Epiphany 5, 8 February 2015
Mark 1:29-39 INI
It stinks being sick. For one thing, you feel like death warmed over. There’s that saying about the flu, sometimes you’re afraid you’ll die and sometimes you’re afraid you won’t. Your body feels like some strange place you don’t want to be. But being sick also cuts you off from the human race. It’s isolating: “Stay away from me, man, I don’t want your germs!” You’re trapped at home so much you get raging cabin fever. Everyone else is running around in their routines and they have no idea how bad you feel. And they don’t want to hear about it. You can’t do your normal stuff and that starts to play with your mind. You feel bored, then lonely. If you’re not careful you start to feel sorry for yourself.
It’s even worse if there’s nothing much you can do about it – if you’re chronically ill or if you can’t afford medical care. People don’t know what to say so they avoid you. You stop being you and become That Invalid. People may even subtly blame you for your sickness. You may feel embarrassed, even unworthy and diminished as a human being. You don’t want to be a burden, so you clam up and get small. You get critical and resentful of the help others offer because they aren’t doing it to your standards, and you feel ashamed that you’re not pulling your weight.
So this morning I get this picture of Peter banging through the front door shouting, “I’m home, ma. Hope it’s OK, I brought some friends along. What’s for dinner?” And then he follows the groans and is shocked to see that she is burning up with a fever. She too is shocked, because company is over and she can’t serve anything. And she doesn’t want Peter messing around in her kitchen because there will be fish heads and eyeballs all over the place and just a bigger mess to clean up. I’ve visited people who couldn’t even get out of bed and they apologized over and over for not serving me anything. They felt bad because they do want to.
And this is another part of what Jesus is up against. The powers that isolate us, that break up community, that keep us from participating fully in human life; the powers that imprison us in sickness, weakness and
loneliness, even in stigma and rejection. And this he does by touching Peter’s mother-in-law in a healing way.
We immediately turn this into a medical problem: What was the source of her fever, and what did Jesus do to provide a cure? But this misses the point. Without a chart to read, we will never know what she was sick from. But we do know that after Jesus took her by the hand she felt good enough to step into her accustomed role, take command of her duties and think about someone other than herself. Not only was her fever gone: she was healed and restored to the community.
The distinction between medical cure and human healing is not lost on us. If you have attended sessions of physical therapy, chemotherapy or dialysis, you have seen groups of people who have been torn forcibly out of their normal lives, filled with pain and fear and uncertainty, and put in strange places. And then a remarkable thing may happen. A strong, healthy community forms among these fellow-sufferers.
They finally feel understood because they understand each other. They are not alone. They feel deep respect for each other as they see courage and dignity in the face of suffering. They encourage one another, and make each other stronger. One person was so surprised by the experience that he put it this way: “I had to get sick in order to healthy.”
People like this remind me of so many people around here, who quietly go about their business doing good even though they have this, that and the other going on in their bodies and minds. They are aware of being God’s children, gifted and called. They feel within them a power for good. Instead of feeling trapped in their own disabilities, they feel love leading them out of themselves into sincere concern for the needs and suffering of others. They are healed and healthy.
See, I am also thinking about that crowd of sick people outside Jesus’ door that night. Some were blind, some were filled with parasites, some had damaged their backs or knees or hips and were in excruciating pain because there was no surgery back then. They were a community bonded together by their common experience of not being whole.
What an example this is to us of how honest community can form. So often we are tempted to form it on the basis of an appearance of health or normality. We pretend that all is well, while the message is quietly sent that the unhealthy are not welcome. Do not bring your problems in here to trouble our well-being. There is almost a cooties attitude toward what afflicts the human race. Don’t get close to it, it might rub off. But with Jesus, the effect of sickness never rubs off on him except at the crucifixion, where he gets sick with absolutely everything that makes us sick, dies of it, and confers immunity to it on us when he rises. In these encounters here, in the village at night, his health always invades the sickness to drive it out.
The people sense this. That is why this community of sufferers was also distinguished by something else: they were also coming to Jesus to get healthy. They were not coming to complain. They were not coming to make everyone else feel guilty. They were not coming to spread around their sickness. They were not coming to see how much they could wheedle out of the group because of their disability. They were coming to be restored.
This is a huge part of Christ’s ongoing work in the world: to find the people who are trapped in the prisons of their sickness, socially isolated by whatever it is that society finds wrong with them, and to restore them
to community. This happens by reaching out to take them by the hand,
even if it feels a little scary to touch that hand. It happens too as we help them to live as fully as possible within the expectations of healthiness.
Think of this when you see the little wheelchair ramp that has been molded into the concrete at the street corner. Think of this when you look at the elevator in the narthex. Think about it when you remember how much we as a nation spend on special education. Think about it as you consider health care policy. Think about it when you remember an old friend you have not seen in awhile. Think about it when you think of any group that is shut in within the isolation of what is deemed wrong with them. Think about it above all as you ponder what this church is here for and whom we should be reaching out to.