Sunday, July 5th
Pentecost 5. Proper 8B.6/28/15 St. John’s Church, Westwood
Rev’d Jennifer Phillips 2 Sam.1:1,17-27; 2Cor.8:1-15; Mk5:22-43
Okay, I bet you noticed that startling story bracketed by two parts of the healing of Jairus’ daughter, the recounting of the woman healed from her menstrual hemorrhage of twelve years. For a long while the lectionary skipped that part, maybe thinking this was too rude a subject for our delicate ears…but isn’t that an interesting choice: the decision that her “woman’s trouble” isn’t nice to talk about in church. Glad we’ve moved past that, since the Gospel doesn’t regard it so. That was part of the woman’s problem too, and why she was sneaking through the crowd behind Jesus, desperate for help, but afraid to ask face to face. Not only was she burdened and rendered invisible by social embarrassment, in her time she was also religiously untouchable. Here’s what the Levitical Law (15:25) says about her:
Every bed on which she lies, and everything on which she sits – is unclean. Anyone who touches those things or touches her – unclean. Her clothing – unclean. Her body to even her husband – unclean. Sexual relations – prohibited. For twelve years! And of course, everyone in her neighborhood would know it, for it would be her task to be constantly vigilant to protect others from her ritual danger to them. Not much different than a leper, except that she would not have the company of a community of other such untouchable persons!
This must have been a very gutsy human being, this woman who for twelve years went to healer after healer seeking some cure without success, spending all that she had. I bet she tried all the research medicine of her time – spells and potions, oracles, pilgrimages and talismans, incantations, poultices, herbal remedies that might have made her sicker than she was to start with. She must have been severely anemic, probably exhausted, and was lucky to be still alive. Possibly she had been unable ever to have children. She herself spends the money – suggesting she is widowed, or possibly and shamefully, divorced by her husband. Surely, people who recognized her whispered about her behind her back, drew away when she passed lest they touch her by accident. No woman should touch a man outside the family, least of all one who is so stigmatized. But here she is in the story, out in public undaunted, marching up behind Jesus and grabbing his clothing just in case there might be something to this story that he is a great healer. She is breaking all the rules, making him ritually unclean as a Jew for the rest of the day, interfering with any plans he might have had to go to the synagogue or offer prayers. And she is not asking permission.
Have you noticed that in the Gospels, this sort of woman’s behavior is not disparaged; no, in fact it is lifted up as exemplary. Remember Jesus telling the parable about the “importunate widow” (Lk.18:3) who goes to beg her case to the judge who tries to send her away. But she comes back and back and back and will not be silenced, and finally the exasperated judge gives in, not because of the legitimacy of her complaint but because she won’t stop bugging him. Jesus says, “look here if you want to see something about the reign of heaven. God’s country is like this woman who will not give up and be polite and patient.”
Jairus, the synagogue leader, too, persists in his hope for help from Jesus, even after his neighbors start pulling on his sleeve to say the child has already died and it’s too late. “Don’t flog the teacher with your demands,” they say. But he carries right on. An important religious figure, he throws himself at the feet of a religious outsider to beg for help – an extraordinary gesture of desperation and hope from a parent ready to try anything. If you’ve had a mortally sick child you know how this is!
A desperate, hopeful persistence, a determination that trespasses boundaries to get closer to God, a combination of humility and gumption that will do whatever it takes – these are hallmarks of God’s reign, for Jesus. This is that which translators name “faith,” “pistis” in Greek, maybe best translated “trust,” implies. An active belief that God is able to do remarkable things, that God is listening to the cries of the people, and that it is the job of a human being to do everything possible to get God’s attention and to secure human intervention, to relieve suffering and restore life. Both the woman and the child are saved as a result of such trust. Nothing passive or abstract here – these people take action on their own behalf! We have seen gutsy action and persistence in vision over decades bear fruit this week in the news. By it, outsiders become part of the family, part of the community, and those who find healing beyond what they thought to seek.
The healed woman behind Jesus comes forward when called for, fearfully, expecting to be accused and condemned for breaking the rules and stealing her cure. But instead, Jesus calls her “daughter” – this woman who has been ostracized from the Jewish family for a dozen years. What must that have felt like to her? Perhaps you, too, know someone who has been ostracized by their family, considered unclean, unacceptable – and perhaps over time you may have seen such a one restored, reconciled, accepted and loved. It is a powerful experience. The woman with the hemhorrage is brought back into the heart of the community, and this constitutes her healing as much as the physical change. We can imagine that he goes on to take her by the hand and lift her to her feet – in front of everyone.
We hear these healing stories in company with 2 Corinthians about the obligation of God’s people to the poor, likely Paul asking for the relief of Christians in a far-off community who are in need. What would it mean to us if we had as much urgency and hope in seeking to counteract poverty as the woman with a hemorrhage and the father of a dying child had in seeking help for their plights? What would it look like if we were willing to throw out rules and give up polite patience in seeking health care coverage for all who are sick, food for all who hunger, decent housing for those lacking affordable shelter, just wages and benefits for all who work? These are the basic needs that the Scriptures tell us time and again are the work of God’s people to provide for all in need.
Jesus, after all, was not executed because he gave helpful therapy to some sick people and fed a few crowds; he was tried, sentenced, and executed for threatening the whole political order, for upsetting the Roman applecart, for calling into question the rules and systems that were unjust and saying that God would have it otherwise; that there is a higher empire than the one based in Rome (or Washington). By a combination of hands-on work with individuals, political advocacy, and religious proclamation, Jesus stirred up the world toward change and hope. Should we do less?
The stories of Jesus’ healing ministry remind us, too, that we are not loved by God because of our good works, we are loved even before we lift our hand to work, because we belong to God, because God chooses to love us and ill us with the Divine energies. In that love, we become capable of extending love through what we do in the world. As we experience the Divine love and the energy of the Holy Spirit within and around us, we are moved to thankfulness and praise, and good works are what Paul considered the natural fruit of that graceful activity of God sending us out as apostles to others.
I think that we come together here because in some way each of us yearns to stretch out our hand to the hem of Jesus’ garment and to feel the surge of his Spirit-energy within us. We seek healing, and we wish to be healers, or to be even better healers, in some way in the world. We wish to receive grace and to pass grace along as clear channels for its goodness. We sense the glory of God when we stand in the community of those who also reach out after God and are found by God, and for this it is right that we give our thanks and praise.
As I ruminate on last month’s Graduating Seniors Recognition Sunday, and the eloquent preaching of four of our young St. John’s members, I recall that each one said in his or her own words to the congregation, to youth minister Emily, to Rev. Karen who shepherded them over most of the last three years: you have made a huge difference in my life! Every college student or young adult who returns from their home out of town to visit St. John’s, or who comes back and acolytes on a Sunday for old time’s sake, tells us we are having a positive impact on the formation of their adult faith and their abiding sense of community.
When you think and talk to others about St. John’s, when you make your yearly pledge, when you say your prayers, don’t forget to give thanks for our young members from tiny to newly adult and to ask God to bless and keep each one. If you are new to the church, get to know the children and their names, and ask them how their week has been, just as you might ask their parents. When you see an acolyte doing a nice job, thank them for serving, and tell them it matters. As the presider I tell them often that they are leading the congregation in their prayers, that doing this service with attention and grace and reliability is important in helping everyone to relax into worship knowing it is done “decently and in order” as our Prayerbook directs. You tell them, too! If someone’s fidgeting distracts you, let them know that, gently – doing this says that the behavior of leaders matters. Never forget that at church, God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit breathed into the beloved community, is changing lives!
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