A long time ago in a church far, far away I was teaching a Sunday School class and we were talking about how often moments of crisis can actually be opportunities for prayer. One of the things we all decided to do was to make more time in our daily routines for prayer, particularly if we found ourselves experiencing a crisis or a sense of unrest. The following Sunday I asked the class members to share their experiences. One woman who had a particularly long commute every day to work shared that she decided to start using her time in the car as prayer time, and in particular whenever she was stopped at a stop light in traffic, she would pray. Everyone in the class thought that was a great idea, and I asked her to talk about what that was like. “I don’t know that I’ll do it anymore,” she said. “This week on my way to work and my way home I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed, and those stoplights still didn’t change any faster.” She kind of missed the point, I think, but that did lead into a pretty good discussion about how traffic does not count as a life crisis, and impatience does not qualify as unrest.
Think about that for a moment. Recall a time in your life when you’ve experienced a deep sense of unrest, maybe even desperation (and no, impatience while sitting in traffic doesn’t count). Think about a moment, maybe when you’ve prayed out of that sense of helplessness or fear. We’ve all been there. Maybe it was after a diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one, or some other crisis in your life that was beyond your control, and you found yourself talking to God…“Please God, let this be okay. Help me, please.” That’s a part of this human condition that we all share, and it’s very much a part of our scripture reading for this morning.
What Mark gives us here is a story inside another story, a miracle within a miracle in this case. This is a technique that is unique to Mark – he’s the only gospel writer that does this – and he does it so that the two stories can visibly intersect with each other, so that we as readers can pick up on certain points of emphasis and see how the two stories inform and interpret each other. In this reading, for instance, we have an outer story about Jairus. Jairus is a leader of a local synagogue who comes to Jesus to plead for the life of his daughter. Nested within that story is the story of a woman suffering from chronic bleeding who comes to Jesus to plead for healing. Both stories feature such a pervasive sense of unrest, and desperation, and even fear, and it’s hard to read them together and not hear that pleading, that desperation in Jairus’ voice as he asks Jesus to come see his daughter before it’s too late. It’s hard not to see the helplessness and desperation in the bleeding woman as she isn’t able to get to Jesus, and she knows that the best she can do is to touch the fringe of his cloak. That’s all she can reach… just the hem… just the edge.
This shared sense of desperation is highlighted by the fact that both Jairus and the bleeding woman are breaking with religious convention at the time. It’s against the rules, of course, to touch a diseased or dead person, and here Jairus is asking Jesus to do that very thing. It’s against the rules for anyone to have contact with blood or someone who is bleeding, and yet here the bleeding woman is, reaching out for Jesus. There’s a very real threat of uncleanness throughout these stories as well, and it’s clear that in both cases it’s the religious rules that stand in the way of healing, and wholeness, and restoration.
The good news is that Jesus wasn’t much for following religious rules as much as he was about resetting them. He wasn’t as much about the Law as he was about relationship. In this story within a story is Jesus, reaching across social and religious barriers to an unclean and rejected outcast who has been bleeding for years and is desperate for healing. Here is Jesus, restoring her to wholeness and welcoming her into the kingdom of God, where she is unclean no longer. Here is Jesus, exposing the misguided aims of a religious culture that values its own purity and cleanliness above its call to reach out to those who are marginalized. That’s what the church of Jesus Christ, his church, ought to be about, not drawing dividing lines but reaching out, touching in comforting ways, practicing hospitality, and sharing words of healing, and wholeness, and peace. It is the call of the church to look desperate people in the eyes and call them what they are: children of God.
There are times when we do that pretty well, I think. There are also plenty of times that we don’t. The world has more than enough suffering to go around, more than enough hopelessness, more than enough fear. All around us are voices of desperation, crying out for healing, for wholeness, for restoration. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve all heard those voices loud and clear. The headlines all read Church Attack Kills 9 and Shock and Anger After Church Shooting. The signs held by grieving brothers and sisters read NO MORE and MAKE IT STOP. Have you felt, have you seen the desperation? Countless commentaries and speeches have reminded us that the church shooting in Charleston, and other similar incidents, have a way of tearing open old wounds. Racial division, cultural differences, long-accepted lines of conflict or even indifference… now the wounds are suddenly fresh and it seems that a nation is bleeding, and perhaps we have been for a very long time. Grieving families. Heartbroken communities. Beautiful lives lost. It’s all too fresh, too common, too much. It’s too much.
The day after the shootings, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show said, “I don’t have any jokes tonight. I have nothing other than just sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other, and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend doesn’t exist… I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do [anything about it.]”
“That’s us,” he said.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe we are numb to the violence and the conflict. Maybe we are dead to the pain. Maybe we are sleeping through the hurt. Maybe there is a gaping racial wound that just won’t stop bleeding, and we’re content to live with it year after year after year. But in a community of faith such as this one, I can’t help but feel that in our desperate and seemingly hopeless moments such as this we are still struggling, crawling, reaching forward toward that hope that is always before us, that kingdom of healing and wholeness that Jesus brings, that vision of a world in which the outcast is an insider, and the bleeding stops, and that which is hopeless rises with new life. That vision can be hard to see, especially in times like this, but maybe if we put our faith in it, and maybe if we reach for it we can grasp just the edge, just the fringe, the hem of it. And maybe by the healing grace of Jesus Christ that will be enough.
There are images that tell us this is true. In the wake of the Charleston shootings it was revealed that the gunman had hoped to incite violence, to generate an open racial conflict across the country. What we saw instead were images like this…
This is at Morris Brown AME church in Charleston during a memorial service following the shooting. These are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children. They are worshiping God and singing hymns of faith together, crying together and praying together, supporting one another, exhibiting the kingdom of God. That’s what it looks like.
What we saw were images like this…
These are people marching on the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston this past week. They are brothers and sisters who walked together, joined hands and prayed together, marched hand-in-hand and face-to-face to show the world, if just for a little while, that these wounds don’t have to bleed. Even in our moments of desperation there is hope for healing, wholeness, and restoration. It is the edge, I think, the fringe.
It’s worth noting that the hem of a garment is the part that is folded over, the part where all of the threads are stitched together or woven together in such a way as to make them stronger. We see it, the hem of Christ’s garment, in images such as these. This is where we come together. This is where we are woven together and made stronger.
It’s been said that America is never more segregated than at 11:00 on Sunday morning. That’s an unfortunate truth, and it’s one with which we shouldn’t be satisfied. Here at Philadelphia we have a long history, and it’s one that values community and diversity. During the civil rights movement when many southern churches were turning away African-American worshipers, here at Philadelphia elder Ned Dorton led the Session in passing a directive that “all who present themselves for worship shall be seated without incident”. During the early 19th century when the church gathered at its second site there was a walled cemetery for white members and a separate cemetery for their slaves outside the wall. When we refurbished that cemetery several years ago we rebuilt the wall around it, and rebuilt it to include both cemeteries. We continue even today to have discussions about reaching out to the community and cultivating relationships will all of the people who call Mint Hill home. There are conversations about race and relationship going on all around us, and we bear a responsibility to be a part of those discussions. On Monday night Mecklenburg Ministries is hosting one such conversation at Johnson C. Smith University. Many of these things that we celebrate in our history and look forward to in our future are not magic cures. None of these things alone can bring about large-scale healing or restoration. What they are, I think is small glimpses of the kingdom in the midst of some very troubled times. They are the fringe of the kingdom, perhaps, the hem of the garment. In faith, we strive for it, and we reach for it believing that the healing and wholeness that we are desperate for will one day be a reality.
At times it may seem like that reality is far off. Maybe there are times when we are numb to the wounds, or sleeping through the hurt. Maybe at times it seems as if the hem of the garment is too far to reach, too hard to see, too unrealistic to dream. But if you follow Jesus, sometimes all you have to do is reach. Even in our moments of desperation, unrest, and fear… we can at least reach for him.
And in truth, what is our reaching if it isn’t the faith that Jesus himself is reaching out to us… taking us by the hand… raising us from our slumber… speaking words of healing.
“Children… Get up. Rise. Live.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.