A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Monkseaton, June 27th 2021
How do you like your sandwiches? Do you have a favourite filling? The Gospel writer, Mark, likes his sandwiches. In his case, but his preference is for sandwich stories. He likes to take two events, two stories, and place them, not side by side, or one after another, but one inside the other. So you start with one, plunge into another, then return and conclude the original one – like two pieces of bread with a filling in between.
Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel features one of these sandwiches. It begins with Jesus receiving a request from a synagogue leader in 5:21 to come and heal his twelve year old daughter who is very ill. In 5:24 Jesus agrees and sets out for the house, but before we can even get to the end of verse 24 that that situation is put on hold. From the second half of verse 24, until the end of verse 34, Jesus is caught up in events concerning another woman. Instead of going to a twelve year old girl, Jesus meets with a woman who has been suffering from bleeding for twelve years. Remembering Israel’s ‘twelve tribes’, you might wonder if these two women in some way represent the whole nation – just a thought!
The synagogue leader has made an open request to Jesus but the woman suffering from bleeding does not. Instead, she ‘came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak.’ (5:29) Her action has two consequences. First, ‘immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.’ (5:30) Second, Jesus was aware that something had happened – ‘Who touched my clothes?’ – and so he forced the woman to come out into the open, and tell him ‘the whole truth.’ (5:33)
So, in 5:34, having heard the woman’s story, Jesus declares, ‘Daughter [both stories feature daughters] your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ And with that, Mark restarts the first story: ‘While he [Jesus] was still speaking people came from the leader’s house to say, your daughter is dead.’ (5:35) Jesus recommences the journey which had been paused eleven verses earlier, continuing to the synagogue ruler’s house, finding all in uproar: ‘he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.’ (5:38)
Whereas the woman who had been bleeding, having heard about Jesus (5:27), was convinced that if only she could touch him she would be made well (5:28), the people at the house had no faith in him at all. He declared that ‘the child is not dead but sleeping … [and] they laughed at him.’ (5:39, 40) Jesus then proceeded to revive and heal the girl. Unlike with the bleeding woman this healing involved Jesus speaking: ‘Talitha cum’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ In each case, though, things happen in an instant. Just as ‘immediately’ the woman’s bleeding stopped (5:30), so, ‘immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.’ (5:42) Jesus then tells people to keep quiet about this event and to give the girl something to eat. This concludes part two of the ‘little girl story’, and also this whole Gospel sequence about the healing of these two women.
So, it looks as though Mark, the Gospel writer, has inserted one story inside another one. If the healing of the bleeding woman was not included, then the narrative about the synagogue ruler’s daughter would flow quite smoothly: Jesus receives a request, goes to the house, and confounds sceptics by reviving and healing the girl – simple. So why complicate things? I think Mark wants to tell us about God’s grace. Talk about God’s ‘grace’ is shorthand for saying God is generous in love to us, and that divine love is not conditional a quality within us, or an action we undertake.
Who we are does not matter to God in terms of deciding to love us and be good to us. If you want to know that, compare and contrast these two women, as Mark intends us to do. It doesn’t matter whether you are older (like the bleeding woman) or younger (like the ruler’s daughter). It does not matter whether you have been excluded from society, because of a bleeding condition, or whether you are from a religious leader’s family, which is ever so respectable and at the heart of society. It does not matter whether your case is represented by a man, or you directly approach God as the woman you are. Whatever the case – young/old, respectable/excluded, man/woman ,or any other gender – God’s love is for you, and you know that because Jesus would be ready to heal you.
As it says in Lamentations 3:22: ‘The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his miracles never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ Yes, who we are does not matter to God in terms of steadfastly love us and being good to us. And not only is God generous in God’s love to us, but God does not make love conditional on your pre-existing attitudes or actions. If you doubt that, look again at Mark’s story sandwich.
If we considered only the situation of the bleeding woman we might think that God’s gift to us of health, healing or life in some way depended upon our own beliefs or efforts. The woman decides to get close to Jesus and touch his cloak, which results in the haemorrhage stopping (5:29), and her feeling in her body that she is healed. (5:30) Jesus seems to suggest that her beliefs and actions have led to her healing: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ (5:34)
So then, if we want God to do something for us, we must first have faith (trust), and make the first move. We can’t expect God to be good to us if we have no time for God in our lives. That seems to be the lesson … or is it? It’s how this world work: you don’t get owt for nowt!
But with God, Mark suggests, things might be different, for Mark places this faith healing story into the middle of a no-faith healing story. The younger woman plays no part in her healing. She has no faith in Jesus because she is unaware of him. If faith is involved, it’s the faith, or desperation, of her father, not hers. In fact, her healing takes place in the midst of the positive disbelief of her family, friends and neighbours who greet Jesus the healer with mocking laughter.
I’m sure God welcomes faith, expressed in terms of belief, trust, and action; Jesus seems to compliment the older woman after her healing. It might be, though, that her faith itself should also be understood as a gift from God. Even if you are in no position to have faith, be that thoughts feelings or actions, as was the case with this young girl, God is still ever ready to reach out to you in love.
To turn to the psalms, with the older woman, we cry out, ‘O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.’ (30:2) And alongside all who experience God’s love, whether we seek it or deserve it, we say, ‘you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God I will give thanks to you for ever.’ (30:11-12) Amen.
 3:21-33 Scribes and accusation about demonic possession inserted into story about family thinking him mad and coming to take him home; chapter 11 which places the cursing of the fig tree within Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, cleansing the temple, and arguments with the temple authorities