Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 4 2012

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24
2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15
Mark 5:21-43

Don’t do that. Don’t touch that. It’s dirty. I wonder how old we were when we first heard those words, or something like them. As children we quickly learn that things called “dirty” are forbidden, taboo. And most of the time of course we hope that grown-ups are trying to teach children sensible habits of hygiene. 
But “dirty” is a powerful word. It can come to be associated with other forbidden things that have nothing to do with physical cleanliness. In particular sex and foreignness. That behaviour is dirty. Those people are dirty. Subconsciously “dirty” becomes attached to anything and anyone we don’t like. It draws a boundary to separate us from people we imagine are different from us. And deep down it perhaps names parts of ourselves that we deny, because to acknowledge them would make us the same as those other people we don’t want to be like.
That visceral sense of someone being “dirty” is probably the nearest that most of us can get to something that lies behind today’s gospel story. It is set in a world governed by ritual law defining what is clean and unclean. In that world those who are unclean are excluded from society.
And uncleanness was contagious, transmitted by touch. You only had to touch someone or something who was unclean and you became unclean yourself. This is why people who were unclean were segregated.
So when Jesus asked “who touched me?” he was asking a question fraught with anxiety. Particularly in a crowd, with people you don’t know. Might some unclean person have found their way in?
And in this case, that is exactly what has happened. The woman who is suffering from haemorrhages had a menstrual disorder causing excessive bleeding. This was a disaster for her, not only because it made her ill through blood loss, but because it made her permanently unclean. She was a permanent outcast from society because of her bleeding.
So for her to force her way into a crowd was a scandalous offence. For her to touch a rabbi, a holy man, was even more shocking. And she knows the magnitude of what she has done because in fear and trembling she falls down before Jesus and confesses all.
You can imagine the revulsion of the crowd. This dirty woman has pushed her way among them, rubbing against them, and has touched the rabbi. And what does Jesus say to her?
“Daughter.” Daughter. He addresses her as someone who belongs, who is part of his family. His first word to her says “there is no barrier separating you and me”. He welcomes her back into the society that had shut her out.
But more than that she is healed of her disease. Power flows from Jesus, reversing the contagion of uncleanness. Jesus seems instead to have a contagion of life and healing which is more powerful than that of dirtiness and exclusion. 
And although it is the power of Jesus which has healed her, it is the woman herself who has taken the initiative. Her faith has led her to push her way through the crowd, to break the religious taboo, to touch Jesus. But it is Jesus who says she is healed and made whole.
All this takes place while Jesus is on his way to the house of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. He is an important person, very much part of the community; yet he too has fallen at Jesus’ feet to ask for the healing of his daughter. But, while they are on the way, his daughter has died. And the people say, “don’t bother the rabbi any more”. Why would they say this? Perhaps their faith isn’t enough to imagine that Jesus could raise the dead. But perhaps also because the girl is now a dead body, and corpses were also ritually unclean. You wouldn’t ask a revered rabbi to enter a house where there was a dead body. The daughter of Jairus is now the other side of a ritual boundary of exclusion. 
But this does not matter to Jesus. He goes in and touches the dead girl, taking her by the hand. And once again the contagion of uncleanness is reversed: instead of Jesus being contaminated by the corpse, life and healing flow from him. The girl is raised to life.
We’re told that she is twelve years old. That was the age at which girls were deemed to be legally adults. The law of Moses, including all the ritual purity rules, applied from that age. It’s surely significant that it was just as this girl became subject to the purity laws, that she died. Just as the woman with the haemorrhage had been suffering the social death of an outcast for twelve years, because of the purity laws. 
The symbolism here is that these rules of inclusion and exclusion bring death. They stop people living and flourishing in the community of God’s people. And Jesus overcomes all that. Jesus crosses the boundaries that he shouldn’t cross, he touches and is touched by the excluded people. And they are made clean and whole and restored to society. 
Jesus overcomes the contagion of uncleanness with his own, more powerful, contagion of life and love. He draws people to him, cutting across the boundaries which were supposed to keep them away.
We need to ask where those boundaries are in our own day. Where are the barriers in our society that keep people from flourishing? We live in a prosperous city, by world standards, but there are many people on the margins. People like Joanne, a homeless woman I know who often sits on the streets around Euston. As the Olympics approach, her experience is that she and other homeless people are increasingly being stopped by police, arrested, moved on, driven out of the centre of the city. For some it seems that “cleaning up the streets” means more than scrubbing off graffiti and weeding the flower beds. 
This matters, because the Gospel is about the Kingdom of God in which all human beings are called to dwell together. It matters because Jesus still today crosses the boundaries that are meant to keep people out.
We value this church building as a place of welcome, and many people indeed find it to be so, a place of prayer and sanctuary as well as a meeting space which is used by the wider community. But most of the people who live in the area are not with us for Mass today. Of course we don’t want to force people in against their will. But we do need to make sure that there are no invisible barriers keeping out people who want to come in.
What we do in church is culturally quite strange for most people today. Making responses, singing hymns, bowing and genuflecting, do not come naturally. And add to that all the subliminal expectations about how people are supposed to dress or behave when they come to church. We think these things are traditional but actually most of them are quite recent. I fear that many people don’t come because they simply assume that they wouldn’t belong. 
But the mission of Jesus is to draw everyone into God’s kingdom, and the church is the bearer of that mission. There is nobody who is “dirty”, unclean, outside, nobody who doesn’t belong. So we do need to take a critical look at what we do, both as a community in this city and as the community of the Church. We do need to ask whether what is comfortable for us is not a barrier for others.
We who were once far off have been welcomed by Jesus into the new life of his kingdom. And we cannot but welcome others, too.

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