When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.
This story is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all three, it is actually a story within a story. The story of the synagogue leader asking Jesus to heal his daughter is interrupted by a woman seeking healing from her hemorrhage of twelve years. After she is healed, then the synagogue leader’s story continues. The writer of Mark does this so frequently it’s called a Markan sandwich! I have preached other times on the inner story of the woman. Today I am focusing on the outer story, the synagogue leader and his daughter.
First I want to pause for just a moment to acknowledge that some of you have experienced the horrific pain of losing a child, whether as an infant or an adult or anywhere in-between. The loss is horrible at every age. I know hearing stories like this one can be difficult, since your child didn’t get what Jairus’s daughter allegedly received. We’re going to be looking at this story metaphorically in a few minutes, so stay with me if you can. If not, do what your heart needs.
There are a couple of details I want to point out. First is that Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to Jesus, falls at Jesus’ feet, and begs him repeatedly. “Falling at the feet of someone is a gesture acknowledging social inferiority. An ancient historian explains the gesture: ‘When they meet each other in the streets, you may know if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token: . . . they kiss each other on the lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek; where the difference of rank is great, the inferior prostrates himself upon the ground.’” As a leader of the synagogue, Jairus has prestige and respect. He is accustomed to being listened to, and he is accustomed to his orders being followed. But here he is falling at Jesus’s feet—and in front of members of his community. “This precious child’s illness has reduced him, weakened him, lowered him to the ground in front of a traveling folk healer in a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst from happening. . . .By going to this itinerate preacher-healer who was already in trouble with the authorities (authorities like him, in fact, his colleagues and perhaps even his friends), he risks being ridiculed.” In an honor-shame culture, this is huge. But all that matters is his child.
The second detail I want to point out is the role of the mourners. It was both custom and biblical instruction to hire professional mourners. But since Jairus wasn’t home when his daughter died, he didn’t hire them. Some scholars speculate that, given his status and therefore wealth, the crowd of mourners may have been “hovering around his daughter, waiting for her to die, that they might get paid for their services.” If they were paid mourners, it could explain their derision at Jesus’ statement. Jesus said, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Grieving family members would have been disturbed by what Jesus said, but would not be laughing.
Scholars disagree on whether this is a resurrection story or a resuscitation story. The word used for “asleep” in the original language was not the same word used for the sleep of death. So what if we take Jesus at his word, that the little girl really was just asleep? Maybe she was in a coma, appearing lifeless but not actually dead. I think this is an easier understanding not just because it frees us from the questions of why our loved one wasn’t resurrected, but because we all have experienced times of lifelessness, times when we were asleep not just physically, but emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. I think a lot of us experienced that in the past year.
At the beginning of the shut-down, when many people were stuck at home, I saw quotes online that said something like, “If you always said you’d write a book (or exercise or organize) if you had the time, and you haven’t done it since the shutdown, perhaps you need to admit: it was never about time.” Fortunately those memes were short-lived, at least in my feeds. People began to realize that being stuck at home did not necessarily mean we had more time, and it certainly didn’t mean we had the emotional energy for creativity or new projects. The pandemic has been exhausting. Many of us fell asleep, became lifeless, at least on the inside.
Of course this isn’t just pandemic-related. It happens all the time. Maybe it was the slumber of burnout and exhaustion, or a sleep caused by rage spent but never healed. Or perhaps you only meant to withdraw to protect yourself from trauma or grief, but couldn’t seem to awaken to new life. There are so many death-dealing parts of life that can drag us under, until our spirits and hearts and minds feel like they’re on life-support. Too many of us go through life asleep . . .asleep to the beauty around us, asleep to the glory within us, asleep to the hope within our reach, asleep to the reach our influence can have. We need a nudging from Jesus to rise from our stupor, our fatigue, and especially our stifled imagination.
Last week we talked about mental health, and today we talk about intellectual health, which to me is about our ability to see beyond our current circumstances and view of the world. Too many of our problems are caused by failures of the imagination. And I don’t mean the way the term is sometimes used, to talk about bad things we should have seen coming. I mean we fail to imagine a better world. We fail to imagine a more hopeful world. We fail to imagine that our lives can make a difference. We fail to imagine what truth can do. We fail to imagine the power of love. And it is difficult to create a world we cannot imagine. This is true for us as individuals and for us as the body of Christ.
Many “experts” say that the church in America is dying. It certainly is changing, and we need to change with it. But I feel a bit like the guy in the Monty Python movie: “We’re not dead yet!” The church in America needs an awakening. I imagine Jesus confronting our mourning for what was and saying, “You aren’t dead! You are just asleep!”
The last year has brought many changes to the church, with our online services and Zoom gatherings and not being together. More changes are still ahead, as we begin to return to in-person worship. People will soon begin to determine what they have missed the most in the past year of quarantine and distance. Will the church be one of them? I know for many of you—probably for most of you who are still watching after a year— the answer is unequivocally “yes!” But again, the “experts” tell us that will not be true for everyone. Some will say, “I’ve missed brunch in restaurants more than I’ve missed coffee hour.” Others will say, “I’ve missed baseball more than Bible study.” And please—there is no judgment here, especially for parents. Our children have missed out on so many things, and I won’t blame you if you prioritize Little League over Sunday school. I’m a parent—I get it. At the same time, we need to remember that all areas of our living need to come back to life. Raising well-rounded kids means attending to their physical, intellectual, relational, and spiritual needs.
It’s true for us as adults also. We need Jesus to walk into all of the areas of slumber and lifelessness. We need to let Spirit blow among our dry bones. We need to let Creator create anew in us, so that we can create anew in the world. The creed of the United Church of Canada begins with:
“We believe in God, who has created and is creating.”
We believe God is still creating. Is it so hard to believe God is still creating in us? And is it such a huge leap to believe that we are co-creators with God?
Let us awake!
 Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 167.