A sermon for St. Aidan's, San Francisco and Mary Magdalene the Apostle Catholic Community, San Diego, pre-recorded for Pride Sunday, June 27, 2021.
Proper 8B: Mark 5:21-43
Good morning, all. It is an honor to get to share this sermon with two communities today—not only with St. Aidan’s here in San Francisco but also with Mary Magdalene the Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego where my friend and collaborator the Reverend Kori Pacyniak is the Pastor. We here at St. Aidan’s appreciated Kori’s leading a session in our series on the theme of Wilderness this past Lent, and as part of this sermon swap, we along with you in San Diego look forward to hearing Kori preach on July 11th. Our online worship experiences during the pandemic have been a challenge in so many ways, yet I appreciate these opportunities for collaboration – thank you for your spirit of adventure in the midst of it all.
When I was in college in, I believe, the Spring of 1993, I remember attending a special service at a Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Since my early teens I had been exploring a call to ordained ministry. I had come to embrace that vocation more deeply in college as I learned about the movements for women’s ordination in and beyond my own Episcopal Church tradition. As someone assigned female at birth who had in 1993 come out as gay but not yet as trans, I was by this point becoming acutely aware of and anxious about the barriers to ordination not only for women but also for LGBTIQ+ people of various genders as well. Somehow I had heard that the Reverend Dr. Jane Adams Spahr would be guest preaching at this particular church that day. Dr. Spahr had been ordained in 1974 and had served Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania and the Bay Area until the early 1980s when, as her entry on the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network puts it, “Janie began her ‘out’ liberation work with and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as the Minister of Pastoral Care in the Castro area of Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco from 1980-1982 when her own Presbyterian denomination did not know what to do with this ‘lesbyterian’.” When I heard her sometime after March, 1993, Dr. Spahr was on a preaching tour “challenging exclusive church policies” after a church court had prevented her from accepting a call to serve as part of a ministry team in Rochester, New York. I remember sitting in the pew in awe at this dynamic, powerful preacher whose sermon was punctuated by the repeated question, “what happens when we know/no”? Her word choice was intentionally ambiguous, simultaneously spelled n-o or k-n-o-w. She told stories, poignant and funny as I recall, that lifted up the deep ways we come to know (k-n-o-w) our truths, and how painful it is when those truths are denied, no-ed we might say, whether by ourselves or by others. As someone who had very recently begun to come out to myself and felt vulnerable to potential rejection whether by family, friends, or church, I was inspired to see someone sharing the good news of God as fully and authentically herself. I remember thanking her afterward, and carefully taking the bulletin from that service back to my dorm. I still have it.
I thought about that experience and Dr. Spahr’s question this week as I sat with this morning’s passage from Mark’s gospel (Mk 5:21-43), mindful of our location in Pride month, aware of the fortieth anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS, and knowing that San Diego celebrated Pride two weeks ago, while San Francisco is celebrating this weekend. What happens when we encounter n-o’s, barriers to living, moving, and having our being in the world, embracing what we know –k-n-o-w – to be true? How can we make our way together through those barriers to embody the people we are called to be and to become? Our passage from Mark’s gospel offers a dramatic response in the form of two healing stories, one of them sandwiched within another. The outer story layer—the bread of the sandwich, if you will— is the healing of the daughter of Jairus, identified as a leader of a synagogue. The inner story layer is about the healing of a woman who, the text says, “had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.” To add insult to injury, we hear, “she had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” Hearing this description, I could not help but think of women, of people of various genders, of LGBTIQ+ people, people living with HIV, who have “endured much” in our healthcare system. People without access to health insurance or whose health needs have not been covered by the insurance they do have. People who have had their bodies and experiences discounted, denied, or stigmatized within the medical system. People like the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, a pioneering African American Episcopal priest whose feast day is coming up July 1st, who as early as the 1940s and ‘50s unsuccessfully sought access to medical information and intervention to help embody their gender more authentically, as Dr. Murray’s archive painstakingly and painfully preserves. Even as I am grateful for the healthcare we can and do receive in this country, and the extraordinarily dedicated people who work within that system, particularly in this pandemic context, and as one who had the privilege of access to medical transition almost 20 years ago, I am mindful of many stories I have heard over the years of people seeking to understand what is happening in their bodies, or to embody more fully deep personal truths, only to encounter barrier after barrier. What happens when we no/know? How do we respond?
The woman at the heart of this morning’s story embodies extraordinary, hope-filled agency in the face of demoralization. Fighting her way through the crowd, she aims not to ask for Jesus’ help, or even to say anything to him at all. She aims simply to touch him – and not even his hands or his face, but his cloak, saying “if I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Here I wonder, if we think of how clothing serves as a threshold between our bodies and our world—a border through which in some sense we interpret ourselves to our world and are interpreted, what does it mean that the woman specifically reaches out for this border? The versions of this story in Matthew and Luke emphasize that threshold quality of the encounter all the more, specifying not just Jesus’ garment but “the fringe of his garment” (Mt 9:20 & Lk 8:44). As soon as she touches the cloak (or the fringe of that cloak), we hear, “immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.” She felt in her body. She knew. She had known what she needed to do, and she did it. And in the moment of claiming that agency, from the flow of clothing to the swirl of the crowd, she was healed.
Jesus knew too, in an intriguing way. Just as the woman felt the healing occur in her body, Jesus felt it as well, as an outpouring of power. He seems to have no idea to whom this power had flown. And as he seeks to learn more, Jesus’ own embodied experience emerges, again, with an emphasis on clothing. First, he asks his disciples not “who touched me” but (uniquely to Mark), “who touched my clothes?” This distinction is lost on his disciples—they point to the thronging crowd and ask in disbelief, “how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” But that’s not quite what he had said. The disciples can’t believe Jesus thinks he could actually identify who touched him amid the throng. But Jesus knows better—we might say his cloak knew better, as indeed had the woman who identified it from the start as a flow of healing power—Jesus’ and now hers. As Mark puts it, the woman, “knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” In response to this outpouring, Jesus affirms what was already true: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” The faith of this woman, named in kinship terms now as daughter, had made her well. Now she was to go forth, carrying that healing out into her world in peace.
Meanwhile in the midst of this extraordinary exchange, Jairus receives word that his daughter had succumbed to her illness. “Why bother the teacher any further?” Yet Jesus will not hear of this no. Not here, and not when he arrives at the house and people laugh at his declaration that the child was asleep and not dead. And then, after he has shooed away the naysayers, he speaks what he knows, saying to the child, “Talitha cum. Little girl, get up.” Again, as with the woman who had touched his cloak, what he has affirmed is her agency. Immediately she gets up and begins to walk about.
How do we respond to what we know, when we experience the nos of our world? Of our church? We trust our knowledge. We reach out in hope. We touch the cloak of the one who came among us to heal us and set us free. And we come together to remind ourselves what we know is true. People of Mary Magdalen of the Apostle, from everything I know of your story, this is what you have done over the years. You have refused to embrace a no to the authentic vocation of women and nonbinary people to the priesthood. You know and celebrate who you are, and you embody the grace of the Holy Spirit as Catholics amid a system that does not recognize you. But I want to say from where I stand here in San Francisco and in the spirit of our traditions both shared and distinct, that I see you, and I salute you. It was an honor to be with you for a few brief hours when Kori was ordained in February of 2020—I actually found the ticket in my coat pocket earlier today, the last time I flew before the pandemic. And it was thrilling to see Kori’s story and yours shared and celebrated in this week’s New Yorker magazine. St. Aidanites, you should check it out. All of us are on a journey. As communities and as individuals, we have come far. When I think of Dr. Spahr’s question, “what happens when we know?” I feel gratitude and challenge—gratitude for the people who embody hope even with the very the fringes of their clothing. Speaking of which, I will leave you with an image: last Sunday evening I attended a street drag Eucharist near us in the Castro. I had never been to anything quite like it before, and particularly in this pandemic moment after so many months of screens and separation, it was a profound experience. What I heard and saw was a wildly creative collection of responses to Dr. Spahr’s question. What happens when we no/know? We clothe ourselves in joy, in persistence, in transformation, in humor, in love, in healing, in faith that makes us whole.
God’s peace be with you.
 https://www.mmacc.org  https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/jane-adams-spahr Accessed 6/26/21  Actually, San Diego Pride took place after this sermon: https://sdpride.org/pride/  See the recently released documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray, as well as the biographies Jane Crow and Pauli Murray. The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas on the panel “A Saint for All Saints”, November 1, 2020, insightfully commented on how Dr. Murray’s life queered binaries of race and gender. https://www.emmanuelboston.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Pauli-Murray-event-2020-program.pdf. See also Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in America (Harvard University Press, 2002), 36-37, 296 n. 73 & 74.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/06/28/the-women-who-want-to-be-priests?source=search_google_dsa_paid&gclid=Cj0KCQjws4aKBhDPARIsAIWH0JVmU9Powi3f38wZQl7gBusVlhvdxTXcoa6JRQ60F8k8QQ82vWXcuHsaAt_gEALw_wcB I would note, however, that the title of the piece “The Women Who Want to Be Priests” should have been more gender expansive and also reflected what the article details, namely that those profiled are in fact priests.