Saturday, 11 July 2015

A social Gospel - breaking the taboos.

Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Mark 5:21-43
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘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.’ So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.


Not long ago I, along with all of the other clergy of the diocese, were privileged to have a morning listening to a talented lawyer, Shami Chakrabarti, who is the director of the British human rights organisation, 'Liberty'. Formed in 1934 by key public figures such as Clement Atlee and H. G. Wells in response to the appalling treatment by the police and the government in their response to the hunger marches of that year, Liberty campaigns for civil liberties and human rights in the UK.
Just to give you an idea of how important this work is considered to be by the British population, on their website they give specific information on how to volunteer to offer your time to help at their London offices. Embedded within that information are these words:

“Unfortunately we don’t have enough space to take on everyone who would like to volunteer, so there is competition for places. We ask everyone to complete an application form, provide a reference and attend a short interview.”
 Just think on that for a moment. The British population take human rights, and the need to maintain them, as being so important that you have to compete to be a volunteer, applying for a position as if it were a job. Now compare that to the church where we continually struggle to get people to volunteer for roles. I wonder why that is? Is it maybe because our work is seen as irrelevant? And is that maybe because, to most of the British population, it is? I wonder how it would be if, by the way we are church, human rights and dignities and their maintenance were counted as far more important than it currently is when compared to our various so-called 'strategies' for growth?

The reason I mention this is because of the way Jesus behaves in this Gospel passage. The context here is of Jesus breaking social, legal, political and religious taboos in order to help those in need. Just before today's story he has been exorcising the man who called himself Legion, the man who was living amongst the tombs, feeling so wretched and rejected that the only place he feels he belongs is in the most unclean place, amongst the graves.  So Jesus goes to the unclean place to give him back his life, his rights, his liberty and his place in the community. Jesus values him when no one else did. Then when we come to the next two stories, the ones in today's Gospel reading, we find Jesus continuing to do the same thing, confronting taboos, being amongst the unclean in order to restore them to community.

The two woman bear no similarities, and that's probably the point. One is a little girl on the edge of adulthood from an important family. We even get the name of her father, Jairus, a local religious leader. The other woman is far older. She is nameless, unclean, ashamed, embarrassed and shunned by her community because of continual bleeding in a society that was even more uptight about gynecological problems than ours.  There is no one there to go to Jesus on her behalf because she has fallen out of the bottom of society. In fact she is even breaking the law by being amongst the crowd, and she certainly should not, under religious law, have touched even the hem of Jesus' robe, because in doing so, technically, she had made him unclean too.  Yet when she touches him with intent, she is healed. But Jesus won't let it go. He knows something has happened, and so he asks, “Who touched my clothes?” The poor woman is terrified, knowing that the game is up, so she collapses in yet more shame at his feet as she pours out her whole sorry story.

I can imagine the concern on his face, the sorrow at what she has been through and the way the legal system has been used against her to ensure her ostracism from society. And so he publicly says, in front of the whole community, “Your faith has healed you.” It doesn't matter to him that she's broken the law by breaking a taboo of touching him though unclean herself.  What matters is that she is restored to her community and the only way that can happen is to be pronounced clean in front of everyone, using the title 'Daughter'. She is given her life and her liberty back, just like Legion was. But then comes the news that Jairus' daughter has died in the time it took Jesus to heal the older woman. Jesus, however, is undeterred and presses on to see her. Ignoring the ridicule of the crowd he goes in to her room, taking her parents and their supporters with him.

The little girl is dead, and Jesus breaks another taboo by taking her hand, and he tells her to get up. Now we might think, 'Well maybe he was right, maybe she wasn't dead after all', but the language that Mark uses is the same as he uses to describe Jesus' rising from the dead. Even at this early stage he is showing that he is even Lord over death.

So what then does this have to do with my opening remarks about Liberty? I think it is because all too often we miss the social side of what Jesus did. We assume that it was all about people's spirituality. The church works to bring the salvation of Christ but, for the most part in this country, we treat that as saving people so they go to heaven.

One of the things I say to baptism families is to ask the question, 'What is Jesus saving your child to do?' It's not just about saving from, it's also about saving for. Salvation is about this life too. So much of the work of Jesus, as in this passage, revolved around valuing the people that everyone else cast out and restoring these people to community.

So that is what we should be doing too. We might find it difficult in our minds to even imagine that the government and the police would take away the civil liberties of people in this country, yet our government is seeking to abandon the European Human Rights laws in order to put in place a much weaker British bill of rights which will give the government far more power over the lives of those at the bottom of community.

Where is the work of the church in all this? People often say we shouldn't be involved in such things, but if Jesus was openly flouting and challenging the taboos and laws of his society in order to restore the unwanted, unnamed and unclean to community, then so should we. I would urge you to allow yourselves to be challenged.  Read a different newspaper from the one you read.  Hear the real life stories of people who are forgotten by society. Perhaps visit the Liberty website, or look at other organisations such as Amnesty International. The needs and the rights of people were paramount to Jesus, so they should be to us too.

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