Sunday, July 2, 2006

A Generous Undertaking

A Generous Undertaking
Sermon for Sunday, July 02, 2006
The Rev. John L. Kirkley

God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.
(Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15) Amen.

“God does not delight in the death of the living . . . the generative forces of the world are wholesome”: the moral compass of biblical faith always points toward that which promotes life and away from that which leads to death. In our care for one another, for all people, and for the earth, righteousness, or justice, is the baseline for healthy and sustainable human community: in that sense, justice is immortal.

In the New Testament the word which we translate as salvation essentially means “health” or “healing.” “Salvation” in the biblical sense is about the restoration of health to every level of our being in the world: physical, social and spiritual. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be healed through him.” (John 3:17) As followers of Jesus, we are called to be agents of this ongoing project of healing, remembering that salvation is inseparable from environmental and social justice. “God did not make death and God does not delight in the death of the living.”

Today’s Gospel story is a powerful reaffirmation of this ancient biblical truth. Actually, I should say, “stories.” What we have in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel is a creative intertwining or intercalation of two stories. The first or framing story, if you will, is the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. The second story, inserted in the middle of the first, is the story of the healing of the hemorrhaging woman. Mark frequently uses this technique of intercalation to help his readers interpret stories in light of each other, to underscore certain theological points.

Mark juxtaposes these two stories in the way he does in order to underscore precisely this point that healing is multi-dimensional, operating at the level of the physical, the social and the spiritual. Reading these two stories in light of each other reveals the scope of healing and the way in which healing occurs. Together, they serve to challenge our narrow understanding of the healing that God desires for the world.

We have here the story of a twelve year old girl who is dying, indeed taken for dead, and the story of a woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years. The parallelism in the reference to time invites us to consider the similarities in their stories: a young girl on the verge of menstruation, and a woman who can not stop bleeding. This is significant because in Jewish ritual law, contact with blood rendered one impure. A menstruating woman was set apart for seven days and had to undergo a ritual bath before being able to reconnect with the community. A man who had sex with a menstruating woman was also unclean for seven days, and anyone who even touched a woman in that state was unclean until sundown, when the prescribed ritual bath was to be taken.

Thus, the hemorrhaging woman did not merely suffer from a physical ailment. She was permanently socially unclean as well; not even her husband could touch her. She could not cook food for her children, much less hold them. She was in state of complete social marginalization and enforced isolation. Moreover, her impurity rendered her unable to offer sacrifices at the Temple or to join in the ritual observances of her faith community. She was denied access to God. You can imagine her despair, spending everything she had on doctors while only growing worse; now poor as well as ill, and utterly alone.

It is no accident that Mark inserts her story in the middle of the story of Jairus’ daughter. Jesus raising a twelve year old girl from the dead, just as she is about to begin to menstruate and become a woman, is juxtaposed with the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, to make a very pointed theological critique of a purity code understood and enforced with such severity that women effectively died at the age when they began to menstruate, and were essentially the living dead thereafter in terms of social status.

Mark intertwines these stories in this way to underscore that the healing these women require is not only physical. The healing that Jesus brings includes that dimension, yes, but it is so much more. It is the restoration of justice for women, their reintegration in the fabric of community life as full human beings, and the restoration of their access to God as God’s beloved daughters. His healing is provocative, because it calls into question a sacred social order based on the sacrifice of women. A sacred social order which, by the way, in sacrificing women in this way denigrates the generative forces of the world that God declares wholesome, and so becomes the foundation for demonizing sexuality and treating the natural world as a whole with contempt.

Notice the manner in which healing takes place in these stories: through touch, connection, and the vulnerability that opens us to the giving and receiving of life-giving power. Jairus begs Jesus, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” The hemorrhaging woman says to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

Healing in these stories is marked by vulnerability, by being willing to touch or be touched by those deemed untouchable. It is through touch that our shared humanity is affirmed and that humane and just relationships become possible. It is the refusal to give and receive healing touch that marks the boundaries between pure and impure even today. Think about whom you are willing to touch and by whom you are willing to be touched. We cannot heal what we can not, or will not, touch. The degree to which we are invulnerable is the degree to which we have ceased to be human and therefore usable for God’s project of healing.

The practice of sharing power flows from the practice of vulnerability. It is here that the rubber really meets the road of healing, because healing in its most comprehensive sense requires a rearrangement of the balance of power in our world. It is the source of our greatest resistance to joining Jesus in God’s project of healing.

When the hemorrhaging woman touched Jesus, he immediately experienced a loss of power. This power was not only physical, a loss of energy expended in the effort to heal. This power was not only spiritual, an expenditure of holiness, if you will, in order to make another holy. This power was also political, a loss of social privilege in order to effect justice.

In recognizing the humanity of women, Jesus had to renounce the privilege associated with being male in a patriarchal society. Now that, my friends, was indeed a miracle. This is why vulnerability is so vital to God’s project of healing, because it is the means whereby the exchange of power between the privileged and the marginalized can take place. Justice is the form that salvation must take in history, if we are to truly experience healing on every level of our being: physical, social and spiritual.

Here at St. John’s we must continue to find ways to practice vulnerability and sharing power if we are to join Jesus in God’s project of healing. Recently, the Spirit seems to be creating opportunities to do just that. And it seems to me the She is moving us in the direction of finding ways to unite justice for LGBT people and justice for the poor.

Locally, we are exploring ways to partner with Dolores Street Community Services to feed the hungry and offer hospitality to the lonely in our midst. I’ve just begun a conversation with my colleague, Chris Rankin-Williams, rector of St. John’s, Ross, about how that parish might partner with us to be agents of God’s healing in the Mission neighborhood.

Globally, Sarah Lawton is initiating a conversation with St. Aidan’s Church, San Francisco, about how we might work together in partnership with Cristosal: A Foundation for the Support of the Anglican Church of El Salvador. The Most Rev. Martin Barahona, Archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Region of Central America, has been a strong advocate for justice in his homeland, and was the only Anglican Primate from abroad to attend Bishop Gene Robinson’s consecration. His solidarity with LGBT people has cost him a great deal of support at home and abroad.

I’ve also been part of a conversation that began at General Convention about how the Diocese of California, including St. John’s, could initiate a microlending program to support indigenous lesbian and gay leaders in Uganda and Nigeria in becoming economically independent. These leaders risk loss of family, housing, employment, and even their lives by coming out and advocating for justice. They desperately need our help.

I believe God is calling us to find concrete ways to heal the rift between the Church and the poor that some have tried to create with the wedge of homophobia, both locally and globally. The gift from the Otis Richman Estate that we expect to receive within the next 30-45 days provides us with a unique opportunity to respond creatively to this call. However these partnerships develop, if we are to imitate the practice of Jesus, they must involve real vulnerability on our part, the development of human and not just financial relationships, and a willingness to check our privilege at the door.

My sisters and brothers, we are called to join with Jesus in God’s outrageously provocative project of healing. May we respond, mindful of St. Paul’s admonition: “As you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Cor. 8:7) Amen.

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