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Thursday, 25 June 2009

Twelve Years

Twelve years. The story in today’s gospel reading is about two people who, for twelve years, have led very different lives.

Twelve years is a very long time. Twelve years ago, it was 1997. Most of us, at least those of us who were alive twelve years ago, were worshipping here then, but things were very different.

We were still a local Ecumenical project. Sheila was our minister. The Conservative Government finally came to an end, and Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in May. Emily was in the Lower Sixth at School, and went into the Upper Sixth in September. And in that September, Diana Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed were killed in a car-crash in Paris. It feels like a long time ago.

But Chelsea won the FA cup – some things don’t change! I think they were just as international then as they are now. Michelle Kwan took Silver in the Figure Skating World Championships, and is still talking of making a come-back next year. I wonder whether she will. And in other sporting news, Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France for the first time. Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis won Wimbledon.

Ummm, what else happened in 1997? It was just before the infamous Dot-com bubble that was to build up over the next couple of years, so e-mail and Internet access, although growing, wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. Most people still had dial-up connections, so you couldn’t be on-line and talk on the phone at the same time, and you couldn’t download television programmes or anything like that – if you knew you were going to miss a television programme, you set your video to record it on to tape. People did have mobile phones, but children didn’t, by and large. Your home or business telephone number was still the first thing you thought of when people wanted to contact you – and you mostly had a telephone-answering machine at home if you needed one, since the useful 1571 service wasn’t launched until 2001. Our telephone numbers, by the way, began 0171 or possibly 0181, depending on the exchange.

Such is the pace of change, that twelve years is a different world for us now.

And for the little girl in today’s story, it was a whole lifetime. She was twelve years old, so Luke’s version of the story tells us – beginning to grow up. She would, perhaps, be expecting her parents to start thinking of a husband for her within the next couple of years – her culture, you were more or less grown-up at 13. We don't know her name; women in the Bible don't tend to have names very often. We do know that her father was called Jairus, and he was a leader of the synagogue in Capernaum. I don't know if that means he was a rabbi, or whether he was the local equivalent of a church steward or something. Not that it matters. What does matter is that he loved his daughter, and now she was ill. Seriously ill. Her short life was ending almost before it had properly begun.

And there was the other woman, the one for whom twelve years was not so much a lifetime as a life sentence. The one with the haemorrhage. Twelve years of constant nagging, dragging pain. Twelve years of constant blood loss, of constantly feeling unwell, of constantly being tired and anaemic.

And, worst of all, twelve years of total social isolation. You see, back then, if you were a woman and you were bleeding, you were considered unclean. Nobody could touch you, or they risked becoming unclean, too. Your husband certainly couldn’t touch you – not even a cuddle. She couldn't go to the Temple, or to her synagogue, to worship. If she sat in a chair, that chair would be unclean for the rest of the day. And so on. She was basically cut off from normal social contact. We aren’t told whether this woman was married, although it was very unusual not to be in her society. But if she was, it’s quite probable that her husband had consoled himself elsewhere.

And nothing was helping. She’d spent all her money on seeing doctors, but they hadn’t been able to help, and the problem was, if anything, growing worse. She was becoming weaker, and knew that soon she would be too weak to carry on. Her life, too, was drawing to a close – and it may well be that she was profoundly grateful that it was happening.

But then, a rumour swept through the crowds. Jesus of Nazareth was visiting Capernaum today! Everybody had heard of Jesus of Nazareth. He had done some spectacular healings. Maybe, just maybe....

Jairus, it seems, had no doubts. The doctors hadn't helped his girl, and she was dying. Maybe this Jesus could help. Nothing to lose, anyway. At worst, he could do nothing for her. And at best.... well, perhaps Jairus didn't really allow himself to hope what that best would be.

The woman with the haemorrhage may or may not have doubted. Probably she was in despair, too. And anyway, Jesus wouldn’t look at the likes of her. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t have clout, like a synagogue leader. She was just a lonely old woman.

But the crowd was so huge that Jesus could barely walk up the street. The disciples were going, “Excuse me, excuse me, make way there now, oh would you please shift your – er – yourselves”, but progress was very slow. And the woman, caught up in the crowd, suddenly plucked up the courage and just, with one finger, touched his cloak.

And Jesus felt it. In all the crowd, with people everywhere, jostling and rubbing up against him, he felt that one deliberate touch. "Who touched me?" he asked. We aren't told the tone of voice he said it in. Sometimes, preachers seem to reckon he was irritated, angry even. I don't think so. I think he was full of compassion and love. He knew. He may not have known who she was, but he knew why she was hiding.

For Jesus, being ritually unclean didn’t matter. Sure, he was a devout Jew, worshipping in the synagogue every week, going to Jerusalem as often as possible, but for him, people mattered a lot more than ritual. You’ll remember he makes rude remarks to the Pharisees about their habit of tithing every herb in the garden, but refusing to take care of elderly parents. People, to Jesus, mattered far more than ritual. He was quite prepared to visit the centurion's house to heal his servant, even though that would have made him unclean.

Not that he could have been made unclean by her touch – it is, after all, He who confers cleanliness upon us, not us who make him unclean. But would Jesus, walking about on earth, have known that? Arguably not. I think, for him, it was more a matter of minding about people more than about rituals, without really realising why. So he doesn't care that the woman may or may not have rendered him unclean. What he does care about is that everybody should know that she is now well, and thus no longer a social outcast. So he says to her "Go in peace; your faith has made you well!"

And then to the little girl, who, if she wasn't already dead, was very close to death. But Jesus never let a little thing like being dead stop a healing, and he reached out to her and held her hand. "Get up, little one!" he said. And she did. She woke up, yawned, and stretched, for all the world as if she had just been enjoying a lovely, refreshing nap. "Get her something to eat," Jesus said, what could be more practical? And he didn't want her surrounded by the media of the day all yelling at her and stressing her out, either, so he suggests the parents don't tell anybody.

---oo0oo---

So far so good. But what is this telling us today, on this summer morning?

It’s about the obvious things, of course – about faith, about trusting Jesus, about having the faith to reach out and ask when things go pear-shaped. I suppose it’s about healing, and patience, and all that sort of thing. And it’s about the fact that everybody, but everybody, is welcome to Jesus.

You have the little girl, loved, accepted, coming from a relatively well-off family, who are in despair at her illness. And you have the old woman, poor, outcast, alone, friendless, who has nobody now to care whether she lives or dies. Yet Jesus heals them both.

I don’t know whether these two healings actually happened in the way that those who retold the stories say – it seems remarkably pat, to me. The rather obvious parallels and contrasts between the two healings – the repetition of twelve years, the risk of uncleanness in both cases, the woman, reaching out secretly, privately, yet healed in public. The little girl, whose father comes to Jesus in public, yet the healing is private and supposed to have been kept that way. It might be that the two stories were linked together very early on, even if they didn't happen quite like that. Not that it matters, of course, and all the three Gospels who tell it do link them together.

Another thing to notice is that both of them were women. Neither has a name, which is typical, but in that time and place, even for women to be noticed is pretty incredible. Certainly religious Jews didn't go round allowing themselves to be touched by strange women!

So, I think for today, the story is about inclusiveness. God's love is for everybody, no matter who you are. Rich or poor, old or young, male or female, religious or otherwise, whatever your race or ethnic origin. Even the worst type of sex-offender or paedophile. Even terrorists. God's love is for everybody.

I think we sometimes like to be a bit exclusive about who we worship with – I don’t know whether the Methodist church in this country has a less shameful history in this respect than the Anglican church, but I doubt it, somehow. We like to be with “people like us”, and in some ways, that’s all right. What isn’t all right, though, of course, is when “people like us” becomes “the only people worth knowing”, or “the only proper people”. That way leads to tribalism, and we know how many and dreadful conflicts tribalism has led to throughout the years. Including, it has to be said, Northern Ireland.

But, of course, the joy of it is that the Lord Jesus who brought healing to the little girl and the old woman, the Lord Jesus who was not afraid to get his hands dirty, not afraid to be considered ritually unclean, who put people before religious ritual, that same Lord Jesus is still with us today, still loving us, still healing us, still reaching out to us as we reach, however tentatively, out to him.

Praise God!

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