Text: Mark 5:21-43
Fortuitously, albeit coincidentally, the Gospel lesson for today presents us with a story from the ministry of Jesus, whose ministry is our own as we are now the body of Christ in the world, about illness and the healing of two women, one who is but 12 years old, and the other a woman who has been ill for as long as the child has been alive, and who has expended all her resources in an effort to be well. The fifth chapter of Mark contains three healing stories: two of the three happen at the margins, beyond the boundaries of acceptability. Two of the three stories concern women. All three deal with people who are deemed unclean and untouchable, and therefore immoral because of their presenting illnesses.
Mark’s Gospel also shows us Jesus changing sides of lakes, rivers, boundaries at every turn. He has just returned from the other side of the sea of Galilee, dealing with a man wild with mental illness in the foreign territory of the “Gerasenes” on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, when he now encounters a man who is the ultimate insider, on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee, a leader of the local synagogue, whose daughter is so desperately ill that her frantic father is seeking the help of this itinerant healer and teacher. Within that larger story of the healing of the daughter of Jairus, Mark gives us the story of the middle-aged woman who has suffered for 12 years with hemorrhages. Contact with the dead or with blood, if you have read Leviticus, represents two of the most stringent taboos in all of Jewish law, requiring various forms of purification rites if a man has contact with a bleeding woman, or, if female, requiring isolation and more purification.
It may surprise you to know that there are some scholars who have looked at the miracles concerning the woman and the girl here in the fifth chapter of Mark, and found ideas that relate to national life. Almost as an afterthought, at the end of the intertwined stories of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and the healing of the woman with the continuous flow of blood, the narrator observes that the girl was twelve years old. The woman, you will also note, has been ill for 12 years. This number twelve links the two women to each other, and to the ethnic reality of the twelve tribes of Israel. The older woman represents, says Dutch New Testament scholar Waetjen, the “tradition-bound mother Judaism.” Unclean, isolated from the world and oppressed by the law and the invading conquering Romans, she is saved and her life is redeemed by her risk of reaching out to make contact with Christ. The young girl, on the other hand, might be seen to embody in Mark’s mind the new Israel, offspring of the synagogue and its Pharasaic heritage, who is on the verge of puberty, of bearing children, and bringing new life to the world. By resurrecting her from the dead, Jesus redeems her life and, as a result, enables her also to fulfill her destiny.
The older woman is nameless. She represents all the powerless, marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the sick. When her life comes in contact with the incarnate love of God, she is renamed: “Daughter”—a title often used in prophetic speech by God as a term of endearment for the chosen people, the nation of Israel.
For both the woman and the girl, ill health has enslaved them, kept them from the fullness of life that they desired, and that these stories are trying to tell us is God’s intention for every human being…whether it be the foreigner known as the Gerasene demoniac, as the King James Version calls him whose story begins chapter 5 in Mark’s Gospel, or these two women. Surely good health correlates strongly to human liberty. The healing mission of Jesus is the restoration of liberty and possibility to human beings and to human community.
An aside: Sister Joan Chittister, in her baccalaureate address to the students at Stanford University several weeks ago noted that two thirds of the hungry of the world are women. Two thirds of the illiterate of the world are women. Two-thirds of the poor of the world are women. “That can’t be an accident; that has to be policy,” she noted with some sarcasm.
Ill health makes us dependent on the kindness and mercies of others. Good health on the other hand enables our independence. Such is the thread that I am using to tie these stories to our own nation’s celebration this week of our independence.
Last month, actually in mid-May now, when Owen Williams asked me to give the invocation for the Transylvania Commencement exercises, I was taken back in memory to one of my own graduation events, and the prayer that Bill Coffin gave at the Baccalaureate service for the young men (and they were all men at that time) who were graduating from Yale College the year that I graduated from Yale Divinity School. Snippets of it have remained in my memory bank, but somewhere along the way I had lost my copy of the prayer. Hence, I wrote to the Yale Library to delve into their archives to send me a copy of it, which just arrived this past week.
I wanted my prayer in 2012 to say something just as profound, because, like those days in the late 1960s, the rancor, the ugliness, the hostility in our national life is as bad today as it was then, except now the roles seem reversed. Whereas in the 1960s it was the poor who saw no way to escape their poverty, the minorities who were finally fed up with being treated as people of no worth, and the young being asked to fight a war that made no sense who were filled with righteous anger at their government, in our current season of incivility it seems that those most angry at our government are those who are most fortunate in all regards: wealth, status, opportunity, and even health. They are not those who need the military signing bonus to enlist to fight a war that is doomed to failure in one country, Afghanistan, and one that was begun under false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction in another, Iraq. They are not those who, like the woman with the 12 years of hemorrhages in our Biblical story have spent all they have to find health. They are not those likely to lose their health insurance and access to marvelous health care, unlike those become ill, acquire a pre-existing condition, and who are excluded from health care, and so become bankrupt slaves to debt within the richest country on earth. All of this is bad for the brain and worse for the heart, as Wendell Berry has written.
My prayer, nowhere near the eloquence of my mentor and friend, was that graduates might live with courage to tackle impossible dreams and stubborn realities; with integrity to live with compassion for the suffering world and with never flagging conviction that “the world is a holy vision, if we only have the clarity to see it.”*
Perhaps one of our impossible dreams might be expressed as a wounded longing for our nation to live up to its calling and high ideals, to be a place of civility amid our differences, a society of compassion and caring for one another, realizing that the social Darwinism of the survival of the financially fittest will leave the nation teetering toward disaster for the whole. And perhaps one of the most stubborn realities we face will be the gross inequalities in our delivery of health services to the citizens of this country, and the refusal of those who have insurance to realize how much those without insurance cost us all, in terms of money, innovation, and actual health.
No matter where you stand on the Affordable Care Act, or what you think of the Supreme Court’s decision this past week, the broken health care system is part of the economic and social malaise eating away at the foundational strength of this country. The rapidly spreading incivility between the political parties and in society at large may be just one symptom of our lack of national and individual health, but like cancer it is ravaging everything in our body politic. Bill Coffin’s prayer in 1967 asked God to “grant us grace to quarrel with [the world we love]. Grant us grace,” he prayed, “to quarrel with words that conceal the heart, with the glitter that is but a disguised and painted indifference, with everthing in our culture that distracts from rather than gives meaning to life.” He didn’t mean to quarrel with one another with hateful words. He meant we should engage with one another in serious dialogue about what matters most.
We cannot solve the nation’s economic woes, its debts, and its social problems of poverty, ill health, and failing education systems, without the civility—the decency to respect one another and believe that these issues require us to work together, not to demonize and not to attempt to obliterate one another.
As people of faith we have, I think, a high calling to serve our nation at this time of incivility. We, and Jews, and Muslims, and people of all religions should be calling for the healing of our democracy. We have five things to contribute to the healing of our nation and the preservation and expansion of freedom. [These five things, “habits of the heart” are drawn from a book by Parker Palmer, a high school classmate of Ellen Gibson’s, entitled: Healing the Heart of Democracy.]
1. We are they who know in our spiritual bones that we human beings are in this world together, united we stand and divided we fall.
2. We are they who are called, in the name of God, to celebrate diversity as a good gift of a good creator, whether diversity makes us have different religious beliefs, different skin color, or differ in our sexuality—and in our physical and mental capacities.
3. We are they who know what it means to live in community with one another with respect even though we may differ greatly from one another in our opinions about politics, economics, and religious belief, and how to hold these differing opinions in a tension that is life-giving rather than life destroying.
4. We are they who believe that every person should have a voice and have the capacity to effect change in their lives. And…
5. We are they who know something about the capacity to create community.
It is time for the religious communities, perhaps beginning with our own, to issue a call to our nation’s political leaders and the citizens themselves to enter into a new season of civility. This country is headed speedily for disaster, and the only way to preserve liberty will be to build a new culture of civility, respect, and justice for all.
Mark does not tell us these stories to convince us that Jesus is a nice sociable and sensible guy and we ought to be nice sociable and sensible people too. Mark tells us this story and all his stories to make us hear that good news that in Jesus Christ we see God acting to overthrow oppression and superstition. Talitha Cumi…, Jesus says to half the human race: get up, stand on your feet, be fed.
As our nation celebrates its 236th birthday this week, religious communities have a new role to play. It’s time for us to say: stop being dead to one another, get up, let us think and eat together, and maybe, just maybe we can solve some of these hideous problems that are dividing us.
It took enormous courage and unflagging hope for the woman with the hemorrhage to reach out to touch the hem of the robe of Jesus. It took trust for Jairus, a man of authority, to ask the itinerant preacher for help. Trust that there is a holy power among us is perhaps the best note then, on which to end a sermon on the weekend before our national holiday. Look for it. Pray for it. Reach out to it. It is nothing to be laughed at, for that powerful love will raise us—as individuals, as church, as nation—from death to life. Amen.