Lessons: Mark 5:21-43
The passages the lectionary chooses for these summer Sundays present us with a string of miracles. That may seem cruel when many of us, lately, would dearly love for God to intervene in a miraculous way in world or national affairs. Or maybe you don’t believe in miracles, and even when I assure you that the question isn’t, “Did it really happen?” but rather, “What does it mean?” it doesn’t help. Instant healings, the miraculous resuscitation of the dead – maybe that’s just pretty hard for you to swallow.
Okay then, how about a real miracle, instead? In her 2017 TEDTalk, psychologist Susan Pinker explains that there’s a remote, mountainous area on the Italian island of Sardinia where people live very long lives. The region has more than ten times as many people over 100 years of age than North America. Why? Pinker describes a study that looked at the factors that most predict longevity for people anywhere, not just Sardinia. Some factors aren’t as important as we might guess. Whether you’re overweight and whether you get exercise are only moderate predictors. An annual flu shot is more important than either. Quitting smoking is way up there, but at the very top of the list are two features of your social life. First is close relationships. These are the people you can call on for a loan if you have an emergency medical bill or need a deposit on an apartment; who’ll drive you to the hospital, or sit with you if you’re in despair. And even a bit more important than close relationships is something called social integration. This is how much you interact with people as you move through your day. Not just see them, but speak with them; exchange pleasantries with them, in both close relationships and casual encounters. Your spouse, and your co-worker, and the guy behind the cash register at Peet’s; folks at an AA meeting or the Closely Knit Group or the Transition Support Group, or coffee hour. Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long we’ll live.
So, those folks in Sardinia? The village is densely populated – buildings are close together and the town is laced with small alleyways. This means the villagers’ lives constantly intersect. This is the miracle that helps them live longer lives.
If you’re wondering, “Okay, Joanne, where’s the miracle?” think about it. We were created to connect. We are created to need each other. Face-to-face contact – and yes, I do mean face-to-face as opposed to texting or Instagram or email – face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters that are like a vaccine, protecting us now, in the present, but also well into the future. Shaking hands, high fives, even just eye contact increase oxytocin, which increases our level of trust, and lowers our cortisol levels – so it lowers our stress. We actually, literally, and physically need each other. We actually, literally, and physically can help each other live longer lives – oh, and by the way, studies say happier lives, too.
I think that’s miraculous. So much of our American culture insists that we should be self-sufficient; we should be rugged individuals. But if we want to live a long and happy life, we can’t. It’s like the Barbra Streisand song from “Funny Girl”: People who need people are in fact the luckiest people in the world.
It can be hard to admit this. Some of us can’t admit we need anyone because we’re too invested in having it all together – or at least in looking as though we have it all together – to admit that we actually don’t. It’s scary to be vulnerable. Some of us know we don’t have it all together, but that’s hard to admit because we’re pretty sure that’s unacceptable to the people around us. What would people think?
I heard a story about a pastor who had several events scheduled on Sunday after church, and he ran late to each one because first a woman stopped him to ask for a time to see him during the week, and at the next event a man told him about difficulties he was having with his son, and then at a dinner event another man told him about his separation from his wife. Each time his wife pressed him to hurry along because they’d be late. At dinner, his wife shook her head and said, “Honey, why is it that you always end up sitting next to people with problems?” He said, “Dear, whenever you sit next to people, you sit next to a problem.”
The pastor, like Jesus in the Mark passage, shows us that sometimes we need to let our schedules be interrupted. But it also points to the truth that nobody – I mean nobody – has it all together, and everybody, at times, has needs we can’t meet and problems we can’t solve on our own. So it’s a good thing we are created for community. In the community in the Mark passage this morning, Jesus meets three main characters. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue. It’s not the synagogue that’s significant; it’s that he’s a leader. Leaders are trained to be competent, to get things done, to keep it all together. Until your little girl gets sick, really sick, maybe even sick unto death. Any parent can imagine his agony. His love for his daughter has left him utterly vulnerable.
The woman is nearly the exact opposite of Jairus. She’s not a leader and has no social standing. She has no advocate to approach Jesus on her behalf. Worst of all, she’s ill, bleeding for twelve years. Mark doesn’t make a point of her impurity or isolation from the community, but because this was most likely menstrual-type bleeding it would have rendered her unclean and, just as important, probably unable to bear children. So she, too, is desperate, and braves the crowd seeking only to touch the cloak of this healer whatever the cost.
And then there’s the little girl. She’s twelve years old; a child. She, too, is utterly vulnerable.
Three very different characters; each in his or her own way vulnerable, each in his or her own way desperate – each, needing help. Which one might you identify with? The leader who finds that all his privilege doesn’t help in this situation? The one who has endured much and isn’t sure she can bear any more? Or the one who is helpless, and utterly dependent on others?
Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to Jesus’ compassionate response that it doesn’t register that it’s the very predictability of his compassion that makes it so extraordinary. That has been the consistent, if not relentless, pattern of Mark’s story about Jesus: Everywhere and always, he notices, cares for, and responds to those who are most vulnerable, restoring them to health, life, and wholeness.
The disciples are confused when he asks, “Who touched me?” “Lots of people are touching you, Teacher; why ask which one?” Somehow Jesus knows that amid the commotion, one person in particular is in need, one person needed restoration. Somehow, he can sense her vulnerability; he can tell when someone needs help. It reminded me of something Dr. Martin Luther King said in a sermon at the National Cathedral just four days before he was killed. King suggested that whatever differences we may experience, our mutual vulnerability and humanity unite us more deeply:
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” “This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.” People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been heartbroken by our national insensitivity to the vulnerable, as well as by the use of our faith and Scripture to justify it. We must speak out and take action when those who are vulnerable are exploited – and yet, this inescapable web of mutuality extends to those with whom we disagree as well as to the vulnerable. I’ve been reading a book I can’t recommend enough called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Author Jonathan Haidt points to yet another miracle: our unofficial American motto: “E Pluribus Unum.” From many, one. Haidt writes, “The process of converting pluribus – diverse people – into unum – a nation – is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.”
Nations decline or divide when they stop performing the miracle of E Pluribus Unum. We are called by our faith to notice and to care for the vulnerable, and to change the structures that keep people vulnerable. So let’s do it. But let’s do it, remembering that, in a democracy where we celebrate the miracle of E Pluribus Unum, we cannot do what God calls us to do by alienating the people with whom we disagree. We cannot do what God calls us to do by denigrating or dehumanizing other people for their deeply held moral principles. I don’t mean we shouldn’t; I mean we can’t. It will not work. Divisions will grow, the vulnerable will not be protected and the structures that keep them that way will remain intact. We need each other. It is way too tempting to assume I am on the side of righteousness and those who differ from me are not, when, actually, “[w]e are [all] tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
The week of our nation’s Independence Day celebration, I don’t stand here with a simple answer to our nation’s problems. There is nothing simple about our problems, and there are no simple answers. Instead, I will tell a story about Jesus, who always and everywhere sees, cares, heals, and restores those who are most vulnerable, and who also invites us to see ourselves as those who do not have it all together; as those for whom he reaches in healing as well, and then sends forth in love.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Susan Pinker, TED2017, https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life#t-555572
 Susan Pinker, ibid.
 https://www.bluezones.com/2017/11/6-factors-for-happiness/; https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/happiness-behaviours-characteristics-science-relationships-kindness-a7843631.html.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Remaining Awake Through the Great Revolution,” from A Knock at Midnight, which can be accessed at the following site:
https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10. Quoted by David Lose, “On Vulnerability, Need and Hope,” June 24, 2018, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-6-b-on-vulnerability-need-and-hope/.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books/Random House 2012), 193.
 David Lose, “On Vulnerability, Need and Hope,” June 24, 2018, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-6-b-on-vulnerability-need-and-hope/.