UNCLEAN Mark 5:21-43 7-1-18
You’ve seen her, I’m sure – the new girl in your 5th grade class, or some class in your elementary school day years. There she is standing there, her eyes on the floor, her dress too big & faded from many washings, as if it had been handed down from someone older & bigger or picked up at a clothing bank. Her hair falling down in greasy strands to her shoulders, giving the impression she hadn’t had a bath/shower for a while. And instantly everyone in your class knew that she was doomed to be an outcast. Don’t ask why.
There were other kids who were wearing faded hand-me-downs. And being elementary kids, there were plenty whose personal hygiene left something to be desired. But for whatever reason, with that mysterious nonverbal communication that kids have, the class judged her & found her wanting. She wasn’t one of them, & never would be. She sat alone at lunch; stood alone at recess. No one ever giggled with her in the hallways or passed notes during class, or asked her over to play after school.
If she accidentally brushed up against one of the boys, he would make gagging sounds & yell that she had given him her “cooties”. The rest would roar with laughter at his wit. And she would stand silent, red-faced, & stare at the ground. My guess is that people present here this morning have experienced that – either being that child or part of the crowd. I wonder if anyone at any time ever imagined what it was like to have been that girl . . . or boy, for that matter?
This girl might have found a kindred spirit in the woman with the hemorrhage described in our gospel reading. This woman, nameless like so many women in the Bible, has had a flow of blood for 12 years. Whatever the reason for the blood flow, she was considered by the bible unclean. The use of the word “unclean” can be misleading. It doesn’t mean “dirty” like a two-year-old playing in the mud, but more like the phrase “Dirty, old man,” someone others try to avoid. Being unclean refers to the relationship between people or things and God. In some ways it may be like someone telling another, “Don’t touch me!” There is something about the relationship that is estranged.
Unclean things and people were estranged from God and each other. They weren’t supposed to touch each other. Anyone who touched her, according to the bible, was also unclean. Religiously & socially, she is an outcast, cut off from other people, from the sacred places of her faith.
Or, how about that little 12 year old, right at the threshold of womanhood, on the brink of death, which is also considered unclean – death, that is.
By Jesus’ day an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure & impure – clean & unclean. Women were unclean 7 days after the birth of a boy, 14 days after the birth of a girl. Dead bodies were unclean. Women during their menstrual cycle were unclean.
There was an article in the Seattle Times on June 20th about women today in rural Nepal who have to be “sequestered” in a self-made tiny mud or rock hut away from their family during their menstrual cycle. In essence, they are banished, at the risk of death, where in fact many have died from exposure to the frigid temperatures or by asphyxiation from smoke inhalation in those cramped huts. Unclean.
Recently, we’ve been told by this Administration that we’re being “infested” by those “invading” our country from our Southern borders. Unclean. And now, our country is banning certain nations that are predominately Muslim. Again, unclean, in the eyes of this Administration.
I’ve experienced people who have been living with cancer, then lingering with cancer, growing more frail by the day. And the family & friends come around less often. The smell of death is in the air. Even though no one would ever utter the word, the one who has the cancer feels unclean.
I visited a 30-something man living his last days with aids. Once, as I was setting up for Holy Communion, this baptized & confirmed, lifelong, active, Lutheran Christian told me that members of his home congregation asked him to leave. He moved from the Midwest to Seattle. His widowed mother, who loved him dearly, told him that after he moved away some of the members washed off the pew where he & his mother sat for worship. Unclean.
The perfect couple can’t keep up the pretense of being perfect any more & get a divorce. Now no one knows quite what to say. The friends feel disappointed, maybe angry, let down. Just when the divorcing couple needs them the most, their friends pull away . . . as if divorce makes them unclean.
The widow finds out after her husband is gone that the telephone is silent. All their friends were couples. They did things as couples. She is no longer a couple. And how many single people have said they feel like a “5th wheel” – unwanted & unnecessary. Feeling unclean.
Once again, as recent as last Monday’s Supreme Court ruling, being unclean has again taken on another twist regarding Marriage Equality. Businesses are claiming that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act a business can refuse to provide services for gay weddings. That may intensify, especially after the historic Supreme Court landmark ruling on Marriage Equality, but now possibly challenged pending a new Supreme Court Justice.
When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was endorsed, almost unanimously by Congress & by virtually every religious body in 1993, it was aimed at protecting the religious expression of minorities in the face of government rules. It had in mind, for example, the Native Americans who ritually consume peyote in their spiritual services, or Muslim prisoners, who grew beards for religious reasons. It was never envisioned that the law would justify a business’s refusal to offer services to a certain group of people.
Balancing individual religious freedom and the concerns of the public, and framing that balance in law, claiming this to be truth in Jesus, is an ongoing challenge. Much of the solution may lie more in everyday neighborliness and generosity than in lawsuits and may come closer to crossing boundaries & bringing healing and reconciliation to our communities and society.
With all due respect, where did Christian florists, bakers, and pizza makers get the idea that refusing service is the essence of their religious witness on Gay Marriage and Marriage Equality? How much more effective their witness might be to bring healing and community were they to respond to gay clients this way: “You should know that we object to Gay Marriage on religious grounds & therefore some other firm might be better suited to serve you. But if you still want our services, we will provide you with the best cake we can, or the most wonderful flowers possible. Whatever our disagreements, we know that you are made in the image of God & are God’s beloved children – made to enjoy God’s good gifts of cake and flowers.” Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air? And so it goes, both then in Jesus’ day and today.
But, why these 2 stories? Simply to affirm that Jesus was the Christ of God & as such represented the power of God in the midst of ordinary earthly human circumstances.
What better way to proclaim good news than through these stories, which are told with great care & deep feeling. It’s interesting that the word for “heal” used by the gospel writer is also used as the word for “salvation.” So these stories are not just healing stories, but salvation stories as well, not only for the 2 women in the story but also for us.
In our 2nd reading for today from 2nd Corinthians we heard this good news: For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Paul, “That though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor – unclean – so that by means of his poverty – uncleanness – we might become rich.” “Jesus Christ is the greatest sinner of the world,” said Martin Luther, “For on him lay the world’s entire sin.” He who was the foulest, most unclean has by virtue of his cross & being raised from the dead made us clean – as white as snow. He was raised from the dead to show that the power belongs to God & God chooses life for us.
Someone was asked whether he believed in prayer. The person responded, “No, I don’t believe in prayer. I believe in God, & so I pray.” This rephrasing is important because here is an equally significant adjustment in our ways of talking about faith & miracles. Miracles are God’s work – not faith’s work; not even ours. Believing in miracles is not the same as believing in faith, nor is it a way of manipulating God. But, it is having faith and trust in God who is believed to be at work for our good. Jesus came not only to bring physical healing or that people might live longer, but that they might have a hope beyond this life.
Can our church become a healing circle, opening us to God’s energy of love that transforms cells and souls alike? That is the message of Mark’s gospel to us today.
When we say “yes” and let go of our fears and need for control, miracles occur, energies are released, not contrary to the laws of nature, but in accordance with God’s vision & dream of abundant life for all creation.
May we who are within earshot of this word hear that Jesus blesses us as he blessed the 2 women in today’s story: “Go in peace, arise; be healed, saved, made whole.” Amen.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 7-1-18” name of the sermon.