Sermon preached at St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco
June 28, 2015 + 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
The Rev. John Kirkley
I want to begin by noting a feature of today’s Gospel story that may appear to be trivial, but, in fact, is the key to its interpretation. The story is actually two stories, an interpolation of one story sandwiched in between another story. Such interpolations are a common feature of Mark’s Gospel. Look out for them, because they signal that we need to read each story in light of the other.
In this case the interpolation is an interruption. Jesus is on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, when along comes this unnamed woman, who interrupts the action to call attention to her own need. She engages Jesus in a stealth healing. She doesn’t ask for what she needs, she just slips in and gets it, trusting that Jesus can provide what she needs – and he does! For her, this is a healing interruption. Meanwhile, Jairus’ daughter appears to have died. It probably doesn’t feel like a healing interruption to Jairus. Turns out she isn’t dead at all: just sleeping. Waiting to be awakened. Jesus, seemingly unperturbed, moves on from the interruption to the awakening.
Some need to be healed. Some need to wake up. What is the meaning of the interruption for us?
I have to admit, I really hate interruptions. When I begin to write a sermon, I generally close my office door, turn down the window shade, put my office and cell phones on “do not disturb” and pray that nobody bothers me while I’m trying to write. It is one prayer that almost never gets answered!
It is not uncommon for the interruption to be someone in need coming to the church looking for financial assistance. Such people don’t have phones. They can’t call ahead to make an appointment. They slip in to the church to get a Safeway gift card or help with rent for their room. I wish I could say they always get what they need. I wish I could say that I’m always as unperturbed by their interruption as Jesus. But I can’t.
Sometimes, it is easier to handle an interruption when it involves people we know and care about. After being at the Bishop’s Ranch with 9 teenagers for our annual youth grou mission trip, and hearing my name countless times each day, “John,” “John,” “John,” I realized that power had gone out of me. I was exhausted! But the interruptions didn’t bother me all that much. I was being of service to people I love and was honored that they trusted me – even it was mostly just for little things.
We have a number of new parents in our congregation. What an interruption they are experiencing! For the next 20 years – and more! But it is a healing interruption. They are bringing new life into the world. And their own hearts are expanding as they recapitulate their own life stories reflected in the development of their children and begin to have a deeper sense of compassion for their own parents and, hopefully, themselves.
Some interruptions are so healing that they don’t even feel like interruptions. Even the death of a loved one, perhaps the ultimate interruption, can be healing when our beloved has been suffering, or when we realize that our heart has gotten a couple of sizes larger through our care for them. What a wonderful final gift for them to give to us! We thought we were attending to their need, and they were healing us!
Healing interruptions can be a personal or interpersonal experience, but there is also a social and even cosmic dimension to these interruptions, and this too is a part of today’s Gospel story. It is not insignificant that Jairus’ daughter is twelve years old, and that the anonymous woman with the flow of blood has been ill for twelve years. The number twelve signals the twelve tribes of Israel. The healing and awakening that these two women experience represents Israel’s healing and awakening. What is at stake here is the need for the whole people of God to experience a healing interruption.
Notice that Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, a person of social standing and influence. He is operating from a position of privilege, able to access the resources he needs for the sake of his daughter. He has power and is able to speak directly to Jesus and bring him to his home.
The unnamed, hemorrhaging woman in the crowd has no social standing or influence. She is an outcast, rendered unclean by this continual flow of blood. She is operating out of desperation – and unshakable faith. In her poverty, she has no home and so she takes to the streets to find Jesus.
Her interruption of Jesus and Jairus is a parable about the need for social interruptions – challenges to the way things are – so that the whole people of God can experience healing and reconciliation. The unnamed woman is forced to take to the street to access power, and Jesus shares his power with her freely. He declares her interruption justified and commends her initiative as the source of her healing. She isn’t taking anything that isn’t already hers. By simply acting on the reality of her human dignity, she is able to claim a healing that would never have been necessary if the people of God had not treated her with such contempt and indifference in the first place.
For people like Jairus, such interruptions are a scandal and a threat to their privilege. What Jesus tries to convey is that such interruptions are necessary for healing those who are most in need. Otherwise, they will just continue to be exploited and ignored. Jairus thinks this interruption can only mean loss for him – the loss of his daughter. But she is not dead, merely sleeping. This healing interruption is an opportunity for her – and all who fear the loss of privilege – to wake-up and acknowledge the genuine need of the poor.
This interpolation is a parable about how interruptions of the social status quo are necessary for the healing and awakening that reconciles and makes whole the entire people of God. It profoundly challenges us to wake-up and acknowledge that our wholeness is inextricably bound up with the health and well-being of others. Until power is shared, the people of God cannot be whole.
When people take to the streets to assert their dignity and claim their power, such actions can feel like threatening interruptions, but they offer the gift of awakening to those who are willing to receive it. The civil rights movement was and is a healing interruption. The pride parades and stealth blessings of same-sex couples’ marriages in churches and synagogues across this land were healing interruptions. As a result, the whole people of God are beginning to wake-up and are being made new.
It is in light of this tradition of prophetic, healing interruptions that we should read Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter, LAUDATO SI’: On The Care Of Our Common Home. His great contribution is underscoring “just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” Pope Francis brings the perspective of a citizen of the Third World, relentlessly arguing that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one cry, and that the world’s poor already are the first and most desperate human victims of environmental degradation and climate change.
Pope Francis acknowledges the reality of climate change, and explores its roots in structures of economic inequality and a culture of selfish greed. He insists that healthy climate, water, and seeds are part of the commons that should be freely available to all people as a matter of right necessary to sustain life, that most basic human right. He urgently calls for the subjection of the economic to the political for the sake of the earth, the poor, and the protection of the commons. He calls for an “ecological conversion,” what I would call a “healing interruption.”
Pope Francis’ letter is a wake-up call. It will require us to reorient our culture and economy toward the common good in ways that will surely challenge us. He is like St. Paul, urging the Corinthian Church to give generously to meet the needs of the suffering Jerusalem Church, to strike a fair balance between the Corinthians’ present abundance and the need of the Judean Christians. St. Paul reminded them that God provided manna in the wilderness equal to each person’s need, modeling for us how to respond to one another’s need.
Pope Francis writes, “Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illumined by the love which calls us together into universal communion.” “Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we meet out to other human beings . . . Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”
Climate change is the greatest interruption humanity has ever faced. Some need to be healed. Some need to wake-up. How will we respond to this interruption?
Today, I choose to respond with hope because, as of this week, my marriage is recognized in every state in the Union: something which I never thought would be possible in my lifetime. By the power that Jesus freely shares with us, we can make even the greatest interruption an occasion for healing and awakening. May we claim that power, which is already ours. Amen.