for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
and Independence Day
July 2, 2006
St. Agnes. Cincinnati
(Based on Wisdom 1:13-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43)
This weekend we find ourselves in the middle of two different events. One is the church’s celebration of the continuing mission and ministry of Jesus. The other is our country’s celebration of the gift of independence from oppression.
What do these two celebrations have in common? Perhaps more than we might first think.
In Mark’s Gospel we read of Jesus healing two different women. There seems to be on connection between them. It’s apparently only a coincidence that the woman comes forth out of the crowd pressing on Jesus as he goes to the house of Jairus the synagogue leader.
But actually Mark has an important reason for weaving the two events together. Up till now he has been narrating accounts of Jesus’ healings, illustrating more how they were attracting people to him than for any other reason. In these two healings he is raising the ante in a big way. There is more than ‘routine’ healing going on.
These two women were both unclean. The woman out of the crowd had a flow of blood, which was a sign of impurity to be avoided, and the young girl is all but dead at twelve years of age, cut off from the possibility of passing on life. Both are to be avoided by any religious Jew.
Jesus does no special action – such a spitting and anointing the eyes of the blind man or putting his finger into the deaf man’s ears. But what he does is far more striking. It is really shocking, a revolutionary thing. He, a Jewish male, allows this unclean woman to touch his garment; then he takes the hand of a corpse.
He is revealing himself as savior, the one who heals, of course. But beyond that he is beginning to reveal how that saving work will be accomplished: by challenging narrow, fixed mind-sets and breaking religious and social taboos.
It had been all laid out, in the most sacred books of their religious heritage; in Leviticus, which is one of the five books of Torah. There was the clean and the unclean, and those who touched the unclean became unclean themselves.
And what does Jesus ask of those who observe these deeds? “Don’t be afraid.” Why might they have been afraid? Because this man who is claiming to be a holy prophet is violating all that they had been taught to hold sacred. He says, just “trust me.” How are they to trust him when he does these scandalous things? How is the father to believe in him when he has just lost his 12-year old daughter?
And yet that is just what the woman and Jairus do – in the face of a mocking crowd. Even Jesus’ disciples are critical of him when he asks who touched his cloak. “Hey, man, we’re in a bustling crowd! What’s this stuff about ‘who touched my garment’?” (It’s one more example of a theme running all though Mark’s Gospel: the apostles just don’t get it. His way of being Messiah is just beyond their ability to understand, it challenges all they had come to expect.) And then there is the crowd jeering when Jesus says the girl will live.
And what might all of this have to do with Independence Day?
Over the next few days there will be any number of lofty speeches extolling our founding Fathers for their courage and challenging the forces of tyranny to win our freedom. Pious patriotic rhetoric will be offered to us in all the media.
And that’s good, it’s part of our heritage as a people.
But I’d like to suggest that we focus rather on those men and women who challenged and fought against the kind of political freedom they had won through the Revolution. After all, who really benefitted? It was great if you were a male. It was great if you were white. It was great is you had been born free. It was great if you were a land-owner. But what if you were a woman? What if you were a person of color? And it didn’t do much for you if you had been born into slavery or were one of the many poor people who hadn’t a hope of ever owning property.
Let’s celebrate those who broke the taboos – and even the laws – of their day, who challenged the comfortable and privileged in the name of those who were excluded from the table. Let’s celebrate the Harriet Tubmans and the Sojourner Truths and the Frederick Douglasses and the Susan B. Anthonys. And all the unnamed people who risked standing with them as they proclaimed that the law of the day was wrong!
Jesus had broken the taboos of the law precisely on the basis of the Covenant and the prophets. These women are not unclean! And in the same way the challengers to a restricted view of political freedom based their claim on the very principle the Founders had pronounced in the Declaration. All people are created equal; all have an inherent claim to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their personal dream – yes, women; yes, slaves, yes, people of color; and yes, even the poor. As long as one person is not free none of us is truly free.
They protested in the face of mockery, and some gave their lives for a fuller understanding of the promise of our country, just as the revolutionaries had.
And what does this have to do with our present situation? God’s word is always addressed to us where we are, to our world as it is now.
It has become a cliché to say that we live in very dangerous times. And much of the rhetoric of the coming days will focus on the threat we face from outside our country, from terrorists who have no regard for any decent human values. I suspect that we will hear very little about the threats we face from within our own government.
Think of it. We are in a time when our supreme court has to tell our president that he can’t just make it up as he goes along; that just because our enemies are vicious he is free to decide on his own -- even as commander-in-chief -- to reject the rule of law. People in the administration believe they are free to make up their own definition of torture, when the shame of Abu Ghraib dishonors the name of our country and all we stand for.
Journalist and even our representatives and senators are charged with being soft on terrorism or even unpatriotic simply because they have the audacity to question the policies unilaterally constructed by the administration.
Even within our country we are beginning to read accounts of how some of the Southern states are proposing measures to limit or strangle voter registration among the poor and people of color – once more, long after the poll tax was declared unconstitutional. And here in Ohio we are hearing more and more details of the fraud practiced by elected officials to steal the election of 2004.
Indeed we are in perilous times. Our freedom is imperiled by people within our own political systems.
So as we join in these two celebrations let’s pray for ourselves, for the gifts of courage and integrity, that we in our day will not be afraid to speak out boldly and challenge the injustice which marginates and any of our neighbors and excludes them from the benefits of our national banquet. Or from the Eucharistic banquet, for that matter.
Post-script: After Mass I was talking with a couple who had earlier been asked to stand and be welcomed as guests to our parish community. The wife said to me, “I need to tell you that my 17-year-old son said, ‘ That was an intelligent homily! I Could like this
place. . . ’”
Hey, a 17-year-older – get a compliment from that crowd and it’s worth another 20 years of wrestling with the word. . . .