Healing On All the Levels – The Rev. Michelle Meech
February 07, 2021
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany on February 7, 2021. Listen along by clicking the play button above.
The healing stories of Jesus are, I think, particularly poignant in the midst of a pandemic. The questions on most of our minds right now aren’t exactly about healing, however, but about how to stay safe from contact with the virus and when we can get a vaccination. But, for those of us who have loved ones who are sick with Covid, it’s an anxious path of daily reports about their long healing process while we have to remain physically distant.
Because of this, or because we may be going through some kind of physical healing of our own, I think our tendency may be that, when the Gospel talks about healing, our thoughts automatically move to the act of curing a physical ailment or fixing the problem present in an identified sick person.
We’ve all been sick and wanted to be cured of the misery and pain, or wanted it for our loves ones. And we’ve all experienced the death of someone we have loved after having prayed for their physical healing. But fixing the so-called problem, the ailment, isn’t the only kind of healing the Gospel is talking about in these stories.
First, let’s note there are varieties of illness – physical, mental, emotional. So the healing of an individual can be about many different things. Sometimes it’s not even diagnosable by someone with a medical degree, but rather a burden we’ve carried on our heart for too long that is in need of spiritual healing.
Second, it’s important to understand that there are social and communal consequences to physical sickness or even physical differences. So there is a need for healing on those levels as well. Society puts labels on those who have different physical abilities, going so far as to suggest that something other than the label of “normal” is a sign of God’s judgment.
We see evidence of this in the stories of scripture and, disturbingly enough, evidence of this in our own time as we witness the continued condemnation of people of color through the lens of whiteness. We blame the person who can’t fit into standards of normalcy before we stop to look at what “normal” even means. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that anything in particular is “abnormal” or a form of “sickness” we should give ourselves pause to consider exactly what lens we are using to make that judgment.
For example, it wasn’t that long ago that same-sex attraction was listed as a diagnosable illness in the DSM. It was seen as something that needed to be fixed, something to be cured. And scripture was erroneously used to support that narrative.
It’s not the first time, scripture also used to be twisted to support slavery. But same sex relationships are still seen by so many as sinful, as something needing to be fixed – mostly by those who profess a religious faith, causing continued pain and trauma.
So, in this case, is it the gay or lesbian or transgendered person who is in need of “healing” to fix the problem? Or is it the society or the specific community or group that is in need of healing?
I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to know that myself and countless other religious leaders believe that the healing needs to be on a communal level. For the most part, society is on a path of healing as more and more, those who identify as LGBTQ are recognized as full citizens. The passage of same-sex marriage rites went a long way to making that a reality. So, the issue is more communal – various religious communities and groups who still contend that being gay is a sickness or a sin, worthy of the need of healing.
So, healing is a much larger, more complex phenomenon than fixing a physical issue or curing someone of a disease. And in Mark’s Gospel the healing stories are intertwined with issues of power and authority in society, which helps to illuminate the understanding that systemic injustice is most certainly not anything new but it is something that is in deep need of healing.
As we look more closely at the stories of Jesus’ healing in Mark’s Gospel, we see the truth of this because they have all the layers of healing – personal, communal, and societal. Now, we started Mark’s Gospel a few weeks ago in January. This is Year B in a 3-year cycle of scripture. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, Year C is Luke. And then the cycle starts over again at the beginning of the liturgical year in the season of Advent.
So we have read about the Baptism of Jesus, the first event in Mark’s Gospel. And we’ve read about the calling of the disciples, as the fishermen left their nets and their boats behind to follow Jesus.
And last week, we read about Jesus’ first miracle in Mark’s Gospel – the exorcism of a demon from a scribe in the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath, breaking Sabbath law, resulting in two things: Jesus is now seen as an outlaw in the eyes of the religious authorities and, as the scripture says, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surround region of Galilee.” The first public appearance by Jesus and he’s already in the hot seat, challenging authority and pointing to what is in need of healing in that society. That’s where last week’s Gospel left off.
Now, in today’s passage, Jesus goes immediately from public healing to personal healing, demonstrating the connection between the two. “As soon as they left the synagogue…” Jesus and the disciples entered the house of one of his disciples – Simon Peter – where he is called upon to heal the disciple’s mother, as it says, “they told him about her at once.” And then text says,
“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” So, we have this private, personal healing story. But that’s not where the passage ends.
Now, Mark’s language is economical so he doesn’t offer details unless it’s important to the story. And Mark specifically tells us that AFTER the Sabbath was ended – when the sun went down – Jesus healed the ones they brought to him – “all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.”
Communal healing – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual… all who were sick or possessed with demons.
And then early the next day, Jesus goes away “to a deserted place” to pray. An important part of the Jesus stories – the retreat to pray and discern God’s will. But, almost surely excited by the success of his ministry thus far, his disciples came looking for him saying, “Everyone is searching for you.” But he doesn’t stay to cure more people.
Instead, he says, let’s go to the next town… so we can spread the message, curing people and casting out demons in other towns. And this is significant. It demonstrates that healing is not just personal, not just communal. Otherwise, Jesus would stay in Capernaum and heal the community, everyone who came to him. And they would come to him because they were already coming.
No, healing is not just personal, nor is it only communal. Healing is societal too.
After Jesus offered healing, he prayed to God, to become quiet in a deserted place, to discern what God would have him do. And Jesus chose to spread the message – to proclaim in the assemblies, the synagogues where the religious authorities reigned in the power – to proclaim the good news.
The good news, the Gospel, that is Jesus the Christ. The one sent to us by God so that we would return to God, not by way of the letter of the law, but by way of love – the commandments given to us by Jesus – Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself, a commandment that, essentially, means the same thing as loving God, as Jesus tells us in the 12th chapter of Mark.
This is what Jesus chose after praying to God and he told his disciples, “for that is what I came out to do.”
Jesus has a bigger project than healing each person individually. Jesus’ project is to overturn the power of the authorities who aren’t caring for the vulnerable people, to rearrange our thinking and to expel our demons. The demons that get in our way of seeing that we are here to care for one another.
For in doing the work of healing on this level, we are all truly changed. Our communities are truly transformed. We are all truly healed.
In doing so, Jesus demonstrates the precept from the Hebrew Scriptures, that we are, in fact, our brothers/sisters/siblings’ keeper. The illness of one belongs to all – the community and the society. So this means true healing must take place on all levels and in all dimensions.
Is healing personal? Yes! It is about relieving pain and helping to knit our split souls back together so that we can become whole again. But it also has to be communal and societal.
Because pain and illness are so often the result of thinking that life is expendable, excusing the horrendous truth that our systems and structures almost always result in collateral damage. Humanity must strive to be healed, to be cured from these misconceptions because, inevitably, my need to keep the system or structure in place at the expense of others, is a violent act.
It is not only the victim who is in need of healing, it’s the perpetrator. It’s not only the most vulnerable who are in need of healing, but system that creates vulnerability in the first place.
But to do that, we have to be honest. To truly be healed, we have to be willing to have the Gospel mean something in our lives. Because salvation isn’t about being comfortable. Salvation is about being free from the violence we inflict on others through the systems we participate in.
This is how we come to live according to the law written on our hearts. This is how we follow Jesus’ commandments – love God, love your neighbor as yourself. Because everyone is our neighbor. Everyone.
And sometimes when I observe discussions about public policy, I see this dilemma. I see that we need healing on a societal level. Because we have become too consumed, for example, with the idea that healthcare is a privilege and not a right. And we get hung up in the discussions because, even if we wanted to, we can’t seem to create a perfect system. But then, no system is perfect because no system can be perfect.
That doesn’t mean we abandon the project, this project that Jesus has given us to continue in his name. It means we keep trying. As disciples of Jesus, we keep listening to God’s Holy Spirit. We keep using our privileged platforms to speak to the inequities of the system. And, eventually, the tide turns. Society shifts into seeing things differently. And we are all liberated. We are all transformed. We are all healed.
As a society. As communities. As people.