Something stronger

(Sermon for June 28, 2009 || Proper 8, Year B, RCL || Mark 5:21-43)

Imagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. And so I feared scorpions. When I was old enough to understand the meaning of the scowling soldiers wearing shiny, metal armor, I realized what happened to people who looked at them the wrong way. And so I feared that my father might one day fail to return home. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared that I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny, insignificant puncture on her forearm, and she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the assassin and stomped its hardened, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed – shivering – to the ground. My wife came `round the corner and saw me weeping, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing, raced over, and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could barely talk through my heaving: “Not me. Not me. Not me.” She understood and launched herself into the house to find our daughter. I couldn’t go back inside. I rocked back and forth: “Not me. Why not me? Why not me instead?”

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore, if I’m honest with myself. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why one day. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy,” she said.

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my anger, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target. He created the scorpion: for that, I could not forgive him.

I stalked back home and tapped on my daughter’s bedroom door. My wife opened it, and our eyes met – one empty stare gazing past another. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by the one I love but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke suddenly and cursed myself for having fallen asleep. Dawn was piercing through the gaps in the window’s shutters. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I growled and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I resolved first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street in the direction of the shore. They were laughing and calling to one another: “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

Then he turned and gestured to me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger ripped them out of me. The fear fought back, reminding me of last night’s blasphemy. A new fear gripped me – that God had, indeed, heard my anger and would do nothing for me now.

We walked back to my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. Who cares? My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother and his sons pushing their way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I started to fall, but my brother caught me and held me tight. “Your daughter is dead,” he whispered. I sagged in his arms. Again, he picked me up. “Come,” he said. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that had earlier ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said, and he pulled me along the path to my house. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. And I had no eyes but for my little daughter. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep,” he said, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, and it felt utterly foreign in this house, which now had Death for a tenant. But then I laughed again, and I noticed that the laugh didn’t come from my fear. The stronger something caused the laugh. The laugh was my body’s involuntary response to the truth of Jesus’ words.

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. He stared back into my eyes and suddenly I knew that hurling blasphemies at God under the cover of darkness meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

Jesus’ own laugh pulled me out of my thoughts. He smiled at the three of us twirling around and said, “She’s had a rough day. Give her something to eat.” My wife rushed off to the kitchen to prepare something, tears streaming behind her as she went. And then my daughter looked up at me, trust shimmering in her eyes. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms.

I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.

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