Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 1st July 2018
Lamentations 3.22-33; Mark 5.21-43
It’s hot. Though down by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, there is a slight breeze. Jesus has been hustled out of the area, because people were fearful at how he had healed the mad man from the tombs, the one they’d all been warned about, the one the children were told never to approach.
What had scared them most? Possibly the sight of two thousand pigs racing down the steep bank into the lake.
But not all of them had seen that – many of them had flocked to the lakeside when they heard the story of the pigs. What were they frightened of? Possibly the thought of their livelihood going down the drain – how would they feed their families? Possibly their minds’ inability to cope with the change required from viewing this man in the tombs as mad and to be avoided to seeing him as a normal human being.
They were amazed, but they couldn’t cope with what Jesus had done, so they told him basically to get lost. All except the man Jesus had healed, who was desperate to go with him, but was told by Jesus to stay put. Which he did, because Jesus needed him to tell his story.
Jesus did indeed get lost – but only as far as the other side of the lake. By the time his boat had crossed the water, there was another crowd waiting for him. Had the news of the pigs reached them already? Or had something else drawn them? We don’t really know.
But everyone was there: old and young, rich and poor, high and lowly, man and woman, open and hidden. Something had made them turn out.
Even the people who shouldn’t really have been there, whose presence risked making others unclean, because to touch an unclean person transferred the uncleaness until certain purification rituals had been carried out.
In this crowd is a woman, a woman who has lived on the edge of society for 12 years, a woman who has been unclean in the sight of the Law for 12 years, a woman who is desperate for healing, so desperate she has tried everything and now has no money left because she’s spent it all on doctors who have made things only worse.
This is a woman who hopes that she will be lost in the crowd, unnoticed. She shouldn’t be there. She has a woman’s problem – most probably we’re talking about non-stop menstruation.
Now I’m not sure I’ve talked about periods in church before – and I can feel some of you getting uncomfortable. Those of you who are male will, of course, not have experienced this for yourselves, though you may have been on the receiving end of someone else’s PMT. Let me tell you – it’s not much fun.
Different people react in different ways, of course, but there’s the hassle of bleeding each month, the excruciating abdominal pain that it brings for some, the crankiness, the headaches, the short-temperedness, the general sense of ill-being and so on. Yes – the positive means that it shows you’re alive and that you can probably still bear a child, but it ain’t all good.
And non-stop for 12 years – that really ain’t at all good. No wonder she’s desperate. Sanitary products were much messier in those days – you couldn’t just go into the chemist and buy feminine hygiene products.
Of course, being unclean, the likelihood of pregnancy is nil, since no one could legally touch her, so she really has no solution.
This woman actually has nothing to lose by seeking out Jesus. But even then she’s fearful – why else does she stay in the shadows?
The last thing she wants is for someone to draw attention to her. So she reaches out from the midst of the crowd, and touches Jesus’s robe. That’s all it takes. She is healed.
But Oh dear – exactly what she is scared of happens. The woman who has approached Jesus in secret is outed. The disciples think he’s mad – come on, Jesus, there’s so many people here; it’s impossible to know who touched you. But Jesus knew.
And the woman can no longer remain hidden. Something makes her approach Jesus, in spite of her fear. Clearly there is an integrity and honesty in this woman, an inability to resist the call of Jesus. Instead of melting even further into the background and pretending to know nothing of what Jesus is talking about, she comes forward and bows down, falls at his feet and blurts out the whole story.
And she doesn’t meet censure or anger, impatience or disdain. She doesn’t feel pushed away or told off – what she meets is love.
This woman who has been a social outcast is called “daughter” by Jesus. He makes her feel that she is someone with a family, that she is someone who has worth and dignity, that she is treasured and loved.
Somehow the love of Jesus heals her wounds.
We had an excellent training day in the benefice yesterday – those of you who weren’t there missed out. We were reminded how so often it is our fear that stops us from trusting God.
Michael Harvey, who led the day, had some difficult words for us at times in the midst of his inspiring presentation. The words were difficult to hear but I also noticed people nodding when they heard them, which suggests that they heard a ring of truth in them.
We Anglicans, he reminded us, are people of faith – and yet we don’t use our faith. We don’t rely on God.
The Church of today is trying to do Christianity without God. We have replaced God with ourselves.
We try to do it all ourselves. The woman whom Jesus healed was commended for her faith. “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
Our Western church is sick at the moment. We know it. We bemoan falling numbers in our congregations, we look around at a limited age range, we push God out of our initiatives. We become caught up in the culture of success, and see ourselves as failures.
What would success look like to us? How do we define a successful church? Probably somewhere in our minds we would see a picture of full pews, or perhaps full chairs because we have moved with modern times and ditched the pews for more comfortable and flexible seating. We would have services that felt full of joy and were uplifting but which could also hold the pain of the broken and wounded.
We would have a large and thriving Sunday school and youth club. We would have every church member contributing all that they could, using their skills for the building up of the church.
We would all know our Bibles back-to-front and not have to look up in the index the next time we’re asked to find Judges. We’d have a flourishing social life, a building in tip-top condition, and the resources both financial and people to enable us to do all that we want.
Perhaps we look at the some of the American megachurches where up to 20,000 people attend – there’s a church in Houston with 43,500 weekly attendances. Well – that must be a successful church mustn’t it?
Or not? The pastors talk about how sometimes the show, the numbers, the glamour distract people from God. People come for a performance, like going to the theatre perhaps. Outwardly successful maybe.
But what God wants from all of us is not outward success but inward faithfulness. We were reminded yesterday that Jesus says: Well done, good and faithful servant not well done, good and successful servant.
God asks us to be faithful, not to be successful. Success in the terms of the kingdom of God is to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow Christ. I don’t see anything there about worldly success.
Worldly success is measured in numbers and money and increase and uptake and exam passes and popularity and being on telly and sex and glamour and individuality and independence and power.
God’s faithfulness is measured on how well we heed his call to follow, to trust, to let God take the strain.
That’s why our diocesan vision begins with Pray before it moves to Serve and Grow. God uses our vulnerabilities for his work.
The madman in the tombs became a great evangelist – he went and told everyone what Jesus had done. Well – he’d have had nothing to say if his life had been perfect from the start. The woman received healing because she came to the feet of Jesus, knowing she was vulnerable.
How much of our church life is guided by God, and how much is guided by putting ourselves in the driving seat? I wonder.
God asks us to be faithful not successful. The woman with the haemorrhaging would never have been called successful – her whole life was blighted by her illness for 12 years – but we know her story today more than 2000 years later because she was faithful.
In the words of St Paul from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”