Rev Kate MacDonald
Associate Minister St Andrews Jerusalem & Tiberias
Pentecost 6 Year B 1 July 2018
Lamentations 3:22-33, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43
DO NOT FEAR, ONLY BELIEVE
When I was back in Edinburgh, the church I served was in the heart of the city and came with all the challenges of city centre ministry. My doorbell was rung at all hours of day and night by people — some looking for pastoral guidance, some for food, but most for money. I heard all manner of heart-wrenching stories — stories of addiction, unemployment, family breakdown, illness, bereavement.
With each encounter, the words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel echoed in my head:
‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
This is what we are taught, is it not? To see Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned.
One of my predecessors had moved on from that city centre church to a church in the Scottish Borders, to a town of landed gentry, retired doctors and lawyers, people of good breeding and private education. And I remember the comments made by others in the early days of his ministry there. Words like ‘safe’, ‘privileged’, ‘acceptable’ were used to describe those for whom he had pastoral care. It was quite the contrast to the edgy ministry amongst Edinburgh’s shady marginalised underclass…
But he was wise and a good priest, and his response was always: ‘Well, posh people need the Good News of Jesus too’. And sure enough, as he got to know those he was ministering to, he quickly learned — or was reminded — that alcoholism, drug abuse, cancer, divorce, and death afflict the rich and the poor alike. The thin veneer of wealth and privilege and acceptability hid a poverty of spirit which was to him all too familiar.
And this makes me think that one of the great challenges we face as we read the scriptures is our own personal bias. We naturally contextualise the stories we hear, and that is how we end up with the conflicting narratives of — for example — the prosperity gospel, which claims wealth and power are God’s blessing upon the righteous, and the social gospel, which claims God’s preferential treatment of the poor.
But actually, the gospel passage we heard from Mark today challenges both of those interpretations.
On the one hand, we have Jairus. What we know from what Mark tells us is this: He is a man. He is named. He is a religious leader. What we can infer is this: He is likely ritually pure and culturally accepted. In short: He is privileged and acceptable.
On the other hand, we have the woman. What we know from what Mark tells us is this: She is … well, a woman. She is un-named. She is poor because she’s spent all her money looking for a cure. What we can infer is this: Because of her condition, she is likely ritually impure and has probably lived on the margins for the twelve years she has suffered from the bleeding. In short: She has no privilege and is likely not exactly culturally acceptable.
These two characters whose stories Mark intertwines could not be more different.
And in placing their stories side by side, Mark seems to acknowledge our inherent need to categorise, to draw boundaries. Who is in? Who is out? Who is powerful? Who is weak? Who is privileged? Who is marginalised? Who is deserving? Who is not?
When we stop to think about it, this is a deeply challenging passage. How often do we, when faced with the needs of others, create in our minds — and then in our actions — a hierarchy of suffering?
And then, often do we allow our personal bias to be a justification to judge others? Or worse, dehumanise them? Or worst, demonise them?
But in this story, Jesus doesn’t do that.
Jesus sees them both. Jesus listens to them both. And what’s important, is that Jesus knows what they both have in common:
They both are in need.
They both are desperate.
They both are hurting.
They both fall at his feet.
They both are looking for an answer in Jesus.
And as a result, they both find healing. They both receive grace.
It is in this story that Jesus preaches, as American Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor describes it, his shortest sermon: ‘Do not fear. Only believe.’ These words are the great leveller, the equaliser because fear itself is the one thing we as human beings we are all too familiar with. They are words spoken by God throughout time: To Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, to Sarah and Hagar, to judges and kings and prophets, to a surprised young woman and a distressed new father, to shepherds and fishermen, to grieving women at an empty tomb.
This passage serves as a powerful reminder that need and desperation and hurt know no socio-economic, religious, cultural, gender boundaries. It reminds us that every single one of us will at one time or another be brought to our knees by the suffering that is part of human life and experience. Every single one of us will face some circumstance that is completely outside of our control. Every single one of us will cry out, reach out, longing for a touch, for a word, for something, someone to make it all better.
So these words are for all of us: ’Do not fear. Only believe’
What exactly this belief is, Jesus doesn’t say. But we know, don’t we? We know because the whole of our scriptures points us to it, and the first line of our reading from Lamentations sums it up: ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end’.
This is what we are to believe. In love that knows no boundaries, no categories, no hierarchy, no limits. Man or woman: if they are in need, God is there. Rich or poor: if they are desperate, God sees. Named or nameless: if they are hurting, God listens. Powerful or weak: when they fall to their knees, God lifts them up.
This is what we believe. And this is the Good News we are to share. That God is love. For everyone