Rev. Rebecca Heilman
We enter the final week of our sermon series, the Great Gathering, and as you just heard, this isn’t a story around a great meal, or a simple meal of loaves and fishes. No one is being sent out for a mission to call people to Christianity. No, this story may not obviously fit our theme of this series, of a great, grand gathering but the message of how to welcome, fully, wholesomely welcome those into our midst, welcome those as a community.
Let me tell you a story. It was the second or third time, Douglas and I went on a date, 5 years ago, or so. We were strolling down Carytown, a popular street in Richmond, VA, holding hands, enjoying a conversation, embracing those first few date butterflies. We crossed the street and I saw a gentleman on the other side waiting for us. Our eyes aligned and I noticed, he was not as put together as most folks – beaten up shoes, worn sleeves, spots on his pants. I knew it was a man experiencing homelessness and I started looking for a way out of a conversation with him. And so while I’m adjusting my body left, away from this man, Douglas veers right and walks right up to him and greets him, fully embracing the moment. The man doesn’t ask for any money, but instead asks to sing us a song. He grabs his guitar and sings a song about love, completely embarrassing me on this early date. Douglas, with his big heart, stays in conversation, inviting me into that moment, this man’s story, and this awkward song about love. Honestly, it changed my heart then and there, not only for Douglas, but for how I tend to go out of my way to not approach people who are different from me. We finally get away, both red in the face and I ask Douglas if he does that often. He shrugs and says, “yeah, I guess. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” This seminarian at the time, longing to do God’s work, had a lot still to learn.
And so like, any disciple, wanting to learn from Christ, I often view our story today from the disciple’s eyes. Once again, like most stories with the disciples involved, they must have experienced some shock and learned something. Just hours before, as they are heading towards, what they would call, the “gentile land,” Jesus calms a terrifying storm and exercises a demon from a man’s body. They observed thousands of swine racing into the sea and then they hop back into the boat to head to the other side again, the Jewish side. They were probably speechless, in awe, and maybe even rolling their eyes as to why they keep traveling back and forth. This time, when they arrive to land, instead of being greeted by a demoniac, they find an excited and intrigued crowd around them, along with a strange sight of a synagogue leader, Jairus, begging for help. Jairus falls to his knees and with desperation repeats over and over again, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” Jesus doesn’t say a word about any of that, but humbly aware of the situation, he follows Jairus towards his home.
As we know, Jesus can’t go anywhere without a crowd and our texts says that the crowd is pressed in on him. They are so close that hips are bumping into hips, shoulders into shoulders, feet stepping on toes. And within that crowd, there is a woman, who has been bleeding for 12 long years. It’s important for us readers to understand the context of what’s culturally at play in this story. While Mark does not specifically say how the woman is bleeding or that she’s unclean in any way, the culture says differently. Many people who practiced Judaism during this time would be concerned about the contamination by contact with blood, which they see as the source of life. This means, meat was cooked fully and women were separated due to their monthly menstruations. During that time, the woman and anything the blood touches is seen as unclean. This was the way of life and something for us to be aware of when reading this text and understand that it’s not that way of life for us modern Christians and many modern Jews. We also learn much more about the woman than is obviously stated because of the grammar of the ancient Greek. There are repetitive participles, a nightmare to translate in Greek 101, but an amazing revelation for our story today. According to the Greek aorist participles, the woman was wealthy at one point and because of her chronic bleeding condition, she suffered much due to the physicians who used her money for treatments and potential cures. AND she suffered much because of her social isolation from family, friends, and a potential partner in life.
And on top of that, we learn that her condition never got better, but only worse, along with her status in society, her loneliness in life, and her shame of uncleanliness. This woman was isolated from her community, an outcast, different, seen as unclean and ultimately, unwelcomed. It would have been her civic duty to ensure that she did not allow others to touch her. Her duty to stay in her social class, to not rise too far above what’s deemed to be her placement. She knew she would never be welcomed in the community as her full self, whole self, whole story, and whole bleeding condition. No one would want to welcome her in. It would disrupt the order of the religious and Greco-Roman system. She knew her placement.
And my goodness, we can relate to that today. We, as a modern world, are not the best at welcoming in those who are different than us. The Well, a Bible class we host here at Trinity, developed a phrase that goes something like this, “Go ahead and drive into the left-hand lane. Be present in the discomfort there.” We use this phrase metaphorically in many of our conversations. Because just like my opening story, it’s easier to swerve into another lane than make eye contact with someone experiencing homelessness. It’s much easier on our lives and empathizing emotions to not be drawn into the harsh stories and realities of people’s lives, even our friend’s lives. I hope you know, I’m not just talking about people who are experiencing homelessness. I’m also talking about the people who have a home, but it’s an abusive home. Or who have food, but struggle with body image. Or who enjoy nights out with friends, but wonder if their secret will be revealed. I’m talking about all of us, who may not feel connected in this world or this congregation, who may not feel fully seen. I’m talking about all of us who carry questions about faith and fears for our family. I’m talking about visitors who desperately want to know the grace of God, but don’t know how to approach a big building, with a gorgeous sanctuary but a not so gorgeous life. I’m talking about Trinity and everyday life beyond Trinity – truly, welcoming ALL in.
The Rev Nadia Bolz Weber is known for her radical welcoming Lutheran church. Bolz Weber loves traditional worship rituals, while embellishing it with her brutal honesty, sometimes foul mouth language liturgy providing her people with words we may be thinking (and we know God is hearing), but are too afraid to say out loud. She has been known to say that her most common prayer in life is, “God, please help me not be an A-hole.” She’s not the typical pastor you would imagine in the pulpit. She’s covered in tattoos, a recovering alcoholic, and often writes and speaks about her personal failings and continuous recovery with dark humor. Yes, her truth and authenticity rings through, reminding folks of the grace and faith and love of God. For many people, Bolz Weber’s foul mouth, brutal honesty, and depth of welcoming is what is most attractive to them and their faith. She is the founder the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado a Lutheran Church. An emphasis on ALL. Her mission, the church’s mission from the beginning, was to welcome people who thought the church wouldn’t welcome them and then to also welcome those who are easily welcomed. In their first gathering, they had people who were a part of the LGBTQ+ community, people with religious baggage, people who made regrettable decisions, people struggling with addiction and other misfits. How I see it, just people, humans, all wanting to equally experience God’s grace. As they see it, there are no questions asked, all are welcome, all that the person brings with them, the broken stories, the broken hearts, the broken relationships, the broken questions about faith, they are welcomed in. She believes that “people relate to each other and God on their shared brokenness rather than their shared victories. When we are honest about our lives and struggles it opens up a space of holiness.”
And so our woman today, after 12 years of medical treatments and doctor’s visits, all the energy she has put into finding a cure, she, she reaches out and touches Jesus’s clothes. Not his leg, not his feet, but his clothes. She, like Jairus, repeats her desperation over and over again, “If I touch even his clothes, I will be saved.” Here in lies a story of faith and salvation, where Jesus does not express an intent for healing, but the woman initiates it herself. And “immediately,” instantly, her hemorrhage stops and she, who has been feeling the uncleanliness and burden of her blood, feels in her body that she has been healed of her disease. The story doesn’t stop here, in fact, in my interpretation, there not just the one miracle – the resurrection of the daughter later in the text, but also another, Jesus welcoming the woman into a relationship.
After the woman’s touch, Jesus stops and asks, “who touched my clothes?” And the woman tells him the “whole truth.” Not the partial, not the short version, or the abridged. The “whole truth.” Her story. All that made her unclean, and outcast, and all the faith that makes her whole. Jesus doesn’t pull away or keep on walking because of a task at hand, but instead, he draws her into relationship, and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, has saved you.” The Greek word here is sozo, and it means more than just salvation in the way we understand salvation as a form of resurrection. It’s the healing of the physical, the restoration of life, to fullness in a community. Frances Taylor Gench, a New Testament Professor writes about this story, “As we reach the conclusion of the inner story, we can discern that the ‘miracle involves far more than physical healing; it includes entry into a ‘saving relationship with Jesus himself.’ The woman is no longer alone: Jesus calls her ‘Daughter,’ claims her as family, and restores her to community.” Jesus honors the woman’s faith. He celebrates it, acknowledges it, welcomes it in, thus diminishing the woman’s shame in society. And the woman does not run with fear, as the demoniac did with the swine. Instead, “she comes out of hiding, breaks her silence, and finds her voice; she told him the “whole truth.” And Jesus listened. He heard her story and welcomed her into community, into a relationship, a kinship, a friendship.
I often say that stories are holy, life is holy, and in sharing those stories, it’s the work of the holy. This woman took a risk in touching the cloak of Jesus, and she took a greater risk of telling her “whole truth.” And yet, Jesus embraced all those moments. Those vulnerable, risky moments that have us trembling at the knees. Welcoming in is more than allowing anyone into our space, but also embracing people into our space. Welcoming in is more than a “good morning, how are you?” But also, a “tell me how you’re doing, really doing?” Even if you’ve known the person for over 20 years. Welcoming in is more than inviting others to share their stories, but you too inviting folks into YOUR story. Welcoming in is being vulnerable, a little scared and absolutely awkward, AND it creates space for the holy to enter and save a community, a kinship, no matter what we bring with us.
 Frances Taylor Gench,