Voices from the Periphery
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Reading: Mark 5:21-34
Okay, confession time: I have binge-watched episodes of the Canadian program, “Kim’s Convenience” between Christmas and the New Year. I love that show, and I know there are others around the world who love it too. It is a microcosm of life from one of our cultures here in Toronto. Ins Choi is a wonderful person, who put that together. It is engaging and funny. There is, within Kim’s Convenience a phrase that keeps popping up that I’ve never heard before, and there’s even an episode with its name. The phrase is “sneak attack”. In this show, a sneak attack is something duplicitous, something of questionable truth, something that catches you by surprise. It’s a sneak attack, you don’t know where it’s coming from. Some of the episodes are hilarious in how that sneak attack manifests itself, right down to arguing whether someone really owns a refrigerator or not. It’s very funny. If you haven't, you should watch it.
I thought of that phrase, I don’t know why, when I read our passage today. In many ways, it’s about a sneak attack, about something that catches by surprise, something that has a bad side to it, but on the other hand, can become something transformative. The Gospel of Mark tells us a story in considerable detail, unlike Luke and Matthew, about a woman who comes incognito to Jesus while he was in a crowd. In classic form, Mark is telling the story and begins it with Jairus’s daughter, then inserts this story, and then continues with Jairus’s daughter story after. He does this to highlight an event. This sneak attack by this woman who had come to Jesus was a very important moment. In many ways, because of it, this incredible story has touched the lives of many people ever since.
Now, there are some who question the verisimilitude of this passage, whether it is truthful or not, or that Mark put it all together. But to question that is to misunderstand first century Palestine, and the whole life and story of Jesus. This is something that very much could have happened. It was very earthy and real. There is no need to doubt the integrity of this story. It is rich with meaning, and Mark has it there for a reason.
One of the reasons is to show how important it is for people who are on the periphery, to speak to us. The great theologian, and unfortunately now deceased, Fred Craddock, often said of Mark’s Gospel that it’s about insiders and outsiders, and that a lot of the stories Mark tells and highlights, are stories of people who are initially seen to be outside the covenant of God’s grace, and are brought inside the covenant of God’s grace. Many of the stories speak of people who are on the outs, but are coming in. People who have been banned from going to the synagogue or the temple for some reason, are now brought back in. That the ministry of Jesus is very much focused on bringing the outsiders in, of bringing people who actually were seen not to belong to God, to come to a knowledge and an experience of God. We find this in this passage.
Now, the context is very important; Jesus is in his Galilean ministry. It’s fairly early on in the ministry of Jesus, and we heard that Jesus had already been on the east side of Galilee, which is a Gentile side at that time. Then he had travelled to the west side, which was the Jewish side, to places like Tiberius and others. On the western side, the Jewish side, we read that a woman came to reach out to Jesus. She was very much was on the outside of the covenant, deemed excluded from the temple and the synagogue, as someone who was ritually unclean. We’re told that she had been hemorrhaging for twelve years – she’d been bleeding for twelve years. According to Leviticus 15:2-30, if that is the case, a woman is excluded from going into the temple, making sacrifices. This woman was excluded from religious rites and rituals, and was deemed unclean, for 12 years! She tried to get doctors to heal her. It’s not as if she hadn't actually gone out of her way. Mark tells us that she had seen many doctors, so clearly, she wanted to put right what she saw as something that was wrong medically in her. But of course, in biblical times, there was a great cost in going to doctors. Now, remember, the doctors we’re talking about are not like those that practice modern medicine. In many ways, it was very simple and crude, and mostly experimental. There were some weird and some wonderful ideas about how to solve this problem, including taking eggs from birds and eating them, and all kinds of weird stuff. But she’d spent her money – all her money – on trying to heal herself, to make herself ritually clean. She had done everything that she could possibly do on her own.
I remember that my father once said that humanity’s extremity provides God’s opportunity, and this woman saw an opportunity. The opportunity was to come and meet this man, that the crowds were gathering to see. We’re told that she was frightened, and you can understand her fear in coming to Jesus at a moment like that. First, she’d be revealing to the crowd, that she was hemorrhaging, that she was an outcast by Levitical standards. Yet, here she was, coming to Jesus amongst a crowd of people, to seek his healing and guidance. She believed that if she just touched his cloak, she would be healed.
She must have also been terrified by Jesus’ reputation. Yes, crowds were following him. He was a hero, but if he was the Messiah, as some people were saying, if he was the Son of God, which is what Mark says at the beginning of his Gospel, then coming directly into the presence of the Messiah and of God, when you had been deemed ritually unclean, was a terrifying prospect. So, she performed a sneak attack. She came incognito, fearfully, but faithfully, expecting something great to happen.
This woman has become an icon of people who wonder whether they are worthy to seek the guidance, and the power, and the presence of God in Jesus Christ. She has become an icon of people who wonder whether, because of blots in their background, sins they have committed, imperfections in their faith, or various and sundry things, prevent them from coming to God. This woman is an icon of someone who despite that, sought Jesus’ help. She spoke from the periphery, from the outside, and she spoke with her actions.
This also tells us powerfully, that people who are on the periphery can still be drawn into the centre. We’re told that she went up to Jesus and touched his cloak. Now, of course, in the time of Jesus, men often wore four different types of tassels on their clothing, these were representations of the law. These had deep, significant meaning. So, in touching his cloak, she’s touching a representation of the Lord God, she’s reaching out to the tassels that would have been on his jacket, thinking, if I can only just touch these, I will be healed.
And immediately – immediately she felt the freedom of healing. Immediately her bleeding stopped, and she felt that she was now well. Something transpired in her act of faith in reaching out and touching those tassels, that absolutely astounded her. She’d come with that expectation, with a degree of fear, but also a degree of courage, and here she was now, after touching the tassel and feeling that she has been healed.
There’s no explanation given about how this was done; no further examination of what transpired. Just a simple statement of faith and reality, based on what she was experiencing. She felt as if she was healed and she only got that way because in her vulnerability, she reached out to God, she reached out to Christ.
In a wonderful book by Joan Chittister, she talks about her own walk with faith and her own personal struggles. She deals with the issue of vulnerability in her life. Joan Chittister – and I do recommend her books to you – tells this one little story, a cameo of her life, about how vulnerability can bring us closer to God if we have the courage to reach out.
She wrote this, and my goodness, in the COVID-19 moment, this is powerful stuff:
My months in a polio hospital were some of the most devastating and most meaningful of my life. I was only sixteen when the disease struck, and a life of unremitting disability seemed on hard days, to be more than I could bear. No one knew if I would ever walk again, no one knew what, if anything, I’d be able to do to make a living. No one could guarantee that I could get getter, nor did anyone try. And worse, whatever the sense of isolation, I was alone in the dread and agony of polio’s unknowables.
Some people there, I realise, quarantined, bored by the interminable wait and cures and help that never came, were more crippled by depression than by paralysis. Others railed daily at the thought of being restrained in any way. A few worked day and night, to no avail, against the ravages of the disease, and got quieter as the months went by. But there were two fellows in the ward at the end of the hall, who made all the difference. Every day at ten o'clock, just as the staff began to meet for consultations, they rolled from room to room in their wheelchairs, organising the daily wheelchair race in the hall. They gave points and prizes and long applause to the winners.
It was weeks before I got up the energy to join them, but when I look back now, I realise that the day I did, was the day I began to get well. Vulnerability is the call to self-acceptance. It is great and deliberating moment in the human journey.
Well, this woman in our story, in her vulnerability, decided to do something, and what she decided to do, was reach out to God. When this happened, Jesus immediately felt the power go out of him. He felt the power of the Spirit of God flowing to her. He felt the power of someone’s faith reaching out to him in a time of need. When this happens (because this sneak attack) he asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples make light of it. Come on, Man, you're in a big crowd, of course, people are going to touch you. But Jesus knew that this was different. He knew this was special. He knew from the power that was transmitted from him to this woman in need, that something profound had taken place. He knew that in her vulnerability, she had received a blessing of God.
Many times, I think that we’re a bit like Joan Chittister when she was struggling with polio, isolation, and the unknown. What do you do in a time like that? What do you do when you find that you can't heal yourself? What do you do when you live in a moment of uncertainty? You reach out to God and Christ in faith, that’s what you do. That’s how this woman was taken from the periphery to the centre of things. One of the things that amazes me about this is that the person from the periphery becomes the witness to faith. That this woman, who was seemingly unknown, comes into the centre of things.
One of my former professors at Rhodes University in South Africa, Felicity Edwards, someone who I admire immensely, taught me a great deal in theology, did a session on the healing of this woman. I made some notes, and I went back and blew off the dust covers, they are old, even the paper is going yellow and sticking together. I thought, I remember that lecture when she spoke about this woman. She said that this seemingly unknown woman was launched into the centre of history.
We’ve no idea her name, or where she came from. She’s a bit like the unknown soldier that is often memorialised. But whoever she was she was launched in the centre of history, because of her faith. And look at what Jesus does with her. Look how he responds to her. What does he call her? “Daughter”. In the Greek it is thoguta, which means a descendent, or a family member. It’s a term of endearment – daughter. He said to her, “Your faith has made you well, daughter, your faith has made you well.”
This woman, who otherwise would have been on the periphery, on the outside, is now encountered by none other than the Son of God, and affirmed now as a daughter, because of her faith. She has been transformed, not only in her body, not only in her healing, but in her very soul, in her very personhood. She represents for us powerfully, as Felicity Edwards went on in her lecture to say, “All those who cry out to God in help, and want to hear, you are a daughter, you are a son, you are a child of God, and Jesus is the One who has made this possible.”
I was given a book not very long ago, by the Canadian Bible Society, as a thank you gift. It is by Ken Shigematsu, who ministers in British Columbia here in Canada. It is called The Survival Guide for our Soul, and in it he tells a story about a woman called Ruth Martin, who was graduating from medical school and was a member of his church, a devout Christian woman. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do once she received her credentials, but she was being drawn evermore to go into the prison system to work as a doctor to the prisoners. She weighed this up and thought it was a terrible move. This is not exactly where you want to end up when you've just come out of medical school. Nevertheless, she went into the prisons and cared for women, particularly women who were giving birth in prison, and how difficult it was for them.
Many of them were indigenous who lived a long way from their families and had little or no support. It was one of the most heartbreaking and inspiring things that she could ever have done. She’s now very well-known as a professor of medicine that deals with incarceration, and particularly with women’s issues. Ken Shigematsu says something very interesting in light of her experience; her willingness to break out of the normal mould of ordinary medical practice, to help prisoners specifically. He writes this:
When we expose ourselves to those who are suffering, be it through our career, volunteer work, mission trip, or the caregiving for a disabled loved one, we begin to realise that our lives could have looked very different. We become aware that we have benefitted by winning a kind of lottery. These illuminating experiences fill us with striving passion, to make the most of our life, and to have a soulful gratitude and humility to serve others and honour the Giver of all gifts.
Shigematsu’s argument is that in confronting vulnerability, the problems of others, and the brokenness of the world, it becomes an opportunity for God to do remarkable things.
As we begin this new year, I think this woman on the west side of Galilee, speaks to us, don’t you? From the periphery she reached out to Christ in faith. She came to the centre, having been on the outside. She came as someone in faith and despite all her fears and all her uncertainties, she trusted that Christ would heal her and when he did, he called her, Daughter.
Is there a greater moment in Scripture than this? I don’t think so. Do you? Amen.