Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Your Faith Has Made You Whole." A sermon on Mark 5:21-43. Two stories in which Jesus heals people. But listen to the stories and pay attention to who is being healed and how Jesus is challenging first century Jewish purity regulations. And listen for the good news for us.

The gospel story we just heard is actually two stories, in which one story is interrupted by another story.  In the story that comes before these stories in chapter five of Mark, one that the lectionary skips over, Jesus has been over on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in Gentile territory, where he performs an exorcism and interferes with the local swine-based economy, until the local folk beg him to get out of town. 
            Now, people who are comfortable with a nice, domesticated Jesus might find the stories in this part of Mark‘s gospel pretty uncomfortable—if they get what the stories are about.  
Some folk would like to hear these stories from Mark as stories about how Jesus was able to miraculously cure people that nobody else was able to heal.  But the stories aren’t just about Jesus’ power to heal.  It’s also about whom he chooses to heal.

            Jesus has crossed back across the lake to the western side of the Sea of Galilee, and a great crowd gathers around him.  One of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus comes and falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs him repeatedly to come home with him and heal his young daughter.  “She is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her so that she may be made well and live! 
            Jesus sets off to go with him.  A large crowd follows along and is pressing in on him. 
            But then that story gets interrupted.  As Jesus is making his way through the crowd, he senses that power has gone forth from him, and he turns to find out who has touched him.
            It wasn’t just the crowd pressing in on him, but a woman—a very specific woman.  This woman had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She’d gone to doctor after doctor, and had spent all her money on them, trying the treatments they prescribed.  But none of it had done any good, and she still bled. 
            In addition to the effects on her physical health, her bleeding had other profound effects on her life.   It made her ritually unclean.  She couldn’t go to the Temple to worship.  Anyone who touched her, or lay on a bed in which she had slept, or sat on a chair where she sat would be considered unclean as well. 
            Imagine the kind of isolation this woman must have experienced over those twelve long years.  Imagine being unable to attend services and rituals in the Temple.  Imagine people shying away from you, being unwilling to touch you.  This woman was an outcast.
Unlike Jairus’ daughter,  she apparently has no male relative to plead her case.    
            If this nameless woman had pushed through a crowd to touch a scribe or a priest or a Pharisee, I imagine she might have gotten a different reaction.  “Get away from us, you unclean old woman!  Why aren’t you more careful?  Now I’m going to have to waste hours getting purified before I can continue my religious duties!”
            But this woman has heard reports of the power at work in Jesus, and that has given birth to hope and faith.  So—in desperation and great faith—she works her way through the jostling crowd and approaches  Jesus from behind and touches his garments.
            She might have thought, “I don’t need to bother him.  I don’t need to slow him down with a lot of chatter.  All I need to do is touch the edge of his garment.  Then I will be healed.”
            But things don’t go exactly as she planned.  No sooner does she touch his clothes than Jesus turns around and says, “Who touched me?” 
            Jesus refuses to let the woman remain invisible.  He insists on personal contact and on drawing the woman into relationship.    And so the woman falls down before him and tells him the whole truth.
            Jesus says to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”  The New RSV translates this verb in terms of healing.  But, as some scholars note, this translation of the verb fails to capture the sense in which the physical cure results in a fuller restoration.[1]  It might be a better translation to hear Jesus saying, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.”   Your faith has made you whole.
            As we reach the conclusion of the inner story, we can discern that the miracle involves far more than physical healing.[2]  It includes entry into a ‘saving’ relationship with Jesus himself.  The woman is no longer alone.  Jesus calls her “Daughter,” claiming her as  family, and restoring her to community.  She is told to “go in peace”—shalom, which involves health… wholeness…  and salvation.
            Jesus doesn’t seem to mind that the woman has touched him.  He also doesn’t  seem to worry about the ritual purification.  After he sends the woman on her way, healed and whole, he doesn’t stop off at the baths or send the disciples off for water, so he can wash.  It doesn’t seem to matter to him. 
            For Jesus, there is no such thing as an unclean person.  The society he lives in may try to keep certain people outside of their boundaries, but Jesus keeps reaching out to them.  He keeps welcoming people back inside the circle of God’s love and healing and community.  Time and time again, he welcomes people who have been cast out…or he moves outside the boundary himself, to meet them where they are.
            The other story in today’s gospel lesson shows a similar pattern.
            Some people come from Jairus’ house to say, “Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the teacher any further?” 
            After all, you could hardly ask Jesus to deal with a dead body.  Dead bodies were considered unclean.  Touch a dead body, and you become unclean.
            But Jesus overhears and says to Jairus, “Do not fear-- only believe.’  He takes Peter, James, and John and they go to Jairus’ house where they find a commotion of loud weeping and lamenting.  They’ve already started mourning .
             “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” Jesus says.  “The child is not dead but sleeping.”   Jesus sends them all outside.  Then he takes the child’s parents and the three  disciples  and takes the child by the hand and tells her to get up.  The girl begins to walk.  Everybody is amazed!   Jesus gives them orders not to tell anybody about this, and tells them to give the girl something to eat.

            So--  what’s going on here, in these two stories, one story sandwiched inside the other in typical Mark fashion?   As I reviewed some of the stories that come before them in the gospel, I became convinced that purity regulations are an important backdrop to the story.  The distinction between “clean” and “unclean” is an aspect of first-century Jewish consciousness that our modern minds may have trouble grasping, but I think they can help us understand what’s going on in the story.
            The biblical laws of purity, which are set forth in Leviticus and Numbers, sought to preserve the holiness of the Temple—the dwelling place of God on earth and the center of the Jewish religious life.  They spelled out the conditions under which persons could approach the divine presence.  A person became ritually impure through contact with a human corpse, certain unclean animals, or genital discharges.         Observing the purity laws was an effort to preserve proper worship in the Temple   and holiness of the community of faith.  Some sectarian groups within first-century Judaism promoted observance of the purity laws at all times and places. 
            In the Gospel stories, we hear how Jesus repeatedly does things that seem to transgress biblical purity regulations and holiness codes.    He touches a leper.  He heals on the Sabbath. 
            So… it’s’ hard to avoid the impression that a lot of Mark’s story has to do with ritual impurity.  Earlier in chapter 5 of Mark, Jesus goes into Gentile—and therefore unclean--  territory and enters a graveyard.  There he encounters a demoniac with a legion of unclean spirits, whom he drives into a herd of two thousand pigs.  
            Then Jesus is touched by a woman with a continuous flow of blood…and takes a dead girl by the hand.  I agree with scholar David Rhoads when he argues that “The issues of purity are writ large across the pages of Mark’s story.”[3]   Rhoads maintains that Mark believes that God is holy, but represents an alternative view:  “In contrast to the view that people are to attain holiness by separation from the threatening force of impurity, Mark presents the view that people are to overcome uncleanness by spreading wholeness. 
            The religious community in Jesus’ day and through much of history has often gotten in the way of healing.  But the gospel story we heard today from Mark tells how God works through Jesus, who is empowered by the Holy Spirit to touch impurity—to reach out with a healing touch.
            God’s holiness comes to remove and overcome uncleanness, working through Jesus and his followers to spread the life-giving power of the kingdom into the world wherever people are receptive to it.[4]
            So…when Jesus welcomes the woman who has been hemorrhaging as “daughter”—a term of endearment--  and touches a dead girl, we have what Marcus Borg has summarized as “The politics of purity” being replaced by  “a politics of compassion.[5]
            Instead of drawing back from the unclean woman, Jesus deliberately reaches out to her, welcoming her back into the human family, back into the community from which she had been isolated.  Instead of avoiding contact with the dead girl, Jesus reaches out and takes her hand and restores her to life. 
            Jesus reaches out in an invitation of pure love…an invitation to bring our own bleeding bodies and spirits to the only One who can offer us true healing…the only One who can welcome us into true community when our ties with that community have been broken.
            The story invites us to follow Jesus’ example.  It invites us to look at the suffering ones in our own midst, the ones who have been shunned or marginalized or turned away…to listen to their stories, to reach out and touch them, and lift them up.   It invites us to call them “daughter”… “Son”… “Sister”…  “Brother.”  Above all,  it invites them to welcome them home.

            It seems to me that Jesus did some of his best work with the people whom his society was trying to exclude—the people who were outside of the boundaries that were meant to separate the good, religious people from those who were outcasts:  tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor, and anyone the purity laws deemed to be unclean.
            The good news of the gospel calls us to live out our faith in ways that invite all-- not just some--  to be touched and healed by God’s love… and to become a real part of the community. 
            The good news calls us to become a community that in its wholeness truly embodies the shalom that Jesus bids the woman when he says “your faith has made you well…go in peace…”
            So… what do we hear this passage saying to us today? 
            Many of us have been grieving what happened in Charleston, SC and other events in what some have called a season of racial unrest, and some of us are very concerned about gun violence.  Now we hear there are at least three predominately African-American churches in the South that have burned down   Some of us are tired of grieving the latest loss and would like to find ways to join together to work for a more just and peaceful world. 
            Last week, Colleen Nieman—the pastor at St. Paul Lutheran-- and I met for lunch and were sharing our pain, our hopes, and a few ideas. 
            One idea we talked about as a possibility would be to form a group of people of goodwill from our various faith communities that would meet maybe once a month-- people who share our concerns and want to do something more than mourn the latest deaths.  Perhaps we would prepare and share a very simple meal together, and then have intentional conversations.
            We thought we might start by gathering some people for an informal bring-your-own sandwich supper at a local park,  to talk about our hopes and ideas for how we might make a difference together.  The first gathering is just to get some ideas and plan for another gathering in the near future.
            If you’re interested, let’s talk.

            Jesus calls us to live out our faith out to live our faith in ways that invite all to be touched and healed by God’s love… and to embody God’s peace.
            And so… may we never be content to rest within our safe walls.  May we move out to where ministry with Jesus takes place, where we receive God’s blessings, and where we can be a blessing to those who need to know that God’s love is even for them.
            May our faith make us all well and whole.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
June 28, 2015

[1] Donald Juel, Mark.  Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Augsburg, 1990),  p. 84.
[2] James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Brock, Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook (Westminster/John Knox, 1992), p. 142.
[3] David Rhoads, “Social Criticism: Crossing Boundaries,” in Mark and Method, p. 147, cited in Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 40.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (Harper, 1994), p. 58.

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