09021902 ~ click here for an audio of the sermon
She did the one thing that was riskiest, that put her at risk of the most painful loss, she dared to hope things could be different. We have this tendency to keep a back door option available. Sometimes it’s just a way of being able to keep hope alive and that’s all good but it also keeps us from fully engaging. I can imagine that this un-named woman might have thought to herself, “If it doesn’t work, well at least no one will know I tried and I can tell myself that it might have worked, might still work if I really tried, you know, if I asked him.” Because that’s what we do, we keep our options open.
It’s not unlike the way we pretend that we would have done things differently than victims of crime. Except, of course, that none of his creative thinking about what he would have done differently really makes us any safer at all. It’s just the way our minds work. We want to pretend that if we had really tried, really put forth our best effort things would have worked, so yeah, it’s not like we really failed, we just didn’t give it our all, and we save face.
Except…except this woman does give it her all. She was ritually unclean, and had been for years. In the minds of the people around her the fact that she bled and didn’t sicken or die was either profane or sacred but whatever it was you didn’t want to mess with that stuff, it was better and safer to just not go there, don’t let that stuff get on you, so she was, whenever she bled, untouchable. Elsewhere we hear Jesus say, “Satan has bound this woman for 18 long years, isn’t it right to free her?” I can almost imagine him asking of this crowd, “Satan has cast this woman out of community, out of connection with her loved ones, Satan has isolated and condemned her to being untouchable for 12 long years, isn’t it right to restore her to community, to her loved ones?”
In order to understand this passage and what her life would have been like we need to hear the laws under which she would have lived, from Leviticus 15 we hear:
19-23 “When a woman has a discharge of blood, the impurity of her menstrual period lasts seven days. Anyone who touches her is unclean until evening. Everything on which she lies or sits during her period is unclean. Anyone who touches her bed or anything on which she sits must wash his clothes and bathe in water; he remains unclean until evening.
24 “If a man sleeps with her and her menstrual blood gets on him, he is unclean for seven days and every bed on which he lies becomes unclean.
25-27 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, but not at the time of her monthly period, or has a discharge that continues beyond the time of her period, she is unclean the same as during the time of her period. Every bed on which she lies during the time of the discharge and everything on which she sits becomes unclean the same as in her monthly period. Anyone who touches these things becomes unclean and must wash his clothes and bathe in water; he remains unclean until evening.
28-30 “When she is cleansed from her discharge, she is to count off seven days; then she is clean. On the eighth day she is to take two doves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The priest will offer one for an Absolution-Offering and the other for a Whole-Burnt-Offering. The priest will make atonement for her in the presence of God because of the discharge that made her unclean.
31 “You are responsible for keeping the People of Israel separate from that which makes them ritually unclean, lest they die in their unclean condition by defiling my Dwelling which is among them.
It was a life in quarantine. How isolating it must have been for this woman to be untouchable, to be seen as something that is contaminating, for twelve long years. Imagine not being able to touch your child, not to brush the hair off his forehead, or wrap your arms around your parents, not being able to touch your husband without contaminating them. Twelve long years of being unclean, untouchable, of having to throw out or wash things you accidently touched. Not being able to sit with friends, or share a meal. Is it any wonder she snuck up on Jesus?
How many times had she gone to one healer or another, desperately seeking help. The noxious remedies she must have swallowed, the suggestion always, that she must have done something to deserve this, to have earned God’s wrath, the incredible shame of feeling not right, not OK, not clean for 12 long years. Always the suggestion either implied or outright that a good person, a wise person would have handled this differently and her illness, her uncleanliness was such an imposition.
When we know what doesn’t work, when we know the usual ways and the status quo continue to be painful, we must try something different. We must be brave enough to let go of how things are in order to hope for what might be. This woman did just that. She was not faithful once but, perhaps out of sheer desperation, was faithful over and over. If this remedy does not work, she must have thought while swallowing one bottle of snake oil or doing another set of prescribed exercises, I will try another. If this doctor, this healer, this shaman, cannot figure this out, I will try another. Her faith was not in reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe but in reaching out again and again and again. She had depleted her finances and yet she did not give up. Still she reached out, still she tried again and again. Complacency tells us we’d better give up, complacency asks us who we think we are that we can make a difference? Complacency and our fear that nothing will ever work makes our lives very small.
Better to crowd a little closer to God, a little closer to Jesus and reach out one more time. Better to keep pressing on.
Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights lawyer whose book we will be studying for a PBU book study beginning in July. He had the good fortune to meet Rosa Parks and two of her friends, Ms. Carr and Ms. Durr who were pioneers from the civil rights era. On many occasions he would be invited to come and sit with them, to simply listen and learn. The first time he did this Ms. Parks turned to him and asked him what he did. He enthusiastically told her,
“Well I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors…”in his enthusiasm he realized he was going on too long, and he stopped. He says that Ms. Parks, Ms. Carr and Ms. Durr were all looking at [him].
Then Ms. Parks leaned back smiling, “Ooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” We all laughed [Mr. Stevenson reports, he was a little embarrassed to be going on so in front of these three pioneers, these three amazing women who had fought so long and so hard. Then he says, ] Ms. Carr leaned forward and put her finger in my face and talked to me just like my grandmother used to talk to me. She said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”(Taken from Just Mercy (C) 2014 Bryan Stevenson)
In our scripture reading today this unnamed woman was brave, brave, brave, even though she must have been exhausted. In her bravery she crossed lines and broke boundaries. She risked defiling this incredible man, this wild and uncertain healer and holy man who came to her town. Caught out she falls to his feet confessing and trembling. Can you imagine her fear? If one touch cured her, what might he do now that he knew she had defiled him? I imagine Jesus reaching a hand down to her, taking her by the hand and lifting her up.
But this story isn’t done with us yet! If we are to fight on and on, never giving up hope for 12 long years, is there a point at which we simply stop, give up, say this is the way it’s always been and will always be?
By the time Jesus gets to Jairus house his daughter is dead. They are too late, the house is filled with wailing and crying. This then must be the time to say, well that’s it. Even King David gave up beseeching God when his son died. Even King David said, well, that’s it. God has taken my child and no amount of beseeching will return my child. He removes his sack cloth, cleans the ashes off and eats a good meal. It is really no use trying anymore.
But death is not triumphant with Jesus. Death is not the final answer. How many years, oh lord? How many deaths? “Go on now, be brave, brave, brave, don’t give up”, Jesus says. “Sneak up if you have to, but reach for God’s grace, reach for the healing and the resurrection that every cell in your body is reaching for.” Be brave, brave, brave.
Faith in this story is not about a lack of doubt. It is not about having the right answers or the assurance that this time it will work. It is about Not. Giving. Up.
Jesus goes in to this 12 year old girls room and says to her, Talitha kum! Arise little girl, and…she does. She not only gets up she begins walking around, talking and laughing, a healthy 12 year old girl.
12 years of lamentation, of isolation, of crying out to God and we must continue. 12 years in quarantine, and we must continue to hope, to reach out. When do we get to give up, curse God and die, as Job’s friends advised him? Not even when death has come and all seems lost. Not even as we gather to mourn and bury our dead. Not even when our house is filled with lamentation and sorrow, not even when we are tired, tired, tired. Not even when it seems like the status quo, the way things are is just what it is and will always be. Not even then.
To be ambitious, to push on, to keep seeking justice and peace and mercy for all people is to be faithful. To continue to seek the good of our neighbors, to seek reconciliation and the peace of God is to be faithful. We are not promised success. We are not promised huge numbers in the pews or a balanced budget. We are not promised great standing in the community. We are asked to press on even when it has been years and even when death has touched our lives. We are asked to celebrate the gifts God has given us, the abundance that God has filled our lives with even as we cry out against injustice, inequality, discrimination, loss, and pain.
We are not asked to wait until things are perfect but to seek the grace of God here and now, in the midst of this work. We seek the grace of God because we can’t do it on our own. We seek the grace of God because when we try to take it all on ourselves it breaks us. We seek the grace of God because it is never failing and it continues to show up, and fill us up, and lift us up, even when we are yet broken. We seek the grace of God because we know our salvation has already been secured even as we long for and cry out for the fullness of God’s mercy. We seek God’s grace and healing through long years of waiting and crying out and we do not stop, nor withdraw, not even in the face of death.
We will not yield and let fear and complacency make us small. Jesus said “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly” and so we will be faithful and seek out that full, abundant life that has been promised to us and we will neither cease nor desist until we can touch the hem of his robe and feel the healing in the depths of our bones. Talitha Kum! My friends, arise and celebrate, it is the faithful thing to do for not even death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.