Reading Mark 5.21–end
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
For the Baptism of George Evans
YouTube and satellite television are wonderful places for catching up with old friends. One I’ve not seen for a while is MASH, an episode of which came to mind when I read today’s gospel reading.
MASH is a dark comedy about a field hospital in the Korean war, populated by a menagerie of military medics and a very nice RC chaplain. In one episode there is a rush of casualties. ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, the surgeon, is in the operating tent while the hapless Major Frank Burns is running the triage outside; that means he decides who gets treated first. He sends in one man with minor wounds, then another, while more serious cases still lie on their stretchers. An exasperated Pierce shouts, ‘Come on Frank! You got some gall bladders out there?’
When I first saw this episode, this was a sore topic for me, as not long before I had donated mine to St Thomas’ Hospital after the most painful night of my life. Gallstones are nasty. Even so, I am forced to admit that there may be more urgent operations on a surgeon’s list.
Mark’s gospel today shows a scene that, on the face of it, looks like another piece of triage incompetence: Jesus is on his way to heal a seriously ill little girl, then stops to heal a woman, and the delay keeps him from the girl until, according to the report, she dies. Jesus shouldn’t spend time on a chronic condition, surely – she has had it for twelve years, so another hour won’t make much difference – whereas a few minutes could mean the difference between life and death for the critical case of the girl, who is only twelve years old.
A provocative story, then, in a gospel of provocative stories. So far, though, I’ve only looked at it in human terms; and the point of Jesus is that you cannot do justice to him in purely human terms. So what can we find here if we are prepared to see not just the human stuff, but also what it shows us of God?
First, that intimate moment in the middle of a crowd, when the woman touches Jesus’ clothes and he notices, as if no-one else were there. You can come to God as she comes to Jesus: shyly, discreetly, privately. God will embrace you, and God’s infinite resources of love and mercy will come to bear on your particular needs, as if there were no-one else. But it may not stay that way: be prepared for God to lead you into the open, as Jesus does with this woman, for your faith eventually to become a public thing.
Second, that fatal delay. God wants us to have ordered lives, to use the finite gift of time as wisely as we can, but let us not imagine that God is confined as we are by the logic of the timetable or the business plan. In God’s economy there is time for ‘all that is needful’ as the hymn puts it that we’ll sing shortly. What we can’t do, God can. Nevertheless, we still tend to think of God as a supersized chap, an infinitely bigger version of ourselves, who works like we have to do, albeit on a vast scale.
So, when someone has a problem and I say, ‘Would you like me to pray for you?’ I occasionally get an answer like. ‘I’m sure God’s got far more important things to worry about than my job interview.’ (Or indeed ‘my gallstones.’) But it’s not for you and me to do God’s triage work for him. St. Paul says, ‘In everything, let your requests be known to God in prayer.’ (Philippians 4.6)
Today George comes to be baptised. This will be another intimate moment in a crowd, another moment of faith becoming public, as parents and godparents make their promises. It won’t be a moment of sickness, as in the gospel, but one of celebration, and George won’t touch God, as the woman touches Jesus, but instead God will touch him as the water is poured.
Aren’t there more urgent things for God to attend to this morning than George’s baptism and our Sunday service? Look at today’s papers and you might say Yes. But God’s ways are not ours. Momentous things are happening elsewhere, and God is surely there. But God is also here, completely present in these moments of pouring water and breaking bread, as though there were no other place in the world for God to be.
Sam Wells, the new vicar of St Martin in the Fields, once remarked how, on visits to a family before a funeral, when he asked about the deceased, the phrase he often got back was, “He was always there for you.”
I have (he says) long pondered this ubiquitous phrase. Did it mean he was never out when you called?… I’ve come to the conclusion that it means: what mattered was this man’s presence, his wordless permanence, his abiding touch. I’ve come to realise that it’s perhaps the greatest tribute that could be paid to anyone…Far from [it being] a banal cliché… I’ve come to understand that this invariable description of the deeply mourned, “always there for you,” is none other than a description of God.
May it be so for each of us, and especially for George. As parents and godparents encourage him along the journey of faith, may he comes to know that presence, that permanence, the abiding touch of God, that is beyond our understanding; but not beyond our reach.