Friday, June 29, 2012

A Story of Touch (July 1 2012)

Homily:  Yr A P13, July 1 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  2 Sam 1:1, 7-27; Ps 72:1-8; 2 Cor 8:7-15; Mk 5:21-43

You might be forgiven for thinking that today’s gospel is meant to teach us that Jesus is a great healer.  After all, in the passage that we just heard from the gospel of Mark, we have the story of not one, but two miraculous healings.  But I don’t think that Mark’s purpose in telling these stories is to prove that Jesus is a powerful healer.  You see, by this point in Mark’s gospel we already know that.  By this time in his ministry Jesus has already performed hundreds if not thousands of healings.  Mark has already given us the details of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and the leper, and the paralyzed man, and the man with the withered hand and the mad guy from across the lake, and many more.  If we’ve been paying attention to the story at all so far, we know that Jesus is a great healer.  The crowd knows that Jesus is a great healer, that’s why there’s a crowd.  Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage know that Jesus is a great healer, that’s why when they’re desperate he’s their last hope, that’s why they come to him and throw themselves at his feet.

No, Mark must have another reason for telling us this story.   Did you notice how carefully he crafts today’s passage, sandwiching the story of the woman with the hemorrhage in between the two parts of the story of Jairus and his daughter, linking them, drawing out the symmetries between the 12 year old and the one who has suffered for twelve years, between the one who is affectionately called “little daughter” by her father and the one who is affectionately called “daughter” by Jesus.

There’s lots of interesting stuff here for theologians to work with and they have, just check the commentaries.  But I want to tell you a story that was told to me this past May by John Bell at a homiletics conference in Atlanta.  John Bell is a member of the Iona community in Scotland, and he’s probably best known for his hymns and music.  One day he was invited to a church, and was asked to lead a bible study, and it turned out that the passage that they were looking at was the same one that we read today as our gospel.  So John asked the people at the study what they thought of this story and whether it reminded them of any experiences that they may have had.  Several people shared some thoughts, and then an older woman began to speak.  It turned out that a long time ago, in her youth, she had been a medical missionary in Africa.  And she told the group about how one time when she was stationed in a remote area, she’d been called into a village because a young girl had died.
When she arrived in the village, she heard the sounds of people mourning, and was met by the girl’s parents who took her to where the girl was lying.  When the woman examined the girl it turned out that she was not dead, but rather in a coma.  And as woman spoke with the family and villagers, she gradually tried to piece together what had happened.  This was a tribe in which the loss of blood was taboo, and someone  who was bleeding had to be separated from others, and there was a lot of fear associated with all of this.  And this little girl had just had her first period, and was bleeding, and she didn’t know about menstruation because no one had told her.  And the taboo around blood and the fear and the separation anxiety it had provoked in this girl had been so traumatic that it had overwhelmed her, and she had fallen into a self-induced coma, from which, thankfully, she recovered.

When the old medical missionary had finished telling her story, John Bell asked her, in light of her experience, what stood out for her in the gospel passage.  And she replied without hesitation that the most important thing for her was that when Jesus went into where the 12 year old girl was, he took her by the hand.  Because touch can be an amazingly powerful thing, especially for one who is untouchable.

Today’s gospel is about healing, but even more so, it is about touch.

Jairus falls at Jesus feet and begs him repeatedly “come and lay your hands on my daughter, so that she may be made well and live.”

The woman with the hemorrhage forces her way through the crowd and comes up behind Jesus, thinking to herself, “If I but touch his clothes I will be made well.”  And she touches his cloak, and immediately she is healed of her disease.

Jesus turns about in the crowd and says “who touched me?”

And Jesus goes into where the child lays, takes her by the hand and says “Talitha cum” which means little girl, get up.”  And immediately she gets up and begins to walk about.

What is it that’s so powerful about touch in these stories?

For those who are the untouchables, for the parts of each one of us that are untouchable, touch may be the most powerful thing of all. 

For the young girl who is having her first period in a culture which treats such things as taboo, and forbids contact, the fear of losing the touch of another human may be overwhelming when the bleeding starts.

For the woman who’s bleeding never stops, who is described in the greek text as “gushing with blood”, a woman who will never know the touch of a man, who will never be able to have children, who lives alone on the margins of society, who has endured twelve years of this and spent every penny she had, the touch of another loving human must seem too much to hope for.

Touch I suppose is something we take for granted until we lose it.  And then the consequences can be devastating.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  You can ask people right here who were made to feel untouchable in the 80’s and 90’s when AIDS struck, giving rise to powerful fears and prejudices and taboos, right here in Ottawa.  These people know what it’s like when others are afraid to touch you.

Jesus went into where the child was and touched her.  In so doing he made himself unclean, because in Jesus day that’s what happened when you touched a dead body.  The woman with the hemorrhage broke the law when she touched Jesus.  She was unclean and her touch made Jesus unclean.  That’s why she trembled with fear when Jesus turned around and said “Who touched my clothes?”

Now we don’t have the same notions of pure and impure, clean and unclean, that existed in Jesus day.  But we still have our taboos, we have our fears and prejudices, we have our ways of dividing people into right and wrong, good and bad.  And within us, each one of us has our own dark place, our place of embarrassment or shame, the bit of us that we don’t dare reveal to anyone else. 

Today’s gospel is saying that God isn’t too good to go there.  We don’t have to hide stuff from Jesus.  Like the woman, we can tell him the whole truth, the whole, risky, messy, embarrassing, scandalous truth, and there is nothing we can say, there is nothing we can do, there is nothing about us that will stop Jesus from touching us, even if the whole world thinks we are untouchable.
Jesus comes to us where we are, as we are, in our muck and in our glory, and touches us.  Nothing will stop him.  He will break down social barriers, overcome taboos, ignore our rules, violate laws, become unclean, associate with riff-raff, make himself vulnerable, and do whatever it takes to touch us, make us well and give us life.

Come and lay your hands on my little daughter so that she may made well and live.


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