The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: June 28, 2015
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-24; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
What an amazing last few days it has been. We have had two historic Supreme Court rulings: one confirming the affordable care act and the other, of course, making same sex marriage the law of the land. And yesterday our own church made history as Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina was elected to be the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the first African-American to lead our church. But through it all, it is the words of a few loving and prophetic Christians that have stayed with me.
In a New York Times article this past Thursday[i], the families of those killed in Charleston a week and a half ago talked about their humble offer of forgiveness to the murderer shortly after the gruesome event. Alana Simmons, whose grandfather was killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said, “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions.”
One after another, family members of those murdered stood up and offered forgiveness. This extraordinary act of “allowing love and forgiveness to crowd out hate and vengeance,” as the reporter stated it, has had profound effects in our ongoing national debate about racism and hatred here in the United States. Already, Walmart, Amazon, eBay and Sears have all announced bans on the sale of Confederate flag merchandise. And in South Carolina, the location of last week’s massacre, Governor Nikki Haley said, “This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” as she called for the flag to at last be taken down from its pole on state capitol grounds.[ii]
As one wise person on social media said last week, of course getting rid of the flag will not break the hold of systemic racism in the whole country. But if we can’t make the small step of getting rid of the flag, how can we ever hope to break racism’s hold over our collective existence? The reopening of this topic is certainly a glimmer of hope for a world where all people will be valued.
The Charleston families made it clear that they embrace the way of love in the face of evil. And as our own Mother Kate noted in conversation last week, they demonstrate that if we act like the Church should act—that is, if we are Christ-like, and lead our communities with the example of love—we can still have an impact on public discourse. The Charleston families stood tall in the light of Christ, and we have seen the power that witness can have.
But I don’t think that was the only reason the spiritually mature people of Mother Emanuel Church acted as they did. I believe that with this witness they were also being active participants in their own healing.
Of course, today’s gospel lesson from Mark is all about healing. Mark nests one healing story—that of the bleeding woman—within the other, the story of Jairus’ daughter. This is a standard literary technique for Mark. One theologian notes that this indicates that the writer wants us to interpret these stories in light of each other; he also notes this is especially common when Mark writes stories in which a woman is the protagonist.[iii]
And, in fact, there are some interesting parallels between these two stories:
• both victims of illness are female and ritually unclean (one as a result of death and one as a result of bleeding)
• both represent the significance of the number 12 in Jewish tradition (the twelve years of bleeding and the twelve-year-old girl)
• both are regarded as daughters (the little girl being Jairus’ daughter and the woman addressed by Jesus as “Daughter.”)[iv]
Clearly, Mark wants us to read these stories as a unit. But they do also seem rather different. Jairus was a leader of the synagogue—a prominent and respected citizen. And he is asking for healing for his daughter, who, by virtue of being a child, is an innocent. There is no reason Jesus shouldn’t want to heal her.
The bleeding woman, on the other hand, is a complete outsider. Because of her bleeding, she would be considered unclean and therefore a threat to those who want to remain ritually clean (and especially so to men). And yet she dares to come into Jesus’ presence, filled with hope. Because she is an outcast, she doesn’t even imagine that she could ask Jesus for healing; instead she simply touches his cloak, sure that will be enough to heal her. And she is healed.
It is what Jesus says and does after this healing that is key. In a society where the boundaries between the clean and unclean were especially important, Jesus would have had every right to be angry about her touch. But instead a surprising moment of intimacy brings wholeness, healing, and peace.[v] And Jesus makes it clear that it is the profound faith that she displays in her action that leads to her healing.
Then Jesus is reminded of his original errand, when a report comes that Jairus’ daughter has succumbed to her illness, and is already dead. While the messengers believe that all is lost, Jesus again calls on faith, and he goes to the side of the girl. And in this case, despite the disbelief of everyone around him, he calls the little girl back to life.
In both stories faith is pointed to as a key to healing. But beyond that, it is interesting to note that an act of touch restores both women to new life—actual physical touch.
One theologian states that the common pastoral affirmation in these two stories is that, “beyond even physical healing, acceptance, intimacy and touch can make us whole and give us peace. We are, in fact, shaped and made human in relationship to other persons. Our relationships—in the church, in friendships, and in marriage—are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole.”[vi]
And that brings me back to the families in Charleston. Their actions are all about relationship. First, I believe they were able to say words focused on love instead of hate because they had built mature, loving relationships with their family members who were killed. As we learn more about those who were murdered, again and again we read about their strong commitments to family and friends. It seems to me those relationships were a priority for them—and that strength made those who survived them want to honor them through an act of love.
Second, it seems clear to me that they are thinking about their relationship to the killer. Although I’m sure they would wish it to be otherwise, they will all have an ongoing relationship of one kind or another with the gunman. And by offering forgiveness, they are taking away from him most of the power he might have in their lives. As long as victims hold on to hurt and anger (which, of course, is our first instinct; we want to understand why we have been wronged, don’t we?), perpetrators have a powerful role in their lives. Once they begin the process of forgiveness, they open the door for their own healing—they begin to take away the perpetrator’s power to inflict more pain.
And they hope that such healing will occur not just for them, but for the nation. “Their hope, they say, is that their message will stand in contrast to the anger and violence that has riven other communities, including Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, in the wake of police shootings. ‘We have been taught forgiveness,’ said [one family member].”[vii]
And that points to the last way that relationship is at the root of their actions. It seems clear that most of the family members were able to offer forgiveness because of their strong relationship to God. They understand Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness that is our gift through relationship with Christ.
That relationship is the key to our baptisms. Through baptism we claim that relationship to God, and we promise to honor that relationship. In the waters of baptism we are marked as a beloved child of God. In baptism we are reminded again of God’s grace—of God’s forgiveness given to us.
We are all in need of healing of one kind or another; and we all have those in our lives who we need to forgive in order to heal our emotional wounds. And, of course, healing is an ongoing process; it is part of what it means to be human to be broken, to be in need of Christ’s healing touch.
In our brokenness, God offers each of us forgiveness and healing. In the gospel story of healing, and in the present-day-gospel story of forgiveness in the face of hatred and terror, we are reminded of the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us to a better, more complete life. May each of us find the strength and the wisdom of those families in Charleston, to follow the way of Christ, which is the way of love. Amen.
[i] “Charleston Families Hope Words Endure Past Shooting,” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/us/charleston-families-hope-words-endure-past-shooting.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news, accessed 4/25/ 2015.
[ii] “Walmart, Amazon, Sears, eBay to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise,” http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/22/politics/confederate-flag-walmart-south-carolina/ , accessed 4/25/2015.
[iii] Powery, Emerson. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1323, accessed 06/18/2015.
[iv] Zink-Sawyer, Beverly. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 191.
[v] Lindvall, Michael L. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 192.
[vi] Lindvall, op cit.
[vii] NY Times article, op cit.