Last month, or it may have been earlier in the year, I can’t properly remember, Phil started a sermon by explaining that following the Lectionary week by week can have its ups and its downs. On the one hand, the Lectionary gives structure, it gives pattern, it helps with trains of thought and in following the trains of thought of those who gave us the story of Jesus or the stories of the people of God. On the other hand, it sometimes throws up problematic sections; it sometimes calls for preaching on difficult or unpopular passages, giving rise to difficult or unpopular themes.
By and large, those of us who are lay-preachers or visitors (even in our own churches) have more freedom; if we really don’t fancy something from the Lectionary, then as long as we’re relatively ‘seasonal’ then we can choose something else. For a long time, I’ve thought and prepared my services along the lines of ‘topics’ rather than strictly by the Lectionary – a series on the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus, services looking at some musical or literary ideas, including novels and poetry, another series on ‘awareness’, and of course, my favourite topic, especially for a communion service, food and drink.
This morning however, I’m with Phil, on theme and firmly with the Lectionary, because the passage we heard from Mark this morning seemed to me to contain so much material that I would be foolish not to at least try and explore some of it. Indeed, Enid will tell you of a conversation we had last Sunday morning, where I said I really didn’t know what approach to take – should I try and cover all my thoughts and ideas in one go during the morning service, or perhaps split the reading and look at it again this evening? (a quick glance down at your service sheet will give you the answer to this introductory question, by the way, but I want to use my own shall I, shan’t I dilemma to get your little grey cells working too. So here we go.
Mark 5:21-43 incorporates two healing miracles, or possibly one healing miracle and an early resurrection event. Wrapped up in the one passage, a woman who has suffered all her adult life is healed, and Jairus’s daughter, 12 years old – between Isobel and Tomos in age – is brought back from death, or the brink of death, unconsciousness or perhaps a coma.
My first thought this morning was to take a while to explore the similarities between the two intertwined stories, and then their differences, because there are several in both categories. Similarities? Both female, both unnamed, both unwell, both healed. Oh, and the number 12. Differences? One an older woman, the other a child; one who has suffered long, and one whose illness may have been sudden. And then, the child, the daughter of a church official, a respected member of the community; the woman, an outcast. No question, a whole sermon right there…. But in fact, there are at least two…
Then I thought about a reflection on what is quite a significant and also quite a clever literary construct which Mark uses here to make the points. This idea of a story-within-a-story. Starting with what seems to be a straightforward request from Jairus, Jesus gets distracted; the first story gets distracted by another. You can almost feel the tension building…. Hey come on now Jesus, Jairus asked first, this is urgent, if you don’t get a move on that little girl is going to die….. And then… it looks as though that is exactly what has happened. The outcome of course is different, but this section of Mark’s Gospel is a compact and concise way of pointing out to readers that the story of Jesus is one which encompasses a wider arc. The Gospel writers didn’t write in chapters, they didn’t put titles at the top of sections; Mark is reminding us to pay attention, to the story of Jesus; to the stories within that story; and here, multi-layered, to yet more detail of story-in-story-in-story. Mark is saying ‘pay attention’, ‘keep up’ – if you think you can switch off, forget it…there’s lots to say, lots to talk about.
And so I got a bit stumped; how much time have we got?
A moment or so after speaking to Enid, Lynda came up to me with what turned out to be the answer. ‘Church House next Sunday Evening?’ Lynda asked. ‘With communion?’ Yes, I replied, on auto-pilot, in contradiction to the advice to pay attention that I just gave to you. But the minute I returned to this Bible passage from Mark on Monday, and read the final sentence ‘Give her something to eat’ – it became rather clear to me that the focus on Jairus’ daughter should be this evening as a lead into communion. And so it shall be – if you want to hear what may be a second installment of today’s reflections in the plural, please come along again this evening; or if for whatever reason you can’t be there, just ask and I’ll happily provide a copy of the text, and put it on the web site too. You’ve already had a tiny bit of what I’ll say tonight anyway (and apologies in advance, because tonight I will repeat some of this); but for now, let’s turn our attention to the woman to had suffered from severe bleeding, as the Good News Bible puts it.
Severe bleeding. I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear or read that in Mark’s Gospel? When I was a little boy, all I had to go on was an injury to my left elbow, caused by a summer-time fall against the side of our pebble-dashed house on Glyncoch. I’ve still got the scar of a wound which, because of its place right on the joint simply refused to close up and heal, for what seemed like days on end. Mam thought with the benefit of hindsight that it should have been stitched, but the trek from Glyncoch to East Glam hospital was a pain without a car. Still, the thought of bleeding for 12 years without relief is something we find hard to understand.
Over the years, the ‘what’ of the bleeding here has been explained to me – I imagine from the pulpit – in one of two probable or possible ways. It’s possible that this woman suffered from haemophilia, a condition which affects the blood’s ability to clot – and people with this condition suffer both internal and external bleeding. The other explanation given was that the woman suffered from gynecological difficulties. Whatever the illness, we are told that over 12 years, she had been ‘treated’ by doctors and spent all her money – and that may have included money spent on temple offering as well as medical aid.
But in honesty, the ‘what’ of the bleeding doesn’t matter; what matters is that it’s blood, because as you probably know, the Jewish nation had extremely strict laws relating to all things bloody, and particularly human blood. This woman is, to put it straightforwardly, untouchable by the standards and laws of her time and place. She is, and it would seem has been for twelve long years, ritually unclean, not permitted to worship her God, unwelcome in society, unmarried, almost certainly, an outcast in every way. And so this must be the first point for us this morning – a reminder that this isn’t just an unfortunate woman with a few cuts and bruises in the days before medicine and sticky plasters. This is Jesus coming into contact with a real outsider. Mark has already been shocking in his narrative of Jesus’ healing ministry; here, he stretches acceptability beyond breaking point.
I think the next thing to note then is that this woman has chosen this moment to approach Jesus. Why would that be I wonder? I suspect that it’s the large crowd, I expect that she knew that with all these people around, and Jesus at the centre of their attention, she stood a chance, half a chance at least, of going unnoticed for a change, of actually being able to mingle in the crowd, and, who knows, perhaps even get close enough…. There’s faith here, Jesus will recognise it, but there’s also risk in her strategy. There’s risk of being seen and certainly risk of rejection. At the other end of the scale of course, the exact opposite, that just as she might go unnoticed by the people, she might also go unnoticed by Jesus.
We need to pause here and reflect that it’s very easy for us to see the things and the people we want to see; it’s very easy for us to miss – by accident – or ignore – by design the situations and the people we really do not want to see. We’re not different to that large crowd much of the time, and we have to be constantly reminding ourselves that it is not good enough to see only the ones who are like us, who fit in to our crowd. We need to notice the outsiders too, because sometimes they will come to find Jesus too.
What the woman does next is both unexpected and utterly unacceptable. Yes, you heard me right; utterly unacceptable. You probably remember the fuss a few years back when an Australian Prime Minister put his arm of the Queen’s back to gently guide her during a reception; a great nonsense because of a breach of something called ‘Royal Protocol’ – it’s something you just don’t do. Well, imagine 2000 years ago, in a culture which is dominated by men and by protocols written into religious law; multiply the fuss made over touching the Queen without permission by a factor of 10 or more, and you’re starting to get close to how unacceptable it would have been for a woman, and an unclean woman at that, to touch Jesus. You have to get this in context – this woman is desperate and if she has anything left to risk, she risks it all here. ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will get well’. An act, I think, of someone who is ready to believe just about anything, but who this time recognises a real saviour, and is willing to put her trust in him. She touches Jesus’s cloak and ‘had a feeling inside herself’ of healing – I love that turn of phrase because for a moment there’s quiet assurance, that peace of mind in which you get the hunch that it’s going to be ok, it’s all over, it’s sorted.
We’re not out of the woods yet though because protocol has been breached, something unacceptable has happened, and Jesus has most certainly noticed. I’ve puzzled over this phrase, ‘Jesus knew the power had gone out of him’ a little bit. It’s possible that Mark was wanting to get across to the reader some hint of the supernatural, the ‘superman’ about Jesus, but I don’t think this is like Clark Kent reacting to kryptonite, suddenly weak, zapped of power. If it is, then I’m afraid I don’t like it, because it kind of suggests that if we come into contact with undesirables, then we become weak as a consequence, catching something nasty just by being in the same room, sharing the same seats on the bus. That doesn’t fit the story for me – that’s the explanation of a pharisee, not a disciple.
I think those of you who have raised children, have been school teachers, or have worked with difficult adults know what this is – this is that sudden tiredness you feel when the kids need you, and need you, and then need you some more. When they crowd round so much that you imagine it’s even hard to breath properly. ‘Slowly, one at a time, don’t all shout at once’…. Duw, it’s hard sometimes…
Jesus asks’ who touched me?’ and I’d dearly love to hear the tone of voice right in that question. Accusatory? Shock? a simple question for information? The disciples seem to go on the defensive, almost as if a team of royal bodyguards failed in their job (of keeping the Australian Prime Minister in line, naturally) and worried about losing their jobs – look at the crowds Jesus, could have been anyone!
But Jesus seems to have been genuinely concerned, and the woman is genuinely worried that she’s been seen and is in serious trouble. With nothing to lose now at all, she comes to explain herself, and Jesus, not one for protocol at all, blesses her and gives her not just a moment of quiet assurance, but full peace, confirmation of healing.
Mark doesn’t comment immediately on the reaction of the watching crowd, but you can imagine it. If what the woman did was unacceptable, so too was what Jesus did. Far from pulling the weight of the law down on top of her, he blesses her, sends her away in peace. This is Jesus at his most revolutionary at his most radical. But just as we noted with the firemen of Trumpton earlier in the service, one of the greatest mistakes we can make is to think of Jesus doing less than expected or even only what’s expected. Jesus, in being radical, always does more than is expected of him, and challenges us, his friends to do the same.
It’s easy to be kind to the people who are like us, to the people who fit it. It’s easy to come into contact with people who won’t frighten us, who pose no threat. The difficulty is being kind to the strangers, to the ones who don’t fit it; the difficulty is allowing ourselves to be touched by those who we are wary of, and who we perceive as a threat. Jesus did, can we?
As I said earlier, for a little more of this mental meandering around the healing of Jairus’s daughter, you’ll have to come along this evening, or look at the website, or something! But for now, I want to allude to something which Eryl Williams mentioned in her service at the start of the month, when talking of the call to repent which Peter preached at Pentecost. Repentance is such a big word, too big sometimes, and far too frequently thrust forward as some sort of once-and-for-all personal turn-around. But Eryl tied it in, very neatly I thought, with the idea of renewal – that is, not a once only turn around, but a constant evaluation of where we are, who we want to be as Church. Our church meeting was the next evening, it was a timely word. And some of you will know that just yesterday the URC General Assembly met for a one-item agenda, and the news is that a resolution has been passed, for ratification by the Synods, that local URC congregations will be free to host same-sex marriages if that is their wish. Phil will bring this back to us as a congregation in the next nine months, I’m sure, and it’s important debate. Because Jesus was and still is, in the business of challenging what is accepted as ‘norm’ and as ‘right’; Jesus challenges us to meet people and respond with love. In this, we can, and must regularly, admit that we haven’t always got it right, in fact we often get it very wrong, and whenever we admit that wrong, that is real repentance too.
And so it is that we are called to identify not only with the firemen of Trumpton, always on call to help, but also with the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, in need of a blessing and of healing.
Here endeth part one of today’s reflection!