2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27Mark 5:21-43
Scandals. They grab the front page. The evening news leads with them. They are devoured in the newly-discovered blogosphere, just below the ozone layer. They come from all corners of life: there are scandals in politics, religion, sports, journalism. And they are very much like that car wreck we pass on the highway: the details are distressing and we don’t really want to know what happened. But we cannot help but slow down and get a good look.
The word scandal is a Greek word. It means a “stumbling block.” And in that sense, many of the scandals with which we deal capture the essence of that meaning. Political scandals make us wonder about the veracity of our elected officials. Sports scandals cast a shadow over record breakers. Journalism scandals disillusion our naïve notion of truth-seekers. Religious scandals throw into question our faith in the church, in the clergy, in God’s very self. Scandals, in that sense of the word, are stumbling blocks to our ability to build relationships of trust by virtue of the fact that we have been betrayed.
But consider the following scandalous individual:
Will Campbell was born dirt poor in Mississippi. After serving in the South Pacific in World War II, he went to college and studied to be a Baptist preacher. His first call was to serve as chaplain at the University of Mississippi. In the mid-1950s, Will Campbell was fired for playing ping-pong with a janitor who happened to be black. Scandalous.
From there, Campbell went on to work with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white member of its ranks. Another scandal in a racially-charged society.
In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, he relates the story of the shooting of Medgar Evers, the young student who successfully integrated the University of Mississippi’s Law School. When Evers was killed, the SCLC’s leadership all went to be with the family. As Campbell drove through the Mississippi night with a friend, distraught and distracted by the death of a fellow activist and colleague, Campbell’s friend asked him: “Brother Will, did Jesus die for Medgar Evers’ sins?”
“Yes, of course he did,” came the quick reply.
“What about that redneck Klansman that shot him. Did Jesus die for his sins, too?”
“At that moment,” Campbell writes, “I became a Christian.” Campbell went to visit Evers’ family, to bring the good news of the hope of resurrection. He then went to visit with that young Klansman being held in jail, to bring the good news of release to prisoners and the forgiveness of sins. And this choice scandalized the SCLC.
Campbell is an outsider Christian, a modern-day prophet much respected for his ability to speak gospel truth and to question societal priorities in the light of the gospel. He is not concerned with being scandalous, if those scandals mean that people to question the relationships of trust they have built with society or politics or even religion itself. He is a preacher without a congregation, a Southern Baptist whose own denomination has disowned him. And for Campbell, his life and his moral choices have never been about taking popular or unpopular sides on issues of the day. Instead, Campbell’s ministry has been about being a disciple of Jesus Christ and following that calling with zeal and compassion. And if that means losing one’s job or one’s friends, if being Christian causes a scandal, so be it.
The scandalous call of Christ that Will Campbell represents is that of the apostle Paul. Because for Paul, the cross itself is a scandal. It is a stumbling block to those who would seek relationship with God outside of a relationship with Christ. What the Church proclaims week in and week out, that Christ died for our sake and that God extends salvation to us and that true strength lies in surrender and that the true life of faith is one of self-sacrifice, these things are scandals to a world focused on power and hoarding. For those who seek a relationship with God based on respectability and positive thinking, these two pieces of wood represent a slap in the face, a reminder that the Christian walk of a disciple is one of selfless giving and scandalous sacrifice.
We see glimpses of that scandal in our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus had been in the Galilee before, carrying out such scandalous activity as violating the Sabbath to heal a man and treading on purity laws in order to touch a leper. He has been absent for only a short while, visiting the Gentile communities to the East of the Sea. And as he returns to the Western shore in our text this morning, it is clear that the buzz around this wandering teacher and healer has built into a frenzy of activity.
At the head of the crowd that comes to meet him is Jairus, the synagogue leader who came to meet him. Jairus, given his position, was well known and well respected in the community. And he scandalously falls at Jesus’ feet; he prostrates himself before this serial Sabbath violator. As the crowd presses in around him, Jesus goes with respectable Jairus without a word. This story appears to be the central one of the text, Jesus healing the daughter of Jairus. And so, the second story we find comes as a rude intrusion.
An unnamed woman receives healing by touching Jesus’ robe. For twelve years she has been suffering from a bleeding. In other words, she is not only sick, but also ritually unclean. She would not have been allowed to participate in any of the religious rituals of the community. Her healing represents not only a triumph over the doctors and other faith healers of the day; it is also a moment that restores her into the community of faith. As Jesus makes his way to the home of Jairus, a central figure of the community, he stops to learn more about the woman, at best a person on the fringes of that society. How disrespectful to Jairus! How scandalous to the crowd!
Soon, the marginal conversation between Jesus and the woman take center stage. And so, another intrusion is needed, the interruption of Jairus’ household with the news that the delay has meant the death of Jairus’ daughter.
Jesus beckons them on anyway. As they arrive, they find the hired mourners wailing for Jairus’ daughter as David wailed for Jonathan. But as Jesus puts forth the absurd notion that the young girl is merely asleep, he reveals their weeping for the superficiality it is; they burst into laughter; a scandalous embarrassment to the one who has paid for their tears.
Finally, the scandalous story takes a final scandalous turn. Jesus takes the hand of the young girl; and by touching the dead, he has now made himself ritually unclean. With the unnamed woman restored by touching his robe, Jesus has now taken her place at the margins in order to bring healing to the girl. The girl gets up, and Jesus tells her parents to get her some food, an odd detail that reminds us of Jesus’ compassion for our needs, both spiritual and physical.
The story is, in a nutshell, a scandal to the sensibilities of the day. Jairus represents the respectability of the religious leadership. And yet, he humbles himself before this one who confronts that same leadership. Jesus’ willingness to go with Jairus is not surprising, given his place in society. But the time he takes for the woman is an affront to Jairus’ position in society and, therefore, to that society as a whole.
Where does this place us? What do we take from this story? How does it shape us? Are we willing to be scandalous for the sake of the gospel? Are we willing to confront the sensibilities of the society around us with a word of grace or an act of mercy?
Friends, there are times when the lectionary seems to line up very well with the non-religious holidays of our society. And there are other times when the lectionary readings seem to travel along oblivious to the way we have ordered our time. I have been contemplating the odd accident of assigned readings this week, knowing that much of our nation’s attention is focused on Tuesday’s celebrations. Perhaps the text and its lessons for us today have little to say to us as American Christians. Then again, maybe we can see our nation in that figure of Jairus, a country with prestige, power, and respectability in the world community. We see that Christ does care for us and desires the healing of our household, that he is willing to walk with us in our moments of pain and grief.
And if we continue to play out this metaphor, we must remember that we have daughters and sons who are at death’s door and in need of that healing. And we are not alone in this community. As Christ desires our healing, Christ also desires the healing of others, particularly those who are at the margins, the outcasts, the ones we might consider unclean, unworthy of attention. And like Jairus, we must acknowledge that our proper place is at the feet of Christ.
As I offer this interpretation to you, I even wonder how proper or faithful it is. Is Scripture there for us to understand our place as a nation? Or is it there for us to be transformed as individuals, finding our way in this world and society, seeing ourselves individually in the characters of Jairus, Jairus’ daughter, the unnamed woman, the crowd, the disciples, the paid mourners. If that’s the case, then there is plenty there for us: the need to be humbled in our pride, the challenge to our superficiality, the hope of healing offered in Christ, the hand of welcome extended to us at the margins, the life extended to us in our spiritual death. Perhaps this is where we are supposed to find meaning, seeing ourselves reshaped as Christians in the face of life’s circumstances.
But I want to offer one final possibility to you as we read this text: maybe this text is there for us as a Church, living in the midst of a society and a world where we seek to make faithful witness. Perhaps that witness is meant to be a scandal, not in the sense of that which grabs the headlines; rather the scandal I mean is that which puts all that we have and all that we are under the light of the gospel. And doing so, submitting ourselves to that harsh yet forgiving light, we turn it on those around us, asking them to do the same.