Pixar’s Riley and Jairus’s Daughter


Sermon for Sunday, June 28 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. Please see PDF version for attributions. 

The new Pixar movie “Inside Out” is about a girl, Riley, about the same age as Jairus’ daughter in today’s gospel reading from Mark. Riley is 11, turning 12 at the end of the movie. Jairus’ daughter is 12. Riley is actually the setting of the story, the principal characters are her emotions: joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Riley experiences a crisis in the form of a major life change, moving from Minnesota to San Francisco with her mother and father. In the course of navigating this major change, her inner world of her thoughts and feelings and mental constructions collapses.

I loved this movie, and I have some big criticisms of it: its simplistic portrayal of Riley’s inner life and especially the foregrounding of emotions as the primary drivers of our inner life. There is one important thing though that I think it gets right: how at certain ages and stages of our lives we go through a point when our insides get rearranged. Our bodies, our circumstances and social constructions we live in, and our interior — however these three interact and affect each other — come together and something happens to shake us off our moorings. Old mental models collapse: they don’t work anymore, they aren’t big enough. It can feel as though everything is falling apart. The image of things falling occurs over and over again in Inside Out. Sometimes this kind of change is gradual, and sometimes it is cataclysmic.

The meaning of 12

I suggest that In our gospel reading, our two unnamed females — a girl and an older woman — are each at a major point of transition, and each is responding.

Note the interweaving of the two stories. First there is the way they are told, with one interrupting the other. Literally as Jesus is on his way to see Jairus’ daughter he is interrupted. This not only serves the function of delaying Jesus, but also it suggests that each story sheds light on the other. There are common elements: there is the number 12, and we have Jairus’ daughter, and, Jesus calls the older woman “daughter.” Notice Mark’s frequent use of one of his favorite words “immediately.” this is more closely translated “straightaway.” This word recalls John the Baptizer “prepare ye the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.” “Straightaway” is more than a narrative driver, or a sense of urgency. It is a signal that the paths of the Lord are being made straight; things are happening as God wants them to happen.

So, looking at these elements in more detail: “twelve years” appears in both stories, so we’re mean to pay attention. The number 12 features heavily in Scripture: there are the 12 tribes of Israel, and the 12 disciples. There is a kind of wholeness to that number, but it is impermanent. We might think of it as signaling a phase, unlike the number 7, which signifies a kind of wholeness where things come full circle. The number 12 works for a while, it suggests a coming together of different people or groups allied with a common purpose. They build themselves as a community. But they don’t stay 12. and then — boom! they bust out of it and it is never heard from again. The twelve tribes of Israel are united as one people under the Ten Commandments. But they would come to understand that their proclamation is universal. Likewise the twelve disciples would cast lots to replace Judas, but then they would go forth to form churches in places like Corinth and Philippi and Ephesus and we never hear of 12 again. So the text may be suggesting to us that at this 12-year mark, we’re at an important time of transition. Something is about to break forth in the two women. Which way will they go, toward death or life?

The interweaving of the stories suggests something else to me. Women’s lives were largely circumscribed and defined by their body cycles. When they were able to bear children their parents would start finding them a husband. In Jesus’ day that would mean that Jairus’ daughter was marriageable, she is on the cusp of adulthood. Her life, need I say, was not her own. There were no choices; her life was mapped out for her. “She’s not dead, but sleeping. Little girl, get up.” How many sleeping maidens in legend can you name? Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. Brunhilde in Germanic legend.

Also, every month for several days women were deemed unclean, which kept them out of society. And women who were past childbearing years, where were they in the scheme of things? On one level they were largely useless. That is why there is the exhortation over and over again in the Bible to care for the widow and the orphan. The woman hemorrhaging for 12 years would have been marginalized from society for 12 years. The text suggests she was a woman of means. She had money for doctors, but now it’s all gone. Perhaps all those doctors didn’t take her “women’s problems” seriously. She would have kept herself apart, until things got so desperate and she was so intent on living that she breaks all taboos and touches the garment of a holy man.

Both women in a time of major transition, their place in society, their bodies, and, perhaps most especially, their inner life. This is a scary place.

Transitions are scary and unsettling. Old mental models and old assumptions don’t work anymore. In 1995 there was a book called “Reviving Ophelia” by Dr. Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist who had worked with girls for many years. She asked the question why so many adolescent girls, who were healthy and alive and active and vibrant as children were suddenly prey to depression, eating disorders, addictions and suicide attempts. Why were they “checking out”? Why was a formerly curious student suddenly silent in the classroom, uninterested in much? “In adolescence, girls become female impersonators who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces.” She examined the cultural messages we were giving girls and how they were eroding the girl’s sense of self. Just as the mental models of her childhood are falling away and she’s awakening to herself, she gets blasted with cultural messages that it’s all about what she puts on her fingernails. Her soul knows this is a lie. “She’s not dead, but sleeping. Little girl, get up.”

Females personifying faith

Who is Jesus, in the midst of all of this? Who is Jesus as the 12-year-old girl and the older woman are on the precipice of a major change, a major shift in their consciousness, in their lives? And what does this mean for us?

First, please note what Jesus calls faith! The older woman, breaking every boundary to fight for her life. “This sister is not dying. I will not be consigned to a life of perpetual inconsequence. I’m going to touch the holy man, I don’t  care how many taboos I break. Out of my way, boys!” And Jesus says “daughter, your faith has made you well”!

Jesus is in the soul space, where sometimes we are fighting for our lives. Jesus is bringing new life. The straight way of God is to be found in our own true selves, in newness of life. God is always calling us to life.

Those transition times, when all our mental models are collapsing, when the things we thought we knew and could stand on seem to crumble under our feet, are a call to newness of life. God is always there, calling forward.

And who is pulling on us, trying to get our attention, trying to get to Jesus?

One of the most important things we do for each other is to companion each other through life’s transitions to new life. To proclaim the presence of God, that God desires new life for us. We help each other see through the thin, empty promises of our culture. This is why we ritualize the major transitions. This is why our confirmation class honors the question and the skepticism, as new understandings are not being imposed from without but are being built from the inside, from the soul space. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. And we ask, who is Jesus in your life?

Jesus’ last words in this lesson are “get her something to eat.” We are called to feed each other, inside these walls and outside, in body, mind and spirit. Support each other and our world In the direction of new life and proclaiming the presence of God.

We hang out together. We bless each other. We feed each other. And we call each other into new life. She’s not dead, but sleeping. Little Girl. Get up. Amen