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Mark 5:21-43
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 30, 2024.

I speak to you in the name God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday we began what I said was going to be something of a sermon series. This series is given to us by St. Mark the Evangelist, the author of our Gospel. This is the second week where Mark is teaching us about the meaning of Jesus’ claim that in him the kingdom of God has drawn near. What does it mean that Jesus is a king? What does such a kingdom look like? When we think of kingdoms, our minds tend naturally to move in the wrong direction, because the kingdom of God is unlike any of the abusive and coercive forms of human rule we know.

Last week we saw that Mark was making the point that Jesus’ kingship includes his authority over the created order, manifested as he calmed the storm that threatened the disciple’s boat as they crossed the Sea of Galilee. Today we gain more insight into Jesus’ authority, but now in the way that this authority is exercised.

If we were to give the passage that we just heard a title, it might be something like “Jesus the Multi-tasker.” In our own fast-paced, twenty-first century world, this story within a story might not seem very strange. In the context of the slower pace of the first century, however, this story conveys a sense of urgency, a frenetic energy, and even confusion, qualities that appear—especially in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus—were neither unknown nor concerning to Jesus. Jesus’ attention to the desperate needs of the people in these stories stands as a reminder to us that God is never too busy to hear our prayers and respond to our pleas in amazing and unexpected ways.

The miracles that are reported in this section of Mark’s Gospel continue as Jesus makes his way back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has once again returned to Jewish territory. Amid the “great crowd gathered around him” (v. 21), he is approached by a leader of the local synagogue named Jairus, who is frantic about his daughter. He falls at Jesus’ feet to beg Jesus to come and visit his daughter, who is at home near the point of death. Jairus is convinced that Jesus can heal her. Jesus makes no response with words, but demonstrates his compassion with action, immediately setting out to follow Jairus home.

They do not travel alone. The crowd that had awaited Jesus when he stepped out of the boat follows. Even though Jesus has essentially been run out of town after healing a demon-possessed man on the other side of the sea, the crowd must have learned about the miracle. They want to see what he will do next.

Out of the ‘large crowd’ that followed Jesus to the house where Jairus’ daughter lay near death, another desperate person rushes forward. This one is “a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” (v. 25). This begins the story that is within our story. Despite the urgency of the condition of Jairus’ daughter, and Jesus’ determination to hurry to her, Jesus acknowledges the ill woman who has the faith—and the audacity—to reach out to Jesus, touch him, and make a claim on his healing power.

At this point we might notice the parallels in these stories as Mark tells them. Mark is clearly tying these stories together in multiple ways. Both of the victims of illness are female, and both are ritually unclean, the younger because she will be dead when Jesus arrives, and the long-suffering woman because she is bleeding. Both also share something of the significance of the number twelve in the Jewish tradition in connection with their stories: twelve being the age of the girl, and twelve being the number of years the woman has suffered from hemorrhage. Also, both women are regarded as ‘daughters’; the little girl being the daughter of Jairus, and the bleeding woman whom Jesus addresses in a sort of loving and inclusive way as “daughter” (v. 34). Finally, it is an act of touch, contraindicated by the traditions around ritual uncleanness, that restores the woman and the little girl, even as those who surround them lack understanding of what they are witnessing.

These stories raise interesting and important questions for us. One question has to do with who—or what—claims our attention amid our busy and distracted lives, and how we determine the worthiness of the people and things who receive our valuable attention. Jesus’ example makes it clear that those who are most deserving of our attention may be the least visible ones, or the very ones we might be tempted to ignore. The female child, no matter how important her father might have been, and the ill woman were not the most highly regarded in the societies in which they lived. Jesus acts here as he so often does, crossing social and religious boundaries to carry out his ministry. Jesus responds to their needs demonstrating that they are as worthy as anyone else.

Another important question raised for us is the question of what it means to be healed. The hemorrhaging woman is healed when she reaches out and touches Jesus’ robe. The dead child is restored to life when Jesus lifts and holds her by the hand. Both stories have happy endings. But we all know that one of the realities of life is that not every story has such a happy ending. We know that even our most earnest pleas of prayer do not always result in the answers we desire.

More challenging perhaps is not the question of whether miracles did, or may still occur, but the question of how we hold on to our faith when they do not. We may earnestly pray for miracles healing, but dramatic physical healing is in truth rarely the response to our prayers. That said, we more often experience the less obvious, less dramatic dimensions of healing: healing as peace and acceptance in the face of disappointment; healing as the strength and power to face what is ahead; healing as the awareness of the continuing presence of God in our lives even when they are beset with trouble.

The affirmation of the Gospel stories we have heard this morning is that, beyond our own physical healing, acceptance, intimacy, and touch can make us whole and give us peace. We are, in fact, shaped and made human in relationship to other persons. Our relationships—in church, in friendships, in families—are not just something extra added on to our lives, a kind of distraction or entertainment, as if we would be whole if we were in complete individual isolation. It is relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, that makes us human and whole. As the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray has put it, “I need ‘you’ in order to be myself.”

I was twice reminded this week of the fact that the old African proverb that says that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ does not apply only to children. It takes a village for human beings to flourish. We, each of us need our villages. I was reminded of this in multiple ways a couple weeks ago as I attended a conference on disability theology. The fact is that we all need each other and we are all diminished when not everyone is included.

This is especially important for us remember this morning as we come to baptise Archer. We will notice that Archer’s baptism is not merely a matter between him and Jesus. His parents and sponsors will make promises on his behalf even as they make promises regarding their own contributions towards his growth in faith. But this circle of the family is also not alone. They are surrounded by the church today, and we represent the church universal to which we all belong, a community of support for living life in the faith. We cannot do any of this alone. We are utterly dependent upon God’s grace, and we rely upon a community to be an agent of that grace.

I have a sad, negative example about the power of intimacy and loving community. In the 1980s when the numerous orphanages of communist Romania were opened to the world’s eyes after the fall of communism in that nation we learned that the regime so long in power had mandated bizarre social policies that had resulted in thousands of unwanted children. Many of them ended up in vast, underfunded state-run orphanages where they were almost completely isolated, often receiving no love, in fact no human touch at all. Tragically, although the children grew into physical adults, they did not hardly flourish as they might have. They could not speak. They could not relate to others. They could not give or receive affection. They could not enjoy what many of us take for granted in a community where we are loved and valued.

The Canadian physician and addiction medicine specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate, worked for many years in Vancouver’s lower east side, one of Canada’s neighbourhoods most plagued by the misery of addiction. In his work he would often ask those addicted to opioids about their first experience with drugs such as heroin. Many would say that the drug provided them with the overwhelming feeling of a ‘mother’s love.’ Curious about that description, Mate would ask them about their experience of that kind of love. Almost universally his patients would tell him that they had never had such an experience. Instead, they would often tell stories of abuse or neglect. The brain science around addiction tells us that in children who are abused or neglected the receptors within the brain which are made to receive the endorphins and chemicals released when a child experiences love, more or less burn out. The tragedy is that opioid chemicals fit perfectly into those malformed brain receptors. When the addict experiences that feeling they describe as a mother’s love for the first time, they will not easily give it up. Mate’s plea to our society is for our compassion for those so afflicted.

I was privileged to attend a lecture given by Mate several years ago where he talked with social workers and others in the helping professions and made several suggestions regarding social polices that might help lessen some of the worst effects of addiction. At the end of the lecture, a health policy advocate asked the good doctor what one thing we could do mitigate against the opioid crisis sweeping across the country. His response was immediate, surprising, and profound. He said, “Parents, hug your children.”

In Jesus the healer we see the power of touch and we learn the power of loving community. We pray that love will surround Archer all of his days, and that in that love he will flourish and grow and so be a blessing to his community. We pray for him even as in his baptism, we all commit ourselves anew to be a healthful community, of love and human wholeness, where all might flourish and know that they are loved and valued, where we might all become all that God has created us to be.  +