Sermon on Mark 6:53-56 for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 09, 2015
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
I just had my annual physical. I take that for granted. My insurance company believes I will be healthier, and therefore cheaper for them, if I have one of these every year, so they pay for the whole thing, lab tests and all. No co-pay. At the exam, I complained about my allergies, and right away got a prescription for the latest, hottest new medicine. I had it filled within the hour.
I realize that this puts me in quite a privileged group. Most people in the world today do not have it as good as I do, and most people in history could not even dream of this kind of access to good medical care.
Heath Costs Money
Today and historically, maintaining good health has been related to income. The less money you have, the less healthy you probably are, for all kinds of reasons. It starts with nutrition; if you are food insecure, you have problems from the start. It is still true today, but all the more so in Jesus’ time. It may have even been true for Jesus himself.
In Mark’s gospel, some people call Jesus a carpenter. He was, then, a landless day-laborer like many other people, in the decades leading up to the disastrous Jewish-Roman war. According to scholars, economic and political deterioration had left much of the population of Palestine dispossessed of their land. Illness, for laborers, meant instant unemployment. Ill-health must have been endemic. (see Myers, Binding, 144).
The situation for the sick is even worse than discomfort and loss of income. Put yourself in the shoes – or sandals – of people back then. What do you believe? Well, for starters, since illness is associated with sin and guilt, you believe that when you get sick, you were being punished by God.
This is called the doctrine of divine retribution. You get what is coming to you. Lots of people I speak with still believe some version of this. Even people who use the language, even if metaphorically, of karma, implicitly believe people get what they deserve. They say “What goes around, comes around.”
You would also believe, as they did in Jesus day, that illness was a form of religious impurity. Impurity could be removed, but only by a trip to the temple in Jerusalem, the purchase of sacrificial animals, and the ritual of sacrifice. For you, it would be expensive; in fact, nearly impossible.
Jesus’ Unorthodox Healing Mission
Jesus, as we know from the gospels, had a reputation for being a healer. People came to him with the problem of illness, and found that by touching him – even, as Mark’s gospel says, the fringe of his garment, they would be healed.
Let us stop and think about what this would mean for you, if you lived back then. You could go touch Jesus and be healed, and suddenly lots of your problems go away. If God heals you, it must mean that God is no longer out to punish you; you are forgiven.
If you got well, you were no longer impure; no need for the trip to the temple. No need for the priest. No more feeling religiously excluded from God, nor from your neighbors. This is huge.
So, in other words, touching Jesus completely reorients your entire world view about how God feels about you and what God wants from you. Suddenly you are liberated from the world of guilt and shame. You are now invited into a world in which God is for you, in healing ways, not against you. This, is in fact what salvation means.
And that is why Mark tells us that when people came to touch even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak,
“all who touched it were healed.”
The word healed is exactly the same word that means “saved.” Touching Jesus saves us.
Whether or not you take the healing miracles of Jesus as literal or metaphors for a deeper kind of salvation, one thing is certain: all of the people who touched Jesus that day later died. The question is, were they saved? The answer is yes. Touching Jesus saved them. Their whole relationship to God and each other was transformed. Salvation means healing, and healing is salvation.
I need to pause here and draw our attention to a great distortion. A great many people, maybe some here, think that what Jesus came to save us from is hell. I want to tell you that I believe that is utterly mistaken.
First, because Jesus was Jewish, and he knew is Hebrew Bible well. Salvation for Jewish people is always historical, with a plus. We read a text from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 49, in which God says to his people, Israel, picturing the nation as a person,
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
It is all about how God would gather the scattered nation of Israel, who, in those days, were a small remnant of survivors of the Babylonian exile. That is the historical part. And this salvation of the regathered nation would be part of something larger that God was doing to bring salvation to the world. That is the plus part.
What Israel Knows, that Saves the World
Here is how the plus part works: Israel was the one nation in those days that knew that God was one, not many (monotheism). That God was the creator of a good physical world, and that humans were made in the image of God, with dignity and purpose. Israel alone knew that what God wanted was that people love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds and strength, as their daily creed affirmed, and that, as Leviticus says, they also must love their neighbors as themselves.
In other words, that Israel had the calling, the vocation to be the bearers of this light to all the nations of the world; that God was for them, not against them; that God wanted love above all, not a laundry list of reasons to punish people.
So, salvation, to Jewish people, meant returning to the land as the re-gathered people of God, proclaiming God’s forgiveness and mercy to all the nations.
Jesus saw himself as the person who was bearing this mission. This is why he kept crossing over to the Gentile side of the lake; he was bringing the light of God’s salvation to the nations.
How did that manifest itself? In Jesus’ radical hospitality; in table fellowship; in breaking bread with all who would come, without regard to the barriers of ethnicity or even religious purity. And that kind of welcome, that kind of embrace of the other had enormous healing power. Radical hospitality enacts and embodies the essence of the message that God is welcoming.
Jesus Still Saves
I believe this message, and I hope you do. Jesus saves. Specifically touching Jesus saves us still today. People who have gotten close enough to Jesus even to touch the fringe of the Jesus-message experience transformation and healing.
Touching Jesus, or we could say, waking up to the good news of the kingdom of God, or, shall we say, kin-dom of God, is always transformative. To touch Jesus is to know that this new family he is making out of total strangers is a place where we can find a home; a place where we can be loved, accepted, embraced, not because we deserve it or have earned it or are pure enough for it, but only on the basis of grace – the free gift of God’s love.
And when we recognize this is true for us, then we realize it is true for everyone. We open our hearts and our arms and we embrace the stranger, the other, the person who formerly we had thought of as outsiders. Hostility becomes hospitality, and in that moment, God is present; reconciliation is possible; and healing happens.
Touching Jesus begins to heal us; and the longer we stay in touch with Jesus the deeper the healing goes. We start to heal from all the ways our own egos keep us in sick states. We begin to recover from the sickness of our self-absorption. Our pride, our greed, our sense of being in competition with everyone, our apathy; all of these being to heal over. The longer we are in touch with Jesus the healthier we become, and the more willing to open our hearts to people who are suffering.
We get involved personally and practically in every way we can to pay-forward the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit. But we do not stop at a personal response. We ask the question: why are there so many sick people? What are the systems that keep people down?
Healing the Systems of Sickness
With hearts awakened by touching Jesus, we suddenly wake up to the fact that there are a lot of people who have not touched the Jesus message and for that reason, a lot of people are still sick.
Just as Jesus stood up to and against the systems of his day that were keeping the people sick, mentally, spiritually and physically, so we take up the mantle and address the systems of our day.
You would think that in an ostensibly Christian nation, most people would have at least touched the fringe of Jesus enough to want to extend healing to everyone. But that is not the case. I actually believe that the distorted message that so many people have heard, that Jesus came to save us from hell, (end of the story) has something to do with why touching him has had such a null effect morally for so many.
When people believe that reciting the creeds is all we have to do to have touched Jesus, that is part of the problem. It has been pointed out that in the great creeds, the whole life and teachings of Jesus gets reduced all the way down to the little tiny comma between the phrases “born of the virgin Mary,” comma, and “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” In the creeds, Jesus was born and dies, and everything else he did, and said, like healing people, is hidden in that comma.
All we have to do is to look at the public discourse around literal health care. The Alabama senate committee came within three votes of gutting Medicaid 23%. What would that mean? Analysts say that if the cuts had remained:
“…about one in five Alabamians would lose their health coverage, including nearly half of Alabama’s children and about 60 percent of the state’s seniors in nursing homes. Those cuts likely would lead to the closure of Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, as well as dozens of other hospitals and nursing homes across the state. The results would be devastating for Alabama’s economy and quality of life.” (source: Alabama Arise Citizen Policy Report, http://www.arisecitizens.org/)
How could a person have been touched by Jesus’ healing message and vision and not want to extend literal healing and healthcare to children, to seniors, to the poor – to the very kind of people that flocked to Jesus for healing when he waked the earth?
This is what we mean when we say that we are Jesus’ hands and feet. We are the ones who have been saved by touching Jesus. We have been healed of our misconceptions of a non-loving God; we have been and are being healed of our ego diseases of the self-oriented life.
And now we are the body of Christ for the world, the light of the nations, that God’s salvation may reach everyone; not salvation from hell, but salvation meaning healing of exactly the kinds of diseases we have been and are being healed of.
So we are the ones who are called to bring Jesus’ healing touch to everyone. We bring God’s openhearted welcome to the stranger. We bring God’s merciful embrace to the guilty. And we extend God’s care into every system of our world – the political systems, the health-care systems, the legal systems – everywhere the powers of the world are located.
We will know that we are fulfilling our mission when people can honestly say of us what they said of Jesus: all who touched them were healed.