By now, all of you have at least heard about President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday. If you’ve not taken the time to read or listen to it, I urge you to do so. It’s a powerful reflection from the first African-American president of the US on racism, American history. It’s also a powerful theological reflection on the nature of grace.
President Obama ended his eulogy by singing the old hymn “Amazing Grace.” The words to the hymn were written by John Newton, captain of a slave-trading ship in the 18th century who had a conversion and became a minister. The president’s eulogy brought to an end one of the most emotional and historically significant weeks in recent American history. In a week that saw the confederate battle flag coming down from public buildings and state capitols in the South, being removed from the shelves of major retailers, to the Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act, Fair Housing, and same sex marriage, President Obama’s speech was the capstone. It was a week that for many of us demonstrated the redemptive spirit of America at its best.
To top it off, yesterday Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry is the first African-American to be elected Presiding Bishop. He is, as we say, a cradle Episcopalian, baptized as a baby. The descendant of slaves, he now leads our Church, the Episcopal Church which was founded by slave-holders and slave traders. He is an amazing preacher and shares his love and passion for Jesus Christ gracefully and fearlessly. He is uniquely gifted to lead our church in this era.
Our gospel today begins with Jesus and his disciples again crossing boundaries, traveling. Last week, we saw them crossing the lake and encountering a storm. Their crossing was not just from one side of a lake to another; it was also taking them from Jewish territory into Gentile territory. Today, we see them crossing the lake again, returning from that foreign territory to their homeland.
When they arrive, a crowd gathers, and a leader of the synagogue named Jairus confront them. His daughter is near death and he pleads with Jesus to come heal her. They set out for Jairus’ home accompanied by the crowd. But before they can get very far, Jesus has another encounter. He hardly notices it, only because he senses power going out from him does he realize that someone has come to him. It’s a woman. She’s been suffering from hemorrhages of blood for twelve years. And she’s tried everything, doctors, quack cures. This is her last, desperate, grasping at straws, attempt to be healed. So she sneaks in through the crowd, touches Jesus’ cloak, and is healed.
When Jesus asks, “who touched me” his disciples respond with ridicule. There’s a crowd pressing around, how can we know, why are you worried about having been touched in the jostling? But Jesus persists, and the woman, in fear and trembling, comes clean. The contrast between the boldness of her actions in seeking healing and her response when challenged by Jesus is striking. In fear and trembling, she falls down at his feet, and “told him the whole truth.” Jesus comforts her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace.”
As soon as the woman leaves, messengers from Jairus arrive to tell Jesus that there’s no point in continuing on to Jairus’ home. The girl has died. But Jesus persists, telling him, “Do not fear, only believe.” When they arrive, they are greeted by another crowd. This time, instead of jostling for position, the crowd is weeping and wailing, mourning the girl’s death. Jesus takes his closest disciples with him, Jairus’ family, too, and enters the sickroom. This time, instead of being touched by the one who would be healed, Jesus reaches out his hand to touch her. He tells her, get up. She does, restored to life and to her family.
One of Mark’s favorite literary devices is the sandwich story, where he places one story inside of another, as he does here with the story of Jesus healing the woman with the hemorrhage of blood, inside the story of Jairus’ daughter. One way to think about such stories (and there is a sense in which the whole gospel conforms to this structure), is that the heart of what Mark is getting at is in the “middle of the sandwich,” the middle of the story. So, while we might think the woman’s story is a distraction or interruption in the larger narrative of Jairus’ daughter, and that the miracle of Jesus bringing someone back to life is what matters most, it may be that the woman’s story is more important, that it conveys a more important message.
Let’s compare these two figures more closely—and here I want us to focus on the woman and Jairus, rather than on his daughter. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. Jairus is the ultimate insider, a man of power and significance, a “ruler of the synagogue.” He comes to Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him to come and heal his daughter.
Unlike Jairus, the woman has no name, no standing in the community, no wealth or power. Indeed, it’s even worse than that. Her condition has made her ritually impure—she cannot participate in the ritual life of the Jewish community because of her hemorrhaging. She can’t imagine approaching Jesus directly, so she tries a different tactic—she thinks that by touching his garment, she may be healed, and that she can escape unnoticed.
Jesus does notice, he feels the power going out from himself, and he asks about what happened. When she comes to him and admits what happened, Jesus’ response is very telling, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” The woman has lived outside of human connection, nameless, with no family. Jesus, in a word, by calling her daughter, restores her to human community. He brings her into relationship with him, remember what he said in response to those who pointed out his family members to him? “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
But more than restoring her to the community, and bringing her into new community, he has restored her to herself. His words to her were literally, “Your faith has made you whole.” In the ancient world, wholeness, health, was not just a matter of the body, it involved the whole person. Illness or disease had spiritual significance. Her physical ailment healed, the woman is now a whole person.
The story goes on, the woman leaving the scene, and leaving us to wonder what happened to her. Did she go back home, take up the life she had lost twelve years earlier? Or did she follow Jesus on his journey?
We know where Jesus went. He continued on his way. When he arrived at Jairus’ home to find his daughter dead, he goes into her room and brings her back to life, to her family and community.
In a week in which our nation and people of faith continue to struggle with racism, in a week when in spite of a Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, communities of faith continue to struggle over the full inclusion of LGBT people, these healing stories continue to challenge us. We see Jesus crossing boundaries, breaking through ritual taboos, bringing into relationship the outsider and the outcast.
But I’m left with another set of question. I find it interesting that in this instance, the breaking down of barriers and taboos was not initiated by Jesus. The outcast, impure woman, sought Jesus out, she grasped for the hem of his garment in her desperate desire to be healed. I wonder how many people come to us with that same desperate desire, for healing and wholeness, and we don’t even notice them? I wonder how many come to us, looking for connection, for relationship, looking for Jesus, and like the disciples, we see them as a nuisance or distraction.
As I spoke these very words at our early service this morning, a homeless wandered into church, and greeted me loudly from the back, “Hello, Father.” I paused for a moment, struggling to respond, and someone got up and ushered him out. He reached for the hem of my garments, the hem of our garments, and was turned away.
How many encounters and opportunities do we miss because we’re focused on other things on things, or people, we think are more important? I wonder how many opportunities for transformation we miss, because we don’t sense the tug on the hem of our garments?