Sunday, July 8, 2012

Nameless women and powerful men: do not fear; only believe

Proper 8-B     July 1, 2012
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130
Mark 5:21-43

What can be more American than a patchwork quilt? The 1929 book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, by Ruth E. Finley, opens with a story appropriate to the 4th of July Weekend:

… it has been suggested that Mistress Betsy Ross did not make the first Star-Spangled Banner. There is evidence that she did; at least she was an accomplished needlewoman, and her dead husband’s uncle, the Honorable George Ross, a signer of the Declaration, was a member of the flag committee. But whether she did or did not, the fact of the flag remains; it was made by someone, and that someone was a woman. Some woman’s hands, proficient in the art of patchwork, pieced together its Stripes and appliqu├ęd its Stars. [i]

Some woman, nameless – perhaps identified only by her father or her husband or brother: I think there must be more nameless women in history than nameless men. In today’s Gospel, we encounter two of them.

They have a few things in common in addition to their namelessness. In the stories about Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood, both characters show both faith and fear. Both are called “daughter,” a relationship which implies love and the duty of care and protection. Both, of course, are ill, are made unclean by their disease, and are healed by Jesus at his touch. Touching these unclean females was a defiant act for Jesus, something decent men, who were not priests, would never do.

Look, also, at what separates these two unnamed, and unclean, females: one is an older woman, one a girl. One has status, by virtue of her powerful and important father, who speaks up for her, begging for her health. She has resources, a family identity if not a name of her own. The woman with the issue of blood is only that: she has no status, no one to speak for her, no protector or caregiver or supporter. No one has called her daughter, one imagines, for a long time. No one has been able to touch her for years.

We’re back in Galilee, in the symbolic countryside favored by the Gospel of Mark, that place full of detail and meaning. Jesus has just crossed over the Sea of Galilee, coming from the land of the Gentiles, those outside the covenant, to the land of the Jews, those who live by the covenant with God. This is where Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing is most powerful and challenging. He breaks through every barrier: of custom, of sex, of uncleanness, of poverty, of namelessness, to touch, and by touching to heal this girl and this woman. Not even the rules of nature – of what is life and what is death – can stop him. Jairus’ daughter is even raised from the dead.

The contrast is rich with the story of David mourning the deaths of Saul and Jonathon. In Second Samuel we read of men, (as well as women: nameless daughters of Philistines, nameless daughters of Israel.) – but lots of men, powerful, important men, with names and legacies. They are men whose power and strength, however, cannot save them from death.

Stories like this one are not “saints tales,” for these characters hardly lead exemplary lives. But, as someone once said, Saul and Jonathon and David live “large lives … the live in the largeness of God. … God is the country in which they live.”[ii] These characters may not show us how to live, but they do show us living itself – living and being human in all its complicated, powerful, messy, loving and jealous aspects. When Saul went into his final battle, he was nearing the end of his reign as King of Israel. He knew David was anointed, was his younger and stronger rival, David the beloved of God. David was actually in hiding from Saul, who was jealous of his rivalry. Despite this complicated relationship, David praises Saul, and has a deep friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, someone he loves more closely than a brother, more closely than a spouse. This messy, violent, complicated and love-sick terrain is God’s country, the background against which God plays out his love story with the people of Israel.

Nameless women and powerful men: everyone knows the depths of grief, despair, and fear. Everyone is vulnerable to the ravages of illness and death. David gives voice to the lamentations of the ages, Jairus begs like any father for the health of his beloved child, the woman with the issue of blood is so desperate for any healing and hope that she pushes through the crowd even to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.

We are all afraid, we all face death, we are all in need of healing. Those are the barriers Jesus breaks when he heals the sick and raises the dead. “Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says. That’s what it means to live in the largeness of God, with powerful men facing death and mourning those they love. It’s the motto those nameless women stitched into their samplers and spelled out with their patchwork, and passed down to us, mother to daughter, to the ages of ages.

[i] Ruth E. Finley, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1929), p. 19
[ii] Eugene Peterson, quoted in UCC website “Samuel” – sermon and lectionary helps for year B