A Tale of Two Women

I think that last Sunday’s (July 1) Gospel (Mark 5:21—43) cried out for a woman preacher. We don’t get to hear this Gospel very often. It shows up once in the 3-year lectionary and even then it can get displaced by the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. But it is one of the most intriguing sections Mark wrote.

Mark tells the story of two women. One is well-to-do; the other is poor, a nobody. One story begins and gets interrupted by another one. First, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, approaches Jesus because his young daughter is gravely ill. Could Jesus please come and heal her? Sure. But, on the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who also needs help desperately. Jesus delays his walk to Jairus’ house, even though the little girl is at the point of death. He stops his trek to the well-to-do daughter to deal with a poor nobody who had the audacity to take matters in her own hands.

It was no accident that Mark wove these two stories together (and woe to the preacher who omitted one!) Jairus’ daughter is a young woman of privilege – with a leader of the synagogue for a Dad. Entering puberty at twelve years old the promise of full womanhood lies before this young daughter of Israel. The girl lives in comfort and affluence. Her father enjoys power, prestige and wealth. She has the best advocate any little girl can ask for: her Dad. And Jairus does not hesitate to approach Jesus within socially sanctioned propriety.

In those same twelve years that the young girl was growing up, the bleeding woman suffered terribly. Her future was “spent” in more ways than one.
Nameless and destitute, she too is a daughter of Israel. But she has no advocate fighting for her. The promise of her full womanhood was never realized, drained out of her in a flow of blood for twelve painful years.

Because of her continuous bleeding, this woman was not to be seen anywhere near the Temple or synagogue, or anywhere near a religious leader. The bleeding woman, therefore, suffers double isolation. Illness was considered divine punishment for sins, resulting in being cut off from normal social relations. This woman was nobody’s friend. She had no one to speak for her, no advocate. She must take her salvation in her own hands. And she has to do it by breaking social and religious taboos: unclean, an outcast and a woman, she touches a man in public in the vicinity of a leader of the synagogue. According to the customs of the time, the woman’s touch – even if only his cloak – defiled Jesus.

What does Jesus do? Does he call for the purification rites, in order to make himself clean again? After all, he’s on his way to Jairus’ house, a leader of the synagogue. Does he ignore this nameless face in the crowd because he’s on an important mission on behalf of the rich and powerful? No, none of that.

Jesus knows that “power has gone out of him.” It’s the kind of energy that reaches out to another, the energy of love and healing. And in Jesus that energy flowed so freely, that even touching the hem of his cloak gave the woman access to its healing power. Jesus knows that someone touched him with intent. Not only does Jesus attend to this destitute, nameless nobody, he singles her out for her faith, her perseverance, her courage. Jesus uses this unclean, repulsive, outcast woman, the one whom nobody wants, to teach the rich, the religious and the powerful a lesson about faith:“Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, he is told that the girl has died. Immediately he tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” But – everyone is skeptical; they even “laugh at him.” No trace of faith here, not in this well-to-do house. Imagine that: the nameless, rejected woman shows stronger faith than the religious experts of the synagogue! Talk about turning the tables … Nevertheless, healing energy flowed forth from Jesus to the young and the old woman alike. ‘Cause God‘s healing touch knows no outcasts, knows no inferior folk, nor is it reserved for a privileged few.

Josephine Butler learned this truth quite dramatically. Josephine was a good Anglican, living in England well over one hundred years ago. She discovered that God’s healing power could flow through her too in the name of Jesus. Josephine embarked on a crusade against a social ill that still demeans an debilitates women today, making women bleed their lives away in prostitution.

Now Josephine did not have to do this. She was a woman of means, happily married with children. She came from an upper-class English family. She had every opportunity – every “right” – to a pleasant, cultured and social life. She could easily have remained untouched by the social injustices, unmoved by the oppression of women in her time. But, Josephine was also a deeply committed Christian. She was devout, sensitive and even mystical in her spirituality.

This deep love and commitment to Jesus, the man with healing power, led her to “touch” the misery of women who sold their bodies in prostitution. You see, Josephine was driven to them by her own grief. Her own little daughter, younger than 12 years old, had died. And she sought consolation by seeking to help women less fortunate than her, women and girls in prostitution. She didn’t join in their profession. Like Jesus, she felt compelled to reach out without fear and to touch their uncleanness in order to bring them hope and healing.

There is something strangely healing about reaching out to someone less fortunate, especially at a time of deep loss and pain in our own lives. That’s not quite the same as “misery loves company.” Josephine met women in much greater need than herself. At first Josephine simply befriended the girls on the street. Then she started to take them into her home so they could live, and die, surrounded by some real love instead of the one-night or one-hour stands. One thing led to another. Eventually Josephine founded homes for the girls. She started to visit the sea-ports to plead with the sailors. The plight of the hookers moved Josephine to become their advocate at great personal risk and ridicule.

Like Jairus, Josephine was grief-stricken over the death of her little girl. Like Jairus, she reached out in faith for healing and comfort. Like Jesus, in her search for healing she “bumped” into dirty, nameless women whose lives had been bleeding for years: women whom nobody bothered to really love. Like Jesus, Josephine’s life was “interrupted” in order to love women who were separated from everyone and everything that was decent and noble in any given society.

It was Josephine’s deep faith in Jesus, the healer, that led her to this radical love. And – to her great surprise – in that outrageous loving of untouchable women Josephine found her own healing. This is an incredibly important lesson still for us today. Suffering, death and other personal afflictions can still rob us of life-giving blood of any kind, sometimes making us bleed for twelve years or more. Sickness and death plays no favourites; rich and poor are afflicted.

But the pain of our bleeding can be touched deeply by faith, love and resurrection. In fact, Jesus has touched our pain on the cross. He entered our suffering and death in the most intimate way possible. That touch of Jesus, in which we share through our baptism, invites us to do at least two things: to let God touch our pain and, even in the midst of our own agony, to interrupt our lives in order to reach out to those rejected by our world because of their stigma: men and women, boys and girls trapped in prostitution, those afflicted with AIDS and HIV-related diseases, suffering cancer, MS, depression – you name it. “Who touched me?” says Jesus as he looks around. Anyone afflicted in mind, body, heart or soul only has to touch the hem of his garment, and that hem – that could be us when somebody reaches out for love and care.

Our own healing journey must take detours to attend to those less powerful and more destitute than we are. Only when the outcast woman is restored to true “daughter-hood” can the daughter of the synagogue leader be restored to new life. That is the faith that the rich and famous must learn from the poor.

Jesus not only had time for the person next to him. The reign of God, which Jesus came to reveal, points to the day when all will be attended to and no one will be ignored, no matter how much life-blood has drained out of us, no matter how untouchable society considers us.

In Jesus, God has promised us not freedom from pain, loss, grief and death.
Those are all part of living, just as joy and pleasure, passion and excitement are. Instead of removing, or protecting us from, that bad stuff, God does two things that are much more powerful:

First, God absorbs all of these human realities. In Jesus, God knows them all – intimately. In Jesus, God lived them all – passionately. By this radical identification with all creation, God has sanctified our lives. God has sanctified our humanity by joining us fully in that humanity through the life, suffering and death of his only Son Jesus Christ. We are not alone, and we matter. In Jesus, God shared and continues to share, our life.

That’s one thing. The other is that God promises resurrection, a resurrection like that of Jesus. This means that, finally, nothing – absolutely nothing – will be lost. God will make something new and renewed of our lives, our bleeding, and of our deaths, and of the lives, bleeding and death of everyone for whom Jesus died. There is both meaning and hope, God says in Jesus Christ, in our little existence, in our pain and bleeding, and ultimately in each of our deaths. God has promised in Christ: God’s word of love will be the strongest word, and the best word, and the last word – for everyone – no exception, no segregation, no exclusion. God has promised to make all creation new, and that we will be a part of that. And God’s promise has already delivered in our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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A High-Wire Act

Because the word of God is what a preacher wrestles with in the pulpit, and because it is a living word, every sermon is God’s creation as well as the creation of the preacher and the congregation. All three participate, with the preacher as the designated voice. It is a delicate job for the one in the pulpit. … If the preacher leans too far one way, he will side with the text against the congregation and deliver a finger-pointing sermon from on high. If the preacher leans too far the other way, she will side with the congregation against the text and deliver a sermon that stops short of encountering God. (The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1993)

It has been well over 20 years that Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the best preachers in the US, penned these words. By now a veteran preacher myself, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Preaching is definitely a high-wire act and not for the faint-hearted. Hard and demanding as it is, however, the work of engaging the Word of God for preaching purposes is both exhilarating and immensely life-giving. You’d think that professional preachers, e.g. priests–ministers–pastors, would gladly take this task to heart every time it’s their turn to break open God’s Word to offer the community a morsel of divine sustenance for the soul.

Curiously, that does not seem to be the case. In his 2013 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis devotes 25 paragraphs, or a whopping 20 pages, to the importance of the homily and how to prepare properly. My hunch is that he wouldn’t have seen the need to spill so much ink over this subject if the quality of preaching was up to Gospel standards.

Back in 2001, when publishing my book on preaching, I wrote:

Soon the preaching course moved beyond my comfort zone. It did not take long before I needed to risk the security of knowing who I was and who I was called to be. The paradox of learning more, and learning more deeply, became apparent. Gaining greater insight into the task of good preaching did not make my listening to Sunday homilies any easier. Developing a critical ear started to spell despair. More often than I care to admit I heard big gaps in Sunday homilies: those featuring the preacher more than God’s Word, those that  kept things too “nice” so as not to offend the listeners, those that divided people easily in “them” and “us” camps, , those that perpetuated gender stereotypes, those that excluded by sheer omission and silence, those used for spreading personal agendas, those that even left God’s Word untouched altogether. Many times I left Mass still hungry, even though I had received Communion. Now I wondered about the reasons for that hunger: there were in fact very few homilies that fed me spiritually. Receiving Communion alone was not sufficient.  I gained some understanding of and sympathy for people who say they “get nothing out of church,” even by those who come with sincere intent and a hungry heart. I felt deep sadness and frustration. I started to harken back to the days of ignorance in the best sense of that word  — it felt more comfortable not to know so much. 

Sadly, I am reminded of these words often and sigh. Take this past weekend. I had prepared my sermon for the Anglicans for Sunday morning, but attended Mass in a Catholic parish on Saturday evening. I was looking forward to the homily on the same Gospel passage, curious as to what the priest would have to say about this tale of two women in Mark’s Gospel (5:21-43). There were a few baptisms and, as a result, a lot of people at church who might not normally attend. But I left church, again, with a hungry spirit. For starters, the priest omitted the section of the bleeding woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, thereby diffusing the Gospel passage of its shocking message. Then instead of being served the radical message of the Gospel we heard a 11-minute treatise on the history of baptism. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this illustrated exactly what Barbara Brown Taylor described in the above quote, i.e. leaning away from the text and delivering a sermon that stopped short of encountering God.

We’re not supposed to criticize Father’s sermons or be too hard on our priests as they’re so stretched in all directions. And it is quite possible that another soul was fed by the same sermon while mine was left wanting. Pope Francis gives us permission to take seriously our hungry spirits esp. as we leave church. I just hope that my hearers will tell me when my preaching words do or do not deliver food for their souls. I will let you judge for yourself. Here is my take on last Sunday’s Gospel: The Tale of Two Women

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