up and walked around.  And as a kind of postscript, Mark tells us that this risen girl, walking in her bedroom, was twelve years old (perhaps reminding us of the hemorrhaging woman and her twelve years).  Nonetheless, Mark hides Jesus’ true identity, presenting Jesus as the “secret Messiah'' because it is not time for Jesus’ manifestation and ultimate demonstration.  So it is that this ”sandwich story” concludes with Jesus telling everyone not to breathe a word of what just happened to anyone.

“The medium is the message.”  The rich importance of these two, sandwiched stories is largely left unspoken but, nonetheless, very much in play.  And it is the medium with which these two stories are told (their interplay and mutual marination) that makes the rich and life-changing point.  Not surprisingly, the point is all about Jesus: Who he is; What he brings; and Who he represents.

My question to you is this: What does this “Marcan sandwich” tell us about our life with Jesus?  I will leave you with two closing thoughts.

The first stems from the words of Consecration in our Prayer Book celebration of Holy Communion.  After the celebrant calls upon the Holy Spirit to “sanctify” our offering of bread and wine to “be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son”, the celebrant then asks that the same Spirit sanctify the congregation so that “we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament”.2

In this prayer, can we see ourselves in Jairus, as we kneel or stand at the altar rail?  In the “real presence” of God’s Christ, asking (at least implicitly) for what we need and cannot give to ourselves, are we ready to receive what God always offers?

The second thought stems from the example of the hemorrhaging woman.  All she wanted was quietly and unobtrusively to touch Jesus’ tallit [tal-EET] for the healing she needed.  

Specifically, her “impurity” concerned itself with being ready to worship the Holy One in the Temple.  The Temple was considered where God dwelt among the people, and confronting that holy Presence required preparation because it was life-altering.  In the woman’s desire to touch Jesus’ prayer shawl, she seems to recognize that in Jesus resided all that the Temple was meant to be.  And she is right!

So, at the altar rail, as we reach out to touch and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, are we prepared to receive what we touch?

Yes, “the medium is the message.”  Do you recognize the message?  Amen.


1. McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

2. Book of Common Prayer, p. 363

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