A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 27 June 2021 [Proper 8]:
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Mark’s gospel is the first written and the shortest of the four authoritative offerings. It is characterized by its lean, intense, and direct style, evidence of which comes unavoidably out of the gate. For the very first words of Mark’s gospel are these: “The beginning of the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. [ 1:1] All that follows in this Gospel is placed before us as evidence that Mark’s experience, Mark’s perspective, Mark’s faith is not only warranted but also is intended to be shared by his readers. Yet, today as Mark sandwiches three healing scenes together, creating a fascinating layering of healing action and freeing proclamation, the question stands almost in its haunting challenge: “What’s all this about?” All these healing miracles are one thing; but what does this story have to do with you and me and the lives we live?”
As I take this morning’s gospel reading seriously, I wonder about the healing miracles and what it was like for Jairus and for the hemorrhaging woman. For instance, in her twelve years of unspeakable and untreatable suffering, did the woman, nonetheless, keep praying for healing? How did she keep going to the point that she still had hope? Or in his honored position of synagogue leader, did Jairus pray enough for deliverance; or did he rely on his connected position? Moreover, how did Jairus feel, apparently cooling his heels and having to wait for Jesus to deal with the interloping woman, before responding to his desperation. After all, Jairus was first. What did both of them do in the times of no miracles? What doubting strains were placed on their faith? More to the point, what would it be like if I were in their place? What would it be like for you?
Of course, I know that many of you have been in their place, asking for a miracle, hoping against hope for healing, desperate for new life -- not later but now, in this time and place. I know that some of you have carried the soul-crushing weight of losing a loved one. Some have lost spouses, life-companions, partners. Who among us has not lost a friend? Still others have encountered the hell of losing a child – a parents’ nightmare. Some of us walk with loved ones in the face of deadly disease and gnawing uncertainty, wondering how and when help will come? And all of us have at least tasted such bitterness. Surely, prayers were offered for the healing of all. Even now, every time we gather as a community of faith, we intercede for one another, crying out for deliverance from suffering and from the reality of death. What is it we are doing? What is it we expect? What does our faith in Jesus tell us? What difference does it all make?
What difference does our faith in Christ make, especially when our lives are pushed to the limits and when the healing miracle we seek and beg for is not at hand? I don’t have any answers at this point, save to say and hold onto what Mark says and what I want to believe in: That Jesus is the Christ, the embodiment of the God-life, revealed among us and offering to us now and always. Nonetheless, the issue remains on a very human level: How do I, how do you continue to hold onto this belief, this real life that we are given in Jesus and cannot provide for ourselves?
I do find what stands as a glimmer of an answer in this gospel text. Specifically, what draws my attention in both Jairus’ and the hemorrhaging woman’s cases is the fact of touch that is involved. There is a hint of the miraculous given in Jesus’ touch, which is something we all can participate in. Let me explain briefly what I mean.
The act of touching is always central to the healings Jesus performs. The physicality of these miracles is always part of the medium by which God’s life overshadows brokenness and disease. In both of today’s gospel scenes, touch is again manifest; and I am suggesting that even when our deepest prayer for healing and deliverance is not answered – at least in the way we want or imagine it to be, touch still remains the unassuming vehicle of new life.
On the one hand, the first healing touch in today’s reading does not come from Jesus; but rather it is the desperate woman who surreptitiously breaks the law of Moses and touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak. The law’s custom was that a woman in an unclean condition (such as normal menstruation, not to mention a twelve-year letting) was regarded as “unclean”, which not only required some separation from the rest of the community but also made that which she touched unclean. “Who touched me” Jesus asks in the midst of the milling crowd. Jesus sensed power flowing from him at a touch. For her part, the poor woman knew right away that her secreted stroke of the fabric of Jesus’ presence had overcome her problem.
Touching Jesus, admitting his presence brought what could not otherwise be provided or even hoped for. Incarnation once again breaks through: The God-life coming through the simplest, the most basic contours of human life.
As for Jairus, the “Senior Warden” of the synagogue, a man of social and faithful stature, what must have been going through his mind, especially as he had to wait for his miracle because some unclean ragamuffin butted in line and got what he needed and had so reverently asked for? Of course, Mark does not tell us about Jairus’ feelings at what was undoubtedly an extremely stressful emergency, but when Jesus finally does turn his attention to Jairus’ twelve-year old daughter, word has reached the crowd that she has died. Now what?
With no sign of anxiety, Jesus simply took Peter, James, and John with him and entered Jairus’ house and entered the room where the little girl’s body lay. The members of the synagogue’s pastoral care team were already present, dutifully saying prayers for the dying, while the old ladies from the community had already piled their molded jello salads and baked ziti casseroles onto the kitchen table, lest anyone risk starvation in the face of death.
Into this common and desperate scene, Jesus entered the room. “A dollar short and an hour late” was the message of the grieving assembly’s dismissive, scowling looks, to which Jesus, undeterred, simply informed them that the girl was not dead, just sleeping. Barely able to swallow their mocking laughter at this “hick” healer – (“asleep, really? Not dead, go tell her father!”), Jesus moved to the bed on which the girl’s corpse lay and tenderly taking her hand, he beckoned to her to “get up”, as if she might only be late for school. And lo and behold, she did get up, walked around, and amazingly began to nibble a bit of proffered ziti casserole.
Touch. Life-giving touch.
How many of us remember taking an introductory psychology course and coming across the experiment with young monkeys? One group of monkeys had the benefit of their mother’s touch. The other did not. The result was that those “untouched” youngsters did not prosper and often died, while those who were “touched” thrived.
Or the biology experiment that many of us experience in high school, where beans were placed in moist toweling, in a warm growing climate, and set in two groups to compare the status of their germination. The distinguishing factor between these two groups was that one group of beans were talked to and tenderly supported by verbal touch. The other group of beans was not. Guess who sprouted the fastest and with the most life?
Touch. It is the vehicle of life with God and with one another, miraculous in its effect.
The haunting question from our pandemic experience is this: What have we learned? While I am less confident that we have learned more than we experienced, nonetheless, the reality has been that being separated from one another beyond moments and occasions of necessary solitude has been deadly. From not being able to gather in close physical proximity to the need to wear masks, we have not been able to touch or be touched nearly as much as we have needed. Even the nomenclature of the pandemic unwittingly severed our need for connection. We quickly latched onto the phrase “social distancing”, when in fact what was actually scientifically required was to keep our spacial distance and not our society, our social connections. But we have largely missed that important distinction; and we have remained woefully untouched, as a result.
Personally, I had expected us to be more emphatic both as individuals and as a community about our regrouping than we actually have been. There are several reasons for this slowness, one of which is the legitimate concern some of us have about needing to continue to live in prudent cautiousness. But our lives as people and our lives as Christ’s Body cannot and will not be sustained under such “touchlessness”, such separating distance. The question looms: When will we dare to reconnect concretely with one another? When and how shall we employ God’s Communion touch back into our lives? When will we again touch and be the means by which God’s new life once more breaks through the separating fear and threat of death?
We at St. Philip’s are beginning to touch again. Handshakes and hugs are cautiously shared, albeit with sanitized hands! Members are calling others whom they have not seen, touching them with care and concern. Outreach ministries are regrouping, inviting others beyond our church to join in touching the lives of those around us with the miracle of God’s love, life, and renewing presence.
It’s time. It’s time for some miracles among us, miracles that beget new life. We need them. The world is desperate for them. God did not create us to fly solo. In all the talk about “returning to normal” – most of which is rooted in fear, let our “normal” be rooted in God’s touch; and let us re-engage in that sacred connection which is the very Spirit of God. And then, let the miracles roll. Thanks be to God. Amen.