As do many in this community, every year Kathy and I go to Stratford, Ontario for a couple of days to see some Shakespeare plays. We made our yearly trek this past week, and as we were driving along in the heavy morning traffic on M-59 we saw something bizarre. It was a man, about my age, serenely riding a recumbent bicycle in the middle of all that traffic as if he were alone on a country road. I looked over and kind of admired the guy. I, too, am a cyclist, but I tend to avoid traffic like that, or when in it I appear kind of like an anxious ferret, looking all around me for distracted or aggressive motorists. Not this guy: he was a real cool customer.
The literally and figuratively laid-back recumbent biker did not impress my wife, however. Kathy Hall, ever the voice of warm pastoral acceptance, called out, “Oh that’s real safe!” And then, to as if to emphasize the point, she added, “What an idiot!” “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “He seems to be enjoying himself.” Not good enough for Kathy. “He’s a moron! He’s going to get himself killed!” If you’ve ever wondered, now you know. This is how pastors and their wives talk to each other when we’re away from church. But sometimes the roles are reversed.
Kathy and I never did come to a consensus about the recumbent M-59 cyclist, but both the vision of him and the interchange between us got me to thinking about safety. As a preacher always on the lookout for metaphors and symbols in daily life (and for sermon illustrations), I saw this bike rider as a perfect image of the human condition. We’re all kind of like someone trying to ride a bicycle through the heavy traffic of life. We can only get through it by fostering the illusion that we’re safe, that we are immune from accident or chance or even worse. But a dispassionate observer like my wife or God (Kathy always likes it when I compare her to the Almighty in a sermon) might see things differently. It is in fact the case that life is full of real dangers, both to us and to those we care about. We are all finite, mortal, fragile. We get through our days telling ourselves otherwise, but life manages, before we’re through with it, to teach all of us one way or another that we are all vulnerable.
This lesson is in some sense what two people learn in their encounter with Jesus in today’s Gospel. Perhaps it’s because we’re just back from Stratford, but this account, from Mark, has always struck me as a bit Shakespearean: it’s a story within a story, a modulation between plot and subplot. The big story, the plot, tells of the illness and raising of Jairus’s daughter. The little story, the subplot, recounts the healing of a woman with a twelve-year flow of blood. These two stories seem entirely unrelated, yet as in a Shakespeare play Mark has combined them because each story helps us better understand the other.
The big story is the account of the illness and raising of Jairus’s daughter. As Jonathan said last week, in this part of Mark’s Gospel there’s a lot of coming and going across the lake, and when Jesus returns to his home base from the other side he is approached by Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. Jairus is presumably the kind of important man who would have had nothing to do with an itinerant healer like Jesus, but now he is desperate. His daughter is dying. He begs Jesus 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." Jesus complies and accompanies Jairus to his house. On the way there, we learn that the girl has died. Jesus gets to the house (surrounded with weeping and wailing mourners) and asks, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." They laugh derisively, but he takes the girl by the hand, says "Little girl, get up!" and she revives. In the story’s best detail, Jesus tells them to get her something to eat.
Folded in to this story is another one, the brief account of a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage. Unlike Jairus, she does not approach Jesus directly. She comes up behind him, touches his cloak, and says, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." She is immediately healed, but Jesus knows that something has happened. The woman comes forward, “in fear and trembling”, and confesses that she’s the one who touched him. Jesus replies, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
What is going on here? Why does Mark tell us one story wrapped around another one?
Think first about what the woman and Jairus have in common. They are both paralyzed with fear. Jairus fears he will lose his little girl. The woman fears that she will die of her hemorrhage. On one level, they are like you and me when we get a bad diagnosis. They fear for their physical safety. They are afraid of death.
But they have more to fear than death. They also fear the shame of a religious purity system that told them they were unclean. The woman’s hemorrhage made her personally unclean. Jesus’s disciples try to stop him from going to a house with a dead body because touching a dead person would make Jesus ritually unclean. So the two main figures in these stories both face the same twin challenges. They are afraid for their (or their child’s) life. They are afraid of becoming outcasts because of their ritual impurity.
So Jairus and the woman are united in fear. But they are united in one other important way as well. They both acknowledge their fear. They each have gotten to a place where polite denial will no longer work for them. Jairus breaks out of the synagogue’s purity code to reach out to an itinerant healer. The woman dares to touch the hem of that healer’s garment. Things are desperate enough for each of them to know they need to get help. They move from living in the illusion of safety to an acknowledgment of their need for something else. And when they reach out to touch that something else in the person of Jesus, they find it to be trustworthy.
What touches me so about these stories is that Jairus and the woman have been brought to the point where they can acknowledge that they are not safe. You and I who live in communities like this one—beautiful places with good schools and lovely houses and imposing churches—people like us gravitate to neighborhoods like this because they help us maintain the illusion that we can, by our own efforts, keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from life’s chances. We all expect cancer, substance abuse, broken relationships, and accidental death to stay outside the bounds of our gated communities. We go through life thinking that we can keep ourselves healthy and happy and whole by means of our own will, our own efforts. We buy into a vision of a life that is supposed to be immune from suffering and conflict and loss.
And then something happens: an illness; the death of a parent or spouse or child. We realize that the beautiful gated world we have made for ourselves is an illusion. We come to the acknowledgment that we need something, some One else. That is the moment we see in these two stories this morning, and that is a moment that happens at least once in the life of every mature person of faith. It’s the realization that the things in which I have put my trust—my achievements, my good taste, my status—none of those things will finally save me. It’s the realization that I have mistaken my good luck for a cosmic King’s X. It’s the moment when I come to see that I am, like the people in the story, like poor people and sick people and prisoners and mourners—that I too am vulnerable. It’s the moment when I reach out for something bigger and deeper and real.
And what today’s Gospel shows us is a moment when I see that the thing I’m reaching out for is actually there. Though the things I have given myself over to have shown themselves mostly to be fake, the one thing I can finally hold on to is the hem of Jesus’s garment. Jairus and the woman, you and I, make the journey from illusion to truth when we let go of our false sense of security and latch on to the One in whom our real safety rests. We are all like the man riding the recumbent bicycle on M-59. We’re vulnerable to the changes and chances of life just like everybody else. The point of these two Gospel stories this morning is that there is something and some One real in whom we can put our trust. When you get to the place where Jairus was, where the woman was, where all of us will eventually be, you’ll have no other choice but to reach out and grab for Jesus.
And the good news for each and all of us this morning is that when you do get there and you do reach out, Jesus, and the One he calls his Father, will be there to love and bless and heal and restore you in ways you can’t even now begin to imagine or expect. I know it because I’ve seen it. I know it because I’ve lived it. We’re all in imminent danger. And we’re all ultimately safe. That’s what this whole Christian enterprise is finally about. And that’s why we all gather now around God’s table to give thanks. Amen.