Touching Stories: Sermon by Laura, 7.1.12 Pentecost 5B/Ordinary 13B

Scripture Readings: Mark 5:21-43, Psalm 130

Have you ever been in a crowd like the one Mark describes? I was once in Philadelphia for the 4th of July, a tiny speck in an enormous sea of people. It was thrilling to see such a diversity of people, all races and classes gathered in an historic place, celebrating what we held in common, the blessings of our country’s independence. But at the same time, the energy of the crowd was a little unnerving. As the fireworks display began, my companions and I angled for a good view, but we were not in control. The crowd pressed us on all sides so that we were pushed into a space we would not have chosen. It might have been the most spectacular fireworks I’d ever seen, if not for the large antenna from the Philadelphia Bell truck sticking up and splitting my view!

Of course, the setting for these scripture stories is not a benign bunch of holiday merrymakers.The crowd here probably looks a bit more like the part of our nation’s heritage Emma Lazarus depicts in her famous poem, giving a voice to the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

This is a sea of humanity with storms brewing just below the surface. And I don’t know about you, but the way Mark describes the crowd as “pressing in on Jesus” gives me a claustrophobic feeling. I imagine the pressure of hands, begging and grasping, pushing and pulling. I want to recoil from the unwelcome touch of so many strangers. Altogether, this text offends my sense of proxemics.

Have you ever heard that word before? Anthropologists use “proxemics” to describe the dynamics of “personal space.” It seems that people of various cultures have different preferences regarding the space between themselves and other people in interpersonal interactions.[1] For example, North Americans prefer to keep more distance between ourselves and a relative stranger than someone from Latin America. Have you ever been in a funny dance with someone from one of these cultures, where they keep moving closer, as you feeling your space “invaded,” keeps stepping back? In our culture, the touch of a stranger is almost always perceived as dangerous.

Now, Jesus and the disciples, with their ancient Middle Eastern proxemics, may not have felt as claustrophobic in that crowd as I would have. But there is no doubt the disciples again felt out of control. After all, they lived in a Jewish context where direct contact with people in certain circumstances was thought to make one ritually unclean. And in this story, both of the people who reach out from the crowd for Jesus’ touch present just such a danger.

The first individual is no member of the “huddled masses,” but Jairus, a man of stature, a synagogue leader with status, wealth, and authority in the community. His concern for his twelve-year-old daughter is at the center of public life. In contrast, the second individual is an anonymous woman, whose illness has placed her on the far fringes of society. Twelve years of hemorrhaging and seeking treatment from physicians who failed her have rendered her isolated, powerless and vulnerable. [2]

On the surface, they seem different, yet this story reveals these two have more in common than any realize. They have in common the human condition.

Whatever sense of self-determination we start out with, the human condition comes upon us all. We go along, operating under the direction of manuals which seem tried and true. We go along thinking that if we just follow directions, if we just do everything right, everything will turn out fine. But then there is an interruption. “The income evaporates, the doctor finds a spot on the X ray, the child’s grades go down and down,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “and it is like being trapped inside a fine automobile when the breaks fail. In a split second everything changes. One moment you are comfortably and safely in command of your journey, and the next you are being flung down the road in an expensive piece of machinery that will not stop.” [3] Along with our tidy plans, our illusions of control crash to pieces.

So here they are, people with the dangerous human condition, reaching out for Jesus’ touch. Their approach is different, but their need is the same. “Lay your hands on my daughter, that she may live!” Jairus cries out in public, desperately lowering himself to beg at Jesus’ feet. Whatever he’d planned to do when he got off the boat, Jesus changes course. Without a word, he goes with Jairus.

But then there is an interruption. Concealed by the crowd, the woman approaches. She has to come undercover, because she is unwelcome. When people see her coming, they put as much distance as possible between their bodies and hers, so her touch cannot contaminate them. But now they are distracted by Jesus, and so she does something which goes against everything she has been taught about appropriate behavior. Silently reaching out, she touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.

In the moment of contact, healing takes place. She knows it, and Jesus knows it. But for Jesus, is not enough. Healing is not complete, because the healing Jesus offers goes beyond the mere cessation of a physical ailment. Her healing will not be complete until she is restored to community with the people around her. So, though his pace is urgent, Jesus stops in his tracks. It seems all heaven and earth stops too, [4] that her story may be heard, not just by him, but by all those people pressing in.

It’s as if Jesus has all the time in the world. Nothing is more important in that moment but this woman and her story. However, Jairus does not have all the time in the world. Can you imagine his agony as he stands there, knowing there’s no time to lose? I think the disciples were also becoming frantic with this interruption. They want Jesus to get to the synagogue leader’s little girl, not waste time being waylaid by this woman who does not know her place.

Yet that’s exactly why Jesus has to stop. He puts the woman in her place, not by calling her “unclean,” but by naming “daughter.” She is a daughter “every bit as precious as Jairus’ beloved little girl.”[5] Right here is some good news, my friends. Can you hear it? It tells us that no matter who we are, whether we think we are worthy or not, Jesus is always ready and willing to be in relationship with us. What we might see as an interruption, he sees as a connection. What we might see as an invasion of space, he sees as an opportunity for a deeper relationship. Jesus wants to be touched by us, so he can touch our lives. He wants to put us in our place with acceptance and love, that we might be restored as sons and daughters of God, brought back to community, and be made whole.

Of course, what is clearly good news for the woman seems, at first, to be bad news for Jairus. While he waits for Jesus, a message catches up: His daughter is dead. Why bother the busy teacher any further? But Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” And there’s good news here, too. Jesus allowed an interruption for healing, but now he will not be stopped. He will not be immobilized by despair, and neither should we. God does not give up on any of us.

For the stunning truth is, with Jesus Christ, even death does not have the final word. In Jesus’ presence, there is always hope for new life. “Why do you weep? The child is sleeping.” The people laugh, but he just kicks out that disbelieving crowd, and risks another dangerous touch, taking this daughter by the hand. “Little girl, get up!” he says, and she gets up and walks.

“Do not fear, only believe!” Here’s what I think Jesus is saying: You are not in control. There will be interruptions. Everyone of us is subject to the human condition. But do not let fear crowd you into a space which hampers your view.You know what? There’s a bigger picture than you can see right now. Stop panicking. Stop throwing up your hands in despair. Put them to better use, reaching out to touch Jesus. That is where you’ll find healing.

Now, keep in mind, Jesus has a different idea of healing than we usually do–a bigger, more spectacular picture. Sometimes it includes what we might call “medical miracles,” and sometimes it does not. But never doubt that when reach out for healing, Jesus will put his hands upon you. And, keep this in mind, too: the touch of Jesus’ hands has other powers. Laying hands on us not only heals, but transforms and calls us. We become those who are called to touch others. And like him, we’ll start getting touched by stories which burst in upon our own. It can be unnerving. There are some stories we just don’t want to hear.

When I did hospital chaplaincy as a new mother, I tried to avoid the stories of the parents of sick babies. Deep inside I think I feared that hearing those stories would contaminate me with their human condition: if it could happen to them, it could happen to me. Somehow I thought that if I refused to be touched, I could not be hurt. But God has a way of putting us right where we need to be to be healed. My disease was denial, but the crowd of stories I heard that summer finally pressed me into a place I hadn’t wanted to go, put me in my place, standing at the bedside of grieving parents. They asked for prayer, so we stretched our hands out to one another, and we all received together the healing touch of Jesus, who says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Even death in my presence is only sleeping.

Jesus has all the time in the world, all the time in eternity, and, ultimately, so do we. There is a bigger picture, more spectacular than any one of us can imagine. Let us welcome the stories which interrupt our illusions. Let us welcome the touch which pulls us toward healing. Let our crowd become a community where all human beings are welcomed as sons and daughters, where all our stories touch, and where we are all forgiven, healed, and  made whole.

In the gracious power of the Love that created us human,

the Passion that reaches out for us with compassion,

and the Presence which stretches through us to touch others,

Amen.


[2] Mark D. W. Edington, “Theological Reflection on Mark 5:21-43,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 190.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “One Step at a Time,” in The Preaching Life, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993, 90-91.

[4] Mark D. W. Edington, Feasting on the Word, 190.

[5] Michael Lindvall, Feasting on the Word,192.

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