Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Outcast: A Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

A few minutes before services started this morning I had a call from my dad, that he'd been in the hospital all night and wasn't sure what was wrong with him. My dad's 87 years old, lives alone. I'm on my way to his house now (250 miles away).

This made the sermon a little more difficult to preach.

Prayers, please.

Oh, and Petra and I sang the verses to "Orphan Girl" together. She's a good one.


I am an orphan on God's highway
But I'll share my troubles if you go my way
I have no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl…

Have you ever had the experience of feeling entirely, thoroughly… alone? Cut off. Isolated. Outcast. As if no one else on God’s green earth could possibly begin to understand who you were and what you were going through. As if the rest of the world passing by constituted another world, really. The world where people sat together and talked intimately, and understood each other. The world where people touched one another on the arm as they spoke. The world where people embraced one another spontaneously when someone was sad, or glad, or relieved. When we feel alone, it can be as if we were looking through a thick wall of glass upon that other world, one utterly foreign to the world we are in.

What was that time for you? Was it a time when the world shifted beneath your feet and you learned that the rock-solid job was in reality perched on shifting sand? Was it a time when that loss caused you to question your abilities, your vocation, your sense of what you were meant to do in the world, who you were meant to be in the world? Or, was there a sense of being alone during the break-down and break-up of a long term relationship, a friendship, a marriage? Was it a time when you experienced the devastating loss of someone you loved… parent, partner, sibling, spouse, child? Or, perhaps, a moment when a doctor turned to you with a grim face to deliver bad news?

When we experience a trauma or a loss, it is a profoundly isolating experience. We feel cut off. We feel outcast, as if we might never again be able to swim to the shore of normalcy. And even if there are people we love standing by, unless the loss is theirs, unless they are undergoing the same trauma… it can feel almost impossible for them to reach us. And everything they say can seem wrong, especially if they try to interpret God for us. Kind and loving people of faith, when they tell us why God let this or that happen… well, it’s hard for us to experience it as kind and loving. I used to say, “I can’t imagine what you are going through,” until a friend snapped back, “Try.” She’d lost her son. Trauma, loss… they isolate us. They orphan us. They make us feel as if we’ll never make the connection again.

I have had friendships pure and golden
But the ties of kinship I have not known them
I know no mother no father
No sister no brother
I am an orphan girl

The woman at the heart of today’s gospel encounter with Jesus is just such an isolated and outcast person, only her outcast state goes beyond her feelings and extends to the community’s treatment of her. She is a nameless and faceless person, known to us only by a kind of thumbnail sketch: we know just four things about her:

• We know that she’s been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years.
• We know that she has gone to physician after physician looking for a cure.
• We know that, not only has she not been cured, she has grown worse.
• And we know that not only has she grown worse, she has spent all her money on this fruitless pursuit: everything she has is gone.

Those are the facts the gospel passage shares with us. There are more things you should know about her, though. You have heard what the cost was to her medically, and financially. But there is another cost to her socially and religiously, as outlined in Leviticus. It is the cost of being ritually unclean for many, many years. A woman with a hemorrhage would be considered unclean—as would every bed she lay upon, every thing she touched, every person she touched.
[Lev. 19:25-27]

Because of her physical condition, the prevailing religious mores of the day would demand that the woman be left completely alone. Cut off. Isolated. Outcast. Other people would know to avoid contact with her. Anyone who wanted to be part of normal community life—to go to the market, or the waterfront, or to the Temple—would be forced to shun her presence. She has probably lost her family, and most likely lives alone, so that no one else need be exposed to the risk of being, as she is, permanently ritually unclean.

We have encountered situations like this before in the gospel of Mark. Remember the man who had leprosy, who was every bit as outcast as this woman. You may remember that Jesus was moved with both compassion for that man’s plight and anger at the injustice that excluded him from being a part of God’s family.

There’s one more thing you should know about the woman with the hemorrhage. She has not given up. She is still determined to find healing for herself.

But when He calls me I will be able
To meet my family at God's table
I'll meet my mother my father
My sister my brother
No more an orphan girl

So, here comes Jesus. He is in the midst of a great crowd… people are pressing in on him from every side. And he is hurrying, we must believe, with a distraught (and very wealthy and powerful) man to the bedside of that man’s daughter, who lies at the brink of death. The nameless woman who has been suffering for twelve years gets the idea that if she can only touch Jesus’ clothes, she will be healed. And… we have to confess, that sounds an awful lot like magical thinking, using Jesus as a sort of talisman. If we are honest with ourselves, we engage in that kind of behavior all the time. We have rituals ranging from saying a prayer before taking a test, to the wearing of lucky socks for the bowling tournament, to brides wearing “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Human beings impart quasi-magical powers to physical objects all the time, whether we admit it or not.

So touch Jesus’ clothing she does. And sure enough, power flows from him… the Greek word for that power is dynamin… the same word from which we get dynamite. Explosive power! That dynamic power flows from Jesus, and he knows it, and he stops and looks around the crowd and says, “Who touched me?” Which elicits a response from the disciples along the lines of “You have got to be kidding.” And, you know, the woman knows right away she has been healed… she can feel it in her body, just as Jesus can feel that power has gone out from his. But Jesus is not willing to simply make someone well. Jesus is not willing to simply let the power flow out from him—good and dynamic and healing as that power might be. Jesus is not content to merely solve a problem. Jesus wants an encounter with a person.

And encounter her he does. And what does he say to her? He says, “daughter.” To the woman whose family has fled, he says, “daughter.” To the woman who is alone, cut off, isolated, outcast… he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” And with those words, Jesus accomplishes the truly explosive healing: the work of restoring her to community, to family. Someone who has been excluded, who has been languishing on the outside, for twelve long years, has a family once more.

And so it is for us. Do we want God to heal us of our diseases? Of course we do. No one wants the return of the tumor, the terrible pain, the grave infirmity. Of course we want the healing of our many varieties of real heartbreak and loss. Jesus offers us that, and much more. He offers us an open door into that world where people sit together and talk intimately and understand each other. He offers us a world where people touch one another on the arm as they speak, where they embrace one another spontaneously when someone is sad, or glad, or relieved. Jesus offers us the beloved community, the family of God.

The beloved community gathered, first, around the preaching and healing Jesus, and then, around the risen Christ. It is the foundation of the beloved community that there is room at the table. It is the foundation of the beloved community that no one is to be alone, cut off, isolated, or outcast. Each one of us is “daughter.” Each one is “son.” Each one is “sister, or “brother.” Each one is “friend.” Each one is “beloved.” No more orphan boys or girls, but each of us is kin to Jesus, who touches us with dynamic power and welcomes us in.

Blessed Savior make me willing
And walk beside me until I'm with them
Be my mother my father
My sister my brother
I am an orphan girl


Songbird said...

Amen. And my prayers go with you, keep us posted about your dad.

gordbrown said...

You were kind enough to pray for our family when my father died last January. So of course I remember that and hold you in my prayers.

Vaya con Dios

Choralgirl said...

Lovely sermon, dear one--praying for your family!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this life-giving message. January736

Sophia said...

Lovely sermon on the outcast experience, Mags.

One complicating factor that came to my mind at church this week was something I learned from a Jewish feminist source I cannot now remember. She pointed out that what the woman touched would have been the fringe of Jesus' tzitzit, the ritual four cornered garment. And she argued that the woman most likely did not have this outcast status at all, as many Levitical rules were not followed to the letter, either in Jesus' time or the early stage of rabbinic Judaism recorded in Mishnah and Talmud. And that the standard Christian interpretation of this story--like much Christian feminist theology that contrasts Jesus to his Jewish background and uses anachronistic comparisons from later practice--is actually anti-Semitic in portraying Jewish practice and harsh and sexist, and Jesus as defying his origins rather than learning from them.

Judith Plaskow has some important stuff on this weakness in Christian feminist theology, as does Amy-Jill Levine (from whom, now that I think about it, this particular story critique likely originated). Anyway, sorry that it is so impressionistic and I don't have a specific source for this pericope--but I know you are always alert for both justice issues and excellent exegesis so I thought I would raise the issue for your consideration.

Anonymous said...

Opulently I agree but I contemplate the brief should have more info then it has.