The Ick Factor

[A sermon preached on Mark 5:21-43 and Psalm 30 at Cove Presbyterian Church.]

I need a quick show of hands. Do we have any physicians in attendance today? Any nurses? Any EMTs or paramedics? Any physical therapists? Any other healthcare professionals? Any Grey’s Anatomy fans that secretly wish they were surgeons? (. . . guilty) Folks, each of these members of the medical community have a little recognized but sorely needed superpower that enables them to fearlessly contend with what I like to call the “ick factor.”

Oozing sores and fungal infections? Please, they won’t even flinch. Stool and urine samples? Just another day at the office. Ingrown toe nails and planter’s warts? They can cut those suckers out while chatting about the weekly weather report or last night’s baseball game. I mean, for Pete’s sake, they can casually ask their patients about the color of their phlegm or the regularity of their bowel movements without even an ounce of awkwardness. Grossing them out takes something pretty special, thank goodness, because there’s no place for squeamishness when their patients’ health is on the line.

But this morning’s text invites even us every day, faint-hearted people to come face to face with the ick factor. After all, the Bible isn’t full of perfect, stained glass people who’ve cleaned themselves up and put on their Sunday best. As the Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner writes, the characters we meet in these pages are “people who lived and breathed and sweated and made love and used bad language when they tripped over furniture in the dark and sometimes had more troubles than they knew what to do with and sometimes laughed themselves silly over nothing in particular and were thus, in many ways, very much like the rest of us” (Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, “Jairus’s Daughter”). The men and women of the biblical world, our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, were just as ordinary and, therefore, just as gross as the rest of us, I’m sorry to break it to you.

While the standards by which we judge our human icky-ness have changed, thanks, in large part, to modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, contemporary people, much like the people of Jesus’ day, devote an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money to masking the sweaty, smelly, hairy, sometimes sickly reality of living in a human body. Think about it. How many personal hygiene products can you count in your bathroom, bedroom, and medicine cabinet? How much of your morning is spent making yourself passably clean and presentable? How much do companies like Revlon and Loreal, Old Spice and Rogane spend on advertising to people who wish their bodies looked or smelled differently? Managing our human icky-ness is just as central to our culture, though, as it was to Jesus’s. Just like we have social norms and taboos in regard to personal hygiene, first century Jewish people had strict ritual purity laws aimed at maintaining cleanliness. Let me give you an example.

Take menstruation, for instance. It’s a completely normal, if somewhat inconvenient, biological process. A couple of tampons, maybe some Advil, and you’re good, right? But in ancient Jewish religious practice, a woman experiencing her monthly cycle was considered to be ritually unclean until the bleeding stopped, the required seven-day purification period was complete, and all of her clothing had been laundered. It’s a process that would have taken a couple of weeks out of every month. And since anything touched by a contaminated woman was made unclean by contact, seclusion was often the go-to solution. On a practical level, this meant that during the time that a woman was unclean she couldn’t leave her home, she couldn’t sleep in the same bed with her husband or even sit on the same cushion as him, and she couldn’t engage in any public activities, even and most especially religious life.

With all this in mind, imagine people’s surprise when a bleeding woman pushes her way to the center of the crowd surrounding Jesus, coming close enough to this rabbi, this religious teacher, this prophet, this holy man, to touch his cloak. And if that, in itself, weren’t scandalous enough, this ritually unclean woman interrupts Jesus as he’s hurrying to the bedside of a little girl on the brink of death, a little girl who just so happens to also be the daughter of a synagogue leader. You see, Jesus is on a mission. He’s just had a desperate father, a man on the edge of despair fall at his feet, and beg him, plead with him, to come and heal his daughter. Surely, Jesus and his horde of followers will rush to her aid, sirens blaring, lights flashing, full-steam ahead. I don’t know about you, but with a little girl’s life on the line, my adrenaline would be so high, I might have barely even noticed the woman’s fingertips brushing up against me. If you read in Matthew, we’re told that she barely grazes the fringe of Jesus’s garment.

But no, Jesus senses what she has done — maybe he feels her need, her desperation, her longing for community and belonging – and suddenly the whole healing parade grinds to a halt. Her touch stops him in his tracks as he turns around, not to rebuke or reprimand her, but to hear her story. Though Jesus doesn’t hesitate to attend to the bleeding woman, his disciples are incredulous. First of all, they’re in a crowd: everyone’s jostling for position and trying to get closer to the miracle worker, so of course people are bumping into Jesus! That’s no reason to make a pit stop! They need to get to this kid before it’s too late! But Jesus insists on stopping and hearing the whole truth. He listens intently as the woman recounts her long history of expensive treatments and failed interventions. He nods empathically as she tells of the sky-high medical bills that sent her into bankruptcy and foreclosure though she found no relief. He witnesses her hopelessness and hears her into wholeness.

Meanwhile, some messengers arrive from the religious leader’s home to tell Jesus that it’s too late. Thanks to his multi-tasking and inability to triage, he missed his chance. The little girl has died. But instead of giving up and moving on to the next person in need of healing, Jesus heads right over. He enters the leader’s house, not with “I’m sorry” or “I can’t believe I let this happen,” but with the confidence of a trained medical professional. Though the same ritual purity laws that discouraged him from touching the bleeding woman also forbade him from touching a dead corpse, he went straight to the little girl, took her by the hand, and raised her to new life.

As his healing encounters with both Jairus’s daughter and the woman with the issue of blood reveal, Jesus is more than willing to ignore the ick factor as he ministers to those in need. In fact this seems to be a theme of Mark’s Jesus. After all, in chapter five alone Jesus’s ministry involves a graveyard, a legion of unclean spirits, two thousand pigs, a bleeding woman, and a dead girl. That’s a lot of ick to contend with. But in each of these cases, Jesus enters into the arena of impurity without regard to the risk of defilement, overcoming uncleanliness, not through avoidance, but by administering a curative dose of intimacy, connection, and belonging. As far as Jesus is concerned, squeamishness is secondary when the person right in front of him is hanging precariously between acceptance and ostracism, sickness and recovery, life and death. In situations like these, Jesus would rather render himself unclean than ignore the needs of someone on the margins of society.

So, let me ask you: what would it mean for us to do the same? What would happen if we traded in the politics of purity for the practice of compassion? What would happen if we spent less of our time referencing rulebooks and more time painting welcome banners? What if we devoted fewer resources to patrolling systematically disadvantaged communities and allocated more resources toward uplifting them? What if we loosen our Presbyterian grip on decency and order and made room for a little chaos? What if we saw the messiness of this world as an invitation rather than a stop sign? What if we let the Gospel lead us into the icky-ness rather than allowing our fear or our own self-righteousness to inhibit our witness?

In a letter to Dorothy Day, the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote that “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can” (Stephen Hand, Catholic Voices in a World on Fire, 180).

Friends if Jesus Christ did not come into this world to be an arbiter of worthiness, a gatekeeper bent on excluding the unclean, then why would we ever seek to be? So often, religious people choose to highlight the line between worthy and unworthy, clean and unclean rather than erase it.

But before we can go from stumbling in the valley to standing on the mountaintop;

Before we can overcome our afflictions and rejoice in our healing;

Before we can end our march to the grave and begin skipping with the living;

Before we can stop crying ourselves to sleep and start laughing ourselves awake;

Before we can go from singing the blues to dancing in the streets;

Before we can throw out our wardrobe of sadness and replace it with a closet full of joy;

We have to let the need for grace overwhelm our concern for propriety.

Because when God’s grace knocks on the door of our sin-sick souls, we might caution her, “Gosh, this house is a mess, are you sure you want to come in?” but Grace never says no. Grace always comes in and Grace always lends a hand. May we open ourselves to receive, and in receiving, may we then offer to others. Amen.

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