St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Trinity, November 14, 2021
“He said unto them, Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn.”
AS I SLIDE into the gentle years, I find that my seven or eight hours of sleep every night is a treasure to me. If I have trouble sleeping, it throws me off entirely. I can cut it with four or five hours, occasionally, but I need my sleep and will get it the next night, or else.
If we do it right, we spend about 1/3 of our lives lying down, our eyes closed, our breathing suppressed, and our minds somewhere else. It’s strange when you think of it. We dream about being awake, doing something that we’re not actually doing, holding conversations with people who don’t exist, or who aren’t in the room with us. Some dreams are frightening. Some dreams evaporate the moment we waken, much to our chagrin. We may even have what we believe are prophetic dreams, messages in the night from God to our subconscious, telling us things in our sleep that, only then, are we able to hear.
Sleep is a healer, and having sufficient sleep is important to our health. Through sleep, your immune system is strengthened and you get sick less often. Your weight is regulated. Stress is reduced and your mood is better. Your mind gets clearer and you perform better at work or school. You have better relationships. Sleep improves your memory, lowers your blood pressure, keeps your heart healthy, avoids diabetes. 1/3 of your life balances the strain we put on ourselves the other 2/3 of our wakefulness.
There is enough sleep and there can be too much sleep. Most of us just can’t oversleep. Our eyes pop open and there’s nothing for it, even on a day off, but to get up and start fixing breakfast. There are some who try to sleep excessively, perhaps due to mental health issues. It’s not good for the body, though, as it raises the potential for other chronic diseases of the heart and blood sugar variety.
There is sleep and there is too much sleep. Then there’s something else. An Iranian Christian pastor we once heard spoke of his experience coming to America and overseeing the churches. Back in Iran, under edict of death, the church is pretty awake. It has to be. And its members are fully committed, even if it costs them their lives. But in America, he said, the church is asleep.
“Now, sleep is good.” He said. “We need sleep at times. It gets you ready to wake and be fully on the job. But the American church’s sleep is an unnatural one. It’s only pretending to be asleep. It doesn’t want to wake up.”
In psychology, there are four ways that different personalities face danger. We all know fight or flight, to face off with a threat and be a bigger threat, or to simply run away from it. There are two more tempers. To fawn means the person tries not to be a treat but rather a friend, to make nice with the danger that’s coming. “Don’t hit me; I’m nice.” The final way is to feign, that is, to play dead. Dead meat isn’t fun to attack, so the guy playing dead tries to act like he’s not there, like he’s asleep.
Do you see yourself most naturally in one or another of these roles? Fight, flight, fawning or feigning sleep? Your temperament sets you up as one or the other, pretty much without thinking. And if we find ourselves playing dead often, it can resolve in a number of bad habits and unresolved conflicts. We get lazy. We hide from trouble. You’ve heard of a bear market, where the stock prices fall. Why a bear? Because bears hibernate in the winter, they go underground and sleep for months on end while it snows above.
Retreat may be necessary for survival when the odds are too high, but it can also be simply weakness in the face of real evil as we sound retreat once too often and avoid our enemy. I know I tend to avoid painful confrontations, but there are times that call for speaking out, for truth, for sounding the alarm, for calling a spade, else we simply justify our weakness as ‘peacekeeping’. And our children and our culture are held hostage while we sleep our watch away.
When you’re the only one aware of looming danger, and everyone else in the fort is sleeping, it’s a terrible moment and many doubts must be faced down, before you can raise the alarm to wake the troops to arms, to arms, and tell everyone how you heard a noise. You’re pretty sure the enemy is coming. Paul Revere, riding through the night and sounding, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” is something we celebrate, but just think of how he had to fight with his doubts and fears before he saddled that horse and spurred it on to a gallop…
A little girl was very sick. Her fever had peaked and her fevered dreams made her fitful and scared. Her parents were more frightened still. Her father, a leader in the synagogue, heard that Jesus of Nazareth was in town. The legends of His healing the sick gave the man hope and he was emboldened to defy opposition, to risk being called a fool, and just go find the man to bring him back, see what he can do. He ran out of the house. The mourners were already gathering for the death of his daughter they were sure was to come any time.
In another street in that city, a woman heard that Jesus was coming this way. Her long-time illness, bleeding from inside, the doctors couldn’t cure, but took her money all the same, was now 12 years in that agony, with threat of death, making her weak and unable to take part in a normal life. She had been made to hide in shadow, unclean and socially scorned. She feared to address the Master directly. Perhaps if only she might touch his robe, the hem of it as it trailed after Him.
Jesus met Jairus, who hastily told Him of his daughter’s dire condition. He took Peter, James and John along with Him and followed the man to his home. But along the way, as they hastened, Jesus stopped still. “Who touched me?” He asked. Peter was surprised. “The crowds jostle us all. What do you mean, Who touched me?”
“A healing has gone out from me. Who was it?” and Jesus looked around the crowd, scanning faces. Certainly, He already knew the answer, He always did. But was waiting for the truth to declare itself.
“I did it. And I believe my condition was just healed, Master!” cried the woman behind Him. Her look of loving appreciation brightened her face. The healing was having its way with all of her. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus told her.
But the delay had taken time, and as the party began to move again, members of Jairus’ household came to tell him his daughter had already died. “Why bother the Master, now?” they asked.
“Don’t be frightened,” Jesus urged him. “Just believe!” And Jesus showed the man He was ready to press on. They quickly covered the distance and arrived to find the mourners already setting up their wail. They were always glad to help a family properly meet death with loud crying and howling out pain. It was a profession. They were good at it.
As Jairus came in, he began directing Jesus’ party toward the girl’s bedroom, but mourners barred the way. “She’s dead. He can do nothing!” they objected. For a moment, strong emotion showed on the Savior’s face. He drove them from the house, saying, “Go away! She is not dead, but merely asleep! Leave us now.” Then He was led to her bedside.
One account tells us His words. “Talitha cumi!” He said. “Maiden, arise!” A word of command from the Master of life and of death, and her pallid eyes fluttered, blinked, and opened wide. She looked first with astonishment at Jesus’ face intent on hers. Then she saw her father, and she smiled wide. They helped her sit up and rubbed her arms and legs warm. Jesus took her by the hand and helped her stand up, as the word went out into the streets and the city of how the man from Galilee raised Jairus’ daughter alive from death.
Now, we can suspect they only believed the girl was dead, but were not as sophisticated as we are. She only revived from a coma, or some other medical condition. Some people like to bat away the miracles of Jesus and claim it’s the ignorance of ancient people instead of the ignorance of a post-modern world. Those people knew life and death intimately. When someone died, they didn’t call 9-1-1 and get fire and police to come declare death. They knew how to tell death themselves, far better acquainted with the causes and symptoms of death and dying than we ever are. And the girl had died.
Jesus told people that she was only asleep. What did He mean? He didn’t mean she hadn’t clinically died, because He never lies. But His words meant that she was in a state from which she would recover, like we revive when we lie down and close our tired eyes at night. Her soul and spirit were nearby. He would recall them and bring her back to life. It was a major miracle, one of three people we know He caused to live after dying, before He brought Himself by Resurrection to life everlasting.
For there is a sleep before all of us, someday, when we will lay these bodies down and they will seem asleep permanently. Our mourners will mourn, and our remains will be laid to rest with prayers and finality. Any suggestion that we’re coming back alive may be met with scoffing, and sympathetic looks. Dreamers. Dead is dead. But we know. As we’ve lived on earth so many years, animated and lively, so shall we rise to new life again. It’s His promise. “I will return for you. There are many mansions and I prepare one for you.” We may be asleep here now, but we are going to rise to new life and an eternal celebration, from which there is no waking and no sorrow ever again.
Meanwhile, live and dance and sing and work and love and play. And sleep your apportioned number of hours. But when the call comes, Arise!