Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. Please see the PDF version for attributions.
Last week we talked about the first public acts of Jesus in each of the four gospels, and how they give us insight into what it is the gospel writer most wants us to know about Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus’ first act is the exorcising of a demon in a man in the synagogue. It is the first of many many healing stories, and we hear of more healing by Jesus in today’s reading. First there is Simon’s mother-in-law, so here is Jesus in a private home. And soon word is getting out and “the whole city” is coming to him for healing. No wonder Jesus has to get away for a while. And we will read more healing stories in this gospel: the crowd will bring a paralytic through a hole in the roof, lepers will be healed, and many more. And while each story very much has its own purpose, its own “reason for its telling,” together they give us an overall sense of what Jesus is about to Mark. So we ask ourselves “what makes Mark’s gospel tick? What is especially important to Mark that he wants to proclaim about Jesus? and, what difference does this make for us?
I want to say at the outset that these are not “miracle stories” for their own sake. They are not in the gospel as an indication that Jesus has mystical or superhuman powers, that Jesus is some kind of a super-doctor going about curing as many people as he possibly can. There is something else going on. And, as last week’s text indicates, whatever it is that Jesus is doing is making some people angry. What’s that about? Why would healing people of sickness and demons be a dangerous thing?
First, we need to get out of our own way. We hear “healing” and we tend to “medicalize” it. A sickness of the body gets cured. But Mark isn’t talking simply of cures. Jesus is not primarily healing people from physical afflictions. Jesus is healing them from the result of their afflictions, which is isolation. The people that Jesus heals are cut off, separate, isolated by people’s fears, by institutional or cultural rules and norms, or by their own deep sense of isolation. The healing that happens is the restoration of people into community, into the community of the whole, a new creation, ushering in the kingdom of God on earth, which is and is-not-yet.
What creates isolation?
We know this isolation. Let’s take the isolation of those who suffer from addictions. There is often an acute and abiding sense of shame. “What’s wrong with me?” Recovering addicts and alcoholics often find that others remove themselves from their company. Sometimes you as an addict or alcoholic have to remove yourself from family and friends who drank too, who liked you better when you were drinking, and you have to sever those ties to save yourself. This is of course the great power of AA and NA — to be with a community of people who get it.
We know the isolation of someone who by disease or injury is no longer able to function in their society in the way they have in the past. This is what is happening to the unnamed mother-in-law of Simon in our gospel reading. I had to work my way through this, taking some umbrage and the fact that this poor woman couldn’t even rest for a bit before jumping up to make sandwiches. In the honor-and-shame culture of first-century Palestine it would have been humiliating for a woman to welcome a guest of her son-in-law’s into her house and not offer them hospitality. This was especially true of a Sabbath meal, which this was. Healing her re-integrated her into the community.
We know the isolation when someone is diagnosed with a terminal disease, and their friends don’t come around much. I suspect we’ve all been on the other side of that: “I want to go visit her, but I just don’t know what to say.”
Many of you know that I had a younger brother, Timothy, with Down Syndrome. He was born in 1962, and died at the age of 39. When Tim was a little baby I know how hard it was for my mother to take us all to relatives for holidays, and have some of her in-laws completely ignore Tim. they weren’t cruel; they were clueless of what to do or say. You may recall that at one time people who had Down Syndrome were referred to as “mongoloid.” It was so common you may have mistaken it for a medical term. It wasn’t. There is a subtext in the word “mongoloid:”it makes them foreign, a different race, not one of us. And then in the 1970s there was a change in public policy in the 1970’s that took people who needed living support and out of the large institutions and put them in houses of 6 or 8 in the community, the change in the attitude of people was palpable. Before that Tim would go out in public and people would stare or look away. And then there was a change, and people would smile and say hello. He was no longer strange, he no longer was to be feared. We’d be watching a parade and politicians would step out of the parade line to come over and shake his hand. Once the people with mental or physical disabilities were no longer kept separate the change in response of others was practically overnight. This is the spirit behind the ADA laws mandating that public buildings be accessible to people with disabilities, so they can participate as fully as possible in civic life.
What isolates? shame. fear. scapegoating. incapacity. Anyone who by their very existence or disability offers up a challenge to the notion that anyone can “succeed” if they try hard enough.
Jesus’ healing and restoration
What Jesus is about is about here in the gospel of Mark is not cure, but restoration. He persistently goes about knocking down the barriers that would isolate and separate people, and bringing them into wholeness and community. And of course, it is not just the isolated person who is healed. The wider community is healed and made whole too. We are not whole while we exclude people.
This does not always win him friends. Some of these barriers are institutional ones, backed by the force of law. Lepers, for example, were required in Leviticus to wear rags, keep their hair long and shout “unclean! Unclean!” to passers-by. Jesus was healing the marginalized, those outside society, those society would reject and keep separate. The purity laws at the time were understood as necessitating that the so-called “unclean” were to be kept separate. Jesus understood the essence and spirit of the purity laws were to restore everyone to wholeness.
Mark is recounting these stories of healing and restoration not to make a hero out of Jesus as an object of worship, but to guide the communities of Jesus followers who come after him, which means, us. Jesus says “follow me.” “come and see.” and “go and do likewise.” As today’s text tells us, Jesus came to “proclaim the message” of God’s kingdom, where all are restored to wholeness. This is what the Kingdom of God on earth looks like.
We are called to be a community of restoration and wholeness, and when we do that, we realized we are made whole too. This looks like reaching out to someone who can no longer come to church. It also looks like doing what we can to break down institutional and cultural racism. This is what a lot of the ministry we do, such as the Stephen Ministry, home eucharist, and connecting with our neighbors, is about. It means looking around on Sunday morning and asking, “who isn’t here? and why?” Where are they, and how might I reach out to them? We do that and we find we are healed of isolation too.
The church community is not a place of exclusivity but radical inclusivity, it is meant to be a place where we are working to bring about the kingdom of God in microcosm, on a human, person-to-person scale. One person at a time.
We cannot all be cured. We can all be healed. And we are all called to be healers. May it be so. Amen.