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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

That Powerful Touch - Sermon by Tim Rutt, M.Div.


Pentecost 4B ~ June 28, 2009
Mark 5:21-43


I’ve spent the past few weeks prepping for the adult ed class I’m leading on the book of Acts, and I always need to be reminded of a central fact: the people in the Bible, the people in the ancient near east, think and act and live very differently than we do. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is assuming that the people in the Bible have a culture that’s a lot like our own.

I remember a few years ago when PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- had one of their frequent campaigns against eating meat. This one was called, “Jesus was a vegetarian.” They used a picture of Jesus, but instead of a halo behind his head, it was a slice of an orange. I really don’t think most of the folks in PETA are orthodox Christians. I think they’re the kind who think Jesus was this first century hippie, a nice guy who talked about love a lot and wore sandals. All that stuff about repentance, hell, Trinity, incarnation, atonement, the whole Christ part -- they probably don’t buy into that.

But they said that Jesus was a vegetarian. Because he was a nice guy then, and he’d do what nice guys do now, which is, according to PETA, not eat meat. Now, nowhere in the Bible does it say that he didn’t eat meat -- in fact, if he didn’t, that would certainly cause people to steer clear of him, because in first century Judea, that would just be weird.

It also means you have to throw out all those verses where he ate fish -- PETA says it was actually seaweed. This is based on nothing at all. They said the Last Supper was a vegetarian Passover. This would be the first vegetarian Passover in history, and I don’t think anybody would go! Since he was an observant Jew, they would have had lamb for Passover. If he did not have lamb for passover, people would have talked about it. Again, this vegetarian Passover is nowhere in the Bible -- it’s entirely made up. I know someone who is a priest and a vegetarian, and he has no problem with Jesus eating meat.

Or, again -- awhile ago, during one of my classes, we were discussing the establishment of the Eucharist. And one of students -- who just dropped in halfway through -- said that he interpreted the verses we were studying as saying that we really need to look at all food as sacred, and all meals as holy gatherings -- because everything was sacred. This is what I call the “fallacy of the warm and fuzzy,” because it makes everyone feel good, but it’s just wrong.

Jewish society never would have stomached the idea that everything was sacred. There were always divisions -- the holy and the not-holy, the clean and unclean. One of my Old Testament teachers made a very good case that the most important book in the Bible was Leviticus -- the one that set up all those niggling rules that Israelites had to follow -- don’t wear linen and wool at the same time, don’t eat pig or shellfish, here’s how you slaughter an animal. Oh yeah, circumcision ... just a lot of rules, many of which were hard to follow.

But, my teacher said, these rules set the Israelites and the Jews apart from the people they lived among. It gave them a specific, separate cultural identity, reminded them that they were chosen of God to be a blessing to all nations, and they had to live apart even when they lived among others. This is one of the things that helped them survive as a people for five thousand years.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is stretching these rules to the breaking point. One of the themes of the reading is ritual cleanliness. One of the divisions that Jews lived with was clean and unclean. You started out clean, but any number of things could make you unclean. And mostly uncleanliness was a nuisance -- you could do certain ritual acts and get over it.

For example, handling a dead body made one unclean. But at some point, people have to handle dead bodies, like when a relative passes away. After preparing the body and burying it, you had to spend some days apart from other people before you were ritually clean and fit for society and worship again. For most people, being unclean was a temporary state of affairs and, after the proper ritual actions, you would be clean again.

Now, the story that spoke to my heart this week was not Jairus’ daughter -- altho’ that’s a very important story, and we will deal with it -- but the woman suffering with the hemorrhages. For twelve years, as long as Jairus’ daughter was alive.

Let me read you the law that was applied to her: Leviticus, 15: 25-30

"If (A) a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. But (B) if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. "


That is followed by some ritual actions at the temple to seal her cleanliness.

A menstruating woman was set apart from society for the duration of her period and some days after -- but for this woman, it never ended. She was not only unclean, but everything she touched became unclean. Everybody she touched became unclean. If they sat on the same cushion where she sat, they would be unclean. We don’t learn about her living circumstances -- apparently she had money, which she spent futilely on doctors --but she was unclean, and untouchable, for years.

For twelve years -- never to live in the midst of her family, never to touch her husband, her children, maybe her grandchildren, never to play with them or embrace them. She lived alone in the middle of a crowd -- not being able to touch or be touched, polluting everything she touched herself. For twelve long years, this is how she lived.

So she heard about Jesus, heard stories of him healing others. Maybe this is the man who will give her back her friends, her family, her life. And there he is, surrounded by a crowd, a holy man, the answer to her bitter, lonely prayers. But if she knows she can’t touch him. She pollutes everything she touches. What if she makes this holy man man unclean as well? The crowd will surely stone her.

But she can’t help it. She is desperate, and something about him draws her closer. Something about him -- somehow she knows. “If I touch his clothes, I shall be made well.” Yes, that’s what it will take -- touch. That which she cannot do, that which she is so hungry for -- touch. She is impelled by her faith that he will make her well, that this man, this Jesus, will return her to the world -- if she only, after 12 years, dare .... touch.

And immediately it stopped. Immediately that which plagued her and separated her is gone, and she knows it. She is healed, she is whole, she is human again.

And Jesus, who has been touched by the crowd all during this time, knows that this light touch on his garment is different. And she knows it too, and she falls down before him with fear and trembling, because she knows by all the rules of her society and of the Torah she follows that she has done a bad thing.

But Jesus says, “your faith has made you well, go in peace.” There is no question that she is clean, and clean now, not after seven days apart and sacrifices a the temple. She is clean, and everyone knows it.

And how does Christ address her? “Daughter.” He is speaking as God the Father. He is calling her ‘daughter.” Welcome back to your family -- welcome, welcome back. You are a beloved kin to me, a beloved daughter in the family of God.

And this resonates in the story that sandwiches this one, about Jairus’ daughter. “Your daughter his dead, why trouble the teacher any further?” they say. But Jesus touches another -- again, touching a dead body brings uncleanliness -- but she is healed, whole, another daughter restored to her family. Matters of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness are swept away in the miracle. Nobody questions Jesus’ own purity, no matter who he touches.

(I had a chance to speak to Dr. Colin Brown during the first service -- always a source of fear and trembling when Colin comes down the aisle after a sermon! -- and he said that cleanliness/uncleanliness is one of the themes of Mark. And while people passively try to avoid uncleanliness, Jesus aggressively creates cleanliness on what he touches. )

What we are seeing here is something new. Jesus is demonstrating that something new is afoot -- where before we lived under the law, now we live under love. He does not challenge the rules here, but he makes them irrelevant. The law says that you must strive for and keep your ritual cleanliness in order to worship God. Love says that God reaches out to you, heals you, and welcomes you to his family. God gives you a cleanliness that will not go away. The law says that God requires -- Love says that God restores.

I think we’re often in a place where we don’t feel God loves us. We’re not doing what we think we should, we’re short-tempered, self-involved, under pressure, there are so many demands on us. I was reading an article about a young Christian mom who used to spend regular time in Bible study and prayer, and tried to keep it up after she had kids, but now she said it seems that God is just someone else demanding her time and attention.

God’s love is not about the rules. Yes, I think he wants us to live in a way that is pleasing to him, and there are ways to do it, but to do it because we love him, not because he handed us a rulebook and said, “Check these off as you complete them.” His love is there, and as in our scripture, his help is always there.

My own growing edge is not being afraid to ask God for help. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer had a phrase for it - “functional atheism” -- not asking God for help in our life because we’re supposed to be able to do everything by ourselves.

The woman in our scripture had been by herself for a long time. Her desperation, the inability to change her life, led her to reach out, to physically touch God, and thereby be restored. The thing is, we don’t need to wait until desperation sets in -- God is willing to help us long before that!

In the Bible, God is constantly saying, “Don’t be afraid,” or “Fear not.” Reach out boldly -- in your fear, in your inadequacies, in your desperation, in your incompleteness -- in your uncleanliness -- and you will find God already has a hand outstretched, waiting for you. As Christ said in our reading, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Amen!

~Tim Rutt, M.Div.

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