"Restored and set free..."
St Mary's Church Thorpe
Trinity 4 (Proper 8) - 27th June 2021
Mark 5:21-43 A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed
Sermon – 27th June 2021
Its possible Fr Damian and Fr Gerard breathed quite a sigh of relief this morning when they heard the gospel and realised it was my turn to preach! But if Jesus became incarnate into the messiness of human bodily life, then facing the reality of things like periods is an important rejoinder to those who would pretend that life is all perfect and neat and tidy.
I wonder what the crowds around Jesus expected that day? A day out, off to see this miracle worker, maybe there’s no need to take a picnic as did you hear what he did that other time? The crowd is bustling, excited, expectant, but how comfortable are they going to feel as they discover what is going to unfold this day? We may sit in this beautiful church but we needs to be honest and deal with a story of suffering and pain, a story of rejection, repulsion, and the messy reality of women’s bodily lived experience.
This is a story of juxtapositions and shared experiences. The contrasting tales of a young and an old woman. But two females who united in failing to achieve what women, at least in that society, are expected to do. One, by dying, is failing to even reach puberty and marriageable age, (I wonder if her powerful religious father’s sorrow and desperation were tinged with shame). And the other has failed, as she has been haemorrhaging badly for years, and by all accounts has tried every treatment and cure going to no avail. No man will go near her and hopes of a home and children will have been dashed.
Her story starts with the one bit of light-hearted reporting in this whole long passage. Jesus, whilst in the midst of a bustling, jostling, thronging crowd, cries out in shock to his disciples – somebody touched me! What do you mean someone touched you? – you’re being pressed on from all sides, it’s an utter scrum of celebrity-induced mass hysteria, and you suddenly yelp out that someone touched your clothes? Are you insane?
But Jesus, as we know, is talking about something quite quite different. He knows that power has gone out from him. In his spirit, he has, almost subconsciously, responded to this women’s great faith. An incredible healing has occurred but even he doesn’t know yet exactly what has happened. Wouldn’t it be nice, ladies, if we could get the menopause dealt with in one single prayer?!
He asks again, and she dares to hold her hand up and admit it was her. Now let’s think about it, she would have been known by the locals, and known for her problem. To get there, she must have kept her head down low, knowing if she quietly slipped through the crowd, no-one would be bothered by a shawl covered obviously unimportant old woman.
We have to understand just how risky it was for her to dare to mix with the crowd. Back then, being on your period was a time of uncleanliness. Women had to sit on separate chairs and withdraw from engaging in normal society. And with her haemorrhaging, doubly so, as it was obviously an affliction, a condition, an illness, a sickness. Women suffered being shunned monthly but with her constant flow she would have been feared and deemed repulsive, disgusting, offensive. If she had to be separate because of her flow of blood, imagine being rejected and isolated for 12 years. She has not been touched, hugged, caressed, welcomed, able to worship for the entirety of the life of the little girl. Perhaps some of you, particularly those who live alone, lockdown felt a little like that. Hers has been a living death. And the weight of the imposition of shame upon her for it would have made it hell. The fine line between sin and sickness would have been deemed very thin then.
But what we learn is the most amazing thing. We learn the absolutely amazing holiness and blessedness of Jesus. For it was thought that sin, dirt, uncleanliness was catching. That if you touched an unclean thing, you too became unclean. This woman would be deemed contaminating. It sounds abhorrent to us, and yet the repulsion at periods, the disgust at menstrual waste, the blue dye used in adverts for period products shows this has never fully gone away. We live in a society that views the natural processes of being a women to be gross. Childbirth is treated like sickness, and at the other end of the spectrum, the greatest insult, a boy can hear in the playground is either to called either a girl or gay (the latter’s another whole sermon!).
But what we discover, is that with Jesus, his holiness is so much, is so different – it works the other way. His holiness and blessing and wholeness overwhelms her. Her issue (in both senses) doesn’t touch him. Rather his cleanliness flows out from him. Sin no longer contaminates. Rather blessedness overflows and blesses that which seeks it out. We are no longer dirty, failed, broken, sick or sinful. Rather, our faith truly heals.
For as Jesus says elsewhere it is not that which is external that defiles, but rather what comes out from our hearts, our spirits that counts. She may have had the flow of blood, but faith poured out from her, and is met with Jesus’ overwhelming love, blessing, forgiveness, and wholeness making.
In this woman being healed, she is restored and set free from the state of what society and the religious authorities deemed her failed womanhood. Pain in labour was deemed the curse of Eve, and if a woman who cannot even do that properly, how much more was she deemed cursed? But Christ blesses her – and in so doing challenges the Church’s failure to take on board his clear and profound message here. That all women are of value. That those who cannot have children are still of worth.
In Christ blessing the haemorrhaging woman, he blesses all who do not conform to this supposed ideal. He blesses the infertile, those childless by choice, those childless by circumstance, those who longed for children, those who had to abort children, those who felt they could not live in their female bodies, those who cannot have children by dint of sexuality. He sets us all free. This is an astounding reversal of the patriarchal narrative to which the church is still so often enthralled, which the Church wrongly co-opts Mary to, to shame all women, as they can never be both mother and virgin.
And encasing her story is the young girl who dies. A young girl who was about to fail her righteous, religious father. I wonder how Jairus felt as he watched Jesus take his time over a woman who had been excluded from the worshipping community, the synagogue where he was the authority? Was he caught up with worry for his daughter and that time was running out, or did he look back on it as the years later passed, and note the love and attention Jesus gave to a woman Jairus considered unclean? Did he note the irony that by waiting for Jairus’ daughter to die, Jesus allowed her to become unclean too, and yet also healed her?
Jesus upholds these women as being of worth, of value, for being themselves. He loves, irrespective of society’s judgements of them. In Luke’s gospel, we see those who are the examples of true faith are those who don’t fit the mould of the upright, righteous, religious man. Rather it is women, foreigners, prostitutes, the disabled and the social outcasts who bring their brokenness to him with faith.
Can you find yourself in them? I know I can, when it comes to inadequacy, and that I only stand here by God’s grace. In what ways has society looked on you as a failure in simple judgement for some basic characteristic which is no fault of your own? What sin or hurt or aspect of your brokenness do you feel bleeds un-stemmed and which you fear you might be shamed for? In what way can you emulate her faith despite fear of rejection? In what way do you need to take a risk, whatever others might think?
An overlooked, pitied and shunned woman becomes a model of faith, and yet the little girl’s story end our gospel reading and must have the final word, since Mark wants us to frame the older woman’s story in hers. Having been healed, Jesus says to her one of those few things that we receive in his original words. ‘Talitha cum’, he says, ‘little girl, get up’. Jesus often refers to the little ones – be it lost sheep in parables, or children or the general normal folk ignored by the religious authorities. His call to her is this – get up, arise, be lifted up – and the implied consequence, is this is raising to action: now go and do, now follow. That is the one clear command to us all today.
We are all in some ways, if we are honest, little ones, lost or hurting, injured or sinful. No doubt a good mix of them all. But the instruction to us, is to dare to have faith, to receive blessing, healing, and forgiveness, but then to respond. So get up. Follow. There are more little ones to seek out and draw into the kingdom. Jesus urges you to do it. So ‘talitha cum’. Amen.
Mother Jo Winn-Smith, June 2021.