The Whole Story
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Fifteen-year-olds Melanie and Xanath are members of the ECT youth group in Houston this week at the ELCA Global Youth Gathering. On Friday they became leaders, among 300 other young people. Youth gathered at an iconic statue in front of the Medical Center that dramatically depicts a mother about to receive her newborn child into her arms for the first time from an OBGYN nurse. Melanie and Xanath spoke in protest of Federal immigration policies that have separated more than two thousand children from their parents. They gave interviews for Telemundo and the Houston Chronicle.
Xanath, who is normally very quiet, at least around me, said, “It really disappoints me and makes me upset that this happens to other families and, while I’m not in their position, it hurts to see them suffering…Whether we know them or not, the fact that they’re still human beings means that we shouldn’t dehumanize them.”
Today’s gospel is a story wrapped in a story. It features people like Xanath talked about who are desperate to be seen, heard and recognized as human beings. Jesus and the disciples have just returned from across the border. They’re back from the other side of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was healing and proclaiming the gospel among foreigners. Immediately, almost before they can get out of the boat, there’s a crowd. They’re curious. They’re excited. They have something important for Jesus to do.
A man named Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a well-respected lay-person, a father, and patriarch of the entire community. Jairus falls down before Jesus and begs him to help his little daughter, “who is at the point of death” (Mark 5:23). Meanwhile, somewhere in this crowd, unknown to everyone, is a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She is nameless, homeless, childless, and alone. Mark, the briefest of gospels has a lot to say about her. She suffered under the care of many doctors. She used up all her money to be cured. Yet, she only got worse.
The unnamed women lingered in the background waiting for an opportunity, while Jairus spoke to Jesus directly. The woman talks only to herself. Jairus’ request is met with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. The woman knew she was forbidden to touch any man, least of all Jesus. She knew just touching her fingertips on his cloak would defile him and anyone else in the crowd. She decided to enter the crowd to reach out and touch Jesus, anyway.
A struggle ensues. The unnamed woman gets in the way. The whole procession to Jairus’ house grinds to a halt. She prevents Jesus from helping Jairus’ daughter before it’s too late. To everyone, it looks like a wasted opportunity to do something important, but not to Jesus. Jesus was #MeToo 2,000 years before MeToo.
While the disciples and the crowd were counting noses, sizing up the pecking order, doing a cost-benefit analysis, sorting people into categories of more and less worthy, more and less human, Jesus was focused on the person and place with the greatest human need.
Perhaps we should step back for a moment to understand there were three forms of uncleanness in Jesus’ time thought to be serious enough to require that a person is quarantined: 1) those with leprosy, 2) those with any kind of bodily discharges, and 3) the dead. In other words, once Jairus’ little girl died, both she and the unnamed woman were joined with the tribe of the damned, the grotesque, and the sub-human. They were untouchables, not worth bothering about.
In the story of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus demands that we not pronounce death where he sees life. In the bleeding woman’s story, he demands that legalism give way to compassion every single time. In each story, Jesus restores a lost child of God to community and intimacy. In each story, Jesus takes hold of what is “impure” (the menstruating woman, the dead girl’s body) in order to practice mercy. In each story, a previously hopeless daughter “goes in peace” because Jesus finds value where no one else will. The love of Christ humanizes those we have dehumanized.
Notice, Jesus didn’t just heal her, but he listened to her. ‘The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before Jesus, and told him the whole truth’ (Mark 5:33). She told him her whole story – the shame and the blame, the pain and the fear, the loneliness and the isolation, the good and the bad. This is how we reverse the effects of dehumanization. This is how we overcome the labels, the racism, the stereotypes, and the bias that allows people to so quickly dismiss others as inferior or less-than-human. It requires the patience, compassion, and honesty that is ours in Christ Jesus to listen to someone’s whole story so they may become known.
As we prepare for another Independence Day, it strikes me that perhaps we have seldom had the patience or the stomach to listen to the whole story of our nation’s history. This land we celebrate, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; this land of opportunity, of immigrants, of diversity, has also been a land that celebrated the genocide of native peoples, supported slavery, and continues to condone systematic violence against people of color. Sadly, the church too has played a role in this. Most Christians have been ready to go right along with it.
We are engaged in a struggle for the soul of the nation and the sanctity of our church today. Who are we? What type of nation shall we be? We can let our gospel be our guide. Jesus can help us recover, reclaim and believe again in the common humanity we share with all God’s children.
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, put it this way “if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.” If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian. Period.
What then looks like love today? What looks like Jesus of Nazareth? “The one whose heart melts at the cry of a desperate father. The one who visits the sick child and takes her limp hand in his. The one who risks defilement to touch the bloody and the broken. The one who insists on the whole truth, however falteringly told. The one who listens for as long as it takes. The one who brings life to dead places. The one who restores hope. The one who turns mourning into dancing. The one who renames the outcast, “Daughter,” and bids her go in peace.” (When Daughters Go in Peace, Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas, 6/24/18.)
We have become one in Christ. Jesus has brought down the walls and led us across the borders that separate us. Like Xanath and Melanie, Jesus will help us find our voice. Jesus shows us the way forward. This grace changes everything.