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When All Else Fails

Eyes of Faith
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Pentecost First Third
When all else fails, what do you do? When you are up against it, where do you turn?

I was not very old when I learned that my beloved aunt had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember the occasion for at least three reasons. It was only one of the few times in my life that I had heard anyone talk about this dreaded disease. Even at my rather young age, I sensed a new vulnerability in our family. We had previously dealt with one of my uncle's tuberculosis. Now an even more horrible illness had descended on our family. I remember thinking, "If this can happen to someone as nice as my Aunt Alice, it can happen to anybody."

The second reason I remember it all so well was that this was one of the very few times I ever recall anyone speaking that openly about a part of the female anatomy.

The third reason was the way my aunt went about seeking help. Of course, at first she went to her family doctor. When that treatment did not seem to help, she went to a nearby specialist who was supposed to know more about this contrary disease. This all took place back in the time when treatment was even more horrendous than it is now and not nearly as effective. One day I learned that my aunt was going to fly to Mexico to see a doctor who was reported to have a miracle cure that somehow involved apricot pits, if my memory serves me. By this time she was so sick that in order to get there, she had to buy two round-trip first class tickets so that she could stretch out and she also arranged for an ambulance service to meet her at the airport and transfer her to the clinic where the doctor was to perform his miracle cure. Sadly, it was all to no avail. It was not long before the illness took its toll and eventually caused her death.

When all else fails, what do you do? You reach out for help. This is one of the main themes the two stories in Mark's gospel lesson have in common. For some reason, Mark likes to pair his stories connected with a common theme. In this case, he even has one story inserted within the body of the other. The power of faith to heal seems to be the main theme uniting the two stories. More correctly, it is faith in the power of Jesus to perform the healing. In both cases, unlike that of my dear aunt, it is indeed well founded and effective. The power of faith worked miracles in both instances.

Interestingly, it doesn't always seem to matter whose faith it is -- just that faith is present. That it is directed to the same object, namely, Jesus. In the first story about the healing of Jarius' daughter, it is the faith of Jarius that is lifted up and not that of the daughter who is in need of healing. In the case of the woman with the hemorrhage, it is indeed her own faith that saves the day.

Jarius is a faithful leader of the local synagogue. At the time, it would have been unusual for a member of the establishment even to acknowledge Jesus' power and authority much less to ask for help. Desperate times call for desperate measures. When all else has failed, you seek out a faith healer of growing reputation. After all, this is his little daughter who needs help and not some stranger or neighbor down the road and not even the daughter of a close business associate. This is Jarius' own daughter whose life and death is in question.

In Mark's account, the young girl's physical condition is ambiguous. Is she really dead? Verse 23 says that she is at the point of death, while verse 5 says flatly, "Your daughter is dead." If the girl were not dead, the whole point of the story seems questionable to me. The message of the story is quite clear, though. Faith is what allows the power of Jesus to be effective in this girl's life.

In a quite undignified manner, certainly not in what was to be expected by a person in his station, Mark tells us that Jarius came to Jesus 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 can be made well, and live' " (Mark 5:22 NRSV). With no hesitation whatsoever this is just what Jesus proceeds to do. Jesus sets out with Jarius, this prominent, but distraught man, to his home.

On the way, we are told that Jesus heals a woman who has been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years. It's also Mark's way of making it clear that the girl is dead. By inserting the story, Mark allows enough time to go by so that the child's death could take place. We need to understand this especially in light of her father's previous denial.

The story of the woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage is extraordinarily moving. We can all feel for her the moment we learn that this condition of hers has gone on for twelve long years. We are also told that she has had to endure much at the hands of her doctors. To make matters worse, she has spent all that she has and she was no better. In fact, her health grew worse. My aunt's cancer comes to mind, though almost any of us can point to someone we know close by or perhaps in the family, with a similar experience. Unfortunately in this economy where medical expenses continue to mount and access to health care is still limited for many, the woman's plight can be told and retold endlessly.

What do you do when all else fails? You reach out to any help that seems hopeful. In this woman's case, we are told that she had already heard about Jesus. No doubt there were numerous stories about the power of Jesus to heal circulating around the towns. This woman's faith was so passionate that even in the middle of a large crowd she manages to come up to Jesus, albeit silently, and touch his cloak. For in her exact words, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well" (Mark 5:28 NRSV). "Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease" (Mark 5:29 NRSV). "Immediately" is one of Mark's favorite words. He uses it no less than three times in these two stories and twice in this one alone.

Instantly, Jesus is aware that power has gone from him. (The word for power in Greek is the same word we use in English for dynamite.) "Who touched my clothes?" Jesus asked the crowd. His disciples, always the ones to rely on common sense, reply: "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?' " (Mark 5:30-31 NRSV).

Jesus looks around to find out who has drained him of his power by touching him. The woman, of course, knew who he was looking for. She approaches Jesus with a great deal of anxiety, "fear and trembling," to use the biblical words. She falls down before Jesus, much in the same way Jarius did when he met Jesus shortly before all this has transpired. Then the woman tells Jesus the whole truth, which I suppose in some way must have relayed to Jesus her desperation. I suppose the woman must have had mixed emotions by this point. She was most likely extremely grateful for her healing but at the same time, she may have felt that she had also crossed a forbidden line. After all, this woman was not only considered ill but unclean. This means that she not only had to deal with the physical debilitation all these years but with the added social stigma as well -- much as some with alcoholism experience in our day. Rather than receive a rebuke, the lady receives a blessing from Jesus. "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease" (Mark 5:34 NRSV). In these words, Jesus not only pronounces her healed but clean. By addressing her as "daughter," Jesus accepts her back into the human family.

Immediately, to use that word of Mark's, while Jesus is still speaking, some people come from the leader's house and set the record straight. " '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' " (Mark 5:35-36 NRSV). Jesus then takes with him members of his inner circle of disciples. As they approach Jarius' house, Jesus hears a loud commotion. Mark tells us people are weeping and wailing loudly, obviously the shrill sounds of traditional Mid-East mourning, unmistakable to anyone's ears who has heard it. It's enough to set one's teeth on edge. When Jesus enters the house, he says to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping" (Mark 5:39 NRSV). Notice their reaction. They laugh at him. It's plain for anyone to see that the child is dead. Jesus orders them all to go outside. Then, he and the child's father and mother, together with those who were accompanying him, go into the room where the child was.

When I read the miracle stories, I never fail to be impressed with the details of what is reported. In the case of the woman with the hemorrhage, how long the disease had gone on, how she had spent all her money to no avail, and her eagerness to reach out and touch even the hem of Jesus' garment -- the very extension of his power and personality. In the case of Jarius and his daughter, we learn where it all took place, in whose house, how old the girl was, and who was there to witness it: Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. Then we hear about the way Jesus performed the miracle. It was in the standard manner that healing was practiced back then. "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)" (Mark 5:41-42 NRSV). That the original Aramaic is remembered adds to the authenticity of the healing event, as do the three reliable witnesses present. All this detail impresses me.

What impresses me even more is the reaction of the witnesses. When Mark tells us that Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, "Little girl, get up!" at this point there are those standing nearby and outside the house who before had laughed at Jesus for saying that the girl was only asleep when everyone could plainly see that she was dead. Inside the house in the privacy of the little girl's bedroom this small group of onlookers is now overcome with amazement. If they did not have it before, they now have the kind of faith it takes to be saved. They have the faith Jarius had in wanting Jesus to heal his daughter. They can stand up in the face of the mystery of life and death and know that God is not only powerful but good.

In the typical way in which Mark tells a story, after the healing, Jesus "strictly ordered them that no one should know this" (Mark 5:43 NRSV). With a personal touch, Jesus tells them to give the girl something to eat. She's bound to be famished after all this. Of course, this is a secret that's impossible to keep. It's one that was destined to be shared. Otherwise, how would we know about it today? Someone of the inner circle had to remember it and pass it on to Mark so that he could pass it on to us.

When all else fails, what do we do? We reach out for any help that seems hopeful and available. If we are like Jarius and the woman with the hemorrhage, we find that we are not disappointed. Each in their own way reached out to Jesus and found what they were looking for. They found in Jesus life and healing not only for themselves but for the ones they loved. Amen.

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