Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustrations: Jairus's Daughter

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Here is Buechner’s sermon called “Jairus’s Daughter” which is based on this passage, from Secrets in the Dark:

The story Mark tells takes place on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, which isn't a sea at all, of course, but a large freshwater lake some thirteen miles long and eight miles across surrounded by high mountains and apparently roughly in the shape of a heart, which is rather wonderful if you stop to think about it—a heart-shaped lake at the heart of where it all happened. After leaving Nazareth Jesus seems to have spent most of what was left of his short life in the city of Capernaum, which was on the northern shore of the lake and the center of its fishing industry. A number of his best friends lived there including Zebedee's two sons, James and John, together with Peter and his brother Andrew, who were all of them partners in some sort of fishing enterprise that employed other people whose names we don't know and that seems to have owned at least two boats.

When Mark gives his account of what happened by the lake on this particular day, he puts in so many details that Matthew's parallel account leaves out that it seems possible he was actually there at the time or at least had talked to somebody who was. It has the ring of an eyewitness account, in other words, and that makes it a little easier for us all these centuries later to see it with our eyes too, which is what I think we should always try to do with all these stories about Jesus. Hearing them preached on in church year after year and reading them in the dreary double columns of some Bible, we tend to think of them as dreary themselves—as little stained-glass stories suitable for theologizing about and moralizing about but without much life in them or much relevance to the reality of our own lives and to us.

But that is not at all the kind of story that Mark is telling us here if you think about it, or maybe if you don't so much think about it as just listen to it, let it take you wherever it is going. It is a quiet, low-key little story and in some ways so unclear and ambiguous that it's hard to know just why Mark is telling it or just what he expects us to make out of it or made out of it himself. It's a story not about stained-glass people at all but about people who lived and breathed and sweated and made love and used bad language when they tripped over furniture in the dark and sometimes had more troubles than they knew what to do with and sometimes laughed themselves silly over nothing in particular and were thus in many ways very much like the rest of us.

Jesus had just crossed over in a boat from the other side of the lake, Mark writes, when he found himself surrounded by some of them right there at the water's edge where there were nets hanging up to dry and fish being gutted and scaled and stray cats looking around for anything they could get their paws on. He doesn't say there was any particular reason for the crowd, so it's probably just that they had heard about Jesus—probably even knew him, some of them—and were there to gawk at him because there were a lot of wild stories about who some people said he was and what he was going around the countryside doing and saying, and they were there to see what wild things he might take it into his head to say or do next.

There are so many people around him it's hard to pick out which one Jesus is, but it's worth giving it a try. Is he the one with his hand in the air signaling to somebody he can't get to on the far edge of the crowd? Is he the thin, sad-eyed one who looks a little like Osama bin Laden, of all people? Is he the one leaning down and reaching out to take something a child is trying to hand him? What did it feel like to be near enough to touch him if you dared? If his eyes happened to meet yours for a moment, what would you say if you could find the right words for saying it, and how would he answer you if he could so much as hear you in the midst of all the babbling and jostling? What if just for a moment as he tried to shoulder his way out of the crowd he brushed against you so that for a second or two you actually felt the solid flesh and bone of him, smelled the smell of him?

I think that is part of what all these stories about Jesus in the Gospels are trying to tell us if we keep our ears open. They're trying to tell us who he was and what it was it like to be with him. They're trying to tell us what there was about him that made at least some of the people there by the lake that day decide to give up everything they had or ever hoped to have, in some cases even their own lives, maybe just for the sake of being near him.

Matthew's account doesn't give us the name Jairus, but Mark's does. There was a man named Jairus there, he says, who somehow made his way to Jesus and threw himself at his feet, as Mark describes it, fell to his knees perhaps, or touched his forehead to the ground in front of him. He was a synagogue official of some kind, Mark says, whatever exactly that means, but an important man anyway, which is possibly why the crowd gave way enough to let him through. But he doesn't behave like an important man, though. He behaves like a desperate man, a man close to hysteria with fear, grief, horror, God knows what.

The reason is that his daughter is on the point of death, Jairus says, only he doesn't say "my daughter," he says "my little daughter." She is twelve years old, going on thirteen, we're told, so she wasn't all that little really, but to Jairus she would presumably always be his little daughter the way even when they've grown up and moved away long since, we keep on speaking of our sons and daughters as children because that is what they were when we knew them first and loved them first.

His child is dying is what Jairus is there to get through somehow to this man some say is like no other man. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, Mark tells us, dying, dying—and then he says, "Come and lay your hands on her," because he's seen it done that way before and has possibly even tried doing it that way himself, except that it did absolutely no good at all when he tried it, as for all he knows it will do absolutely no good now either. But this is the only card he has left to play, and he plays it. "Lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live," he says—live, he says, live, not die, before she's hardly had more than a glimpse of what living is. It's a wonder Jesus even hears him what with all the other things people are clamoring to him for, but somehow he does, and so does a lot of the crowd that follows along as Jairus leads the way to where his house stands.

They follow presumably because for the moment Jesus is the hottest ticket in town and because they don't have anything better to do and because they're eager to see if the man is all he's been cracked up to be. But before they get very far, they run into some people coming the other way who with the devastating tactlessness of the simple souls they are come right out and say it. "Your daughter is dead," they tell Jairus. They have just come from his house, where she died. They saw it with their own eyes. There is nothing anybody can do about it now. They have come too late. "Why trouble the teacher any further?" they ask her father, and it is Jesus who finally breaks the silence by speaking, only it's just Jairus he speaks to.

"Do not fear," he says. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. And then, "Only believe."
The question is what is a man to believe when his whole life has blown up in his face? Believe that somehow life makes sense even in the face of a twelve-year-old's death? Believe that in some unimaginable way all will be well no matter what? Believe in God? Believe in Jesus? Jairus doesn't ask what he is to believe or how he is to believe and Jesus doesn't tell him as they stand there in the road. "Only believe" is all he says, meaning maybe only "Believe there's nothing you have to be afraid of," and then he tells everybody to go home except for his three particular friends, who Mark tells us were Peter and James and John. And everybody goes home.

When the five of them finally get to Jairus's house, they find it full of people "weeping and wailing loudly," as Mark describes it because this is not the twenty-first century but the first century and people apparently hadn't started yet saying things like "It's really a blessing" or "She is in a better world now" because for the most part they didn't believe in any better world but just some sort of limbo world under the earth where the ghosts of the dead drift like dead leaves. Instead, they wept and wailed because they didn't have it in them to pretend that the death of a child is anything but the tragic and unspeakable thing that it is, and Jesus didn't say anything to make them change their minds, didn't tell them that it was God's will or anything like that. What he did instead was to say something that it's hard to know how to understand.

"The child is not dead," he said, "but sleeping."

Was he speaking literally? Did he mean she had lapsed into some kind of coma? Or was he only trying to comfort her father with the thought that death is only a kind of eternal sleep? Who knows what he meant, but the people in the house seemed to think he was either a fool or a madman. They had been there when it happened. They knew death when they saw it, and because the line between weeping and laughing is sometimes a very tenuous one, they stopped their weeping and wailing and of all things laughed at him, Mark said, laughed because they didn't know what else to do, until Jesus finally "put them all outside," the way Mark tells it, so that only the three fisherman friends along with Jairus and the child's mother were left there with him, and together they went on to the room where the child lay.

It is the deafening stillness of it, I think, that you can imagine best - the mother with her face in her hands, Jairus on his knees at the bedside, the child like the waxwork of a child, hair brushed, face washed, hands folded one on top of the other on her chest.

Then the moment of magic, if magic is what it was. It's the child herself that Jesus speaks to. He reaches down and picks up one of her hands in his hand, and Mark reports the words he used not in Greek, which is what the rest of his Gospel is written in, but in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus actually spoke, so somebody who was there at the time must have heard them and remembered them—the actual words he used as he reached out and lifted up the child's hand in his.
"Talitha cum," Jesus says. "Talitha cum," and you hardly need the translation to understand him. "Little girl"— Talitha—"get up," is what he said, and then according to Mark "immediately the girl got up and started to walk about .... At this they were overcome with amazement."

It was not just the child's life that had been given back, of course, but the lives of the mother and father, who stood there with no words they knew how to say. The worst thing that had ever happened to them had suddenly become the best thing that had ever happened to them, and you can imagine their hardly daring so much as to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. You can imagine her walking around the room touching familiar things—a chair, a comb, a flower somebody had left, a chipped plate—trying to get the world back, trying to get her self back.

For whatever the reason, Jesus asked them never to tell a soul what had happened—maybe because he wasn't ready for the secret of who he was to be known yet, maybe because he wasn't sure he knew the secret of who he was yet himself. Who can say? Then he told them to go get the child something to eat, something for the child to eat, and that is where Mark's story ends.

The question is what kind of a story is it? If the little girl had actually died the way the people who were there in the house believed she had, then it is the story of a miracle as dazzling as the raising of Lazarus and bears witness to the power Jesus had over even the last and darkest power of all. If she was only sleeping as Jesus said —in a coma or whatever he may have meant—then it is a story about a healing, about the power of Jesus's touch to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk. Either way it is a story about a miracle, but about a miracle that doesn't end with an exclamation point the way you would expect, but with a question mark or at most with the little row of dots that means unresolved, to be continued, to figure out somehow for ourselves.

Who can say for sure exactly what it is that Jesus did in that house where Jairus lived or how far down into the darkness he had to reach to do it, but in a way who cares any more than her mother and father can have cared. They had their child back. She was alive again. She was well again. That was all that mattered. I picture her looking something like the photographs we have of Anne Frank—a wry, narrow little Jewish face full of irony and wit and a kind of bright-eyed exhilaration; I picture how it would be to have the child that was Anne Frank back again somehow, the way she was before the gates of the concentration camp closed behind her. I picture how one way or another, if such a thing were to happen, we would all of us fall to our knees. The whole world would fall to its knees.

Who knows what kind of story Mark is telling here, but the enormously moving part of it, I think, is the part where Jesus takes the little girl's hand and says, "Talitha cum"—"Little girl, get up"—and suddenly we ourselves are the little girl.

Little girl. Old girl. Old boy. Old boys and girls with high blood pressure and arthritis, and young boys and girls with tattoos and body piercing. You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don't believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could. You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy. You who know where you're going and how to get there and you who much of the time aren't sure you're getting anywhere. "Get up," he says, all of you—all of you!—and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child, but to those who are only partly alive, which is to say to people like you and me who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.

It is that life-giving power that is at the heart of this shadowy story about Jairus and the daughter he loved, and that I believe is at the heart of all our stories—the power of new life, new hope, new being, that whether we know it or not, I think, keeps us coming to places like this year after year in search of it. It is the power to get up even when getting up isn't all that easy for us anymore and to keep getting up and going on and on toward whatever it is, whoever he is, that all our lives long reaches out to take us by the hand.