The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is an appropriate time for every matter under heaven: there is a time to mourn and a time to laugh. When I was growing up, my sister and I used to drive our parents to distraction by our inappropriate laughter at the worst of times. Concerts, school programs, church, even funerals, brought out our nervous giggles. At my wedding, my mother told my sister that she had to sit in the back of the church and not look at me for fear of making me laugh. Mark tells a story that gets the time for tears and the time for laughter all mixed up.
It is a tale within a tale. It is a kind of narrative sandwich made out of two stories woven together. The story begins with a desperate father, a leader of the synagogue, pleading with Jesus to come heal his critically ill daughter. It is no laughing matter. The story is then interrupted by Jesus' encounter with a woman who has been ill for twelve years with chronic bleeding. In the midst of a hundred grasping hands, Jesus feels a powerful connection with one hand. The woman believes that if she but touches his cloak she will be healed. With everybody's elbows out, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" And in effect, the disciples respond, "You have got to be kidding! What do you mean who touched you? Everybody's got their hands on you." They don't laugh out loud, but they don't take him seriously either. In spite of their disbelieving comments, Jesus heals the faithful woman.
Some mourners come from the home to tell the father that his daughter has died; now there is no point in having Jesus come to heal her. When Jesus tells the crowd that she is not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. Right there in front of everybody, the mourners laugh in his face. The way Mark tells the story builds up to this dismissive laughter by the grieving skeptics.
These mourners are not the first to scoff at what God is doing. Remember how old Abraham and Sarah, each in turn, laughed when they heard God promise that they would bear a son and become the forbearers of a great multitude? They had to laugh because the promise was impossible from a human point of view.
Like old Abraham and Sarah, these mourners don't take Jesus seriously. Why should they? They know about death. Death is an all too frequent and unwelcome intruder in the homes of the old and the young. This little girl is dead. What can Jesus do about death? With God all things are possible. And God is about to prove them dead wrong.
In spite of the ridicule of the mourners, Jesus goes to the house and restores the little girl to life. The top and bottom of the narrative sandwich is disrupted by the story of the little girl; the inside of the sandwich is the story of the healing of the bleeding woman who has tried every cure but has found no relief until she meets Jesus.
At first glance, we might think that these two stories are unrelated until Mark adds at the end of the story a kind of afterthought: oh, yes, by the way, the little girl was twelve years old. Suddenly, we sense something more is going on here than two stories simply sandwiched together. The woman had been sick for twelve years. So, we begin to look for other connections. Jesus addresses the woman, who would have been considered unclean, as "daughter." By touching Jesus, the woman threatens to spread her ritual uncleanliness to Jesus. When Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand, he dares to make himself unclean because he transgresses another boundary by touching the dead. The healing touch of Jesus makes them well instead of making him unclean. You might say that Jesus plunders the realm of the unclean and even the realm of the dead to restore these two women to abundant life. Two needy outsiders become daughters of God.
Both the woman and the father of the little girl take Jesus seriously. Both believe that Jesus can restore their lives. Both kneel before him. The number twelve stands as a kind of sign that there is abundant life in Jesus, not only for an unclean woman and a dead girl, but for the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples--that is, life for the whole people of God. This interwoven story clues us in that Jesus is on the loose in the world with divine power to restore life--abundant life for everyone. The psalmist says, "God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of God's people. God gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children (Psalm 113)." At the end, those who doubted and those who laughed are left in speechless amazement.
Mark awakens us to the abundant healing grace of God in Jesus. In Jesus, there is hope, life and community for all. Meanwhile, we tend to let the gospel out in dribs and drabs. We can be like the disciples who tried to keep the children away from Jesus; we can be like the disciples who didn't want to share their food with the hungry multitude for fear of not having enough for themselves. We are stingy with what God so lavishly gives. We worry about who deserves our help, our food, our time, our money and our attention. We carefully calculate the conditions under which we will stoop to forgive someone. Meanwhile, when we are least expecting it, the Holy Spirit slips in behind us and pours out a river of grace. It is a good thing that God didn't ask whether we deserved it before God sent the Son to save us and the Holy Spirit to knock some sense into us.
Many congregations across the country work together to open their doors for a week at a time to provide shelter for homeless families. Throughout the year there is always a place for these families in transition to stay. Our congregation hosts up to four families each week for four weeks during the year. When we began, there were skeptics who worried about the safety of the guests and hosts, potential damage to the property, having enough volunteers, and a host of other concerns. Some doubted if it would make any difference or just perpetuate chronic social problems. I suspect some even laughed at the idea. "Are you kidding? Our church?" Members of the hospitality team stepped forward to welcome our guests, spend time with him, prepare supper, eat together and provide transportation to work or classes. One week our elementary children and their families brought dinner. After everyone had eaten their fill, the adults talked while the kids played basketball together in the gym. God's grace has a way of slipping in, taking us by surprise and changing us and our attitudes. The last time we hosted two families, both mothers found jobs the week they were with us. We celebrated with them the healing and empowering grace of God.
When we experience the abundance of God's grace, we can't help but take Jesus seriously. In Jesus, God has a way of transforming our dismissive laugher into tears of joy, our skepticism into speechless amazement. When this happens for us, as it did for a desperate, grieving father and a sick, ostracized woman, we know what it is to be made whole. The gospel is full of promises that become our own when we take Jesus seriously. Touch the gospel promises and take them to heart:
"Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." (Mt. 5:7)
"If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you." (Mt. 6:14)
"Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." (John 14: 27)
"Today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
"Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord." (Rom. 8:39)
"I will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more." (Rev. 21:4)
What? These promises can't be true. Lord, you have got to be kidding. Then we realize Jesus isn't kidding at all.
Recently a man called me about a serious problem he was having in his business. As the conversation drew to a close, he said that over the past few years his life in the church had grown to mean so much more to him. It was his relationship with Christ that had changed primarily through his relationship with other Christians. God had peeled away his skepticism and the defensive layers of his life so that the gospel could enter the very core of his being. He now faces his troubles with a different spirit--a spirit of thankfulness, hope, peace. What once would have defeated him, he simply puts in the hands of Jesus and trusts Jesus to provide a way through. At the end of our conversation, he said with a kind of laugh, "I guess I just started to take Jesus seriously."
I thought to myself, "Seriously enough to laugh now at what once would have seemed impossible to overcome."
Let us pray. Lord, sometimes we shake our heads in disbelief at the promises of the Gospel that seem too wonderful to believe. Yet when we turn to you, let go of our fear, we discover the power of your healing love and live-giving presence. Amen.