Sermon 1st July at St. Andrew’s Ealing, Revd Sue McCoan
Mark 5: 21 – 43
There are few things more likely to grab our attention, to engage our sympathies, than the cry of a child in pain. If you’re a parent, it’s horrible to see your child ill. Even if it’s a common childhood complaint like chicken pox, where you know they will get better and it’s good that they caught it young and all that, it’s still difficult when they look to you, as the adult, to make it better, to stop it itching and hurting, and you can’t.
How much worse, though, how many times worse, if you are a parent and your child is ill and you cannot get medical help, or of medical help is available, you can’t afford it. It was the reality at the time of Jesus and in our bible reading today we hear of one parent who was facing the harshness of this reality: Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue.
Jairus has a little girl – not so little now, 12 years old – and she is seriously ill. She looks to Dad for help and he can’t help. What can he do? There’s no doctor he can call on, no hospital to take her to. But there is that man who’s been coming to the synagogue and making a bit of an exhibition of himself by healing people on the Sabbath… we had to tell him to stop, to keep proper order, but surely he won’t hold that against me… might be just the person I need… Jairus swallows his pride and goes to find Jesus, begs him to come with him and heal his daughter.
You can picture Jairus, walking slightly faster than normal like you do when you want to urge somebody on.. Come on, Jesus, we haven’t got time to waste…
Then suddenly Jesus stops. Somebody touched me.
Well of course somebody touched you, there are people all around, now Come On!
No. Jesus has another matter to see to.
Bible Reading: Mark 5: 21 – 43
So Jesus stops. On his way to a recognised emergency, with an anxious father urging him on, Jesus stops – because somebody, in a pressing crowd, has touched his clothes.
But why does he stop? The unknown person is already healed; Jesus felt that the power had gone out of him. Why not just say, OK, that person’s dealt with, now let’s get to the crisis?
Jesus stops. He wants to know who it was who came up to him in secret, who touched his clothes and found a much-needed cure for her ailments; who was so afraid to be seen or to ask for help. This is someone who needs more than physical healing. The poor woman obviously wanted to stay hidden, but she eventually realises that nobody is going anywhere until Jesus has met her, so she comes forward, in fear and trembling, and tells him her story.
We might pause in the narrative now, and consider these two sick people, the little girl and the woman. The girl is 12 years old, on the brink of womanhood. She has her whole life before her: marriage, children, the good and fruitful life of a woman at the time, that would be a blessing to the whole community. For each of the twelve years that this girl has been growing and flourishing, the woman has had her life diminishing, ebbing away almost literally in this flow of blood that won’t stop. She was once a woman of means: she had money to pay for doctors. But they did no good, and her money too has now ebbed away, leaving her with nothing. She has no prospects now; no man will touch her; no future she can see.
Two people: one with everything to live for, one with none; one with a high-profile father fighting for her all the way, one with nobody. But both in real need of Jesus.
And for this moment, the woman’s need is the more pressing, because once she melts back into that crowd Jesus would never find her. He does a wonderful thing. He calls her ‘daughter’. He gives her what the girl already has: fatherly love, status, affirmation. And then he says, ‘Your faith has healed you. Go in peace’. Your faith. You did this. You found the courage to come to me and now you have what you need, and bless you’.
And now, and only now, can he turn his attention back to Jairus who must be beside himself in frustration and then hears the news he was dreading: his daughter has died. He must be crushed, maybe also angry – I told you it was urgent. Jesus calmly, quietly, goes on to the house, gets rid of the mourners, and raises the little girl back to life.
This is a rich story. I want to draw out three things.
First, that God’s timing is not the same as ours. By any rational human standards, Jesus should have dealt with the girl as a matter of priority. He knew that she was in God’s hands, and that he could take the time he needed for the woman. How often have we prayed for healing, and then been disappointed that it hasn’t happened straight away? Of course we don’t want people to suffer; but sometimes we have to trust that God is not answerable to our demands, and that we can leave things in his hands.
Secondly, we see in this that illness does not discriminate between old and young, between respected and outcast – and neither does God’s love. We know that illness is no respecter of persons – good and lovely people suffer, outright scoundrels enjoy good health; people who have looked after their diet and fitness for years fall ill while others live to a hundred on chips and smoking. It’s still better to aim for looking after yourself, but it’s no guarantee. God’s love is not reserved for the fainting saints; Jesus cares about, and heals, people that nobody else would even look at.
And thirdly, we see especially in the case of the woman that there is more to healing than a physical cure. The cure came as soon as she touched Jesus’s cloak – the healing came only when she truly met him. And sometimes, healing can come even if there is no physical cure. A dear friend of mine died last year of cancer. She had had had cancer before and been successfully treated, but after several good years it had returned and was in her liver and she knew it would be terminal. She managed her last year with courage, grace and dignity, doing what she could when she felt well and resting when she needed to. As the times of resting became longer, she helped her husband to plan for the future without her. She found wholeness, and gifted that wholeness to those who loved her.
God’s timing is not our timing; God’s healing does not know human limits; and God’s healing is more than a cure.
There’s one more thing to reflect on. This story of healing comes from a context when doctors were hard to find, and were often not able to treat the illness successfully, though there were plenty who would take money off the woman in return for false hope. It is still the case in many parts of the world that medical care is hard to access, or expensive, or both. It was the case in this country before the birth of the NHS which, as I’m sure you know, marks its 70th Birthday this week, on July 5th. Most of us are not old enough to have clear memories of that time, but we will surely have heard some terrible stories – of people who put off going to the doctor for fear of the cost and left it until the disease was so far advanced it was impossible to treat. I read just the other day of a boy whose mother refused to take him to a doctor with his stomach pains, put him to bed with a hot water bottle, his appendix burst and he nearly died.
Part of the thinking behind the NHS was that if treatment was free, people could come earlier and be treated at a much less serious stage, saving money and lives. They didn’t quite factor in that those people were then around to go on and develop another illness later. The NHS is a victim of its own success – by keeping us alive for so long, we cost a fortune over our lifetime. But how glad we are, how thankful we should be, that when we are ill or in pain we can get the help we need without regard to our social standing or our ability to pay.
So this is a day to say thank you to all who work in healthcare – doctors, nurses, specialists, administrators, porters, cleaners, chaplains, probably many more that I don’t even know about. Bless you for your tireless dedication, your serving and caring, your brilliant advances in technique and your attention to the most menial detail. Thank you for providing the practical means through which God’s healing can take place.
Thank you. And may we all be prepared to pay the tax we need to keep this amazing institution alive and well.
This week, on Thursday 5th, we mark the 70th birthday of the NHS. So today we’ll be thinking about the healings of Jesus, and about those who are involved in healing now, and give thanks.