I preached this sermon today at House of Mercy, a wonderful congregation in St. Paul with great live music and a heart for people who have been burned by church but are wanting God again. We are so delighted that they'll be one of our sponsors in Japan. You can also listen to the sermon on the HoM website. The text was Mark 5:21–43.
It is probably borderline blasphemous to play favorites with the Bible,
but Mark is far and away my favorite of the four Gospels.
It’s the oldest Gospel, so far as we know,
though not the oldest book of the New Testament—
Paul’s letters get that distinction.
But it is the oldest attempt to tell the story of Jesus’s life.
I don’t like Mark best because of its “accuracy,” though,
as if being earliest made it by default the most historically reliable.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
Luke makes some cryptic comments to the effect that his predecessors
weren’t quite as “orderly” as he intends to be.
See, Luke wants to help you get it.
So do his buddies Matthew and John.
All three of them are so helpful, so concerned and caring.
Matthew wants to help his fellow Jews sort out just how this Jesus character
really is the Messiah promised to Israel,
and he scours the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament)
for every interpretive lens and motif he can find to bring meaning
to the traumatic cross.
Luke takes another tactic, pointing his Jews toward the growing faith of Gentiles
and helping those Gentiles get a handle on the Jewish roots of their new faith,
and he even writes up a volume 2, what we call Acts,
as an introductory guide to the new community called “church”
that believers in Jesus are going to find themselves in.
And John is so freaking enraptured by the love of the heavenly Father
poured out in the incarnate flesh of the Son
and spread abroad by the Advocate-Comforter-Holy Spirit
that he explains it to death.
Love love love light light light bread bread bread for chapters chapters chapters!
These three guys, Matthew, Luke and John,
are your ideal pastors, anticipating your every doubt,
providing well-thought-out, intelligent, sensitive answers,
tossing out soft cushions for your newborn faith to land on.
Then there’s Mark.
Where Matthew gives you an answer,
Mark exposes the hidden motives behind your question.
Where Luke welcomes you in for a dinner of fatted calf,
Mark greets you with a slap in the face.
Where John says, the truth will set you free,
Mark retorts, you can’t handle the truth!
From the very beginning of his Gospel,
it’s like Mark dares you to keep on reading.
Oh sure, his story starts out like a superhero comic book
or a classic questing tale that’s supposed to end with a wedding and a kingdom.
Jesus bursts on the scene with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
The time is fulfilled! Repent and believe!”
—and just like that he acquires a band of followers.
Then he teaches with authority, casts out demons, heals, prays,
teaches, heals, and casts out some more demons,
and by the end of chapter one you are primed for an upward trajectory of success.
But in chapter two, things start to go wrong—really wrong.
Jesus attracts the wrong kind of people, tax collectors and sinners,
and gets into unnecessary quarrels with the powerful.
By chapter three, his family thinks he’s crazy,
the scribes think he’s possessed, and the Pharisees want to kill him.
Sure didn’t take him long to ruin every advantage he had!
Then, when his own disciples try to figure out what game he’s playing at,
Jesus says things like: Well, to quote our old friend Isaiah the prophet,
I’m telling parables so people won’t understand
and won’t perceive and won’t get forgiven.—Huh??
Couldn’t Jesus have quoted, say, the suffering servant part of Isaiah
instead of the not-understand, not-perceive, not-get-forgiven part?
And is the stilling of the storm that follows this conversation
a reference to nature
or to the sinking feeling I have that I’ve cast my lot with a lunatic?
It is only after this incredibly inauspicious, self-defeating beginning—
without even a cute Christmas story about our hero as a baby
to assure us of a happy ending—
that we come to chapter five, in which we find our Gospel reading for today.
Chapter five pairs two stories, long ones by Mark’s standards.
The first is the tale of the Gerasene demoniac,
which is to say, a Gentile across the lake who is stuffed so full of evil spirits
that he won’t wear clothes, breaks through chains,
and makes his home in a graveyard.
Jesus the Jew pulls a big ol’ kosher joke
by sending the Gerasene’s legion of demons into two thousand pigs—
unclean animals, you recall—
such that swine and spirits alike plunge to their death.
Mission accomplished, Jesus heads back home,
and that’s where we pick up the thread.
Now today’s story, taken by itself, is a little less unnerving than what’s come before.
It’s a set of twins: the raising of Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter,
and the healing of the woman who has bled for twelve years.
We get two, count them two, happy endings!
And no pigs were harmed in the making of this miracle!
But as with Mark’s whole Gospel, there is a secondary story going on.
It’s not just a matter of what happened to the little girl and the bleeding woman,
but what is happening to us as we hear and read—
as we perceive or do not perceive, as we understand or do not understand.
Without our knowing it, Mark has enlisted us in faith boot camp.
And there will be no soft cushions here.
Now, the two people of faith in this story are strikingly different.
First up, we meet a man of power, Jairus, ruler of the synagogue.
While Jesus has certainly attracted his share of the seedy elements of society,
Jairus does not fall in this category.
He is respectable, important, and privileged.
But his importance and privilege do not extend so far
that he can bring his beloved daughter back from the brink of death.
Death mocks the powerful just as much as the powerless.
We don’t hear from him a disheartening tale of useless medical interventions,
as we do in the case of the bleeding woman,
but even if he did have the money and means to try, apparently it did no good.
Jesus is his last resort.
By this time Jesus is famous—infamous—for healing.
At the end of all his earthly resources, Jairus has to acknowledge his limits
and implore someone else, this sketchy itinerant preacher, for help.
And Jesus is glad to go.
The thing about Jairus is, even if he recognizes his limits
and approaches Jesus in humility, “imploring him earnestly” for help,
he still has enough self-regard and strength to ask at all.
That is its own kind of privilege.
He can hear and accept the reports about Jesus, and then act on them.
Which is great! No complaints about that.
But it’s very different in the case of the hemorrhaging woman.
Whatever resources she once had are long gone.
After twelve years of bleeding, her bodily strength is almost depleted,
her money is spent, undoubtedly her trust in her fellow man is spent too
after suffering so much harm from those who claimed to be able to help her.
It’s extraordinary that she could ask and seek help at all anymore.
Yet through the despair and disappointment,
something about Jesus speaks to her—calls to her—
and gives her the oomph for one last attempt to get herself made whole again.
Even that is almost beyond her.
Unlike Jairus, who was bold enough to stop Jesus, kneel at his feet, and place a request,
the hemmorhaging woman doesn’t dare speak to him directly.
Her strategy is a little sneaky, because that’s all she’s got.
“If only I touch his garments,” she thinks.
It’s a funny kind of confidence, born of desperation.
Maybe she was calling to mind the stories of the Old Testament
about the ark of covenant,
how the power of God resided within it
and would destroy Israel’s enemies or anyone who touched it illicitly.
Perhaps she perceived Jesus as the new ark of the covenant,
returned to the land of Israel
and travelling in its midst, zapping the enemies of the Israelites.
But what a risk:
is the enemy of this new ark
the leprosy and demons and hemmorhaging that afflicts the people of Israel?
or is the enemy an Israelite woman who dares approach for an illicit touch of the holy?
This woman must have been at the end, the very end, out of hope,
to try such a dangerous tactic.
No words, no pleas, just a finger swiping the corner of the cloth.
The disciples scoff a little, when Jesus asks who just touched him.
No end of people just touched him!
But this woman’s touch is different and Jesus knows it,
he feels the power go out of him,
and his knowing and recognizing what was happening in her indirect approach
emboldens her to speak up—
with “fear and trembling,” to be sure,
and probably wondering if she’s going to get zapped too
alongside her finally cauterized arteries.
But there is no rebuke. Instead Jesus offers only gentle words of praise:
“Daughter, your faith has made you well;
go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
It’s at this point in the story that Mark’s commentary on faith
goes from implicit to explicit.
So far, in the whole Gospel,
Mark has spoken of faith directly only three times.
It’s a little easier to see this in the original Greek than in English.
We have the verb “believe” and the noun “faith,”
but in Greek both verb and noun have the same root,
so you can hear clearly that it’s the same thing being referred to.
The first occasion for the term is in Jesus’ first sermon: “repent and believe.”
The second time is when Jesus heals the paralytic who got lowered through the roof,
on account of the paralytics’ friends’ faith.
The third is when Jesus is calming down the panicked disciples
after stilling the storm: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Three instances of faith language in four chapters—pretty modest, all around.
You wouldn’t suspect yet that this is one of Mark’s central themes.
And if you were to read today’s selection, or any other episode in Mark,
apart from the complete Gospel narrative,
you could easily get the wrong idea about faith.
“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus says:
he seems to be throwing it back on us,
or even suggesting that it’s our faith that has the power to extract favors from God.
This is the line that has launched a thousand prosperity sermons—
name it and claim it! that new cars is yours because God wants you to be happy!—
It’s this kind of reasoning that has left a thousand sufferers despondent
because faith hasn’t wiped out their cancer,
and the same reasoning has destroyed the souls of mourners
who wonder why their loved ones didn’t make it—
maybe because they didn’t believe enough and God was punishing them…?
If Mark was about easy answers and soft cushions,
you could take this story that way—and then rightly dismiss it
as a pile of pious poppycock.
But Mark’s Gospel is no polite religious advice column.
It’s more like a gauntlet thrown down.
Let’s follow the story a bit further to see what Mark has in mind.
We move now into Act 3 of today’s lesson.
Act 1 was Jairus’s plea for help on behalf of his daughter;
Act 2 was the whole story of the hemmorhaging woman,
who goes away whole and healed.
Now in the final act we return to Jairus,
who gets the worst news imaginable: his daughter is dead.
“Why trouble the Teacher any further?” say the messengers.
And this time Jairus does not argue.
He may well be out of faith at this point:
as miraculous as Jesus seems to be,
so far we have not heard or seen anything about him defeating death.
If Jairus still wants helps, he’s no longer able to ask for it.
Grief has reduced him to the silence of the hemorrhaging woman,
and perhaps worse:
there’s no sign he believes that Jesus’ touch can make the difference.
But Jesus doesn’t wait for Jairus to pull himself together,
remember the proper attitude of hope,
or put in one last desperate prayer request.
Jesus acts first with strong words: “Do not fear, only believe.”
These words are commands, but they aren’t commands that await human fulfillment
before Jesus is willing to carry on.
Jesus’ instruction to believe doesn’t signal who Jairus is:
it signals who Jesus is.
For Mark, faith works in this counter-intuitive way:
it is not a human production but a divine declaration
that interferes with the human factory of fear,
desperation, denial, and the frantic pursuit of lesser gods.
So at Jairus’s house, when all is lost,
when death is so clearly the victor that the hired mourners
actually have the gall to laugh at Jesus, in front of Jairus,
when he suggests the girl is only sleeping and not dead—
what jerks, I hope they had trouble getting work after that!—
it’s here at the end of the road that faith learns what it clings to.
Jesus pronounces two words so treasured by the earliest church
that they survive in their original Aramaic,
Talitha cumi, “Little girl, arise.”
And she does!
And then Jesus says to give her a snack. Because death sure makes you hungry.
If we pull back a bit from this specific twinned story
to the larger story of Mark’s Gospel,
we have just witnessed a pell-mell series of scenes
telling us who Jesus is.
He has authority over nature: stilling the storm;
he has authority over demons: exorcising the Gerasene demoniac;
he has authority over illness: healing the hemmorhaging woman;
he has authority over death: raising up Jairus’s daughter…
so… can you complete the syllogism?
can you draw the conclusion?
in other words, do you have faith that Jesus is—?
I hope you’ve gotten to know Mark well enough by now
to have braced yourself for another smack in the face.
Because after all this—
victory after victory, unparalleled authority,
when we’ve almost got our superhero back again,
in ch. 6 Jesus goes home for a visit
where all he gets is skepticism and scorn
and Mark actually tells us,
Jesus “could do no mighty work there,
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.
And he marveled because of their unbelief.” Their unfaith.
What kind of a mighty man of God can drop-kick demons
and quell nature and reverse death
and yet gets stumped at human unbelief?
And what are we supposed to do about it?
If Mark is trying to make us disciples too,
he sure has an ass-backwards way of doing it.
“Try to believe,” he seems to be saying.
“Try it and discover you can’t.
Try it and discover you don’t.
Kiss all your religious illusions goodbye;
they aren’t wanted here.
Whatever you thought was faith is not faith.
Wipe the blackboard clean and start over again from the beginning.”
The only real question at this point is: will you keep reading?
After all, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t end here.
It keeps going for another ten chapters.
Faith will vanish again from its vocabulary for the next few chapters,
because Mark needs you to see that you cannot talk about faith,
real faith, divine faith, faith in Jesus,
without its partner—the cross.
It’s only at the end of chapter 8, halfway through the book,
by which time you’ve spent long enough watching Jesus
and puzzling over Jesus
and trying and rejecting your various theories about Jesus—
it’s only now that Mark finally lets you in on the secret:
“the Son of Man must suffer many things
and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes
and be killed,
and after three days rise again.”
Peter hates this.
He’s the first one to confess who Jesus is—
and about ten seconds later
he’s the first one to reject who Jesus is—
But once the secret is out, the secret about the cross,
the faith language starts coming again fast and thick.
Mark spends the rest of his story
illustrating what faith is, the real thing, the hard thing,
the cross-shaped thing.
And yet, the last time the word is used before Jesus’ death,
it’s the sarcastic taunt of the religious folks:
“Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross
that we may see and believe.”
They think they know what makes for faith—
the miracles, the show of power, the last-minute rescue.
Mark knows otherwise.
He knows that faith is the thing that persists when all else is lost.
Faith is what stares down death’s capture of the ones we love most,
faith is what sticks out a finger for a touch that might cost us our lives,
faith is what shouts, “My God—my God—why have you forsaken me?”
Mark can’t write this story with straight lines.
If he told it so easy that you were sure you perceived and understood,
then you wouldn’t have perceived and understood at all.
How can this kind of faith be the thing that makes us well?
How can life and light and love come from being bound
to this dying man on the cross?
Now it’s Sunday and here you are visiting the dead man’s tomb.
Why do you bother?
Why are you here?
Surely you don’t believe—?