A Sermon preached on the 28th of June in the Year of Our Lord, 2009, being the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, RCL Year B
Some people have really peculiar notions about things upon which they get totally fixated. They think Elvis is alive (or for that matter that Elvis is dead, depending on what side of that issue you are on concerning Elvis' present whereabouts...) and that Aliens crash landed in Roswell, NM in the 1940's. (and having driven through New Mexico, I have no earthly idea, no pun intended, why technologically advanced aliens would travel half way across the galaxy to visit there, but that's a notion that has no bearing on this sermon.)
People also tend to get fixated on the subject of death. People in the Victorian era in the late 1800's were notorious for having elaborate death and mourning rituals. And its all they could seem to talk about in some of the literature from the era, they were just completely fixated on death.
Modern America tends to be on the other end of that spectrum. We don't like talking or thinking about death at all. We go to just as extravagant a length to avoid the subject entirely. We spent billions of dollars to try and find the fountain of youth: botox, makeup, hair transplants: anything to mask us from the reality that we all eventually grow old and will eventually all die, despite our efforts to the contrary.
We even use euphemisms for dying. So-and-so “passed on,” or “went to a better place” to the point that some people these days can't even use the word “funeral” anymore. I was actually at a funeral a while back where the guests we actually forbidden to use the word “funeral” and “burial” in the entire service.
We were told we had to refer to it as a “celebration of life” and refer to the person as “not really dead, but just changed,” and I was politely invited to leave if I couldn't abide by it. Because I didn't really know the deceased all that well but was there more to support a grieving friend of a friend of mine, I just held my tongue and went with it against my better judgment seeing as I was a visitor and it was not an Episcopal church or even a church setting in general for that matter.
But, like I said, people have some strange notions they get fixated with particularly about death and dying. We need look no further than the outpouring of behaviors spawned by the death of Michael Jackson this week, which believe it or not, happened after I prepared this sermon.
I bring this up because the issue of death is hovering in the background of all the readings from the Bible this morning.
The Old Testament reading this morning is from a Book that some of you might not have ever heard of, especially if you come from a more Protestant background. The Wisdom of Solomon, or sometimes simply referred to as “The Book of Wisdom,” is not found in most Protestant bibles. This is one of the Books known as the Books of the Apocrypha.
To make a long story short, most of these Books were mostly written originally in Greek and not Hebrew and as such most Protestants decided that because of that, they were not on the level of the Hebrew Old Testament. Catholic Christians have included these books in the Bible since the Church finally decided on what constituted the bible in the 3rd and 4th Centuries. When Protestants came on the scene 1000+ years later, for various theological and political reasons that I won't go into here, they ripped them out of what they considered the Bible entirely.
The Anglican tradition, being a mixture of Catholic and Protestant thought, was reticent to completely chuck them away like other Protestants. We don't base core beliefs that we hold solely on the scriptures of the Books of the Apocrypha, but we also believe that they are worthy of study and on some level are inspired scripture, though perhaps not quite on the level of the Hebrew scriptures proper.
But this particular book of the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon, was probably the last book written in what we call the Old Testament, probably sometime around the 1st century BC. It was written by an unknown Jewish man, probably a exile living in the vast Jewish population in Alexandria, Egypt, during times of great political and religious upheaval for the Jews.
These Jews had largely already lost the ability to speak Hebrew, of if they knew it, only enough to read it in the the context of synagogue worship. Its primary aim was to encourage Jews to remain faithful to God and not be subsumed into the greater pagan culture with all sorts of weird notions and beliefs that was all around them and threatened to extinguish the very children of God.
What is equally fascinating about this book is that it foreshadows Christ and the Early Church by calling back not just semi-observant Jews to the rightful worship of God, but also called Jews who had renounced the faith and even Pagans from outside the Jewish tradition to come and worship the one, true God.
The content of this book, being so close to the time of Christ, greatly influenced the Early Church's teaching on the Incarnation and our Christian understanding that the Good News of God was a call to all people, not just the Jews, to come and be a part of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom not just for the few but for the many.
And part of that Good News that the church teaches concerns this issue of death.
Not too many people are truly at peace with the idea of dying, especially as they get older and are forced to begin to come to terms with the fact that they won't be on this earth forever. Death is the great unknown, and many religions around the time of Jesus had images of the afterlife that were unpleasant.
The Greco-Roman understanding of the afterlife, depending on what myth you are reading, seemed to have been of this shadowy realm over the River Styx that was not all that pleasant by most accounts.
Even within Judaism, what happened after death was not really largely agreed upon even at the time of Jesus. You hear a lot in the Gospels about these two groups of Jews. One was called the Pharisees and one was called the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the group that ran the services in the Temple in Jesus' time because they were basically Roman collaborators.
The Sadducees did not believe (amongst other things) in any form of an afterlife or resurrection of the dead. Once you were dead, you were dead, and you ceased to exist in any form. God was the God of the living and and if you or your loved one died prematurely, God must be cursing you in some way.
- But what God began revealing to us in the later parts of the Old Testament was exactly what the Old Testament reading reveals to us: “For God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”
- That is something that to us in the Christian tradition is taken for granted, but was quite a shocking concept to the 1st Century world!
- On first glance at the gospel reading today, the two stories about the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus' daughter seem to be completely unrelated. To happenstance events that happen back to back in the ministry of Jesus, as he's walking around and preaching and crowds of people are milling about, wanting a piece of this celebrity in their midst.
- The two stories have more in common that you might expect, for the Spectre of Death is hovering in both stories about Jesus that Mark seems to oddly sandwich together. Once you pick up on the fact that death, or the fear of it, is fueling both these characters, you begin to see why Mark presents this story the way that he does.
- There are two simultaneous characters coming to find Jesus in this story and they both basically run into him at the same time. On the one hand, you have this Jairus character, whose daughter is at the point of death. Jairus is very socially and religiously prominent. To be a prominent lay person in the Temple meant that Jairus must have been a powerful man and was probably rich because his servants finally come for him later in the story. Only the very rich in the Roman empire could afford servants.
- The way the English translation is rendered, Jairus is said to come to Jesus to beg him to come heal his daughter. But it could just as easy be translated as Jairus commanding or ordering Jesus to help him, which given his powerful status, is, I think, more likely what the writer of Mark intended.
- Then there is the other woman, fearing for her very own life, who is on the complete opposite end of the social spectrum. She's “unclean” because of her issue of blood according to Jewish piety and purity laws at the time. She is such a social outcast, in fact, that she is not even given a name in the story. Did you catch that? Jairus has a name to be sure, but this woman is never named and remains completely anonymous during and after this episode with Jesus.
- There are so many different things we could take away from the story about Jesus, Jairus, and the Nameless Woman, as they are both very powerful stories in their own right. But taken together, we see quite clearly the fact that no matter how much money or power or influence we have, and these days how much we try to deny the very concept, we all must face the fact that we are all mortal and we all fear death because it is both the great unknown and a force in all our lives that we ultimately cannot control.
- But therein lies the good news from the readings today. While the shadow of death looms in the background of all these stories and readings from the Bible today, another aspect, greater even than death itself, looms there as well.
- In the scene with the woman with the issue of blood after she has touched his cloak, Jesus asks in essence the very same question that God the Father asks to Adam and Eve when they had eaten the fruit in the Garden of Eden and are hiding. “Where are you?”
- It was not that Jesus was unaware of who touched him, but rather was an invitation to the woman to come forward and know him better, to come clean as it were, and not merely stay in the shadows where the spectre of death lurked.
- This morning I invite you to step forward out of the shadows of fear about death, take the same hand that this woman and Jairus's daughter took for Jesus holds out in offering to us the blessed assurance that God is calling for us and offering us the same gift of life that all Christians now have, words that we hear proclaimed in the Burial Rite: that we are the Lord's possession, because our God is the God of the Living and that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our lord.