In our scriptures today we meet five ordinary people facing major turning points in their lives.
In our reading from Genesis we encounter Abram and Sarai. In their old age, God called them to leave their country and kindred and travel to a new land, where they were promised to become a great nation. At first hearing, this must have sounded like an absurd promise—for they had no children to carry on this great name. So they were faced with a choice: should they live out the remainder of their years in relative comfort in familiar surroundings? Or should they leave their home and their families for that very slim chance that God’s promise would come true and that God would provide them with an heir?
Next we meet Matthew, the tax collector. The tax collecting profession has not gained much in stature since Matthew’s time. So here was a man most likely financially comfortable, but in a despised profession, and as a result considered by his community ritually unclean. He was certainly ostracized and held in contempt by his people. Then one day, Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me.” What choice should he make? Should he forsake a lucrative career for an uncertain future with a wandering teacher?
Next we meet the ruler of the synagogue. When we hear this story, the focus shifts to the urgency of a dying little girl, the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue. Imagine the choice the father faced. He was the ruler of the synagogue of Capernaum, an esteemed position. He is called Jairus in the other gospels. Now leaders of synagogues were not generally hospitable to Jesus. The leaders of Jesus’ home synagogue in Nazareth tried to push him off a cliff after Jesus first preached there. At another synagogue in Galilee (Luke13:14), the leaders publicly rebuke Jesus for healing on the Sabbath a woman crippled for 18 years. Nicodemus, a ruler among the people, had to visit Jesus secretly at night. We know from the gospel accounts that these rulers took an active role in criticizing Jesus throughout his ministry and taking an active role in having Jesus condemned to death.
Now this ruler faces a difficult decision. He surely has heard how his colleagues, some Pharisees in Capernaum, just publicly condemned Jesus and his followers because they ate with tax collectors and sinners. But his little girl just died. Should he throw caution to the wind and plead for a miracle from this man who associates with tax collectors and sinners – people he probably wouldn’t even let cross the threshold of the synagogue? Should he throw his reputation down the drain in this crazy, desperate attempt to bring his little girl back to life?
This is enough drama to sort through, but yet there’s more. Interwoven in this story is an account of a woman with the flow of blood. She is not only physically ill, but she is considered an outcast, because the flow of blood made her ritually unclean according to the laws of Moses, so she was unable to participate in the normal life of her culture. She couldn’t touch anyone or anything, without rendering it or others unclean. One day she was faced with a choice. Should she stay where she was for over a decade, keep to the boundaries that kept her at the margins of her life, or dare she break religious law? Dare she touch just the fringe of Jesus’ cloak as he walked by in an attempt to be healed? Should she risk exposing herself to condemnation for touching a man, rendering him unclean?
Five people. Each one with a major decision that will change the course of their lives forever. Each one was called to touch the fringe. To touch the fringe is an appropriate way to sum up Jesus’ ministry, his call to each of us: if we recall his own words at vv. 11-13: “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick.” “Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
Everybody and everything has their fringe. It is the cusp in life where pain meets promise, sin meets redemption, illness finds health. Maybe it is a place of barrenness—similar to Abram’s and Sarai’s life, whether it be barrenness of body, mind, emotion or of the spirit beckons forth fruitfulness. It could be the sense of isolation or feeling like a social outcast, like Matthew and the woman with the flow of blood that calls us into community. Or perhaps the fringe is that place in us that raises all those uncomfortable questions about our values, the meaning we put on reputation, career or status in light of the suffering of the poor and outcast. Our fringe is where our past meets our future. That potent place where the kingdom of God breaks in into our broken world.
At each fringe encountered by our five characters, in the end they encounter dreams that come true, because they placed their hope and faith in God. Sarai and Abram give birth to a son, Isaac. Matthew is forever remembered as an apostle with a gospel named after him. The bleeding woman is healed and restored to community and a dead little girl is restored to life.
It is through those fringe places in our lives, the places of weakness, sickness, or sinfulness that Jesus teaches us to be merciful, righteous and restores us to spiritual and physical health.
At the Presbyterian Big Tent” conference earlier in July, the themes of “Race, Reconciliation and Reformation” were the fringe that challenged the gathered community to understand systemic racism and the faith community mandated to transcend in Christ these differences. Churches across the PCUSA have been prayerfully studying the book, “Waking up White and finding myself in the story of Race” by Debbie Irving. In the course of the book, the author tells the story of how she learned of the privileges of being white and examples of systemic racism she never knew before: like the racism embedded in the GI Bill, which gave thousands of white veterans a leg up in education and housing, and only 2% of the million black veterans able to take advantage because of the quotas in education and informal racist blocks to better neighborhoods and inaccessibility to loans white veterans were receiving.
The author cites another example in the death of Cynthia Wiggins, of Buffalo, hit by a dump track on her way to work. Some would say this was just a sad circumstance. What actually happened was the city changed the bus lines with the new mall was up, making the trek from the black neighborhoods to the new mall even more difficult. Cynthia had to cross seven lines of highway traffic to catch her connecting bus. She was 16 years old when she died. These are just some of the examples in “Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.” It pushes white people to the fringe–so we can become true allies in the task to dismantle racism. As Union Church moves to united more closely with its neighbors, this may be an important book to read and discuss.
We must love each other or perish, said the poet W.H. Auden. We are at a fringe: will our leaders led us into equitable health care – good health care not just for themselves but for even the most vulnerable people be upheld? Will the rights of transgender people be upheld, the civil rights of the LGBTQ community be protected? What will be beyond this fringe?
We are at a great fringe in our world. Will we choose to stay in sin, sickness and greed, or will we take the fringe of our problems to restore ourselves to justice and mercy, and peacemaking? God is interested in creating a people with a spiritual heritage of mercy and justice. So over the centuries from the fringe of Nazareth would spring up a savior to bless the world, Jesus.
Our texts today encourage us to reflect on where is the fringe in our lives, where is the fringe in our communities. Where are we barren? What’s been bleeding for years? Where are we afraid to take a stand, to move into the unknown to risk to bring health into our lives and our world? Amen