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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Come, Join Us (Luke 8:43-48)

In 2010, I wrote a couple of Mother's Day messages on Luke 8:43-48.  It's the story of the woman with the unceasing blood flow who touches Jesus in a crowd and is healed.  In these two messages, which I post here and in the previous post, I looked at those healed.  This Sunday (January 22, 2017), I will again look at Luke 8.  This time, the focus is on what we learn about God.  Here is the second of those messages.

Sunday, May 9, 2010 – Mother’s Day

          Let me encourage you to join me in looking at this text through a lens colored by the dynamic of inclusion-exclusion.  In the school yard, a group of friends are laughing and playing on the monkey bars.  They climb, they play tag, they just hang out and talk; it seems endless, so fun, so free.  But it’s not what it seems because you pan back just a little, see more the scene, and there’s another kid off to the side, on the swings, alone.  She longs more than anything to be laughing with her peers on the monkey bars. 
Why isn’t she?
Maybe she’s new and shy, and she hasn’t made any friends yet.  Might she have a physical condition that prevents participation in vigorous recess games?  Since 1st grade, the other kids ran and played, and she had to sit out.  Now they’re all in 4th grade.  For four years, the friendships formed.  For four years, she has sat out. 
Or, no, maybe she’s not new.  And, she’s pretty healthy.  But, for whatever reason, she’s kind of socially awkward.  For some kids, relationships come easily.  But not her; she has trouble picking up cues, knowing when to laugh.  She was kind of odd in 1st grade, and once that label stuck; no one dared risk befriending her.  They didn’t want to called odd too.  So, for four years, her friends have grown closer and closer in those monkey bar sessions.  New kids have even come, and blended right in seamlessly.  And for four years, she’s become more and more alone.  They think she wants to be alone, but no, she’s dieing inside.  She would like for nothing more in the world than for someone to come and say, “Join us.”  But they don’t.  They are all inside.  She is the outsider.
Does this only happen at recess?  Of course not.  Kids get excluded on little league teams, in church youth groups, in neighborhood.  Is this inside-outside dynamic in play only with kids?  It gets worse in middle school, and by high school, the popular kids are obvious.  They strut through the hallways.  The outsiders are invisible, sometimes even teachers overlook them.  As they enter adulthood, the popular kids exude confidence.  The not-so popular kids have trouble making it.
I am generalizing here.  On occasion, the popular kid experiences the pinnacle of his success in life while in high school and find rather rudely that the working world did not care that he was captain of the football team or that she was prom queen.  It’s not that rare for the awkward geeky 9th grader to blossom and become a great success in college and beyond.  The issue is people being included and others excluded – in-crowds, and those locked out of the “in-crowds.”  It is easy to spot on the playground, but just as often it occurs in the adult world, and there, it can hurt just as much.  In fact, adult who feel alone, left out, overlooked by the society around them might feel it much worse because they become resigned to the idea that whatever “cool” is, it is not them.  Whatever acceptance feels like, they don’t have it.  I have talked to adults who want more than anything for people around them to say, “Come, join us.”  But they don’t hear it.

A brief overview of the last half of Luke chapter 8 brings to us people who were excluded, kicked to the margins forgotten, and people who were very much the center of attention.  There is the demon-possessed man of the region called Garasenes.  With thousands of demons living in him, the man was a wild animal.  Naked, raving, he roamed among the tombs without human contact.  The people in the nearby town tried to bind him, but he ripped the chains.  He was like a dead man, no living person wanted anything to do with him.  He was feared, rejected, and alone. 
There is also in Luke 8 Jairus the synagogue leader.  He would have been a respected member of the community.  Everyone paid attention to the happenings of his life because he was such an important man.  So, when his 12-year-old daughter fell sick, and the ancient physicians determined that she would soon die, it became a topic of community concern.  When something happens to an insider, everyone notices.
However, in the midst of this insider’s story, we also meet an outsider – an unnamed woman.  Of course she would be unnamed; why would her name matter?  She didn’t matter.  She had an uncontrollable blood flow.  A gynecologist from Washington University, Lewis Wall, has written about this passage.  He believes the woman suffered from a condition where irregular and unpredictable her menstrual periods were irregular and unpredictable.  In most cases it is due to hormonal imbalance, and if untreated for 12 years – the Bible says she had suffered from the blood flow 12 years – then the woman would be infertile.  She couldn’t have children and because of the blood flow, she was ritualistically unclean.  She couldn’t join the community for worship.
Luke places side by side and even in overlapping fashion the stories of an outsider (the demon-possessed man), an insider (Jairus and his dieing daughter), and an outsider (the bleeding woman).  The outsiders had no hope that anyone would say, “Come, join us; be part of our group; we welcome you.”  But, we find something crucial for all of us in our summary of these stories, something that binds the insider and the outsiders.  This binds us to them and to one another as well.  All three desperately needed a touch from Jesus.  Every one of us needs Jesus too
The outsider needs to know he’s included.  The insider discovers that being accepted in social circles does not ensure a person he won’t suffer.  The ultimate insider, the synagogue leader, suffered anxiety and powerlessness and only Jesus could help.  Elsewhere in the gospel and New Testament, religious leaders like Joseph of Arimathea (a council member) and the Pharisee Saul (who would become the Apostle Paul) realized that being an insider isn’t all it is cracked up to be.  Like the rejects who found their only hope in Jesus, the insiders’ only hope for ultimate meaning and truly fellowship with God was and is in Jesus. 

The outsider-insider dynamic plays out on Mother’s Day.  The insider is the mom who has children who love her.  She gets to be with them on Mother’s Day – or if they are grown, they call and send cards and gifts.  They might even bring grandchildren over.  The woman is loved by her husband and surrounded by offspring who adore her.  It is wonderful and it is to be admired.  She’s done a great job with her family.  Today that mom should be celebrated.  There is much good about Mother’s Day, if you are an insider.
Not taking away from that, I hope every mother in that situation can celebrate all the joys of motherhood and at the same time come to understand that motherhood is not the highest good.  The highest good is to be a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ and to grow in that relationship daily through prayer, worship, Bible reading, and Christian service.  A friend recently, with great seriousness, said to me, “You cannot find your validation as a man in your wife.  The only one who can validate you is Jesus Christ.”  I would turn that to all the wonderful Moms around.  It’s awesome that you have great kids and grandkids.  I am happy that you are happy as a mom.  You cannot find your validation as a woman in the children you have raised who love you so much.  The only one who can validate you as a woman is Jesus Christ.  That’s true for the person who’s been a mother for 1 year and for the person who’s been a mother for 60.
That’s also true for those who are not celebrating Mother’s Day with joy.  Mother’s Day, for some, does lead to happy nostalgia, smile-producing reminiscing.  Perhaps someone is bitter because the relationship with his mother is soured.  The relationship with her mother is estranged.  A woman is alienated from her children.  It’s the first Mother’s Day after the divorce; after the death.  The pain of Mother’s Day is hard to capture because a woman feels maternity deep inside her, but she’s 40, and still single.  With the passing of each year, she’s more resigned to a future that includes loneliness marked by uncertainty and feelings that are evasive.  Each person for whom Mother’s Day produces tears not joy finds validation, meaning, and deeper joy in the same place as all the happy moms – in Jesus.  He’s inside the insider’s circle, but he looks out at all who struggle and weep through Mother’s Day; he looks out at those whose chin is bucked and shoulders squared, who won’t give in to the loneliness, who bravely try to put on a smile; he opens the insider’s circle, looks out and says, you there, you who are in such pain, come, join us.  You belong with us because you belong to me.

The doctor I mentioned, Lewis Wall wrote about the woman with the blood flow in an article in Christianity Today magazine.  Because the discharge of blood wise most likely tied to irregular menstruation, she probably had no children.  And this had gone on for 12 years.  “A 12-year stretch without a pregnancy would have been very unusual in ancient Galilee.  [Annual pregnancies were] commonplace.  It would have been almost unheard of to go 12 years without a pregnancy.”[i] 
The woman was unable to obey the command of God to be fruitful and multiply.  “She was thus cut off from something that gave her life meaning and provided her acceptable social status: motherhood.  To be infertile in a culture where motherhood was the supreme female virtue hung a cloud not only over her current life, but also over her future prospects.”  In great detail, Dr. Wall discusses how this situation made life debilitating and without hope for her in terms of health, in terms of social interaction, and in terms of future hope.  She was no one.  She knew it. Everyone knew it. 
Yet, she did not stand pat.  Her status as outsider was actually legally mandated.  If one touched her during her bloody discharge that person would become “unclean” and disqualified from temple worship.  Her rejection from normal society and thus relationships and human touch was law.  So, to force her way into a dense crowd was to break the law.  That’s what she did.  I don’t know if her move is best described as faith, determination, or desperation.  But, she covered up, forced her way in, went unnoticed, and violating all convention touched Jesus.
And it worked!  It worked because coming to Jesus is always the very best solution to a problem.  Don’t take that simplistically!  If someone has a cancerous tumor, it is not enough to turn to Jesus.  He must also get with an oncologist and maybe have surgery.  If someone is being sued, in addition to turning to Jesus, she should get a good lawyer.  The doctor will take care of the tumor.  The lawyer will guide us through the case.  Jesus is there to make sure it is well with our souls on the hard days, on the good days, and on the uncertain days.  The woman turned to Jesus and was healed.
Better still!  She managed to remain anonymous.  There many people and they were caught up in the excitement of all Jesus was doing.  They had no time for her and didn’t notice.  They didn’t see her violate the law.  She could slip away and clean up.  She would put on a new outfit, show herself to the priest, be declared clean, and start life again. 
This was perfect – but one did notice.  We are not ever out of God’s sight.  God is not, as Bette Midler sang watching from a distance.  God is up close and personal.  Things didn’t slip Jesus.  He noticed her.  He always notices outsiders.  You may feel like the biggest loser around, someone who fails at everything, but don’t believe it.  God notices you and me.  God made us.  God made you unique and God wants to fill your heart with His love.  As that happens, God will show you that your life is not a failure.  As we are filled with the Spirit, we see that God will work in us and through us to accomplish mighty things.
Jesus stopped the procession, the phalanx of people parading to watch as he healed Jairus’ daughter, as he worked yet another miracle.  Jesus stopped in the middle and looked out and called the outsider.  The woman had determinedly come and touched Jesus’ garment when his back was turned and no one was watching her.  Now, she trembled as she came and with all eyes on her explained her shame and why she had touched Jesus and what she had done.  Famed preacher Fred Craddock remarks “Faith is indeed personal, but it is certainly not private.”[ii]  As true as it was for that woman, it is equally so for all who trust in Jesus.  We are to tell who He is and what He has done for us and for all sinners.
The outsider, the now healed woman, explained herself and Jesus re-classified her on the spot.  The world she lived in called her “unclean” and relegated her to the forgotten fringes of society.  Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  Daughter!  An outsider, this lady?  No, no!  The king of kings and lord of lords, God’s own son, our Savior, God in the flesh called her “daughter.”  He called her daughter and bid her “peace.”  All this woman had heard in her life was “keep out, you’re dirty, stay away.”  Now Jesus said, “Come, join us.  You are a daughter of God.  Welcome into the eternal family.  Your place is at the main table.”  She wasn’t just restored for human relationships, wonderful as that was.  She was invited as a child of God.

We are too.  Is Mother’s Day hard because of loss or broken relationships or unrealized dreams?  The gentle hands of Jesus are extended to you and he says, “Come, join us.” 
Do you feel awkward, like you can’t fit in, like everyone is laughing and you didn’t get the joke?  Jesus reaches to you in your loneliness and says, “Come, Son, join us.” 
Do you feel a pain you are sure no one else knows or understands?  You might be right.  No one else does understand what you’re dealing with.  But Jesus does.  He says, “Come, Daugher, join us.”
Do we dare believe him?  Do we dare accept that Jesus means it, he will truly love us?  Can we let go of our identity as the forgotten ones, the excluded ones, the losers?  Can we let go of the hate that’s been building, brick by brick, each time more person is cruel or indifferent?  Can we let go and run into Jesus’ waiting arms?
Twelve years is a long time to bleed.  A lifetime is a long time to spend as an outsider.  This is not a call to conformity.  Jesus was not a conformist.  This is an invitation to community – communion with God and God’s family.  This is God asking for relationship with you and me because he loves us.  That’s why Jesus came.  Representing God Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus came to say, “Come, my friend.  Receive forgiveness of your sins.  Receive freedom from the consequences of sin and shame, failure and loneliness. Come to me as a beloved child of God.  Come, and join us.”

[i] Lewis Wall, “Jesus and the Unclean Woman,” Christianity Today, January, 2010, p.48-52.
[ii] Craddock, Fred, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Luke (John Knox Press: Louisville, 1990), p.120.

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