A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Lamentations 3:22-33; Psalm 30; St. Mark 5:21-43
Grace to you and peace, from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who call us to get up from our deathbeds. Amen.
Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine what the woman in today’s Gospel story endured because we have all, at some point, suffered from some illness that took a physical, emotional, and social toll on us – even something as common as a cold can knock you out for a few days, depriving you of sleep and shutting you off from friends and family. But I dare say almost all of us have more experience than that – is there any among us who has not received that fateful call from the doctor that the test results came back and it’s not good news? Or spent years watching a loved one slowly fade? To place ourselves in her shoes is less a matter of imagination and more about remembering that time in our own lives.
The text tells us she “endured much under many physicians” and “spent all that she had” – and still only grew worse. It’s an all-too-common story.
For twelve years, her disease took a physical toll. What twelve years of hemorrhaging must have done! Even in seven days – just one week! – similar conditions cause severe pain, anemia, and fatigue. And that’s to say nothing of the underlying cause behind her bleeding. It is fairly amazing that she was able to go out to meet the Lord at all!
And physical ailments bring with them mental and emotional effects – those million little “What ifs” that grow into worries and fears with each passing moment, that conspire with physical symptoms to keep us up at night. But to bear that emotional burden for so long! To confront the anxious uncertainty, the hopeless sense that the bleeding may never stop, that life may never go back to the way it was!
The financial, physical, and emotional burdens of her ailment, are compounded by the social isolation that it carried with it. Under the Law of Moses, a woman who, as Leviticus puts it, “has a discharge of blood” outside of her usual menstrual cycle, is unclean for as long as she is bleeding – which is to say, she is pushed to the outskirts of community life. But not only that: any bed or seat that she uses also becomes unclean, and anyone who touches that bed or seat also becomes unclean until evening. For twelve years, this woman was treated as a source of contagion by her neighbors and even members of her own household. Think about it: on that sleepless night, as worry and pain kept her awake, no family member could lay down beside her and hold her without themselves becoming “contaminated.”
How remarkable it is, then, that she sought out Jesus – just to touch his clothes. If it were me, I would want some showy sign, some conversation, something to indicate that it was going to work. “Lord, can you do a bit of that hand-wavy stuff? Or lay your hand upon my brow, or touch my stomach? I heard about that time you spit in the dirt to make mud and rub it in the guy’s eyes to heal his blindness – you could do something like that. Just something tangible so that I may see and believe.” No, all she wanted was to touch him – not even his body. “If I but touch his clothes,” she says, “I will be made well!”
What faith she has!
Indeed, it is a faith so many of us lack – because healing can so often feel so very far away. So very far away that it can be difficult to read these healing stories. We might very well ask, why didn’t our miracle come? Is it because we didn’t have enough faith? That we didn’t believe the right way? That we didn’t pray hard enough?
What does it mean for those who mourn? For those of us with chronic conditions? For those of us who daily wrestle against depression, anxiety, cancer, dementia, or any number of other plagues? Indeed, after sixteen months of a pandemic, with more than 3.9 million people around the world dead, after a year of social isolation, worried about those closest to us and those we’ve never met, we might very well ask, where is the healing?
What sacred robe can we touch to make this all better? What holy ritual can we perform to heal those we love? How much of the very Body and Blood of our Lord must we consume to drive out the unclean spirits plaguing the world?
It’s enough to send us yelling, like the disciples last week, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?”
There are several parts of the Christian Tradition that would answer, yes, you are to blame. If only I had more faith, my depression would fade away. If only I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I could have prayed away my grandmother’s dementia. If I believed hard enough, I could lay hands on each of you and heal you.
But dear friends, it doesn’t work that way.
The story of this woman is not told in isolation. Jesus didn’t set out to encounter her; he was on his way to Jairus’ house. And he arrived too late. Before he could get there, the little girl died, and by the time Jesus arrives at the house, the mourning was underway. The crowd had gathered, “weeping and wailing loudly.”
In the midst of their grief, Jesus entered the house to wake the child from the sleep of death, saying, “Little girl, get up.” Immediately, life entered her again and she rose.
It was not because of her faith. Unlike the woman with the hemorrhage, this child did nothing to receive the gift of new life.
Because wailing and weeping are not the end of the story. Laughing at the foolishness of hope is not the end of the story. Doubt is not the end of the story. Death is not the end of the story.
As we sang in the Psalm this morning, the Lord can bring us up from Sheol, the realm of death, and can restore us to life. As we heard in Lamentations, there is hope even when one’s mouth is put to the dust.
Death is not God’s plan for us. Our Lord desires not that we grieve but that we hope.
If we have the faith of the woman, seeking only to touch the Lord and be healed, or if we, in our doubt, scoff, or even if we have slipped beyond all hope and gone unto the grave, our Lord will still bring healing and wholeness.
When faith is not only far off but impossible. When hope is laughable. When all that we have fails. Even at the graveside. Yes, even there, God is acting. Even then, God will set all things to right, heal every affliction, and restore to life that which has died.
In the fullness of time, when all seems lost, we will hear our Lord call to us and say, “Little child, get up.”