Adapted from a sermon given at Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre and St. Stephen’s, Hollywood, June 28, 2015. For full Gospel text, click here (Mark 5:21-43)
I preached two Sundays ago and counted myself lucky that the lectionary Gospel text spoke so clearly into the wound that has been opened up by recent events, particularly the horrific mass shooting in Charleston last month, as well as resulting divisions over the display of confederate flags and the rash of shootings over the past year by (mostly white) police of (mostly black) unarmed citizens.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t come up in the lectionary very much, and perhaps you can see why. It doesn’t have the poetry of John or the wisdom teachings of Matthew or the narrative flair of Luke. Mark’s Gospel is very straightforward in delivery, even blunt, but despite that, also often uniquely confusing and awkward. The style of this particular text, for example, even has its own name: the “Markan sandwich,” which may sound delicious, but it’s really just a nerdy theology term meaning that one story has interrupted right into the middle of another separating it into two halves.
In the first slice of bread in this particular sandwich, Jairus, a great leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus’ feet, begging, lay your hands on my daughter so that she may be made well and live. Then there’s the meat of the sandwich–the woman suffering from hemorrhages–and she has maybe even greater faith than Jairus because she doesn’t even think Jesus needs to lay hands on her, she says, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” And she is. And Jesus starts preaching, talking about how this woman’s faith has made her well, but in the meantime, the girl has died, and we go back to the bread: the dying, now dead girl, whom Jesus takes by the hand and orders to “get up” which she does, but apparently being inside a sandwich has made her hungry because Jesus tells them to feed her.
On the surface, these appear to be simply two stories of personal healing. A woman receiving healing for a very troubling and intimate problem; a man receiving healing for his beloved daughter. But the audience Mark was writing for understood the political implications of these personal stories. You may have heard the feminist slogan from the 60s and 70s, “the personal is political.” That’s exactly Mark’s philosophy, as he shows both the political and religious incompetence under which the people are suffering.
First off, we have an impotent leader who despite his high status is unable to help even his own daughter, much less all the other people who depend on him. It’s probably not his fault he’s impotent–he probably wants to be a learned and effective representative–but because of the oppressive political system, he’s pretty much a figurehead put in place to help keep the peace and give the people some illusion of self-rule. Sound familiar?
Next, we have a woman whom we can presume was formerly well-off, because she had a lot of money to spend on doctors, which most people would not have had, but now she’s gone broke from her medical bills and isn’t even any better. Does that sound familiar? Furthermore, this woman, because of the nature of her illness, would have been “unclean” according to the religious codes, and therefore, in addition to everything else she was suffering, unable to even worship with her community at the temple. The temple was the center of faith for all Jewish people, so this would be like forbidding someone to come to church and receive communion and ask for support from God and their community for an illness. She has become shut out; in effect, a non-person for 12 years.
12, of course, is a number ripe with meaning in scripture. It is the number of the 12 tribes of Israel, for one thing, and Jairus’ daughter is herself twelve, which means she has reached the age when she can marry, so symbolically, she represents hope for the future of Israel, for future generations (“tribes”) which she will help to create. Were she a boy, 12 years of age would have meant the beginning of rigorous religious instruction, thus the story in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus being presented in the temple at age 12, already unusually knowing quite a bit about Torah. But there’s an intriguing tidbit in Mark’s story: the Aramaic words Jesus speaks: Talitha cum. Talitha means little girl, cum means get up, but it is written here in the masculine case, so it’s sort of like saying, “Little girl, get up, boy!” The logical explanation is that Mark, not speaking Aramaic, made an error that was preserved through the centuries, and we get to make fun of him for not having had grammar-check for his scroll. But what if this was Mark’s awkward way of implying that, yes this story happened to a girl, but she represents all of our children, and this personal miracle Jairus and his daughter experienced is a sign of the political future, that God will raise up a generation out of Israel of daughters and sons that will neither be slaves to the oppressive political regime, or to the short-sighted religious views of their culture, that will not be impotent like their fathers or needlessly shut out from their community like their mothers. Like Mark, I pray this will come to pass in our own nation.
We are in the midst of a national crisis, and it’s not random mass shootings or the killing of unarmed citizens by the police or the political divisions that deadlock us and our leaders from solving these problems. The crisis is that we have accepted these things as normal. This crisis is in our hearts. We’ve thrown up our hands and decided there’s nothing we can do. When we accept that it’s normal that people will get shot at random, when we say it’s just the way it is when unarmed people are killed by an overly-militarized police force, that is not just a political crisis, that is a personal, spiritual crisis. It’s as if our hearts and our consciences have gone dead. And if those of us who have given our lives over to following Jesus Christ don’t address this crisis, who will? Jesus says to us, like to that little girl, “Get up! Your hearts and consciences are not dead, they are only sleeping.”
The personal is political. It’s personal when a child in Pakistan loses his grandmother to a recent heat wave because of climate change resulting from lack of will in the rest of the world to do anything about it. It’s personal when a mother hears that her unarmed son has been shot by the police because he was confused or because he was scared and ran or because he was just a child playing with a toy. It’s personal when you are legally prevented from marrying the person you love, (but thank God the Supreme Court ended that injustice and in doing so echoed our own baptismal covenant by saying everyone deserves “equal dignity” under the law.) It’s personal when your pastor and fellow parishioners are shot and killed because of the union of racism and easy access to guns. But we are not impotent to do anything about these issues. It is our moral imperative to address the apathy that has taken hold of us. We act as if grieving and expressing sympathy are enough. They are not enough. And if your priests and pastors and lay leaders are not speaking out against racism and creating opportunities for justice and reconciliation, they are not doing their jobs. But if politics leaves you cold, if your practice of faith is more personal and spiritual, Hallelujah! Jesus speaks to you as he does this woman, and says, “your faith is great, your faith will make us well, so put that faith into action.” Pray about it, volunteer, get to know people from different backgrounds and races, wherever your heart calls you, but we are in crisis and act we must. Jesus tells us to get up and do something. Every random shooting puts more blood on our hands if we don’t.
Our own Episcopal bishops took time away from our General Convention recently to hold a march in support of Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Their witness and their prayers may not tangibly save any lives, and the election at that same convention of the first African-American Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, may not do anything to solve racism, but they are faithful attempts to go where Jesus calls us and refuse to accept apathy as the new normal.
The first line of Mark’s Gospel, in his typical, awkward fashion, reads “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” It’s an odd phrase, because of course it’s the beginning, it’s the first line! But what Mark means by this is that the whole account he has given us of Jesus’ life and ministry, is only the beginning of more good news to come. It will be up to others, including us, to continue writing it. Tragedy is not the end of the story. Apathy is not the end of the story. We know how the story ends: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…and the one seated on the throne said, behold, I am making all things new…” That’s how it ends. All of us, Episcopalian or not, in all the churches of America are the people who have been entrusted with that vision from our Holy Scripture, and we can see that ending even if no one else can. Let us be the people to once again lead this nation into the greater vision of justice that we see, and that we are commanded to create for this nation and for all humanity.