Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Grab the Hem

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2015, Ordinary 13B
Mark 5:21-43

Grab the Hem

Healing. You would think this would be one thing we humans would unanimously agree is a good thing.
Working my way through the halls of the local VA hospital it wasn’t hard to see examples of why any of us would be downright jubilant if Jesus were to show up in the flesh and run rampant through the halls, healing patients left and right.
You would think this would be one thing we humans would unanimously agree is a good thing. But somehow, it isn’t always so.
One thing that sometimes gets in the way of this longing for healing, something that many of us fall prey to at times, is the slight problem that in order truly to desire healing, one needs to be able to admit that one is sick. And we’re not always good at that.
“Oh, it’s just a sniffle. It’s nothing.”
“I just didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
“It’s only a tickle in my throat, no big deal.”
Of course, before you know it, you’re in bed wiped out with the flu or something worse. We don’t admit we’re sick – maybe we feel like we have too much to do, or it’s too late to get someone to sub for us, or who knows what excuse we use, but the illness fells us in the end because we refused to admit it was upon us.
This isn’t a problem for either of the protagonists in today’s scripture. Jairus, the local synagogue leader, has seen his daughter’s condition worsen steadily until she is on the brink of death. While the religious authorities in Jerusalem might have disparaged Jesus’s healings as the “devil’s work,” Jairus evidently didn’t care; if there was any chance this itinerant rabbi could heal his beloved daughter, he would do whatever it took to get it to happen. In a scene that must have shocked the locals, Jaiurs threw himself before Jesus and begged him to come to his home and heal his daughter. Jesus agreed and the two, and Jesus’s disciples, began to make their way through the ever-present crowds around Jesus towards Jairus’s house.
It is in the midst of this travel that our second seeker enters and even interrupts the story. Mark is fond of these “sandwiches” in which one story is inserted into the midst of a similar or related story, allowing us to see the two in tandem and perhaps compare them to one another. While both are stories of people seeking healing, the contrasts are at least as notable as the similarities.
Jairus, a significant person in the community, comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter. It turns out she’s all of twelve years old. While infant or childhood mortality was certainly more prevalent then and there than here and now, no parent was willing to let their child go without a fight. We can certainly understand Jairus’s determination to do anything he could to bring his daughter back to health.
Our second seeker, though, is about as different as possible. She gets no name in the story, not a surprise given that in the context of the time she would have been about as insignificant as it was possible for an adult to be. She seems to be a widow, with no family to care for her or to speak on her behalf, and such a woman had no legal or societal status, now matter how often the lawgivers and prophets of the Old Testament implored the people of Israel to care for and deal justly with the widows and orphans among them.
At one point she apparently had some resources, but they were consumed in the struggle to find treatment for her malady, one which the old King James Version called an “issue of blood.” It was constant, it was debilitating, and it was sufficient to render the woman ritually impure, unable to participate in the rituals of the Jewish religion.
Having no one to advocate for her, she had to take matters into her own hands. And she had been trying to do so for twelve excruciating years. A cavalcade of doctors had done their worst, apparently, while bringing her no relief and possibly leaving her in worse condition.
Perhaps surprisingly, historical scholarship has actually given us a few of the possible remedies that might have been inflicted upon a woman in this condition. Charles Powell notes a few of these:
§  Carrying on her person the ash of an ostrich egg wrapped in a cloth;
§  A sudden shock;
§  Drinking wine mixed with a power of rubber, alum, and garden crocus;
§  Or, eating a batch of Persian onions cooked in wine while the doctor intoned, “arise out of your flow of blood.”
For possibly these or other remedies, from a virtual cavalcade of doctors, the woman had been relieved of all her money, leaving her destitute as well as sick.
No one had to tell her she was ill and in need of healing. Still, she didn’t choose to approach Jesus directly for a cure. We aren’t told exactly why; Mark tells us that she believed she would be made well if she simply touched his clothing, but doesn’t tell us why she didn’t simply come to Jesus directly. The culture of ancient Israel offers a few possibilities. She might have feared that if he knew her condition, Jesus might refuse to heal her for fear of being made ritually unclean himself. It’s also possible she feared that he would refuse to hear her, a poor widow with no man to speak on her behalf, simply because that’s what men typically did. She might have felt that in her condition she would simply be unable to get through the crowd enough to speak to Jesus directly.
Whatever the reason, you’ve heard the story; she somehow gets through the crowd and touches some part of his garment, and is healed of her long, debilitating illness. Somehow Jesus knows that something has happened, even in the midst of the jostling crowd, and in the end the woman does meet Jesus after all, and hears Jesus speak to her as a “Daughter,” and hears him say that “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Did you catch that? “Your faith has made you well…be healed of your disease.” Now, I lot of theological discussions of this passage will get deeply involved in explaining or understanding the idea of the first phrase – “your faith has made you well…” and I’m not saying that it is not a challenging thing to most theologies to read a statement that seems to attribute the healing to the woman’s faith. I think, though, that part of the answer to this lies in the way Jesus is dividing two phrases that we tend to read as meaning the same thing.
When we peer into the Greek, it gets more challenging; the word that the NRSV translates as “made you well” is more often translated when it appears in other verses as having to do something with saving. That leads a lot of preachers off on an unprofitable bunny trail about how “salvation” comes – whether by human faith or God’s work – when the more challenging and on-point question here is, “You mean there’s a difference between being healed of illness and being saved, or made well, or made whole?”
There’s more to being well than just not being sick.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if we know that, subconsciously at least, when we pray. We pray for healing for our own sicknesses or the illnesses of those we love, but there are things that we need to be truly whole, to be truly saved from harm, to be truly well, that we don’t always recognize about ourselves, and that if we’re honest we would just as soon not submit to the full-fledged healing of Jesus.
If nothing else, our country has had demonstrated in the last couple of weeks just how much un-wellness still remains in society, particularly white society in relation to black society. The murder of nine members of an AME church in Charleston, by a young man fond of wrapping himself in the old Confederate battle flag, ripped open old wounds that remained present and raw for many, many blacks in the United States, while many whites had allowed themselves to be convinced that such wounds no longer existed – that there was no more racism in American culture.
Even as the following days seemed to offer some miniscule signs of hope; when whites and blacks came together to pray and to weep; when cities and statehouses removed from their grounds the flag in which Dylann Roof so loved to wrap himself – not only did voices of hatred continue to be raised; in the past week six primarily African-American churches in the South have been burned in acts officially reckoned as arson. The plague of racism will not go quietly, and not without a great deal of baring of souls and shedding of tears. And we shouldn’t pretend that racial hatred is the only such wound on our society that will require restoration in order for us to be made well, or made whole, or saved from harm. And it’s an open question just how much of our society, and even how much of the church, is really willing to put forward the faith needed to be made well.
It upsets the order of things, truly being made whole. It takes us out of our comfortable places and the ways things have always been. It might just set us against our friends. It might be inconvenient.
But if we truly want to claim our faith to be real, to be faith in and towards Jesus, our salvation to be in Christ alone, then we will inevitably be drawn to this, to giving up on and walking away from these comfortable failings. We will inevitably have to confront these ongoing brokennesses in us, whether they be lodged in our own attitudes and beliefs or whether simply in our unwillingness or fear to confront them in the world around us.
Yes, it is easy to ask for physical healing, and we are toldd to do so. But that can’t be the only healing we seek. Being healed of our illnesses can never be mistaken for being made whole or well or even for being saved. Until we can look around the whole word, until we can see all of the men and women out there as sisters and brothers, people Christ calls us to love; we are clinging to brokenness. We are not seeing just how sick we really are, and are not bringing all our sickness and brokenness to Jesus.
Until we are ready not just to reach out and touch the cloak – until we are ready to grab hold of the hem of that cloak and never let go until we know full, real, complete healing – until we are willing to give it all up, perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt the Master. Perhaps we should let him move on to that sick girl.
But when we are ready, when we know our brokenness and our sickness and can no longer stand that brokenness and sickness, then let us reach out and grab the hem of that cloak and never let go, until we are made well.
For total healing, not just the physical kind, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” (462), “Come Sing to God” (181), “O Christ, the Healer” (380), “There Is a Balm In Gilead” (394)
Credit: (it's generally very funny, and on point as well)

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