July 1, 2018
6th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Lamentations 3:23-33; Mark 5:21-43
Six years ago Minnesotans were asked to decide whether to adopt a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively banning gay marriage in this state once and for all. Since the early 2000s, 30 states before us had considered that very question themselves, and every single time citizens had voted in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. In Minnesota in the year 2012, marriage equality advocates were determined to make our state the first ever to reject such a ban.
One person in particular deserves credit for some important research that revolutionized the way marriage advocates in Minnesota waged their campaign. His name is Dave Fleischer, and he is the director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In 2008, when California shocked the nation by approving a gay marriage ban known as “Proposition 8,” Fleischer and his colleagues at the Los Angeles LGBT Center got to work. They were determined to figure out what had gone wrong and how they could change hearts and minds on this issue.
Years later, when Dave Fleischer talks about what they learned, he begins by asking a rhetorical question: “When was the last time you changed your mind about anything that was really important? Was it because somebody toldyou it was time to change your mind?” He explains that, in the past, marriage equality advocates had made cerebral arguments about rights and equality and relied on appeals to justice and fairness—essentially telling those who opposed marriage equality that it was time for them to embrace a more enlightened perspective. What Fleischer and his team discovered was that those kinds of messages don’t work. So they tried a different approach. They went door-to-door talking with people who had voted against gay marriage and engaged them in heartfelt conversations. Fleischer’s team discovered that the single thing that had the biggest impact was when the other person was given an opportunity to share a story that carried emotional weight for them and seemed relevant to them. Fleischer’s team asked these people to tell stories about the gay people in their own lives, and to talk about their own marriages. “How did you meet your wife? How did you know she was ‘the one’? How did you feel on your wedding day?” These kinds of questions opened up powerful conversations about love and the meaning of sharing one’s life with another person. Several of these door-to-door conversations were filmed and are posted online, and you can see for yourself how these kinds of conversations created opportunities for transformation. Within just a few minutes, these door-to-door canvassers had gay marriage opponents reconsidering their point of view.
The secret to these conversations was that Fleischer’s team treated those they engaged as genuine conversation partners; not as misguided bigots whose minds needed to be changed, but as complex people with their own life stories who deserved to be heard. Fundamental to these conversations was a commitment to seeing the other person as a human being, and seeking to make a connection. This approach created space for people to consider a different perspective—perhaps even to change their minds about gay marriage.
Minnesotans United for All Families learned from Dave Fleischer’s research. They built a campaign whose goal was not to win an argument but to have meaningful conversations in which people with different perspectives and life experiences could make real connections. In the end, the campaign was successful; the marriage amendment was defeated. But there was an even more important result. The Minnesotans United campaign taught us how to build relationships with people who are different from ourselves, even people who disagree with us. Minnesotans learned that heartfelt connections among people who are socially and culturally very different from one another have the power to change the world.
What strikes me about today’s Gospel reading is that Jesus goes out of his way to make a connection with someone who was socially very different from himself, who most people didn’t think was worthy of his time.
In this story Jesus meets a woman who has been suffering for twelve years from uncontrollable bleeding. According to Jewish law, that meant that she was ritually impure—had been for twelve years—and she was forced to remain on the fringes of Jewish society. It was bad enough just being a single woman in Jesus’ time; to have this illness meant she was an outcast. She would have had to spend all her days in isolation, separated from others, lest her “uncleanness” contaminate others.
What this means is that her interaction with Jesus, and her desire to touch him and be healed, represented an almost unimaginable boundary violation. Their meeting should have created an uproar and earned her a severe punishment. Maybe that’s why, when Jesus asks the crowd who touched him, she comes before him in “fear and trembling.” She’s expecting the worst. Instead, Jesus offers her mercy and healing. I like the way pastors Kari Lipke and Joanne Engquist put it in their reflections on this passage. They write, “Jesus isn’t content that she remain anonymous to him. He calls her out, not to chastise, but in order to hear her story, to validate her healing, and to name her ‘daughter.’ Jesus wants her to know that she did not steal something he wasn’t willing to give.”
This interaction between Jesus and the woman was a moment of intimacy between two people who were socially very different from one another—who, under normal circumstances, should have had nothing to do with each other. Actually, it was a moment of intimacy that was forbidden by Jewish purity laws and should have resulted in the woman’s condemnation. Instead, the result of their boundary-crossing interaction was healing, wholeness, and grace. The lesson here is that this kind of unexpected intimacy between two people who are socially very distant from one another has the power to transform lives.
At a time when our society feels more polarized and divided than ever before, that feels like good news to me—this idea that unexpected intimacy between people who are vastly different from one another has the power to change the world.
A couple months ago, in keeping with our congregation’s commitment to support immigrants in our country under threat of deportation, Gloria Dei co-hosted a fundraiser for a Haitian immigrant named Djenane, a teacher in the Apple Valley school district, whose family is at risk of being deported. They arrived in the United States from Haiti eight years ago after the massive earthquake that devastated that country. Since arriving here, she has become an integral member of the Apple Valley community, and she is dearly loved by her students and fellow teachers.
A few months ago, federal immigration authorities announced that Haitians living in the United States will soon lose their Temporary Protected Status, which was extended to Haitians who fled the country when their homes and livelihoods were demolished by the earthquake. Temporary Protected Status provides legal residency to non-citizens whose home countries are in crisis. Seeing no other options in a country mired in poverty and utterly ruined by the disaster, many Haitians came seeking the Temporary Protected Status they had been granted in order to build a better life here. Now they are being told they have less than a year to leave the country and return to Haiti, which is still struggling to recover from the earthquake and rebuild their economy. Djenane and her family have been told they may be able to apply for a different kind of status, but of course there are significant costs involved. The fundraiser we hosted here at Gloria Dei was to help cover those legal fees.
That day, about a half dozen helpers—members of the church and colleagues from the Apple Valley School District—spent the afternoon in the church kitchen with Djenane and her mother, preparing a traditional Haitian meal that was served later that night to around 75 people who attend the fundraiser. It was delicious. Let me just tell you, there’s nothing better than fried plantains. After the meal, a traditional Haitian dance troupe Djenane leads performed for us. She even made all of us stand up and dance along with them. That was probably the most vulnerable thing the Lutherans in that room had done all month. We looked ridiculous, flailing our arms and trying to move our feet to the complex rhythms. But did we ever laugh. It was a blast. And that evening, we were a community—of people with dramatically different life stories who nevertheless found ourselves reaching across the boundaries that usually divide us to build relationships with one another.
So often people who are caught in our nation’s immigration crisis are reduced to their documentation status, reduced to their cost to our society, or reduced to the story of hardship or danger that caused them to flee their home countries. Much more rarely do we have the kind of opportunity we had that night with Djenane and her family—to share a meal they’ve prepared for us, to experience a bit of the culture that formed and shaped them, and to get to know them in their full humanity, as three-dimensional people. I continue to pray for Djenane and her tumultuous journey through our immigration system, and God-willing, she and her family will be able to stay here in the United States. But whatever the future holds, something significant happened that night in this church. Those of us who were here that evening made an unexpected connection and began building unlikely relationships with people who are socially and culturally very different from ourselves, and that experience of really seeing and knowing one another has been working on our hearts—maybe even transforming our lives so that we can transform the world.
Despite everything that’s happening in our world today, Dave Fleischer is optimistic. “What would happen,” he asks, “if all of us stopped spending so much of our time with people who are just like us and spent more of our time reaching out to people who aren’t like us. Think about how that would change who we are [and] our understanding of the world. Think about how it would change this country and how it would change our politics.” Think how unlikely encounters and heartfelt connections could transform the world.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis, “How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation,” in The New York Times, April 7, 2016, accessed June 30, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/magazine/how-do-you-change-voters-minds-have-a-conversation.html.
Freethink, “LGBT Rights: The Power of a Single Conversation,” June 12, 2017, accessed June 30, 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmlfnr151rI.
Michael L. Lindvall, “Mark 5:21-43: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Kari Lipke and Joanne Engquist, “Pentecost 6/Lectionary 13,” from Preaching Helps in Currents in Theology and Mission, 45:3, July 2018, http://www.currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/140/161.