Hope’s Song (Lamentations 3:22-29; Mark 5:21-43)
Some of you grew up singing the old favourite song “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” as I did. The title and some of the words draw on a biblical passage that stands out as something different in the midst of a complex response to tragedy that is the Old Testament Book of Lamentations. The five poems of this collection are laments that respond, at a deeply visceral and personal level, to the tragedy of the Fall and Destruction of Judah in 587 BCE that literally tore their highest values to shreds. They didn’t believe that they could lose their country by betraying their values, but they did. Since four of the five poems in this collection progress, section by section, through the Hebrew alphabet concerning this grief, they provide an A to Z (or aleph to tau) of grief and lament. Indeed, it’s almost as though these A to Z’s of grief and lamentation were intended to inspire responses to tragedies well beyond the one that birthed them. One of my favourite book on Lamentations is called Lamentations and the Tears of the World (by Kathleen O’Connor, which I recommend) who sees this clearly. She holds that Lamentations gives voice, not only to the tears of ancient Judah, but those of the world.
What is the worst thing that has ever happened, or is happening, to you, or to us? Only you can answer for you, but for me, it is the polarization, unkindness, and lack of charity that is consuming us by teaching us to fear and then give us enemies as foci of that fear, and, finally, to morph that fear into hate. The starkly realistic images of torture, devastation, rape, violence, and desolation in Lamentations are intended to be grist for your own imagined response. In the middle of the five chapters of despair, tears, anger, and hopelessness are these words: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”
In that little English word “but” is contained all the bad things that have ever happened and still happen. In contrast to the bitterness, fear, and anger that disaster, tragedy, yes, and villains bring out of us all there is “but.” There is “nevertheless.” On the other side of life’s ledger is a thing called “hope,” as a slender counter-balance to the numbing reality of the dust of tragedy in life. Some of you will know these lines from Emily Dickenson:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all…
Now hope is not the same thing as actual rescue, recovery, or wholeness. Hope is not “there, there, you’ll be all right.” Hope does not insult the intelligence of sufferers by trying to explain life by blaming ourselves or the devil. Hope is not even sending our thoughts and prayers to those who suffer. In fact, we read, later in this same biblical poem “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” What remembrance is it that summons fragile, feathery, inexplicable hope in the midst of the worst? Just this:
The steadfast love of the LORD is never over, God’s mercies never run out; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Please grasp that the poet does understand that hope is not deliverance, and is not saying that reciting this theological affirmation will make it all better, and make the hurt stop, or take away the disasters of life. Life isn’t that simple. It’s not about repeating the words of a particular prayer or going through this or that religious act. Hope is not deliverance! This poet did not claim an experience of God’s steadfast love at this point, nor were God’s unending mercies, renewed daily, something well-known. Indeed, there are two and a half chapters of responses to tragedy both before and after these words that show the ethereal, “feathery” nature of hope. It’s conflicted, fragile, and not easy. But even the remembrance of God’s steadfast covenant love and loyalty, causes the fluttering of hope as it sings the tune of mercy, but with no words, of the far off possibility of healing. That’s hope: a claiming of God’s goodness arising out of the ashes of the worst. That’s it from the inside.
The Gospel Lesson this morning gives us two signs pointing to such hope. Last week we spoke of Jesus and the disciples in the same boat as they encountered storms and dangers sailing to the other side of the Lake of Galilee where the outcasts were. On the other side, in the first section of chapter 5, which we didn’t read today, is the remarkable story of a deeply troubled man named Legion (in that day it was called demon possession) to whom Jesus brought not only hope, but also deliverance. In the passage we did read, Jesus and the disciples cross back to the side on which they started and find the need for hope and wholeness no less real at home. Mark has put two healing stories together by burying one within the other. At the beginning and the end, we find that Jesus is involved in healing the daughter of an important Jewish official in his local synagogue whose name was Jairus. Jesus actually ended up raising this twelve year old from the dead. Buried inside the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter is another one; the woman with the hemorrhage, and I want to talk about her in a few minutes.
We might think that the point of all of these stories is that Jesus is powerful, that he can work miracles; mighty acts with “wow value.” That’s not why Mark offers these stories to disciples struggling for hope in his day and ours. If it were just the miraculous that was important, Jesus would have been just one of many wonder-workers contemporary with him. We know about several of these through secular sources from the time.
To understand the point of these stories, we need to listen to what anthropologists are telling us about ancient Palestinian society (and other similar ones). Such societies operated with key values of “shame and honour.” The people who were “successful” in society were those who knew how to win honour. Those who were “unsuccessful” brought shame on themselves by losing honour. If people brought shame or honour on themselves, they also brought it on their various social groups (family, clan, tribe, town, etc.). In Jewish life, the system of “clean and unclean” interlocked with this system of shame and honour. Clean things brought honour, unclean brought shame.
In the Old Testament many things made people unclean. Certain food had to be avoided. Having a disease or coming near people with one, or issues of blood made one unclean. Contact with dead bodies made one unclean. This is one way to teach fear. To maintain its honour a family had to isolate itself from unclean people (now the focus of fear), or they too would become unclean and be isolated from their community. Poor Legion, the demon possessed man, was isolated from the community, Jairus’ daughter was isolated in her sickroom, and, had her death been final, she would, of course, have been isolated in a tomb. The woman with the hemorrhage had literally been unclean for a dozen years, and would have been unable to take any part in community affairs – and, of course, as a woman in this ancient culture, her role was limited anyway. In addition to the physical suffering and embarrassment she felt, she would have been isolated from any participation in society, or contact with any but other unclean people. The way Mark buries this story within another one, and doesn’t even give this woman a name, shows how that woman was buried, marginalized, depersonalized and invisible within her culture – maybe even invisible to herself after twelve years. She, Jairus’ daughter, and Legion were all isolated, unclean and without hope. They were the objects of fear. Jesus did not only offer physical healing, but re-integration into community which meant life and hope.
Let me get back to that woman with the hemorrhage. This poor so-called unclean woman, embarrassed and marginalized, had heard of this rabbi named Jeshua. In Mark’s day, it was commonly thought that even the clothes of a powerful healer had power. She thought if she could just get close enough to touch his clothes, she’d be restored. She did. Jesus turned and said the strangest thing, “Who touched me?” In the thronging crowd, even his disciples knew what a wild question that was? I wonder how many folk wondered whether Jesus wanted to know so he could determine what kind of person it was that touched him, and whether he was now unclean from contact, or could be justified in having this feared person further isolated. From the description of this woman’s response, can you hear her fear and embarrassment? She hadn’t thought it was wrong, but apparently it was, again. She was used to being ignored and wrong. That Jesus couldn’t find out who touched him wasn’t surprising. No one knew that woman, though they might have seen her many times. She had been turned into an object of fear, so who would want to touch her? It turns out that Jesus wanted to know who touched him, not to know whether she was clean or unclean, or whether she had a right to approach him. Jesus wanted to know her. He said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go, in peace,” and, to get the flavour of the Greek, “Your healing from disease will continue.” It’s no temporary fix. Jesus saw the woman no one else could see.
Elsewhere, Jesus makes it clear that God’s vision sees all those who are at the margin. In fact, it seems they fill God’s vision rather more than those who claim privilege and claim not to see the suffering, unclean, terrorized ones. Jesus brought all three of the invisible folk in this chapter to visibility. He also brought them out of hiding and isolation, into community, and into hope.
I would suggest to you this morning that the community of Jesus has the task of integrating those who have experienced rejection and grief into (or back into) a community of faith to learn hope’s song. The community of Jesus is not concerned about whether the people to whom it reaches out are clean or unclean, or will wreck our reputation if we touch them. We have sometimes been taught that unless people are perfect first, we shouldn’t be around them. That’s not what I see in Jesus. What I see is a community that isn’t afraid to reach out to those with questions, those who have been rejected and told they’re unclean, those who are suffering. I see a community that can be the embodiment of feathery, fragile, ethereal hope. We may not be perfect at this, because we are ourselves just learning hope’s song, and are far from wholeness ourselves. I suggest that, like that hope in Emily Dickenson’s poem, we in the community of faith need to sing the tune without the words – in short we need to act in ways that reject absolutely the efforts that many make to perpetrate fear, first as a general idea, then as aimed at specific people to marginalize. The most common command in the Bible is “fear not, stop being afraid.” Further the community of Jesus embraces these very feared and hated ones to enable them (and us) to remember something that may have lain dormant in the back of their minds, and ours:
The steadfast love of the LORD is never over, God’s mercies never run out; they are new every morning.
One thing we do together, month by month, is celebrate the Lord’s Supper round this table, sharing in the one bread and one cup that symbolizes the one body of Jesus that was given on our behalf, but also the one body of Christ that is the church, the community of Jesus in the world. As we invite you to join around that table, remember God’s steadfast, inexhaustible love and loyalty. And remember that we are called to embody that same loyalty, and so, to help one another live into real strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.