A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 30, 2024

Mark 5:21-43

We’ve just heard two stories about healings, and it’s tempting to just say, “Oh, that’s great, everything worked out.” But to really understand these stories, we’ve got to dig a little deeper and understand something about what’s called ritual purity in Jesus’ time. Let me explain it with a a story I heard this week about growing up in Appalachia on a farm. Sunday mornings, the storyteller and his four brothers all had a bath before church. Now keeping four boys clean while you wash the fifth had to be a chore, and his mother’s solution was to have all have them one by one as they got clean go sit on the couch. Ritual purity rules had to do with getting and staying clean in a way that made physical things an emblem of spiritual ones. These stories we read from Mark have a background we may not be aware of but would’ve been immediately obvious to any of the early Christians, all of whom were Jews. These aren’t just stories about healing—they’re also pictures of how Jesus dealt with those ritual purity rules. Those rules excluded many, many people. So let’s see how Jesus deals with these rules and these people and see what we can learn about how our lives as well.

Last week talked about Jesus crossing over to the gentile side of the Lake Galilee and this week we find him back on the Jewish side. For whatever reason, the lectionary has left out the story this year about what happened over there, but what happened is that he was casting out demons. 

Now he’s back and as he comes into town, there’s a crowd of people. Someone comes up, falls on their knees and begs Jesus to come to Jairus’ house, a leader in the synagogue. His daughter is ill, and Jesus is a well-known healer. So, Jesus and his disciples are pushing through the crowd when suddenly he stops. Have you ever done this, stopped in a crowd that’s moving? There must’ve been a bunch of them bumping into him. He turns to Peter and John and James and Andrew and says someone touched me. I think they must have rolled their eyes: they say, 5″You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

But this wasn’t just someone bumping into him. A woman who has had a hemorrhage, we’re told, for 12 years has touched his clothing. Can you imagine her? Can you feel her desperation.? Surely she had been to healers; surely she had tried everything. If it was today, she would have gone on the web, searched for a cure. There’s another underlying piece here, too. In this time, her hemorrhage made her ritually unsure. Anyone who touched her, especially a man, would become impure as well. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t just ask Jesus. Can you see her in the crowd? I think of her as an older woman, determined, brave. Now she’s moving through the crowd, now she’s closer to this Jesus, now she reaches out her hand and touches his cloak. And the story says she is healed. Imagine her shock; imagine her surprise. 

Then Jesus wheels around. “Someone touched me.” Was she afraid? Would he take it back, could he take it back? You know, in my family, when someone said that someone had done something, especially if it was my mom or dad, my brothers and I always had one response: “It wasn’t me!” The crowd seems to be doing that: they pull back, leaving her alone, on her knees. What do you think? The story says she was fell down before him in fear and trembling. But he doesn’t take it back; he tells her to go be healed. Perhaps you heard this and thought, “What? I thought she was already healed!” The healing he means is actually like a hospital discharge; it’s a certification that she’s now pure again, it’s the gateway back to her friends and family. There’s detail here you might have mixed. So far in this story, the woman is nameless; she’s just a woman with a disease. But when Jesus talks to her, he calls her daughter. Instead of her making him impure, he’s made her pure again, part of the family. This is what Jesus does. This is what Jesus’ touch does. It heals and brings us into the family. 

Touch is a switchy thing, isn’t it? My dad was a snuggler when I was little. Those were the days of one TV in the house. He’d lie on the floor in front of it, my brother and I on either side. But when I grew up, we had a hard time touching. I didn’t see him often and when I did, we didn’t know what to do. Shaking hands didn’t seem to be enough; hugging was not in our playbook. My mother used to laugh at us, she said we were like two bears, trying not to get too close. Of course, we’ve all been through the COVID pandemic when touch was dangerous. We didn’t worry before that. In most of my pastorates, I went to the back after the benediction and everyone shook my hand. Suddenly, we couldn’t do that. Suddenly, I couldn’t touch someone in a hospital bed. We learned the fist bump. Our family says grace before dinner; we used to hold hands, but now we don’t quite know what to do: some nights it’s holding on, some nights it’s bumps.

This story goes on to Jairus’ house. People tell Jesus not to bother; the girl is too far gone, but when he gets there, he touches her and tells her to get up. This is important: touching a corpse will definitely make you impure under the rules. But Jesus never hesitates; he says that she’s sleeping and goes right on. 

Think of what that home must have been like: people weeping, people trying to hold it together, people at the end of their rope. The text says there was a commotion. There would have been food; someone always brings food. No one wants to eat, but the food is there. Jesus goes to the girl, never hesitates, touches her, and says, “Talitha cumi.” That’s an Aramaic phrase; Aramaic was the common spoken language of the time. It’s often translated, “Little girl, get up”, but that doesn’t really convey the meaning. ‘Talitha’ is a term of endearment; ‘cumi’ means get up or come on. So it’s more like saying, “Come on, sweetie”. And she does; he says, “Give her something to eat,” which might have been to show she wasn’t a ghost. Personally? I think he just thought she needed a snack. It’s also a way of saying, “You’re back to being part of the family.”

This is what Jesus does: he touches people and brings them back to life in their community. He never seems to worry about ritual purity; he never seems to pay attention to the rules of ritual purity. What seems to happen is that instead of the impurity flowing to Jesus, his purity, his love, makes people pure and heals them. The gospels have at least nine stories of healing and several summary statements where he heals everyone brought to him. All have in common Jesus touching someone and healing them. Most of the time, he sends them back to families, to communities, to their lives. It isn’t just about physical touch, either; there are people he touches by casting out their demons, people he touches with parables, people he touches by feeding them.

Now, this is a time for this church to think about its mission in the next chapter. Where do we want to go? What do we want to see happen? Every church I’ve ever served generally said, “We want to grow” but that’s not what Jesus does. Over and over in Mark, the big crowd is in the way; sometimes it’s hostile. The crowd is not the goal. What Jesus does is touch people and give them back heir lives. So if we’re going to walk with Jesus, if we’re going to live as disciples of Jesus, we’re going to have to figure out how to touch people like Jesus did, with the love of God, the love that heals souls.

I took a class on being an Interim Pastor a while back. One of the things the teacher said is that pastors are supposed to provide answers, but interim pastors are supposed to ask questions. So today, I want to leave you with some questions. How can this church touch people with the love and grace of Jesus Christ? How can we make sure our traditions aren’t barriers for others? How can we, like Jesus, leave people sure they are spotless before God, ready to share their God given gifts in loving ways?