Sunday, June 28, 2015

in the margins

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 8, Year B, 2015

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

You’ve heard me fondly refer to Mark’s Gospel as the comic book Gospel. While I maintain that claim because of Mark’s quick jumps from action to action, I would be remiss not to give Mark credit for instances of elegance and symmetry found in the midst of those actions. 

We have before us today a story within a story. Both tales deal with healing, with the unclean, with the marginalized. While there are many parallels, there are also several contrasting elements. On the one hand, we have Jairus: a religious leader, respected member of society, and most likely a pretty wealthy man. On the other hand, we have the hemorrhaging woman: unnamed, unclean, unimportant. They couldn’t be more different from one another, yet they both approach Jesus in a state of desperation, and risking their reputation and perhaps even safety, they throw themselves at Jesus’ feet.

Jairus’ persistent pleas are met with silent consent; Jesus gets out of the boat and begins to follow Jairus, the crowd pressing in around them. This is the moment when the hemorrhaging woman makes her move. 

Now, when reading the Bible, it is important to note when people are named. We know Jairus’ name, but the woman remains anonymous; and yet we are given the woman’s back story and are even privy to her thoughts, so in a way, we know more about her than Jairus. The woman has been suffering from this blood disorder for as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive: 12 years. She’s done everything she could—spent all of her money—on trying to come up with a cure, to no avail. She hears about Jesus and, having absolutely nothing to lose, not even her dignity, she sneaks into the crowd and reaches for his robe. 

Now, Jesus could choose to ignore the woman’s touch; after all, he is on his way to the house of an important spiritual leader whose daughter is on the brink of death. But, in typical Jesus fashion, relationship trumps status, and Jesus stops, the whole crowd halting with him. He has sensed power leaving his body, perceived that someone has believed in him. And rather than disregard it, he wants to talk to this person face-to-face. The woman benefits twice from this act: she has been focused on her mission for so long that she cannot think about anything beyond physical healing. When she confesses to Jesus that she is the one who has touched him, he affirms her faith, but also acknowledges in front of everyone that she has been healed; she is now able to return to society. What’s more, by naming her “Daughter,” he has invited her into his family, recognizing her identity as a child of God. 

As Jesus is saying these words, messengers come to relay the news that Jairus’ daughter has died. Now it is the little girl who has become unclean. She is a child, considered property, and even less valuable than a boy, who at least can carry the family name. Rather than leave well enough alone and focus on the many sick people around him, Jesus leaves the crowd and most of his disciples behind and goes to Jairus’ house. Once again, Jesus has demonstrated that he prioritizes the marginalized. Evoking memories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, the only other people to have raised the dead, Jesus tells the little girl to “get up” (Mark 5:41). Then Jesus asks them to give her something to eat (Mark 5:43), showing his care for the child as well as foreshadowing his own post-resurrection meal on the beach (John 21:12-14). 

There is another element of this story that we lose in our modern context, now that we don’t live our lives according to the Laws of the Old Testament.

Because of the effects of her particular disorder, the hemorrhaging woman is considered unclean, untouchable. She is supposed to warn people of her presence so that they can get out of her way. Imagine going 12 years without touching or being touched by anyone. Reports have shown that infants can have all the required basic necessities: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, but if they are neglected—if they are not held or touched enough— they will die. While it may not be life-threatening for an adult, the psychological and emotional devastation is huge. 

We may think that we are immune from this type of neglect, that we Americans are much more advanced than the orphanages in Romania, where after the Communist government fell, thousands of orphans were crowded into orphanages and abuse and neglect ran rampant. We might think that we are way more civilized than Jesus’ first century Palestine, under vicious Roman rule. 

And in many ways, we are. But in many ways, we are also not so different.

Let us not forget that for hundreds of years in our own country we thought that slavery was not only okay, but authorized by God. And that even when slavery ended, laws were created so that African Americans were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains, swim in the same pools, shop in the same stores, go to the same schools, or marry someone who was white. Imagine the effects of that kind of discrimination, of being seen as less than, over the years. It turns out we are not so very different from the society that shunned the hemorrhaging woman.  

I think this is why we are so moved by stories of people who cross societal boundaries to aid in the healing process of others: think of Mother Teresa bathing lepers, of nurses caring for AIDS patients in the late 80s and early 90s, when the process of transmission of the disease was still unknown. And not just healing in the sense of sickness, but healing divisions, as well. People like martyr Jonathan Daniels, who 50 years ago left seminary early to come down to Alabama and help with the Civil Rights Movement. People like the Lovings, who fought for their right to marry the person they loved, regardless of race. And people like the members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church’s Bible study, who warmly welcomed a young white man into their sanctuary. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us that he consistently prioritizes people on the margins of society. He is inviting us to reflect on our own lives:  Who have we welcomed into our family, and who have we left out? What things or people claim our attention? How can we take part in the healing process?  

In our baptismal covenant, which we renew every time someone is baptized or confirmed in our church, one of the things we vow to do is to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). We recognize that we have a long way to go, but we do not face this journey alone. God is with us, and we will be able to accomplish everything “with God’s help” (BCP 305). 

Photo by Elliott Erwitt found here.

Image found here.

Image found here.

Image found here.

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