Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 28 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Sam 1:1, 17-27; Ps 130; 2 Cor 8:7-15; Mk 5:21-43

You know, when you look at the readings for the Sunday of the Pride Parade, and you see David saying, “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women”—it is probably just better to give this a nod and move on. It is, yes, part of a complicated and sometimes moving story about family and intimacy and power, a story which includes moments of stunning vulnerability and devotion, a story which is ultimately about the wreckage of human lives by politically driven desire. It is not irrelevant to our own lives. But I am not going to spend our time pondering the pointless question of David’s sexual orientation, a concept which in any case didn’t even exist in his day. Instead, I want to look at the Gospel, and at the two daughters of that narrative, and see what they have to say to us.

I speak of the two daughters deliberately. The two stories are obviously meant to be read as one; the woman with the issue of blood and the dead girl are meant to be understood as paired figures. The girl is twelve; the woman has been bleeding for twelve years. The girl is never named, but described only as the daughter of an important man. The woman, too, is unnamed, but when she is addressed, Jesus calls her daughter, uses that same word. They are different in age, they are different in their particular afflictions, but they are united in their namelessness, in the low social position they occupy as women in a patriarchal society; and by the fact that they are both terribly, terribly unclean.

One writer has talked about Jesus, in this section of Mark’s gospel, behaving as if he were on a scavenger hunt for the ritually unclean. Lepers. Women. Cripples. Demoniacs. Pigs. Demoniacs who live with pigs. It’s as if, the writer says, he has a check list of people and things you shouldn’t touch, and he’s set out to run around touching them all. And now, a continuously menstruating woman, and the corpse of a dead girl. You don’t get much more unclean than that. The building of the kingdom, in the early part of Mark, is a consistent and escalating pattern of boundary violations, of Jesus reaching out to the most despised, the most disgusting, the most problematic, and bringing them in.

The story of the woman with the issue of blood is interesting, though, because, in this one case, Jesus doesn’t initiate contact. He doesn’t refuse it once it happens, but in this story, he is not first touching, but being touched. And he is being touched by an outcast woman who has been driven forward to commit a profoundly forbidden act, an act of ritual violation, beause she wants. She wants. And what she wants—and what the Pride Parade this afternoon is all about—is something simple and huge and frightening: a whole life, wholly lived. A full, healed, complete human life.

For that is what God too desires, for each one of us. And the desire for a whole life wholly lived is a terrifying thing. It is not likely to fit neatly into a set of rules. It may be strange, it may be not at all what we expected, it may upset our own plans for ourselves on all kinds of levels. It is almost always socially inappropriate. And it is often politically subversive. For queer people, for people of colour, for the disabled, for most women, for nearly everyone in the developing world, for all these groups of people to demand, as their desire and as their right, a whole and complete human life—that is a political demand, it is a call for great rearrangements of power and hierarchy and economy, an overturning of most of our current rules about how the world works.

We cannot live without our lives, the writer Barbara Deming said. The gospel today tells us that God agrees, that God does not want us to try to live without our lives, God calls us into our own completeness, and dares us to get up, to push through, to move forward and take it. Persistently, quietly, patiently pushing past every obstacle, as that woman did, reaching out for wholeness, however wrong or unclean, however impractical or impossible, society may say that wholeness is.

But then there is that other daughter, lying dead. She cannot move forward towards healing, while the drama goes on around her. She cannot demonstrate the faith and courage for which her narrative double is praised. Her life has already been taken away. She is down in that farthest, darkest place, where there is no hope, and she cannot even call out of that depth. And yet somehow, even in that place, she hears the voice. She hears the words of the Word that spoke creation, saying to her, to her alone now, “Little girl—get up.” And she rises.

We need this story, too. For the world is very hard, and sometimes it seems to have defeated all possibilities. The pain too great, the evil too strong; or simply, we ourselves are too weak, too small, too frightened to claim our lives. So we need to know this. That when we are finished, when we have no hope, no faith, no desire of our own, when we can do no good thing, when we have no power to take a single step—that voice, that Word, is still speaking. Sometimes all we can do is lie still enough in the darkness of our despair that, finally, we may begin to hear.

Little girl, get up. Stand up. Live. Little girl, this life is yours. Take it back.

For some are brave, some push forward and break the rules and grab at healing with shaking hands, and we need this, we need this so much in our frightened world, the ones who will take those risks. But when we cannot be brave, when we cannot be strong, when we cannot even be alive, we are still beloved. For all the daughters—and when I say daughters, I include the sons as well—the Word is still speaking.

It may be a long dark time of listening, it may be a whole life long. And the dead do not always rise, the impossible frequently is impossible in this world; Jesus himself told us that not all are healed, that those healings we see now are only signs, a line of dawn on the horizon, no more. But I have, now and then, seen the impossible happen. I have seen people crushed by power and the weight of misery stand up. It may change nations, change the whole world; or it may be as small as a twelve-year-old girl taking food. Either way, it is about claiming our selves, our full selves, about our desires for life and for love and for God, which are one and the same, and which answer God’s desire for us. For we believe that God, the great desire of earth, graciously admits into God’s own being the need of us, the longing for us, for all creation, for our healing and rising up.

The story speaks of Jesus’s power going out from him when the woman touches him. You can read this in a kind of magical way, Jesus’s glowing ectoplasmic aura being siphoned off by physical contact, but we need not be so literal about it. There is something else being suggested here, in this language of power and lack; a God who allows the divine self to be emptied out by our need and our sickness, who as Paul says becomes poor for our sake, who responds to our lack with the pouring out of God’s whole self towards us, a God who is not well until we all are healed.

We struggle through the crowds of our own confused longings and all the things in the world that would restrain or mis-shape or misdirect us, towards the touch that is the place of our healing. We rise like that girl whom the writer doesn’t bother to name, and claim our place in the world, our selves, our unclean, unruly, horribly complicated selves, and we change, and move, and want and have and lose, always reaching out for our true selves in God, our whole lives wholly lived, the community of love in which we are each of us known for no more and no less than who we are.