This sermon was preached on an ordinary Sunday for St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Wilmette, IL on July 1, 2018. The Gospel reading from the Gospel According to St. Mark includes two healing miracles performed by Jesus: healing a women who had suffered hemorrhaging for twelve years and raising from death a twelve-year old girl. In the first instance a woman reaches out in faith to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. In the second instance Jesus takes the girl by the hand. In both cases touch is involved. The sermon considers the two forms of touch in the context of the dramatic scenes portrayed by the evangelist Mark.
Text: Mark 5:21-43 (Lectionary Proper 8, Year B)
We gathered at the lake shore this morning to greet Jesus just as the crowd did in today’s Gospel. Jesus had just returned from the other side of the lake—the Gentile side—, and a crowd immediately gathered around him. Jesus spends a lot of time on the Sea of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel, traveling back and forth between the Jewish and the Gentile sides of the sea. He performs healings and exorcisms on the Jewish side and then goes across the lake and performs healings and exorcisms on the Gentile side. Without making any pronouncements the evangelist shows the inclusivity of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.
I wonder if the crowd had gathered around Jesus when he landed because news of the exorcism he had performed on the other side of the lake had reached people on the Jewish side ahead of Jesus. He had cast out demons from a man who had lived among the tombs and couldn’t be restrained even with chains. The demons, who named themselves “Legion,” recognized Jesus as the Son of the Most High God and asked him, “Where can we go?” Demons need bodies to inhabit. So Jesus directed them into the pigs—unclean animals from the Jewish perspective—, which then ran off a cliff into the sea and drowned. There went the local economy. But Jesus had performed a huge cleansing of Gentile impurities with the destruction of the demons and the pigs. That’s something to bear in mind as we get into the situation in today’s Gospel.
As the crowd gathers around Jesus on the lakeshore, a man named Jairus, a ruler or elder of the local synagogue, prevails on Jesus to come quickly to his house because his daughter is dying. Jesus and Jairus and the whole crowd head toward Jairus’ house.
But a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, spending all her money on doctors who haven’t been able to cure her, saw her chance and took it. She wasn’t supposed to be there and if she got found out she was in trouble. Culture and custom said she wasn’t supposed to be there. Social courtesy said she wasn’t supposed to be there. Torah law said she wasn’t supposed to be there. But with the crowd pressing on Jesus, she reached out and touched the hem of his cloak. She was immediately healed; she felt it in her body.
She thought she could get away with it. But stop the procession! Jesus felt power go out of him. “Who touched me?” he demanded.
The woman had reason to be afraid. She was in flagrant disobedience of the law in Leviticus 15 that said:
“If a woman has a flow of blood for several days outside her monthly period, or if her flow continues beyond her regular period, she remains unclean as long as the flow continues, and for seven days after it stops. Anyone who touches her is unclean until evening. Anyone who touches anything she has touched will be unclean until evening.”
Do you see the problem? The woman’s been bleeding for twelve years. She has been ritually unclean for twelve years. For twelve years anyone she touches has also been rendered ritually unclean until evening. If she touches someone, they are prohibited from having social contact with anyone for the rest of the day.
Give her credit that she recognized the seriousness of the damage she had caused and owned up to it. She has not only interrupted an emergency medical mission with a non-emergency situation. She has rendered Jesus unclean and unfit to touch anyone, at least for the rest of the day. And the person he was summoned to touch was the dying daughter of an elder of the synagogue who was charged with the responsibility to uphold the law.
What was Jesus to do? He had demonstrated his commitment to cleansing and purity among the Gentiles. But here among the Jews he did what he has been doing throughout the Gospel of Mark, like allowing his disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath or healing people on the Sabbath Day. He allowed or acted in ways that set aside a strict interpretation of the laws. The fact that Jesus cleansed the land of the Gentiles indicates that he doesn’t ignore the purity laws, but laws cannot cover every contingency. That’s why new laws are always being enacted. So Jesus commended the woman for her faith, sent her on her way, and moved on to Jairus’ house to deal with a life and death situation.
One wonders what Jairus thought about all this, because he too was in a predicament. He should be upholding the tradition of the purity laws. If he allows Jesus to touch and heal his daughter, he too would have disregarded the law.
But stop the procession again! People come from Jairus’ house and say that it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to go any farther. The girl has died. Jesus didn’t get there soon enough.
As lamentable as the girl’s death is, it solves the problem of ritual impurity that the woman with the hemorrhage had created.
But Jesus refuses to be stopped. He took his three leading disciples, Peter, James, and John, and with the girl’s parents went into the girl’s room, shutting everyone else out. He claims that the girl is not dead, only sleeping. He takes her by the hand and tells her to “get up.” “Immediately” (a favorite word in Mark’s Gospel) she got up and started walking around. “Give her something to eat,” said Jesus.
Now looking at this gospel reading as a whole, we see the symbolism piling up. It was a favorite literary ploy of Mark the Evangelist to interrupt one story with another story. The interrupting story served to heighten the effect of the main story. So we are invited to consider this reading as one story, not two, as we try to get at its significance.
Another thing typical of Mark’s Gospel is its secretiveness. The woman with the hemorrhage is hidden in the crowd. Only the three leading disciples are allowed to go with Jesus to Jairus’ house. Those in the girl’s room are enjoined to tell no one what had happened. The commentators call this the “messianic secret” in Mark. Events in Jesus’ life were only to be proclaimed after his resurrection because before that they could be misinterpreted—and were!
To those who hear this gospel in faith (and it was undoubtedly read aloud in early Christian assemblies), the willingness of Jesus to accept in himself the woman’s uncleanness, and the hiddenness of Jesus in the room with the dead girl, are foreshadowings of the crucifixion—Jesus’ bearing in his body the impurity of the world—and his descent to the dead. And the healing of the woman and the walking around of the dead girl are foreshadowings of the new life of the resurrection. The meal to be given to the girl is a foreshadowing of the Eucharist of the church. If you want to push it, the twelve years the woman had suffered bleeding and the girl’s twelve years of age suggest the twelve tribes of Israel—the fullness of the people of God.
As with all the stories in the Bible, and especially in the Gospels, this is all about us—the Christian community that gathers every Lord’s Day to hear the Gospel stories and to commemorate and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eucharist. And Jesus is here present, hidden under forms of bread and wine, to be touched by those who seek him and to touch those who receive him.
This parish states that “everybody everybody everybody” is welcome to the Eucharistic feast of bread and wine. But Jesus forces no one. When the bread is broken at this table you can reach out your hand and touch him. Perhaps you do so because your issues have not been addressed by other gurus or healers, like the woman who was failed by the doctors. So with some measure of faith you reach out to touch Jesus in the bread. Then, like the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, you can slip back into the crowd, strengthened to get through the week but without staying to find out what Jesus might be asking of you and what he might be offering you. And if you do that—if you slip back into the crowd—you won’t be punished or exposed. But Jesus will still be asking, “Who touched me?”, and longing to give you all he wants you to have, longing to give you the gift of himself.
But if you will stay present in the crowd around Jesus, then he will offer himself to you and make you whole as he comes into your life — as he comes into your very body and blood with his body and blood — to draw you body and soul into his risen life, immersing you in his death and resurrection in the waters of rebirth, and raising you up to new and eternal life. Amen.
– Pastor Frank Senn, STS, Evanston, IL