Who Touched Me?

1 July 2018, Sherando Presbyterian Church

Mark 5:21-43

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 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.” 24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?’ “ 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 35 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?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 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. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Who Touched Me?

   Last week I mentioned the literal translation of that first command God gives to Abraham — “Walk toward your self” — and I imagined Abraham making good use of a prayer like the one Francis of Assisi is said to have prayed: “Who are you, O God, and who am I?” 

   Connecting those two questions to each other unsettles my perception of my self, I suggested, and my perception of God. Who am I, that God should tell me to walk toward my self? Someone other than the person I usually feel like, apparently — the person I was in the life I used to be living. And what does telling me to walk toward myself suggest about God?

   This week I want to begin with a comment from the theologian Richard Rohr, who works in the tradition of St. Francis. “The single true purpose of mature religion is to lead you to your true self,” Rohr says. “Every sacrament, every Bible story, every church service, every sermon, every hymn, every bit of liturgy is for one purpose: to help you experience who you are in God and who God is in you.”

   If that isn’t happening here, we should all spend Sunday morning someplace else.

   It happens for two people in today’s gospel reading. As you recall, in last week’s reading, Jesus and his disciples left a large crowd on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee — his own people — and rowed across eight miles of tumultuous water to the eastern shore, where strangers lived. As soon as he gets there, he’s accosted by a man who has been relegated to the outer margins of his culture — he lives in the cemetery — because he has what we would call schizophrenia — “My name is Legion,” he says, “for we are many.” Jesus calls upon that man to step out of the way he usually perceives himself — as many separate people all competing for primacy — and become one person unified in God. When that man walks toward his true self, his neighbors, who have relegated him to life among the tombs, feel so threatened by this challenge to their perception that they ask Jesus to leave.

   I want to underline the perception factor here: in all these episodes, conventional assumptions are losing their capacity to explain how the world works, and people don’t like that.

   So Jesus rows back to the western shore, where a crowd is waiting.

   The gospel writer singles out two people in the crowd. One of them we know by name: Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He falls down at Jesus’s feet and begs Jesus to come to his house and heal his dying daughter. Good, says Jesus. Lead the way.

   The other person’s name is unknown to us. She suffers from a condition that makes men who dwell in the cultural center, where names are recorded, especially uneasy because it touches on female sexuality: her menstrual blood flow never seems to stop. Whoever she is, she has suffered much under the hand of many male physicians, who have no idea how to solve her female problem because they’re male, and they do their thinking from the center of society. Everything they’ve done to her has made her worse instead of better. Apparently, their perception is faulty: they think her problem can be solved by conventional assumptions, and she seems to think so too, until now.

   “She had heard about Jesus,” the text says. What had she heard, I wonder? She couldn’t have heard what happened to the schizophrenic on the far side of the lake — news didn’t travel that fast in her day. She must have heard about what had happened among her own people — those parables Jesus was speaking before he left, and what they did to your perception of reality — they rearranged it, radically. By then she must understand that only a radical paradigm shift can change her lived experience: the keepers of the current paradigm have made her life worse.

   If I but touch his clothes, I’ll be made well, she says. Talk about a radical paradigm shift! She’s been betting on conventional assumptions for twelve years — betting and losing. Finally, she has nothing left to lose, so she touches Jesus’s jacket.

   And he says, “Who touched me? Someone touched me: who did that?” It’s a peculiar question. The text says that he’s moving through a crowd of people who are pressing in on him from every side, many of whom must be touching him at any given moment. Even his disciples think it’s dumb to ask who touched him. Touched by dozens — scores of people, whose touch he doesn’t notice — and then touched by one.

   Under the conventional paradigm, that question sounds like a rebuke. That’s how the disciples hear it, and that must be how all those other touchers hear it, too: Who touched me? How many of us hear that question and immediately put our hands in our pockets? Dozens, scores of people, should be stepping forward here, but only one person does.

   This week a woman in one of my seminary classes told a story that touches on this question we’ve been asking — Who are you, O God, and Who am I? She wondered whether we don’t have to somehow come to understand that God is within us and loves the people we already are, before we can walk toward the people God calls us to be. For that to happen, she suggested, something has to free us from the false self, the self that spends its money on conventional assumptions, the self that hears ‘Who touched me?’ and shoves its hands into its pockets.

   She offered this example:

   “In college I suffered from depression and an eating disorder,” she said. “I exercised for hours every day, without eating anything. One afternoon, I passed out from exhaustion. I came to on the bathroom floor, stood up shakily, and splashed water on my face. When I looked at myself in the mirror the critical, demeaning voice in my head started throwing insults at me — the usual litany of failures and flaws. And I felt the cycle start again: how weak I was, how undeserving.

   “Then suddenly, I looked into my reflection, and I heard a voice say, ’Can’t you just give her a break?’ The voice seemed to come from deep inside me, but I heard it in the room. ‘Please,’ the voice said, ‘Just give her a break.’ In that moment, I felt the presence of God, both within me and outside of me, within and without, and I saw my beauty – my humanity, my divinity, my value. After that everything shifted, and I began to heal.”

   What does telling me to walk toward myself suggest about God?

   My classmate has a couple of things in common with the woman from today’s gospel story. One is that both women had been driven to desperation by life under assumptions and values they had taken as normative, the conventional paradigm.

   Another is that each of them experienced a shift in perception that involved a confrontation with the truth. The unnamed gospel woman breaks out of normative assumptions by touching Jesus’s jacket, which she’s not supposed to do because she’s unclean, and as soon as she does it she’s clean. Aware that some breaking-out has taken place, Jesus asks, “Who touched me?”

   The answer to that question is us: aren’t we in that crowd of people, pressing in on him from every side? I am. But when I hear him ask ‘Who touched me,’  I shove my hands into my pockets and I try to keep my face from turning red. Why is that, I wonder, even as I watch that woman step up to the truth, in fear and trembling.

   Am I stretching the analogy too far to suggest that when my classmate fell on the floor and then stood up and looked at herself in the mirror, she too underwent a confrontation with the truth? The demeaning voice in her head started throwing insults at her, she recalls — the conventional litany: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you don’t matter enough. Do you ever tell yourself those things? What makes us tell ourselves that story? Then my classmate looked at her reflection, and she heard a voice say, “Can’t you just give her a break? Please. Just give her a break.”

   Change your paradigm, in other words. Tell yourself the whole truth.

   Or in still other words: walk toward your real self, now.

   Whose voice says that?

   There seems to be a difference between the two stories as well. In the gospel story, the unnamed woman is the reacher: I need help, she says, and she reaches out. My classmate does not seem to be the reacher in her story, but rather the party being reached. You need help, something says, and that something reaches her. But her reaction to the reaching experience invites us to wonder whether the reaching party and the party being reached are as separate as they seem. In that moment she saw her humanity, her divinity, and her value, all at once, and she felt the presence of God both within her and outside of her, in the room.

   The theologian Richard Rohr speaks to that experience. Jesus reveals a paradox, Rohr says, which is that human and divine are not as separate as they seem. That’s a hard idea to embrace, because it just doesn’t seem to be true. I mean, I know what I see when I look at myself — what I’ve done, what I haven’t done, what I’m capable of doing, what I’m not capable of doing.

   Maybe that kind of knowing is what keeps me in the category of all those other people thronging Jesus, the ones whose touch he doesn’t seem to notice. Maybe accepting the truth that divinity and humanity are not as separate as they seem is what makes that woman’s touch distinctive: she touches him and he feels power go from him to her. It’s as if her touch completes a circuit, allowing something in him to move into her, where it can speak from the inside — her touch or her belief.

   “It is precisely the divine part of you that is great enough, deep enough, gracious enough to fully accept the human part of you,” Rohr suggests.

   That sounds like what happened to my classmate. 

   The scholar Matt Skinner describes the Gospel of Mark, where these stories come from, as “a Christian contribution to ‘the war of myths’ that is waged to dictate how each of us will determine what’s real, what’s healthy, and what’s possible.” By myths he means not falsehoods but the stories that tell us who we are, and what we value, and how the world is supposed to work. A lot of stories were competing with each other in the gospel writer’s day, Skinner suggests, and people had to choose which story they were going to tell themselves. That choice falls to each of us, in every day.

   What stories dictate how we determine what’s real and what’s possible? What stories determine whether we’re the crowd around Jesus, pressing him from every side, whose touch he doesn’t seem to notice, or that one woman whose touch completes a circuit? What stories determine how we hear the voice that speaks from something in ourselves that isn’t us and yet is ours?

   There’s a danger in this train of thought: it seems to suggest that all we have to do is shift our paradigm — or let Jesus shift it for us — and then all will be well: no more bleeding, no more starving ourselves, no more insulting ourselves, or despising ourselves, and everyone else. But we’ve lived long enough to know that isn’t true. If some day I learn to live within the paradox that human and divine envelop and infuse each other, within and without, that won’t make my hair grow back, or replace my missing teeth, or change the things I’ve done, or the things I haven’t done. Let us not forget the fear and trembling.

   The truth is that I don’t know what living in that paradox might mean; I don’t know what will happen when I walk toward myself. But I believe this is the story Jesus wants me to tell, and I pray for the grace to keep telling it until I find out what it means.


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Hope, Humour, and Other Eschatological Goodies

Walking Toward Yourself

Who are you, O God, that you should tell me to walk toward myself, and who am I that I should be walked toward?

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