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Present day Taboos – Canon Missioner Maggie McLean

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Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner 

Title of sermon: Present day Taboos

Date/time/service: Sunday 19 June 2022


Today at Evensong we have readings full of women who are the subjects and agents of action. So I’ve no idea why I was asked to preach!


There is Abraham determined that his son will marry one of his own people, rather than a Canaanite from where he was living. In seeking this potential wife for his son, Abraham isn’t interested in compulsion: ‘if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath’. However, the priority for Abraham is to secure his ‘blood-line’. To have descendants that ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.


The second reading recounts a remarkable set of events that highlight the unique character of Jesus as a Rabbi. Firstly, as a teacher touched by someone ritually unclean and, secondly, as a rabbi who risks further impurity by holding the hand of someone who has died.


It is highly likely that, at the time, contact between this woman and a Rabbi would have rendered Jesus impure. In the Biblical text there is a strong suggestion that the woman’s action ‘was seen as crossing the boundaries of decency’[i]. However, Mark’s main focus in the account lies in the illness rather than the impurity. The woman comes to Jesus in a state of despair, having sought the help of doctors. Her condition has worsened over 12 years, and all her resources are now spent. Almost certainly aware that she will make Jesus impure, she approaches him from behind, attempting to be unseen as she reaches out to touch him.


Today we may not have any particular sense of ritual impurity. We might see ourselves in an enlightened age that’s beyond such things. But that doesn’t mean we have no sense of ‘taboo’. There are many topics which are tacitly excluded from public debate or polite conversation. Often these will relate to perfectly natural bodily functions that are still, all too often, shrouded in shame.


It seems remarkable that it is only in recent years that the subject of period poverty has achieved political significance. Hidden and silent, the topic has long been a reality for women across the world but has failed to get the attention it deserves. Of course, it is not the same situation as the bleeding of the woman who turns to Jesus in her desperation. But it is a topic that is taboo. Undoubtedly it is also a situation where gender is critical to the story; and it’s a Gospel account that concerns both need and poverty.


One of the people honoured in the recent Jubilee Birthday Honours is Tina Leslie. Based here in Yorkshire, Tina was awarded the MBE by the Queen for founding the Freedom4Girls charity in 2016. It’s a charity that works to improve access to sanitary products for women in the UK, Uganda and Kenya. Here at York Minster we are delighted to support Yorkits, a local Rotary charity spearheaded by a member of our congregation – Issy Sanderson – which makes and supplies feminine hygiene kits to a huge number of countries around the world, including refugee camps in Europe.


I can only imagine that as the cost of living crisis deepens it will be the taboo topics; the minority groups and the poorest in our society, who will struggle most to access the basic necessities of life. We hear on the news about families choosing between heating and food – but I’m sure that other choices will be made, and sometimes those will involve women’s fundamental health and dignity.


One of the most moving and remarkable things about the ministry of Jesus is that he wasn’t limited by the conventions of his time. In order to heal people; to save people; and to love people, he crossed a line, time after time. While onlookers may have been aghast at a Rabbi being touched by a woman who was bleeding, there can be no impurity in Jesus – and he cannot be made impure. Instead, his presence transforms suffering into wholeness. When the Lord of life takes the hand of a young girl who has died, risking his own purity, it is death that is driven out.


Sometimes, when we touch on difficult topics, we might feel uncomfortable. We might want to stand back and look away. But we need to remember that this is where Christ walks. This is where Christ stands with arms open to the suffering of the world. Our discipleship, our calling, is to be with him – and to transcend any barrier that prevents us being in his Kingdom.


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