This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, September 6, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.
It’s based on Mark 5:24-34.
Izidor Ruckel’s life is a miracle, sort of (pictured above). Izidor, born in 1980 in Romania, was abandoned in the hospital at six weeks old by his impoverished parents. He had a crippled leg, perhaps because of polio, and they didn’t have the resources to raise him and his many siblings. At three, he was moved to the “Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children.”
Izidor is a central figure in a recent Atlantic article by Melissa Fay Green, exploring the impact of childhood neglect (July/August, 2020). Perhaps as many as 170,000 children like Izidor became unfortunate test cases for studying neglect after the fall of communism in Romania in 1990. In orphanages and Homes for the Irrecoverable, these children grew up with nearly no human contact, touch, and care. For example, though as many as 500 children lived in Izidor’s Home, its halls were largely silent. The children had learned that there was no use in crying. Nobody came. They were fed with gruel-filled bottles propped up against crib bars, even long after other children would have been eating solid food.
In the thirty years since, researchers have found that a vast majority of these children experience significant problems in mental and social ability as adults. At 11, Izidor was adopted by the Ruckel family in California, and his life was changed forever. Yet, Izidor assesses himself this way today: “You can be the smartest orphan in the hospital. But you are missing things. I’m not a person who can be intimate. It’s hard on a person’s parents, because they show you love and you can’t return it.”
To hear Izidor’s story is to be reminded of the deep need we have for human contact, human touch, and human care, which sheds significant light on the woman Jesus encounters in the middle of Mark 5. We don’t know her name, which in itself is significant: she’s the “hemorrhaging woman” in Mark, as well as in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Her twelve-year disease – of feminine bleeding – had become her identity. According to Levitical law and its rabbinical interpretation, she was seen as ritually unclean as long as she continued menstruating (Lev. 15) – barred from the community and worship.
But her plague was not just a spiritual label. People couldn’t touch her, or her clothing, or anything that she sat or laid upon, or else they’d be deemed ritually unclean for the rest of the day too. As such, what could she do? If she had a family, would they touch her? Could she nurture anyone else? Did she have children, longing to be hugged by her, but kept at a distance? Where could she go? No chair or mat in the house was acceptable for her. Could she even live with anyone, except for others deemed similarly unclean? To make matters worse she was destitute: she’d spent all she had on medical treatments – all without success. Her situation reminds me of Izidor: with every passing year, absent physical touch and human care, she likely withdrew further and further into herself, perhaps growing unable to sustain any meaningful relationships. She was, like Izidor, seen as “irrecoverable.”
But when she heard about Jesus, a teacher who’d healed so many other people near Capernaum and beyond, she joined the ever-growing crowds around Jesus. She knew she shouldn’t be there. Very likely, everyone in town knew of her condition. But something in her knew – just knew – that if she only touched his clothes, she could be healed. So, she crept through the crowds, ducking under arms and twisting around bodies. She reached out to Jesus, touched his clothes, and immediately, she knew that she’d been healed.
At that very moment, Jesus recognized that something had happened, that power had gone out from him without intent or permission. “Who touched my clothes?” Jesus asked (v. 30). His disciples were perplexed: Jesus, you see the crowds. How could we know who touched you? Everyone is touching you. They wanted him to keep going. They had important work to do for an important person: they were going to heal Jairus the synagogue leader’s daughter. And the crowds knew it too. But in that moment, Jesus stopped everything. He wanted an answer. Jesus, bearing God’s healing authority, presence, and kingdom, stops to invite relationship. He waited for a response. He waited for a connection to accompany that human touch.
“The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward” (v. 33). She fell on her knees before Jesus. She knew she shouldn’t have touched him, and now she’d stolen a healing blessing from him. And she’d made him unclean in the process. Uncertain of what he’d do, she told him the “whole truth” – confessing her actions, but likely also explaining her hope, and her long suffering. But rather than being angry or disgusted, Jesus called her by a new name, daughter, and proclaimed, “your faith has healed you” (v. 34).
Jesus restores her life, so that she can live in faith. In her healing, and then in stopping to engage with her, Jesus reveals God’s caring, healing, life-giving presence, so that she can enter into life anew. And while we don’t know what she did next, Mark tells this story so that we who hear and read it can see and follow Jesus. He restores her life so that she and we can follow Jesus.
Today, this woman’s story raises hard, heart wrenching questions for us. Who among us have lived longing for healing, for wholeness, and for release from suffering? Who among us knows the pain of going further and further in debt in order to pay for treatment after treatment, some of which work and some which don’t? Who among us, in our community and families, are struggling, largely silently and alone, under the weight of grief, illness, pain, or financial insecurity? Who are too scared, or ashamed, or despondent to even bother asking for help, for company, for life? Who are those whose cries we no longer hear or respond to, as the babies like Izidor at the Home for Irrecoverable Children? Who among us feels equally irrecoverable?
The struggles of the hemorrhaging woman and Izidor, while specific, are not unique. We may experience them differently, but we can likely relate, if not for ourselves, then through someone we know. We know the need to be healed, to be made whole, to be touched, and to be greeted with love and acceptance. Especially in these COVID days, we know the need and longing for human touch and care, and we miss it. We miss it in worship. We miss it in our workplaces. We miss the opportunities to visit family, to sit with people as they die, and even to sit cheek to cheek in cheering stands. We know the longing and need for healing, loving touch.
As I said earlier, Izidor’s story is a miracle of sorts, and it is. His adoption created opportunities for health and life he could barely dream of before. Still, we remember his admission that something is missing in him: attachments are difficult. He struggled with the Ruckels, and they struggled with him. After many fights and threats, he left home at sixteen, never to live there again. But one day, while getting a haircut, the stylist told him that his family had been in a car accident. He raced from the salon to the hospital and then to the house with an armful of roses. He knocked tentatively on the door, not unlike the woman reaching hesitantly through the crowds. His father answered the door, hesitant. He would only let Izidor enter if he promised to be kind. When he did, he knelt before his mother with the flowers and said, “These are for all of you. I love you.” Izidor stepped toward the love he’d received but had always been unable to reciprocate. He knocked on the door he’d slammed behind him. And he found it opened to him again: restored to family, to love, and to life. While Izidor doesn’t say it this way, I would say that Jesus restored Izidor and his family to life, so that they could live in relationship, love, and peace.
Izidor and the Ruckels experienced Jesus’s healing presence, but it has never looked like what they expected or hoped it would. And likely, we who’ve known longsuffering, pain, heartbreak, and struggle know that simply praying for healing while reaching out to Jesus has not always resulted in our healing, at least in ways we expected. In Feasting on the Word, Michael Lindvall tells about a friend of his, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his fifties. Over the next twenty years, he and his wife prayed for his healing. Nearing death, Lindvall’s friend told him with all sincerity, “I have been healed, not of Parkinson’s disease, but I have been healed of my fear of Parkinson’s disease” (Year B, vol.3, 190). We may pray and long and reach out for healing, and healing may not come as we desire or pray. But, as with this man with Parkinson’s, Jesus does heal, does answer prayers. Stopping in the middle of an important mission for the woman, Jesus shows that the God of life always has time for us, is always present. Jesus restores us to life, so that we can live with hope.
May we be a people shaped by hope of Jesus’s healing presence. May we be a people assured of God’s loving presence, stopping everything to be with us. May we be a people who bear God’s healing presence, God’s touch, for others. May it be so.
Addendum: Mission or Calling.
The Spirit led me not the include the following as part of the preached sermon. I suppose this sense arose because of a need for us to simply hear that Jesus heals us, that Jesus restores us to life so that we can live with hope and faith. Of course, experiencing Jesus always includes an invitation to ministry, to a way of being in the world, to being witnesses: a calling. Essentially, these boil down to at least this question: what does it mean to live in response to Jesus’ healing of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5, in response to Jesus who heals?
One answer here might be this. The hemorrhaging woman shows us the persistence of hope and faith: to keep on praying, keep on waiting, keep on looking for Jesus to restore us to life so that we can live with hope. Perhaps, it’s like Izidor: we turn back to a slammed shut door with faith and hope. Yet, in this, we’d do well to be gracious to ourselves and others, for just because Jesus says healing came through her faith doesn’t mean that our lack of healing is a result of inadequate faith. So, our first calling may be to keep praying, to keep seeking, to keep reaching out to Jesus who stops the world to connect with us in healing.
Another answer to this question is an extension of our baptismal calling. In baptism, we promise to be a nurturing community. So, how can we take this calling seriously, seeking to ensure that nobody becomes a nameless, suffering disease? In this, can we be a people known for our connections of care, for our phone calls, letters, and visits? Can we be a people who continually walk alongside those like the woman and Izidor, so that they will know they never walk this road of suffering alone? If we live into the calling, we will be a people of hope, shining light into the darkness of despair, pain, and grief. We will be, little by little by the grace of God, a vision of the kingdom of God Jesus reveals.
- In the addendum above, I raised this question: “What does it mean to live in response to Jesus’ healing of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5, in response to Jesus who heals?” I gave a few responses, but what did I miss? How do Jesus’s actions in this passage shape or touch you?
- This passage is sandwiched in the middle of another healing story – that of Jairus, the synagogue leader’s, daughter. She dies while Jesus stops with the woman. He raises her back to life. Read the full text (Mark 5:21-43) and then consider how they’re alike and different? How does faith and doubt play out in these two stories combined?
- Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter echoes Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarephath and Elisha’s raising of another woman’s son (1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 4). Then, remember Mark’s introduction of the good news of Jesus Christ God’s son (Mark 1:2-3). What is significant about Jesus acting like previous prophets have acted before in scripture? What do these actions’ similarity to the prophets tell us about Jesus’s identity?
- This chapter begins with Jesus on the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee (the Gentile land) (Mark 5:1-20). As another healing scene, how does this one relate to the other two in the chapter? What’s alike? What’s different?
- Have you experienced healing that you attribute to Jesus? Have you shared that experience with others? Try it as a testimony to Jesus healing and restoring life.
- Have you longed and prayed for healing that didn’t come in the way you expected it, but did still come? Consider sharing that experience with someone else.
- Have you longed and prayed for healing, but feel like God has walked on by instead of stopping to heal you or your loved one? How have people responded to your struggle? How do you wish they’d respond? What is the good news in this passage for you as you suffer or struggle? How is this passage hard to read? Can you talk about this difficulty with someone else?
- I thought about our experiences during the COVID pandemic as I was thinking about this sermon, especially the ways we are discouraged from physical contact and visiting people. How has that been difficult for you? Does this relate to the woman’s suffering for you?
Just for fun, here’s a song about the need for human touch, and its power in our lives.