You may have heard that the Supreme Court, this week, made a momentous and rather divisive decision. The court ruled 5 to 4 to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as constitutional thus ensuring its status as Law in our country. The Act was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate after some back and forth and then signed in to law by President Barak Obama over two years ago in March of 2010.
I am of the opinion that this week was a good week for the United States of America. Perhaps you are too. Perhaps not. As I said, it was a divisive decision.
And this space of division, this space of disagreement, of fear and trembling, of boundary crossing and redefinition, where establishment meets the marginalized – this is both where we find ourselves in this ongoing, incredibly tiring, highly political, partisan debate and where Jesus found himself during his ministry.
I’ve heard people talk… longing for a time when our country was less divided, nostalgic for the days before things got so malicious and complicated, yearning for neighborly peace and respectful public discourse.
And I have to ask… did that ever truly happen? I would argue that in periods where humanity has appeared to have been respectful towards one another, where we believed the fairy tale was real and peace reigned o’er the land, that so-called peace came at a price. It was a kind of Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome. In other words, the “peace” of oppression.
And this is exactly what Jesus had the biggest problem with. He was a rabble-rouser, this savior of ours. He knew that this Pax Romana was a false peace. He knew that the peace of establishment was not the Peace of the Lord. He knew that God’s peace was one of restoration, one in which the inclusion of the marginalized redeemed the whole community.
And so, he made people uncomfortable. He pushed their buttons. He fought against the status quo. The story from Mark’s Gospel today demonstrates his willingness to overturn expectations and not only point people toward the work of God in the world, but do the work of God. And he taught us to do the same thing – to do this healing work in the world.
So, let’s take a closer look at these healing stories, because they are our teachers.
First, we have the bleeding woman. A woman shunned by society, literally drained of her lifeblood and drained of her wealth by the physicians who tried to cure her. A woman who even after 12 years of suffering, understands that in order to be healed she must find the strength to make a statement of belief by bringing herself to this itinerant healer. She has a role to play in her own healing.
Then, we have the 12 year old daughter of a synagogue leader who is at death’s door. The community of people gathered around her have already written her off, already begun their mourning. But Jesus goes to her anyway, pushing past the crowd where he can whisper to her “little girl, get up.”
Now, what is helpful to recognize about Mark’s Gospel and especially about this passage, is that this is a story within a story. That while these are individual stories of healing the marginalized people within a society, they are also demonstrations of how Jesus the Messiah was healing the nation of Israel… and doing it outside of any official recognition of either the Jewish establishment or the Roman authority.
The woman who was hemorrhaging, was effectively cut off from Jewish society. We can discuss the unfair, patriarchal purity rules that separated menstruating women from the community and how Jews felt about blood. But let’s focus instead, on what Mark is saying through the use of this character.
He’s telling us that Israel, as identified by the number 12 (the 12 tribes of Israel), is in need of healing. And that Jesus is the Messiah that is bringing about that healing. Jesus is the Messiah that is bringing the Reign of God to Israel.
The little girl who was dying, already dismissed by the larger community as dead, also represents Israel-in-need-of-healing. She is, after all, 12 years old and the daughter of a synagogue leader. She was considered beyond hope, beyond life. And Jesus goes to her and simply tells her to get up. And Israel rises at his command.
This once-wealthy, now depleted woman.
This youth at the end of her life.
Both have their status as “daughter” reinstated by the healing power of this man Jesus.
They are restored to community by this manifestation of the Divine.
This inbreaking of the Reign of God.
As John Dominic Crossan tells us in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, we 21st century Americans have a tendency to read the healing stories of Jesus with a fair amount of American presuppositions. We believe that “healing” automatically means that the disease has left the body. We think that being healed means that we are suddenly a perfect physical specimen – free of disease, conquering death through the physical body, as if physical death were the worst thing that could possibly happen to us. As if it’s possible to live disease free.
Perhaps ironically, this is what drives our American medical industrial complex – the need to defeat physical death. And this is what we read into these healing stories.
But what all of the healing stories in Mark point to, is a restoration of the marginalized to the larger community. The restoration of the leper through Jesus’ touch [1:40-45], the restoration of the demoniac by treating the man like a human instead of an animal [5:1-16], the restoration of the hemorrhaging woman by naming her as daughter [5:25-34], the restoration of the young girl by ignoring the community’s pronouncement [5:35-43].
In all of these instances, God is sought out in some way. And in all of these instances, the Reign of God meets that faith, and breaks in on the world of human establishment to restore the individual to community. Jesus personifies that inbreaking – he is the vehicle through which God does Gods work. He is the Christ.
Regardless of whether you believe the disease actually left and the body was restored to a perfect physical specimen, the point of the healing stories in Mark’s Gospel is Israel’s restoration to God through the restoration of the marginalized to the larger community. The point of the healing stories in Mark’s Gospel is to demonstrate exactly what Paul expresses in his epistle – that the community is healed through balance – and that means restoration of all the marginalized.
There is a very moving story that illustrates this point – it’s the story of a man named Joseph Merrick. This man is more popularly known as the Elephant Man. Born in 1862, Joseph Merrick’s body began showing deformities within the first few years of his life. His mother died when he was 11 and his father remarried.
When it was time for him to begin his work life, his deformities had grown worse, tremendously affecting his dexterity and speech… causing people to follow him around out of a horrified curiosity, mocking him, abusing him. It wasn’t long before he was unable to earn a living. At home, he received beatings from his father, and malicious taunts from his stepmother.
He spent time homeless on the streets and in the infamously abysmal London workhouses, which were bad enough that Joseph decided he would rather tour England as a human novelty – a sideshow exhibit where people would pay to stare at him with unabashed disgust. Because of the psychological abuse caused by continual abject treatment from his community, Joseph became withdrawn, confused, and frightened. He was abandoned by his tour manager and eventually found his way to the London Hospital.
After one of the doctors there realized Joseph was a man of some intelligence, they grew to be friends. The four years he lived at the hospital were the happiest of Joseph’s life, primarily because of the love and friendship he shared with this doctor. Other people came to meet him, his caretakers grew fond of him, and he even left the hospital on occasion to go to plays and on trips to the country. He spent his hours in the hospital reading and constructing paper sculptures of the buildings around him.
Joseph died at age 27 due to complications arising from his deformities. The doctor was never able to cure Joseph of his disease or offer surgery to alleviate the discomfort he experienced – but I would argue that he healed Joseph. He befriended him and brought him into community. Joseph felt loved for, perhaps, the first time in his life. He felt as if it mattered to someone else that he breathed. Having been marginalized for most of his life, he was restored to community.
This is the kind of healing that Mark fills his Gospel with. And this is the kind of healing that we are capable of. Because the Table that we gather round every week reminds us that Christ calls us to reconciliation with one another. This Table calls us to remember that everyone’s breath matters.
And what that means is that we are continually calling attention to the marginalized, making the powers-that-be uncomfortable and challenging the opressive status quo of the Pax Romana. It means that we are called to live with a certain amount of discomfort, a certain level of divisiveness, a certain degree of paradox.
I’m not talking about being difficult simply for the sake of it – the world is a difficult enough place. And I’m not talking about wrenching community apart – that happens without much effort on our part.
I’m talking about living into the discomfort of being at odds with one another so that all have a space at the Table. The Peace of God is never about being comfortable, but it is always about reconciliation.
As my Ethics professor John Kater says, it’s our job as Christians to stand in the crossroads – where we see the both the heartbreaking beauty of the Reign of God and the heartbreaking, woeful condition of the world… at the same time. This is what it means to follow Christ. It is hard but it is necessary.
And it’s maddening at times – mostly because of the paradox that can be seen from the vantage point of the crossroads. The paradox that the world is an utterly beautiful place – full of music and poetry, full of strength and vulnerability, full of glory and humility… and the world is a terrible place, full of the horrors and unimaginable suffering that require the inbreaking of God’s Reign to restore the balance once again.
But make no mistake, it is here that we are called to stand… here at this crossroads – inviting the healing of Christ, manifesting the love of Christ for one another and enabling the restoration of the marginalized back into community.
The redemption of a people called Israel, the redemption that is the Peace of God.