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Sermons

At the Fringes

June 02, 2013

Bible Readings

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

(Numbers 15:37-41)


While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.

(Matthew 9:18-26)


When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

(Matthew 14:34-36)

Sermon

This has been—well, I’ll be polite.

This has been quite a week.

I don’t know about you, but this week shook me. Over the past six days, I’ve wondered about human nature. I’ve grieved for the people injured in Boston and Cambridge and Watertown and Waco and Sichuan, China. I’ve struggled with the age-old question of why terrible things happen, out of nowhere, to people who are minding their own business. I’ve worried about friends and family who live in Cambridge and Watertown, and about my husband Kevin, who pastors a church very close to the scene of both of the gun fights.

This week shook me in another way, too. On Monday, I watched, along with the rest of you and the rest of the country, as people ran toward the explosions instead of away. I watched as people helped stop people from bleeding to death, comforted the injured, ran two miles past a marathon finish line—28.2 miles in all—to give blood at the nearest hospital. Then, over the rest of the week, I watched law-enforcement officers and public-safety officials and politicians from dozens of different groups— city, state, federal, Republican, Democrat, you name it—work together tirelessly and effectively to help make this region—this nation—safer. That was awe-inspiring to witness.

What a week.

***

This week has left me feeling pretty ragged and in need of cheering up. So, just to lighten things up a bit for a few moments, I’m going to conduct a survey with you all.

Question One: If I put a pan of brownies in front of you and offered you either an edge piece or an inner piece, who here would go for the edge piece? Hands? Okay. Who here would go for an inner piece?

Question Two: Pizza. Do you love the crust, or do you leave the “pizza bones” and focus on the toppings or the soft center? (It’s OK to vote twice.) Crust? Center and toppings?

Last question: Bread. Say you have a nice loaf of baguette, or a delicious whole-grain loaf. Do you love the middle part, or live for the crust? Again, you can vote twice. Middle part? Crust?

All profound questions, huh? Here are my answers: Brownies: I love the goopy middle part. Pizza: I love the crust but usually eat the toppings first and generally hand the crust to Maudie to teethe on. Bread: Bread is yummy, period. But I’m a sucker for the grilled-cheese crusts Ephraim leaves on his plate.

We all have our food preferences when it comes to centers and edges. But when it comes to life, it’s usually at the edges, at the margins, at the fringes, that things get interesting.

Moving to a new place. Losing a job, or starting a new one. Graduating from school. Getting married. Having a child. Retiring. Losing a parent, or anyone we love, whether it’s been a long goodbye or is a tragic, sudden event. Even finishing one book and starting another. Strange things, intense things, sad and beautiful things, happen where one thing ends and another begins.

There’s another kind of edge, too, and we’ve all been on it this week.

On Monday, we were stunned by the bombing of the Boston Marathon. On Wednesday night came the accidental explosion in Waco, Texas. On Thursday night, we began nearly twenty-four hours of seat gripping when two police officers were injured or killed in the line of duty and the Boston metro area came to a screeching halt. On Friday night, we rejoiced and felt deep relief here in Massachusetts— and yet still, all is not as it should be. “Normal life,” whatever that is, isn’t quite back in place yet. We’ve been shocked, tense, sad, angry, scared, relieved, jubilant. That’s a lot. Edges, edges, everywhere.

Our readings this morning are about edges—and, more specifically, about fringes, which I’ll get to in a minute. In our reading from Matthew 14, we are told that, after an eventful boating trip (the one where Jesus walked on water. Remember that one?)—after that trip, “when the disciples and Jesus had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.” In other words, they re-entered Israelite territory from Gentile territory; they crossed over the edge from one place to another.

Once people figure out just who has just disembarked from the boat, more edges emerge. People come looking for Jesus. And the people who come looking for him live on the edges, socially speaking—they are the sick. In first-century Palestine, sick people were often considered to be that way because they deserved it—because they were cursed, or because they were sinners. Even on the off chance that no one blamed them for their situation, being sick in this society made a person something of an outcast, a useless weight dragging society down.

These sick people, these folks on the margins, come to Jesus hoping that he can heal them. Edges again: these people are hoping to find healing if they can just touch the “fringe of his cloak”—the edge of Jesus’ garment. So people who are (1) socially on the fringes come to (2) a place located on the fringe of the Holy Land to be (3) healed by a holy man’s garment fringe. Edges, edges, edges. Fringes. Things happen on the fringes. Healing and new birth—God—happens at the fringes.

Matthew 9, our other reading for this morning, contains three verses telling another story about edges, about fringes. In verses 20 through 22, we read, “Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.”

Edges, fringes, again. A woman, bleeding for twelve years. She is on the fringes of society, for sure. Because of her illness, she is considered, at least by those who know about her problem, ritually impure. She understands herself to be spiritually contagious. She can’t touch another person, especially a man, without dirtying that person too. If someone even sits down where she has just sat before a certain amount of time has passed, her uncleanness, her sin, passes on to them—just because she’s sick. She must wash constantly in the mikvah, the ritual bath used to purify oneself—but no matter how much she washes, she is never, ever clean.

This woman may also be on the fringes of psychological stability, of sanity. In Mark and Luke’s versions of this story, we are told that this woman has spent all she has on physicians, but none can cure her. She has spent every cent she has—and maybe every cent her family has, too, if she still has a family—but there is no hope for her. Try to imagine the emotional toll that kind of life would take. Imagine the isolation of having a secret—or maybe not-so-secret—shame. Imagine the fear of being so ill for so long. Imagine trying so hard to clean, to be pure, to be upright and good and hardworking, knowing that it can never be enough.

Actually, maybe those things aren’t so hard for us to imagine, after all.

This woman, too, seeks healing from Jesus—and like others, she seeks it at the edge, the fringe, of his cloak. She wants this healing badly enough that she is willing to break purity laws and sneak up behind him to let the strands of the fringes run through her fingers. She is willing to get in big trouble—and maybe even to make public to other people that she is, as they understand it, dirty—that she is sick, that she needs help, that she is on the edge. “If I only touch his cloak,” she whispers to herself, “I will be made well.”

And she is. Jesus turns and sees her—in the Greek, the word translated here as “see” can mean not only “to see” with the eyes but also “to understand,” “to know,” “to have regard for,” “to cherish.” Jesus turns, sees and understands and cherishes this woman, and says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And she is instantly well.

Healing happens at the fringes.

Faith happens there, too. Because it’s at the fringes of life, at the edges—at the turn from one thing to another, or when we feel lonely, or when no one understands us, or as we step into a scary situation— at these fringes, faith happens. When people run toward explosions to help, instead of away to escape, faith happens. When people put their lives on the line, and even when they give their lives up for others, faith happens. Sometimes it’s the people on that edge, the people in the middle of the situation, who find faith blooming like a rose in the desert out of what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s the bystanders, the people on the edge of the situation who find their faith—their faith in God, their faith in the goodness of humanity—created or renewed by the goodness they see.

That’s part of the healing at the fringes, this faith we find that we didn’t know we had.

Sometimes the line is awfully blurry between faith and doubt, or faith and desperation. It is for this woman with the hemorrhage. “If I only touch his cloak, I’ll be made well.” It’s just a hope. Maybe a faint one.

And that’s OK. It’s enough. “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus.

Could be that Jesus’ cloak has healing powers, could be it doesn’t. In Matthew’s version of the story, at least, it doesn’t matter. This particular woman finds healing at his cloak’s fringes, and at least part of that healing comes from the fact that she is willing—or desperate enough—to grasp frantically for it, to open herself up to danger and humiliation and failure. This is not a reasoned, confident, high-flying faith. This is not a comfortable faith. This is a faith the erupts out of this woman’s place on the edge.

Sometimes our faith can surprise us. Sometimes we don’t know how faithful we are until we’re on the edge, on the fringes, with no choices except scary ones. The band Cloud Cult puts it this way: “You’re afraid of the dark, but that’s where you learn to see.” Just as truly we could say, “You’re afraid of the edge, but that’s where you learn about the real ground beneath you.”

Another thing about that fringe. Let’s look at Numbers 15:37-41. Here’s what we read: The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

This passage explains what the fringe of Jesus’ cloak actually was. That fringe that people touched wasn’t just decorative. It wasn’t just the edge of his outfit; it was his tzitzit, the tassels worn by observant Jews, of which Jesus was one.

These tassels signify several things. For one, they visually and tactilely recall for the wearer the commandments of the Torah1—they remind the wearer to hear God’s word and live by God’s word, to unify thought and action in following God. They remind the wearer that the world doesn’t begin and end with human understanding—that it is God’s ways, and not our ways, that run the show.

But there’s another meaning too. Rabbi Arthur Waskow says that “the strings of the tassels are an extension of the person who wears them, reaching out like so many fingers into the universe. The spaces between the strings are the universe itself, reaching in toward the person. The fringe as a whole is made up of both the strings and the spaces; it is the powerful place where the person and the world meet and overlap, like two intertwined hands.” 2

It makes sense that Jesus’ fringes heal the people in these readings. It makes sense that the bleeding woman and the sick from Gennesaret find wholeness at the edge of Jesus’ garment. It makes sense that when we find ourselves at the fringes of being, on the edge, whether it’s the edge of our seats or the edge between life and death, we see things we did not see before, and find holiness where before there was just the everyday. It makes sense that all that has happened this week has left us ragged, on the edge, and yet with eyes opened to God’s magnificent power and love in this world.

Because, as Quinn Caldwell says, “Jesus himself is not so different from that tzitzit, that fringe: he is the place where heaven and earth overlap, where God and humanity intertwine, where the Realm of God reaches into the world and the world reaches into the Realm of God, and the two become forever linked. And it is exactly in that place that God’s most powerful work is done.”

There is healing for all of us at the fringe of Jesus’ garment—that place where fear and loss and sadness and faith blur together to yield hope, where heaven and earth mingle, where the fierce love of Christ Jesus sees and knows and cherishes us.

Paul tells the church at Corinth, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I pray that when you find yourself at the edge, you will run toward things rather than away. I pray that you will know the presence of the Lord God who reaches from one edge, one fringe, of creation to the other to make everything new, the Lord who heals all wounds and orders all things mightily and sweetly in his image—you and me included.

Prayer

Lord, let me be yours.

Let me not draw back, neither from heaven, nor from your divinity, nor your cross.

Let me be yours, to whom I owe both my creation and my redemption.

Touch my heart and sanctify it, and consecrate me in your service, forever.

- Lucy Herbert (1669-1744)

1 Quinn G. Caldwell, “Fringe,” Stillspeaking Devotional, accessible at http://act.ucc.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=46863.0&dlv_id=61621

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2 Cited by Quinn G. Caldwell, “Fringe,” Stillspeaking Devotional, accessible at http://act.ucc.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=46863.0&dlv_id=61621

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Rev. Leah G. Goodwin