Dare to Draw Close
July 8, 2012
Adam Kelchner, preaching
Audio - MP3
What is so captivating about power and authority when we see it embodied in flesh and blood? What draws us near to larger than life personalities whose very presence commands attention? A corporate manager who commands board room activities. A revered spiritual leader whose words let you see into the very depths of God’s imagination. A politician whose oratory and presence stirs the crowds into a frenzy. Perhaps you find yourself more naturally drawn to the power of nature, whether it be standing at the edge of a precipice overlooking sheer cliffs, natural gorges, and raging rivers or gazing at water rushing over majestic falls. If not in the mountains or somewhere like Niagara Falls, then perhaps on a sandy beach with waves breaking into tumultuous surf at your feet.
Somewhere. Someone. I think we’ve all been captivated, held in place by an encounter with sheer power. One evening, years ago at Annual Conference, the conference preacher had stirred thousands of delegates to their feet with shouts of ‘Amen’ and ‘Keep Preaching.’ His prophetic, audacious words told the truth about the church but also pointed us toward a more inclusive style of community.
I set out quickly after worship concluded, determined to find this preacher and hear more of his prophetic words. I made my way through one of the tunnels in the conference arena so I could maneuver through the gathering crowds. Several yards ahead, I could see him with his flowing robe and stole caught in the wind of his brisk walk. I called out. “Pastor!” He stopped walking, all six and a half feet tall, towering there before me. He turned around. “Yes?” Suddenly, I was searching for the carefully crafted introductory speech I had prepared in my head just moments before. As I searched for words, he (likely well aware of the intimidated young man standing before him) said, “Walk with me.”
As the crowd grew larger, Jairus stepped forward falling at the feet of Jesus pleading for help not for his own life, but for the life of another. Jairus, a man of power and authority in the synagogue has thrown himself at the mercy of the man in the center of the crowd, a traveling Jewish teacher. We can imagine Jairus with tears in his eyes pleading for help uttering these words: “My daughter is about to die.” Jairus could have even been yelling at Jesus because his own power in the community cannot stave off the death of his little girl. It is a familiar cry, “Please, please do something,” when we see our loved ones overcome with the pain of suffering or disease.
Still crying out in desperation, with no other concern other than to save his daughter, Jairus declares that Jesus can heal his daughter-he can save her from the grip of death. Blessed is Jairus for his keen perception that he has entered into the presence of the divine, Jesus divine with power to heal and triumph over death. And so, Jesus set out toward Jairus’ home to care for the little girl. In short time, Jairus and his household learn that no one can come into contact with the Christ and remain untouched, unchanged in their condition.
It is on the journey to see Jairus’ daughter, that the divine power of Jesus is made public before the gathered crowd. It is at this point in Mark’s story within a story, that we encounter the desperation of the woman who remains nameless. She suffers. She suffers from years of pain from hemorrhages, from going from doctor to doctor perhaps without an accurate diagnosis and no immediate hope of a cure. After while, her material livelihood was depleted from the unending visits to doctors unable to ease the pain of her body. This account of her travails is hauntingly familiar and prophetic, as individuals and families we know risk their livelihoods for medical treatment. What a timely word as the debate and rulings on healthcare rage in our political world. Impoverished by the cost of treatment and cast from the center of communal participation due to purity laws, the woman is completely vulnerable and sick. How can a nameless woman, pushed away for her ritual impurity and poverty, draw Jesus’ attention to her condition? She is such a stark contrast to Jairus whose power and prestige aided his ability to step forth in the crowd toward Jesus.
The woman with seemingly nowhere else to turn presses through the crowd and secretly touches Jesus’ clothes. In order for us to understand the motivation for her supposedly audacious behavior of touching Jesus, Mark allows us to hear the woman’s thoughts. “If I but touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.” She senses that when life comes into contact with the presence of Jesus Christ, it will not stay as it is. Miraculously, upon touching Jesus’ garments, the woman’s bleeding stops! She is healed.
Then with tension in the air so thick it can be cut with a knife, Jesus begins searching for the one who had touched his garments. Is he upset or shocked? We sense that the private act of the woman in touching Jesus’ clothes could be disastrous if she is found out. The woman, already cast out from communal life, could be further castigated and alienated for making bodily contact with people in the crowd causing ritual impurity. As Jesus’ disciples question the absurdity of his question, given the size of the crowd, Jesus waits, scanning the crowd. Why doesn’t the woman, still unnoticed, slip away from the tense situation, carrying with her the benefit of her private healing? Rather than slip away, the woman began her public account of the healing.
The woman had experienced the presence and life-giving power of God. What else could she do than tell the truth of her encounter with God’s power? I think the woman’s behavior gives us a model-when we experience the life-changing presence of God, what else can we do but tell the story? In telling the story of her healing, she confirms herself as a child of God-a daughter raised to new life. Jesus confirms her healing, the power of her faith, and sends her forth in peace. But quickly, the peace spoken to the daughter of Israel is disrupted by the words of messengers that Jairus’ daughter is dead. Jesus’ attempt to bring a healing hand upon the little girl in order to save her life has seemingly failed. Too little, too late?
One afternoon on my chaplain rounds I visited with a family of faith who told me with great hope of the thousands of people around the world praying for their sick child. The child’s life depended on the success of a major surgery that was scheduled for the next day. So that afternoon we shared prayers for healing, a quick recovery, the steady hands of surgeons, assistants, and nurses, and the peace of the Holy Spirit. The next day, while making rounds, I learned that the surgery was not successful, yet rather disastrous. The seemingly ineffective prayers of thousands of worldwide supporters compounded the family’s devastation and disappointment. Why did the prayers for healing seemingly go unanswered? Didn’t God hear the prayers of the faithful thousands petitioning for this child’s health? Like Jesus not making it in time to the little girl, was God absent during the little boy’s surgery?
One of the most difficult, even perplexing challenges of our faith tradition is to have trust in the power of the divine when our pleas and prayers to God are not met with satisfaction. In the experience of absence and despair, there is a good word that is spoken. “Do not fear, only believe.” Jairus is told by Jesus to believe and not to be afraid. Trust in the authority of Jesus Christ who speaks life out of death. Trust in the life-changing power of God among us. Trust in the touch of the One who authors life and restores wholeness. It is in Jairus’ home that Jesus, accompanied by a small number of his disciples and the little girl’s parents, speaks words of life and brings restoration with his touch.
This Markan story is a story of God’s authority in Jesus Christ restoring life. It is a story about the audacity of faith, which can drive us to transgress the strongest social barriers for the sake of being made whole and right in our relationships with God and one another. It is a story about the power of trusting a divine word even when there is seemingly no good reason to think there is a way forward. Can we risk trusting God even in experiences of absence? But like the daughter of Israel, when we place trust in the God of life and we experience God’s grace for ourselves, what else can we do but tell the story? Do we as a church, of the mighty and the meek, dare to draw close when the life-changing power of God is near? What are our stories of life-changing power and God’s extravagant love?