Text: Mark 5:21-43
In the past two weeks, our community has experienced a lot of loss — the sudden death of a young woman in her late 40s and the deaths of three of our elders who gave much to this community over the last six decades. After the third email notifying the community of yet another death, one of you wrote to me, “It feels as though the church is in the process of burying a church.” I must admit that the loss and grief of these past days has been disorienting to me as well. It is hard to grieve so much so fast, and I have – at times – struggled to stay present. I find myself becoming emotional at the oddest times. The current losses bring up old losses, and I find myself struggling to sort through all that I am feeling in the moment.
One of my mentors once told me that grief is like standing in the ocean with your back to it. Sometimes, he said, the water will brush against your legs and you simply feel its presence around you. Other times a wave will come and hit you just behind your knees, knocking you a bit off balance, but it doesn’t knock you down. Then there are those waves that do knock you to your knees, but you regain your footing rather quickly. And there are other times, he continued, when a wave will come and take you all the way down and all the way under and you’re not sure if you will come back up. But you do. Sometimes gasping for air, but you come back up. Grief, he said, is like that. It’s hard to know when it’s going to lightly brush up against you, when it’s going to knock you to your knees, or when it’s going to overwhelm you. But if you stay with it, he assured me, you will resurface.
I thought about this notion of “staying with” our pain and grief and loss when I read the stories in Mark 5 of the woman who had suffered hemorrhages for twelve years and the man named Jairus who was looking for healing for his twelve-year-old daughter who was ill and at the point of death. And I wondered what their stories might teach us now about healing our own pain. Not just the loss and grief of the last two weeks, but the past months and years.
Mark combines the stories of the hemorrhaging woman with that of Jairus’ daughter by having the former occur while Jesus is on the way to Jairus’ house. Though these are both healing stories, they bring together unlikely characters. In contrast to the esteemed synagogue official, the woman remains a nameless member of the crowd. The length of her affliction and the fact that she has been impoverished by spending all of her resources on doctors who have only made her condition worse, underlines the crisis of her situation. Posing the danger of ritual impurity for anyone who comes into contact with her, her bleeding has left her socially isolated — an outcast, a nobody, an untouchable.
Jairus stands at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale from the unnamed woman. His status as a “ruler of the synagogue” marks him as a wealthy and influential member of the community. He, actually, would have been accustomed to having others beg him for favors. So one might question why such an important person as Jairus didn’t send an emissary to ask Jesus to come and heal his daughter. The fact that Jairus comes and throws himself at Jesus’ feet begging for help shows that he, in this moment of dire need, is as desperate as the hemorrhaging woman.
There are a few things that strike me about these two stories that might give us wisdom and insight into what it means to stay with our grief and pain. One has to imagine that after twelve years of bleeding, of seeing doctor after doctor, of spending whatever money she had trying to get better only to get worse, of being socially isolated and labeled an untouchable by the society she lived in, this hemorrhaging woman must have wanted to call it quits. She had to be tired and feeling like she was way past the end of her rope. I imagine, too, that she was afraid. There was no Obamacare; no Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; no one to take care of her. With no one, no institution to care for her and with so many options already exhausted and so many obstacles still to overcome, she must have feared her future.
What is amazing about this story of the hemorrhaging woman is that life found a way. The life that was in her didn’t give in to the obstacles all around her. With great courage and at great risk she decided that she was not untouchable; that her place was not on the outside – not at the margins – and that she was not unworthy of love and acceptance and healing. I can see her now, the determination in her eyes and the swiftness in her step as she moved in and out of the crowd making her way to that moment when she finally stretched out her hand to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. She had no way of knowing what would happen. But she had hope — and she fixed her determination on that hope until it was a plan. Twelve years of bleeding. Twelve years of isolation. Twelve years of disappointments. But yet, she still had hope. She had hope that she could be healed. Against all odds, and some might say against all reason, she had hope. Sometimes, when our pain and grief seem too much, when we are not sure the direction of our next step, when it seems that we have exhausted every possible option, when we feel totally overwhelmed and all we have left is hope, it is enough. It is enough because hope is that thing/presence that gives us the courage to risk stretching out our hand and touching that which can bring healing and wholeness to our living. And while this story focuses on that moment when hope becomes healing, we have to realize that her hope took time to manifest into healing. Twelve years. But she stayed with it facing every obstacle that came her way. She persisted — never giving up. She stayed with her pain and grief. She took great risks with great courage to continue pursuing healing, and life found a way. Because life always finds a way. Jesus said to her, “Your faith has made you well.” We must be clear. This wasn’t a naïve faith, nor an untested faith. With these words, Jesus was not just blessing the moment that she believed enough to touch his garment. He was blessing the faithfulness of twelve years of believing and hoping and acting on her hope.
Meanwhile, while Jesus was healing the hemorrhaging woman, a twelve-year-old little girl was dying, and a family was in distress. The text tells us that while Jesus was still speaking to the woman, “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.’” As Jesus entered the house, he said to those there, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping … He took [the child] by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’… and immediately the girl got up and began to walk about…and he told those present to give her something to eat.”
T. S. Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” What strikes me about the story of Jesus healing Jarius’ daughter is that sometimes we get so caught up in the commotion and drama — in our weeping and wailing and worrying — that we cannot see that life is present. We forget that life finds a way even in our darkest moments. And that what we often see as an ending is really a beginning. It is so easy in this world we live in to get caught up in the commotion — to see only what is wrong with the world, to see the problems and feel there are no good options, to fall into that place of hopelessness, to not risk showing up in the crowd and to not have the courage to reach out our hand and touch that which can heal us or even to ask for what can heal us. I get it. Sometimes it just feels better to join the commotion and weep and wail as loudly as we can. But the message of our faith is, “Do not fear, only believe.” At some point we must simply have hope and believe beyond our disappointments and fears that life will find a way; even in our confusion and chaos and uncertainty, in our pain and grief and loss; if we stay with life, life finds a way. It may be what we experience as an ending but later come to know as a beginning. Maybe that is one definition of faith: the belief and hope that ultimately life finds a way, and the end is where we start from.