Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Other Side

A Sermon Preached on June 28, 2015 at First United Church of Christ, Richmond, Michigan.  On Mark 5:21-43.

When Martin Luther King came to suburban Gross Pointe, just across the eastern border of Detroit, he introduced his mostly white audience to “the Other America” which he described had “a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

His speech, given just 3 weeks before his murder in Memphis, was rudely interrupted twice by white protestors spewing their disgust. King listened, and then lamented that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus takes his disciples to “the other side” of the lake (4:35ff). Not once, but twice (6:45ff). They journeyed to Gentile territory, confronted with people who look different, talk different, eat different, worship different. Today, we might say the other side of the tracks. In Detroit: the other side of 8 Mile. The disciples barely survived a stormy sea on their trek to the country of the Gerasenes where they came upon a man possessed by the Spirit of imperial violence (“Legion”).

The first trip to “the other side” was so traumatic, that Jesus had to force his disciples into the boat the second time around. The message of these “get in the boat” Gospel episodes is clear: following Jesus’ Way is enacting King’s Dream, requiring a commitment to justice and humanity for those on “the other side,” not just tranquility and the status quo for ourselves.

At the beginning of this week’s episode in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples “crossed again in the boat to the other side” of the sea.  They have returned to the Jewish side. As he arrives on the shore, he is immediately confronted by issues of class and gender.  The privileged male religious leader, who goes by the name of Jairus, fell at his feet reverently and asked Jesus to come heal his daughter.  His privileged position in society secures for him the audacity to ask.  Jesus agrees and there’s a sense of urgency: the 12-year-old, just at the age when she starts to menstruate, just on the verge of becoming a woman, is on her death bed.

Just then, as the crowd presses in on Jesus, we are introduced to a woman—unnamed!—who hasn’t stopped menstruating since the day the 12-year-old girl was born, making her ritually and socially unclean in society. Most of us don’t have Leviticus 15 memorized, so I’ll provide a reminder (starting at verse 19): 

When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean.

It keeps going too:

Here’s verse 25: If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, for all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean…

She’s not only socially unacceptable, she’s a lawbreaker.  She’s legally toxic!  This unnamed, unclean woman mumbled to herself, sneaking up behind Jesus to touch him, no doubt gripped with the fear of being discovered in public.  This was risky faith indeed. 

But her faith didn’t stop there, when she was discovered, she told him the whole truth—about her breaking the law to sneak up on Jesus and get healed, but also about how, over the last dozen years, she had spent all she had paying doctors who could not heal her.  The healthcare system was broken back then too.  She told him the whole truth. 

The truth-telling of this unnamed, unclean woman shimmers for me in the work of the Detroit-based non-profit We The People of Detroit, led by five African-American women themselves straddling the poverty line in their advocacy for victims of water shut-offs.  Lindsay and I have joined them canvassing neighborhoods, working the water hotline and organizing weekly 30-gallon water deliveries mostly to households of women and children. 

We’ve delivered more than 1000 gallons of water and only one resident has been white.  We’ve had an opportunity to see firsthand that what Dr. King lamented almost 50 years ago is still true today.  Following the lead of this unnamed, unclean woman in the Gospel and of these five bold African-American women in Detroit, we are here to tell the whole truth about what we’ve seen—hundreds of thousands of black Detroiters barely surviving abject poverty:   

-massive job loss (post ’07),
-pay cuts,
-slashed pensions,
-skyrocketing medical bills,
-bloated heating bills,
-the highest water rates in the state,
-predatory mortgage lending,
-property taxes over inflated,
-auto insurance more than double that of the suburbs,
-abysmal schools,
-pitiful public transportation,
-meager access to nutritious food,
-a continuation of de facto systemic racism—especially with job interviews, bank loans and the criminal justice system. 

Although city leaders continue to portray water shut-offs as an issue of personal responsibility, we have become compelled that the vast majority of residents who are more than $150 or 2 months behind on their payments are victims of the System.  To add insult to injury, this year about 100,000 Detroiters will be getting tax foreclosure eviction notices for failure to keep up with the bills, many of them bludgeoned by city-administered interest rates higher than a credit card.  Each of these Detroiters mirrors the unnamed, unclean woman: she had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

It’s important, I think, to make clear the contrasts between the powerful male Jairus and the unnamed, unclean woman because this social context helps us understand, that while Jesus is treating symptoms, he’s also exposing and calling out systems.  Jesus is defying the law.  He’s going up against what all the Bible clearly demands for a menstruating woman. He is breaking down what Paul’s letter to the Ephesians calls “the wall of hostility” that divides us. 

Jesus chips away at this barrier not only by healing her, but calling her “Daughter.”  He is including her as a faithful daughter of Israel and bestowing equal status with Jairus’ daughter.  How is this for a literary transition:

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead.    

The privilege and power of Jairus, however, does not diminish just how precious life is on the other side of town.  The kingdom of God proclaimed by God sets about healing illness and resisting death, regardless of race and class. When Jesus arrived at Jairus’ house, he enters another crowded space and assures them: The child is not dead but sleeping.

Sleep is an important teaching concept in Mark’s Gospel.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks of the farmer waking up to the mysterious work of God who produces the harvest.  Then Jesus falls asleep in the boat during a major storm.  He wakes up to calm the sea.  At the end of the Gospel, the disciples fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prays.  Jesus’ command to them: Stay awake. 

In the context of how sleep is used in the Gospel, perhaps this episode is teaching us that disciples of Jesus, true daughters of Israel, are those who awaken to social & economic issues in our own society, to take time to notice those whom society has deemed unclean, who have been bankrupted by the system.  Perhaps it calls us to wake up and help stop the bleeding?

This episode raised four questions for me as I studied it this week.  I humbly share them with you this morning—we can take personal inventory, but we can also address these as a community of people who proclaim that God is still speaking:

1.    When we find ourselves in the disciples, we must ask: what does it look like for us to journey with Jesus to the other side and back and what are some creative ways that we might chip away at this “wall of hostility” built by race and class?

2.    When we find ourselves in the hemorrhaging woman, we must ask: who in our country, our city, our neighborhood and congregation, do we unjustly categorize as unclean?  

3.    When we find ourselves in Jairus, we must ask: who does society privilege and what are ways that we benefit from this injustice?

4.    When we find ourselves in the crowd of mourning friends and family of Jairus, we must ask: what are ways that we, too, anxiously laugh off valiant attempts to bring hope in the midst of death and despair? Can we muster the courage to have faith that God will make a way out of no way? 

May God grant us the time, energy, strength, wisdom, discernment, grace and tenderness to ponder and meditate on these and others in the week to come.  Amen.   

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