About this article
This sermon based on Matthew 9:18-26 was preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina.
As many of you know, this past fall my mother was very ill. In fact, she almost died. For over a year and a half, she bled every day because her colon was diseased. She became weak and exhausted from almost constant anemia. She tried all of the available drugs in an effort to get the disease under control. She saw doctors — got second and even third opinions. Her life became more and more limited as her condition worsened.
For her, there was no miracle cure. So in November, she had major surgery. And now she is adjusting to a significant change in the way her body functions. We give thanks that her health is improving and that, slowly, she has begun to adjust to the newly-altered routines of life.
The text for today is also about a woman with a flow of blood whose life became limited. And it is a story about a girl who fell ill and died. Their stories are forever intertwined. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all link the woman's story to the girl's story. Though they may not have known each other — may never have met — their stories meet one another and Jesus one day in the street.
The girl is not there in the streets, of course. She is at home, surrounded by family and friends. Close to death in Mark and Luke, already dead according to Matthew. Instead it is her father who has come to those crowded streets. He is a leader of the synagogue. A man of some importance who does not hesitate to walk right up to Jesus and ask for his help. Mark and Luke say his name is Jairus. The woman is a no-name female. She is alone and cannot go up to Jesus so boldly and ask for the healing she needs. She keeps her distance — and others keep their distance from her, too. But she is as desperate as the father is for help — for healing. For she, too, is very ill and she has endured a kind of death of her own.
The girl, according to Mark and Luke, is the same age as the woman's disease. She is twelve years old. Only twelve short years and now she is dying — may already be dead. For those same twelve years, this woman has suffered from constant hemorrhaging. To her, the years have been long, unbearably so. You see, while the girl grew and learned in the embrace of family and friends and synagogue, the woman wandered lonely. Cast out. Cut off from family and friends and synagogue. Because she bleeds. And the law says that since she bleeds she is unclean. And anyone or anything she touches is also unclean. So, long ago, she lost her family and her community. And for her there seems to be no healing, no cure. That is until this day, when both of their stories get caught up in the great Gospel story that is being told in the person and presence of Jesus.
And their stories do get caught up in the person and presence of Jesus. I believe the woman eventually would have bled to death and the girl would have been buried by sundown if Jesus had not come to town that day. I am awed by the powerful healing he brings. And yet this passage also gives voice to the power of faith expressed in ordinary people. There is something powerful indeed about the sheer stamina and the confident faith of both the father and the woman that also catch our attention.
Did you hear what that father said? "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live." And that woman — did you hear what she said? Perhaps you did not hear it because she said it only to herself since she is alone: "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well."
Imagine the stamina and the faith it took for each of them to make such a claim. The man's daughter was dead. The flute players and the mourners had already gathered announcing death at his house. And yet he dared to believe that the hand of Jesus could raise her up. And the woman was utterly cut off from others. No one had been able to cure her for twelve long years. Yet she dared to believe that if she could only touch — just touch him — there would be healing for her in even the fringes of Jesus' life.
I know people like that father — like that woman. People with sheer stamina, with confident faith that keeps them going in the face of enormous obstacles, even when they have been shut out, cut off, left for dead. People who have encountered the living Christ and therefore know that the death the world pronounces does not have the last word. People who have encountered the living Christ and therefore know that our tightly closed circles can be reconfigured into circles of new possibilities. Here and there in our world, there are God-drawn circles that include the ones whom society — and sometimes even the church — shuts out. Here and there, there is evidence of God-drawn circles that make room for new life beyond our human imagining and experience.
That day, the woman pushed her way through the crowd and encountered the living Christ. There she received more than physical health. For too long she had been known as "the hemorrhaging woman" or "the woman with the flow of blood." But in this encounter with Jesus, he not only restores her to health, he restores her to relationship and to community, too. Jesus called her "daughter." He re-placed her in the family of faith that had cut her off — cast her out.
And suddenly their circle of exclusion is reconfigured by this encounter with Jesus. Now the community gathers around the woman and together there is the possibility of a new circle where everyone might be restored to health. It happens again at the girl's house. The crowd has gathered itself around death. Matthew even says the mourners have to be physically put outside, so tight is their circle. Then there is the encounter of the dead girl and the living Christ and when they touch — connect — life springs up. A moment before, the text tells us, some had laughed and some, no doubt, had continued to mourn. But their former circle may be reconfigured when the girl and Jesus step out of the house and into their midst. The crowd that had gathered around death is invited instead to become a circle of new life unimagined before.
When I was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, the social lines were firmly fixed: white/Black, male/female, affluent/poor, able-bodied/disabled, adult/child. These lines were not drawn in sand or even carved in red clay — they were forged in steel. And the church of my childhood lived for much of that time with hard and fast rules, too, and only grudgingly made its way into a new day. A day when the church allowed, but did not encourage, the presence of African-Americans in its "white" pews or the leadership of women in its "princely" pulpit.
Change has come slowly and there is yet a long way to go. But still our stories get caught up in the great Gospel story that God is telling in the person and presence of Jesus. People of faith are still encountering the living Christ, who is able to reconfigure the circles of our stories and our life together — as individuals, as a church, as a world. By the power of an encounter with the living Christ, our closed circles of exclusion and death may yet be reconfigured into circles of unimagined possibilities.
There is so much that happens in this text. And yet I am aware that there is still more healing that was needed in that community — as well as in our own communities today. I am glad that the woman was healed — but what if Jesus had re-placed her in the community, blood disease and all? And what if he had called her not just by her role but by her name?
And this girl — I am glad she was raised to life. But the life she was raised to was still a life where, when her own bleeding begins, she too will be called unclean. It seems to me that the community itself needed to be healed as well. I suppose that kind of healing would have required major surgery. And it no doubt would have radically changed the way the whole body functioned. Still, it is something we Christians may hope and pray for.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security...And when our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe — a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."
In a sense, even when we have come to the end of this story, we do not know the end of the story. Oh, the woman is healed and the girl lives. And there is miracle enough in that for sure. But was the community healed in some profound way, too? Did they welcome Jesus' healing or did they — sensing its radicality — try to cut it off, cast it out? The last sentence of this text may be more ambiguous than it first seems. Verse 26 reads: "And the report of this spread throughout that district."
I have a hunch that this was one of the stories that made its way to Jerusalem, to the palace of the high priest Caiaphas. And a version of it may have made its way into the sheriff's office in Birmingham. And it seems like I may have even heard this story when I was a child in the pew of my church. I have a hunch that somewhere a version of it is being told among the faithful even today.