Suffering, Relationship, and Baptism

“The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, and bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet.  And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass.  His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.  The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground.  His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eye, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead.  He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him.  For a moment he stopped, his head held high.  He blinked and looked up and down.  At last he started to climb the embankment.”

Click here for the readings from the lectionary for today.

We know the story of this turtle well as this text is written about our very own Oklahoma, home of the dust bowl from the 1930s.  John Steinbeck, in writing The Grapes of Wrath, managed to tell a story with a series of layers much like the hot asphalt of our still-broken Oklahoma highways.

But there is an element of our Gospel story that bears a striking resemblance to the story of Steinbeck’s turtle:  they both offer what’s called an “intercalary chapter.”  The writer moves the story along with the characters and plot but slips in a seemingly incongruous and short episode and then resumes the original story as if nothing were amiss.  Such is this morning’s reading of our Gospel writer Mark.

We know the story of Jairus and his daughter.  She is ill, and as Jesus is traveling to her, she passes away.  This beloved twelve-year-old girl, now dead, would have been considered unaccepted.  Outside of Jewish tradition of one being loved but would now be unclean.  Untouchable.  The mourning of her loss would have been magnified.  And yet Jesus, seeing the faith of Jairus and the grief of the household, heals the little girl, and she pops up and moves about the room as if nothing had happened.  For the household, she would have been made something wholly new.  Formerly unclean. Now embraced.  

But, within the telling of this story, Mark slips in a different illustration.  One of a woman who has been suffering from a twelve-year-old disease.  This illness, in Jewish tradition, made her unclean.  Those she encountered in the streets would have altered their paths so as not to come close to, let alone touch, her.  She was without companionship or relationship with others.  She would have been utterly alone.  Unlike Jairus’s daughter who was surrounding by loved ones and family and friends, this woman would have felt the isolation and loneliness from 12 years of abandonment.  She would truly be a walking death. 

And hearing that the Teacher is in her town, she rejects the stigma of her illness, refuses to accept the definition of both society and law.  She, a pariah, claims the audacity to violate a wealth of protocols to touch the hem of the Teacher’s cloak.  And, as a result, she enters into a relationship with Jesus, if even only briefly.  She, the aggressor, wields her faith amidst the possible fallout.  

We are shaped by our relationships.  We are refreshed by those who come alongside us, offering support and laughter when needed.  We are strengthened by those who see behind our struggling eyes offering kindness and encouragement.  We may be the bearers of healing for some when we are present with those around us.  

There is a question, however, that is like an elephant in the room?  Like these two women in today’s Gospel reading, will we always receive physical healing as they did?  Not always, no.  And I do not have an answer as to why God heals some and not others.  But what I do know is what we’ve been reading for three weeks no.  Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear.”

Again, Jesus tells those to who he enters into relationship with not to be afraid.  He sees the individuals.  He recognizes their swelling emotions.   Instead of ignoring what overwhelms them and shifting it to the side, He names it and lays claim to the power it has taken so far.  Like last week with the disciples on the boat, Jesus could have said, “There is nothing to be afraid of.”  Instead, He asked them why they were afraid, and He asked where had their faith gone.  This week, Jesus tells them not to be afraid.  He is not saying that there isn’t anything to fear, because He knows that for them that would be a lie.  He understands the grief that comes with death, and He is aware of the fear for many for what happens after death.  But, in this moment of entering into the relationship with Jairus at such an intimate and vulnerable moment, Jesus tells him not to be afraid and to lay claim to belief, to faith.

As we enter into this relationship with Levi today as we celebrate the Sacrament of baptism, we also acknowledge the truths that we know of life.  Will there be grief and pain?  Yes.  Will there be times of trial that we do not know the outcome?  Yes.  Will there uncertainty and heartbreak?  Yes.  However, Jesus tells us all not to be afraid.  He knows the fear and the pain and the isolation are out there.  He knows because He has experienced all of these in more ways that we ever could.  But, He also knows what we can oftentimes lose sight of:  that the fear and sadness and isolation of this world are not more than the healing and purity that comes from Him.

And now, let us move together in our own steps toward community and relationship as we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism of Levi Whitfield…

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