Stories within stories: Mark 5.21-46
St Michael’s AL3 4SL 1st July 2018
Sometimes we find two stories talking to one another. Having recently passed the longest day, I was reminded of an example from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Within his famous drama, Shakespeare embeds a second play, the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare uses the bumbling artisans who rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe as a comic contrast with the genteel nobles who occupy his main storyline. But of course the two plays have deeper connections. Pyramus and Thisbe is about feuding families and forbidden love, themes which illustrate Shakespeare’s main plot, in which the lady Hermia is not permitted to marry Lysander because her father wants her to marry Demetrius, and so on…
It is a time-honoured technique, a play-within-a-play, a book-within-a-book – not a distraction from the plot but a tool for illustrating and understanding the message of the author. The writer of Mark’s gospel is a master of this device. On several occasions he forges literary sandwiches, one narrative within a second that illuminate each other. Indeed, we have just heard Mark’s best example. He wants us to understand the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the haemorrhage as a single incident. Let’s think of the ways in which he binds the two stories together.
By sandwiching together the tales of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with a haemorrhage, Mark is making two points. The first is about faith in the face of adversity. Jairus and the woman were both fearful. Both approach Jesus at their wits end. Both were wracked by sadness, anxiety, and vulnerability. All they had left was trust in the nomadic teacher whose fame was spreading throughout their region. And their faith was rewarded:
So this story is told as encouragement for us to have faith in the face of adversity. What are your burdens? In worship we come to the Lord with heightened emotions. We bring those things in prayer which make us sad, anxious, and vulnerable. We lay them down. We admit that we cannot sort them in our own strength. When we do this we can leave in praise, our trust and hope renewed.
And when we do this, either in private, or today as a congregation, we see the kingdom of God growing: men and women deepening their relationship with the Jesus. And in this vein, the second point I get from today’s gospel is a lively message of inclusion. It doesn’t matter whether you feel rich or poor, like Jairus or the woman, whether you are popular or shunned, whether your problem is acute or chronic: Jesus’ love and power towards those who approach in faith is unequivocal, unwavering, and unlimited.
Sometimes we find two stories talking to one another. As many of you will know, I have spent the last three months on sabbatical, walking around with a paper bag on my head in case I should be recognised in civvies. I have been afforded this great privilege by the diocese to use for rest and reconnection with God. It has been a wonderful time – but not (I hasten to add) a holiday – Anna, Alex and I look forward to a family fortnight in August. No, the point of Extended Study Leave is to benefit my ministry (and hopefully by extension all our ministries) in the years ahead, two parts of the story talking together.
An early part of my sabbatical was to spend a fortnight in Turkey where I visited the sites of the seven churches to which letters are addressed in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. For those who wish to hear more, I hope to run a Parish Centre evening about this trip. Later in the year I also hope to do a series of sermons on what those letters might be saying today.
Since returning from Turkey I have been reading around issues thrown up by those churches and their letters. Some of this has been in the British Library, some in Oxford, and some at home. Part of my reading has roved well beyond issues of history and Bible and into topics not directly related to the Seven Churches. I have been particularly keen to find out more about the Eastern Orthodox churches, their beliefs and practices, about which I am largely ignorant. On the back of this I have written a journal article on the Holy Spirit – copies on request if it ever gets published!
And I have not just had my head in books.
One immediate outcome of being able to reflect on our hinterland in this way is that I now know what the Parochial Church Council needs to do in order to renew our Mission Action Plan in the next few months. That is not to prejudice the outcome of our prayerful discussions, but I do look forward to sharing with the July PCC a clear proposal for how we can complete our review and set a new strategic plan for the next five years. The Mission Action Plan is a document for us all – not the PCC. Parishioners have had a chance to contribute to this via the survey on last year’s Christmas card, but if you have further thoughts about priorities and issues for the next five years then I encourage you to share them with your PCC representatives.
I don’t just want to tell you about my study leave because it conveniently links with Mark’s technique of interweaving two stories. In addition, I need to say thanks. I’m deeply grateful to everybody for generously respecting my space in the last quarter; this has allowed me to get the most out of this time apart. And thanks as ever for your collective ministries in upholding God’s worship and witness in this place, especially those who have done more than usual. I’m particularly delighted that things have not just stood still but that you have progressed things such as the temporary reordering licence at the west end and preparations for the World War One Weekend in September.
(In which vein a tangential plug for next Wednesday evening, the Folk Festival of live music and refreshments in the churchyard. Folk Night is St Michael’s number one opportunity to show our neighbours that Christians are not swivel-eyed loons. Do come down and have a fun evening – but more importantly come and engage those whom you don’t recognise. ‘Hi. It’s great to see you. Do you know St Michael’s? I come here on Sundays at 9.30. We have good stuff for your children as well as adults.’ That’s the sort of conversations I’d love us all to be having on Wednesday evening.)
Another reason why I wanted to speak about my sabbatical this Sunday is so that we don’t have to do it next week. Our focus next week needs to be elsewhere. Next Sunday we will be extending a warm welcome to Charles King our new curate and to Anke his wife. Charles and Anke are a delightful couple. They will be a huge blessing to us and with us. Please come and start to meet them next Sunday during and after the 9.30am.
Charles will be ordained this morning as a deacon at the cathedral. I will need to leave straight after this sermon to get up there for a briefing. But the ordination doesn’t start until 11.15am so do bowl up the hill after this service if you have time.
Pyramus and Thisbe was not a sideshow for Shakespeare. It was an integral part of the whole Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just so, Mark sandwiched Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the haemorrhage because, when combined, they underline what he wanted to say about faith in the face of adversity and the inclusivity of Jesus’ ministry. The stories are not separate narratives but a seamless whole.
With this unity in mind, I think this model of a story-within-a-story is much more than just a technique for writing a play or a book. It presents a challenge to all who aspires to follow Christ in the twenty-first century. The gospel confronts our story with Christ’s story, our world and his Word. It’s a really good start when people respond by ‘accepting God into their life’. But I want to suggest that this is the wrong way to view the sandwich. Our God is not so small as to become part of my life, my world, my vision. The challenge of faith is not to squish Christ into my story but to acknowledge my place within his story. God’s plan of creation and salvation to which the Bible bears witness cannot become part of me. But through faith I can find my place in that plan, not as an adjunct to my identity but recognition that the drama of my life is authored and ended in God.