Sweetly Sleeping

Proper 8, Year B: Psalm 30; Mark 5:21-43

There is a historic graveyard in East Texas between Kountze and Lumberton that I have visited throughout my life because several generations of my family are buried there.

It’s an old cemetery, established in 1850, so there are sections where many of the markers are crumbling and falling apart; the text is worn and wearing away from headstones.

There are no neatly manicured lawns at this cemetery. Instead, there are sporadic patches of green St. Augustine grass on orange East Texas sand. Light filters through the thick canopy of tall oak trees, pine trees, and large dogwood trees. In the spring, when the dogwoods are in bloom, it is simply glorious! And every so often, the dogwood bloom coincides with Easter. 

On one visit, I noticed that someone had placed an old, broken portion of a marker at the foot of a young woman’s grave. Her glossy headstone was dated 1989, but this worn fragment placed at the foot of her grave was much, much older. The carved text, though eroded through the years was still legible. 

It read: “sweetly sleeping.” When I saw this, I thought of this story in Mark. The story of Jairus’ daughter.

Jairus, as Mark tells us, is one of the leaders of the synagogue. And, last time Jesus was in this neck of the woods, the Pharisees and the Herodians were conspiring against him. Plotting his death. 

Yet here is Jairus, a humbled religious leader and desperate parent begging for help: “my little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live.” It is a declaration of faith and cry for help, all rolled into one. Jesus responds to it immediately.

Then the story is interrupted with another story. For on the way to Jairus’ house, a large crowd “followed him and pressed in on him.” In the crowd, there is a woman who, like Jairus, had heard about the power of God working through Jesus. She “had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” and “had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was not better, but rather grew worse” (v. 26). 

Her condition also made her unclean according to purity laws, causing her to experience a social death. For, womanhood in first century Palestine was largely defined by being a wife and a mother. Her condition denied her of both. 

But on this day, she is in the crowd, drawn forward by her faith to take this great risk. She reaches out and touches the cloak of Jesus. 

He feels power go out from him. 

Notice: he was not made unclean by her touch, but instead she was healed. 

That’s not the way we expect things to go! At least not according to purity laws.

Her condition did not harm him. 

Instead, his being healed her. 

“Daughter, your faith has made you well”, he says.

Moments later, Jairus receives the news that his daughter is dead. Jesus turns to him and says, “Do not fear; only believe.” The woman with the hemorrhage demonstrates how faith in Jesus healed a “grave illness.” But, in Jairus’ case, faith must now confront death.[1]

When they arrived at the house, there was a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. But when Jesus tells them, “The child is not dead but sleeping”, they laugh at him. 

Then, the gospel writer tells us: “he put them all outside.” What’s notable about this is that Mark uses this same Greek verb that he used in other stories when Jesus cast out demons. 

Here, the voices that would not hope, 

that could not see beyond death’s tyranny, 

were sent packing!

And if you recall, back in chapter 3, after casting out demons Jesus is accused of being Satan. To this he replies: “How can Satan cast out Satan? … But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (3:23-27). 

Spoiler alert: Jesus is the stronger man and is about to do some plundering!

Jesus takes the hand of the corpse of Jairus’ daughter — this is of course another shocking violation of purity law — and says: “Little lamb, arise.” 

And she did.

This is a powerful story for anyone who has ever had a loved-one who was at the point of death and regained their health. This is also a powerful story for anyone who has ever had a loved-one who was at the point of death — and died.

For regaining health, that is easy to give thanks for! It is easy to see goodness and God’s hand at work in that

But if you have ever read this scripture passage or stood under the stained-glass depiction of this story and burned with the question: but why didn’t you do this for my loved-one and for me?This story is a bit more difficult to receive.

I do not seek to diminish such feelings and questions. I’ve had them myself. But I want to point out that the Gospel of Mark offers and invites us into another experience of this gospel story: a deeper, broader, life-giving, hopeful, faith-full, good news experience.

Now, of course it must be said that Jairus’ daughter, though resuscitated by Jesus, did one day die. Jesus’ pastoral and miraculous intervention did not mean that she altogether side-stepped the natural order. 

But what Mark is showing us is a fragment of what will become part of a bigger picture. Mark is showing us a glimpse of a power stronger than death, which will be demonstrated fully in Christ’s Resurrection. 

The raising of Jairus’ daughter foreshadows Christ’s Resurrection. It’s a preview of God’s power to raise Christ from the dead, and therefore all of us in the “Resurrection of the dead.”

In our tradition, through baptism, we believe “that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of saints. The communion of saints: the whole family of God, living and dead, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise” (BCP, p. 862).  These are words from our catechism. This is the doctrinal stuff. The head stuff.

But what about the heart stuff? For all of us who have lost loved ones, and all who imagine themselves in this gospel story as part of Jairus’ family — Jesus has words of the heart for us. 

Remember, upon overhearing the news that Jairus’ daughter is dead, Jesus turns to Jairus — who is undoubtedly overcome with grief. And with a heart and face full of compassion, Jesus says: “Do not fear; only believe.”  

This is God Incarnate speaking to our broken hearts, 

hearts hemorrhaging with grief: 

Do not fear for the well-being of your loved one; only believe in my love and saving purpose. In Jesus, God Incarnate, “the one stronger than death has arrived.”[2]

So as these two stories in today’s gospel show us: Jesus is with us in the struggles of life and at the end of life. Whether we reach out to him, or he reaches out to us — his power and love are greater than anything that ills us or kills us.

Jesus insists: “She is not dead, but sleeping.”  

Which brings us back to that old East Texas cemetery. It is Easter. And the dogwoods are in full bloom. That eroding stone fragment is still at the foot my sister’s grave: “Sweetly sleeping” it says.  

Jesus comes to us with his healing touch, in resurrection power — stronger than anything that ills us or kills us.

And just he has done with those who have gone before us, 

and as he will do with those who come after us, 

he takes us by the hand and says: “Little lamb, arise!” 

[1] Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, p. 102.

[2] John Shae, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Mark, Year B.

Image above: Punt, Annemiek, 1959-. The Daughter of Jairus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57959 [retrieved June 27, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Delft_NKerk_Jairus.JPG.

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