Pentecost 4 June 28, 2009

Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24       

Mark 5:21-43                                                                      

If we were worshiping in the New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky, two weeks ago, we would have heard a sermon on “God, Guns, Gospel and Geometry.”* Inspired by this message, telling us that America was built on God and guns, we might have attended the “open carry” celebration at the church last night, at which everyone was invited to come to church carrying their firearms, enjoy a picnic and participate in the raffle of a handgun—chances $1 each.

Instead, we gathered here at Holy Cross for worship this morning have this story from Mark’s gospel of two healings—two stories really, intertwined together. Mark likes to “twin” stories and symbolic clues like this, inviting us to unravel what they have to do with each other. There are clear differences between the healings. One involves the 12 year old daughter of a man of high social status, “one of the leaders of the synagogue.” The other involves a woman of no social status, indeed a woman who in that society would have been regarded as unclean, banished from the community because of her 12 years of menstrual hemorrhaging. The little girl has enjoyed 12 years of life in a comfortable, wealthy family, but now she lies near death. The woman has suffered 12 years of fear and shame and has impoverished herself seeking medical help, all without avail.

The synagogue leader father asks Jesus publicly and directly to heal his daughter, as one high status male to another. This healing is to take place in the privacy of the family’s home. The woman darts up to Jesus anonymously, under cover of the crowd of poor people who followed the Teacher everywhere. She surreptitiously reaches out and touches Jesus’s cloak, and is immediately made well. The woman’s healing interrupts the little girl’s healing, delaying Jesus so that the child dies. But the Master takes the girl by the hand and raises her from the dead.

What is going on here? Far more than two medical miracles. Nothing less that two signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The society in which Jesus lived was bound by codes of honor and shame that are hard for people like us to appreciate. It was a society much like those of tribal areas of Asia and Africa where women are stoned to death by their relatives for daring to marry someone of a different caste—where life is full of protocols and taboos, where everything a person does can bring honor or shame on a whole tribe or family, and every violation of the social code must be avenged.

The kingdom of God, Jesus is demonstrating in these healings, is just the opposite of this. A poor outcast woman, unclean and shamed, is welcomed into God’s kingdom on the strength of her faith alone. Jesus calls her “daughter” – in distinction to his disciples, who are repeatedly in the gospels shown as clueless and faithless. At the same time, the “honorable” status of the synagogue leader and the whole religious/social system he represents, is symbolically shown as dead, without power to heal. Its members can only be raised to life by the liberating touch of Jesus.

So what in the world does all this have to do with us? We are not bound by codes of shame and honor, are we? We are not ruled by status, are we? Well, of course we are. Our codes and rules are more subtle perhaps, but nonetheless they exclude us just as surely from the kingdom of God. Yes, the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual orientation – these factors beyond our control still heavily control what opportunities we have and how we are treated. But it is money that really binds us in a code of shame and honor.

We have created a society in which to be rich is honored and to be poor shamed. If you are born in a family of wealth and social position, almost without effort you can go to the right schools, make the right connections, and enjoy a comfortable life. If you are born in a poor family, perhaps with a single working parent, your way, while not impossible, will be far, far more difficult. It begins in kindergarten. Poor kids are picked. Rich kids are envied. Rich towns in New Hampshire can afford good schools; poor towns cannot. Rich people enjoy one class of medical service; poor people another. Rich people decide what wars we fight, what factories we close; poor people do the fighting, are laid off from the factories when times are hard. And we think this all has to do with merit, with how hard a person works. Well, rich people like to think that. Poor people know better.

One final comment on our economic status system. You will not be surprised to learn that that “God, Guns, Gospel and Geometry” church in Kentucky was not an Episcopal church. The gun culture in this country is, I think, a sad by-product of our status system. It is a way for people who are socially and economically on the bottom to assert their honor, a way for them symbolically to rally against a system they feel otherwise powerless to change. So if you think that “gun nuts” are nuts, think again—what role do we have in driving them to this way of maintaining some pride?

You and I live in “the world” – meaning a society still filled with all sorts of warped values. But we are not of the world. We are citizens of God’s kingdom, by virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to live by faith, meaning to reject all other codes of status, honor and shame. And in this week in which we celebrate our Nation’s independence, we might well remind ourselves that we are called to work to transform this country, which means so much to the world, into a land where justice, peace and love –the values of God’s kingdom – truly prevail.


* “Kentucky Pastor Invites Flock to Carry Firearms to Church,” The New York Times, June 26, 2009, p.1.

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