Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Some days I can’t decide if I’m Statler or Waldorf.

You know Statler and Waldorf, two old guys in the balcony, complaining about The Muppet Show? And while they may not find the show very entertaining, they have no trouble entertaining each other:

WALDORF: They aren’t half bad.
STATLER: Nope, they’re ALL bad!

Maybe it’s a product of entering late-middle-age—complaining about what the kids are doing, saying ‘back in my day’ far too often, or appearing shocked and appalled when someone doesn’t know about 8-track tapes or the leisure suit.

Or maybe it’s just fun to complain. It would be ironic to complain that more people don’t know about Eric Berne’s 1964 classic “Games People Play,” and my favourite game which Dr. Berne calls “Ain’t it Awful.” The ‘game’ is how people try to outdo each other with examples of what’s wrong with the world without ever engaging in a meaningful conversation.

‘Ain’t it Awful’ could be the theme of half the conversations we have in the wider-church. It’s at presbytery and conference that the real Statler and Waldorfs emerge, with everyone complaining about everyone else and no one enjoying the meeting. Actually, the parallel between the wider-church and the Muppets is a good one: like Statler and Waldorf, everyone who is complaining is part of the show, making it a case of ‘you’re really complaining about yourself.’

Like a story within a story. The Muppet Show is a classic example of this—a story about presenting a story, with the narrative switching back and forth between the presentation of the story and the story of how the story is being presented. A bit like the Wizard of Oz, which is, in fact, and story about about a story within a story. Or for Simpsons fans, “Itchy and Scratchy” a cartoon being watched my cartoon characters.

You will not lack for things to ponder this afternoon, or perhaps you will try to forget the whole thing. Just now you heard a preacher comment on his sermon within his sermon, and this commentary, by extension, is the comment on the comment within the sermon, which is clearly going too far. And when we’ve gone too far, the only logical thing to do is look at the Bible.

The passage we heard from Mark 5 presents a story within a story. It’s the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter interrupted by the story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman. The entire narrative begins in a boat, when landing, is met by a great crowd. A leader named Jairus falls at Jesus feet and begs that the Lord heal his daughter, now at the point of death. ‘If you lay your hands on her,’ he says, ‘she will be made well.’

Proceeding toward Jairus’ home, a woman who had suffered with a constant issue of blood—for twelve years—came up behind Jesus and touched his cloak. She had convinced herself that if she should merely touch his clothes, she would be made well. Her faith was rewarded, the bleeding stopped, and then something nearly as extraordinary happened: Jesus said, ‘who touched me?’

The fools of this story in a story—the disciples—answer ‘don’t you see the crowd pressing in? And yet you ask who touched you?’ But turning, Jesus knew. And knowing he knew, she fell before him and said ‘when you touched me, your faith made you well. Go in peace.’

But the interruption is interrupted by friends of Jairus. Arriving from Jairus’s house, they report the girl as died, and insist Jairus trouble the Master no more. On hearing this, Jesus speaks (yes, he interrupts the interruption to the interruption) these words: ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ Moving to Jairus’ house, Jesus tells them to stop weeping. ‘The child is not dead,’ he says, ‘only sleeping.’

This, of course, is met with derision. Jesus clears the house, and taking the parents of this small girl, they head inside. He took her hand and said, ‘Little girl, get up!’ At this, she got up, and began to walk about. He ordered them to tell no one, ‘and them told them to give her something to eat.’

I think the last line is the my favourite part of the outer story: raising the dead, then reminding the utterly astonished parents that she might be hungry. The Bread of Life reminds the parents of the newly living to give the girl bread. She might even ask my favourite line from the inner story: ‘who touched me,’ or who took my hand and made me well?

Scholars have two names for this story within a story, one you are not expected to remember (intercalation) and one you may still be thinking about at lunch: called ‘the Markan sandwich.’ Yes, biblical scholars can be that fun. Throughout Mark there are examples of ‘the Markan sandwich,’ stories within stories, Mark interrupting himself to somehow make a point. Here at three:

We heard one three weeks ago: 1. Jesus’ family are looking for him, 2. Jesus tells the leaders that a house divided cannot stand, 3. and his family are still looking for him. Or 1. Cursing the fig tree, 2. Cleansing the temple, and 3. explaining why he cursed the fig tree. And of course, 1. Jairus’ daughter, 2. the woman with an issue of blood, and 3. Jairus’ daughter.

Like the parables of Jesus, Mark has added these sandwiches to challenge us, to make us think, to stir things up. And we’re not even sure why. The stories are powerful enough on their own, but Mark says, ‘wait, there’s more.’ Look deeper, compare and contrast, find what’s hidden in plain sight when I interrupt a healing with a healing.

Does it intensify the experience for the reader? Does the interruption explain something we might not otherwise see? Let’s take that as our working theory—that Mark wants us to see something we might not otherwise see, and look again.

The theme of both stories is ‘your faith has made you well.’ Jesus says it to the poor woman in the centre of the story and Jairus says it to Jesus at the beginning of the passage (“Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well.”) Belief in Jesus as the power of God made these people well: A girl of twelve and a woman with an illness for the same twelve years. We don’t even have time to explore that one.

But now some caution. From the time of the early church we have lived with the mystery of this statement “your faith has made you well.” It has been the focus of prayer in the face of illness since the time Jesus spoke these words. Now, we could say ‘the healing power of God concluded with the earthly ministry of Jesus,’ and further that faith and wellness are more spiritual themes rather than a potential reality. We could.

But that doesn’t match the experience of countless believers. Many have prayed and some have been healed, in the great mystery of a life of faith. Now, some will say that makes God unfair—or negligent—or even non-existent, and to them we say ‘let God be God.’ Having faith does not offer you protection from harm nor does it guarantee that your prayers will be answered (in the affirmative).

Instead, we live within the mystery and the tension of a God we worship but cannot fully comprehend; a God we serve but cannot bribe with our service; and a God that sends what we need when we even don’t know what we need at all. “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Heb 11.1)

And for Jairus, his daughter, and the woman who touched Jesus, faith and hope came together in a moment of grace, a mysterious blessing that wasn’t earned or coerced, but arrived with faith and a simple touch. She touched his cloak and the healing flowed from God in Jesus to this poor woman, and made her well.

In the spirit of the day I want to end my sermon with part of a sermon, one preached on Friday by the President of the United States. President Obama was preaching at the funeral of the Rev. Clem Pinkney, the victim of a terrible crime, a victim along with three colleagues and five members of his church.

His theme was grace, amazing grace, that mysterious blessing that isn’t earned or coerced, but arrives in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. And so we let him speak:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. (Applause.) He has given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves. (Applause.) We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He's once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.



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