As we work through the Gospel of Mark this year, two key structural themes worth attending to are geography and boundaries. One of the challenges presented to us when we read the gospel primarily, perhaps only by means of the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, is that it’s often difficult to grasp the significance of these larger themes.
So, for example, geography. Today’s gospel provides us with precious little geographical orientation, only the phrase “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side.”
The other side of what? Well, the Sea of Galilee. We saw Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee in last Sunday’s reading, when Jesus calmed the sea. So far, Jesus has been at working primarily in Galilee, in his hometown of Nazareth, and especially Capernaum, which is situated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mark tells us that more than once Jesus taught along that shore.
So last week, they crossed over the sea. The lectionary skips over an important story, the casting out of the demons from the man who was living among the tombs. This story takes place in Gentile territory, and it features demons named “Legion” a cemetery, and a herd of pigs, all of them profoundly unclean, profoundly un-Jewish. And Jesus was asked to leave.
So in today’s reading, Jesus and his disciples come back home to Galilee after their foray into Gentile territory. Jesus gathers a crowd by the sea, a great crowd gathers, and presumably, Jesus is about to begin teaching. But he’s interrupted by Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, who asks him to come heal his daughter. So Jesus goes with him. But as he goes, he’s interrupted again.This is a favorite technique of Mark’s, to tell a story within a story. In doing so, he presents us with two very different sets of characters, two very different healings, and in those contrasts, hopes we will learn something new about Jesus.
Jesus and his disciples are walking along. They have returned from their visit to the other side of the lake, a journey we saw them on last week. As they go, they encounter Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, who implores Jesus to come and heal his sick 12-year old daughter. And so they go.
But before they can get very far, Jesus has another encounter. He hardly notices it, only because he senses power going out from him does he realize that someone has come to him. It’s a woman. She’s been suffering from hemorrhages of blood for twelve years. That makes her ritually impure, and contagious to those she encounters. And she’s tried everything, doctors, quack cures. This is her last, desperate, grasping at straws, attempt to be healed. So she sneaks in through the crowd, touches Jesus’ cloak, and is healed.
When Jesus asks, “who touched me” his disciples respond with ridicule. There’s a crowd pressing around, how can we know, why are you worried about having been touched in the jostling? But Jesus persists, and the woman, in fear and trembling, comes clean. The contrast between the boldness of her actions in seeking healing and her response when challenged by Jesus is striking. In fear and trembling, she falls down at his feet, and “told him the whole truth.” Jesus comforts her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace.”
As soon as the woman leaves, messengers from Jairus arrive to tell Jesus that there’s no point in continuing on to Jairus’ home. The girl has died. But Jesus persists, telling him, “Do not fear, only believe.” When they arrive, they are greeted by another crowd. This time, instead of jostling for position, the crowd is weeping and wailing, mourning the girl’s death. Jesus takes his closest disciples with him, Jairus’ family, too, and enters the sickroom. This time, instead of being touched by the one who would be healed, Jesus reaches out his hand to touch her. He tells her, get up. She does, restored to life and to her family.
There’s a lot that could be said about these two healing stories. They are about Jesus’ power to heal and give life to people. But they are also about something else. The ruler of the synagogue who comes pleading to Jesus could be contrasted with the woman whose hemorrhaging of blood has made her unclean for twelve years, barred from entering the temple. The ruler can expect Jesus to pay attention. He could approach as an equal but he doesn’t. Instead, he bows at Jesus’ feet, begging him to help. The woman, on the other hand, sneaks up to Jesus. She doesn’t dare confront him. Instead, it’s enough to touch his garment. But when Jesus notices her, like Jairus, she bows in deference, fear and trembling.
The body of the ruler’s daughter, once dead, defiles, makes all those who touch it impure. By restoring her to life, and by restoring the woman to health Jesus does more than heal them, he restores them to their community. The girl, who is twelve, is born the year the woman’s illness began. They are healed on the same day.
While all of these characters in the story are fascinating, and invite us to speculate about why Mark tells these stories in just this way, what’s most important about them are the miracles themselves. We want Jesus’ miracles to help us come to faith, to prove to those around him, and to us, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. But Mark resists that temptation. For Mark, miracles do not create faith, they are created by faith. Jesus says, “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”
These miracles are understated. We don’t see Jesus doing anything spectacular. In the first instance, he does nothing. The woman touches him, and she is healed. In the second case, he speaks to the girl as he might to a sleeping child, gives her his hand and helps her up. Ordinary actions, done hundreds of times by a mother to her child. But in this case, Jesus raises her from the dead.
These miracles do not create faith. Like the calming of the storm, they cause fear and trembling, amazement and awe to those who see them. To those who aren’t eyewitnesses, do they know anything has happened? Will the crowd outside the ruler’s home believe it if they are told that Jesus has raised the girl from the dead? More likely, they will assume that those who thought she was dead were wrong. Things like that happen all the time.
Last week, we saw Jesus crossing boundaries, from Jewish to Gentile territory. This week, we see him crossing boundaries again, the boundaries between pure and impure, clean and unclean, the boundary between life and death. But he did that, not to show that he could, not to challenge the status quo, but to restore people to wholeness, to bring healing.
Our nation is fixated on the crisis occurring on our border and in our local communities as immigrants, legal and undocumented are harassed, deported, families separated, and people who have lived here many years are being forced to return to countries they barely know, often at great danger to themselves and their families. Underlying the debate is not only a conflict over treatment of human beings, but over competing visions of what our nation is, what it stands for, what freedom and justice are, who belongs here.
Yesterday afternoon, a series of images brought home to me the challenges facing our nation and community, and the role that Grace plays and might play in facing those challenges. There was a rally at the Capitol from 3-5 against the administration’s immigration policies, one of a series of rallies across the country under the heading “Families belong together.” Grace members and friends supported the rally by offering water to passers-by. I’m not sure how many people they served, but given the heat and humidity, I know their efforts were both helpful and appreciated.
As they were doing their work in the Karlen garden, we hosted a wedding. The guests had to deal not only with the rally itself but with clusters of homeless men trying to find cool and shade on the terraces of N. Carroll St. and W. Washington.
When I was leaving around 6 pm, I encountered a couple coming in to attend the AA meeting. The man had a walker, and he was about to enter and go up the stairs. Instead, I opened the doors and showed them to the elevator. A chance encounter, a barrier broken.
Then, in the courtyard, the men were already at the door waiting to enter the shelter. I assumed, though didn’t know for certain, that the shelter was opening earlier to provide some respite from the heat outside.
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that Grace is a microcosm of the challenges facing our country. We know that we are at the epicenter of the political conflicts that have rent our state and nation for nearly a decade and see no signs of resolution. The growing economic and continued racial inequities are on display on the streets and sidewalks and inside our walls, via the food pantry and shelter.
Whether it’s a Saturday wedding or Sunday services, our worship takes place in this context, in the presence of these conflicts and inequities. We cannot insulate ourselves from them; we cannot ignore them, we cannot protect ourselves from them.
Often, the challenges come to us overtly, in a panhandler or a newly homeless person seek assistance and orientation. Some times, those challenges us come to us indirectly—we may only feel the tug on our garment, or on our heart.
As followers of Jesus our responsibility is clear. He is leading us forward, across boundaries and borders, both literal, and those we hold in our hearts, to reach out in compassion and love to those in need, to open our hearts, our lives, our church, to all who seek refuge and solace here.