Sermon for 
Epiphany 5B / Ordinary 5B February 8, 2009, Mark 1:29-39

ambulance-in-ny

Isaiah 40:21-31

Mark 1:29-39

Who came where for what?

I love studying the bible for many reasons; chief among them are that it treats you (the reader) like an adult, and that makes you think; and after the adult thinking is done, there is an important pay-off.  The message it has is relevant and needed – but the pay-off comes after the thinking work.

The work of bible study for me often begins by noticing the odd or unexpected aspects of a story.  We saw that last week, and we will see it again his week; this is an odd text!

We read three scenes; in each scene something happens that demands that we read below the surface level, because the surface level is just too odd to work.

Scene one: Jesus heals Peter’s wife’s mother.  In scene two he heals and casts demons out of a number of people; and in scene three, after  a night of prayer Jesus decides to move on.  If that were all Mark had to say, there would be nothing odd about it.  But it isn’t all he has to say, and what he says in each scene is odd.

First, in scene one, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (remember it is still the Sabbath day when you are not allowed to work) this way:

 V. 31  “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her...”

The odd part follows.  

  the fever left her, and she began to serve them

 She doesn’t even have time for a drink of water between “the fever left her” and “she began to serve them.”  Talk about misogyny – or at least male-domination!  OK, that’s anachronistic, but at least we must admit that this is more than a bit jarring; the poor lady jumps up out of bed and immediately serves Jesus and the disciples.  This is odd, and everybody notices it.

In the second scene, the oddness is simply the gross exaggeration in Mark’s description.

 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.  

 “All”  the sick or possessed?  “The whole city“?  That would have been thousands of people; Capernaum wasn’t a village, it was a city.    We know that the description is an exaggeration, but why exaggerate?  What is the point?  

In the third scene, the odd part is that Jesus is just beginning to have success, large numbers of people are coming to him; his right hand man Peter  interrupts his prayers  to  tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.  “Come back to ministry-central.”  But,

38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  

That is, “Forget the people who need my proclamation and healing, I need to go find some more people to proclaim to and to heal.”  What is going on here?

Before we get to the oddities, let’s pause to notice a pattern that Mark is showing us about Jesus’ life: he has a rhythm in his life between public and private; between activity and rest; from the Synagogue to the home – inside the home.  From intense work outside the front door, to withdrawal for private prayer.  Journey outwards – Journey Inwards.  Using gifts in service to others, time for renewing the spirit and connecting with the Father.   Service and spirituality in harmony.  This is at least a word to the wise.

Now to the oddities: Scene one, Peter’s mother-in-law; high fever one minute; waitressing the next.  How is that?  Now first, we remember that in the ancient world, a fever was not considered a symptom; it was the disease itself.  If you cure the “fever” you are well.  Mark’s readers would have understood the healing of the fever as complete healing, not just the first step.  The fever left; she was 100% healthy, right then.  But still, it’s odd that she jumped into service so instantly after the cure.

What do we know about illnesses with fevers?  Personally, you feel miserable.  You certainly are not useful to anyone else, and finally, you are isolated (note: this woman was not just home-bound, she was bed-ridden).  You are cut-off from your community when you are sick with a fever in bed.  Your world shrinks in on you.  

In the same way that the demon-possessed man’s “unclean spirit” which we read about last week stood for a whole set of demonic teachings that Jesus came to cast away, so this sickness has a symbolic function as well.  In Israel in those days, the community had broken down.  There were deep divisions and injustices in that society that were not only tolerated, they were institutionalized.  People who should have illustrated the covenant-community that they were meant to be, were instead, living “every man for himself and devil take the hindmost.”  

 Though some of the details are quite different from our world, still, there are many ways in which we today live an isolated, high-fever kind of life.  We rarely know our neighbors in any depth, we are personally responsible our own houses, health care, and family life.  We are separate, autonomous individuals; islands to each other with blue-water all around.  

This is a sick state, not a healthy one.  We were never meant to live in isolation and exclusion.  God made us for each other; made us to need each other, and to find our joy in meeting each others needs.  Healthy people serve the needs of the community.  

So the oddest part of scene one leads us to its significance: Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, so she served.  Jesus heals us from our individualism and self-sufficiency so that we can serve each other.  

 Now with this momentum we can see how scenes two and three work as well.  What is going on with the exaggeration in scene two where the “whole city” was coming to Jesus?  It’s that the “whole city” was ill.  Everyone had the disease.  No one was healthy.

They all needed to come together on a different basis.  They had been living in the same city together, but there was no “well-being” – no “shalom” because that covenant-community had broken down.  They had lost their connection with the God of the covenant, and consequently the covenant connections between themselves had become strained, frayed, and had snapped.  They were all sick with this.

But they came out to Jesus, and gathered around him, and found healing.  The healing was the proclamation: the kingdom of God has come; a new covenant is being made.

I can hear Jesus telling those people,  “You all waited until after sundown, that is, after the Sabbath was over to come out to the house for healing; you did not have to wait; I healed the man with the unclean spirit right there there on the Sabbath, and I healed this good woman serving the coffee too – I would have done the same for you.”  

Why?  Because I came to make a proclamation: hear the good news: we are forgiven.  God is not waiting for us to be pure, keep all the rules perfectly; he is reaching out to us as we are, sick, needy, full of germs and fever, and lifting us up.  And when we understand that message, we can get well, get out of our sick-beds, and start serving each other.  Yes, the whole city; all of us;  wounded-healers; in covenant with God and with each other.  

That explains scene three: It is not good enough for Jesus to bring the kingdom of God to Capernaum alone, the message of the kingdom needs to be spread throughout all of Galilee.  That’s why he came:

 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 

The message heals; and when the healing happens, people start serving one another, like Peter’s mother-in-law did.  

So it seems to me, that we enter this story as one of the sick people.  We start by recognizing our brokenness, our not-wholeness, our need for healing.  Everybody has a dark side – the part of us that we are desperate not to let anybody see – but we know it is there.  We hear the voice inside our heads and its destructive suggestions.  

We all have a self-preservation instinct that gets out of control and become selfishness.  We all have egos that want to be first and best, and most.  All of us find comfort in being with our own kind and with people who look at the world exactly like we do.  The tendency to build walls around very small enclaves is very human – tragically so.

But these ways of living leave us sick.  Self-medication takes the edge off, but everybody knows where that goes, and it’s never to wholeness and health.

I was filling out my profile on my Facebook page recently.  There is a place where you say what your religion is.  Of course I was automatically going to just say “Christian,” but I hesitated.  There are so many things Christian can mean these days – how do I tell people about the essence of my faith?  I decided to write, “Follower of Jesus.”   

That is what I want to be – it’s not a claim of accomplishment, it’s a statement of purpose.  I want to be a follower of Jesus.  Not just a person connected to an institution with a history and big beautiful buildings filled with art, but a person who recognizes that I am not well.  I am unhealthy. I am in need of healing.  And I believed that Jesus has the answer.

I’m one of the Capernaum townies who came out to the house that night.  I frankly recognize that I’m a sinner.  I do not love God with all my heart, mind and strength, and I am so far from loving my neighbor as myself that it’s ridiculous.  But Jesus can heal me.  

Jesus can set me free from this isolated, self-absorbed, me and my-kind first person, and make me well enough to get up, put on an apron, and start taking orders.

And it’s not just for here and with these folks.  Jesus has an agenda that does not stop in our back yard with the people who vote and dress and talk like I do.

39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons

 Jesus is ever expanding that circle of wounded-healers all over the territory – even around the world.  Following him – which is what I said I was trying to do – means embracing all the people he goes to proclaim to and to heal.  In fact, that’s part of my healing – to keep exercising that heart muscle to make it larger and larger: to Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Thank God for the 3 odd scenes;  now I get it: that Jesus loves me, sick though I am, and that he can heal me to be able to carry on his work, to get up and serve, and to spread the message, everywhere.

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2 thoughts on “Sermon for 
Epiphany 5B / Ordinary 5B February 8, 2009, Mark 1:29-39

  1. Thank you so much for this blog. I’m with an Episcopal Church in Northern Virginia. For our small group ministry, we discuss the Gospel reading each week in a format that asks questions about our lives. We reflect on a situation in our life, we reflect on the Gospel and then we reflect on how all this applies to our community. Your reference to the sickness in the covenant community was right on! Thank you so much for providing a stepping off point for our discussions this week. God bless you, fellow follower of Jesus.

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