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Are You Awake?

Mark 5:21-43

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Our gospel lesson this morning is structured like a sandwich. It begins and ends with the story of Jairus’s daughter, and the story of the hemorrhaging woman is inserted within it in the same way that sandwich filling is inserted between two slices of bread. The sandwich structure directs us to read these stories in conversation with one another. Mark adds further connective tissue with the number 12: we hear that the woman has been bleeding for 12 years, and we hear that the daughter of Jairus is 12 years old. This connecting detail draws our attention to the two stories as a singular unit. With two rich stories and the complex interplay of comparison, there is enough material in this gospel lesson alone for many thousands of fine sermons. Today, I will invite us to consider two lessons and one question that emerge from the text.

 

The first lesson: Our faith is greater than our fear.

 

A sermon illustration from Austen Farrer, an Anglican priest who has been an inspiration to me, cuts to the heart of our first lesson:

 

Farrer noticed that a light bulb in his office was out. Having retrieved a replacement bulb, he stood on his desk to reach the ceiling fixture, only to realize that he was a few feet short. Determined to accomplish the task at hand, he stacked several dozen copies of “the University Gazette” on top of his desk and stepped upon this pile of magazines to reach the fixture. Having summited the slippery step with one foot, he stretched upwards just as he began to feel the magazines sliding underfoot. Freezing to regain his balance, he realized, suddenly, the precariousness of his position. Here he was, an aging man, balancing on one leg more than six feet in the air on top of a loosely stacked pile of glossy magazines. No sooner had he considered the peril at hand, fear entered his mind, and he began to wobble. However, having come this far, Farrer lifted his eyes away from the hazards of his own creation to focus on the source of light before him. Upwards, towards the prize, is where his hope directed him. A focused gaze provides a steadiness of balance, so Farrer replaced the bulb and descend safely to his chair.

 

Consider – for a moment – all of the reasons that the hemorrhaging woman would have to despair. We hear that “she had endured much under many physicians and spent all that she had.” She had been suffering for twelve long years. In a much more serious manner than Farrer, she was in a precarious and desperate situation. Yet, like Farrer, she lifted her eyes away from the despair of her condition and reached out towards the prize of life. Just as Farrer reached upwards towards the light fixture, so too did this woman reach out to touch Jesus, the light of the world.

 

Each one of us has carried a particular set of fears into our little chapel today. We have gathered here from all over the country, in many different walks of life, and every one of us might look at a particular aspect of our lives and experience despair: a fear that we are insufficient to overcome our position. And yet, today’s lesson shows us that the way forward is ahead of us. By reaching upwards and outwards towards the future with hope and conviction, like Farrer and the hemorrhaging woman, we are invited to discover that our faith is greater than our fear. 

 

The second lesson: We have recourse to faith, no matter who we are or where we stand.

 

Our two “sandwich stories” offer a stark contrast between Jairus, “one of the leaders of the synagogue,” and a woman who would have been considered unclean and outcast by the standards of her time. By placing these two stories together, Mark is forcing us to confront the fact that faith is not a product of our position or our virtue.

 

Jairus, presumably, is a man of standing, virtue, and piety. We would expect him to demonstrate faith. The woman…we know nothing of her other than that she is bleeding. Not unlike a leper, she would have been considered unclean and impure. And yet, it is the woman who demonstrates faith. By way of contrast, Jairus’s followers wallow in their despair, “Your daughter is dead,” they query, “why trouble the teacher any further?” A lazy conclusion to these contrasting stories might lead us to a simple inversion of righteousness: the pious are damned; the outcast are saved – the poor are saved; the rich are damned. But Jesus leaves no room for such simple conclusions in the gospel: both the woman and the Jairus’s daughter are healed.

 

Each one of us has a different relationship with the governing authorities of our time. Some of us, like Jairus, may be pious, exemplars of virtue, recipients of the spoil that our culture and politics provide. Others of us, like this woman, may find ourselves outcast and disenfranchised, alienated by the temporary political and cultural consensuses of our time. These stories invite us to discover that every one of us has recourse to faith, no matter who we are or where we stand.

Our two lessons, taken together, offer a compelling snapshot of the gospel:

 

1)      Our faith is greater than our fear, and

2)      No matter who we are or where we stand, we have recourse to faith.

 

These two lessons invite us to consider a question, which I am going to frame within the context of Jesus’s observation that Jairus’s dead daughter is “sleeping.” Being “asleep,” within the context of the New Testament, might be understood as a synonym for being ignorant of the gospel truth. Sometimes, those asleep are materially living. For example, the disciples are asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, ignorant of Jesus’s sacrificial love for them, even after he exhorts them to stay awake. The disciples are materially alive, but they are asleep to the truth of what is happening. Other times, those "asleep" are materially dead, not unlike Jairus’s daughter. For example, when Lazarus rots in the tomb in John’s gospel, and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are lost in despair, Jesus refers to Lazarus as being “asleep.” In the New Testament context, when our lives are dominated by fear and despair, we are, in every sense that matters, “sleeping” to the reality of life and freedom towards which Jesus directs us.

 

So here is the question that arises for us today: Are we awake?

 

Our condition is not so different than Jairus or the hemorrhaging woman. In our lives, as well as theirs, we have many reasons to fear, and it is so easy to succumb to despair and remain asleep to the invitation of faith, to the good news and freedom of the gospel.

 

  • In the midst of a contentious presidential election and a fractured society: are we sleeping in despair, or are we awake to the relationships – often right in front of us – that are true and good and meaningful?

  • In the midst of multiple international wars and unfathomable tragedy: are we sleeping in despondency, or are we awake to the opportunities for charity and kindness given to us each day?


  • In the midst of personal loss and sickness and an uncertain future: are we sleeping in anxiety, or are we awake to the possibilities of health, redemption, and new life?

 

This morning, Jesus is inviting us to move beyond our fear. He is not denying the reality of fear, but he is calling us to move beyond it. He is inviting us to reach upwards and outwards and to join him at the altar of God. No matter who we are or where we stand, he is inviting us to touch his robe, to receive his gift of love, to trust that our faith is greater than our fear.

 

Wake up! Life is before us, the table is set, and we are invited. Amen.

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