The title for this morning comes from the story of the bleeding woman, who touches the edge of Jesus' robe, seeking and ultimately finding healing. The Hebrew word for edge can also mean wing, and so this action evokes the words of the prophet Malachi, who said the sun of righteousness would rise with healing in his wings. The title came before the sermon, and in the end we focused on the story of the ruler's daughter, but you can read more about the bleeding woman at the end of the blog.
While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples. Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house and saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up. News of this spread through all that region.
After a break for a guest preacher last week, we’re back to the lectionary this morning. If you’re new to this or need a reminder, the lectionary is a three year cycle of readings used across many churches, so congregations all around the world will be exploring the same texts in their own very different contexts. Each week has a psalm, an Old Testament reading, a gospel reading and a New Testament reading, but that’s a lot of scripture to do justice to all at once, so we have tended to focus on just one of those readings each week. That has mostly been the gospel, as it is today, but we’ll shift to the Old Testament for a few weeks starting next Sunday. Sometimes it is good to take a more thematic approach to teaching, and sometimes we want to move at a different speed, such as when we spent four weeks rather than a single morning with the beatitudes, but I do think that spending time following the lectionary is good in encouraging us to simply open scripture together and ask what it has to say to us.
If the lectionary encourages us to simply open scripture, this morning feels like picking up a cookbook which naturally falls to a favourite recipe, as this morning’s reading is one of my favourite gospel narratives, and we reflected on Luke’s account together a couple of years ago. Then we focused on the story of the bleeding woman, and so this morning I want us to focus on the story of the ruler’s daughter. Except we don’t begin with the daughter, but with the ruler himself, kneeling before Jesus in grief and hope, asking that this miraculous teacher lay hands on his dead child and restore her to life. It is surely the most extraordinary and audacious request in all of scripture, and yet why should resurrection be any more impossible than making the lame walk and the blind see? This father has presumably heard of other healings, and so why shouldn’t he dare to believe that this miracle can be done too? Perhaps because death seems so final that it is unthinkable that it should be reversed. Or perhaps because death is so universal that it seems unfair that it should be reversed only for her.
Some have suggested that Jesus may have brought many others back to life during his ministry, but only two other resurrections are recorded in the gospels, other than Jesus’ own. There is the raising of Lazarus in John 11, and the revival of the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7. I can’t answer why these three out of all those who have ever died get a second chance at life, any more than I can answer why some are healed and others are not. It reminded me of a play I saw many years ago, performed by Kneehigh Theatre and based on the classic Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death. In both the film and the play, a World War Two pilot has to bail out his plane and falls to his death, except that the conductor that was meant to guide him to the afterlife can’t find him in the fog, and so instead he lives. This leads to a trial in heaven, where it is to be decided whether or not he can keep on living. In the film, it is quite clear that we as an audience are supposed to want him to live, but in the play, we are left rather more conflicted. One of the witnesses at his trial is a woman killed during the bombing of Coventry, who introduces a number of other women who she explains were killed when the pilot himself bombed Dresden. She asks why he should live when they do not, and it is impossible to give an answer, so in the end his fate is decided by the toss of a coin. I do not believe that God is truly so fickle or so callous as to gamble with our lives, but our own suffering and loss can feel just as arbitrary.
I don’t want to try and smooth that over, because I don’t think it helps to dismiss our questions and frustrations, or deny the complexity of life and faith. Instead I want to give us permission to feel all of our confusion and anger and grief, because those feelings are absolutely valid, and then encourage us to look for joy and peace and hope alongside them, because those things are part of life in all its fullness too. I also want to suggest that it may help us to see this story as a sign and wonder rather than a pattern or example. It tells us that marvellous things can happen, even if not this specific marvellous thing. It promises that resurrection can happen, even if that looks more like renewed hopes and revived chances. A few months ago I read a glorious Twitter thread about a church that had fallen into disrepair, but was now full of music and community, and I commented at the time that it should not be surprising, because resurrection is the church's story after all. Our story may not be exactly like the story we have heard this morning, but it is not completely unlike it either, because this is the gospel in the thick of life, with all the pains and pleasures and unending contradictions that come with it. And we may now be in the season which many church traditions know as Ordinary Time, but our time is rarely ordinary, except that the extraordinary happens so often we stop noticing it, and we forget that things are coming back to life all around us in a thousand different ways. In a short while I will invite you to engage with an imaginative contemplation on the passage, and there will be an opportunity then to think about where this story may connect with your own experience, and what feelings it may evoke for you.
Before we do that though, I want to pick up on just a few details from the text. First, it struck me that this is one of a handful of miracles where someone approaches Jesus seeking healing for another. I can think of at least two parents who ask for demons to be cast out of their children, the group who lower a friend who is unable to walk through the roof of a house, and the Roman centurion who asks for healing for his slave. It is a reminder of the importance of praying and advocating for others, although of course we must always avoid the pitfalls of a hero complex. Second, the crowds laugh at Jesus when he says she is only sleeping. I don’t think we can criticise them for their reaction, but I want us to remember it, as we will hear more laughter next week. And finally, touching a corpse should have made Jesus unclean, but instead it makes the girl well. So often it feels like the things that destroy have more power, but in the end it is those things that create which are strongest. May that word bring hope, and may those things in our lives that feel dead feel the touch of Christ and be awakened to new life.
Begin by quieting your body and mind. Choose a position where you can be relaxed but alert. Breathe deeply several times and let your body relax. Breathe out any worries or stressful thoughts and put them in God’s hands. Become aware of God’s presence here with you now, looking at you with love.
Ask for a grace. If you are not sure what to ask for, you might ask for the grace to put aside whatever distraction might get in the way of hearing God..
I will now read the story, this time the account from Mark chapter five, where we find a little more detail. Savour the words and begin to imagine the scene.
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him, and a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.
Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
And now we enter a time of imaginative contemplation. I will offer a few questions and prompts, and I invite you to follow what interests you most
Jesus arrives on the other side of the lake. Can you picture it? What kind of day is it? Is there a breeze off the water? Is it warm, or cool, sunny or cloudy? What does the crowd look like? What else do you see? Hear the sounds of the crowd, the waves, the birds…what other sounds do you hear?
As you listened to this gospel passage, did you identify with any particular person in the story? Perhaps with Jairus? With his wife? Perhaps even the little girl herself? Choose one of these, or one of the disciples, or a bystander, and imagine yourself as that person in the story. How does it unfold? How do you react to events? Take the next few minutes to imagine yourself in the story, paying attention to your own feelings and thoughts as Jesus walks to Jairus’ house, enters, and raises the child.
Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Hear him saying this to you. How do you respond?
Now spend a few moments with Jesus, or with Jairus, the little girl, or her mother. Talk about what you have imagined, felt, and thought about in this prayer, and listen to the response.
Finally we review our time of contemplation. Ask what feelings did you experience? When did you feel encouraged? When did you feel discouraged? Did you receive the grace you asked for? What did you receive?