Out of the Crowd
Pentecost VI (O. T. 13); July 1, 2018
Few are they who by faith touch him; multitudes are they who throng about him. – Augustine of Hippo
I feel blessed to live in a time when so many are coming out of the crowd to be noticed, people who would have been told before to stay in the crowd, keep quiet, don't be noticed. In particular, I'm grateful that women are no longer willing to stay hidden in the crowd. There have always been those rare ones who have pushed out of the crowd and been noticed: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, Rosa Parks, and the like. But now we live in a time when our sisters and daughters and friends push out of the crowd and say, "Notice me; I'm a person."
This week I read a disturbing post on a social media site I frequent. A woman was enjoying her success at losing weight, and was grateful when a male colleague mentioned he had noticed her weight loss. But he went on from there. What he said was too vulgar for me to talk about in front of you, but it was the typical male objectification of a woman's body. She was hurt and angry and frightened. Many, in response to her post, urged her to contact her company's Human Resources Department, and I hope she did. My own post was to express my shame for the male of the species and my own anger that he didn't have sufficient respect for her to not say such a thing in the first place, or at least in the era of #metoo to know better than to say such a thing. I don't remember the woman's name, but for a moment, at least, she came out of the crowd.
I admire the persistence of the woman who came out of the crowd to touch the robe of Jesus. Now, let's be honest: she didn't want to come out of the crowd. The reason she slyly reached out to touch the hem of his robe was that she didn't want to be noticed. And I am aware that one reason some people come to a church as large as this one is that they want to blend into the crowd, they don't want to be noticed. I get that; this poor woman didn't want to be noticed but then it was impossible to avoid it: Jesus noticed her.
She had tried everything. Her particular problem made her ritually unclean, so she was unable to participate fully in the community of faith. Furthermore, it meant she would make unclean anyone she touched, and so she really should not have been in that crowd in the first place. No wonder she was trying to stay unnoticed. No one seemed to be able to cure her. She had gone through whatever money she had, and the Affordable Care Act had not yet been enacted, so there was no treatment for her. But she had heard about this prophet, this healer, this Jesus, and she hoped that by touching the hem of his robe – just the most outside part of him she could manage – she could be healed, and slip away in the crowd and not be noticed.
I'm sure that many of those women who have come out of the crowd to be noticed did not want to be noticed, but in reaching out for what they needed someone turned and looked at them, and treated them like a person, and suddenly they were noticed. This woman reached out in hope, hoping that just a simple touch would heal her, and Jesus noticed her. She was afraid of being scolded, of being sent away, but Jesus saw her as a person, called her "Daughter," and said that the faint hope of being healed was faith enough to see it done: "Go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
Meanwhile, poor Jairus is standing by; remember him? Yeah, he was probably wondering whether Jesus remembered him and remembered where they were going. "My daughter; remember? I begged you to heal my little daughter." Jairus stands for every man who has ever been willing to stand up for the women in his life, who has ever said, "My daughter is the equal of any man out there." There are men who have said their daughters didn't need a college education, since their purpose was to get married and have children; you don't need a college education for that. And there are men who have said, "If my daughter wants to be a doctor, then she's going to be a doctor."
Jairus is one of those fathers; his daughter matters to him; she is a person. Sure, he wants her healed so she can grow up and get married and give him grandchildren. But the way he speaks of her and the fact that as an important man in his community he is willing to throw himself at the feet of Jesus and beg for her shows that she is important to him, that she is a person.
Do you see my theme here? It is so easy to go through our days with the folks around us simply being objects in the background, faces in the crowd. Then maybe someone will touch the hem of your robe and get your attention; how do you respond? It is natural for us to make quick judgments about folks before we respond, whether we let them be persons or we keep them outside, mentally shove them back into the crowd.
The two Sundays Kathleen and I were away we attended worship at two different Presbyterian churches. They were different from each other and they were different from us in many ways, and yet so similar in many ways, too. Last Sunday we were at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. I have a lot I want to tell you about that service, but for today just this one thing: what an interesting crowd. There were homeless folks and folks in their nice suits. And the folks in suits ranged in age from 90 to 14. Most of them were dressed rather casually, as you do. They were white and black, maybe other races too that I didn't see because we, as I usually do, sat near the front.
This really struck me: they have the pastoral prayer near the end of the service, and before the minister prays she walks around the Sanctuary with a microphone so that the people of the Church can say what's on their mind. At the point she started the service had already been going for about 70 minutes, and the walking around took another ten as people shared their joys and their prayers. A couple of fellows whose mental state was clearly, well, unusual had some unusual things to share, which people listened to respectfully. When the service was over, after about ninety minutes, people milled around enjoying coffee and cookies in the back of the Sanctuary – they don't have a nice gathering space, as we do.
Everyone there was a person. They could come out of the crowd and touch the hem of Jesus' robe and know that the response would be a smile and the words, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
As I say, I'm grateful to live in a time when a woman can come out of the crowd and be a person and not simply the appendage of some man. And I'm grateful to live in a time in which all sorts of folks can come out of the crowd and be recognized as a person. Last Wednesday was the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, which began the movement to recognize LGBTQIA+ folks as persons and not push them back into the crowd. We are, we must acknowledge, living in a time when there is significant push-back, in which many powerful folks want to return us to a time when you are only a person if you're white, male, heterosexual, and have money. A comment: whenever I hear someone say, "I wish they wouldn't flaunt it," I realize what they are really saying is, "I wish they would get back into the crowd." In this time of pushback it is easy to look away and expect folks to stay in the crowd: if you're gay, stay in the crowd; if you're a woman, stay in the crowd; if you're black or native or Hispanic, stay in the crowd. Don't come out of the crowd.
It's easy to expect that everywhere except in the place where the words of Jesus live. There are two magical moments in this story; the first is when Jesus says to the woman in the crowd, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." He called her "daughter," so she became a person, someone called out of the crowd.
The other magical moment is when Jesus takes the little girl's hand and says to her, "Talitha cum." Yes, Mark tells us what it means; it means, "Little girl, get up." But it gives me a shiver that first Mark lets us hear the words Jesus himself said, the untranslated words, the words in Jesus' own Aramaic: Talitha cum. We're reading along, enjoying the story, hoping that he will raise the little girl from the dead, when suddenly Jesus looks out of the page, looks right at us, and says in his own voice, "Talitha cum."
It's alright to hide in the crowd. It's alright to hope you won't be noticed. But if you dare to say, "Master, heal my little daughter" or if you dare to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus' robe, you will find that in the look and the voice of Jesus, you are no longer merely a face in the crowd. "Daughter, your faith has made you well." "Talitha cum." You are a person.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master