5th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Stephen Shaver - June 28, 2015

What a week it’s been for justice.

First the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, averting economic chaos and the loss of health care for several million people.

And then, as it turned out, that was the prelude to an even more historic decision on Friday. Today everyone in this country can legally marry the person they love, from California and Massachusetts to Mississippi and Tennessee. Who would have thought fifteen years ago that we would be saying that today? God’s Spirit has been blowing and today this country is the better for it: we are that much closer to this nation’s stated ideal that say we believe all people are created equal.

And even in our own Episcopal Church history was made yesterday as our House of Bishops elected Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop, the first time a Presiding Bishop has ever been elected on the very first ballot and the first-ever African American to serve as chief pastor of our church. There have been some new winds blowing through the church and the world this week. Thanks be to God.

And we know there’s still far to go, don’t we? In the aftermath of Charleston, in the aftermath of so many other acts of violence and oppression against people of color; in an era of continually increasing income inequality, when the middle class continues to shrink and the poor are ignored altogether or stigmatized by our culture’s ideology of individual achievement; it doesn’t take much to notice that in practice, even in this country that is blessed in so many ways, some are more equal than others. The conscious and unconscious systems are all still with us that reward whiteness and maleness and straightness and educatedness and richness and thinness and physical ability and so many other dimensions of privilege. But today I’m thankful for some great victories and some great blessings. And I hope the rejoicing many of us feel will inspire us to keep praying and working for more and more unfolding of God’s justice for everyone.

We live in a different place and time from first-century Roman Galilee—yet not so different in a lot of ways. Today Mark offers us this double healing story, one story sandwiched within another in a way very characteristic of Mark’s gospel. Mark does this kind of sandwiching a number of times and it’s always a clue that the two stories are meant to be read together. And in this double story we meet Jesus living in a society a lot like ours, where some people are more equal than others.

First we meet a man of some importance: Jairus. He’s a religious leader. He has stature in society. He’s male. He has access to Jesus: he can walk right up to him and make his request.

Next we meet a woman who’s on the opposite end of almost every status dimension: She’s female. She’s poor—the story tells us so; in fact, it specifically tells us she’s exhausted her financial resources trying to get healthcare. How much more relevant can scripture possibly be for us today? And, because of the nature of her disease, she’s ritually unclean, living at the margins of religious and social life. Unlike Jairus, we don’t know her name—presumably no one remembered it. Unlike Jairus, she doesn’t have access: she can’t presume she can just walk right up to Jesus. Instead she has to work the system the best way she can. I imagine her as a modern-day woman with two minimum-wage jobs, no car, and no sick leave, showing up at the doctor’s office without an appointment because that was when she could get unpaid time off work and navigate an hourlong bus ride to be there. When you don’t have access, sometimes your best bet is just to show up and try to find a way to get what you need—authorized or unauthorized. And that’s exactly what she does as she steals up behind Jesus to touch his clothes.

Notice what Jesus does. He stops. He speaks to her in the middle of the crowd. He could have said nothing and just let her slip away, healed and still anonymous. But instead he praises her in the middle of the crowd for her faith and declares that she has been healed out loud for the whole town to hear. He changes her status in public. Gently, respectfully, he brings her out of the shadows, out of secrecy, away from the margins and into society as a full member of the community. How much more relevant can scripture possibly be for us today?

And he does all this while Jairus, the respectable churchman, is kept waiting. It’s a kind of reversal, a kind of acting out of the prophetic song his mother Mary sang while Jesus was still in utero: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, who has looked with favor on a lowly servant; who has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

But of course he doesn’t end by sending Jairus away empty either. This isn’t a zero-sum story where the woman is good and Jairus is the bad guy. Jairus may have more power than the woman, but he too knows his deep need. He shows it when he comes up and prostrates himself in front of Jesus, this wandering preacher. His respectability and privilege are suddenly worth very little in the face of one of the most heart-wrenching and devastating tragedies any of us knows: the death of a child.

Why do we die? Why do people we love die? Why do good people suffer? Our need for God is maybe nowhere more intense than in the face of the existential crisis of what it means to live in a world where we all suffer, we all die, and the universe writ large doesn’t seem to care.

We cry out for our own small lives and the lives of those we love to matter. We need healing for those deep experiences of suffering which we can’t justify and of which we will never be able to make sense. Natural disasters; random accidents and disease; the fragility of our lives in all these situations is magnified by human injustice, from Katrina to Ebola. But even if somehow we could abolish all our human systems of oppression tomorrow, we would still experience this kind of tragic suffering.

We didn’t ask to be put into a world like this, where good people suffer, where children sicken and die. But here we are. And we need a God who can speak a word of healing and affirm that our lives matter. We need to hear that our destiny isn’t to be alone in an empty and absurd universe but to be known and loved beyond measure by a God who has power even over death itself.

So Jairus comes and pleads for healing. And in that experience, I’d like to think he comes to at least glimpse some of his common humanity—his equality, in the deepest sense—with the unnamed woman as they both stand together before Jesus looking for a saving word and a healing touch. And that’s exactly what Jesus offers each of them. “Daughter, your faith has given you salvation.” “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I believe it’s that deep experience of our radical equality before God that should be the source of our motivation to act to change structures of oppression. Not out of self-congratulatory righteousness, nor out of coercion or guilt. But out of a radical recognition of our common humanity and our shared deep need for salvation. If we recognize that shared identity with all those whom God has made, we’ll start to realize that our salvation is bound up with that of all our siblings. If we know that through Jesus God has taken away the power of death itself, we’ll start to realize that nothing can stand between us and God’s love—and that love extends, simply, to everyone.

This Sunday, this Pride weekend, this new season in the life of our country, recognize your deep equality with all other children of God. Give generously, serve those who suffer, work to transform society. Do it not out of self-righteousness nor out of shame, but out of gratitude for a God who offers us healing and salvation, abundantly and for free.