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  • Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals

Drawn into the Circle of God's Love


Mark 5:24-34

And a large crowd followed Jesus and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it.But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

Most of you know that I was raised Catholic. My family and I went to mass every Sunday and we said grace before every meal. My brother and I attended Catholic school, where I was required to go confession at least once a week— usually having to make up things to confess, because really, how many things can a child do every week that need to be absolved by a priest?

It was at mass on Sunday mornings that I learned about Jesus— hearing stories about a man who was so full of kindness and compassion, who reached out to the most vulnerable, and who taught radical and unconditional love for one’s neighbor as well as for one’s enemy. Those stories planted something profound in my soul— a deeply rooted belief that we are all beloved and beautiful in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, those stories that I heard on Sunday morning often stood in stark contrast with what I experienced on the other side of the parking lot during the week. Every day I went to school and experienced fear, shame, and betrayal. Fear— because I anticipated what the other kids would say to me that day, what new insults might be thrown my way, the jeering laughter, the victory high fives when I finally broke down and started to cry. Shame— because apparently there was something wrong or different about me-- something about me that was unattractive or unlovable-- and apparently, there was nothing I could do to change it, whatever IT was. And betrayal— because the same teachers and priests who stood in front of the classrooms and behind pulpits to talk about Jesus’s wonderful love and compassion did absolutely nothing to stop any of it. They pretended not to see or hear it. They pretended not to see or hear me.

Now as a 12 year old girl, this was all very confusing. But more than that, it made me kind of angry. It seemed to me the church didn’t really mean any of it-- when they said love your neighbor as yourself, or when they said love others as Jesus loves you. It seemed to me— in the limited experience and perspective I had as a 12 year old— that the church was not practicing what it preached.

Fast forward about 15 years. I was in Boston, having just received my master’s degree in early music performance. Now I know you will all find this terribly shocking, but a masters degree in early music does not exactly pay the bills. So I had a collection of part time jobs, one of which was for an LBGT advocacy organization called MassEquality. At the time, we were in the middle of a fight to save marriage equality in the state. The Massachusetts supreme court had recently legalized it, but many groups were lobbying the state legislature to amend the state constitution so it could be banned once again. Among those groups were the Catholic Diocese of Boston and many evangelical churches. I would soon be shocked to learn that the congregational church I had recently started attending was a part of that lobbying effort. Needless to say, I found a new church.

Anyway— part of my job with this organization was to get into a car a few days a week with a team of three or four other people, and drive an hour or two to towns in central and western Massachusetts. We would then go door to door collecting signatures in support of equal marriage rights. Going door to door was an interesting and eye-opening experience, but what was far more interesting to me at the time was hearing the stories of the other people in the car. The more we got to know each other on those long car rides, the more we began to trust each other, and the more intimate the conversations became. My co-workers learned I was a Christian, and they had a lot to say about that. “How can you be a Christian and do this job?” some of them asked. “Fair question,” I would say. They shared stories with me about their own experiences in the church. They told me how they had been rejected— some by their pastors and churches, a few of them, by their own parents and families. They told me the words that had been directed at them by bullies and loved ones alike— sinner, disgusting, condemned, abomination, demonic. Many of them also told me that they felt a deep connection to Jesus— to his teachings and his spirituality— but they were wary of going back to church. Their experiences had just been too painful— why make themselves vulnerable to that kind of rejection again?

Listening to their stories, I got angry. “This isn’t right!” I thought to myself. The church is supposed to teach love, mercy, and grace. The church should be a place where everyone can find safe haven. One should walk into a church and feel love— not fear, not shame, not judgment. It was at this point that I began to feel a tugging at my heart. Something in me was pulling me in a different direction. I was being drawn towards a vision of church that I had yet to experience— though such churches certainly did exist. It was a vision for church that was welcoming, inclusive, and embracing of all people. At some point it occurred to me that the depth of my passion for this vision might have something to do with my own experiences as a child. But I also realized that my own experience, as painful as it was, was nothing compared to what some of my co-workers had experienced. I was bullied because I was a shy, bookish, somewhat nerdy kid, something that tends not to matter as much as one gets older. Also, my bullies were classmates that I barely knew—not close friends, and certainly not my family. These new friends of mine were completely rejected and condemned by those they trusted most because of who they were and who they loved. My perspective on the effects of bullying and exclusion widened considerably from this experience, and my work at MassEquality propelled me forward towards a more inclusive vision of church.

From Boston I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked with people struggling with poverty and homelessness, and I saw it there too-- people who were rejected, despised, sometimes even criminalized— just because they were poor. Many of these folks didn’t go to church either, because often when they walked into a church, people clutched their belongings a little closer or moved a little further away in the pew. The following year I began seminary and I began to learn about the church’s history of racism— of our complicity with the slave trade and Jim Crow and our history of segregation and the exclusion of people of color. I traveled to Immokalee, Florida and met migrant workers— workers who were looked down on by many and entirely invisible to most. I met some workers who had cancer due to seven days a week of picking tomatoes in fields covered by chemicals and insecticides. These workers were afraid to go to the doctor— either because they were afraid of being deported, or because they know they couldn’t afford the medical bills, and they needed to keep working so they could continue to send money to their families back home.

Fast forward a few more years, and as a pastor, I continued to encounter folks who had been— in one way or another—alienated from the church. I met an incredibly kind and gentle woman who loved Jesus, who also happened to be schizophrenic, and whose previous church had told her that her lack of faith was the reason her illness persisted. I met a man who came to church one day and explained that the reason he sat in the back and never talked to anyone after church was because he had Asperger syndrome and he assumed people would be uncomfortable around him. The more I followed this vision of a more inclusive church, the more I realized just how critically it was needed. There were so many folks on the margins— so many folks who felt invisible, or worse, utterly rejected. There were, and continue to be, so many people who need a safe haven— so many people who need a place where they will be seen, a place where they won’t be invisible, a place where they will be loved, cherished and honored— for every single ounce of who they are—from the tips of their toes, to every stand of hair on their head.

Now, you would think that religious communities would be pretty good at this by now— I mean, we’ve only had several thousand years to get it right! Unfortunately, religious communities have always seemed to struggle with this. And I’m not just talking about Christianity. Almost every faith tradition that I can think of has struggled at times with the question of who is in and who is out. The Gospel narrative gives us some insight into where some of those lines were drawn in 1st century Judaism— though it’s worth pointing out that even then, there were multiple sects within Judaism, and so it’s impossible to make any sort of universal generalization. Still, for many Jews of the time, there were clearly defined lines of who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was impure, who was considered acceptable or unacceptable in the eyes of God.

This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark gives us a glimpse into this world as well. Admittedly, the text itself doesn’t give us a ton of details, but knowing just a little bit of context

can help us sketch out a somewhat more detailed picture. The first thing we need to know, and some of you may know this already, is that according to Jewish purity laws, women who were menstruating were considered to be unclean. During menstruation, women were not allowed to enter the temple, and were not even allowed to touch another person. If they did, the person they touched would also be considered unclean. Due to the potential for contamination and impurity, women who were menstruating gathered in tents set apart from the rest of the community. They were to remain apart until the end of their cycle, at which point they were allowed to rejoin community after a ritual bath.

Our text from Mark this morning tells us of an unnamed woman who had been suffering from hemorrhaging for twelve years. Most biblical scholars and historians agree that this most likely refers to a somewhat uncommon condition in which a woman experiences menstrual bleeding intermittently over the course of a month. Nowadays, this would be considered a nuisance, for sure. Back then, however, it could mean a life permanently confined to the margins. The implication of this woman’s condition is that she would have spent the last 12 years of her life separated from her community— not allowed in the temple, and not allowed to be with her family. It’s no wonder that she spent all the money she had trying to find a cure for her condition. She was desperate. She was invisible to her community and she was utterly alone.

But then, along comes Jesus— a teacher with miraculous healing power— and she decides it’s worth the risk to do the thing most forbidden by her religion— to reach out and touch him. Make no mistake, this was risky. This woman’s action was against the law, and the price for such a transgression was steep. Most likely, it could mean permanent exclusion or excommunication from the community. The most harsh interpreters of the law, however, could legally enforce a penalty of death. Any other religious leader of the time would likely have been horrified by this woman’s action. Jesus, however, is unfazed. Not only does he show no sign of being troubled by the woman’s action, he embraces her as one of his family— he calls her daughter. He sees her not as an unclean sinner, not as a problem, not as an abomination, but as a beloved child of God. He recognizes the divine image within her. He brings her back into the community-- drawing her back into the wide circle of God’s love and care.

Friends, this is where we come in. Jesus told his disciples to love others as he loved them. The kind of love Jesus call us to is one that welcomes, affirms, and embraces. A love that honors every person. A love that celebrates the glorious diversity of humanity and recognizes the image of God in every person— including people of all ages, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, family configurations, economic circumstances, political affiliations, physical, cognitive or emotional abilities, educational backgrounds, or spiritual and religious traditions.

Today, as we officially adopt our open and affirming covenant, we affirm our commitment to being an inclusive church. We declare and celebrate amongst ourselves, and to the wider community, that we know who we are when we say “we” and each day, mean one more. We say to anyone out there who feels invisible or rejected for ANY reason that here they will be welcomed, loved and cherished— no exclusions apply. We commit to drawing the circle of God’s love wide enough for all to find a place of honor at the table.

I have to say, given everything that’s going on in our world right now, I believe this kind of commitment is more important than ever. You don’t need me to tell you that people are hurting. People are afraid. People are alienated. There are people on the edge for whom this is potentially a matter of life and death. I’m talking about people who can no longer see the worth and beauty in themselves, who have made been to feel that they have no place on this earth, who have come to believe the ultimate lie that they have nothing to offer, and are not worthy of love. But we know the truth, don’t we? We know that God created all of humanity— that God knew and loved us from before we were born, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that God declared all of humanity to be VERY good. If this covenant can help even one person believe that— if we can share the truth that we know with at least one person who is on the edge, if we can draw but one person back into the circle of God’s love, then it will have been worth it. Maybe that person is someone we have yet to meet. Or maybe that person is one of us. Maybe it’s all of us. Probably it’s all of us. In any case, let us affirm this covenant today with joy. Let us celebrate and revel in the goodness of God, and the goodness of one another. Let us celebrate and give thanks for God’s enduring love for us— for ALL of us— no matter who we are, and no matter where we are on life’s journey. Amen!


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