Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 8 - "Don't Be Afraid, Just Believe!"

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Mark 5.21-43 - “Don’t Be Afraid, Just Believe!”

I don’t often tell stories about the months Cindy and I spent as missionaries in Macedonia. I’m not sure why, and I think should start telling more stories about the kids, the college students, and the newborn churches we worked with.

Cindy and I spent a lot of our time during our first three or four months there learning the language. In Macedonia they zboruvat makedonski, they speak Macedonian. So every Tuesday and Thursday night Cindy and I would ride the bus toward the center of the city, to a neighborhood called Novo Lisiche, and sit for an hour or two with our language teacher Richard learning vocabulary and grammar, how to ask for directions, how to buy a kilo of potatoes or oranges at the market.

One Thursday night, a few months into our time in Macedonia--probably in February--I was riding the bus back to our apartment. For some reason, Cindy wasn’t able to come to class that evening, so I was riding alone.

It gets cold in Macedonia in the winter. It’s about at the same latitude as Chicago, and it’s surrounded by mountains. This night there was snow on the ground. I was sitting in the back of the bus. The bus was pretty empty, just me, a few men riding home from a day at cafes watching soccer, and a Roma family riding up front, a father and mother, one son who looked about ten years old and a younger son who was probably four or five. The mother and especially the father looked too old to have such young children, but by this point in my time in Macedonia, I’d learned that in Roma families people often look much older than they are. The Roma are gypsies, the trash-pickers, the scrap-metal collectors, the people who build their homes in the city dump. They live hard lives, so a man who looks sixty may only be thirty and a woman who looks fifty-five may only be twenty-eight.

I looked up again at the family at the front of the bus as we bounced through another intersection. The father’s toes and heels were sticking out of his shoes. There was snow outside, cold air blowing in around the doors to the bus, and this man’s bare toes and exposed heels had nothing between them and elements.

I sat there, disturbed, unsure what to do. I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I knew that I had come to the country with two pairs of shoes and a pair of sandals besides and this man had nothing that passed for decent shoes on a cold February night. And I felt afraid. Should I give him my shoes, the shoes I was wearing that night, the same shoes I’m wearing tonight? I could make it fairly easily from the bus stop to my apartment just in my socks. But if I did, how would I speak to him? I could barely express myself in my broken Macedonian, and odds were that his own Macedonian was not that great; he would speak some Roma dialect. Would I offend him? Is it an insult to his character if I offer him a gift in front of his children?

I sat there feeling guilty and afraid until he and his family stepped out into the cold a few stops later. When the bus finally reached the end of the line, my stop, I thanked the driver, pulled my coat collar up, and walked to my apartment, feeling angry at my own fear and lack of action.

Tonight we heard two stories from Mark. I want to compare the two stories we heard, and I think we’ll discover a lot about faith and fear and, maybe, even something about giving our shoes away or at least something like it. Mark does something interesting with the two stories: he starts telling one--Jesus crosses back to the Galilee side of the lake, the crowd swarms him, and just when we think he’s going to start telling more parables, Jairus, a religious leader, rushes up and interrupts him, begging him to come and heal his dying daughter. Then, as Jesus is on his way to heal the little girl, a woman interrupts him, seizing her moment to be cured of twelve years of bleeding. After Jesus finds out who touched him, Mark returns to telling us how the story about Jairus and his dying, now dead, daughter ends. It’s kinda like Mark is saying, “Look, these two stories go together, they make the same point, just in different ways.”

So if we look at them together, what similarities do we see between the two? Well, in both Jesus heals somebody--the woman from her twelve year hemorrhage; the twelve year-old girl from being dead. In both of them Jesus talks about faith or belief. In both of them people are described as afraid.

But maybe it’s in their differences that the point jumps out at us the most. Let’s start where Mark starts. Jesus gets out of the boat by the edge of the sea. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came up, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. What sort of person is Jairus? He’s a synagogue leader. A lot of bibles will say “one of the rulers of the synagogue”--and this is a really good translation. He wasn’t just a nice, spiritual guy in the synagogue. He was an official, the man in charge of making sure the synagogue was in order. And do you remember how religious officials have treated Jesus so far in Mark’s Gospel? Back in chapter three we read about them plotting to assassinate Jesus. Since that point they’ve accused Jesus of being an agent of the devil. Jairus is not a guy whom we’d expect to come falling down at the feet of Jesus. In fact, I’m pretty confident that the other synagogue officials didn’t expect Jairus to associate with this controversial rabbi. But Jairus loved his dying daughter, so he comes and asks Jesus, “Come and lay your hands on her so that she may be healed and live.” And Jesus goes along with him.

On the way we meet a second person. This woman has been suffering from a hemorrhage for the last twelve years. I don’t want to be too anatomical, because, honestly, the way women’s bodies work is a little bit mysterious to me. But the Bible gets into the messy details, and so no matter how uncomfortable it makes me as a guy, it’s what the Bible says. So this woman has been constantly menstruating for twelve years, and this is in the days before tampons and disposable pads. But more than just something inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unhealthy--twelve years’ bleeding is bound to take a heavy toll on your health--this bleeding makes her a social liability, an outcast in her society. According to Jewish religious laws, a woman was ritually unclean when she was menstruating. In the middle of the stacks of regulations in the book of Leviticus, in chapter 15, we read When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean ... Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening (Lev 15.19-20, 23). These laws probably sound pretty strange to us today, and we don’t have time tonight to dig into why on earth God would care about what someone sits on when she’s menstruating. But these laws were very important to the society Jesus lived in. And here is this poor woman, who Mark says has endured much at the hands of the doctors and spent her last penny on trying find some cure, and on top of this, people will not associate with her for fear of becoming unclean themselves.

All this language about ritually clean and unclean is also really foreign to us. This is not about how recently someone’s showered. In first century Jewish culture, people understood a person’s ritual purity to determine whether or not you could worship God: if you were ritually unclean you couldn’t worship God. There were lots of ways to become ritually unclean: menstruation, any sort of bodily fluid, skin diseases, wearing moldy clothes, or touching a dead body. And the thing was, like the law from Leviticus indicates, ritual uncleanness was contagious. If you touched someone who was unclean, you became unclean. That’s why lepers had to go off and live by themselves. Now imagine trying to go buy some bread from the market or have friends over for dinner when you’ve been menstruating for twelve years. No one can come near, no one wants to accidentally brush up against you. This woman was at the very bottom of her society.

So we have a man at the top and a woman at the bottom, both with lots of reasons not to be seen out in public with Jesus. Jairus because the other members of the community will look down on him; the woman because everyone thinks she is spreading her uncleanness like the flu. But both individuals have the same response to Jesus.

We already looked at how Jairus runs up and shamelessly falls at Jesus’ feet. Let’s look at the woman. She’s sneaky, snaking her way through the thick crowd, coming up behind Jesus, telling herself, “If only I touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.” And she touches him, and she is healed. But Jesus knows that power had gone out from him. Instead of her uncleanness infecting him, his holy new life infects her, curing her disease. Jesus looks around at the crowd, demanding to know who touched him. Listen to these next lines: Then the woman, with fear and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. This had to be embarrassing. The crowd didn’t know she was bleeding, no one knew the personal details of her life. They thought she was just another poor person in the crowd. But here Jesus requires her to confess the whole truth, her story, the twelve years of suffering from this condition, and then about her healing. And how does Jesus respond? Does he get angry that she almost might have made him unclean? He says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

But what happens to Jairus’ daughter. While they are being delayed a messenger comes and says, “Your daughter is dead, don’t bother Jesus any longer.” Jesus overhears and tells Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” What is that supposed to mean? I’ve never lost a close family member; Cindy and I don’t have any kids yet. I can’t even begin to imagine the devastation of losing a child. These words aren’t comforting. And hasn’t Jairus believed enough? He rushed out to meet Jesus, he fell down at his feet, he begged him to come. Why should he believe now?

I think this is where we often find ourselves. We’ve risked a lot, we’ve followed where God led. Maybe it’s as simple as taking a stand with your friends or coworkers, letting them know that you are a Jesus follower. Maybe it was extending hospitality to a neighbor. Maybe it was selling all we had and giving the proceeds to the poor. And suddenly our coworkers look at us a little differently and guard their conversation around us. Maybe the neighbor snubbed us or their kids pick on our kids. Maybe we sold everything we had and now we’re the one’s trying to stretch one welfare check to meet all our family’s needs. We were faithful, shouldn’t God be faithful?

This is where Jesus comes to meet us. He tells us, The child is not dead but asleep--things are not the way the seem. I read in a book on Mark that we shouldn’t understand this statement as denial. The book said, “Death is called ‘sleep,’ not to pretend it is not real, but to deny that it is ultimate” (Eugenen Boring, Mark, 162). Are our pains and concerns real? Yes. Are they serious? Amen, they’re serious. Would I have had a hard time communicating with the gypsy man on the bus? Yeah. Would I have lost my favorite pair of shoes? Yep. But this is only half the truth.

Jesus leads his closest followers and the girl’s father and mother into the room. And here’s the dead girl. Her body is the ultimate source of uncleanness. And yet even this uncleanness can’t stand up to Jesus. Jesus reaches out, holds her hand, and says, "Talitha koum," which Mark explains means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” And death has to leave where Jesus comes, his holiness wins out against anything that would separate us from God.

So were the bleeding woman and the girl’s father right to be afraid? They certainly seemed to have reasons to be. When I was on the bus, I certainly seemed to have reasons to be afraid. But they go with Jesus, they believe, because Jesus has the ultimate word, the ultimate power. He leads us into the inner room and speaks to us words of resurrection: “My child, I say to you, arise.” He lifts us from our fears and concerns, our legitimate worries about how we’re going to make it. He lifts us into the resurrection life of God, the new life of God, the life of God’s kingdom. He brings us into the life we’re looking forward to celebrating at Easter when Jesus himself is the one who is raised after being executed on a cross.

We get locked in by our fears, by our feelings that we have no right to be making waves in society, by worries about what our neighbors will think. We don’t run to Jesus and trust him to lead us; we don’t imitate his example; we don’t take off our shoes and give them to the poor guy--after all, it would be awkward and uncomfortable. But those are all lies, or, at best, half-truths. They look at the situation from a purely human level, the level that makes fun of Jesus when he says the girl’s not dead but only asleep. But we’ve been let in on the secret; we’ve experienced Jesus’ resurrection life; we’ve been called into the new world of God’s kingdom. And that’s the ultimate truth, the whole truth.

We spend so much time afraid of taking the next step, afraid of putting our trust in Jesus and then acting on it. Maybe we’re afraid of being vulnerable, of opening the messy places of our lives to others in the community. Maybe we’re ashamed to ask for help. Maybe we dread the awkward moment of starting a conversation with a stranger, or taking off our shoes and walking home in our socks. So this week, I want us to search ourselves for our fears, for the lies that hold us back from from believing Jesus when he says, “My child, arise.” We must move beyond fear to belief, to trust, to action.

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