“Stealing a Miracle”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, June 28, 2015
Taken from Mark 5:21-43

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Someone once said, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” In this morning’s Gospel Lesson from Mark, we meet two desperate people facing desperate times. The first was Jairus, one of the synagogue rulers. We know his name because he was a highly respected leader perched on the upper crust of Jewish society. Yet, despite his power, his privilege, his connections and his resources, he was helpless in the face of his twelve-year-old daughter’s progressing illness. Jairus had access to all the best medical care of his day, but nothing was working, and his daughter’s life was rapidly slipping away. Now, he had heard about a faith healer from the town of Nazareth, who, by all reports, was casting out demons and performing miraculous healings. Talk about alternative medicine! All the doctors Jairus had talked to thought Jesus was a quack, and all his friends on the synagogue ruling council said that they wouldn’t be caught dead getting help from an uneducated, hick-town preacher. But Jairus was desperate, and for his beloved daughter, he would try anything. So when he heard that Jesus was arriving to town, he decided to leave his dying daughter’s side for one final, desperate mission.

Jairus arrived at the lakeshore only to find it already crowded with people, people that he knew.  He felt the gaze of their curious eyes as he single-mindedly made his way toward Jesus. He knew what they were thinking. “What’s Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue doing here?” “Is he here to check out Jesus’ credentials?” “To officially welcome him?” “To tell him to go away?” Nobody really knew what to make of Jesus – and they weren’t sure what to make of Jairus approaching him on this day.

Jairus could hear the collective gasp of surprise when he fell down at Jesus’ feet and earnestly begged: “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” My, how the high and mighty have been made low, but as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

As Jesus was following Jairus home, racing against time on a life-saving mission, he was interrupted by a woman. Here, we meet the second desperate person in this story. It was a woman, so anonymous and insignificant that no one even knew her name. While women in those days held little power and status, this particular woman was an untouchable in Jewish society. For twelve years, for as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive, she suffered from bleeding. She was tired physically. Twelve years of anemia exhausted her as little by little, as her life-force drained away. She was literally spent going to doctors. She’s now broke paying for treatments that didn’t work, and she can’t enroll for insurance because of her pre-existing condition. She was also exhausted spiritually. According to Jewish law, a bleeding woman was considered unclean. Her unclean state prevented her from worshipping in the synagogue where Jairus was the leader. She was fatigued emotionally. Her unclean state also meant that she had to be quarantined from other people until her bleeding stopped. That was tolerable when the bleeding was only for a few days out of every month, but for twelve straight years, this woman was sentenced to solitary confinement in which she was deprived of human touch and human relationship. In a small community where everyone knew everybody’s business, people in her village shunned her. She was alone and lonely.

Finally, she was tired, of being tired. But she had heard about a miracle-worker who was coming into town, and at once she knew that she had to meet him. But how? A woman was not supposed to assert herself on a man. A woman like her had no business being out and about in close contact with other people. But she was desperate, and so she set out on a final, desperate mission.

She arrived at the lakeshore only to find it already crowded with people, people that she knew.  She felt the gaze of their scornful eyes as she timidly made her way toward Jesus. She knew what they were thinking. “What is she doing here?” “Doesn’t she know to stay in her place?”  “She’s going to contaminate us all!” Through the hustle and bustle of the crowd, she was surprised to see Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, fall at Jesus’ feet to plead with Jesus. Jesus stopped to listen, and then immediately changed directions to follow Jairus, and they, together with the crowd, were walking straight toward her! She could tell they were in a hurry, and she figured that Jesus would never stop to hear her story. So when Jesus passed by, she turned to follow him and thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” She felt guilty sneaking about, stealing a miracle from Jesus, like a shoplifter swiping a candy bar on her way out of Kroger. But as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Jesus stopped. He looked around, and asked “Who touched my clothes?” Jesus’ disciples were quick to see the absurdity of this question. It’s like Michael Phelps suddenly stopping in the middle of a 100 meter freestyle race to ask, “Who got me wet?” But Jesus was serious about his question, for he felt his power surge out of him in the midst of the pressing flesh.

“No!” thought the woman. “Please, Jesus,” she thought, “don’t publicly expose me!” Pastor Darius Salter eloquently described this encounter: What a disgrace to be stealing from God himself. When she thought she wouldn’t sink any lower in the eyes of her neighbors, now she would sink even lower than that. She could see the headlines in the Capernaum Gazette, “Untouchable Steals from God.” The apartheid newspaper would tell how this nobody got in the way of Jesus who was on His way to heal the daughter of a somebody. Jairus, the somebody, and this unnamed lady, a nobody, separated by social taboo, were on a collision course that day, a meeting brought about by one universal trait—desperation.

The impropriety of Jesus finds its resolution in His addressing this woman as “daughter,” the only recorded incident in the New Testament of Christ’s calling anyone “daughter.” … On that day Jesus made a loud and clear statement: “Nobody is a nobody in the Kingdom of God.” This daughter of God was just as important as a daughter of an important official. After all, Jesus could have just spoken a word and Jairus’s daughter would have been healed without taking the cross-town trip. The real purpose for marching down Main Street was to meet the woman who had far too little strength to touch God, had God not already been longing to touch her. And of course, Salter concludes, no one can ever steal a miracle, because miracles are absolutely free.[1]

But what about Jairus? While Jesus didn’t feel that this daughter of God stole a miracle from him, perhaps Jairus felt that she certainly stole any chance he had in getting Jesus to heal his daughter. Immediately after Jesus had healed this woman, some men came from the house of Jairus and told him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the teacher any more?” What’s more, as a ruler of the synagogue, Jairus had turned away that woman from entering the synagogue because she was unclean. Now that she had touched Jesus, Jesus was now as unclean as her, and useless for further holy work. It was as if someone with ebola had just bled all over a surgeon right as she was going into emergency surgery. Did Jairus feel victimized by this woman who wouldn’t stay in her place but instead took over Jesus’ time and healing power? If only she hadn’t interrupted Jesus! Didn’t she know the desperate situation he was in? Didn’t she know that the life he once knew with his daughter has slipped away?

Last week, we saw that Dylann Roof also felt he was living in desperate times that called for desperate measures. In his manifesto, he called African Americans (not the word he used) “stupid and violent.” He feared that they were taking over the country and a way of life that he could feel slipping out of his hands. Someone had to stop them, he thought. So he decided to take matters and lives into his own hands. After being warmly welcomed by the members of Emmanuel AME, he interrupted their Bible study by shooting nine people. Afterwards, Roof told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” but he decided he had to “go through with his mission.”[2]

There were no life-saving miracles that day in Charleston. Miracles are tricky things. We don’t know the form in which they come. We want to control the timing, the purpose and the occasion of miracles. We’re often led to believe that if we only have enough faith, miracles will happen. But I don’t think the Bible is teaching us to have faith in our faith. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Faith does not work miracles. God does. To concentrate on the strength of your own belief is to practice magic. . . . This is the difference between believing our lives are in our own hands and believing they are in God’s. God, not faith, works miracles.” She continues: “Jairus followed Jesus home and watched that unclean holy man do his work. Either way, the high point was not then but earlier, when Jesus told him, “Do not fear, only believe.” If Jairus was able to do that, then he would have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus had walked into his daughter’s room, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. [Jairus’s] belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s good hands even though she had slipped out of his.”[3]

Miracles are tricky things. We don’t know the form in which they come. As we watched the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, other miracles occurred. There was the miracle of forgiveness as church members forgave the killer. There was the miracle of unity and peace, as Charleston responded not with a race war or riots as Roof had hoped, but with an outpouring of love and prayers and support across racial lines. And then there’s the miracle of belief that those nine people are still in God’s good hands even though they had slipped out of ours.

In the musical “Celebrate Life!”, the song “I Quietly Turned to You” tells this Gospel story. Ragan Courtney, the lyricist, wrote why that song was so important to him personally:

“During this time my mother who was merely 48 years of age was dying from liver cancer. She never got to hear or see “Celebrate Life!” but I was able to play this song as recorded by my new friend Cynthia Clawson. After hearing it, she said that that was just what it was like. There was nowhere else to turn except to God. In the last prayer my mother prayed, she said, “Thank you for life. Thank you for the pain, I have learned so much through it. And most of all, thank you for Jesus. Amen.”

No life-saving miracle on that day either, but ah . . . can you see the miracle of faith?

Today, the Spirit of Jesus is walking down our Main Street wanting to meet us in our pain and illnesses, both personal and societal. He invites us to celebrate a life of peace and joy and love, if only we would not fear, but believe. We only need to quietly turn to Him. As we reach out to Him, we will find that there’s no need to steal a miracle, for we are already in God’s good hands.

Amen.

[1] Darius Salter, Preaching as Art, p. 64-65.

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/charleston-church-shooting/dylann-roof-almost-didnt-go-through-charleston-church-shooting-n378341

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, pp. 142-143.