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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

What’s Your Name?

What’s Your Name?
Mark 5: 21-43
June 28, 2015
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

People can be divided into two camps: those who like nicknames and use them; and those who dislike nicknames and avoid using them.  This is especially true of parents.  Some parents give their children names that come with obvious nicknames; other parents give their children names that can’t be turned into nicknames…or so they hope. 

I am a parent in the first camp: my children are Katherine (Katie) and Alexis (Lexie).  I always found it useful to let them know exactly how much trouble they were in.  First name only trouble?  First name and middle name trouble? Or – the worst – first, middle and last name trouble?

Some people have nicknames that don’t come directly or obviously from their first names. Pastors learn about these kinds of names when they try to visit someone in the hospital and are assured that no one by that name has been admitted.

Do we have any unusual nicknames in the congregation this morning?  Middle names used instead of first names? Nicknames given by siblings who couldn’t pronounce your real name? 

Last Sunday we noticed that Jesus asks a lot of questions.  In the four Gospels, he asks a total of 307 distinct questions.  In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark, we have two stories – one sandwiched inside the other – and in each of the stories, Jesus asks a question.

5:30 Who touched my clothes?

5:39 What’s all this commotion and crying about?

In both cases, the answer is a name – not a proper name, but an identity – an identity given to someone by others in her community.  The identity by which she is known to the crowd that surrounds her.

In fact, in both of these stories, the person involved has no actual name.  The first person is described only as a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years.  It is safe to assume that this bleeding has to do with her reproductive organs, and that it renders her both ritually impure and unable to bear children.  So desperate is she to find healing that she hopes just to touch the edge of Jesus’ garment.  She has no name.  She is known only as “the woman who bled for twelve years.”

The story that starts and finishes this reading is about another woman – a young woman, the daughter of the local synagogue leader.  So she is Jairus’s daughter.  At the beginning she is Jairus’s daughter, who is dying.  When we return to her story, she is Jairus’s daughter, who has died. 

Mark did not put one story inside the other one by accident.  We are being asked to see how they are different, and how they are the same.

In some ways, the women and their stories are very different. 

  • One is quite young, the other is presumably quite a bit older. 
  • One is from a socially and religiously prominent family – the family of the synagogue leader. They live in a house large enough so that the young woman has a separate room.  The unnamed woman apparently has no community or family to advocate for her, she must brave the crowd alone. 
  • On behalf of his daughter, Jairus approaches Jesus formally, face-to-face.  On her own behalf, the woman hides her identity, sneaking up from behind so that Jesus does not see her.

But there are also striking similarities:

The young woman is 12 years old; the woman has been sick for 12 years.

In those times, 12 years old was about the time woman would come to physical maturity and would soon be expected to marry and have children.  But this young woman is dying; she will have no children.

The woman has been sick for the same amount of time as Jairus’ daughter has been alive.  During those years she has been to many doctors, none of whom had been able to help.  In fact, she has spent all her resources seeking help, but she has only gotten worse. Her illness means that she, too, cannot have children. 

Both the girl who is dying and the woman who is bleeding, are unable to fulfill the most important role for females of that time and place.

Both of them are isolated in a physical sense as well.  Once she has been declared dead, the young woman is no longer to be touched.  Contact with her would render one unclean.  There’s nothing to be done but mourn, which accounts for the commotion that Jesus asks about when he gets to Jairus’s house. 

The woman’s bleeding has made her unclean.  According to the religious laws and customs of that time, she is expected to keep herself separate, away from any physical contact.

And yet, in both cases, physical contact takes place.

With the crowd pressing in on all sides, a “swarm of people,” the text says, Jesus asks “Who touched me?” The disciples laugh at him. “You have got to be kidding!  What do you mean ‘who touched me?’ Everyone’s trying to get their hands on you. How are we supposed to know who touched you?”

“Why the commotion?” Jesus asks “She isn’t dead, she is sleeping.”  The crowd laughs at him.  They laugh in his face.  They know that she’s dead.

In both cases, the social and religious rules are broken by acts of great individual courage and faith. Jairus puts aside the trappings of his professional life, kneels in public view before a poor, itinerant preacher and begs for help.

The woman dares to break through the cultural and religious barriers that have kept her isolated, steps into the public arena and touches the fringe of Jesus’ robe.

A more literal translation of this passage emphasizes the significance of her rule-breaking action: "And a woman--having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind--touched his cloak."

We can see how much courage that took, and how well she had learned to believe that she deserved isolation, by her reaction.  Instead of giving a spontaneous shout of joy over being made well, she trembles with fear when Jesus identifies her and calls her forward. Yet she is able to tell him the whole story.

And finally, in response to those acts of courage and the faith it took to ask for his help, Jesus addresses both women directly.  His questions are for the disciples and the crowd (“Who touched me? What’s all the commotion?”).  For the sick, his has a new name; for the dying, he offers new life. 

“Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.” She is no longer alone or isolated or without a family.  From now on, she is Daughter.

“Talitha, young woman, koum, get up.” Based on this story, Talitha has become a name for us.  But I wonder if the young woman’s new name is actually koum: get up.  From now on she is “the one who got up, who arose to new life.”

Names are powerful.  They can define us in ways that limit us – the woman who bled for 12 years; the girl who died – or they can give us freedom and power – the girl who got up; daughter.  Names can reduce us – Ugly Betty, Fatso – or they can express our true identity – child of God.

I know that the video clips of President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of state Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney focus on his singing of “Amazing Grace.” But I think the best thing he did in that speech was to speak the full names of the nine shooting victims, for by doing so he gave them back the power of their true identities.  They are not just shooting victims. They are Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

Names are powerful.  That’s why we put them on memorials and gravestones.  It’s why we repeat them in wedding vows and courtroom oaths.  Speaking someone else’s name makes a connection, especially if you offer your name as well. 

During Annual Conference this year I found myself in the backstage area, holding open a door for those who were moving equipment in and out.  The keynote speaker for Conference, Rev. Adam Hamilton – well-known in United Methodist circles as the Senior Pastor of the largest UM congregation, as well as a prolific author – was being escorted through the hallways.  Because I was holding the door open, I couldn’t step forward, so I simply waved and said “Welcome!”  “Hi Jeannie,” he said, misreading my name tag. “So nice to meet you.  I’m Adam.”  Of course I knew who he was.  And I should have let him call me “Jeannie” instead of “Jennie.” After all, I was never going to see him again! But it drives me crazy when people call me by the wrong name!  “Jennie,” I corrected him.  I little puzzled at my lack of social grace, he kindly shook my hand and moved on.

He got my name wrong, but he got the idea right.  Speaking someone’s name and offering your own is more than just polite: it creates a bond, it acknowledges their importance; it says you desire to be in relationship.

It’s why we in the church wear nametags.  It’s why we should wear nametags.  It says much more than just our name.  It says “I’m glad you’re here.  I want to get to know you. I’m willing to share a bit of myself with you.”

We human beings are social, even tribal, creatures.  We gather with others who seem like us, who bear the same sorts of names.  And when we come across someone who is different, we give them names that characterize their difference. We name them according to skin color or religion or sexual orientation or physical ability.  We use that nametag as if that is the entirety of who they are.  The girl who died; the woman who bled.

And yet the pattern of Christ is exactly the opposite. Jesus is constantly crossing borders, whether geographic  - crossing the Sea of Galilee -  or social – going to the wrong houses, touching the wrong people– to see people for who they are and to draw them into relationship.

He asks us to do the same. 

It is so easy for us to forget that.  It is so easy for the church to be the place that reminds us of who we are in social terms, to reinforce our cultural identities.  The most common objection to wearing nametags that I hear is “but everyone knows who I am.”  For some of us, it is the reason we come to church – it’s the place where people know who I am.  Wearing a name tag implies something different than that; we don’t like the idea that we might not be known.  We forget that wearing a name tag isn’t primarily for us.  It’s for those who are, themselves, unknown.

The girl who died was 12 years old.  The woman who bled had done so for 12 years.  The fact that they share the number 12 is not a coincidence.  Mark, the Gospel writer, knew that the number 12 was a symbol for the nation of Israel.  There were 12 tribes; Jesus called 12 disciples.  With Christ Jesus, the new Israel is inaugurated, and it includes everyone, the clean and the unclean, the Daughter who is Healed, and the children who are not, the Girl Who Got Up and those who cannot.

You might have a name that you were given long ago, a name that haunts you still.  It might be a name known only to you – based on something you didn’t do right, or didn’t do at all, or regret to this day.  It’s possible this name has haunted you for years; maybe it has come to define you. 

But Christ does not know you by that name.  Christ knows you and names you differently: as “daughter” or “son,” as “wonderful” and “beloved” and “child of God.”

 

References

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman. Commentary on Mark 5:21-43. Posted on Working Preacher, June 28, 2009. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=335

David Lose. Pentecost 5 B: Known and Named.  Posted on In the Meantime, June 22, 2015. http://www.davidlose.net/

Sarah Jackson Shelton. A Daughter's Faith: Mark 5:21-43 Proper 8 - Year B. Posted on Day 1, June 28, 2009. http://day1.org/353-the_rev_sarah_jackson_shelton

Lewis Galloway. Taking Jesus Seriously - Mark 5:21-43, 5th Sunday of Pentecost - Year B. . Posted on Day 1, July 2, 2012. http://day1.org/3937-taking_jesus_seriously

Joanna Dewey. “Women in the Gospel of Mark” Word & World Vol 26, No. 1, Winter 2006.

Loren Graham. “The Power of Names: In Culture and in Mathematics.” Proceedings of The American Philosophical Society Vol. 157, No. 2, June 2013. http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/proceedings/1570204Graham.pdf