Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sermon: "Faith Healing", Mark 5:21-43 (June 28, 2015)


She’s tired. Not just tired, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Spent. She’s done absolutely everything that it’s within her power to do: sought the obscure wisdom of every healer, the experimental treatments of every physician, the urgent prayers of every priest, and yet what does she have to show for it? An empty moneybag and still-deteriorating health. And less hope than she had to begin with.

She’s always followed all the rules. According to Leviticus 15, she is unclean—has been for as long as she can remember—and so to spare others from sharing in her ritual impurity, she always keeps to herself, sacrificing her yearning for companionship for the good of those around her. It’s been 12 years since she’s felt so much as the brush of another human being’s hand on her shoulder—once they know about her “situation,” they always give her an unnecessarily wide birth in passing. If they were to come in contact with her impurity, they would no longer be able to participate in the religious life of the community until they underwent the appropriate rituals, effectively being cut off from God. She would never wish that on anyone else. She knows that keeping her distance is the right thing to do, but she doesn’t know how much longer she can endure such complete isolation.

She tells herself she must deserve it. She must have done something twelve long years ago that left her in this sorry state, with no one to speak on her behalf or plea her case to anyone who might be able to help her, utterly hopeless, ashamed… and desperate.

Over the course of her fruitless search for relief, she’s heard of this man, Jesus. It’s said that he heals the sick and the lame, bringing hope to the hopeless. She doesn’t see how this mere man can help her, the woman whose condition has puzzled the world’s most accomplished physicians, but it’s said that this Jesus is a man of God. All she has left at this point is prayer and faith. And even those are in short supply for her these days.

So, knowing that what she’s doing is wrong, wondering if she’s angering God with her insolence, she covers her face and joins the throng that follows this Jesus, flinching every time another body presses against hers, knowing that at each point of contact, she has wrenched that person away from God’s presence and love for her own sake. Unwilling to expose her shame more than necessary and terrified of being discovered, she hesitates as she comes up behind the one she seeks. “Who am I to ask such an audacious thing of a man, a holy man?” she chastises herself. She’s heard that he’s on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue leader, a little girl who certainly deserves to be healed more than an unclean sinner. And yet, she realizes sadly, she has no choice. If she is forced to continue living this way, her spirit, if not her body, will die. Knowing that the pleas of an unmarried, unclean woman would be ignored and perhaps even ridiculed, she surreptitiously reaches out her hand, realizing that if he truly is a man of God, the mere touch of his cloak will be enough to heal her. At least, it’s the very last hope that she has.


When you read the story of the hemorrhaging woman, what perspective do you usually take? Who do you sympathize with? Do you identify with Jesus, Jairus, the synagogue leader, or maybe even the disciples, trying to keep Jesus on task? For many of us, our first inclination is NOT to root for this unnamed woman. She cheated; she didn’t follow the rules that Jairus respectfully observed; she didn’t wait her turn. Many view this scripture primarily as a story about Jesus’ graciousness and mercy in the face of this woman’s completely inappropriate behavior, rather than a lesson for US to learn from.

But I disagree. I would argue that this is a simplistic reading, one that ignores the author’s careful location of this narrative inside of another story and this gospel’s focus on discipleship and those who follow Jesus. Besides, we don’t need story upon story upon story to tell us that Jesus is merciful and gracious—we already know that quite well. If that were the only reason we read scripture, then we wouldn’t need 27 books to complete the New Testament, let alone four separate Gospels. I would argue that this passage is more about the people that Jesus encounters than the man himself, which is why I began today with an account from the perspective of the unnamed woman.

“Well, then,” we think, “Surely it must at least has something to do with the miracles that Jesus performs on behalf of those around him.” Now we’re getting somewhere: the interactions that these people have with Jesus. But we have to be careful about how we read even these seemingly straight-forward aspects of the story. There are some who interpret the healing of the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus’ subsequent proclamation to mean that Christians should understand faith as the direct source of healing, in a “cause and effect” sort of relationship. This type of thinking, while affirming of the faith-building work that we do here in church each week, is nevertheless dangerous. When we approach healing with this attitude, we make ourselves vulnerable to a very un-Christ-like attitude towards our fellow human beings. If we believe that healing comes directly from faith, what we judge as the “right” way of thinking, feeling, and believing, then the implication is that an absence of healing is equivalent to an absence of faith. And for someone like the hemorrhaging woman, who gave everything that she had—financially, emotionally, and spiritually—in the mere hope of some relief, this is a damning statement.

This attitude becomes especially toxic when we move away from discussing physical healing and begin to speak of the healing of life situations, relations between people, or ways of thinking. Be honest with yourself: Have you ever looked down on someone who couldn’t find a job, or who couldn’t reconcile with a sibling, or whose thoughts were irrationally depressed? Have you ever thought, “If they would just have a little faith, if they would just trust God more, if they would just pray about it, I’m sure everything would be fine”?

And then, the waters of judgment become even murkier when we equate faith in God with faith in the status quo. For many of us, being Christian is about “following the rules” and behaving properly, especially those of us from a “high church” tradition. Being a person of faith is saying the right words at the right time, standing and kneeling when indicated, following the proper code of conduct, and if you do these things, THEN, my friends, you will be whole. According to this view, faith is about trusting that the traditional way is the best way. And the Church is notoriously eager to take this view. When Martin Luther criticized the actions of the Roman Catholic Church in the early 16th century, he was not viewed as a visionary, but a heretic. Pope Leo X called him, “one whose faith is notoriously suspect.” Luther dared rocked the boat; therefore, his faith was immediately thrown into question. We might think of ourselves as above such ignorant simplistic thinking, but again I ask you, how many times have you looked down your nose at someone pushing back against religion, or rejecting it entirely? At someone protesting the government? In a way, we view these people who experience the world differently than us as being on the outside, being “damaged” and unhealed. Usually without much insight to their true motivations, we determine that it’s because their faith is wrongheaded. And thus we imply that whatever they’re reacting to, whatever they’re objecting to, they’re suffering it because of their insufficient faith.

Brothers and sisters, I am standing here today to ask you, who are we to declare someone’s faith worthy or unworthy? Who am I to condemn someone to suffering, whether physical, emotional, or otherwise, simply because I judge their faith to be lacking? Or worse, because I am oblivious to their pain and the lengths they’ve gone to relieve it? I began my sermon with a narrative retelling the story of the hemorrhaging woman from her perspective because all too often, we don’t take the time to listen to the stories of others. We neglect to bear witness to the stories of those we don’t understand, and if we don’t hear their stories, how can we hope to find the good in them that Jesus finds so easily?

In this light, Christ’s most important action in the entire passage is where he stops and listens to the unnamed, unclean woman and allows her to tell him her truth. He didn’t brush her aside because he’s on his way to help Jairus, by all accounts a more important person who followed standard procedure in procuring Jesus’ help. He didn’t ignore her because her touch was one of many in the crowd. He didn’t chastise her because she was a socially negligible person who shouldn’t have bothered him in the first place. He listened to her, and more than that, he heard her.

He didn’t need to. She had already been made well the moment she touched his cloak. Jesus doesn’t typically demand that people justify their need for healing after the fact. It’s unusual that he would stop in his tracks to figure out what, exactly, had happened. And yet, this time, he did. Perhaps when Jesus proclaims, “Be healed of your disease!” he’s not referring to the flow of blood that had plagued her for 12 years—a proclamation of that sort would be redundant, since she had already been healed before a single word passed between them. Perhaps he’s referring to the psychological damage that had been done to her by society and by her own harsh self-judgment.

Her faith had made her well. But her faith hadn’t sprung into existence at the moment she reached out her hand, it hadn’t qualitatively changed between when she heard about Jesus and when she touched his cloak. So it wouldn’t be accurate to say that her faith had previously been so lacking as to keep her in misery. No, what had changed—what it was about her faith that made her well—was that her faith had spurred her to action. It had motivated her to take a risk, to cross societal and religious lines, even though she had no logical reason to assume it would work any better than the physicians’ work had. And it had motivated her to tell her story, to connect, to testify to her suffering. And through her faith, she was healed: mind, body, and soul.

Action in the face of impossibility and hopelessness is an act of faith. Breaking the boundaries that society has arbitrarily insisted are important is an act of faith. Telling your story even when you’re not sure anyone will listen is an act of faith. But in this case, faith is a vehicle, not an end. Jesus recognized this. Jesus was a man of action BECAUSE he was a man of faith. And Jesus recognized the faith in others who were brave enough to stand up for themselves in spite of the potential repercussions. How can we seek to find this same faith in those around us?


His cloak is soft and well-made. It suits the gentle person who wears it. Instead of raising his voice in fury as she expects, his eyes silently invite her to explain herself, and so she does. Her voice is full of emotion but strangely steady. When she finishes, her heart is beating out of control inside her chest: she’s never heard her own story out loud before—no one has ever stopped to listen. She no longer feels powerless or desperate; for the first time in her life, she feels like she matters. As she catches her breath, she feels an apology rising in her throat, but it dies on her lips the moment he catches her eye. She’s known from the moment her fingers touched the cloth that her body is already cured, but it is his response to her story, his affirmation of everything that she was and is, that truly made her whole: “Go in peace, my daughter, and be healed.”


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