Sermon - Sunday, 1 July 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 1 July 2018.

Scripture: Acts 3: 1-10 / Mark 5: 21-43

Text: At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’                   (Mark 5: 30)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

To touch or not to touch – and for many people, men especially, it is a difficult question.

Some years ago I recall being in the United States and playing a round of golf with an American/Italian who, if memory serves me well, was called Charlie.

As we walked down every fairway he would come across to me, his arm through my arm, his hand taking my hand – nothing inappropriate, just a warm, friendly tactile individual for whom touch was important.

We all know people and we all have friends like Charlie.

We also know people who are very different and who prefer to keep their distance.

One of our grandchildren is a cuddly child, always wrapping himself around you, while another is less so and has no hesitation in pushing you away if she feels you are getting too close.

Perhaps from your childhood you have painful memories of an elderly aunt with brightly coloured lipstick who would insist on giving you a kiss?

Or perhaps you have been in church when the minister has invited you to turn to your neighbour and share what is called ‘the peace’ – and the awkwardness which followed.

To touch or not to touch – it can be difficult because while a touch can warm someone’s heart,  a sign of friendship bringing comfort, reassurance, touch can fill another person with alarm, their personal space invaded.

And for everyone whose work involves dealing with children or vulnerable adults, or who volunteers as a Scout or Guide leader or Sunday Club leader, there are now Disclosure forms to be completed and Safeguarding regulations to be met because of the disastrous consequences of inappropriate touching.

At its best touch and touching can express love, concern and compassion while at its worst touch and touching can be inappropriate, abusive and demeaning.

So to touch or not to touch, that is the question?

Thankfully the gospel has some helpful insights for with all the artistry of a skilled storyteller, as Mark weaves together the story of Jesus and two women, I hope you notice that in one Jesus is touched by a stranger while in the other it is Jesus who touches a child.

The child is a 12 year old girl, the daughter of a synagogue official, Jairus, while the other is an older woman whose life has been ruined by constant bleeding.

Mark weaves their stories together, not simply as a literary device to hold our attention, but so that as one story brackets the other, we will notice their differences and similarities and learn something about the presence and promise of God.

And the importance of touch is at the heart of both stories.

Having crossed the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and his disciples are back on Jewish territory.

Clearly his reputation as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer is growing for we are told a large crowd gathers to welcome him.

Enter Jairus.

Described as a ruler in the synagogue, Jairus approaches Jesus, falls at his feet and makes a desperate plea for Jesus to help his sick daughter.

We are not told how Jairus knows about Jesus or who prompts him to turn to Jesus for help but there is an evident urgency to his appeal.

Believing his daughter to be at death’s door, Jairus throws himself at Jesus’ feet  and begs Jesus to come and lay his hands on her so that she will be healed and live.

Without hesitation Jesus sets off to attend to the girl.

However, before he reaches the girl’s home, his journey is interrupted, this time by the action of a solitary and silent figure in the crowd who grabs his cloak.

We learn that she is a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years.

We also learn the woman has sought help from her doctors but having spent all her money on medical attention, far from being cured, her condition is even worse.

While Jairus feared his daughter was dying, Mark’s readers would understand the woman was also as good as dead because her bleeding would have rendered her unclean.

They would know what we might not realise at first, namely, that for these last twelve years she has been ostracized, unwelcome in the synagogue and cut off from her husband, family and local community.

Physically weak, financially ruined, socially and spiritually isolated, completely humiliated, hers was a living death and a situation equally as desperate as that of Jairus’ daughter.

So what did Jairus do?

Jairus fell on his knees and pleaded for Jesus’ help.

And what did the woman do?

The woman pushed her way forward in the crowd so that when he walked past she could touch Jesus’ cloak.

And what did Jesus do?

Sensing power had gone out from him, Jesus asked who had touched his clothes.

The response of the disciples is dismissive.

With the crush of the crowd lots of people will have touched or bumped into Jesus.

Yet knowing what had happened, and instinctively aware someone had reached out to him for help, Jesus stopped, waited and kept looking around until the woman finally identified herself.  

Trembling with fear we are told she too throws herself at Jesus’ feet and pours out her heart to him.

Is it too much to imagine the crowd melting into the background as Jesus listens intently before finally bending over, taking her hand, lifting her to her feet, a smile breaking across his face as he tells the woman that her faith has healed her, her suffering is over and she can go in peace?

Let me pause for a moment and point out some of the differences and similarities in the stories.

Jairus is named, the woman is not.

Jairus is part of the religious establishment, a ruler in the synagogue from which the woman was banned.

He is a respected member of society; she is ostracized.

The woman had been bleeding for twelve years and Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old, that is, approaching the age of puberty.

Jairus approached Jesus directly while the woman simply grabbed his cloak.

Jairus was a man of position, influence, wealth and social standing, she is an outcast.

Yet what they have in common is their need, their desperate need.

And what they also had in common was their faith, their faith in the healing power and touch of Christ.

The narrative resumes as word arrives that Jairus’ daughter has died.

Has the delay attending to the woman proved fatal for the child?

Setting off again, Jesus reaches Jairus’ house to be greeted by the crying and wailing of the mourners.

Asking why all the commotion, and offering the reassurance that the child is only sleeping, Jesus takes the child’s parents and his disciples and enters the child’s room.

Taking her by the hand Jesus says, Talitha koum

The Aramaic lends authenticity to the narrative as it translates little lamb, arise.

Responding to Jesus’ touch and command, the girl gets up, walks about and is given something to eat, evidence to all concerned she is alive.

Now for Mark these healing stories are told to demonstrate Jesus’ power knows no limits.

Wild wind and waves are stilled, demons are exorcised, lepers are cleansed, blind people have their sight restored, a seemingly dead child is raised to life and a woman is cured of her bleeding.

In other words ancient laws and customs are set aside as Jesus ventures where angels fear to tread, into the realms of sickness and death, restoring ordinary people to life, health and community.

And how does he do it?

He does so by word and by touch.

With accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse hovering around film moguls, television stars, political representatives, ministers and priests too, the appropriateness of touch and touching could not be more relevant in contemporary society.

To touch or not to touch – if that is the question for many people today, for people of Christian faith it is to the example of Jesus we turn.

Far from being ignorant or unconcerned about the sad, distressing and unfair experiences of life, the gospels reveal Jesus facing up to all the challenges of life, good and bad.

And one of the things they also reveal is the positive, healing nature of human touch as the woman reaches out to him and he in turn reaches out to the young girl.

The touch that heals, the arm that consoles, the hug that reassures – all of that is life-giving and affirming.

The hand that hurts, the physical encounter intended to manipulate and take advantage – such touching is demeaning and abusive.

Life giving or life denying – as with Christ let our touch and our touching be always a blessing.  

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen