Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 1:29-39
5Epiphany, Year B
Many years ago I was talking to a man who had just joined The Episcopal Church (as we do). What, I asked him, had brought him to this church? The man then told me this story:
He was—he said—struggling with a particular issue in his life. After some internal debate, he decided to consult his pastor about the situation. He made an appointment, and when the day arrived he bared his soul. Whereupon the pastor stood up, pointed to the door, and yelled, “Get out of MY church, you spawn of Satan!”
This is a very real story of a very real person—may he rest in peace! I have intentionally not identified the particular issue this man faced, because the issue doesn’t matter. The question I want to focus on is whether there is room in God’s Holy institution, the Church, for all people and all issues.
Notice what is going on here: We want to know the issue because we make decisions about what issues, what conditions, what behaviors we allow in OUR churches. This is basic human nature: We protect OUR holy institutions to keep them holy. Even today.
I’ve taken the time to tell you this story because we modern people like to think we are not all wrapped up on purity codes. We like to think that the Jews of Jesus’ day were SO concerned about purity that they missed the point about God’s compassion for people. WE know that when THEY rejected impure people as a kind of quarantine to protect THEIR holy institutions—THEIR Temple and THEIR synagogues.
We like to think we don’t do this today. We might even dismiss as quaint thinking THEIR equation of mental illness (and other physical disease) with demon possession. However, we do the same thing today—we’ve just gotten more sophisticated in our rejection.
Just before our gospel lesson for today, Jesus had healed an unclean man in the synagogue in Capernaum—on a Sabbath, no less!—to begin his public ministry. Jesus had gathered his first four disciples and BAM, just like that, he healed an unholy man in a holy place in a holy day. No wonder that, if we peek forward in Mark’s gospel, by the end of Jesus’ first week of public ministry, the religious leaders had begun to plot how to kill him. Jesus was a threat to them and to THEIR worship; he was allowing the unclean to profane the clean.
What we notice, though, is that Jesus healed the man where he was at, in the synagogue. The lesson is very clear: God comes to us to make the unholy holy, to cure the illness, and to provide salvation. Instead of rejecting those who were ill, Jesus removed the illness. God comes to us to bring healing and health and salvation, whenever and wherever we encounter God.
Did you ever ask yourself how a person with an unclean spirit got into the synagogue in the first place? Like our churches can be today, the synagogue was in holy lock-down: no unclean persons need enter (no unclean persons were ALLOWED to enter). How, then, did this man get in?
I have a theory—pure speculation—that the man with the unclean spirit was someone who looked and acted like everyone else, someone who was able to hide his disease. And the unclean spirit was one of hardness of heart. We don’t know, though, and Jesus healed him. Which brings us, at last, to our gospel lesson for today.
Mark tells us that Jesus left the synagogue in Capernaum and entered the house of Simon (Peter) and Andrew. And what did he find there? Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever and in her sickbed. Having just witnessed Jesus exorcise an unclean spirit, they asked him to heal the woman. So Jesus entered her sick room (UNCLEAN!) and actually touched her (FORBIDDEN!) and lifted her up to wholeness and health.
We can talk all day long about the fever being a physical illness, not a spiritual infection as the people in Jesus’ day thought. But if we did so we would be missing the point: Jesus healed her. And not only did Jesus heal her, he acted compassionately to do so, breaking all sorts of taboos in the process. What we see throughout the gospels, beginning in the synagogue and continuing here, is that Jesus never rejects the person. Jesus never gets infected with their physical and spiritual illnesses. What he does is allows his compassion to bring them health and salvation.
So at sundown, Mark tells us, the whole town gathered at the door of Peter’s house where Jesus was staying. (Why sundown? It was the Sabbath. THEY didn’t break the Law!) They didn’t just come out of curiosity, though; they all brought the people who were physically or mentally or emotionally ill. One way of reading this passage is that everyone in the town had someone in their family who needed Jesus’ healing touch. Our lesson says that Jesus “cured many.” Notice that he did not heal all of them. But he cast out many demons, the passage says, and he would not let the demons identify him.
Why not? Why did Jesus try to keep his Messianic identity a secret, at least in this point of his ministry? Jesus needed to preach the Word of God, to show himself as God’s Word to us. In fact, he went away alone and prayed about this. “Am I here, Father, to heal every one of their diseases? Or to tell them about your Kingdom drawing near? If they kill me now, how will they know why you sent me?”
Notice that Jesus chose preaching. But everywhere he went, his compassion won out, and he healed many of them.
So, if Jesus were here today, in our very presence, what would he heal us of?
- You know, in the Middle Ages, people who were left-handed were considered sinister. If Jesus had come in the Middle Ages (and he did!), he would have cured people of being left-handed. Or maybe he would have cured his church of its rejection of lefties (and he did!).
- You know, in Colonial America, people of color were considered unclean. Maybe if Jesus had come in our colonial times (and he did!), he would have cured people of their color. Or maybe he would have cured his church of its rejection of those whom he had made in his image (and he did!, or maybe he’s still working on it).
Notice how my recitation of history has taken the onus off us? So, I ask again: If Jesus were here today (and he is!), what would he heal US of? I don’t know, so I’ll leave that question with you. But I will observe that the pastor who called his parishioner demon-possessed revealed the inherent flaw in his thinking. Whenever we think of THE Church, God’s Church, as “MY church,” this is when we begin to plot the death of Jesus among us.