a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B/Lectionary 13]
I don’t tend to spend a whole lot of time in emergency departments of hospitals—although with a 5-year-old son that is changing—but I do visit them on occasion when people I know are sick. What I’ve learned from my times in emergency rooms is that you can meet anyone there. The emergency room is one of those few places that really makes no distinction between people. Anyone could find themselves there at some point, and most of us probably will, regardless of how old we are or how wealthy we are where we live or even how overall healthy we are. I bet if you poked your head into the different pods in an emergency room on any given day you would probably find one of the most random assortment of people possible. Issues of health and illness and pain do this to us. They kind of equal us out.
As Jesus makes his way through the cities of Galilee he becomes a walking, talking emergency room. A seemingly random assortment of people find him and crowd around him and begin seeking his help. Anyone, it seems, is comfortable approaching him.
The stories we hear this morning from Mark’s gospel illustrate this more than possibly any other stories in the New Testament. And the peculiar way these two episodes of healing happen shows us just how astoundingly diverse the crowd is who seek him. First, there is a leader of the synagogue. We hear his name: Jairus. He is one of only two people in the healing stories in the gospels who is ever named. This suggests that people in that area or in the community that Mark was writing for may have known Jairus or at least known who he was. Jairus’ daughter is dying and he is desperate for her to live. He loves her. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for help.
Just as Jesus starts towards Jairus’ house, here comes someone else in the next emergency pod over. We don’t learn her name, but it was not common at all to know or care about the names of most poor, ill women. This widow is just one of the crowd. She doesn’t stand out, and is people were aware of her particular medical condition, which involved open bleeding, they would definitely stand back from her. She approaches Jesus very differently from Jairus. She sneaks up to Jesus and grabs his clothes from behind hoping he won’t notice. This is probably how she’s lived the past twelve years of her life as her condition worsened. The only people she’s been particular direct with are the doctors who haven’t been able to help her but put her through the wringer nonetheless.
And so these two people could not be more different, especially in ancient society, which was really keen on dividing people and assigning value. One of them is male, a person of power whose name is known. He appeals to Jesus in a manner showing respect and deference. He is wealthy and ritually clean, meaning people can be around him and touch him and not risk their own social status. She is a poor, unnamed female who is ritually unclean, which is to say because of the religious laws of the time no one would want to be around her, much less touch her, even less speak be spoken to by her in public. She has no power, no status, no agency. He comes across as a person who follows the social rules. He bows, he asks directly and honestly for what he wants. She, on the other hand, comes across as pushy and clever, aware that if she’s going to get what she wants, she’s going to have to break some boundaries. And in some ways, her pushiness is what creates Jesus’ delay to Jairus’ house where his daughter is dying.
We know that Jesus receives all people. This is not really new to us if we’ve been paying attention. Up until this point he has not wavered in helping people and driving out demons wherever he encounters them. He talks about his kingdom in ways that make us realize. It is drastically different from kingdoms of the world, kingdoms that almost always give preference to the powerful and the well-connected and the good looking. Having both of these people put together like this, back to back, their stories intertwined, makes it absolutely clear.
Just as issues of health and medical need tend to equal us all out—the rich and powerful and the poor and unnamed alike—so does Jesus’ mercy. In the emergency room we are all just people who are in dire need of healing, and all of us have to sit in that waiting room together. So are we the same before Jesus. Whether the world treats us like Jairus or the world treats us like the woman with the hemorrhage, we are each able to access him, and he will break boundaries to make that happen.
When I served in Pittsburgh I had a colleague who served a downtown congregation right in the middle of a very blighted urban area. It had once been a large and affluent congregation, but like many other downtown congregations its neighborhood had been affected by dramatic economic and demographic changes. By the time I arrived on the scene he had been there a number of years, and there were some thriving outreach ministries from the congregation reaching out into the area. It was still not a particular safe area, but the church was a haven for children and adults of all ages, and particularly for those who had been left behind in the economic drift.
What I found particular impressive and daring was that he expressly ordered the church doors never to be locked. There was no alarm system and, in fact, on most warm days the front doors were propped open all day long. He felt that sacred space should never be off-limits to anybody. That kind of decision might not work best everywhere and for every church, but, then again, it was key to the thriving of that congregation. Yes, it probably made it a bit unsafe to be there at times, but on the other hand, no one had to be pushy or clever or get there at the right time in order to find a community of faith or a moment of safety and solace. Anyone could walk right in.
Jesus lets anyone walk right up to him, and eventually find he will let anyone treat him however they want. His life is all-access, his own body a kind of door that God intentionally props open so that anyone can receive life he gives. God intentionally leaves it open, even as people take advantage of it and torture him and mock him and hang him on a cross to die.
People feel uncomfortable with full access—with churches that let anyone and everyone walk right in, with congregations that let anyone come to the communion rail—and people feel uncomfortable with a God who opens the kingdom even to people we would call pushy. And yet this is how God will receive each of us, in the open arms of Jesus that none of us deserve. That is how faith is found and grown. For Jairus to the hemorrhaging woman, and all those in between, the power of God’s healing and peace is always given.
I’ve been participating in a continuing education lecture series over the past couple of weeks called “Religion and the Spiritual Crisis: Ministry in the secular age.” It is being co-led by Andrew Root of Luther Seminary who wrote a book that some of us on staff read together a few years ago called Faith Formation in a Secular Age. A lot of it goes over my head, but the main idea they are discussing is that we live in a disenchanted time when it is just as easy not to believe in God as it is to believe in God. There once was a time when belief in God was a given, but that time is no more and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It’s just the water we swim in now. It’s not just that people distrust religion or don’t want to participate in a community of faith. It’s just that we live in such a here-and-now mindset that faith seems unnecessary. People don’t even care about old categories that we used to think about all the time, like whether miracles can happen, or whether we go some place else when we die, or whether we can be sinner or saint, or both at the same time, like Martin Luther said.
The leaders of this event I’m participating in articulate a lot of what pastors and church members feel these days—that the things about our faith that mean so much to us, the things that gather us and shape us for life, just don’t get much traction anymore. People don’t seem interested or concerned. Perhaps you’re feeling that too, if not within yourselves then maybe with your family members or your friends. It feels as if no one wants or needs the sacred anymore, much less believe in it.
In the midst of all of this doubt and apparent lack of desire for God people will still experience a sense of emptiness or need. They’ll experience crisis or pain or boredom, a hint that they have a soul. Maybe it’s a Jairus moment, a time of acute desperation. Maybe it’s like the woman…a nagging sense you try to hide that things could be better. And the best thing we can do as people of faith in these moments is not to offer proofs of God’s existence or prayer for a miracle or a church program or a wondrous Bible study but rather an invitation to listen and walk with them, to be there for them. The places where faith in a transcendent God can still make itself seen and heard and grow like a mustard seed is when people of God are just available.
It is when we keep the doors of our hearts open and offer people opportunities to share in our life together here around the table and around the font. It is to practice real friendship and non-judgment. It is not to spout off answers about faith, but just listen to people’s questions and wonder with them. It is about access, not appearing closed off or better than anyone—it’s about giving of ourselves to all people once again, just as the bread and wine are given over and over, as Jesus gives himself to all who came to him.
Because the Jairuses of the world and the nobodies will both eventually come looking and wondering. And when Jesus’ people can be open and generous of spirit in a world that is machine-like and cold, then there is a sign that God is truly still active and full of power, moving in our midst. Ready to receive. Ready to create faith.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.