As I came into the office one morning recently, I realized that I had a large manila envelope on my desk. Thinking that it was probably some promotional materials for the pastor and his wife, I was just beginning to drop it into the recycle bin when I recognized the name on the return address. It read: Dr. William A. Hull. Dr. Hull is an esteemed Baptist pastor and professor having taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and, more recently, at Samford University. So my curiosity was immediately piqued.
His cover letter explained that in his retirement he had been cleaning out files. He came across some old correspondence with my father, also a retired Baptist preacher. Now the significant contents of those letters had to do with my church's history; however, there was another pleasant surprise contained in the information that Dr. Hull sent. My best guess is that he may be unaware of the way the correspondence touched me.
For, you see, when I came to my church, the newspaper carried an article about the event. Dr. Hull cut it out, sent it to my dad. And in his letter, he referred to me as "daughter Sarah." A man who is rarely demonstrative, I was touched by what would be an affectionate reference. When I turned to the next page, I was completely caught off guard to see my father's miniscule handwriting on his stationary letterhead. It has been, after all, almost six years since he died.
So I scrinched up my eyes to focus on his tiny scrawl. He wrote: "How good it was a few days ago to receive your thoughtful and cordial letter with copy of news clipping regarding daughter Sarah and her ministry with the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham. Sarah is very dear to me, a very capable young woman. Trust she will be a blessing to Church of the Covenant and it to her."
It was like receiving an unexpected gift. It was a blessing that I had not anticipated. It was lovely to know that I would be spoken of in such tender ways when it was not required: daughter Sarah, capable, dear to me
Now I realize that I am incredibly fortunate to have received not only these letters, but a lifetime of blessing from my Dad. There was encouragement to go to school, realistic caution in choice of vocation, presence at significant events, and availability at every turn. My Dad reminds me of the father Jairus in the gospel lesson for today.
Jairus' bold actions make it plausible for us to believe that he was the stereotypical doting father with his precious baby girl. Perhaps he coached his daughter's soccer team, attended her ballet recitals and listened to her practice the piano with pleasure and pride. He made sure that she was not only being taught appropriate social graces by her mother but given opportunities to practice them. And being an official of the synagogue, I am sure that he tended to her religious education so that she would be a proper young Jewish maiden...soon to be of a marriageable age.
Jairus' official position at the synagogue was, most likely, a special appointment to supervise the observance of the law, especially regarding things that were clean and unclean. Now Jairus has a twelve-year-old daughter, and the daughter is dying. And the law was clear. To touch a dead body made one unclean. So we watch as this leader of the synagogue puts aside all of his professional trappings in order to fully be a father. It is a case of situational ethics in which he must respond to what is happening in his family rather than the narrow places that faith and law sometimes provide. Perhaps Jairus was feeling what the poet Yeats attempts to describe when he said: things fall apart; the center cannot hold. It was a time to move beyond the center stack pole of rules and expectations in order to be delivered from assumptions and illusions. He had to leave behind the platitudes and promises and good intentions and go with what his heart said he must do. He had to move into the place of yearning and longing, because he refused to accept the prospect of her young life being interrupted, her dreams dashed and her hopes broken. And so he uses his social status and power in order to approach Jesus. He comes directly to Him, kneels, and addresses Jesus in the public arena with his concern for his child.
His advocacy for his daughter stands in contrast to the parallel story that is inserted. A woman, who has no identifying name and who has been sick for the same amount of time as Jairus' daughter has been alive, has no advocate. The doctors have not been able to cure her. The priests consistently send her away and keep her in isolation because of her impure status. In fact, the way that she drops before Jesus, trembling with fear, instead of giving a spontaneous whoop of joy over being made well, makes me wonder about the ongoing reactions of those in the community who have taught her such terror. (Rose Sallberg Kam, Their Stories, Our Stories)
It is important that we not underestimate the destructive power that was in the crowd that day. For later, we are told that when Jesus announced that "this dearest little one" was not dead but only sleeping, the people laughed out loud at Jesus. In spite of their observance of his miracles, in spite of the teachings they had heard, when Jesus defines their mourning as premature, they laugh in his face. This is a tough crowd! They are full of cultural prejudice. They are weathered by the harsh realities of life, and grace escapes them in the face of death. Sometimes these voices are loud and demanding, but often the voices that steal away our lives are quiet and subtle.
Kenneth Fearing, the poet, describes a particularly long and wearisome day in one woman's life. (William Dols, Just Because It Didn't Happen..., "I Say to You, 'Arise!'") Evening finally comes. The house is quiet at last. The children have been tucked into bed and are asleep. She sits in the family room with her husband and they lose themselves in the blur of the images on the television. They talk a little, but not enough. They try to make time pass with a drink. Then the eleven o'clock news is over, and she says she will go up to bed. She asks, "Are you coming soon?" He replies with, "In a minute." But as she heads toward the stairs, she hears him switch the channel to a late show and she knows that it will be another hour or so of watching, and she will drop off to sleep alone again. As she climbs the stairs in the dark, she does a silly thing that she did as a child when she was afraid. She counts the number of steps. And, then, not really wanting to and wishing that she had not, she asks herself: Did you sometime or somewhere have a different idea? She pauses for an instant. Should she go upstairs alone or return downstairs alone? And the reality of her soul's death causes her to wonder for the first time in her life: Is this what I was born to feel and to do and to be?
It is at these moments that the power of the gospel has opportunity to shine. Robert Capon has said, "Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You do not have to be smart. You do not have to be good. You do not have to be wise. You do not have to be wonderful. You do not have to be anything...you just have to be dead. That's it."
And so this little girl so close to death that she has been pronounced dead is restored to life by Jesus. It is one of the three resurrection stories in the gospels. And the woman with the hemorrhage? In spite of the invisible role in which society placed her, she summons up a truck load of courage to approach Jesus. Unlike Jairus, she comes from behind trying to mask her presence. While Jairus is bold enough to ask Jesus to lay his healing hand on his daughter, this woman lays her hand on Jesus. She takes the initiative for her own healing by stepping into the public arena that is considered to be the space of male power and male negotiations. She touches the fringe of the Jewish teacher's cloak who is surrounded by eager listeners. Refusing to be powerless any longer, she breaks through the social, cultural and religious barriers that have relegated her to isolation. (Dennis Smith and Michael Williams, The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible: New Testament Women)
Reaching through the gender barrier, stretching across the ritual purity boundaries, this woman displays extraordinary faith, and Jesus recognizes it. Unlike the other miracle stories, Jesus does not pronounce any healing words. He does not recoil or regard himself contaminated. Jesus does nothing to bring the attention back to Him. Instead, he overwhelms her with gentleness. Jesus does not do anything but acknowledge her. He simply calls her "daughter;" and in so doing, he not only gives her the blessing that no one else was willing to give, he acknowledges the power of female faith. In seeking the source of the healing, he cites it as being her own faith. Her courage to break through the conditioning of a lifetime, brings her a condition she can barely remember: peace. (Kam)
Macrina Wiederkehr has penned a beautiful poem about this daughter in her book Seasons of Your Heart. It reads:
Once there was a wound
It was no ordinary wound
It was my wound
We had lived together long.
I yearned to be free of this wound
I wanted the bleeding to stop
Yet if the truth be known
I felt a strange kind of gratitude
for this wound
It made me
tremendously open to grace
vulnerable to God's mercy.
A beautiful believing in me
that I have named Faith
kept growing, daring me
to reach for what I could not see.
This wound had made me open.
I was ready for grace
And so one day, I reached.
There I was thick in the crowd
bleeding and believing
and I reached.
At first I reached
for what I could see
the fringe of a garment,
But my reaching didn't stop there
for Someone reached back into
A grace I couldn't see
flowed through me.
A power I didn't understand
began to fill the depths of me.
Trembling I was called forth
to claim my wholeness.
The bleeding had left me.
The believing remained
And strange as this may sound
I have never lost my gratitude
for the wound
that made me so open
My friends, this daughter is you and me. I do not know all of the specifics of what your hemorrhage looks like...what it feels like...how you endure it...what others tell you about it in obvious and not so obvious ways...or even why it has occurred. However, I have little doubt that something in you is yearning for healing... begging for relief...seeking after a blessing...and willing to believe. And, really, the desire to believe is enough. All we need do is to approach Jesus, bleeding and believing. So come to the hem of God's garment and claim your rightful place as a child of God's, because, sons and daughters, your faith has already made you well.
Will you join me in prayer?
O Lord our God, stop our bleeding and increase our believing. Fill our wounds with your healing. Remove our fear and replace it with your peace. We ask all these things as we put our hands on the hem of Jesus' garment. Amen.