A couple of weeks ago, the news broke that Anthony Bourdain, a renowned chef, author, and host of television shows like ‘No Reservations’ and ‘Parts Unknown’, had committed suicide. Has anyone here watched any of his shows? My husband and I loved to explore the world with Bourdain. And for us as pastors, for us as Christians for whom Christ’s supper and the communion we share around it are so important, we felt a special connection with Bourdain as he explored different cultures through food – and the table fellowships he had with people from the remote regions of Bhutan to the bustling metropolis of San Francisco.
Yes, he went to some swanky restaurants – but he also showed his appreciation for local fast foot joints, street foods and especially home cooked meals all over the world. Whenever he was invited into someone’s home, he showed a deep appreciation for the food set before him – no matter how exotic – and a genuine interest in the people around the table.
Bourdain showed us more than once that especially communal meals, from BBQs in West Virginia to celebratory feasts in Kurdistan, have a special power to bring people together. Watching Bourdain share table fellowship with all kinds of people around the world reminded me of a saying Martin Luther’s: that, when we come together around a meal, we share more than food with each other. We share of ourselves, and this is what fosters understanding among people.
Shared table fellowship offers great opportunities to love our neighbor – and those we might consider enemies.
To me as for many other folks, Bourdain’s suicide was a shock. This man had so much going for him, the experiences he shared were a precious gift to many, why would he kill himself?
But, as we know, there is often more going on beneath the surface than we know. Depression is a sneaky and brutal spirit that denies, an illness that eats away the soul until there only seems to be nothingness. And because there is still a stigma around mental illness in general, many don’t seek help. And, sadly, the church hasn’t been too helpful in all that for the most part; I don’t know how often I have heard, ‘if you only believed or prayed enough, you wouldn’t feel that way.’ But mental illness cannot be believed away or prayed away.
Of course Bourdain’s death is not an anomaly. Every day, about 123 people die of suicide in this country, the vast majority of them middle-aged white men. That’s about 45,000 suicides a year. For every death through suicide, there are 25 suicide attempts.
The groups in which we see a disproportionate percentage of suicides are among combat veterans and LGTBQ youth. I was shocked to learn that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers between 14 and 18 in the U.S. – and the third leading cause of death among children 10-14. These numbers cry out about a lot of pain that often goes unnoticed or is belittled.
Quite a few people have responded in some way to Bourdain’s death. One of them is John Pavlovitz, a pastor and author. He wrote a moving piece, ‘To Every Anthony’. In it, he reflects on Bourdain’s suicide – and the suicide of his closest childhood friend. He writes, ‘When someone leaves the world, they leave a void; a massive, gaping hole which they alone filled with their once-in-a-history, never-to-be-repeated combination of humor, anger, intelligence, wit, flaws, beauty, and dreams. And it’s a hole that becomes an open wound for those of us who remain here, one that can never close completely because every single person is irreplaceable.’
Pavlovitz goes on to describe his anger at the death of his friend – mostly anger against himself, for he asked himself: did I let this friend know what he meant to me, how important he was to me, how much I loved him, what a gaping hole he leaves behind? And the muses how many people might hang on to life if they were told how important and precious they are – acknowledging at the same time that this might not be enough to overcome the illnesses or obstacles they are up against.
Which brings us to today’s story from the gospel according to Mark. Now Mark’s gospel is the shortest of all the gospel accounts, partly due to Mark’s style: short and sweet. Most stories are told in a few verses. Overall, the gospel of Mark gives us a sense of urgency.
But – Mark surprisingly takes his time with most of the healing stories he tells. In the rush and urgency of Jesus’ ministry, Mark gives us the sense that Jesus took his time to heal people, to restore them to health and life to the fullest. But it’s not only about the physical restoration of people – it’s not just touch and go for Jesus – you’re healed, now be on your way. No, Jesus takes his time to relate to the people who come for him for healing.
We see this especially in today’s gospel lesson. Here, we have not one, but two stories of miraculous healing: he brings the daughter of Jairus back from the dead and heals the woman with chronic hemorrhages from her disease. It’s a story within a story, and of course the story of the woman touching Jesus in the crowd and Jesus’ response add a dramatic delay as he is on the way to the child who is not yet dead. Can you imagine people listening to this story for the first time? Oh no, he’s going to be too late. What are you doing, Jesus, she touched you and is healed, why do you stop and waste precious time to talk to her? There is a life at stake!
But of course this story says something about Jesus and his first and foremost concern for people as a whole.
And we have a juxtaposition here, although it almost is lost on us: one the one hand we have the girl, who is part of a family, whose father loves her so much that he tries everything to save her.
On the other hand, we have a woman who has been bleeding for 12 long years. Now the Mosaic Law says that even a menstruating woman is ritually unclean and basically excluded from all communal life, including the life of the faith community and community with God. Can you imagine what this means for that woman? For 12 years, she’s probably lived a life of exclusion, she’s not allowed to touch anyone, no one is allowed to touch her – since it was assumed that her ritual uncleanness would ‘contaminate’ others, so to speak. Her illness stigmatizes and isolates her.
Is she childless, which wouldn’t be a surprise, given her disease? Was she ever married? Did someone divorce her because of her condition? We don’t know.
But there is nobody who intercedes on her behalf – like Jairus intercedes in behalf of his daughter. It seems like her family, her community has given up on her.
Who knows if she’s ready to give up herself – I talked about the symbolism of numbers in Judaism before, and the number 12 is essential – 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples, 12 months that make a year – the number 12 symbolizes totality and the fulfillment of God’s purpose. What if the woman felt like 12 years of suffering signified the fulfillment of God’s purpose for her? She may have considered ending her own life of suffering and isolation. Jesus is her last chance.
She is desperate enough to break all the rules and touch Jesus as the crowd is pressing in on him, which she isn’t supposed to do. And: it turns out 12 years of suffering signifies the fulfillment of God’s purpose for her, but in a good way: she is healed, immediately.
But that’s not enough for Jesus. He stops in his tracks and asks: who touched me? Who reached out to me? And the woman comes forward, bravely, but trembling. She knows she’s done something she shouldn’t have done. And, according to today’s text, ‘she fell down before him and told him the whole truth’. We don’t know how long she talked, but there is Jesus, who cares about her, who cares about her story, and who takes his time to listen.
And he says to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well’. We like to focus on the ‘made you well’ part, but how he addresses her is even more powerful: daughter. My child. Jesus gives the one who was excluded from family and communal life for 12 long years this special relationship. You are my family, he tells her, and I am yours. You mean the life to me. I’d do anything for you.
Jesus assures the woman that she isn’t only restored to physical health now, but that she is also restored to the community – community with God, community with Christ. And this may be the real thing that makes her whole again, that makes her life worth living again.
We all are called ‘daughter’, ‘son’, ‘child’ by God. We are infinitely precious in Christ’s eyes, and Christ cares deeply about each and every one of us – and we as the church, the body of Christ, are called to care deeply about all – whether they are accepted or not, part of a loving family or excluded for whatever reason. Because Christ cares, we are called to care. We are called to come around the table of Christ, where Christ shares of himself as we share of ourselves and where everyone becomes a neighbor. We are called to take our time to build true relationships with those around us. We are called to share God’s appreciation for each and every one of God’s children – and let them know how much they mean to us.
As John Pavlovitz, whom I mentioned earlier, writes: maybe lives and souls can be saved if we only tell people how much they mean to us, how much they mean to God. It may make life worth living again for someone who feels desperate and alone. It is worth the try. It is worth the fight. For Christ died to conquer death so that we and all creation might live. For God is a God of life.
Picture by Claudia Soraya on unsplash.com