Who Is Really Being Healed?

August 5, 2018
Reverend Matthew Johnson

I’ve been reflecting a lot, lately, on community and its ability to give new life and healing. And with good reason – there’s a lot to reflect on. In May, we celebrated the community we find in our global partnerships, as siblings gathered from around the globe. In June, my wife, Regina, and I traveled with our neighbors to Croatia, deepening our friendship and experiencing communities and cultures new to us. In July, Regina and I celebrated 15 years of marriage, our own community of two, and the community of our extended families. Our anniversary happened to fall in the middle of the high school youth mission trip, where I was warmly welcomed by the Westminster youth community, and together, we were welcomed into several new communities in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York.

I’m approaching my one-year anniversary here in the Westminster community. Thanks to you, I am ordained and living into my call to professional ministry. Originally, I wasn’t supposed to be here today. My first interim role has ended. Thanks to the workings of the Spirit and to the welcoming of this community, I get to stick around for another year, as your Interim Associate Pastor for Families, Youth, and Children. Based on my experiences of the last month, it’s going to be another educational, life-giving year filled with healing and wholeness. And, it is a joy to welcome Alanna Simone Tyler to the Westminster community as our new Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission.

While community has the power to include, to heal, and to sustain, it also has the power to exclude and to harm. That’s where we meet the unnamed woman of our gospel story today. We’re given a few basic pieces of information about her. She’s been hemorrhaging – bleeding – for twelve years. She’s spent all that she had on various failed attempts at healing, continually growing worse, continually suffering. And, she’s heard about Jesus and believes that simply touching his clothing will make her well.

Twelve years. For twelve years this woman has been bleeding, her life-blood dripping away. For twelve years, her condition has left her cut off from her religious community, because as long as she’s bleeding, she’s ritually impure. For twelve years, she’s been let down by the medical community. Perhaps some physicians have made honest attempts to help her, but we can assume that most preyed on her, taking her money with no plausible treatment or cure in the offering. She is broke and broken, having spent all that she had. For twelve years, she has somehow remained hopeful; this woman is resilient! Now, she places her hope in Jesus, and it is her resilient, hopeful faith that makes her well. Because of her faith, she is restored to her community.

Stepping back just a bit to take a look at the larger story is revealing. Jesus has just returned from the other side of the Sea of Galilee; he’s come back from healing in Gentile territory, and a crowd immediately swarms around him. The first person he encounters is Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, probably in the little lakeside town of Capernaum. Jairus implores Jesus to come and heal his twelve-year-old daughter. That’s when our unnamed woman touches Jesus’ clothes, and he feels some power go forth… This woman has been bleeding for the entire length of Jairus’ daughter’s life. For those same twelve years, she has been excluded from the synagogue of which Jairus is a leader.

In the midst of the crushing crowd, Jesus puts Jairus’ need on hold, because he needs the whole community to understand what is happening. When he looks around to see who touched him, you can hear the exasperation in his disciple’s voices. Seriously? Someone touched you? We’re stopping this parade because someone touched you? We’ve all been bumped into hundreds of times in the last few minutes… What gives, Jesus?

Our story teller wants us to be thinking about purity laws. We should be expecting Jesus to be a little righteously indignant. He’s off to the home of a leader of the synagogue, a pillar of the community, to heal a young girl, and he’s just been made unclean by the touch of a hemorrhaging woman. Who does she think she is? But Jesus isn’t concerned about purity here. He’s concerned about life. In the center of the bustling crowd, he makes sure that everyone knows this woman is healed; she’s no longer unclean. She’s whole. He calls her “daughter,” welcoming her into his family, into his community, just as he will restore Jairus’ daughter to life and to her family and community. At once, he brings healing to the unnamed woman and wholeness to the entire community gathered around him by once again including her. I find myself asking, who is really being healed?

Theologian, Donald Juel writes, “Her illness is in every respect a social disease.” Those words have been stuck in my head: “her illness is in every respect a social disease.” A social disease. That’s exactly it. The law of God is meant to be life-giving, and at its core it is exactly that… Love God. Love neighbor. Love yourself. Love yields life. In this woman’s case, the law has been giving life neither to her nor to the community. Instead, it’s been restricting life, and Jesus has no interest in keeping that kind of diseased law. When she is healed, life is restored both to her and to the community. Jesus himself tells us that her faith makes her well; she and her faith are a source of life for herself and for the community. It seems a miracle to me that she would still want to be a part of the community that has excluded her for so long. Again, who is really being healed?

With that question still hanging in the air, I’d like to share a bit more about the high school youth mission trip I mentioned earlier. Much of the trip focused on immigration, poverty, and privilege. Buffalo, New York is home to many immigrants and has a number of organizations working with those entering the country seeking refuge or asylum, as well as those seeking citizenship. Like our unnamed woman, immigrants tend to be resilient. Many have spent all that they have, their very lives, attempting to find new life in new communities.

What we tend to hear about seems anything but life-giving, though. Parents and children are separated from one another with no clear plan to reunite them. Some like to point to the potential security threats that immigrants pose. Yet, the reality is that the average processing time for a refugee seeking to enter our country is 18 months to 3 years. In that time, they go through a multi-step process, including two rigorous security clearances, an in-person interview, and a medical screening. Some refugees spend decades, even entire lives, in refugee camps. Still, we’re told, they might be dangerous people. We need to be wary.

Perhaps our “illness is in every respect a social disease.” Perhaps, just as the community that excluded our unnamed sister, we are letting our fears and our laws get in the way of life. Perhaps, like Jairus, we need to have our own very real concerns put on hold for a moment while we are invited to form new, life-giving relationships with those whom we are tempted to exclude from our country, our neighborhoods, our families, our workplaces, and even our church. The healing we all need can be difficult work, but together, we have the resilient, hopeful faith we need to enter into it.

I’ve seen that faith firsthand, in the words and actions of our youth, as we traveled together. I could tell you stories about these wonderful young people all day long, but for now I’ll share two.

On the Wednesday of our trip, one of the ministry sites we worked with, The Magdalene Project, located in a poor neighborhood of Niagara Falls, served a community lunch. Our youth were engaged in everything from setting up tables and chairs outside, to grilling, to making chicken salad and sides in the kitchen, to setting out tables and racks of clothing for people to shop from. While lunch was being served, a deaf gentleman arrived and went through the serving line, pointing to the things he wanted and making faces at the things he didn’t. We could communicate but not easily or clearly. He found a table and sat by himself to eat his lunch. One of our youth, who is learning American Sign Language, joined the man at his table and entered into conversation with him. While she’s not yet fully fluent and felt a little self-conscious, she embraced the vulnerability of the moment and shared a meaningful conversation with him, helping to bridge our communal gap. It was a beautiful moment, and I saw healing happening in the inclusivity of that conversation.

That same afternoon, part of the group was invited to join Joanne, the leader of the Magdalene Project in doing some street outreach. I have to admit that I had some concerns about what exactly that might entail, and to be honest, those concerns were part of the reason I insisted on going along. I’m so glad I did. The plan was simple. Go out, engage with people, share information about some of the weekday children’s programming, listen to people’s stories, and pray with anyone who wants to.

One of the first encounters we had that afternoon will stick with me forever. We saw a young couple sitting on their second story porch and said hello. They knew Joanne and were glad to catch her up on their news. Their triplets had just been born the previous weekend, and they were thrilled. Well wishes were being shared, and they invited the whole group up to meet the babies. So, up we went. Soon, one of the babies was in Joanne’s arms, one was in their mom’s arms, and the third was passed to one of our youth. Tears came to the youth’s eyes as she held the tiny newborn.

When I asked if I could share her story and what that moment meant to her, she shared this beautiful little sermon: “I felt overwhelmed that a complete stranger had let me hold their child that was not even a week old. I also felt extreme trust as I had no relation to this family that had not only welcomed me into their home but let me hold their child. I was so overwhelmed with joy and excitement that I was holding a child that one day would have their own accomplishments and maybe go on mission trips, that they would get the same experience that I did.”

Friends, our youth are already helping to show us what life-giving, healing community looks like. That’s what we’re called to enter into with all people. That’s the antidote to our “illness that is in every respect a social disease.” We all have very real concerns and agendas in our lives; sometimes we need to put those things on hold for a moment, so that we can look up, see the other, hear the other’s story, and in the process share the healing and wholeness of the community God desires for all people.                      Thanks be to God! Amen.

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