A Holy Interruption

A Holy Interruption

“’Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’” Mark 5:34

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

8B Pentecost – July 1, 2018

One of the important literary devices St. Mark uses in his gospel is called “a sandwich.” The fancy seminary word for the technique is “intercalation” – which means inserting one thing inside another – but I prefer “sandwich.” The way the sandwich technique works is that Mark starts telling one story, interrupts himself to tell another, and then goes back to finish the first, forcing his hearers to think about how the two stories may relate to one another.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mark starts out by telling a story about Jairus, a prominent rabbi in town, and his gravely ill, unnamed daughter. The narrative opens with Jairus rushing to Jesus, falling on his knees, begging Jesus to help his daughter. No sooner has Jairus made his plea, however, than his efforts are interrupted by an older, unnamed woman who is the focus of the second story. This poor woman has been plagued by hemorrhaging for 12 years, and every effort to cure her has failed. The bleeding woman literally barges in upon the scene to touch Jesus’ garment, hoping that it might help.

Jairus and the woman are a study in contrasts. As the town rabbi, Jairus is privileged, powerful, accepted, and male. The last thing we would expect of him is that he would fall upon his knees in the middle of town, begging this upstart rabbi, Jesus, for help. Yet, he is so distraught over his daughter’s illness, that he is moved to do whatever it takes to get Jesus’ attention.

By contrast, the bleeding woman is, within her culture, a nobody. Under Jewish law, her continuous bleeding makes her ritually unclean. It is scandalous for her to be out in public, let alone stalking a man she does not know. Moreover, she is poor, having spent what little she had on doctors, all to no avail. In short, as a single, diseased woman, she lives on the margins as someone vulnerable and powerless; and, in keeping with her status, she is given no name.

As the crowd looks on, all bets are that Jesus will take offense at this unclean woman grabbing on to him so presumptuously, that he will chastise her for her chutzpah, and that he will return his attention to Jairus, the one with social status and authority.

But that, of course, is not what Jesus does. He instead allows her touch, claims her as a “daughter,” praises her faithfulness, and heals her. Indeed, to the astonishment of the crowd, Jesus does all of this while the prominent rabbi’s daughter lapses into a coma next door and apparently dies.

The first lesson this Markan sandwich teaches is a familiar one: the Kingdom Jesus is proclaiming is one that upends our conventional notions of rank and status. Jesus stops and notices the woman everyone else wants to ignore. He crosses the socially constructed boundaries of who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, and honors her dignity. Hidden in this tale, as one commentator puts it, “is a flash of precious intimacy between two human beings who are socially very distant from each other. Their scandalous touch does not yield the anger and alienation you might expect. Rather, it brings wholeness, healing, and peace.”[1]

To be sure, at the end of the story, Jesus returns to Jairus and his child, and restores life to the young girl, again with a gentle touch and with tender words that recognize her as a daughter too. The pleas of the prominent are not ignored, but they are placed in the context of Jesus’ re-ordered Kingdom: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; yet all ultimately are healed. The powerful, though, are asked to set aside their privilege, and to get at the back of the line, in recognition of the equal claim all persons have to God’s care.

Yet, Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman do have something fundamental in common, however different their social situations are. And this is the second lesson we can draw from this Markan sandwich: Jairus and the woman both trust in Jesus’ presence, and are willing to share their deepest needs, even at the risk of social embarassment. This, it seems, is a predicate for the gracious gift of God’s healing: to let go of our fears and learn to trust. As any good therapist will tell you, true healing requires a certain kind of surrender, a willingness to name and confront those broken places in our lives that require healing.

The third lesson we can draw from Mark’s sandwich is closely related to the first two, and it is this: Christ is more interested in our vulnerabilities than our strengths. Jesus could care less about the accomplishments or status of those he encounters; he always moves past these superficial markers of social identity to seek us out in our weaknesses. He comes to heal the sick, to save the sinner, to restore the deformed; not to enable the proud who refuse to see their own brokenness.

And just as Jesus meets us in our weakness, we, in turn, are called to meet each other in our respective weaknesses. As the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it so beautifully: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” To look upon another human being as a fellow sufferer is to see with the eyes of God.

Remember: every single human being you encounter is secretly battling a demon you know nothing about – whether it be a broken relationship, an illness, a loneliness, an addiction, or some other deep hurt. And thus every encounter we have can be an occasion of grace – an opportunity for us at least to notice the other and offer a kindness, even when we remain ignorant of whatever struggle is taking place behind the face we greet.

Many of us are reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, this summer. At one point, the book’s narrator, the Reverend John Ames, calls to mind an insight John Calvin once made about our relationship to God. We are all actors on a stage, Calvin said, and God is our audience. And much as we like to think the script of our lives is our own, it is in reality God’s story, not ours. Yet God does not coerce us to stay on his script, or to act out our role as he wishes, but he gives us the freedom to follow his direction or not.

The point of this drama – and here is Calvin’s surprising insight – is not for God to judge our performance, as some demanding theater critic might; rather, God is more like a nervous parent watching her child debut in the school play, waiting to take delight in what we might do with our role. God, after all, created this world, and us, for his own joy. God is not gazing down upon our actions waiting for us to make a mistake, as much as He is cheering us on, hoping we will notice the occasions of grace we are given each day in our encounters with others and the world, and that we will honor these moments with kindness and love.

Which brings me to the final observation I want to make about our Markan sandwich: the holiness of interruptions. What happens to Jesus time and again in the gospels is that he is interrupted. He is interrupted by hungry crowds seeking nourishment; interrupted by bewildered disciples seeking guidance; interrupted by lepers, widows, and tax collectors, seeking wholeness; interrupted by children seeking his blessing; and today, he is interrupted by a woman seeking something as simple as an end to her bleeding. And in the face of all these interruptions, Jesus’ response is always a patient and loving one.

There is a deep, deep message here for us. Again, to quote Bonhoeffer: “What the gospels teach is that we must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with seemingly irritating claims and requests. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our own more important tasks, or we can welcome such interruptions.” “It is a strange fact,” Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “that Christians (and even the Church’s clergy, who should know better!) frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked yet straight path’ of mysteriously connecting people through the holiness of his interruptions.”

So, my invitation to you this morning is this: pay close attention to the interruptions that come your way this week – to the nagging questions of the relentlessly curious child or grandchild who is longing for nothing more than your interest; to the distressed look on the person sitting next to you on the train who may just need a listening ear; to the nervous fumbling of the clerk at Crosby’s who is new to her job and who just needs your patience; to the longing gaze of a spouse or dear friend who craves to recover a lost intimacy with you if only you would dare break out of old patterns of unthinking neglect.

And please notice, too, the interruptions of the rest of Creation: the quiet dawn that greets you in the morning; the wag of a dog’s tail that bespeaks more unconditional love than even the most faithful among us show; that cardinal that keeps returning to the perch outside your kitchen window hoping you’ll admire his brilliant plume; the delicious sounds and smells of the sea that await you just outside the doors of this church.

We take our ambitions and plans so seriously; and yet in the end, they are but shifting and drifting sands. Ironically, if the Bible is to be believed, what matters to God are not these vain pursuits of ours, but rather how creatively and compassionately we respond to His holy interruptions: the endless stream of angels he sends our way each day, and all the magical moments of the natural world that surround us. As Frederick Buechner puts it: “God is right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives …. Trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. So, for God’s sake, pay attention!”

 [1] Michael L. Linvall “Commentary on Proper 8,” in Feasting On The Word, edited by D. Bartlett & B. Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), Year B, vol. 3.