On Your Marks

Primary Scripture: Mark 1:21-45

If you were following along in your pew bibles, you probably noticed our passage for today is broken into four smaller pieces or chunks. To me, they feel a bit like a disjointed vignettes or scenes from a movie that has only been rough-edited.   

In the first, we see Jesus teaching at the synagogue, then he heals Simon’s mother-in-law at her house. Next, we see Jesus praying alone before the disciples find him and they travel around, and then finally a man comes to Jesus for healing.

Honestly, there is enough in these four segments for a month’s worth of sermons. But you won’t get ALL of them today, I promise. But I do want to back up a moment and remember where we started last week – The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

John the Baptizer was preaching repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord. I baptize with water, he will baptize with the Spirit… the time is coming!   

John was like the starter, crying out in the wilderness On your marks… get set….

And then he appears. Jesus comes to the River Jordan. He is baptized by John, blessed by God and from that moment on, it is Go! Go! Go!

The odd thing is, we don’t have a very clear sense of timing in Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story. We know Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, being tempted in every way. We know that it was after John the Baptist’s arrest that Jesus himself announced the start of his ministry:
The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near;
Repent and believe the Good News. (v15)

Beyond that, Mark seems to have little need for transitions, and certainly no space for lollygagging. He moves us from place to place, action to action. The next thing you know, Jesus is challenging fishermen to drop their nets, leave behind their families and their livelihoods.

We don’t see them pondering, asking for a quick committee meeting to reach consensus. Mark says Immediately they follow Jesus. James and John even left their father in the boat! And off they head to Capernaum, where we picked up the action today.

Now – I’m not sure what caught your ear as we read this morning – or last week.
Here’s what I noticed on my first couple of readings…

  • Jesus is always teaching and healing.
  • People see Jesus as having power and authority.
  • In Jesus, God is on the loose, doing transformative work.

In the first vignette, we get a sense of how Jesus is bringing his proclamation in verse 15 to life. The Kingdom of God is near as Jesus teaches. He speaks from his heart, as he shares his knowledge of the Torah and as he shares his understanding of God from the very core of his being and belief. Then, Jesus heals a man. When the unclean spirit speaks, it recognizes Jesus, calling him by name. Jesus speaks from his identity to silence and cast out the spirit.

The people in the synagogue did not separate these two efforts as we might: The healing part and the teaching part. They saw the healing as a new teaching, and remarked on the authority and power behind it all.

They could see Jesus was different from the scribes. Not because as writers the scribes were bad or wrong, But because Jesus was – by his very nature – different. The authority and power that the Son of God carried with him into a room absolutely changed the dynamic. Jesus embodied the Kingdom of God, and his teaching of scripture reflected this.

His healing acts also taught. They showed how a human might embody mercy, justice, and reconciliation – the very lessons of the Torah – the books containing the Law and the Prophets. Thus from place to place, all around Galilee, as Jesus combined proclamation in word and in deed, he earned the title Rabbi or Teacher.  Because, as he told Simon and the others, “that is what I came out to do.”

Proclaim the good news.  

You see, the healing ministry of Jesus is more than a series of medical interventions as object lessons. To understand what Jesus is proclaiming, we must try to understand the impact of disease in the historical context. In the communities Jesus would have visited, illness often resulted isolation.

We think of leprosy as one highly contagious disease, but several skin ailments with a wide variety of symptoms would have resulted in a person being called a leper.  In addition to the prospect of demons or unholy spirits, a wide variety of physical or psychological ailments might be lumped into a category of “unclean spirits.” Blood and other bodily fluids would make one unclean as well.

Now, the most common response to these and other illnesses was to separate the individual from the community. Not unlike the way current medical personnel have protocols for highly contagious patients.  There is some common sense behind quarantining those who are ill, especially if an illness spreads quickly.

Unfortunately, a common sense response like separation can feed fears about those who are ill, those who are malformed or those who are unable to control their movements or speech. Some – but not all – rabbis taught that sin might be the cause. The person suffering or someone in their family must have done something awful to call God’s wrath down in such tangible ways. These Children of God were being punished and were not to be touched by those who wanted to remain in God’s good favor.

This is why many of those in need of Jesus’ healing had experienced the pain of isolation. They may have been shunned or driven from their community, sometimes completely alone. No work, no shelter, no food, no hope. Relying on the mercy of those who might care for beggars.

There are descriptions in the Hebrew scriptures and other documents about the kinds of sins or actions that would make one ritually unclean and the length of time one was required to be isolated from the remainder of the community. These acts included coming in contact with an unclean person, which makes the lepers, those afflicted unclean spirits, and others quite literally “untouchable.”

I’d love to think that we are past this sort of dehumanization. That we have moved beyond fearing those who are struggling with demons like alcoholism or drug addiction. That we were no longer prone to stare at

or make jokes about people with mental or physical disabilities. I wish I couldn’t rattle off the names of several people who would not experience a warm welcome here because they are among those our society has declared undesirable or untouchable for a variety of reasons. But we are, after all, still humans and still imperfect. We are, like those in the towns and villages around Galilee,in need of the proclamation of the good news, in need of repentance,  in need of healing and teaching.
Healing that brings a medical resolution to very real problems.
Healing that also brings social and financial resolution.
Healing that offers reconciliation and reconnection to the resources of the community.
Healing that offers reconciliation with family.
Healing that provides the chance of survival.
Healing that restores our capacity to see, to care, to love.

In the very act of touching, raising up, sitting with, and speaking to those he would heal, BEFORE the actual healing, Jesus restores their humanity, saying to them, in full view of the community…
I see you
I love you
I am here for you.

That was the good news being proclaimed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God…
You are seen.
You are loved.
You are forgiven.
You are healed.

That was the good news being proclaimed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when the leper was healed. That was the good news being proclaimed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when Simon’s mother-in-law was able get up from her bed, when the unclean spirit was cast out.  

That is the good news still being proclaimed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In Jesus, God is on the loose, then AND now. Jesus is bringing to bear all the power and love that God has for creation as he encounters sickness, death, hunger, disability, despair and hopelessness. Jesus proclaims and displays the truth that compassion, reconciliation, and healing are at the top of God’s agenda and that is very good news.

I do want to address one aspect of this passage that many struggle with, including me. In the last segment, the man Mark describes as a leper reaches out to Jesus and says “If you choose, you can make me clean”

His statement is one of faith, seeing that Jesus has the power and authority to heal.
His statement is also one that recognized Jesus’ agency, his freedom to choose.It leaves open the idea that Jesus might choose not to heal him.

And here’s where it hits close to home. This leaves the option for God not to heal us, or our loved ones for whom we seek healing. And it calls to mind all those times that God seems to choose death or suffering over a miraculous healing, even though we asked with sincere hearts.

I can’t say that I have a great answer for that. I wish I did. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been angry with God over this very issue.  But as I studied this week, I came across something I hadn’t noticed before.

Now, I’m about to break the “don’t talk about the original language” rule again, so bear with me. After the man makes clear his desire to be healed and his faith that Jesus can make it so, Jesus is moved. In our version, moved to pity. The word describing Jesus’ response is splanchnizomai which literally means, “to have one’s intestines turned.”  It is a feeling that comes from the gut. Depending on context, it is usually translated as pity or anger.

Here’s the thing – I think it’s actually both.

Jesus looks at this man, fully aware of the indignities and isolation he has suffered as a result of this illness. fully aware of the physical pain he has endured. The compassion the Son of God must have felt in that moment, maybe tinged with pity, is undeniable.

But don’t you think there was also some anger mixed up in there?

The kind of anger that drives me to say words that this pastor was raised not say aloud (and won’t from this pulpit). That’s the kind of anger I felt when my friend Ellen was diagnosed with another round of breast cancer and again when cancer took her away far too young.  It’s the kind of anger I felt when I spoke to Mary the day she got confirmation about her cancer. I had met Mary a week earlier, when I sat vigil with her as her mother died of uterine cancer.

There have been weeks I needed extra time during the prayer of confession, as I recalled the language I used in anger over alzheimer’s, emphysema, mesothelioma, bi-polar disorder, depression, epilepsy…

Have I ever told you that I learned swear by listening to my dad, who was a master? Yeah, sometimes I really need a little more confession time. 

The point is – my guts get all twisted up because this is the world we live in. The one in which we await the return of our Lord. The one in which our bodies turn against us. In which we do not yet see the fullness and permanence  of God’s Kingdom.

The forces of chaos and evil, illness and death The forces that unleash disease, famine, and violence in the world… Those are the forces against which God’s invading Army of One started fighting on the day he was baptized. They are the powers and principalities over which one day Jesus will reign

That is our ultimate hope.

The signs and wonders Mark describes- that is what they point toward, offering us a sneak peek, a behind the scenes look at the Kingdom of God to come.  Spoilers, if you will

We know, because of the witness of Jesus’ victory over death, that we will experience victory, too.
Sometimes through miraculous healings.
Sometimes through the miracle of brilliant and committed medical professionals
Sometimes the miracle is Christ’s presence in our suffering, his taking on part of our anger and sorrow so that we might experience a different kind of healing while we remain in this imperfect world

And sometimes the miracle comes by way of the presence of the Body of Christ, as we work to overcome division, to overcome our self-imposed isolation and our fear, so that we can sit beside the one who is hurting, the one in need of healing.

And with guts twisting and eyes filled with compassion, we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God:
I see you.
I love you.
I am here for you.

Let us pray:

Healing God,
In your mercy, heal our hearts.
In your mercy, heal our wounds.
In your mercy, mend our spirits.
In your mercy, send us to those in need of your presence.
In your mercy, cause us to embrace the unloved, to see the unseen, to sit with the abandoned, to speak the truth of your extravagant grace to those steeped in shame and fear.
In your mercy, love us into being your church in this time and place.   Amen.

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