Last year I spent Canada Day in Chicago, Illinois. It was an odd thing, being out of the country for Canada’s birthday. Particularly since my family wasn’t with me on a day that we usually spend together and because it was a special year. It was Canada’s 150th. I was in Chicago, and I say that like I was touring Chicago, which I wasn’t as I barely left the university for the entire ten days I was there but I was there because I was attending a world gathering of the diaconate from the many different denominations of Jesus’ church. It was an incredible feeling being in the States because as a Canadian I had freedom of movement—I had crossed the border with no issues and did not worry about needing to carry my travel documents with me, because, back then the United States still considered Canada its friendly neighbour to the north, not some milk-subsidizing national security threat with a highly offensive and duplicitous prime minister. I had no problems traveling to Chicago unlike serval others of the conference who were not permitted to enter the country because of their nationality—people from Asia and Africa. We left their name tags on empty seats throughout the conference to remind us of who was missing that week.
Anyway, the Diakonia World Federation had gathered in Chicago. Diakonia is a greek word that means ‘service among others’. The diaconate was created in the very early days of the emerging church when it was realized there was a need to share what was happening at the gatherings of God’s people that were taking place in each other’s homes. After Jesus was resurrected and then ascended to the heavens, the followers of Jesus began meeting together. They realized, due to illness or other serious matters, there were others who could not make it to the gatherings and it was decided that a certain style of people would take food and the good news from the meetings out into the community as well as stand at the door to the homes where the gatherings took place and welcomed everyone into the meeting. They welcomed people in and they took that welcome out to those in need.
With certain culture influences on the church, the role of the diaconate fell by the wayside until the 1800s when a desperate need emerged for care and attention to given to those who could not manage for themselves—particularly for prisoners who were not fed or given basic necessities unless the church or families provided for them, those folks who were too sick to work or to care for their families—remember, in the 1800s people were imprisoned not necessarily because they did something heinous but because they were too poor to pay their debts or they had committed some small infraction. There was no social safety net back then in any form. If you were destitute, you had no assistance outside what the church and your family could provide. And so, the diaconate was revived to help serve those who were oppressed, poor, ill or widowed. You might be familiar with the more modern terms of deacon or deaconess. Depending on the denomination, the diaconate’s responsibilities range from reading the gospel during the worship service, taking consecrated elements from communion out to the sick following worship, offering pastoral care, leading children and youth programs, working as parish nurses, as teachers at community schools of all sorts, as organizers of food banks and shelters for women and children, as allies for the LGTBQ community and for those working towards reconciliation with indigenous communities.
The diaconate is by and far made up of lay professionals. People who have been trained in specific professions and then use their gifts and skills to serve the church. The United Church of Canada is the only denomination that recognizes the diaconate as paid accountable clergy and as such, the diaconate also serve and lead congregations in the same capacity as ordained ministers. In the United Church, as a diaconal minister, I am called to social justice, Christian education and pastoral care. Stephen, as an ordained minister, is called to the word, sacrament and pastoral care. When I became a minister I was gifted with a bowl and towel to represent that it is service that I am called and Stephen was gifted with a chalice and plate, representing his call to sacraments. We are both trained in all aspects of ministry but the focus of our education has been slightly different.
So, now knowing all this about the diaconate, you can appreciate when I say that our Canada Day celebrations last year in Chicago were, at times, somewhat uncomfortable because of our calling to social justice—we could not ignore the growing awareness that was sweeping across Canada last spring of the juxtaposition that the nation of Canada was created at the expense of the First Nations of people who were living on this land before the settlers arrived. We were celebrating our nation being 150 years old but the indigenous people had been on the land for much longer than the settlers. Many Canadians were feeling uncomfortable with celebrations that were predicated on the attempted destruction of culture and way of living. In discussions that were taking place at the time at home and in Chicago, I heard it said and I likely said it myself, why can’t it just be done? Why can’t the damage and hurt that was done just be fixed and we move forward? Why can’t the healing be as simple and quick as it was for both the woman and the girl in today’s scripture? Jesus made it look so easy.
The healings that take place in today’s scripture reading are twofold. The first, the woman, an individual, who in her own personal suffering reaches out and, without seeking permission, is healed. Can you imagine how terrible it would be to menstruate for twelve years—cause make no mistake, this is what’s happening in this story. As a man you may not fully appreciate what that might mean. You may have to reach a bit to find yourself somewhere in this story but in the famous words of Matthew Taylor-Kerr, suck it up princess because women, for years, have had to find themselves in the stories of men. So, men, today I invite you to find yourself in the story of this individual woman. Can you imagine her discomfort and pain and the inconvenience she might have been experiencing, and it lasting weeks, and months and years? It would have been a horrible thing. And to top it off, not only would she have been feeling miserable all the time, she would not have been permitted to do most normal daily activities because she would have been in a constant state of uncleanliness. So, this woman risks everything to venture out to see the famed healer Jesus. Not considering herself worthy, she just touches the hem of his robe, hoping his power is strong enough to work through the slightest of contact. And it does. And from there Jesus goes to raise a recently deceased young girl—did you notice that she was twelve years old, the same length of time the woman had been bleeding? The storyteller wants there to be no mistake that the stories of these two are connected. Anyway, the family of the girl seek Jesus out to make their daughter well again. She dies but then is resurrected by Jesus, which he seems to do with very little effort, with very little cost to himself. Of course, it is the girl herself who is healed, however it is the gathered family who is amazed. The girl rises, the family rejoices.
Certain Christians tell anyone who would listen that, if only they knew Jesus, healing and blessings would be heaped upon their heads. Like it is a simple thing. Like it is an easy as a thing as the healing of this woman and this girl. But we know this is misleading. We know that just because we wish for something to happen, life doesn’t work that way. Jesus does not work that way. God does not work that way. The work of Jesus was not one-directional. While it may seem that it was easy for Jesus to heal or perform miracles but we must remember that Jesus very often required something from those he healed. He demanded they walk to him, to have faith, to explain themselves, to get up, to tell him the whole truth. The little girl was not brought back to life and had no expectation put upon her but she was to immediately get up. She was to walk despite just having been bedridden. The bleeding woman came forward to confess it was her who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and, did you notice this, she then told him the whole truth. Jesus offered healing but the healing needed to be received. This demonstrates that healing the hurt, the pain, fixing the broken and damaged requires not only the desire to be healed but also requires an ability to offer a healing path forward. And both of those things together require a lot of work. Because humanity is perfectly imperfect, it is not easy to be completely open ourselves to healing in any given moment or to assist another down a path—whether through apology or reparations or offering another form of justice—and having that path that is free and clear of any other personal agenda.
In Chicago last year, there were a plethora of discussions about what justice might look like for many different groups of people. Those denied the fullness of humanity because they are black or brown or because they find themselves with the LGTBQ spectrum, or because they are differently abled or because cultures and ways of living have been denigrated or because they live with any sort of mental illness. And God knows, we wish that justice for everyone was as simple as Jesus telling the young girl to get up. That we could reconcile with the people who make up the First Nations of this country for all the pain and damage created in the systemic racist policies of our various incarnations of government and for the ongoing missteps we collectively take in trying to sort out the many different layers of discrimination and bias that affect relationship between all citizens of this peace-loving and polite nation of ours. However, we know that healing does not happen with the touch of hem. It happens when the whole truth of a matter is revealed. And, at any time relationships are broken, the whole truth can be hard to find. Hard to acknowledge. Hard to admit. And it is not just our desire to fix what’s broken, those who have been hurt need, themselves, to be in a place that will allow for healing to happen. And some hurt runs so deep and ragged, it’s difficult to get to a place that one can hear the other telling their truth. It can be overwhelming to know where even to start in the fixing that the relationships and situations that are hurting or broken is some significant way. Maybe the place to start is simply with leaving the chair empty when someone does not show up because they are not permitted, or welcomed, or physically able, or were not invited or forgotten, or ignored, or not even considered. Healing involves being made welcomed AND being welcoming. And healing involves being prepared to be open to hearing the truth and telling the truth. The whole truth. May it be so.