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Persistent Hope

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Mark 5:24-34

A large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Several commentaries made a point of giving pastors a warning about this story: remember, there are people in the pews who are sick, who are not receiving the healing they crave. I have seldom needed such a warning less than I do now. I am well aware that there are people in this congregation in need of healing. And I am well aware that this strange job I have would be much easier if I didn’t love these people. But I do, and so I stand here a bit confused about why I chose to preach on a healing story when part of me wants to stomp my foot and demand to know why the people I love don’t get the same. So how’s that for starting my sermon with a sign of spiritual maturity!? But it’s honest and it’s where I am, and being honest about our situation is one of the lessons in this story. We’ll get back to that later.

First I want to talk about illness and disease. Scholars tell us that “In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction of the organism.”[1] Assuming we know the cause of the problem and the cure for it, we can treat it medically and achieve the goal of “restoring a sick person’s ability to function, to do. Yet often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are always culturally defined and that in the ancient Mediterranean, one’s state of being was more important than one’s ability to act or function. The healers of the ancient world thus focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function.”[2]

One of the most valued states of being was community, relationship. They were God’s people, bound by commitment and covenant, infinitely and intimately aware of their connection to one another and how important it was for wellbeing. Remember that in ancient times, being alone didn’t mean you were “your own man.” Being alone meant poverty, shame, and extreme vulnerability.

Although the scripture does not explicitly define the woman’s type of hemorrhaging, most scholars agree that she was suffering from continual menstrual bleeding. Because a menstruating woman was considered unclean, her contact with others was limited during her period. It is important to remember that “unclean” is not, in itself, a moral judgment. Having times of uncleanness was part of life, and there were remedies for bringing one back into one’s rightful and holy state. But this woman was unable to return to a clean state. Since her period never ended, she was never clean. There also might have been speculation as to the cause of her illness, since illness was sometimes seen as punishment from God. All of this led to extreme social and religious isolation. Naturally, she would like to be restored to her ability to function, to do, but more important was to be returned to her state of being, which was in community.

We don’t know her name, but we do know a fair bit about her. We know that, at one time, she was a woman of means, otherwise she would not have had money to spend on doctors. We also can surmise that she was possibly a widow, as she was able to spend the money herself, and because she was unaccompanied by a male representative. And we know that she was persistent. She saw doctor after doctor, refusing to give up. Each one’s quackery was greater than the last, and still she persisted.

Do you know what it’s like, to go twelve years without human touch? At first she would have known it was because of her illness—it wasn’t a reflection on her personally that no one wanted to touch her. But after a while it must have felt very personal . . .SHE was unclean. SHE was untouchable. SHE was unacceptable to God and all of humanity. Twelve years of being refused entrance to the temple. Twelve years of shame.

The story, as it is presented, is intended to appeal to the audience’s sense of compassion. Mark’s readers were supposed to feel sorry for her, to sympathize or empathize with her. This was important to the story because she was about to act in offensive ways. According to the law, she should not have been in a public crowd. She would make others unclean merely by brushing up against them, and they would not even know it. By reaching out to touch Jesus’ clothes, she knew she was making him unclean as well. There were consequences for such actions, so why did she do it? Was it really that she had that much faith? After every other healer had failed? Or was she just beyond caring? She had spent twelve years losing her life blood, her life bleeding out of her day after day. I think she was beyond rules, beyond expectations, beyond doing the “right thing” in that way that can only be understood by those who have lived on the knife edge of desperation. She was persistent because she was desperate.

She held on. She held on to faith or hope or belief that life could be better. She held on to her own sense of power, that if others couldn’t change her world for her, she would do it herself. She had persistent hope.

It’s easy to apply our need for this kind of persistence to our own lives. We try to be consistent in our work for justice. When you’re in it for the long haul, you don’t just react to one crisis; you keep working, keep speaking out. But what about the other areas of our lives? Are we as persistent in feeding our marriages, giving the relationship the nurture it needs to survive? Are we persistent in our expressions of love for one another, so that tenderness is common and romance isn’t saved for anniversaries?

I grew up watching experts on that one. Quite a few years ago my mother told me that she had gotten up one morning and found kitchen utensils scattered across the kitchen counter. My dad unloaded the dishwasher every morning, so her first thought was, “Vernon, what did you do?” Then she realized: the kitchen utensils spelled out “I love you!” I mentioned this story to Mom a couple of years ago, and she said, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that!” I said, “How can you forget that kind of sweetness?” She smiled and shrugged. “Because your dad is always doing sweet things for me.” I grew up watching persistent love—not just for each other, but for me too. Even now, when we disagree on politics and theology and you name it, they love me with persistent love, and I am grateful.

What about persistent ethics? Are we consistent and persistent in living out our faith through our everyday decisions? Even when it isn’t convenient? Even when bending the truth might get us that promotion? And when that “omission” will lower our taxes? Do you persist in speaking out against racist or sexist comments?

But there are other lessons within this story—lessons not specifically about persistence, but which are crucial to the story and to us. This woman clearly has no man in her life—no father, husband, or son to take care of her, as was customary and expected. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be alone, wouldn’t be paying for doctors, etc. So notice how Jesus relates to her. He calls her “daughter.” Jesus claims her as family. He also claims her as a daughter of Israel, effectively bringing her back into the spiritual community. Even before she performs the ritual cleansing, Jesus reminds her and those in the crowd of who she is, who she has always been. She is a daughter of Israel. She belongs.

My other favorite part of this story is her response when Jesus wanted to know who touched him. She didn’t just admit that she did it. She told him the whole truth. That means the whole story—the bleeding, the doctors, the poverty, the shame, the isolation. She opened up to him and told him everything, not partial truth but whole truth. How often do we refuse to do that? How often do we say we’re “fine thanks” when we couldn’t be less fine? How often do we refuse to tell the whole truth because it would make us feel vulnerable? How often do we tell half-truths, which is no truth at all?

Of course we need to have boundaries, and not “air our dirty laundry” without thought. But keeping secrets is not the answer. Closets only breed shame. Hiding our pain will not heal it. Refusing to admit our failures will not make them go away.

Sometimes we don’t share the whole truth because we’re afraid of being judged. We think we’re supposed to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and even omni-competent! But I wonder what would happen if the church was a place where you could admit you aren’t perfect. Not in the way you answer the interview question “what’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist.” No, I mean what if church was a place where we could say: I really messed up this week. I completely lost my temper with my kids, or I am this close to starting an affair, or My drinking is out of control. What if church was a place where we could say: I come to church because I’m supposed to, but I’m not sure I believe any of it, or I’m so angry with God I want to scream, or I’m not sure God is trustworthy. What if church was a place where we could come when we are bleeding, when we feel unclean, when we’re not sure we’re “fit company.”

If we could do that, if we could be that kind of place, I firmly believe we could change the world because the world is hungry for honesty, is starving for vulnerability, is thirsting for authenticity. If we could be that kind of place, we wouldn’t just do church. We would be the church. And remember, that was the point of healing in Jesus’ time: not to enable people to function, to do, but to return them to a right state of being.

So let’s be church. Let’s step forward and touch one another. Let’s claim our healing. Let’s proclaim our wholeness. Let’s be persistent in hope and love. And let’s tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help us God.

 

[1] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 368.

[2] Ibid.

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