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The Miracle of Touching the Untouchable

A sermon on Mark 5:21-43

As part of a sermon on today’s gospel passage, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor wrote the following:

“The problem with miracles is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own…”[1]

This week I re-read Taylor’s full sermon, and that sentence about “the problem with miracles” felt like a sigh of recognition and relief… because she had admitted it for me. Admitted the problem, the challenge of these two beautiful healing stories.

I have always loved this pairing of stories because of the ways that they validates the oppressed and stigmatized woman – the miracle part of it was never what was important to me. But in preparing to preach these stories for our community, I am confronted by the problem with miracles… because I can’t ignore that there is need for a few miracles in our community. Many of you have trusted me with the pains and the needs in your lives, and I pray for these needs – I pray for miracles… but sometimes I struggle with how to craft those prayers. Because I am conscious of the dangers inherent in praying for miracles:

The danger of putting God to the test, of making our faith dependent on whether or not God comes through with the desired outcome.

And the even more pernicious danger of putting ourselves to the test, of believing that there is some secret formula of faith that we have to master in order to access our miracle.

As Taylor describes in her sermon, “We (religious types) comb through the miracle stories to find out who did what right and who did what wrong so that we can learn from their experience….Only most of the time this is hard to do, because God rarely does anything the same way twice.”[2]

Of course, in this story, Jesus does seem to repeat a formula. He even breaks it down into a memorable five-word phrase: “do not fear, only believe.” The woman with the hemorrhage has faith and overcomes her fear to admit what she has done, and she is healed. Jairus overcomes his fear after the report of his daughter’s death, and follows Jesus in faith, and his daughter is healed. “Do not fear, only believe” sure sounds like a formula for miracles.

But, if we read the stories this way, as a formula for miracles, we risk doing great damage to the people in our lives who need a miracle. Because if it’s as simple as a formula, then that means the miracle is dependent on us – on what we do. And that hurts us in two ways:

First, it makes it our fault if we don’t get our miracle. And if we don’t get our miracle, the LAST thing we need is the added pain of blame.

Second, it makes us idolaters, because it turns God into a puppet that we control, based on our faith. We put our trust in our faith, and not in God, as the source of the miracle.

But, if the point of these paired gospel stories is NOT to give us a formula for miracles, then what is the point? What does it teach us?

I think the lesson in these two stories, and the reason they are paired together, is to serve as a reminder of what miracles really are: Miracles are a crossing of boundaries.

an incursion of the kingdom of God – God’s way of doing things – into our broken world;

a glimpse of who God is that is so different from who we are;

a foretaste of what we have been promised, to remind us that what we see, here and now, is not all there is.

This story starts with what seems like a throw-away mention: that Jesus has just “crossed… to the other side” of the Sea of Galilea. But, far from being a throw-away verse, this description of crossing-over orients us to the kind of movement we are supposed to be looking for; It clues us into the theme of boundary crossing that weaves these two stories together.

Jesus crosses over, and then we witness boundary after boundary being transgressed:

Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, crosses the boundary of social and religious status by throwing himself at the feet of an itinerant preacher and begging for his help.

The woman crosses the boundaries of religious purity laws by pushing her way through the crowd – when this is forbidden because her menstruation makes her ritually unclean and thus she defiles everyone she touches, according to religious law. The rules of ritual purity make her untouchable, but she touches anyway.

She further violates expectations by not asking for a healing, but just taking it for herself – the untouchable woman touches Jesus’s robe in order to be touched by his power, perhaps because asking for a healing would mean admitting that she wasn’t supposed to be there. And after losing everything she has, she cannot take one more risk.

And then Jesus! Jesus crosses all these boundaries too.

He halts on his way to meet the urgent need of the high-status man, in order to talk to the low-status woman who has already been healed;

He does not rebuke her for her flouting of religious law, but rather affirms her faith and calls her daughter – restoring her value in the community;

And then he goes on his way to heal Jairus’s daughter, even though he and the whole crowd now know that he has been ritually defiled –he publicly flouts the rules about how a holy man is supposed to purify himself before carrying on with his religious duties.

And then, of course, he flouts death itself. He crosses the boundary between death and life, to bring a girl back to her family – not as a public display of power, but as a simple act of compassion. Because losing a child is devastating.

Read with attention to all of the boundary-crossings, these stories are the OPPOSITE of a formula for miracles – in these stories, miracles look like all the rules being broken! They look like stepping out of line, violating expectations, and touching the untouchable, because God doesn’t care about the rules; God cares about the needs.

The rules of power, and social status, and religious duty are things that human being create to force order onto a broken, chaotic world. But miracles are about God’s way breaking into our mess and disrupting our attempts to keep everything in its place – because sometimes our rules for “order” end up doing harm.

Rule-breaking miracles are not things we can summon at will. We can’t control how or when God acts, but we CAN learn from them. These miracle stories won’t teach us a formula for ensuring our own miracle, but they will teach us to recognize the way that God acts, so that we can break free from the bonds of “how things are done” and live according to God’s way instead.

In these stories I see an invitation to re-examine the boundaries that limit us: expectations that limit our experience of how God shows up, or that limit our ability to respond to the needs of others the way that Jesus has modelled for us.

I’m sure you can probably come up with examples of these kinds of boundaries – spoken or unspoken rules about the needs we’re not supposed to talk about, or the people who don’t deserve our help. In the wake of two high-profile suicides a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a lot about how our society tells us we are not supposed to admit when we are suffering from mental illness.

It’s easy to ask for prayer for medical crises, but so much harder to admit we are struggling with depression, or anxiety, or eating disorders. As a person who has lived with all three of those things, I know the fear that admitting them will mean I am treated as “unclean” in our culture.

And there are other conditions of life as well that polite society tries to ignore, because they make people uncomfortable. Nice people don’t talk about financial struggles, or marital problems, or addictions, or sexual assaults, or violence in our homes, or so many other sources of stigma. There are social boundaries in place that we all know we cannot cross because that transgression will risk making us untouchable.

But the real miracle of today’s gospel reading is the message that no one is untouchable to Jesus.

Not a woman who is ritually unclean and openly defiant of the law;

Not a man of status who grovels on the ground and humiliates himself in desperation;

Not a dead girl for whom all hope is lost;

Not you; and not the person next to you.

Miracles are about God crossing all the boundaries that we think are impenetrable and bringing healing where it seems impossible. They are about God touching the untouchable, and teaching us how to do the same. It’s both an incredible hope, and a terrifying charge. To follow the example of these stories and to cross the boundaries that operate in our time and place. To talk about the problems we aren’t supposed to talk about. To respond with affirmations of faith and identity that tell the unofficial untouchables “you are part of this family.”

Boundary-crossing is a lot more difficult than a simple formula of “do not fear, only believe.” But when we cross those boundaries we are participating in a miracle. Because God’s way breaking into our mess doesn’t care about the boundaries. God only cares about the healing.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997, p. 137.

[2] ibid.

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