Sermon February 7 Mark 1:29-39 The Work of Healing Rev. Betsy Hogan
It’s not the first healing miracle in Mark’s gospel – the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in the passage that we just heard. I actually thought it was. When I started my thinking about this passage early in the week. It’s in the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, and I knew that Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism and then the calling of the disciples and Jesus preaching in the synagogue, and so I thought – because this passage starts with Jesus and the disciples leaving the synagogue –
I thought it was Jesus’ first healing miracle in Mark’s gospel. But it’s not. Because he actually, when still IN the synagogue, is heckled by someone who the gospel tells us is “possessed by a demon” – in other words, in first century speak, someone who’s suffering from a mental illness –
And so the first healing miracle in Mark’s gospel is actually Jesus freeing that heckler from the demon that’s possessed him.
And this passage is the SECOND healing miracle in Mark’s gospel. The healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Who, as Jesus and the disciples discover when they get to Simon’s house after leaving the synagogue – is in bed with a fever.
Which -- presumably everyone here has at some point been in bed with a fever, and probably everyone around him THEN had been in bed with a fever, and so when Jesus heals her?
This miracle, this second miracle in the gospel of Mark, is a miracle for sure, is a little less mind-blowing than the first one, than releasing someone from a demon that’s possessed them –
But at the same time, healing someone of a fever? That’s got a lot more general appeal. Like, casting out ‘demons’ is pretty awe-inspiring, to be sure, but fevers – fevers happen all the time. They happen to everyone.
And if this man can heal people of fevers – that’s not just impressive, that’s USEFUL. That’s the kind of miraculous power that’ll draw a crowd. That’s the kind of miraculous power that everyone’s going to want a piece of. The kind this second miracle reveals.
Which indeed is exactly what happens. Simon Peter’s mother has barely been healed – barely risen up from her bed, entirely well again and bustling around her kitchen making supper for all of them – when the word’s gotten round and the crowds are almost literally beating down the door.
And Jesus finds himself in the middle of what can only be described as a frenzy of people frantically wanting to be healed. Of all the things.
Because if he can heal a fever? An ordinary fever? And if he WILL heal a fever? An ordinary fever? Then he can and he will heal anything. All the things.
So the whole city is gathered around the door – and they're bringing to him every single person who's in need. It is an absolute frenzy. So many people in need. As physically and emotionally overwhelming as we might find that reality, just being aware of how many people are suffering, it was no less so for Jesus, just because he knew he had the means to respond.
But he did respond. He healed, and healed, and healed, and healed -- and if he actually got any sleep that night, by early morning he'd retreated into the wilderness to restore his own self and do a little thinking.
And it seems like what he decided is… that he’d done enough healing there for the time being.
His disciples actually couldn’t find him for a while. He’d retreated that far into the desert, into the wilderness. And when they DID find him, it was like it was a huge relief to them. Because “everyone’s searching for you” is what they said to him. “Everyone’s trying to find you. There’s more people, more people, more people, more healing, more healing, more healing – everyone needs you. Everyone’s trying to find you.”
But he’s decided. Nope, that’s enough healing here for the time being. And let’s go on to the neighbouring towns, he says to them, so that I can preach and teach THERE for a while. Because that’s what I came to do.
I suspect that it was a little frustrating, for the disciples. Quite apart from being disappointing for the people who were still searching for him, wanting him to heal them, needing him to heal them.
But he does decide to move on. And he doesn’t change his mind.
Because what he’s done, in effect, with this second miracle, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, is he’s kind opened the door for people. He’s kind of shown them a glimpse into what he’s about. What his way is about. What his presence, his purpose, his message, is about.
It’s been kind of obvious. The physical healing as a kind of obvious glimpse, a visible manifestation, a concrete example, of the bigger healing. The restoration of fullness healing. Where it's not just goodbye fever, it's hello feeling like there's energy and purpose again. Or it's not just goodbye so-called "demon" of seizures or mental illness, it's hello not being ostracized as "possessed" by everyone in town. And it's not just goodbye paralysis, it's hello not having to beg on the street for a crust of bread.
For Jesus, the physical healing of the moment is just the way in. What he's really about is the BIGGER healing, the spirit healing, the reconciliation healing, the fullness of life healing. And those things aren’t the work of a moment. They have to take root and grow. They take time to unfold.
And so what he doesn’t want is for people to get stuck there, at the physical healing. Like he’s just another medicine man or faith healer, magic hands, magic spells, get up and walk because you. are. HEALED.
Not that he’s not about physical healing, because obviously he is -- but that’s not ALL he’s about. He doesn’t want to turn into that guy you call when you wake up with a sore throat. That Jesus fellow, staying over at Simon Peter's house, and he's on call 24/7 for any medical emergency.
So he says to the disciples, once they've tracked him down where he's gone retreating off to in the wilderness, "let's move on to the preaching and the teaching". Because "that's what I came to do", he says. Not just be the magic healing hands guy -- you get a healing, and you get a healing, and you get a healing -- everybody gets a healing!
"Sure, that's part of it," he saying, essentially, "and that's making manifest the words I proclaim, but that's not the limit of what I'm here for. It's not the magic hands, it's the new healed reality taking root and growing.
"And that takes time. Someone who's only ever been ostracized, disdained, treated like garbage, forced to beg, they're probably carrying a fair amount of anger and a lot of distrust. And that's not just going to 'go away' because their mental or physical infirmity's been lifted off them. Particularly when their full restoration into fullness of life in the community ALSO depends on the COMMUNITY being healed – of its default tendencies to ostracize and disdain and treat like garbage certain of its people.
"So that's the healing I'm about," is what Jesus is saying here. "That wider healing of all that broader brokenness. It gets 'kicked off' by the magic hands, but that's not all there is to it. So the magic hands need to move on, so we don't get stuck there."
It's easy to get stuck there. At the big moment, the big event. When there’s a laying on of hands, and that which has been hurting us and depleting us and a burden to our bodies and spirits is removed. And lifted away. And we’re freed of it. It’s easy to get stuck there, in that big moment. Or to think that's the sum total of what Jesus' healing is about.
But it's not. It’s not the big moment that’s the point, 'getting healed'. It's LIVING healed, living into that wider healing: it’s what comes next that’s the point. It's the preaching and the teaching and what THEY inspire. It's the words and the way.
This past week, in Nova Scotia, we've had another one of those healing "moments", as the sister of Viola Desmond was repaid the fine and court costs that were leveled against Desmond back in the 1940s when she challenged Nova Scotian segregation policies.
And it was very much recognized as being symbolic. As so many of these gestures are – from official apologies like those offered by the United Church of Canada for the Residential School System, to land acknowledgements before meetings, to intentional choices about who we publicly honour with naming and statues.
But 'symbolic' can be important. In the church when we talk about 'symbolic' what we often mean is 'sacramental': an action -- like the pouring of water in the sacrament of baptism or the breaking of bread in the sacrament of communion – that becomes a visible sign of invisible grace.
That's the way St. Augustine described the sacraments, as visible signs of invisible grace. And it's a useful way for us to think about these symbolic 'big moments' that we engage in.
But even more so if we set them in the context of Jesus' healing and teaching the way we see it unfold in this passage from Mark. Because they're meant to be "visible signs" – just like all of Jesus' visible healings of all these people that come to him – of the "invisible grace". The deeper and wider healing they're meant to fuel.
As long as we don't get stuck there. Thinking the gestures are the point. Like the disciples are in danger of thinking Jesus' magic hands healings are the point.
They're not the point. They're momentous – they're freeing – but they're only the beginning. Jesus says 'Okay time to go back to the preaching and the teaching' because it's the Words and the Way that do the deeper healing that's needed, of the deeper brokenness underneath the surface.
And there IS deeper brokenness. We've symbolically repaid Viola Desmond's family as a visible sign gesture acknowledging the injustice of segregation policies of the past – but all of us here continue to be 'unwell', as a community in which segregation may not be enforced as it was, but it's still very much real. What we continue to carry isn't a legacy of racism, but a continued illness and infirmity that's still making us broken, unwell, less than we should be as a community.
And Jesus is right. To send us afresh to the Words and the Way. HIS way of humility and openness and generous welcome, and HIS words about love of neighbour and radical responsibility for each other's well-being –
But for us here too, we're sent afresh to the words of our neighbours. To their stories and their testimony to what their experience in our broken community is. To do that learning, to hear those words, and to find a way in to a deeper wellness that’s going to take time, and work, and change, to unfold – but that will be better. Whole-er. Holier. If we embrace the opportunity. God being our helper. Amen.