a priest's musings on the journey

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Sermonette: Proper 9B - 2 July 2006

Mark 5: 21 - 43
The healing of the woman with the Issue of Blood and the Raising of Jairus' daughter

Note: This sermonette was expanded and republished in 11/05/2006

Ok, I'll admit it. I am not always a huge fan of the Gospel of Mark. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good adventure and a fast-paced story line. Mark, though, moves a bit too quickly. He ends stories abruptly, and leaves out a lot of detail. However, in today’s Gospel reading, Mark is brilliant! He beautifully pairs together the two stories that we just heard. These two miracles flow into each other and feed off each other, illuminating a radically new message of inclusivity and acceptance in the Reign of God proclaimed by Jesus.

You may remember that last week the setting of the story was the Sea of Galilee and Gentile territory. In that story, Mark begins to show us a Jesus who redefines the boundaries of God’s Reign. Jesus heals a Gentile man possessed by demons, offering him the same healing compassion that he had offered the Jews. (In a few weeks Jesus will seem to forget about these new boundaries when he initially refuses to heal the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman, but that’s a story for later). Today’s story is set back in Jewish territory; but, it still centers around characters who were marginalized from the community.

Mark begins the story with Jesus’ return from Gentile territory. As soon as he reaches the shore, he is surrounded by the crowds. Suddenly, Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, falls at Jesus’ feet in grief. His only daughter, a 12 year old girl, was sick and dying. There seemed little hope for her; yet, Jairus believed that if Jesus would TOUCH her, she would be healed. It is striking that this Jewish leader would even approach Jesus. Perhaps his love for his daughter and his faith in God gave him the courage to ask Jesus for help, even if that meant that he might be ridiculed by his peers. I imagine that love and faith moved Jesus, who agreed to go with him and heal the girl. They did not go alone, however. The great crowd followed, pressing into Jesus, hoping to hear a word of wisdom, more probably hoping to see a miracle. Suddenly, on the road to Jairus' house, Jesus stopped and asked what surely must have been a ridiculous question: "Who touched me?" "Lord," the disciples answered, "the crowd is pushing against you, it could have been anybody." Jesus knew, though, that this wasn't just a push. This was an intentional touch. This was the kind of touch he was about to give Jairus' daughter. A touch of faith- a touch that had been a conduit for healing grace.

Jesus looked around to see who had touched him. Trembling, the woman, whom Holy Tradition names as St. Veronica (yes, the one who wiped our Lord's bloody face on the way to the Cross) fell at his feet and admitted she had touched him! She told the story of her illness, and how she knew that if she could just "touch the hem of his garment" that she would be healed. When she finally mustered the courage to touch him, she was immediately healed!
She had been sick for twelve years, and according to the Jewish Purity Code, her flow of blood made her unclean and unfit to be in the community. She had not been able to worship with others or to have any contact with the community. In fact at this moment, for all she knew, she was about to be stoned to death, as the Law proscribed, because she had intentionally and willfully touched a man and made him unclean. Yet, Jesus did not condemn her. Instead he praised her for her courage and faith. He went even further, giving her back not only her health, but her status and dignity. He did not treat her as an outcast; rather, he restored her place in the community of the people of God, and announced that she was included in his family, even if the other religious leaders rejected her.

While Jesus was speaking to St. Veronica, news came that the little girl had died. Jairus was advised to return home, instead of wasting Jesus' time, since nothing could be done now. Jesus, however, behaved as if there were no problem at all. He simply stated, "do not fear: only believe." When he arrived at Jairus' house, he only allowed Peter, James, and John to follow. Upon arriving he saw the mourners who had gathered to weep and wail. "Why are you all wailing?" he asked, "She is not dead, she is only sleeping." The mourners began to laugh at him. He ordered them to leave, and took Jairus and his wife, and Peter, James, and John into the room where the girl lay. Jesus took her by the hand, even though it was abominable to willfully touch a dead body, and said, "Little girl, get up." Immediately she opened her eyes and got up.

When I read these stories, I am encouraged by the courage and faith of Veronica and Jairus. I am amazed at the compassion of Jesus. I am warmed by how he intentionally embraced the outcast and marginalized, and restored them to their rightful place in the community of God's family. I imagine I am not alone in that experience of Christ in these stories. What we miss, I think, is how horrified and offended the original audience would have been by his actions. This was beyond the pale: Jesus was blatantly breaking the Law of Moses! He was purposefully ignoring the religious establishment and the social expectations of his culture, and declaring a new Law of love and acceptance. He was redefining the boundaries of the community God‘s family, and proclaiming that everyone belonged in it. Yet, many of the Jews would have been too horrified and too outraged to hear his message of inclusive love and healing, much less accept it.

Before we start beating up on the Jews of Jesus' day, we should be honest and admit that's just the way we humans are. We find some odd comfort in forming groups that are defined by who is "in" and who is "out". Who is a faithful Christian? Who is a heretic? Who can come to the Lord's Table with us? Who must be excluded? Our entire Anglican Communion is struggling to answer these questions. Central to the issue is the answer to who it was that Jesus intended to be a part of the community. Who does Jesus truly welcome at the Table of Grace? What does the Reign of God look like, and how does it inform who can be in God's family and who can not be?

As I read the Gospel, particularly The Gospel according to Mark, it is clear to me that Jesus Christ invites and welcomes all to find a place in the community. We draw narrow boundaries to keep people different from us out; and yet, Christ continues to push and to redraw those boundaries. He calls the marginalized beloved sons and daughters, and he invites us to welcome them in the family. All are welcome because in Jesus all human distinctions lose their meaning. Through the waters of Baptism, we all have been united with Christ, and in Jesus Christ we have all been reconciled and taken up into the life of God. St. Paul said it this way in his letter to the Galatians, “…there is no longer Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:27-28)

Some want to create litmus tests to determine who is really a part of the community of faith. I was raised in a church in the Holiness Tradition that demanded a rigorous behavioral standard for those who wanted to be members of the church. This Holiness Code was called The Practical Commitments of a Christian, and included approved dress codes for men and women and prohibited drinking, tobacco use and “worldly amusements”. If one could not live up to the standard, one’s salvation was questioned. Failure to integrate these practical commitments into one’s Christian experience would exclude them from the community.

Others in the Church make other demands for inclusion in the Church. While most are not as rigid as those in the Holiness Tradition, some, even in our own Episcopal Church, feel that certain actions exclude one from participation in the life of God. They feel that there must be a certain set of beliefs to which one gives assent, and a certain set of rules that one must follow, or else there is no place at God's Table. I agree that there is a certain responsibility that comes with our incorporation into Christ’s Body. We are not reconciled and joined to Christ and then given the freedom to indulge in our own sinful, selfish inclinations. Sinful choices do separate us from God and one another, and we can exclude ourselves from the life of God by rejecting God’s vision of love.
These religious people are partly correct; There is a vision to which we are called to aspire. God does not want us to be the same people that we were yesterday. God expects us to be transformed: God calls us to grow to be like Christ. Like Christ, we are called to obey the Law of Love, and there is a morality to which we are expected to conform our lives. However, the Law of Love does not exclude those who do not perfectly measure up. The Law of Love is rooted in mercy and grace and true justice. Adherence to the Law of Love creates room for everybody. It does not exclude those who interpret the Christian Way a bit differently than we do. It does not allow us to exclude those who stumble and fall. It does not give the Church permission to push some aside and usher others to the front of the line just because they passed some litmus test. It certainly does not permit the Church to ignore the marginalized and to participate in their oppression by denying them full and equal access to the Table of Grace. God does not deny the grace of the Sacrament to anyone who approaches God asking for it. Neither should we. If one can only reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment, they too will find wholeness; they too will find a welcome; they too will find a place in the Household of God.

This Gospel hope is being tested in our Anglican Communion. Some predict a divorce at best, and complete death at worst. Now, if ever, we Anglicans are called to learn from the faith exemplified by the children of God in today’s story. Instead of giving up and accepting what seems to be an inevitable fate for us, Christ calls us to put our faith into action. Christ calls us to let go of fear and to believe. He calls us to trust him to heal our fractures and to restore wholeness and life to our wounded body. Like Veronica and Jairus, we must seek out Jesus and touch him. In order to do that, we must be willing to seek him wherever he may be found: in the Holy Communion and the Christian family that we know and love, certainly. But, will we reach out and touch Christ present in the poor and the marginalized? Will we seek after Christ in the faces of those who persecute us, exclude us, and hate us. Will we be vulnerable enough to widen our circle and to embrace those who turn us away? Will we seek Christ in those who disagree with us? Will we touch the hem of Christ’s garment, trusting that our faith and God’s loving mercy will restore life to us all?

God grant us the grace to touch and to be touched; to love and to accept, even those who seem to be unlovable. God bless us with those words, “Son, daughter, your faith has made you well,” and may we bless others with the words, “Brother, Sister, you belong with me.”
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 10:29 PM


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