A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, July 1, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 5:21-43
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I met Sister Annette through the Tri-City Interfaith Council.  She is the chaplain at Alma Via Union City, and like so many Catholic nuns, an intelligent compassionate woman.  A couple months ago, she contacted me to ask me to lead a Bible study at her care facility once a month.  She told me that a woman who was United Church of Christ had moved in and had asked for a UCC-led Bible study.  I checked to make sure this woman’s denomination was in fact United Church of Christ and not Church of Christ.  If she was Church of Christ, she would be expecting a different understanding of scripture than mine.  Assured that this woman was, in fact, UCC, we arranged for the Bible study to by on the fourth Thursday of the month at 1:45 (yes, you’re welcome to come, too).

I was getting ready for May’s Bible study when Sr. Annette called to say they were on quarantine – the nasty norovirus was making its way through the facility.  So last Thursday was my first Bible study there and, as I do with our daytime Women’s Fellowship Bible study, I planned to study the scripture I would be preaching on.

As Sr. Annette introduced me to the residents in attendance, the UCC woman said she would have to leave early for an appointment – with her hospice nurse.  I looked at her and wondered how she would hear today’s reading about Jesus healing a woman and a girl, one from a hemorrhage that had been going on for 12 years and the other from the ultimate illness:  death.

The gospels all agree on two aspects of Jesus’ ministry:  He proclaimed the reign of God, and he was known as an itinerant healer.  We often refer to the healings he performed as ‘miracles.’  But we use the word ‘miracle’ to mean an event that transcends or even defies natural laws – and this is a modern notion.  We respond to these accounts of healings with questions.  We often begin with skepticism that anything ‘really’ happened.  We then ask about the diagnosis and treatment by which the cure was accomplished.  Did the blindness or paralysis have a physical cause or a psychological one?  Was the apparent healing simply the result of a placebo effect in which the encounter did what was anticipated?

Ancient communities did not having anything close to our notions of natural laws and cause and effect and took for granted that the described healing simply occurred.   Their concerns were about the authority and power under which healing took place (Mark 3:21-27) and – just as importantly – what other meanings it conveyed.

Theology professor Sharon H. Ringe has written about health care in the world of Jesus.  “If one were wealthy, one could hire a personal ‘physician’ who knew the latest and best [information] about the human body, illness, and health.  A wealthy person would be cared for at home and, if the treatment were successful, be restored to his or her rightful place in the household structure, which was the basis of the social order.  If one were less wealthy, but still fairly well integrated into the economic and social order, one would probably go to one of the healing centers dedicated to various gods.  Treatments included the use of herbs, sleep therapy, the arts (especially music, theater, and dance), and various prayers and religious offerings.  Again, if healed, the person would be restored to his or her appropriate social status. …  [I]f the illness proved intransigent, the person or even the entire household might find their economic status drastically reduced.

“The poor had no such options.  The disabled or chronically ill would usually have had to subsist by begging.  Families whose bread was won by day laborers barely able to gain the day’s wage needed for survival would have had nothing left for medical expenses.  They would have had to wait until an itinerant healer came through town.  These healers were often herbalists and practitioners of other such forms of therapy, as well as invoking more explicitly religious cures.

“Healers would address the overtly physical manifestations of the problem, as well as the understanding that disease or disability reflected something out of order between the person suffering and the divine powers.  They often linked their work to a social critique and calls for reform that appealed to those who had little or no stake in the continuation of the existing social order.  Some itinerant healers were legitimate and others were quacks.  In any event, they were the medical care providers for the poor and also for the desperate – the well-to-do for whom other means had been unsuccessful.”[1]

This is Jarius’ reality when he approaches Jesus.  This leader of the Synagogue – presumably a man of some means – has a sick daughter.  She is nearing death when the itinerate healer Jesus comes to town.  Had Jarius been waiting for Jesus, praying that this man with a reputation for healing people would come to his town?  Had he been pleading with God that Jesus be directed to this village so that he daughter might be healed?  Or had he been taking his daughter to physicians who could do nothing other than tell him that his daughter was going to die?  And then Jesus showed up, and since he had tried everything else, Jarius approached Jesus in desperation to ask for his intervention?  We don’t know the answer to these questions, only that Jarius approaches Jesus and begs that he would come and heal his daughter.

Jesus says ‘yes’ and on the way to Jarius’ house, there’s an interruption.  A woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years had faith that she would be healed if she could just touch Jesus’ cloak.  So she snuck up from behind and touched this garments.  Jesus experiences “a disturbance in the force.”  He feels some power go out from him and he knows that something has happened.  There in the midst of the crowd pressing in on him, he asks, “Who touched me?”

I try to imagine the disciples’ faces.  “What do you mean, ‘who touched me?’  Everybody touched you.  You’re in the middle of a crowd.”  It seems to me that the disciples are trying to hurry him on to Jarius’ house and the sick girl.

But Jesus stops.  He looks at the crowd, trying to discern who it was who touched his clothing.  The woman – not because she knows she’ll be found out but because she knows what happened to her – approaches Jesus and tells him everything.  I assume this takes some time, for there’s a 12-year-long story to tell.

It appears there’s a cost to this interruption.  As he is speaking to this woman, some people from Jarius’ house come to say that his daughter has died.  “Why trouble the teacher any further?”  But Jesus insists that the girl is not dead, only sleeping.  So he continues with a few of his disciples and, when he gets to Jarius’ house, he sends everyone but the few disciples and the girl’s mother and father out of the house.  He goes into the girl’s room, takes her hand, and tells her to get up.  And she does.

If we can dismiss our modern questions about the science of what did or didn’t happen, we may learn something important about the meaning of what happened.  Both of the healings involve women in crisis.  Interestingly, we don’t know them by their names, only by their needs.  And we know that they’re Jewish – Jesus has returned to the Israeli side of the lake.  So, it would seem that they’re insiders, except they are “both now subject to the taboos around the mysterious power of life (blood) and the even more mysterious (and seemingly unconquerable) power of death.  Neither a bleeding woman nor a dead girl should be touched, at the risk of contracting their uncleanness.”[2]

This is where their similarities end.  The two women are, as Ched Myers put it “archetypal opposites in terms of economic status and honor.”[3]  “The bleeding woman is without social, religious, or economic status; she is unnamed in the account and even the disciples urge Jesus not to worry about the needs of the crowd – presumably so that he can attend to Jairus’ daughter more quickly.  The 12-year-old child is the opposite of the woman; [born the same year the older woman’s hemorrhaging began,] she is entering her child-bearing years and thus her most valuable status as a woman in a society dominated by honor codes.  She has everything the bleeding woman doesn’t—a man to advocate for her, wealth, status, position, and societal value.”[4]

The contrasts continue.  “While an adult male, Jairus, directly asks Jesus for help on behalf of his little girl, the bleeding woman acts on her own and touches Jesus in secret, without speaking to him.”[5]  “[D]espite her situation and through her faith, the impure woman ‘takes’ from Jesus what she needs, in some ways exercising more agency than Jairus.”[6]

And her exercising of agency causes Jesus to stop.  “He cares who had the courage, and faith, to violate purity codes and touch him.  Not only does he not rebuke the woman, he calls her ‘daughter’ and commends her great faith.  In doing so, Myers observes that ‘by the story’s conclusion, she herself has become the “daughter” at the center of the story.’

“Jesus also rejects the assumption that if there is a ‘winner’ there must also be a loser.  In this kingdom, we are all adopted children.  God does not cure the poor at the expense of the rich, or vice versa.  Viewing the situation from God’s perspective, not theirs, Jesus challenges the mourners:  ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep?  The child is not dead but sleeping.’  In this kingdom, we are all loved, we all get a second chance at life, and no one has to lose.”[7]

The lectionary was set long before the Affordable Care Act was conceived.  It’s just a coincidence that we have this particular gospel lesson coming days after the Supreme Court ruled that the ACA is constitutional.  But what a great example how the world tells us it’s all a zero-sum game, that there have to be losers if there are winners, when Jesus’ actions say we can have winners and winners.

In the days preceding the issuing of the ruling, the news was filed with analysis of who the winners and losers were going to be, depending on what the ruling was.  All anyone seemed to care about was, if the Court rules this way, which presidential candidate will win and which will lose, which political party will win and which will lose.  And not which will win or lose an election, but which will win or lose some ephemeral political I-don’t-know-what.

Where was the analysis of how the possible decisions would affect real people?  Where was the discussion about how the decision will affect the people who still don’t have adequate and reasonably priced health care?  “What about the people still not covered under the Affordable Care Act?  Will there still be those who are too poor to be healthy in America?  How do we move from a mindset that views health care as merely a commodity and not a human right?  These are the questions for Christians, not who wins and who loses the political debate.”[8]

In the kin-dom of God, we are all loved and all deserving of fullness of life.  God loving me doesn’t diminish God’s love for you.  God’s love is not a zero sum game.  The kin-dom of God is not a zero sum game.  In the kin-dom of God, there need to be winners in order for there to be winner.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.


[1] Sharon H. Ringe, “Placebos of Power,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0209&article=020923&mode=sermon_prep&week=B_Proper_8 (30 June 2012).  The article was originally published in the September-October 2002 edition of Sojourners Magazine.

[2] Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ (22 June 2012).

[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Stong Man, quoted in Michaela Bruzzese, “Only Believe,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_090649_BProper8&week=B_Proper_8 (30 June 2012).

[5] Michaela Bruzzese, “Saved by Faith,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_030549_BProper8&week=B_Proper_8 (30 June 2012).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michaela Bruzzese, “Only Believe,” op. cit.

[8] Jim Wallis, “The U.S. Supreme Court: Health Care, Immigration, Juvenile Justice and More,” Sojourners, posted 28 June 2012, http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/06/28/us-supreme-court-health-care-immigration-juvenile-justice-and-more/#disqus_thread (30 June 2012).

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