Lately, I’ve been fortunate to participate in a young woman-lead preaching circle called Luke & Us, which is being run by Hosanna! People’s Seminary, a totally rad underground seminary that you should check out.
Today, it was my turn to preach and I used it as an opportunity to take another look at the Patron Saint of Embarrassing Problems. I figure that since the sermon grew out of (and was plagiarized heavily from…) a work that I had previously posted on this blog, it’s only fair to post the new piece here, as well, even if this blog has become pretty inactive.
This was my first try at formal sermonizing, so I’d love to hear advice that anyone out there has. (And, yes, I really did sing for part of it. It was a growth experience, believe me.)
When Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. And a man named Jairus, an official of the synagogue, came forward. He fell at the feet of Jesus and begged him to come to his house, because he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, and she was dying. As he went, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years, who (had spent her whole livelihood on doctors and) was unable to be cured by anyone, came up behind him and touched the tassel on his cloak. Immediately her bleeding stopped. .Jesus then asked, “Who touched me?” While all were denying it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds are pushing and pressing in upon you.” But Jesus said, “Someone has touched me; for I know that power has gone out from me.” When the woman realized that she had not escaped notice, she came forward trembling. Falling down before him, she explained in the presence of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been healed immediately. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.” -Luke 8:41-48
It’s easy to imagine how some stories were written into the bible. The cynic in me can just see some pope or bishop writing down ‘Peter, you are the rock on which I shall build my church’ or naming 12 men as Jesus’ ministerial heirs, thereby giving such forgettable figures as Bartholomew, Andrew and Judas son of James authority over Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary of Magdala and even Mary Mother of God.
It’s easy to see the hand of men in the Bible, but not always so easy to see the hand of God. But every once in a while we find a bible story so subversive that we know there’s no way that it could have survived without divine inspiration.
Here, we’re introduced to two nameless women. One, a girl, dying of a mysterious ailment and the other: a poor woman with no one to advocate on her behalf who’s experiencing what is delicately called hemorrhaging.
Even today, you can’t (to my knowledge) find a bible that can discuss menstruation without using bizarre euphemisms. How did this icky, uncomfortable lady-business story ever make it into Luke? How has it remained through 2 millennia of edits and censorship?
There is no explanation but to but to say that on this one, Mama Sophia was workin’ overtime.
Here she is, this nameless, forgotten woman who stole a moment with Jesus in between his attending to Bigger And More Important People. I can’t help but imagine her there, watching Jesus cast a legion out of a possessed man and into suicidal swine. I see her watching him go off to raise wealthy Jarius’ daughter from the dead (funny how we know Jarius’ name, but not the name of his daughter, as if the miracle were more about salvaging his property than saving her life). I imagine that as she saw Jesus attending to all of these Very Important Problems for these Very Important Men she felt so incredibly ashamed of her illness. I imagine her wishing that she, too, could be possessed, or dying, or have a dying child. Why oh why did God curse her with this embarrassing, shameful, silly blood?
I imagine that’s why she couldn’t find the words to ask Jesus to heal her. I imagine that’s why she just reached out and grabbed his cloak, hoping not to be noticed.
We as women are often told that our problems: of reproduction, of self image, of depression, are silly. We are told at a very young age that wallowing in our own problems makes us weak and hysterical, and that the strongest, most Christian thing that we can do is to suffer silently while caring for the needy, who are frequently, mysteriously, men. We are taught from such a young age to be mothers, to care for people whose burdens are seen as greater and more significant than our own. We are not– we are told– the ones who suffer the cross. We are the ones who weep at the foot of the cross. And so our pain is less, complementary, secondary.
And yet, here she is, Patron Saint of Embarrassing Problems. I suspect that she made it into the bible (three times!) because all of those scholars and bishops knew that she held a very important biblical truth, even if it was one that they couldn’t name. And I think that the truth is this:
Embarrassing problems, problems that can be trivialized and mocked, are the most dangerous kind of problems. These problems without names are killing us. They might be the most deadly problems on earth. They kill us with AIDS. They kill us with suicide, and domestic violence, and addiction and even when they miraculously don’t kill our bodies they always (absolutely always) kill our souls.
And if these embarrassing problems, these problems we lack words for, are our most deadly problems then they are of the most concern to our God. We were given a God born in an embarrassing manger to an embarrassingly unwed mother and who died on an embarrassing cross. The Patron Saint of Embarrassing Problems wants to tell us that if this God thought that her problem was real enough to be addressed then none of our problems are too silly. Because Jesus came to save us from everything that’s killing us. Not just War and Racism and Capitalism, but from those lowercase, personal, embarrassing violences, too.
The truth is this: our problems will always seem embarrassing. These men who tell us that women’s ordination must wait until we’ve put an end to nuclear weapons, these priests that tell us that queer issues are too controversial for our parishes, will always tell us that our problems are silly, insignificant and less. They were doing it 2,000 years ago and they’re doing it today. And they rely on us to uphold this myth that Christ is being killed in the battlefields, but not in the bedroom. So, they tell us not to be selfish. They tell us to think of others first. They remind us of our role at the foot of the cross.
Which is why this claiming of our pain is the most radical, the most Christian thing that we can do. We have to take back God from those who would paint God in their own images, but who would reject a God that looks like us.
We like the Patron Saint of Embarrassing Problems and need to learn to pray for ourselves. We have to learn to take our most embarrassing, silly, hard to explain problems to Jesus and trust that they are taken with the seriousness that we deserve.
We have to learn to pray, as she did:
“Oh, fix me. Oh, fix me. Oh, fix me. Fix me, Jesus, fix me.”
Not out of any sort of feeling of unworthiness, but in recognition that until we’ve dealt with our own brokenness, our own pain, our own shit, we won’t be any good at fixing anything else. We need to break up this myth of the world being divided up between ministers and those in need of ministry. Mothers and children. Because not only is that myth untrue, it’s paternalistic. And it’s a core foundation for so much racism and sexism and violence in our church.
Regardless of what society tells us, we can’t be the healers unless we’ve also had experience being the healed. In any healthy community we all get turns to be ministers, and we all get to be ministered to. Not only is this a matter of our own personal survival (and it is), it’s also a matter of solidarity. Because, guess what? We have no business ministering to anyone that’s come to us for help unless we can have the same courage and humility to come to them when we need it.
I first started writing about the Patron Saint of Embarrassing Problems about a year ago, in response to a friend who had spent her life ministering to others and yet still seemed ashamed and uncomfortable at the thought of needing grace, herself. At the time, I felt very confident with this assertion that we as women should reclaim our embarrassing problems, and our ability to pray for ourselves.
I wrote these words to her:
I, myself, know that even as I claim my belovedness with words, I still find ways to deny it with my actions. It is so easy to champion the cause of women’s empowerment and feel-good spiritual love-fests, while secretly thinking I am talking about “other women’s” value, significance and belovedness. I still face the ever-present voices that dismiss my depression, my weakness, my pain, as “silliness” as they demand that I get on to caring for others.
This is why I feel the urgent need to tell you that your pain is real and significant, even as I dismiss my own. Because in hearing you express so honestly your own fears and pain that day, I caught a glimpse of my own pain and it became clear that any words that I could say to comfort you were also needed by me just as urgently.
A few months later, this friend and I were at a bar. I confided in her that my partner and I were experiencing extreme financial problems, which had caused me to put off grad school for at least another year. She was the only person that I had told about this. I was raised with a great deal of anxiety and shame around money and I felt- still feel- that my failure to keep myself out of debt in spite of my fancy college education reflects negatively upon my intelligence level, my productivity, and my general goodness.
The first thing that she asked me was, “well, have you prayed about it?” I, ever the hypocrite, responded “no, I can’t. I’m just too embarrassed.” “Well then,” she responded “I’ll pray for you.”
Sisters, as much as we need to pray for ourselves, we must not stop praying for each other. It is hard to remember that I am beloved, but I know that you are. If, as women, we find it easier to be the caretaker than the one who is cared for, then we must learn to use our caretaking skills in ways that claim our role as beloved, and help other women claim that. This is what it means to be church. This is the miracle called Eucharist, which is to say that our salvation is all tied up in one another. That in trying to be some small comfort for you, I am able to find the tools for my own liberation.
So, let’s stand on the shoulders of the Patron Saint of Embarrassing Problems, and let’s reach even farther than she did. Like her, let’s be brave enough to name our brokenness aloud, in front of Jesus and our community, even if our voice is trembling. And let’s be strong enough to hear others name their pain. Let’s do this in the name of a new, Upsidedown Kindom where last is first and shame has been banished. Let’s do this for each other, but let’s also do it for ourselves.