Called In: City | July 1

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Called In: City
Mark 5:21-43

“Who touched me?”

This summer we are exploring the idea of calling.  More specifically, we are attempting to pay attention to the ways we are being “called in” by focusing on a series of concentric circles leading us ever more inward.  The last three weeks we considered how the “world” was calling to us, how the world calls to others with different faith traditions, and how the Divine is calling to us through the holiness of the other no matter how distant they seem.  We were inspired by Ginny Nussbaum’s de-centering banner that both forced our attention as wide as the cosmos while also pulling us inward. 

Likewise, today we are blessed by a new banner depicting our move toward the next concentric circle, the city.  Created by local artists Shannan and Jason Anderson, this piece utilizes images and figures from our fair city to create the shapes you see here.  Some of these images you might recognize, others may seem vaguely familiar, and still others might seem completely foreign; which, I think is a perfect way to think about how we are called in to our community.  At some point over the next few weeks, I invite you to come closer and discover the intricacies of this work. 

You can read more about this piece of art and the Andersons in the bulletin, but I wanted to call your attention to something they wrote about what they have made for us.  Drawing on the title they gave to the banner, “Common Threads,” they write, “The message we share with you is that we are all connected in this universe even in a busy, vibrant, city like Columbus, we are all held together by a common thread.”

As we move more and more inward in these concentric circles, these common threads that connect us to one another become increasingly more tightly woven and easier to see.  Or, stated another way, these common threads become harder to ignore the closer they get to us.  While the calling of those halfway around the world certainly are worthy of our attentive listening and response, we often have to be intentional about hearing this call.  Yet as we move closer to home, this call gets louder and louder, imploring us to respond to those right in front of us, some of whom we recognize, some who seem vaguely familiar, and some who seem completely foreign to us. 

As we dig deeper into this idea of calling, we become ever more aware of the ways that our friends, our neighbors, and even strangers we pass on the street are calling out for a hint of good news. 

While we have been exploring this theme about calling, we have drawn on Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation or calling where he wrote, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger coincide.” 

But what do we do when it starts to feel like the world’s deep hunger might just consume us?  What do we do when the places of hurt and the needs of our communities become overwhelming?  It seems that in the last few weeks especially, we have not needed to look far to hear our communities crying out: children being forcibly separated from families, even more gun violence, bigotry against Muslims being given legal standing.  How do we discern God’s call when the noise of our news feeds and and the cacophony of the crowd threaten to drown us in a sea of despair? 

When our deep gladness feels inadequate for the world’s deep hunger, how do we keep ourselves from just curling up in the fetal position?

Our passage from Mark’s gospel read earlier is not the only passage in the gospels where crowds of people follow Jesus around.  In fact, there are a number of stories where the authors of the gospels write about crowds following Jesus, coming to listen to the great teacher they’ve heard about, hoping to catch a miracle, or even desperate that they might experience a little healing for themselves.  Jesus probably had a hard time entering any city without being bombarded with the calls of people crying out for good news. 

While stories of Jesus being followed by crowds are common, this passage in Mark is especially interesting because the crowd acts almost as a distinct character within the narrative, and it shows the way Jesus seems to get pulled in so many different directions by the pleas and needs of those within the crowd.  He barely steps off the boat and the crowd is there, and it is not long before someone emerges with a specific plea.  I can almost picture the crowd parting, sensing the desperation as this man hurries toward Jesus. 

Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue.  People know him.  Maybe they’ve heard about his daughter’s illness.  The author of Mark thinks he’s important enough to give him a name.  While we don’t know a lot about him, it is apparent that he has status within the community.  Despite whatever status he held, Jairus the respected religious leader falls at feet of the itinerant, rabble-rousing rabbi, begging him to lay his hands on his daughter so that she might be healed.  The text says that Jairus “implored him earnestly” or other translations read “begged him repeatedly.”   There is desperation there.  His call is one that will not be ignored. 

And so Jesus goes.  It is not clear what, if any, plans Jesus had in this city or what he might be putting on hold to go with Jairus on this detour, but he goes.  And the crowd goes with them, pressing in on him both physically and metaphorically as they travel toward Jairus’ home.  And it is from within this crowd, while Jesus is in the middle of responding to one call that another emerges, causing a bit of a detour from the already in-progress detour. 

The woman never meant to draw so much attention to herself.  Unlike Jairus, she is not given a name and she tries to blend in to the crowd.  All she wanted was to get close enough to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. 

With each detail about this woman that the author of Mark’s gospel gives us, we can feel the immensity of the obstacles she has had to overcome.  The manner of her disease would have made her ritually unclean, and while scholars disagree over what exact implications this would have had for Jews at this time, what is clear is that it created a social and religious barrier between her and the rest of the community.  The text goes on to say she suffered under many physicians for 12 years, and we can probably only imagine what kind of physical toll this took on her.  Not only this, but her medical bills had consumed all her money. 

She was poor, she was in pain, and her very presence in the midst of the crowd was, as one commentator put it, “an act of civil disobedience.”  She crossed more than one boundary to be there, and her presence asserts not only her faith in Jesus’ ability to heal but also her resilience and worth as a person.

Yet despite her attempts to slip away into the crowd, Jesus senses the woman taking power from him.  He scans the throngs of people, asking those around him “Who touched my clothes?” His disciples scoff.  With so many people around pressing in on him, how can he expect to pick one out of a crowd?  How can he ask “Who touched me?” when he knows there are too many people trying to get close to him to be able to recognize any single person? 

But Jesus knows that he felt a connection, and so he scans the crowd trying to see who it was.  I like to think that the woman could have had the chance to slip away, but instead, with fear and trembling she steps forward to admit that it was her.  The text says that she “told him the whole truth.”  She told him of her pain.  She told him of her desperation and the twelve years of physicians that only seemed to make it worse.  She told him all that it meant for her to be there in the crowd.  She told him her whole, messy, sometimes uncomfortable, always beautiful truth.

And Jesus listened.  The miracle had already been accomplished; he could have gotten on with his day, but he listened.  And when she was finished, he called her “daughter” and told her to go in peace because her faith had made her well.  By listening to her truth, he validated her humanity and affirmed her worth.  He named her as part of his family.  The miracle had already happened, but this was a kind of healing that was only just beginning.

While all this is taking place, one can almost feel Jairus in the background tapping his foot.  At the same moment that Jesus is naming this woman as “daughter” someone from Jairus’s household comes up and tells him “Your daughter is dead.”  I have to wonder how Jairus reacted in this moment.  Was he mad at Jesus for allowing himself to be delayed.  Was he annoyed that some nameless woman would dare get in the way of his daughter’s healing?  Or was he simply overcome with grief?

Regardless, Jesus insists they continue on, telling Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  When they get to the house, they encounter a different kind of crowd, professional mourners brought in to give loud voice to the grief of the family.  This crowd laughs at Jesus’ assertion that the girl is only sleeping, so he puts them outside and brings only the child’s mother and father and his closest disciples into the room where she lay. 

Jesus takes the girl’s hand, once again crossing boundaries between what is deemed clean and unclean, and he bids her to rise.  Where the woman in the crowd reached out to Jesus, now Jesus reaches out to this little girl, and once again Jesus makes new life possible where there had been only death, hopelessness, and despair.  With the crowd behind them and the naysaying mourners put outside, Jesus and the family share this intimate moment of connection and amazement and new life.

The author of Mark’s gospel interweaves these stories in order to draw parallels between them, and it is this kind of story within a story that helps us begin to see the common threads that unite us and hold us together, reminding us that we are part of a larger story.  Next time you are stuck in traffic, take a moment to look at all the cars ahead and behind you and think about all the places those people are going and the beautifully messy lives that are intertwining with yours in this small way. 

Sometimes it can be too easy to act like the disciples, wondering how anyone could find any sort of deeper connection in the middle of such a crowded world.  When we think about how the community around us is calling us in, do we, like the disciples, think to ourselves, “How can I say, ‘Who touched me?’ when there are so many pressing in around me?”  Or do we respond like Jesus in the midst of the crowd, insisting on being present to those who call to us, listening to the whole truth of the other even if it makes us uncomfortable, and walking toward death even when everyone else seems to have given up hope. 

The good news that Jesus reveals to us is that God’s presence is able to find each and every one of us from the midst of the crowd, in all of our particularity and the fullness of our truth, crossing barriers and transgressing boundaries to bring new life from places of death and new communion to places of isolation. 

And likewise, we too need to be willing to enter the crowd with the same willingness to be fully present to those we come in contact with, to hear their stories, to be moved by their whole truth, and to affirm the image of God in them. 

A couple weeks ago there was a cable news segment that many of you have probably heard about where guests on the show were discussing the more than 2,300 children who have been separated from their families as a result of the deliberate and strategic change in policy toward those who are crossing the border.  During the discussion, one of the guests started to tell the story of a 10 year old girl with Down syndrome who had been separated from her mother.  Before he could finish, however, the other guest, a former high-level strategist within the President’s circle, interrupted him with a very dismissive “womp, womp” noise.  Now, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you voted for, or what, if any, faith tradition you follow because everyone should be able to see that this kind of mocking contempt toward the suffering of others is disgusting and immoral.  When those around us call to us from places of pain and suffering, we don’t have to be able to fix it, we don’t have to know the answer, and we don’t even necessarily need to agree with them in order to offer our acknowledgement and presence to them.  We see them; we hear them; we allow the whole truth of their lives to touch us. 

I first heard about this news story from a friend who could hardly get through telling me about it without being overcome with emotion.  I tried to assure her that her response was a correct one and anything less was just cruel. 

I think a lot of our anxiety around listening to and hearing the way God is “calling us in” is that we are afraid that the fact that we can’t fix something means that we can’t do anything.  The call of the crowd overwhelms us because we are afraid that we are not enough.  But the model of Jesus shows us that presence is powerful.  The miracles that took place in these interwoven stories are awesome displays of power, but we should remember that they, on their own, are temporal.  Both the woman who was healed and the little girl who was raised will surely face more suffering and pain in their lives.

But Christ brings a healing that goes beyond temporal relief from suffering, a healing that is rooted in presence and solidarity.  And he not only calls us out of the crowd to offer this healing, but he invites us to join him in this work as well. 

And so, my wish for us my friends, is:
- That we would pay attention to those who touch our hearts, seeking them out of the crowd and letting their whole truth change both our lives.
- That we would learn to recognize the common threads that weave all our stories together even when they cross multiple boundaries to connect us.
- And finally, as we discern the ways we are being called in, that we would practice the kind of presence and solidarity that Jesus models for us.