Sermon: 'Talitha Cum!'

A sermon on Mark 5.21-43, delivered at Manningham Uniting Church, 1/7/18. 

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God who mothers the world, may your wisdom be borne in my words. And may my folly be called out by your Spirit in those that hear it. Amen.

‘Talitha cum!’

‘Little girl, get up!’

Our reading today from Mark 5 is a story about radical transformation and healing. A young girl is raised from the dead; an adult woman is healed of chronic pain and bleeding. This is a story, ultimately, of hope. This is a story of the struggle of women being raised up.

My intention today is to try and understand how this story in Mark 5 teaches us, through the experience of the struggle of women, how to follow the way of Jesus. The point is that women who suffer and struggle for justice teach us about faith -- and we are wise to listen and learn.

This is a story, ultimately, of hope.

But because this hope is drawn out of the experiences and struggle of women I need to offer a disclaimer:

I am not a woman. As such I cannot speak for women. What I have sought to do in preparing this sermon is draw on the insights of women scholars, particularly from non-Western contexts. I owe a debt of gratitude to the wisdom of Nawal El Saadawi, Musa Dube, Hisako Kinukawa, and Silvia Regina De Lima, without the words and work of these women I could not speak.

In a recent BBC interview the Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi emphasised that, “feminism is not a Western invention. Feminism was not invented by American women. … No, feminism is embedded in the culture, and in the struggle of all women all over the world.”

El Saadawi alerts us to the fact that stories of women struggling for justice are not new. They are, if only we look, all around us. They are there, in front of our noses, offering us wisdom, if only we would listen. I simply stumbled across El Saadawi’s interview in the lead up to preparing this sermon. Although she makes no reference to the Bible in her interview, her insight alerted me to something that very much is in our reading for today: a woman, suffering chronic pain, struggling to survive.

El Saadawi suggests that these stories of the struggle of women place on us a responsibility: “We have to liberate women economically, socially, psychologically, physically, religiously ... ”

Put simply: we have to empower and listen to women.

Musa Dube’s reading of Mark’s Gospel helps to flesh out the concrete realities of suffering, by referring to the suffering faced in her home country of Botswana. (Where Dube is a Professor of New Testament studies.) There, she tells, “every student knows somebody … who is dying or has died of AIDS.” Trying to read stories of healing, like our reading from Mark 5, challenges us to begin from an honest understanding of what suffering looks like. And to grapple with the situations into which the liberating message of Jesus must speak.

Dube highlights that many people in Africa suffer as the woman with bleeding suffered. Not simply with chronic pain, but like the bleeding woman, many are forced to spend all of their money just to afford treatment -- just to survive.

Closer to home, we might pay attention to similar examples of concrete suffering. Many asylum seekers spend all of their money to journey from persecution to safety, struggling to survive: only to end up in Australia’s off-shore detention centres. Off-shore detention centres were 12 men have not survived. Or we might think of Eurydice Dixon, the young woman murdered in Princes Park on her way home from work. A tragically common occurrence of a woman killed by gendered violence.

What should strike us as we read this 2000 year old story of a woman suffering from chronic bleeding, having spent all of her money on physicians to help her survive -- what should strike us is how very close this story is to us. How very real it remains for people who continue to suffer. How very real this story remains in the complex relationships between poverty, persecution, and illness.

The story in today’s reading is retold over, and over, and over again in the lives of people who suffer in poverty and sickness. And especially in the struggle of women in those situations; both here and around the world.

Hisako Kinukawa compounds this harsh reality, urging us to remain attentive to the social and political location of the figures involved in the story. The woman with the flow of blood is both marginalised socially because she is a woman, and deemed religiously unclean because of her chronic bleeding. This contrasts quite strongly with Jairus, a leader in the local Synagogue and community.

If we pay close attention to the narrative, the bleeding woman interrupts the broader flow of the story: Jesus is asked by Jairus to come and heal his dying daughter. The narrative is driven by the concern of Jairus, an influential figure in this community. The bleeding woman is forced to intrude into this narrative.

The concrete realities of suffering into which the hope of Jesus must speak are often the same today. Agendas driven by the concerns of influential religious and political leaders, suffering women forced to intrude into what’s going on.

This is the site of struggle that we are responsible to speak the liberation of Jesus in-to.

We might then turn back to Mark 5 and look closely to how Jesus speaks liberation into the situation of the bleeding woman, and Jairus’ dying daughter.

Musa Dube is helpful here, noting that the bleeding woman is perhaps conscious of Jesus’ intent to travel to Jairus’ house. Perhaps she was in the crowd when Jairus fell to Jesus’ feet and called upon Jesus to come and heal his daughter. The bleeding woman does not overtly try and stop Jesus’ journey; she says, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Her own struggle for healing bears in mind the suffering of others - namely, Jairus’ daughter.

As Jesus feels healing power come out of him he turns and questions the crowd. As the healed woman comes forward she falls down before Jesus - just as Jairus did - and tells the “whole truth.” It is not clear what the “whole truth” entails, but we might imagine it includes her story: chronic suffering - perhaps caused by childbirth - a path to poverty - her money spent on doctors - an attempt to find space for herself in the context of a social life that excludes her, and political agendas in which she feels an intrusion.

Hear then the words of Jesus: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

The reality of healing for this suffering woman is made possible because Jesus gives her space, affirms her struggle, and hears her story. Jesus’ response to the healed woman does not emphasise his own ability to heal, Jesus does not reaffirm his own power -- rather, Jesus empowers this woman whose struggle to survive brings her to faith. This is the way of Jesus. Power found in humility and service. Healing found in standing with those that suffer -- as Christ ultimately does on the cross.

Jesus’ affirmation of the woman’s faith reminds us that this is not a story of Jesus going out of his way to heal someone. Jesus does not drive this story. But rather the woman herself, reaching out in hope for transformation, draws out the reality of healing.

Kinukawa sees in this encounter Jesus establishing a new social order - what is often called the Kingdom or reign of God - which creates space for suffering women to tell their stories, and affirms their faith. This leads many feminist scholars to speak not about the Kingdom, but about the Kindom (no 'g’), noting that the reign of God encompasses the caring of family (kin), and of mothers, and all women that bear the predominant work of caring in families.

Silvia Regina De Lima traces the shape of this new social order - this Kindom - by suggesting that our own experiences should stand alongside those narrated in the Bible. Our own encounters with the struggle of women can become a site of encounter with God. We can see the power of God enacted in our participation in the liberation of women: following the lesson of Jesus, not because we bear power, but because we are able to empower others, and listen to their stories.

In that liberating encounter we might find the hope that this story offers us.

But the story does not end there. The story continues. While the healed woman interrupts Jesus’ journey to Jairus’ house, delaying his arrival until the young girl seems dead, Jesus does, in fact, arrive. Jesus arrives to find the young girl asleep -- seemingly dead. And proclaims to her:

‘Talitha cum!’

‘Little girl, get up!’

Musa Dube, again, helpfully highlights how this proclamation has caught the imagination of African women theologians. The proclamation that a young girl should arise, and should be fed, reverberates through the women’s theology of Mercy Oduyoye, Musimbi Kanyoro, and others. The proclamation: ‘Talitha cum!’ is itself a proclamation of the Good News, a proclamation of the Gospel.

We have within us, as individuals and as a community, a message of hope that we are called to proclaim to girls who are too often told what they should be, and what they can’t be:

‘Little girl, get up!’ We will feed you, we will support. And if you suffer, we will create space to hear your story, and empower you to transform the world. This continuation of the story must always be kept in mind.


‘Tiltha cum!’

This is the Good News. Amen.