The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
June 28, 2015
Text: Mark 5:21-43
I teach Ethics at Lebanon Valley College. As the students and I grapple with issues of fairness, justice, and access to resources throughout the semester, they begin to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of problems our society faces. I remember one student’s comment when I introduced them to the notion of environmental ethics. “There are too many other problems to worry about,” he said. “I know environmental issues are important, but I just don’t think we should focus on them when we’ve got our national security to think about and all the other social problems.”
Setting aside his assumption that environmental issues and national security are unrelated (because, in fact, they are integrally related [see http://weather.climate25.com/]), what I sensed in his comment, and others shared by his classmates is the fear of scarcity. That there’s not enough to go around. If we focus our energy on racial equality, there won’t be enough left for gender equality. If we focus on marriage equality, there won’t be enough left for economic equality. If we focus on raising the minimum wage, there won’t be enough energy left to focus on climate disruption. And so on. The underlying assumption is that there is only so much justice and healing to go around.
This is the situation Jesus faced in his ministry every day. There were so many issues and social problems in first century Palestine – the brutal military occupation by the Roman Empire, the ethnic tension between the Jews and Samaritans, the unequal access between men and women to the Temple and God’s blessings, and the poverty of the majority of the population. Add to that the hundreds of people who were daily crying out to him for healing – the lepers, the lame, the ones possessed by mental and emotional demons. It was a time of great turmoil, and there was Jesus right in the thick of it all.
In this story from Mark in particular, we see the conflict of two dire needs – one that has been simmering for a long time, one that has come up suddenly. Jesus is asked to come to the house of Jairus the synagogue leader in order to heal his little girl who is on the verge of death. The need is urgent. He must come now.
But as he makes his way through the crowd, another need makes itself known. This is one that has been plaguing the woman for twelve years – menstrual bleeding that just won’t stop. Such a condition makes her a pariah to society because she is considered ritually unclean. The bleeding is not her fault, but it has drained her resources, her energy and her patience. There she is in the crowd where she has been ignored, disrespected and disregarded for most of her life. But suddenly she sees an opportunity for healing – and she grabs it.
She doesn’t ask Jesus directly. She doesn’t want to interrupt him on what she knows is a very important mission. But like the Samaritan woman at the banquet, she just wants a few crumbs from the table. And so she reaches for the hem of Jesus’ robe – hoping against hope that even a brief swipe of her hand against the fabric that has touched this divine healer’s skin will be enough to give her a modicum of relief.
That’s all she wanted – some relief after years of suffering. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself. She didn’t want to cause a fuss. But she acted out of desperation after waiting for so long for healing. And miracle of miracles - she got it! Instantly she could feel her body returned to wholeness, the bleeding stopped, her energy returned.
But then her plan goes awry, because Jesus halts in his tracks. He could have just kept going. Why did he stop? The healing had already happened, hadn’t it? Or perhaps the healing was not actually complete. Because Jesus wants to know who it was that reached out and took some of his power for themselves.
Now the woman is faced with a decision – fade into the crowd as she has always done, or speak up for herself in public? Certainly she would face admonishment. How dare she – a woman, a bleeder, an outcast – reach out to him, the Son of God, for healing? Who does she think she is?
Trembling, but with courage, she comes forward and claims the healing she sought for herself. Maybe she just doesn’t care anymore – as long as her body is whole again, she can face anything else. Or maybe the healing itself has revealed to her a boldness and audacity that she had forgotten about. In any case – she comes forward to face her fate. Who does she think she is? A healed women. She may still feel afraid, but she is choosing to act out of courage.
Who do they think they are? I’ve been hearing that question a lot recently as I watch the crowd of social issues pressing in on us in the last few weeks.
Blacks wanting their lives to matter. Who do they think they are?
Same sex couples wanting the freedom and right to marry. Who do they think they are?
Middle and lower income people wanting access to affordable health care. Who do they think they are?
Women wanting equal pay as men and freedom from sexual violence. Who do they think they are?
Minimum wage workers wanting a pay increase that would enable them to support their families. Who do they think they are?
Citizens wanting clean water and a sustainable atmosphere for the planet. Who do they think they are?
The question is: who does God think they are? Jesus gives us the answer. He calls the woman “Daughter.” He doesn’t call her: You female dog. You uppity Negro. You abomination. You low-life. You scum. You tree-hugger.
No - he calls her “Daughter.” He claims her as his own. As his own child. No other human label matters. Further, he says to her: Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.
Notice he didn’t say, my healing power has made you well (even though it has). He said your faith. Your willingness to reach out for what you needed. Your trust in me. Your audacity. Your boldness and courage. That is what has made you well.
If the one who is desperate, whose needs have been ignored and pushed aside and belittled for so long; if the one who is longing for a fair and livable wage; if the one who is reaching out for healing and wholeness, for equality and recognition of their humanity; if the one who is grasping for just the hem of the robe hoping for a modicum of relief – if that one is recognized and healed by Jesus, then can we begrudge any of those individuals or groups who reach for the hem of the robe today?
The venerable homiletician Fred Craddock once wrote: "There are many 'meanwhile, back at the ranch' people whose needs are not only very real but whose conditions are worsened by the fact that they have been made to feel that, in a world as sick as ours, they have no right to cry for help. Many whose lives are small screen, black and white, push through the crowd to touch the hem of His garment, hoping for a little inconspicuous healing,” (As One Without Authority, Parthenon Press, Nashville, TN, 1979; 84).
Not only does the healing happen, but Jesus acknowledges the woman’s dignity, her humanity, her rightful place alongside her brothers and fathers, alongside the ones who are already privileged to have whole and healthy bodies, the ones who already enjoy economic, racial, sexual and geographic privilege. I think it is safe to say that Jesus wants no less than that for the ones who are today reaching for the hem of the robe.
And that’s all fine and good for the woman, but it doesn’t get at the original problem – the concern that there simply isn’t enough healing to go around. While Jesus is taking his time to find and talk to this woman, what happens? The girl, the one whose need is urgent, but late-coming, has died. All the while Jairus certainly must have been wringing his hands, tapping his foot impatiently, knowing that time was running out. And it has. Jesus had to choose, and someone had to lose. So it would seem that my student is right. There simply is not enough time and energy and resources to go around. We have to choose, and someone has to lose.
Only . . . that’s not that way it works with God. Brushing aside the doomsdayers who have given up, Jesus resumes his mission to Jairus’ house. “Do not fear. Only believe.” The Greek word is pisteo – have faith, grab hold of confidence, reach for the hem of the robe.
And yet the little girl cannot reach for him – not even a thread of his garment. So instead, Jesus reaches for her . . . holds her hand . . . speaks to her . . . “Little girl, get up.” Arise, wake up. What you cannot do for yourself, I do for you. My compassion knows no bounds. There is plenty of healing to go around.
Najeeba Syeed-Miller, J.D.,Assistant Prof. of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology, spoke at the Academy of Homiletics in 2014, addressing teachers of preaching. She encouraged us as Christians to preach about taking risks, to talk and listen with confidence. She said that when we dismember our hearts from our bodies, when we dismember our hearts from each other, we are dismembered from God. This is what enables and justifies our rationalization of denying healing and wholeness to our neighbor, to our enemy, to our planet.
But healing comes when we practice mercy toward others and ourselves. “God is the full manifestation of justice, beauty and power,” she said. “Mercy implies a pain-inducing empathy that lays hold of the compassionate one; moves them to satisfy the needs of the one needing mercy. The Divine has an infinite capacity for experiencing pain, and thus an infinite capacity for mercy and healing.” Expanding our hearts extends mercy to others. Mercy is the road to justice – for the woman, for the girl, for people of color, for the poor, for marriage equality, for the planet.
And for you. The hem of Jesus’ robe is as close as the drop of oil we will swipe across your brow. Reach for the hem of the robe. And if you know of someone else in need of healing, reach out on their behalf. Bring Jesus to them, as Jairus did for his daughter. As we offer healing prayers for each other, right now, do not think yourself unworthy of Jesus’ healing. There is enough healing to go around. Reach for the hem of robe. Amen.