Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We began a new sermon series last week inviting us to verb our way into the gospels. This is in contrast to the way we often read passages from the Bible, directing much of our attention to the nouns. Since biblical nouns can be so different from the nouns we use in everyday life, they require explanation and translation. What’s a cubit? A shekel? A Pharisee? A Samaritan? We can educate ourselves to understand whole big bunches of biblical nouns over time, but why not - for a refreshing change - dive straight into the verbs? Verbs unite us as human beings across continents and centuries, says Anna Carter Florence, and she extends an intriguing invitation: “If you’re looking for a way to make Scripture relevant,” she says, “start reading the verbs. You’ll have more relevance on your hands than you know what to do with; you’ll see yourself everywhere, in verbs you’ve played.”
We tried the strategy just briefly last week with the tail end of the Christmas story from Luke 2, verbing first with the shepherds and then with Mary, the mother of Jesus. We watched for action words that felt familiar to us, that is things we’ve often done ourselves, as well as for any verbs that felt like a personal invitation from God to act or to engage.
Today we’ll be verbing our way through intertwined stories in the fifth chapter of the gospel of Mark, so again I’ll invite you to open your pew Bibles and follow along. Turn to p. 917, Mark 5 beginning at verse 21, and we’ll work our way through today’s Scripture reading section by section.
I’ll first read aloud Mark 5:21-23…
There are a number of different actors in this chapter. We’ll start with Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. What does Jairus do here in verses 21-23? The text says he came to Jesus… saw him, fell at his feet, begged repeatedly. Why does he do all this? Because his daughter is dying. Jairus presumably commanded significant respect as a synagogue leader. I don’t imagine falling at someone’s feet and begging them for mercy was his usual style. But a sick child? That levels the playing field in a hurry. I don’t know if you’ve ever had occasion to spend time over at Children’s Hospital here in Seattle? My husband Ken and I are grateful the worrisome issues we walked through there with our girls over the years never approached the life and death scenarios faced by others. Pacing those halls, logging countless hours in tests and treatments, trying to help their kids survive the night, no one cares about things like social standing. And if you don’t have children, I’ll bet there’s someone for whom you’ve pleaded with God for healing. Approaching Jesus, falling to our knees at his feet, begging… some of us know Jairus’ verbs all too well. And then Jairus’ request of Jesus comes with its own set of verbs. What are they? (verse 23) What does he ask Jesus to do? To come, lay hands on her, and make her well, that she might live. And Jesus goes with him.
Then comes a surprising interruption. Let’s turn now to verses 24-34...
Verse 24 says Jesus starts off with Jairus toward his house, but as he goes a huge crowd follows him and presses in on him. And here we’re introduced to another major character, this woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. There’s a powerful verb for you. Bleeding. For twelve years. And beginning at verse 25 what else do her verbs tell us? We read that she had been suffering… had endured much… had spent all she had… and only grew worse. There’s so much to be said about this woman’s story, but today we’re going to set aside things like ancient Israelite purity laws about women’s bleeding, laws about being clean or unclean, and that kind of thing, and just look at her verbs. Had been suffering, had endured, had spent, grew worse. Because we have friends or family members with those verbs right on our own prayer lists, don’t we? We’ve seen these verbs in the news with frightening regularity too (suffering, enduring, growing worse). Some of you may even know these verbs first-hand. And what does this woman do next? She’d heard about Jesus, came up behind him, touched his cloak (verse 27), for she said, if I touch, I will be made well. She gets a happy ending not everyone gets, of course, for what are her verbs in verse 29? She felt, she was healed. And if you jump ahead to verse 33, let’s pick up the rest of her verbs there: knowing what had happened, she came, fell, and told Jesus the whole truth (perhaps the truth about how she’d snuck up behind him desperately hoping she’d be healed if she touched his cloak; perhaps the truth about those awful 12 years too).
Now we’re going to switch gears again, as these two stories continue to intersect and overlap. Let’s look at verses 35-43…
So it’s while Jesus is still speaking to the woman whose just been healed from her flow of blood (verse 35) that people come from Jairus’ house with the gut-wrenching news that his daughter hasn’t lived long enough for Jesus the healer to do her any good: “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” The crowd back at the house agrees hope is lost, for in verse 38 we see their verbs are weeping, wailing loudly, and when Jesus suggests things aren’t so bad (she’s only sleeping), laughing at the impossibility. We’re familiar with death, Jesus. We know how this works. Dead people don’t suddenly wake up. It’s preposterous. Just leave us alone with verbs we know all too well: weeping, wailing, grieving…
Meanwhile what is Jesus doing at this point in the chapter? What are his verbs, beginning at verse 36? He overhears (the talk of there being no hope for the girl), says (what does he say? Don’t fear; only believe). He allows no one to follow except a select few disciples. He enters, says (why make a fuss?), he puts them outside, takes the parents, goes in, takes the girl by the hand, says to her: “little girl, get up!” (Mark gives us the Aramaic too, “talitha, qum!”) Then he tells everyone not to say anything, just give her something to eat.
Oh, how we wish, as readers of stories like these, that Jesus didn’t limit his healing and helping verbs, his taking by the hand and raising verbs to a select few. Where was all of this verbing, Jesus, when it was my mom, her dad, his wife, their child, that was so seriously ill? Miracle stories like the ones we’ve read about today don’t happen for everyone; we know this with painful certainty. Which makes it somehow both encouraging and discouraging to read about them here in the Bible.
Still, the fact that God doesn’t always choose to offer physical healing doesn’t mean it can’t happen, sometimes in incredible ways. I told you just last week at prayer time about one of our church members who’d been unresponsive in the hospital for many hours a couple weekends ago. The medical team had tried all night, I’m told, and couldn’t wake her up. A couple days later I found her in that same hospital room, sitting up in bed with a big smile on her face, just as chatty as could be. Which makes me think that at least in her case, Jesus must have shown up at some point and said, “Talitha qum.” “Wake up, my sweet girl. It’s not over yet.”
What I didn’t tell you last week was that my own verbs at the time sounded less like father Jairus who hadn’t yet given up hope for his daughter, and more like the matter-of-fact crowd in Mark 5. I guess I heard “unresponsive” and I mentally prepared myself for last goodbyes and funeral arrangements. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s the way life works, right? Or at least the way death works. So if I’m honest with you, my prayers at the time reflected this sense of inevitability – “If you have to take her, Lord, take her quickly, make it peaceful.” Of course, I could only pray that prayer internally. With medical personnel standing right there next to me in her room doing everything in their power to bring her back, out loud I prayed, of course, that their efforts would be successful. And then I was floored when I said “Amen” to see that her eyes had actually popped open! Wait, what?! It was awhile longer before she fully came back to us, but I’m grateful my limited view of what was possible didn’t get in God’s way that day. It never does, you know, and thank God for that. God’s perfectly capable of healing people whether or not we believe he can.
And when the healing we’re desperate for doesn’t come, what then? Do today’s gospel stories still have anything to offer us? I think they do, but it helps to take all of Jesus’ verbs into consideration, and not just the ones we usually focus on.
What I mean is this. When we think of healing stories in the gospels, we generally focus on the end result, summed up in a key verse or two. In the case of the woman with the flow of blood, we remember “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed.” (Mark 5:34) In the case of the twelve year old girl, Jairus’ daughter, we remember “Talitha qum!” / “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:31) It’s no wonder. Naturally those verses and those verbs would draw our attention.
But what happens when we allow ourselves to pay attention to all of Jesus’ verbs throughout these 22 verses we’ve read together today? Listen again. Jairus having begged him to come to his house, Jesus goes with him. Verse 24 indicates no hesitation or objection on Jesus’ part. Just: “he went with him.” The woman with the flow of blood having reached out to touch his cloak, Jesus turns and looks for her, and in spite of the disciples’ objections, continues looking all around for her, and then of course he speaksto her (verses 30-32). Still in the midst of that encounter, he overhears the discouragement of Jairus’ entourage come to tell him there’s no point troubling Jesus any further; it’s over for his little girl. Overhearing them indicates, to me, that he’s actually been paying attention to more than one crisis at a time; they hadn’t even addressed Jesus directly. Then Jesus speaks to Jairus (“do not fear, only believe”). And he gets everyone else out of the way back at the house, takes the child’s parents into her room, takes the girl by the hand, and speaks to her as well.
I’m grateful for every last one of Jesus’ verbs here in Mark 5. Because whether or not you or I, or your loved one or mine, gets the physical healing we long for, whether or not every painful situation in our world is resolved the way we wish it could be, it seems to me there’s a certain constancy in Jesus’ verbs, a universality in their application.
The good news of the gospel is that the Jesus we meet here in Mark 5 also turns and looks for uswhen we need him, and he keeps on looking for us. He goes with us. He can hear and even overhear us expressing concern, pain, discouragement. He speaks to us words of comfort: “do not fear.” And he takes us by the hand.
So that even when the end result (in this lifetime) isn’t the knock-your-socks off miracle we’re hoping for, Jesus is still there with us, our Emmanuel, our Comforter. We’ll never go through a painful experience alone; always and everywhere he looks for us and hears us and holds us.
Those of us who know the end of the gospel story also know that raising up that one 12 year old girl – as mind blowing as it was – was merely a prequel to yet more amazing good news to come. Walking right out of his own grave, Jesus would ultimately pave the way toward resurrection stories for us all. And since sooner or later every one of us will face a situation from which we will not physically recover, this is good news indeed.
Meanwhile, as we made our way through this gospel chapter today, did you see any verbs you’ve shared with characters in Mark 5? Are you sharing any of them now? I pray Jesus meets you there, moving and engaging and verbing his way into your story, right where you need him most. Amen.
 Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture, pp. 20-21.