Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Kind of Sandwich Would You Like?

Fourth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 8) – Year B (RCL)
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Sunday, June 28, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

What we have here is a sandwich. Seriously. That’s what Biblical scholars call the literary style represented in today’s gospel lesson. A sandwich consists of a story that is interrupted by another seemingly unrelated story, like in today’s gospel. We have the story of Jairus coming to Jesus to beg him to heal his daughter, to which Jesus agrees. On the way to Jairus’ house, that story line is put on hold while we hear about the woman with hemorrhages. Only after that story is resolved do we get back to the story of Jairus and his daughter, which then plays out to its joyful conclusion.

When used in scripture, this style is also a theological device, with the story in the middle serving as the theological key to the sandwich as a whole. While all the synoptic gospels contain sandwiches, Mark is particularly masterful at the art of, shall we say, sandwich making, employing this device in unique ways to highlight and emphasize major themes of the Gospel. In fact, Mark uses the sandwich technique a total of nine times in his short gospel.

In some ways, the middle story might be considered the more important and more interesting bit – just like when you order a sandwich, you are probably more concerned about what goes in it than with the type of bread being used. That’s not to say the “bread” part, the story on either side of the central “filling,” isn’t important. We need it all, bread and filling, to make a theologically tasty and satisfying sandwich.

That being the case, I want to focus primarily on the story of the woman with the hemorrhages, but not completely forgetting the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter, as it does provide some nuances that only serve to enhance our understanding of the meaning of the central theological themes Mark is attempting to convey through the use here of the sandwich technique.

So let’s start with the woman herself. Suffice it to say, she’s had a rough life, as indicated in the scriptural account. But when we really consider the implications of what is told about her, it is safe to say her life is worse than rough. Given all that she’s had to suffer and endure, the woman suffering from hemorrhages is, cursed, at the very least, four times over. First, she obviously is experiencing a physical illness, one she had had for 12 years. Since she is a woman, and the affliction entails hemorrhaging, the affliction is in all likelihood gynecological in nature. Second, as Scripture tells us, she has depleted her financial resources in multiple attempts to obtain relief from many physicians, who, by all indications, were probably quacks, taking advantage of her for financial gain. Third, these quacks did not only leave her destitute, but also left her worse off medically, thanks to ineffective and even injurious “remedies.” And fourth, while not specifically mentioned, but as would certainly be the case under Jewish levitical law, she is undoubtedly considered ritually unclean – one, because she has an illness, and two, because of the nature of the hemorrhaging she experiences.

As a result of all this, the woman experiences illness and poverty. She experiences isolation and social alienation. She experiences powerlessness and vulnerability. This is quite the opposite of Jairus, who is a wealthy and powerful leader in the community. Because of his status, Jairus is free to walk up to Jesus and ask for his help. Because of her status, the woman should be nowhere near a crowd of people. Because of her circumstances, it is her duty to stay away, living on the margins of society. And if anyone should come anywhere near her, she is obligated under the law and by social convention to warn them that she is unclean, warning them so that they not risk being made ritually unclean by their contact with her.

Despite being beset by such horrendous circumstances and despite her obligation to her fellow humanity, what does this poor, marginalized woman do? She breaks all social, legal, and religious convention and enters into a crowd. And to make matters worse, she willfully and blatantly touches not only a ritually clean and healthy person, but a man, no less. Three strikes against her. But to her defense, and what is of paramount importance from our perspective, is that she does this, she reaches out to Jesus, because she has faith – faith that if anyone can help her, he can.

We’ll get back to the woman, but I want to turn to Jesus for a moment. One of the questions that troubles me every time I hear this story is why does this woman cause Jesus to feel the power flowing from him, while others pressing in upon him on this and countless other occasions, do not have a similar effect?

While we’re not specifically told, I believe it has to do with the way she touches him, with what motivates her to reach out, even just to touch the hem of his robe. I believe it is because of her faith – a faith so profound, a deep knowledge that he is her only hope. Now, I don’t personally think that the power leaves him per say, as much as he feels a connection with her because of her profound faith. I believe he feels his spirit, the power within him energized by the Holy Spirit, connecting with her spirit, as if his and her spirits are rushing to greet each other, as two friends who have not seen each other in ages rush to greet each other and to embrace. It is as if her spirit says to his, here I am, and I recognize you as my life and my hope, and his spirit turns and rushes toward hers, shouting, “my beloved.” This is all made possible by the woman’s faith in Jesus, that he is the channel to the healing power and presence of God.

I think another thing that is equally important is the fact that the woman could have just as easily taken her gift of healing and gone on her way. She could have slipped through the crowd, undetected. Jesus and those around him would have been none the wiser. Instead, when Jesus senses the connection between them, the touching of spirits, the resulting healing, and attempts to discern the reason, she stops and confesses that she is the one who touched Jesus. She falls down in fear and trembling, presents herself before Jesus, confessing her faith.

So too, Jesus could have just as easily continued on his way after he sensed the power flowing from him. With so many people around him, it could have been anyone. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. And chances are, the person responsible would not step forward. So why bother to find out? Chalk it up as one of those strange experiences, the cost of being the Son of God. But no, he stops and diligently attempts to figure out what has happened, and more importantly, to determine who is the cause. This is incredibly important. In doing this, in seeking out the person who has touched him in faith, Jesus is attempting to reciprocate. He is seeking relationship with this person of faith.

In falling at his feet in fear and trembling, the woman is undoubtedly afraid. She has violated all sorts of social, religious, and legal taboos in daring to touch Jesus. But instead of chastising her, Jesus calls her “daughter” – yet another sign of relationship. And in falling at his feet in fear and trembling, she is experiencing “the fear of one who knows that she is coming into relationship with God” (Edington, 192).

The question occurs to me, would the woman have been truly, permanently healed if she had not stopped and confessed her faith in Jesus? We will never know. But I do know that in kneeling before Jesus, she gives a physical, tangible sign of her belief, of her faith. She gives a physical, tangible sign of relationship with Jesus. And in return, Jesus gives a physical, tangible sign of his relationship with her. He proclaims “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Being sandwiched within the story of Jairus and his daughter provides the story of the woman with the hemorrhage with even more detail. Jairus is rich and powerful. The woman is poor and on the margins of society. The fact that Jesus interrupts his travel to Jairus' house indicates that wealth and social status are of no importance to Jesus. The woman is in as much need as Jairus. The fact that he has money and power make no difference to Jesus. It's not that she has a more immediate or pressing need. Jesus could have had her make an appointment with the disciples and he would get back to her. After all, she had gone for 12 years without relief. What difference would a few more hours make? If anything, the fact that Jesus stops to be with her, putting Jairus on hold, indicates that in his mind, the needs of the marginalized take precedence over the needs of the wealthy and powerful. But in the end, all are worthy of healing. Regardless of who we are, all are worthy of being touched by Jesus, of being made whole, of being called Daughter or Son.

Now all of that being said, it’s time for the disclaimer. Such stories as the healing of the woman with the hemorrhages and the healing of Jairus’ daughter can be a bit precarious for us modern-day Christians. We see how the faith of a woman results in her healing. We see how the faith of a father results in the healing of his daughter. We may be tempted to think that if we just have enough faith, our desires, our prayers, for healing will be answered. And then if those prayers are not answered as we would have hoped, we may be tempted to question whether we have enough faith. We may be tempted to question whether God really hears us, and if He does, does he really care about us, about our needs?

As your pastor, I implore you never, never, entertain such questions. God does hear us. God does care about us and about our needs. The Gospel assures us of that. The very fact that God sent his Son to live among us, to die for us, to be resurrected for us, is proof of that. It is proof that God desires for us and has literally moved heaven and earth, to provide us with the ultimate healing – with new and eternal life with Him. And while everything will work out fine in the end, that does not mean that the road to get there will always be an easy one.

As one minister so wisely put it, “it may be helpful to remember that prayers for healing are not simply utilitarian. That is to say, prayer is not simply a matter of bending the vector of divine will toward my will, my needs, and my hopes. More profoundly, to ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God. God's mind may or may not be changed, but I—my mind and heart—may be” (Lindvall, 190).

This is so important, so profound, so central to our understanding of our relationship with God, these words bear repeating. “Prayer is not simply a matter of bending the vector of divine will toward my will, my needs, and my hopes. More profoundly, to ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God. God's mind may or may not be changed, but I—my mind and heart—may be.”

No matter the response, no matter the outcome, prayer is useful. Prayer is necessary. Why? Because prayer is a sign of faith. Prayer is a sign of relationship. Prayer is our spirit reaching out and touching God’s Spirit in faith. And in response, God’s Spirit asks “Who touched me?” Our response of faith is to fall down before our God, to profess our continued faith, to enter more fully into relationship with Him. And in response, God’s Spirit cries out “My beloved Daughter, my beloved Son, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed!” (Mk 5:34, The Message).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Edington, Mark D. W. “Mark 5:21-43, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Lindvall, Michael W. “Mark 5:21-43, Pastoral Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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