Our gospel text, today, is tricky. To be fair, I think I say that every week. I suppose its my way of saying, “the Bible invites us to deal with difficult subject matter, and I don’t presume to have anywhere close to all the answers.”
So, let’s dig right in. Our gospel lesson, today, is actually two stories: that of Jairus pleading with Jesus to heal his dying 12-year-old daughter, and that of an adult woman reaching out to touch Jesus, that even an atom of his power might heal her disease.
Mark does this throughout his gospel: he starts one story, tells a second, then concludes the first story. He throws two stories together, that you might read them in each other’s context. He even tells these stories of healing, in the context of last week’s story about calming the storm. Remember, last week’s gospel lesson began with Jesus and the disciples “going over to the other side of the lake”, just as this week’s does. And, beyond all this, all of these stories are bookended by questions of family and relationship. Three weeks ago, the gospel was, “who is my family? You who have gathered are just as much my family as my mother, and brothers, and sisters.” Next week, the gospel will be about Jesus hometown totally rejecting Jesus’ authority. “Isn’t that the carpenter’s son?”
What I’m trying to offer you, here, is comfort. The man who wrote Mark’s gospel knew what he was doing. He’s using very sophisticated literary techniques in order to invite questions about stories that go much deeper than their literal value. And I say this because, while the Bible is typically thought of as central to our spoken theology, we ironically don’t give it enough credit. It is true that, in the Bible, there are many records of horrific violence, scriptures that have been used to subordinate women, people of color, and LGBT people. And still, we know that to be the result of people using the Bible for exploitative reasons, rather than the Bible being an evil tool. We also know the opposite to be true: that the Bible has led countless people to a deep, cool river of spiritual nourishment.
If Mark were written today, I think it might win an award for its inventive literary technique: contextualizing itself with other stories, inviting the reader into deeper questions. Mark’s gospel acknowledges that its trying to invite you into questioning: despite the fact that these enormous crowds have supposedly witness numerous miracles performed by Jesus, he tells his disciples: “shh! Don’t tell anyone about this”, until about halfway through, when his question becomes: “Who do people say that I am?”
So, when we encounter a miraculous healing in the Bible, our hearts and minds do not ponder, they stop. “This is the limit to the Bible’s believeability!” we think. “I can’t take it seriously anymore!, we internally resolve.
There was formerly a tv show on HBO called “True Blood”, which was a show I really liked. It was about vampires and werewolves living among humans, in Bon Temps, Louisiana. Then, about three seasons in, ratings started to fall, so they introduced fairies to the cast of characters, and I remember feeling, “Ok, this is no longer believable, I have to stop watching.”
I offer you this illustration, to invite you to take seriously what we sometimes consider absurd.
The Bible, which literally means “the Library” or “the Books”, is a collection of images from thousands of years of Jewish and early Christian history. Many of these images are considered historical, while some are collections of wisdom, some are evangelistic tales, some are actual letters written to actual churches, and even more are epic poems, meant to convey something much deeper than what is spoken, or what is written.
When we cry, whether tears of joy or tears of sorrow, we’re not typically crying because of words. It has been my experience that I cry when I recognize something deeper. I might hear words that are accurately describing a tragedy, but the thing that brings me to tears is resonance, empathy, with some other profound emotion I’m feeling.
When we read the story of Jairus pleading with Jesus to save his dying daughter intermingled with the story of a woman, sick for many years, saved by the touch of Jesus’ cloak, why does our imagination become stop? Why does it become blocked – even constipated? Why do we not stop and feel for Jairus? Why do we not stop and empathize with that woman?
I do not know the answer. But if I had to speculate, I would offer three suggestions: 1. We are highly rational, intellectual people, and miraculous healings are difficult to preach about (you’ll have noticed my clever way of avoiding that…), 2. Illness is something that makes us feel totally vulnerable, because it can change our lives in the blink of an eye, is often unexplainable, and we have very little control over it, and 3. We are skeptical of the depth of the Biblical stories in the first place, and so we don’t want to empathize with stories we may consider fictional.
And yet, these stories aren’t fictional. In the first place, there’s literal value. There is a story of a grieving father, a confused daughter, a sick woman, and a man who’s trying to make sense of his own ministry and calling in the midst of a lack of support from his own friends and family. I bet we can relate to each of these people. And all of them want answers.
Then, there’s poetic or metaphorical value. “Save us, Jesus!” the characters cry. We might think we don’t need salvation because, well, what is there to be saved from? We can stop right there, and pat ourselves on the back for what good people we are. And I’m saying this very seriously: in my life with Rio, and in Edmonton, I have met incredibly generous, gracious, kind, hospitable people. So, no, we don’t need salvation from hellfire; we don’t need salvation from a reckless God; generally, we don’t even need salvation from poverty or other difficult conditions in life.
But reading the story that way, is actually taking the Bible literally. “Save us!” doesn’t mean the thing we think it means. It more accurately means “heal us”. “Heal us, Jesus!” Jairus and this woman are pleading. The word Save, like Salvation, derives from salve, a healing balm. Salvation, here, is synonymous with health, and that explains why there are so many miraculous healings accounted for in the Gospels.
An idiosyncrasy I’ve come to understand about Rio, is that we don’t care for the word “redemption”. I’ve only realized this recently, and I’m trying to make sense of it. In a few conversations, people have told me that they don’t fully understand how it relates to our faith, or that “we don’t believe in original sin”. But it all came together for me, when, on facebook, I observed a conversation about “getting away from the redemption paradigm.”
I understand this is one of Nancy Steve’s contributions to our theology – moving away from talking about redemption – and it makes a lot of sense with regard to Original Sin. Let me be clear: I also don’t believe in original sin. I believe that “original sin” is one of St. Augustine’s tools to explain how sin is in the world. I think he meant it as descriptive, rather than prescriptive, but 2,000 years of theology sort of irons out nuance from conversation. So, I’m with you: we don’t need to be saved or redeemed from Original Sin. To believe that God would hold us accountable for the supposed eating of an apple by two characters in our tradition’s creation myth, creates God in our own, grudge-holding image.
But: we would be completely unimaginative and lying if we tried to say that sin doesn’t exist in the world. As a reminder, my definition of sin is that it is the distance between us and each other, us and God. Sin is not being in harmony with creation. Sin is not breaking rules, but our ability to see another person, God, or even animals, as being “other” or “different”. My understanding of God’s dream is that we will all be reconciled to one another. The emotional distance between us will be filled, and we will be healed.
I believe that, If we are unable to talk about sin and redemption, redemption as healing, redemption as reconciliation, redemption as things that are bad, being transformed into blessing by God, then we will be unable to have a productive or creative witness in the world.
I offer you now, the story of Oshea Israel, who killed a young man in 1993. In the intervening years, he has experienced redemption, and found a mother in the woman whose son he killed. (Play Clip) http://storycorps.org/?p=12868
This is beautiful. “Heal us, Jesus”, we cry. Like Jairus, and the sick woman, we all seek healing in our relationships. Now, like in the past, and in the future, God is moving within and among us, for the healing of the world. May we be so bold in faith as to reach out, and be agents of redemption, agents of grace, in the world. Amen.