Breaking the cages

Pentecost 5

Lam 3:22-33; Ps 30
2 Cor 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister

“There was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years. She had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” (Mark 5:25-26)

You gotta feel for this woman. Sick with an illness that was not only debilitating but also embarrassing, she had sought help year after year after year. She had cried out to anyone who might have ears to hear, but those who heard her cries had taken everything she had, and turned away. It is a story all too familiar to those of us who have lived in countries without universal access to healthcare; we can practically see it: not only her, but those who wished to profit from her distress. The doctors who had real training and skill, the charlatans, those peddling cures by faith. All of them sucking her dry — because they could.

In the last few weeks, we have been handed grisly proof that this woman is alive and well in Canada — only, she’s not just one person. Or even one nation. She has been walking among us, crying out, “Help me. I am bleeding. My children are gone, and I do not know where they have been laid.” And those to whom she has cried have simply continued to strip whatever resources she had left, and turn away. It is a living nightmare, not only for the families and communities who have been ravaged, but also for Canadians of good will — people like those in this room — who are struggling to find a way to deal with what has been done in our name, with the participation of our own church, but without our consent. There are some wrongs which simply cannot be made right, and yet — we cannot just leave wounds of this magnitude to bleed. African-American preachers like to say, “God can make a way out of no way.” We need that way. We need that God. So let’s see what happens when that God meets that woman.

A few weeks ago, I got to listen online as the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, one of the great living preachers, preached about this passage. Honestly, if the video were public, I’d turn it on right here, but let’s just say I owe him a debt for some of what I’m going to say to you.

As we all know, the woman was in some danger when she decided to approach Jesus. She was in danger because her condition involved blood, and blood made things unclean under Hebrew law. A woman who was menstruating had to be isolated, wait a certain number of days after the end of her cycle, and then immerse herself in a mikvah, a ritual bath, before she could rejoin human society. So a woman whose courses never stopped would never reach the point of being able to go to the mikvah, and would have to remain apart.

Dr. Moss pointed out that the word we usually translate as “unclean” really means “restricted” — the woman was living under a restriction. It limited where she could go, whom she could see, what she could do. It prevented her from earning money to support herself. The restriction, it’s worth pointing out, was not intended to be cruel: it was a public health measure. The woman suffered from a serious condition that no one knew how to cure, so she was in quarantine to protect the rest of the community. (Sound familiar?) With a normal disease, it would have been no big deal; once she recovered, she’d have resumed her life. But with an illness that lasted for years, it cut her off from the people she had loved and the person she had been. We here have struggled with living isolated lives for one year, with the help of the internet, and so we should be able to imagine what it must have been like for her, year after year after year, keeping to her rooms or moving silently among the sick, watching as others turned their face away.

Living like that would take a toll on you; it would eat away at your sense of who you are. The author Martin Laird describes a day when he went out early to walk in the fields near his home, and he came across a man walking with three beautiful dogs. Two of the dogs were leaping and bounding through the long grass, chasing butterflies, wrestling with each other, and savoring the sheer joy of being alive. The third dog was also running, in small, tight circles, a few feet across. After awhile, Laird approached the owner and asked, “What’s with that dog?” The owner replied that the third dog was a rescue, who had lived in a cage for years. Now that he was free, the only way he knew how to run was to trace the dimensions of that cage. 1

If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us live with some version of that cage. It’s the voices we heard when we were young, the ones telling us who the speaker thought we were. You can’t do that; you’re not smart enough. You’re not athletic enough. You’re not pretty enough. You’re only a girl. Real men don’t cry. You’re a child from a poor family; that dream is not for you. Over and over we heard the voices, and most of us let them in. We let them in until they become our cage, until we allow them to constrain what we let ourselves become.

And so the first miracle in this story isn’t the one done by Jesus; it’s the one done by the woman. This woman, whose name we don’t even know, but who risks it all on one throw of the dice. This woman who rises up against all the forces of restriction, against the indifference of her neighbors, against the voices who have told her: This is your place; stay in it — who, somehow, remembers who she is. Not a pariah. Not an outcast. Not a source of disease. But a woman, a human being, a child of God. And so she comes to Jesus, knowing that she’s got nothing left to lose, because if she keeps on listening to all those voices, she will lose the one thing left to her — her self. Her dignity as a human being.

This woman gets up and she comes to Jesus, but she is not unscathed by her past. We know that because she does not come to him like Jairus, like so many others, and ask to be healed. Instead, she sneaks up behind him in a crowd and touches the hem of his robe. She comes to him like one who is not worthy to be there.

And she is healed.

But Jesus, knowing power had gone out of him, turns and asks, “Who touched me?” Who touched me? And even as the disciples are exclaiming the crowd is huge, people are bumping up against each other, no one can know — the woman comes forward. You see, she has been healed. Not only her body, but her soul. Now, she is able to come forward and stand before Jesus and pour out her whole story to him. The story, remember, could get her condemned. The story is that she has broken the law, violated her restriction, entered a crowd while she was unclean, and touched a rabbi, rendering him unclean. And yet, she tells her story. And Jesus looks at her and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Daughter, your faith has made you well. Did you hear it? Daughter. Do you remember that time when Jesus turns to Peter and calls him “my son”? Or to John, the Beloved Disciple, and calls him Brother? You don’t remember, because those things did not happen. There is one story in which Jesus says that all who follow God’s will are his brother and sister and mother, but in all four gospels, there are only two specific people Jesus addresses as kin. Astonishingly, Mary is not one of them. We have no record of Jesus calling her “Mother,” rather than “Woman.” No, in all four gospels, the only two Jesus addresses as kin are God, whom he calls Father, and this woman, whom he names as Daughter. This woman, whose name we do not know.

With that one word, Jesus restores her to relationship with humankind and with God. With humankind, because he was a man. With God, because, well, if she’s Jesus’ daughter, we all know who her grandfather has to be. And Jesus puts paid to some really bad theology as well. We heard it this morning, in the Lamentations of Jeremiah:

It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust…
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
and be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
reject for ever. (Lam 3:26-31)

You know, don’t you, how often they must have said those words to that woman? Be still. If you are suffering, it is because God wants you to suffer. Endure what you must. It is the same broken theology that turns God from a loving father into a cruel or indifferent tyrant. But here, Jesus looks at a woman who has had the audacity to escape her restriction, and he calls her daughter.

You see, the children of God are not only those who suffer in patience when there is no choice. The children of God are those who have the courage to ask the hard questions, to push through the easy answers, to name what is broken, to cry it out and call it out and push against it until their words come to the ears of God, who can shake the bones of this world and make a way out of no way. The God who raised Jairus’ daughter from dead, and who can raise our dead, too.

My friends, we are not without hope. There are times when it right to sit in silence. We, as a nation, may be in one of those times right now. Those two mass graves are not going to be the last. We all know that. Our work right now is to listen, to see, to learn, to understand, and to mourn. To let ourselves feel this wound, which is also our wound. As the ubuntu teaching from South Africa reminds us, “we are human only through the humanity of others.”

But we do not live without hope, and this harrowing set of discoveries is also a door which can be made to open into a new kind of freedom. Like the woman in the story, we have nothing to lose — except our shame. This situation has been broken too long, just as all the forms of bondage in our lives have been there too long for the patience of a God who can make a way out of no way, who can set the captive free. St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” (Gal 5:1,5) The hope of righteousness — because we always live in hope, not of what we have already seen, but of the good things we have yet to see. (Rom 8:24) The hope of a world ordered by love; of a society in which each person has what they need to thrive; the hope that each of our cages will be broken; that the goodness of God will be revealed all around us. And that hope imposes on us the obligation of audacity — to reach for what is right, to care for our neighbor, to bring all that is broken before our God, to cry out “Your daughter is at the point of death, but we know you can make her well.” We know you can make her well. Thanks be to God.

1 Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land.


  1. Reply
    Roslyn Macgregor says:

    Thank you!!!

  2. Reply
    Valerie Bennett says:

    Amazing. as always. God bless you, Rev. Deborah.

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