Time to Step Aside

Today’s scripture readings:
Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43
Sermon audio:

I sat down to start writing this sermon on Friday morning but the truth is that I hardly got anything done that day. After the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Obergefell case, granting same-sex couples the freedom to marry in all 50 states, I had a hard time staying focused. I couldn’t pull myself away from social media, where people were posting photos of the first same-sex weddings in places like Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and friends of mine were proclaiming, “Our marriage is finally legal in every state!” I sent my parents text messages at work to be sure they had heard the news. I pored over Justice Kennedy’s opinion. I watched on TV as President Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden praising the decision and heralding a new day in America.

Immediately after those remarks the TV news anchor came back on, telling us that the President was now headed to Charleston, where he would give the eulogy at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. It was a sobering reminder that the sense of elation I had felt that morning was coming at a time when so many others were still grieving and longing for an end to racial hatred and violence. Later that afternoon I was back in front of the TV, this time watching as the President remembered those who had been murdered in the Charleston massacre. I listened as he spoke frankly about the ugliness of our country’s racial history and led those gathered in singing Amazing Grace.

The marriage equality ruling felt different to me when I remembered the broader context, when I thought about what’s been going on in South Carolina and all across the country these past couple weeks. And I wonder whether the juxtaposition of these two hugely significant events in our country’s history—whether the interruption of the grieving in South Carolina by marriage equality celebrations across the country—I wonder whether this odd confluence of events reveals some truth about the state of things here in America that otherwise might have been more difficult to see.

Today’s Gospel story is actually two stories, juxtaposed and woven together in an interesting way. At the beginning of the Gospel reading, Jesus is approached by Jairus, one of the leaders of the local synagogue. His daughter is on her deathbed and he believes Jesus has the power to heal her. Jesus agrees to go with him and a huge crowd follows behind. But then that story is interrupted by another story, this one about a woman in that crowd who is in need of healing herself. She reaches out to touch Jesus and is immediately healed, and that leads to an extended conversation with the woman. Jesus praises her faith and sends her off in peace. The Gospel writer then returns to the first story, about Jairus’s daughter. The only problem, we find out, is that Jesus has taken so long with that interruption—with the woman in the crowd—that Jairus’s daughter doesn’t make it. She’s dead. Or, not dead, it turns out. Or, she was dead, but Jesus raises her back to life. He orders her to get up. She does, and everyone is amazed.

This writing technique—beginning to tell one story, then interrupting that with another one, and then returning to the original story—it’s something we find no less than seven times in Mark’s gospel. Biblical scholars have a fancy word for it—“intercalation”—but why don’t we just call it the “sandwich technique.” They think that the purpose of this technique, of sandwiching two stories together in this way, is to encourage us to read each story in light of the other. Sandwiched together, the two stories interpret one another and reveal some truth it wouldn’t have been possible to see if the stories had just been told separately.

Here’s what I think is going on in today’s Gospel lesson. We have two stories about Jesus healing people. In each of the stories, the people coming to Jesus have faith that he has the power to heal, the power to restore a person to life. But the way these stories are sandwiched together is important. In the first story, it’s Jairus—the president of the synagogue, one of the religious VIPs—he comes to Jesus seeking healing for his daughter. But that story is interrupted by another story about a nobody, a woman whose name the gospel writer doesn’t even bother to share. We read that she has been suffering for twelve years from hemorrhages; I wonder whether the people who translated this passage into English were just too polite to tell us plainly that this woman was suffering from a long-term menstrual disorder. According to Jewish law, that meant that she was ritually impure—had been for twelve years—and was forced to remain on the fringes of Jewish society. It was bad enough just being a woman in Jesus’ time; to have this illness meant she was an outcast. She had spent all the money she had on doctors, so she was living in poverty. She was totally powerless. In other words, she was exactly the opposite of Jairus—a not very important person. But when she approaches Jesus, Jairus has to wait. All the action stops as Jesus tries to find out who it was that touched him. Everything else gets put on hold while this woman, this nobody, becomes known to Jesus. Jairus’s daughter will receive the healing her family seeks, but this destitute woman comes first. The truth that’s found in the sandwiching of these two stories is that, when Jesus is in charge, the needs of the marginalized are addressed before the needs of the powerful.

Maybe it’s just that I had been thinking about this Gospel lesson all week, preparing for this sermon—thinking about how the two stories in the lesson are sandwiched together and how that changes what we hear in the text. But on Friday it seemed to me that a similar kind of sandwiching of two stories was happening right before our eyes. All week our attention had been drawn to South Carolina, where mourners continued to grieve and a latent debate about the Confederate flag had suddenly exploded before us. Then Friday morning we were surprised by the Supreme Court decision and our focus shifted to celebrations happening all around the country. And that very afternoon, just hours later, all eyes were back on Charleston, where one of the victims of the massacre was laid to rest.

The Charleston massacre and the marriage equality ruling were each significant moments in their own right, and each holds lessons for us on their own. Charleston teaches us that racism still infests our society and poisons human hearts. The Obergefell decision teaches us that hearts and minds can be transformed, and that massive social change is possible. But the way those stories were sandwiched together this week changed how I made sense of what was happening. The American gay rights movement got its start 46 years ago today with the Stonewall riots in New York City, and now we have achieved marriage equality. The Civil War, by contrast, ended 150 years ago and Civil Rights legislation was passed 50 years ago, and black folk today still aren’t even safe in their own churches.

Maybe we haven’t figured out how to prioritize the needs of those among us most desperate for healing and for justice. But today’s gospel lesson gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where those who are most destitute—those who have been rejected, pushed to the margins, and written off—are the first to experience God’s healing. When I pray, “Your kingdom come,” that’s what I’m praying for—for a world that looks more like that. And I’m praying that God will equip me to do my part in helping create that kind of a world.

I’m not saying that those of us who welcomed the Supreme Court’s marriage decision shouldn’t celebrate. We should—and what better day than this anniversary of Stonewall to do that. But I can’t stop thinking about Jairus, a man of privilege yet in need of Jesus’ healing, who was asked to step aside and watch as Jesus first worked healing among one who had suffered so long, who had thrown herself at Jesus’ feet, begging for a better life. I sense that those of us who experienced healing in the Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday now carry a special burden to join our hearts with those for whom healing still seems far off. So today, let’s celebrate. Tomorrow the work of healing continues.

Resources consulted:

Efraín Agosto, “Mark 5:21-43: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Mark D. W. Edington, “Mark 5:21-43: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s