Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Nevertheless, They Persisted
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Numbers 27:1-11; Mark 5:25-34
She was the youngest of 20 children, born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, in the poorest section of the poorest state in the Union. She started picking cotton at age 7. To say that her life was hard is quite an understatement. At 44 years old, she had never heard of civil rights, but somehow, she gathered with others to hear speakers from the Southern Leadership Conference talking about voter registration. There she was inspired by a sermon on Matthew 16 about discerning the signs of the times -- so inspired that she put her faith into action and went to the courthouse to register to vote. Because she was African-American and this was 1962, she had to interpret questions about an arcane section of the Mississippi State Constitution. She failed the first time, but she told the clerk that he would see her every 30 days for the rest of her life until she passed. She did pass on her third attempt.
In the meantime, she lost her job, had to leave her home, received death threats, was wiretapped and kept under surveillance by state authorities and the FBI. She was jailed and brutally beaten, leaving her with kidney damage and impaired vision for the rest of her life. She said, "I'm never sure any more when I leave home whether I'll get back or not. Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off." 
Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer. She is known today for her persistence as a civil rights activist and advocate for the poor. Fannie Lou Hamer stands in a long line of women who spoke up and told their truth, even though they were frightened, even though their voices probably shook, even though they paid a price for it.
It is a long line of women. Many of their stories and their names have been lost to history. But surprisingly, we know the names of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They are the daughters of Zelophehad. At this point in Israel’s history, the people are camped on the plains of Moab, anticipating their entrance into the land of promise. The law has been given. A LOT of rules have been recorded. The tribes have been counted – that’s where the book of Numbers gets its name. The men of each tribe were given land in proportion to the number of people in the tribe.
But there are no men left among Zelophehad’s children. He left five daughters. The rules are that sons inherit property and daughters get a dowry to take into marriage. It seems that these five women will get neither. Until they have the audacity to protest to Moses at the tent of meeting.
Moses has been settling disputes among these people for 40 years. But this time he does not trust his own wisdom. This time Moses brings their case directly to God. And God says “The daughters of Zelophehad are right!” And furthermore, their claim is extended so that it changes inheritance law for all of Israel. Any time a man dies without sons, his daughter shall inherit. From our place in history, we might wish that the ruling was that daughters and sons would inherit equally, but for its time, this idea is pretty radical. By speaking up, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah change not just their own lives, but the lives of future generations.
I am frankly amazed that Moses believes that he heard God correctly. I am surprised that the people accept this as the word of the Lord. But they do, suggesting that evaluation and social change is built into the Biblical tradition.
One scholar says it this way, “The people of Israel in Numbers are a people on the move, and God
and God’s law moves with them. The tent of meeting stands as a symbol of the openness of revelation, the dynamic flexibility of Israel’s tradition, the invitation for ongoing dialogue between God and God’s people. God’s word is not a sterile and entrenched legalism but a robust and living tradition that leans toward the future in hope and anticipation.”
* * *
We don’t know the name of the woman who dares to approach Jesus in Mark 5. She is outcast because of her sex and also because of her disease. When women bleed, they are supposed to keep themselves separate, because it is believed that they pollute anyone and anything with which they have contact. But she bleeds all the time. Technically, she should be perpetually isolated, and maybe she is. Except for this day.
She has spent all of her money on doctors who have taken her payment but provided no healing. If she tried the remedies listed in the Talmud, she would have drunk a tonic made from a compound of rubber, alum and garden crocuses dissolved in wine. She would have tried an infusion of sawdust from the lotus tree, mixed with the curdled milk of a rabbit, calf, lamb, or deer, to facilitate the coagulation of her blood. She might have worn the ash of an ostrich’s egg in a linen bag around her neck for months. For years, she has tried one doctor after another, one treatment after another and nothing has worked. She has no money left. In the Hebrew way of thinking, life was in the blood. This woman has been bleeding for 12 years. Her life has been slowly draining out of her. She has been dying by degrees. She must be close to despair.
Somehow, she has heard of Jesus. Somehow, she has made it to where Jesus is and she tells herself that if she can just touch the fringe of his robe, she will be well. For 12 years, she has been ill and alone and somehow on this day, she gets herself to the crowd and she starts to make her way to Jesus.
“If I can just touch the fringe . . . If I can just put one finger on it for just a minute.” It’s a bold idea and she’s ready to do it.
If I were in her place, I would want to be so unobtrusive, to cause the very least interruption necessary, just barely brush against Jesus, minimal contact and then get out of there without being noticed. But that’s not what happens, is it? She touches Jesus and he knows it. He looks around for her and in front of everyone, she has to speak up, has to confess. She is afraid, even trembling, but Jesus stops everything for her. And there must be something compelling about Jesus because it says that she tells him the whole truth. The whole truth. Mark doesn’t elaborate on what that is. Maybe it just means her plan to touch him and be cured. Maybe it means her story, about 12 years of suffering and loneliness.
Whatever her whole truth is, I suspect it is important to her healing. Because Jesus gives her the time and space to tell her whole truth. He pays attention to her, treats her as someone worth his time.
He says “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t take credit for healing her himself. He doesn’t even give God the credit. He says that her faith has made her well. Jesus points to her own faith as the source of her healing and wholeness.
* * *
Huston Smith was a foremost authority on world religions. He just died in December. He says that the early Christians had two qualities that caught the attention of the people around them. There were two things that made them different. The first quality of the early church was that they had genuine mutual regard for each other. "See how they love one another," it was said of them. There was an amazing absence of social barriers like race, gender and status. Those things meant nothing because in Christ there was neither Jew nor gentile, male or female, slave nor free. That was the first thing that made early Christians stand out from their culture – an amazing egalitarianism; "a discipleship of equals."
The second quality, according to Huston Smith, was joy. They had a radiant inner peace that allowed them to experience hardship and even persecution with a sense of God’s glory so completely present in them, that their response was one of unspeakable joy.
An absence of social barriers and a radiant joy. That’s what made the early Christians different. Sometimes I think that Christians in our time may have lost those things. According to most surveys at least, we aren’t perceived that way. But maybe we can earn that reputation again. If it took desperation and courage for the women in our texts, perhaps it is still possible for us.
Perhaps there's some desperation in your own life, threatening to drive you to despair. Perhaps fear is taking over, slowly draining your life away, telling you that you cannot possibly try one more time, that God cannot be calling you to follow, to hope for healing and wholeness and life.
It's easy to lose hope, isn't it? It's tempting to give up the dream, to turn away from the promise. Like Zelophehad’s daughters, we might feel that the law and those in power to make the laws are not on our side. Like the woman who suffered for years, some of us we have tried and tried and we’re not sure that we can find the courage to try again.
The word courage comes from the French word for heart (coeur). When you are deeply affected, when your heart opens to a cause or to a person, courage can fill your heart, sometimes in the most unexpected ways enabling you to do things you had never imagined.
Courage doesn't come from the root word for analysis, or for strategic planning or goal setting. We have to be engaged at the heart level in order to be courageous. To have courage is to have heart. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the best interpretation for us of what the Bible means by faith is our word, "courage." Faith is not about the brain, it's not about knowledge, it's about the heart, it's about where passion lies in your life. "Where your treasure is, there is your heart." Where your heart is, there is your courage.
Following Jesus takes heart, takes courage. Being open to the new, to what is possible, takes heart, takes courage. Speaking up against injustice, advocating for ourselves and others, requires faith and courage.
Sisters and brothers, may we have the heart, the faith, the courage to persist toward the new thing that God is doing, even now, in our lives. “Take heart, be courageous,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world.” Amen.
 D. T. Olson, Numbers (Interpretation Commentary Series; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1996), p. 166.