This morning, I start the sermon in an odd way. To preach this sermon on a gospel reading involving child mortality and a chronic disease fraught with taboo, I must begin to interpret these distasteful situations by speaking of food. To understand this passage, I must tell you a little something about “sandwiches.”
In the history of interpretation, Mark’s gospel is singled out for a curious storytelling technique. In nine separate occasions, Mark’s gospel will begin to tell a particular story, then just as he gets going, Mark adds another story he tells before returning to the story he started to tell. Among scholars, the best way to keep track of this technique is to liken it to making a sandwich: two pieces of bread with something else in between.
The so-called “Markan” sandwich is seen in today’s gospel reading:
Story one: Jarius comes to Jesus, asking for his daughter’s healing, as she is at home, hovering at the point of death
Story two: A chronically ill woman seeks healing by touching just the hem of Jesus’ garment
Story one: Jesus goes to Jarius’ home and declares the child thought dead to be alive, and the child is indeed alive, no longer at the point of death
The challenge with Markan “sandwiches” arises when we do not catch on to the storyteller’s technique. We may even read the two stories as unrelated, healing miracles that get in each other’s way when they are told.
Such storytelling has led some scholars to fuel a certain dislike for Mark’s gospel, considering the narrative a product of a less orderly narrator, with one commenting that Mark is “neither a historian or an author. He assembled his material in the simplest manner possible”. Worse, one scholar declared Mark “a clumsy writer unworthy of mention in any history of literature.” (As quoted in James R. Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan Narratives”, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1989): 194.)
Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed, and Mark’s gospel enjoys a great following among other scholars as a brilliant little narrative that keeps surprising its interpreters. This “sandwich” storytelling technique of a story and another story woven together is more than something for scholarly fancy. While the scholars debate, the Markan “sandwich” is there in the text to ask the reader a pressing question about faith and discipleship.
So, what sort of belief and way of living is found in this story of a father frightened at what will happen and a woman desperate for alleviation from a long-term illness? Why are these two stories joined together or are these ships passing in the night, one interrupting the urgency of the other? What sort of word is here for those who seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ?
The two stories revolve around healings, especially those that heal long-term or terminal conditions. Getting to the question of “what does this say about the Christian faith?” finds itself put to the side by many of us, as we ponder the nature of these healings. A touch that cures instantly a long-term malady or a command for the dead to rise are elements to the type of stories we have difficulty believing from our rational way of thinking and the Western world’s modern scientific worldview. Short of giving credence to “faith healers” found with the more Pentecostal of Christians, we might find ourselves a bit sheepish when it comes to sharing these stories of Jesus with friends. How does this square with a world we are otherwise willing to accept in its laws of physics?
Do we find ourselves more comfortable with the way of Bible reading suggested by the late Thomas Jefferson, who rather famously (infamously?) produced his own Bible after he edited out all of the parts he found too fanciful or supernatural to believe? How do we get from these stories of miraculous healings and from our modern knowledge of “how the world works” to the faith that connects 21st-century Christians with the first century gospel?
Reading the text, I admit some struggle with the questions of “how did this happen?” yet I realize the stories about miracles are not necessarily about the spectacle that captures our attention and vexes our modern mind. The stories certainly exist to affirm Jesus as the Son of God—one with powers and authority claimed by no other—as well as their contribution to what sort of faith the stories exist to tell and encourage. Do you trust in God even when life is at its most desperate?
Both the grieving father and the chronically ill woman seek more than alleviation. They seek Jesus out not only as a healer. They seek him out because of their faith in God and Jesus’ reputation as one claiming authority as the Son of God. The daughter and the woman are healed because of great faith.
It would be remiss of me to claim that that power is readily or easily available in today’s world. Too many of us know the frustration of prayers and the desperation of situations that did not end happily. Yet I cannot “edit” out these type of gospel stories out of the fuller narrative as they point to a virtue that cannot be reduced or dismissed. Trust in God, despite it all, is the goal of the believer. The resolution of healing or otherwise of a situation is not what these stories ultimately exist to impress upon the reader.
Growing up, our churches participated in an occasional hymn sing. Churches of varying denominations gathered on Sunday evenings when a month had five Sundays. Each church cancelled the evening worship service (if they conducted them) and gathered at a “host” church for one to two hours of singing hymns and sharing solos and ensemble singing.
The hymn sing that lingers most in my memory involved a solo offered by a Methodist. He walked to the altar with some difficulty and very slowly made his way up the stairs to the pulpit. He had suffered from M.S. in recent years, and his condition was worsening. The strain of his situation also involved his marriage breaking up in the past year or so.
As he stood there waiting for the pianist to get ready, he offered a word about the song he was about to sing, claiming the hymn he had selected for a solo made the most sense. Then he sang his song, which included the words
“Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand,
but I know who holds tomorrow, and I know I hold my Father’s hand.”
In this Markan “sandwich” of two stories, we encounter the clever interweaving of two stories about trust. The stories have everything to do with one another. Indeed, as it tends in the “sandwich” stories of Mark’s gospel, the middle story is not there to interrupt but to heighten the understanding of the two stories.
In the stopping and starting of two stories that strike us as unrelated at first, we discover what happens when people trust in Jesus, even with little or no prior encounter with him. Such stories elevate us above the otherwise narcissism we feel or the despair that tends to overwhelm us. We still live in the reality of ER traumas. We still face the finite finitude of our lives (often at times not of our choosing or best guesswork). We live in a world too aware of child mortality and lingering disease.
Mark’s gospel offers us something more than a placebo about life’s losses. This is not narrative that expects its truth to be judged on the grounds its stories contradict today’s scientific understandings. It is a story about faith, then and now, when things go wonderfully our way as well as for the rest of the time we know so well when things go otherwise, and sadly so.
Trust in God is a long-form game, even when we pray with grit teeth or shouts of joy. Even when the crowd around us scoffs at or dismisses faith, we are a people who take the stories of Jesus as our way, our truth, our light. We may not see miracles that often, if at all, yet we live in trust.