The Sunday closest to the Fourth of July always gets your attention if you’re an American preacher.
It feels like it ought to be a big Sunday — a moment to reflect on God and country — a moment to preach a big sermon. To offer a grand reflection.
If you’d rather talk about something lighter, you know, the merits of ketchup versus mustard on a hot dog, or the ethics of the designated hitter in baseball, we can understand that.
You must forgive us.
The Fourth is a time when, as a people, we re-tell some of our most important stories to ourselves.
Stories remind us who we are. Where we’ve been. What it took to get through it.
They also point us — or reorient us — toward whom we should be. Toward whom we might be. Where we go from here.
You don’t even have to look that far or dig that deeply for them.
There was a story like that in the news just the other day.
I’m sure you heard about the loss of life at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, that local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, where five staff members were shot and killed by a local man who seems to have had an ongoing feud with the paper stretching back several years.
The story, as such, is only just emerging, and I’m sure there is a great deal more that we will learn.
But in the hours after the tragedy, something amazing happened, and I don’t know if you heard about that part.
Because in the hours after the tragedy, there were, of course, those who had been in the newsroom, as usual, and were either victims or witnesses to a crime being interviewed by the police.
Yet there were also a handful of people who, for one reason or another, had not been there at the time of the incident.
And in the hours after it occurred, the reporters and photographers and the lone editor who had not been in the newsroom that morning did something incredible…something that I found to be a tremendous act of grace.
Working out of someone’s pickup truck, they made the decision to report the story of what had happened in their own newsroom.
They made the decision to put out the next day’s paper.
In the face of their personal bewilderment and grief, they decided that there was really only one thing they could do: which was to do their jobs.
And so, at the official police briefing later that afternoon, you could see reporters from all the usual places: AP, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, several t.v. news outlets…all the people we’d expect.
But there, too, standing to one side, was someone that we might not have expected at all: and that was Pat Furgurson, reporting for the Annapolis Capital Gazette.
Because it mattered to tell this story.
It mattered to be counted among those who were charged with its telling.
And on a day when a group of lucky survivors gathered in a parking lot outside a tragedy, they decided that whatever else they were…whoever else they were…what they were, above all, was a group of reporters responsible for telling a painful story to the shaken people of their community…including themselves.
Is that somehow uniquely American?
But I think it points to the best in us.
Imagine the moral capacity of a nation made up of such commitment and courage.
So on the Fourth of July, in particular, we are reminded that our stories matter, and that it matters to be counted among those who are charged with their telling.
This is how we engage with who we are.
Of course, for the unnamed woman in this morning’s Gospel story, this woman who has suffered bleeding for twelve years, it’s hard to imagine how such noble sentiments would have come across.
While we don’t know exactly what her medical condition is supposed to be, clearly it isn’t just tennis elbow.
It also seems significant that when the story opens she’s presented to us as just another face in the crowd, part of this formless peloton of woe that has started to follow Jesus wherever he goes — but it stretches even beyond that, because even there, she’s on the edge of that crowd.
She’s one of the ones who gets pushed to the back.
It seems hard to believe that you’d find yourself in that kind of place if you had options. Any options.
If you’ve ever been to the Emergency Room on a Saturday night and get handed a number and pointed to a bolted down plastic chair to wait, you can get a window into the chaos of other peoples’ lives.
It becomes so very clear that nobody would be there if they had any choice.
The crowd that surrounds Jesus in this instance isn’t any different. These are not the eager pilgrims or a few neurotic Pharisees. These are the miserable. The desperate.
These are the people who have been written off…written out of the stories that would have anchored them.
The ancients believed physical health was a window into someone’s moral purity — so…so much for that.
They believed that women were a diminished and derivative form of human being.
There were even daily prayers of thanksgiving in the synagogue that gave gratitude God that one had not been born a woman, and for that matter, women were not permitted to speak there in the first place.
Public faith was a man’s job. Period.
So…so much for that.
Even more than today, money bought care and comfort and attention.
It bought visibility and had the capacity to bend some of the rules.
So…so much for that.
It isn’t simply that this woman has been suffering for ages, although that is, of course, true.
It’s that in the eyes of her own people, whatever this woman had been before, now she is a non-person.
What becomes of “non-people”? People for whom there is no place in our story?
I’m not sure we can even know.
They can become invisible…that much more unknowable.
And that’s what this Gospel story is all about.
Because somehow, this woman decides she has had it with that old story…that old story that has no place for her.
She sees in Jesus the possibility of closing that out.
By the grace of God, she decides that it’s not even about getting Jesus’ attention–his touch, his look, his blessing–all that public recognition.
She decides all she has to do is touch the fringe of his cloak: all she has to do is touch the littlest, dangliest, floating in the breeze by his ankles part of him, and something new was bound to happen.
And it works. Something does happen. She knows instantly that she is better.
Her nightmare is finally over.
But it’s then that the real miracle occurs.
Because it turns out that Jesus is attuned to what’s happening even in the littlest, dangliest, floating in the breeze by his ankles parts of him.
He feels the power within him shift somehow.
And yes, something has shifted, all right. It sure has.
He says, “Who touched me?”
Because the whole point of this is that it’s actually the beginning of a newstory.
With God’s help, she is starting to write it, right then and there.
She’s no longer invisible. Because she’s known. She’s seen.
The world may not see. God sees.
And so, when Jesus calls out to the crowd, Mark says, she steps out.
It is still “with fear and trembling” that she does it, but she does it. She steps forward.
This wasn’t easy to do. Old narratives are hard to let go of.
But of course, the point is that she’d already taken the first step just by reaching out for him in the first place.
In Jesus, she is already learning to be a different person.
In Jesus, she trades invisibility for personhood, misery for hope, and death for life.
Sisters and brothers, our stories matter.
It matters to be counted among those who are charged with their telling.
This is how the world learns to see anew.
At its best, the American story is that kind of story, and it teaches us to rise to the moment to be a courageous, generous, clear-eyed, fair-minded people, like those journalists in Annapolis.
At its best, America has taught the world to see anew.
The story of Jesus tells us that in all times and places, seeing and serving, healing and helping is God’s story, and God’s clear directive for our lives.
It reminds us that nobody is invisible to God, nobody is unwanted by God, and nobody is hopeless to God.
God is on the side of new stories, and with our God all things are possible.
God issues a challenge to all the nations to go beyond counting our blessings and to ask ourselves whom it might be that those very blessings might be keeping us from seeing.
That’s the kind of righteousness that God requires.
May we seek it in ourselves.
May we write it on our hearts.
May we learn to proclaim it from sea to shining sea.