Sermon – “Life on the Fringes”
I hate crowds maybe partially because I am as we say “vertically challenged.” On a tall day I’m 5’ 3.5.” And yes, I somewhat like a little kid when announcing their age, I need to get the half or three quarters in there. Crowds make me feel claustrophobic and powerless. I can’t see what in front of me or what’s behind me. I simply must go wherever I am pushed to go. Very unnerving. So you see there are very few instances where I would purposely put myself in a crowd.
Back in 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to India and Nepal on pilgrimage with Roshe. One of the amazing experiences I had while there was to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is a small town made famous because it is the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment. January is the busiest time for this little town as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel to attend His Holiness’ annual teachings. At the site of the bodhi tree where Buddha sat and meditated until he reached enlightenment is a 40-foot-high temple called the Mahabodhi Temple. It is considered a spiritual practice for Buddhist to walk clockwise circles around holy sites while praying – a practice known as korwa.
Despite the wide, well paved pathways surrounding Mahabodhi Temple thousands of people trying to do korwa from an aerial view must look similar to the herding of cattle on some large farm in VT. Roshe and I had gotten separated during one time around but I just kept walking trying to trust that eventually we’d catch up to each other. Then suddenly I felt two hands on my waist. It startled me. I turned back fully expecting that I would see Roshe who had somehow made their way through the crowd to catch up to me but it wasn’t Roshe who had reached out for me.
The gospels over the last few weeks have been telling stories of faith either through parables Jesus has taught or through stories experienced with Biblical characters. This week we return to the gospel of Mark who has given us a faith story actually two stories woven into one – a story sandwich. The story begins with Jairus, a leader of the synagogue who holds great stature in the community throwing himself at Jesus’ feet and begging for his help – a grand public display at Jesus’ feet despite how Jesus was likely regarded by most of the other synagogue leaders. What could possible cause this man of privilege to lay himself at any man’s feet? A sick child, that’s what. His love compels him even to beg — a posture no man with his social status would ever consider if he felt he had any other choice. Jesus agrees to go with him to see his daughter. As they are making their way to Jairus’ home….
We are interrupted mid-story, by a woman who makes her way through the crowd to touch Jesus or at least his clothes. We never know this women’s name much like other women in Mark’s gospel who display great acts of faith and who seem to “get” who Jesus is. Not only is she unnamed but unlike the daughter in the story she isn’t even identified in relation to male kin which in a Biblical social context makes her a nobody. The only identifying factor for this woman is that she has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years. We are never told the exact nature of her bleeding but it has been commonly considered that her hemorrhage was.
The simple fact is that according to Levitical codes her incessant bleeding rendered her continual impure according to Jewish law although none of the gospel tellings of this story actual state that she is ritually impure. Her permanent state of impurity would make it impossible for her to remain in marital connection with a husband if she ever had one and not to mention that she would likely be childless. The scripture says that “she has endured much” in her quest for healing and that she despite having spent all that she had on physicians she has become worse not better. She is socially shunned as she has been suffering from an illness that carries with it social stigma. She is poor and has no family or anyone to advocate for her. She is most certainly one of 99% of Biblical times.
If we look at the image on the cover of the bulletin this morning we can see the mere outline of her figure – she is drained of color, lifeless. She is for all intense purposes, like Jairus’ daughter dead – socially dead. Even still there was something inside of her that hoped for more that wanted to live a fuller life. She had heard about Jesus a teacher, rumored to be a healer and she reach out for that. She had to surrender to her own vulnerability and reach past her own fear just far enough to reach his garment. It has always been interpreted even in visual images that she reached for the hem of his cloak or his robe but it was believed and even written in scripture that holiness could be passed from the garment of a priest to the people. Ezekiel 44:19 instructs that priests should change out of the clothes they were ministering in when leaving the inner courtyard of the temple so as to not “consecrate people by means of their garments.” But in all reality what she probably touched was the fringe of Jesus’ tallit, his prayer shawl. Jesus as a devout Jewish man would have been wearing this prayer shawl which would have tzitzis, tassels or fringes, tied on each of the four corners as a reminder of their obligations to God and to their community. Again, if you look at the picture on the front of your bulletin you can see this depiction.
So this woman herself deemed untouchable reaches out and touches the fringe of Jesus’ prayer shawl and immediately he knows. There was a large crowd pressing in on them. There must have been many hands reaching to try and touch Jesus yet it is this touch that he notices, that changes him too. “Who touched me?” This is when she really summons her courage. She could have just as easily snuck away knowing that she was healed and no one would have ever figured out who it was. Then in the midst of a huge crowd there is a scene of tender intimacy. Jesus names her “daughter.” It feels important to note that here that Jesus didn’t turn to the woman and explain that he couldn’t treat her because she had a pre-existing condition. Jesus modeled the kind of compassion for those who are out on the margins that we see lacking in this country’s health care laws and systems.
The distinction between those who have and those who don’t is one of the underlying themes of the gospel reading. These two characters place in juxtaposing stories highlight the breadth of difference between them but they do have something in common. They have both reached a place of complete desperation. Do you know that place? The place where you think “I’ll try anything!” or “I’ve had enough!” One could image that for Jarius, being a man with a certain social status, this was a new experience this living life on the edge – so close to death. But the women who had been bleeding for as long as Jarius’ daughter had been alive, she’s accustomed to living life on the fringes – outcast, alone, penniless and looming near death on a daily basis.
The other thing that binds these two characters is that they both have faith; they both believe Jesus can be an agent of healing. They are both willing to take the risk to seek that healing. It is important to note here that the root of the word healing in New Testament Greek, “zozo” is also the root for the words “salvation” and “wholeness.” Both Jarius and the woman were seeking wholeness. Will Willimon writes that “Health is more than the absence of illness. It is fullness of life.”
For Jairus maybe part of his healing or wholeness was discovered in his loving his daughter so much he would do anything to secure her life. His wholeness was realized in his willingness to abandon much of what had defined him: his privilege, his position and his sense of pride and risk even being seen as a traitor in the eyes of the other synagogue leaders. Perhaps Jairus was on his way to healing already even as he acknowledged and acted on his deep love for his child.
As for the woman we are already told the bleeding had finally stopped. She takes hold of her own belovedness and values her own life above the gossip and side-talk about who or what she is. Jesus said, “Daughter your faith has made you well”, Jesus did not say I have healed you. It is the woman’s faith that made her well, not any magic thing that Jesus did. Perhaps because her hemorrhage wasn’t really what she needed to be healed from. Perhaps the healing she truly needed was about her spirit. HER faith that has made her well. That is how it always works, God does not do the work for us, God does the work through us.
Jesus calls the woman “Daughter,” the only time that Mark has Jesus using this word. Jairus comes to Jesus to make a case for his daughter, the poor woman who once had no one to advocate for her now has Jesus claiming her as his own, and thus liberation theology has another example to its claim of God’s unwavering solidarity with the poor, outcasts and the oppressed. In that moment she was lifted up from being one who felt she had to sneak up behind Jesus and anonymously receive the gifts of God to one who was recognized by and acknowledged by Jesus himself. In that moment they become known one to another in an exchange of compassion for self and other they experience love and they are both changed from it.
Every time I this gospel story the memory of that experience in Bodhgaya comes rushing back to me. I turned around and looked right over the top of someone’s head. I adjusted my view and my eyes locked with the dark, wrinkled face of a Tibetan woman. She stood perhaps 4’ 10” maybe a little taller. Her silver hair was braided and she was dressed in a traditional Tibetan formal wear dress called a chupa. Despite a less than full set of teeth she offered me a bright smile; this whole exchange with her hands still on my waist. It was an intimate scene even in the midst of a huge crowd. We were too very different people who, with the exception of this moment, would have virtually no way or reason to make a connection. Now I’m quite sure that there was no miraculous healing that happened in that exchange but I can tell you that I was changed by it. Suddenly I felt a sense of responsibility for her well-being. What I figured out is that if I wanted to have this experience, I needed to let go of my fear and discomfort and just surrender to the moment. I put my hands over hers and around the temple we walked.
These interwoven gospel stories have so much richness to them. One could easily say that the story of the hemorrhaging woman is an allegory for the church or even for this country whose independence we celebrate this weekend. So many churches across denominations were struggling to financially keep afloat even before COVID. Bill Wilson, Director of the Center of Healthy Churches, suggests that as many as 33% of all American congregations could close by 2025. Especially over this last 15 months, we have witnessed like never before the illness that has plagued this country for generations. Of course, I’m not talking about COVID I’m talking about some of the deep disparities that COVID exposed. I’m talking about racism and the infected institutions and systems brought more fully to light in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Will we, like the woman be bold enough to reach out for healing, to reach in for healing – beyond institutional protocols and constricting dogma to make a connection with Jesus and one another that will breathe life back into the church, one that will bring true healing to our nation?
These stories are allegories for our own lives and spirits as well. How are we like Jairus’ “sleeping” daughter or like the woman living alone and isolated with our suffering? The woman who was living life on the fringes of society has found new life on the fringe of Jesus’ prayer shawl. Hidden in this tale is a flash of precious intimacy between two human beings who are socially very distant from each other. Their scandalous touch does not yield the anger and alienation you might expect but instead brings wholeness, healing and peace. Our healing, our wholeness comes in relationship to one another. In these genuine moments of connection we are all healed – no giver or receiver, no sick nor healer, the categories that once divided us melt away. Our connection and our interdependence is the path to our healing and the healing of the world.
Are we bold enough to reach out for that which could make us whole? Are you willing to go out on a limb to make a connection; to reach past the social norms that support the illusion that we are separate from one another? Are we willing to examine our own selves and honestly seek healing from the racism that infects us as white people in order to bring healing and wholeness to this country we celebrate this weekend? What miracles can happen when we recognize our own ability to heal ourselves and each other. We are called to stay in touch with Jesus, with our own divine goodness, so that we can be agents of salvation understood as liberation and wellness for others in the world. When we stay in touch with Jesus, our words, our touch, and our presence have more life-giving power than we realize.
Perhaps as we enter into this Fourth of July, instead of celebrating our independence we should think instead of celebrating our interdependence reaching out from the fringes, reaching out to the fringes for true and deep healing, our hearts meeting in life-giving ways. Amen.
 The point of the healing is that Jesus restores a woman to health (and ritual purity), not that impurity, which is a natural part of the world order, is evil. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine & Marc Z. Brettler, p.502