In these days of the Great 500-year Rummage Sale that the Church is going through, when what isn’t working and needs to be let go of is often clearer than what needs to be held onto and what needs to emerge, there is a lot of hand-wringing and wondering what we in the church are supposed to be doing right now, while “the sale” is going on. I was at a meeting this week where such a conversation took place, and someone remarked, “Boy, you know, as we’re reading the Gospel of Mark now, it seems like Jesus is just preaching and healing, preaching and healing. And people seemed to flock to him. Of course, he had the advantage of being able to actually heal people.” We may have the preaching thing down, but the miraculous healing part–not so much maybe.
I’ve been inspired this week by the commentary of Mark Davis, an Episcopal priest and scholar, who writes,
Mark 1:29-39 is a story that poses an enormous problem for me. In this reading, it seems like everyone in sight who is sick or oppressed by demons come to Jesus and he heals them right and left. It all seems instantaneous and complete. The lame walk, the deaf hear, and those who are oppressed by destructive forces are suddenly no longer struggling. The Easter message of the Christian Church is that the spirit of the Risen Christ continues to be present with us today. But, our lame limp, our deaf sign, and those of us who are oppressed by destructive forces cope and seek help. It seems like those stories are either untrue or that if the Spirit of the Risen Christ is present among us–if–then Christ is among us in a way quite different from how the body of the living Christ once walked among us…” [Left Behind and Loving It, 2/1/15]
I am sure that is true–that Christ is among us in a way quite different from how the body of the living Christ – how the body of Jesus– once walked among us. That has been the challenge and problem for the followers of Jesus from the first Good Friday on– how do we continue without him, at least in the way we’d come to know him? That’s why all the Easter stories are different; that’s why they all struggle to describe how they experienced Jesus’ presence after he died. He was really there; but then he wasn’t. We were all locked in that upper room, and then he was there among us. We didn’t recognize him on the road, but then he sat with us at table and broke the bread…and then he was gone.
Neale Donald Wasch, author of the Conversations with God books, transmits this message from an inspired place–”Honor the tradition but expand the understanding. That’s what religions must do right now if they hope to be helpful to humans in the years ahead.” [cited by Kate Huey in sermonseeds, 2/8/15] Honor the tradition but expand the understanding.
Make no mistake about it. There are churches where the stories of healing are remark- able, and it’s not just the pentecostal, evangelical type of churches who claim this. Up at Grace Congregational Church in Rutland, the Rev. Bob Boutwell has a healing ministry that he’s been engaged in throughout his entire ministry career. Though now retired from parish ministry, Bob continues his healing ministry in regular healing services at Grace, in which at least one woman has been healed of her cancer. The doctors have no other explanation for it. The Healing Com-mittee of the Vermont Conference, of which Bob has been an important member, continue to present newly ordained and installed pastors with the bottle of healing oil for anointing the sick. Our own Jane Norrie has had a wonderful healing ministry among us, using her gifts of Reiki and listening to be bring comfort and healing.
Honor the tradition; expand the understanding. The story of Jesus’ raising of Peter’s mother-in-law [notice that Peter, the one who became the first bishop of Rome, was married, but that’s a topic for another time] –this story is one of those “troubling stories” as Mark Davis put it. Jesus heals her on the sabbath, first of all, which is only the beginning of his teaching about what the sabbath is for, and he simply takes her by the hand and “raises her up” from her sick bed, where she has been feverish and apparently gravely ill. So simple, yet so profound; and then there’s the note that once the fever left her, “she began to serve them.” Some find this troubling too–that she didn’t even have time to recover or rest, but immediately begins to serve Jesus and the men with her.
But Peter’s mother-in-law was the head of this household. Her ministry of hospitality was what she was known for; it gave her dignity and worth. “What if resurrection [–being raised up] is being raised up to be who you always were and were always meant to be?” asks NT scholar Karoline Lewis. What if cooling this woman’s fever was just one aspect of her total healing, which was being restored to her place of belonging in the community? Jesus’ touch and taking her hand was an expression of or metaphor for love and presence, of relationship and intimacy, all of which are essential for real healing to take place. Whether or not any of us have a particular gift of healing, we can all offer the gift of presence, of touch, if it’s appropriate, of relationship. Honor the tradition; expand the understanding.
At sundown, that is, when the sabbath was over, “people brought those who were sick or possessed with demons to Jesus.” Mark Davis thinks a better translation is “those who were demonized,” that is, those who had been cut off from fully engaging in community. “And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…” Day of Rest officially over! I imagine this going on late into the night.
And then we are told that while it was still very dark–is that an echo of an Easter morning story?–”while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” This was the necessary in-filling of power and grace for one who had been poured out and emptied the day before. “While it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out a deserted place, and there he prayed.” This pattern is what made Marcus Borg, of blessed memory, as someone has put it so well, describe Jesus as a mystic with deep prayer habits. [Davis, ibid.] I wonder, in fact, if our neglect of these “deep prayer habits” is what limits our ability to heal.
Was this time in prayer, out in a deserted place, merely quiet contemplation, or did Jesus wrestle with God as to what he should do, where he should go next, should he set up shop, so to speak, in one place, and let people come to him, or should he keep moving? My guess is it was all of the above. And the guidance Jesus received was that he was to bring his message of God’s power and love to all the towns in Galilee, to all the “gaggles of gathering,” as those early synagogues might be called [Davis] , away from the center of purity and holiness in the “Holy City.” “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” Jesus told Simon and his companions after they had hunted him down, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
So what might this mean for those us asking what we are to do in this inbetween time, in this time of evolving and devolving? What would Jesus do in this time? Honor the tradition; expand the understanding. The spirit of the Risen Christ is present among us in a way different from those days before the first Easter; but people are still demonized, still broken or wounded in body, mind, and spirit the way that human beings have always been. Preaching with our words and our lives the good news of God’s love is still our calling. As is healing. But wholeness, as Davis says, “is not measured by physical or psychological perfection, but by connection to human community,” any more than it was in Jesus’ day. Those whom Jesus cleansed of leprosy were most importantly restored to their place in community. Peter’s mother-in-law was “raised to do the things that gave her purpose and meaning… The person who carried a sick one to Jesus walked home arm-in-arm with that one. Those are not stories of magic, [Davis contends]; they are stories of human community being healed from the brokeness that sickness, disease, and mental illness can bring.” [ibid.]
So we too can offer a place of healing, a place of welcome without regard to age, race, sex, economic condition, disability or sexual orientation, as our Open and Affirming statement says. And remember, that if the spirit of the Risen Christ, the presence of the Living God is truly among us and within us, you may be the only Jesus some people will ever meet. This touching, listening, healing presence is more than a little outside the comfort zone for many of us New Englanders. That may be why New England is the least religious region in the country, unless you consider sports a religion, in which case New England is quite religious. We don’t think we need –let alone want–touching, sharing, listening, healing. We’re just fine, thank you very much. Go, Patriots! Go, Red Sox!
But might it be that there are some in our community – maybe even ourselves–who have been made to feel shame, not for what they’ve done but for who they are? Might it be that there are some in our community–maybe even ourselves–who are weary from the running and working and striving, weary from feeling like they have to do everything by themselves? Might it be that there are some in our community–maybe even ourselves–whose bodies are broken or diseased or worn out and wonder if they are of any value anymore? Might it be that there are some in our community–and our community in Christ extends throughout the world, remember–might it be that there are some who are tired of war and violence and cruelty and ostracism? Is the need for healing any less here and now than it was there and then?
Honor the tradition; expand the understanding. There is preaching and healing still to be done. There is returning to the Source in prayer and meditation for guidance, courage, and renewal. There is “power in being part of a community that acknowledges our weaknesses, our fragility, and our brokeness.”[Davis] So that even if we aren’t a center of miraculous healing waters, where piles of discarded crutches and eyeglasses litter the lawn, we might still be part of God’s healing in the world. “When our lame limp, [Mark Davis suggests] we will slow our gait to walk together. When our deaf sign, we will sign back, to communicate. When our oppressed seek help, we will provide space for counseling, for meetings, for ways to live in hope. And for those who are too far gone physically to walk, too far gone mentally to converse, too far gone psychically to engage, we will be gathered at their door, so they will not be alone. That’s healing and wholeness.”
Honor the tradition; but expand the understanding. So may we offer healing and hope to a broken and weary world. So may we keep returning to the Source of grace and renewal, both now and in the days to come. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark