08 June 2008

proper 5, year a

Gospel text: Matthew 9: 9-13; 18-26

She walks in a massive loop through central and northern Wilmington. She starts on a commercial four-lane highway called Concord Pike up there by the movie theatre, and walks south about five miles. She crosses westward and hits N. DuPont Street, walks right in front of the house where I used to live, and then turns right onto Pennsylvania Avenue and heads north eight or so miles. She turns right, cuts back over to the movie theatre, and starts all over.

On her wrists she carries plastic grocery sacks. They look heavy and weighted down. She’s wearing a white sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, and her salt and pepper hair hangs down past her shoulders. Her shoes are wrapped in duct tape.

I lived in Delaware for over two years and she walked by my house every Wednesday night between 6:45 and 7:00. Next to my dog, she was the most reliable, consistent presence in my life. And I never even saw her.

I mean, I saw her, but I didn’t really see her, you know? Clearly, I have a visual of her in my head. If I were a painter, I would have shown you this woman in shades of black and gray and white. If I had had more time, I would have made a map of Wilmington, Delaware, charting her course in thick red line, and I can do that, because I drove around a lot and always saw her walking in the same direction, on the same roads.

But I never really, really saw her. I was never moved by her. I never wondered about her or cried over her or laughed at her. I never talked about her. I never asked about her. No one speaks of her. She’s just there. Solid as a rock. Steady as she goes. Walking round and round and round. Roaming in a vicious cycle. Invisible.

Another woman, years and years ago, circled her town. By day, she had to stay inside, but at night she craved air, so she took to the streets of Nazareth and walked and walked until the sun came up. We heard about her briefly in today’s Gospel lesson—she was sick. Bleeding constantly. Unclean and isolated from society. We don’t know her name, but we do know that one day she was brave enough to leave her home before the sun went down. She heard that this man called Jesus had arrived. She heard that he performed miracles. She hoped—just hoped—that he’d fix her, make her whole.

Of course she was frightened. The law said that she shouldn’t be in public. The law forbade her from having any contact with anyone. She was sure that she wouldn’t make it ten feet out of her front door before she was shooed away like an unwanted fly at a picnic. She was just so sure that she’d be booed at or shunned or arrested. But the promise of this Jesus man was worth it, she thought, so she left.

Much to her surprise, she made it all the way into town. She passed the kids over there, the women drawing water from the well over there, the men hauling grains over there. Making sure that she touched no one, she squeezed her way through a crowd at the market. All of this freedom, yet she didn’t feel liberated. She felt irrelevant. She felt invisible.

* * * * * * * *

One of my favorite icebreaker questions is this: If you could have any super-power, what would it be? Lots of people say “invisibility.” I wonder what’s so great about it.

Have you ever sat in a restaurant for what feels like HOURS before the server comes over? And even then, when she does make it over, she just throws some coasters on your table and leaves? I hate that.

Or have you ever been in a room full of people who all know each other, but you know none of them? Maybe they haven’t seen each other since college, so they’re all catching up and carrying on and you’re just sitting there. Maybe you chime in every once in a while, but what you say is brushed off. No one has looked at you in an hour.

Or worse yet. Have you ever really, really wanted to belong, but for some awful reason—maybe they don’t like your laugh or maybe you’re not pretty enough or maybe you speak differently or maybe you don’t go to the right school or maybe you don’t dress a certain way—but whatever the reason, you can’t get in. You’re not worth it. You’re irrelevant to them. You might as well be invisible.

The bleeding woman in Nazareth might as well have been invisible. She was so other, so different, so unwelcome that no one even saw her anymore.

Finally, she reached a swarm of people and she just knew that Jesus was at the center. She heard a voice from the crowd teaching. That must be him. She listened as he said words that gave her faith: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Words of hope, indeed. Could it be that nothing would be asked of her? Could it be that she could be healed on the merits of love, of mercy? She had to see for herself.

Gently, she moved through the crowd, careful not to touch anyone, careful not to draw attention to herself. She got down low and weaved her way among the legs of the people until she reached his heals. There she was. Face to face with the backs of Jesus Christ’s feet. She couldn’t help it—she couldn’t resist—she held her breath, reached out and ever so slightly touched the hem of his cloak. She exhaled. For the first time in years she felt alive. The feel of someone else—even just someone else’s clothing—human contact, however slight—filled her with the promise of life again.

At that very moment, Jesus felt the breath of the Holy Spirit ripple through his body. He turned around, knelt on the ground, looked her in the eye, and declared her whole. In the name of mercy. In the name of faith. In the name of love.

Jesus meets us where we are. Alone in the restaurant, invisible. Alone in a room full of people, invisible. Left out, invisible. Full of sin, invisible. Bleeding, sick, invisible. Jesus finds you. And as soon as you take the leap—as soon as you reach out—as soon as you let faith take you by the hand and lead you to the hem of his cloak—he heals you. He kneels on the ground, looks you in the eye, he touches your face, and says, “I see you. I love you. Be well.”