Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Healing of Community

January 12th, 2020      “Healing of Community”    Rev. Heather Jepsen

Mark 2:1-22

         This morning our narrative lectionary reading continues to follow the story of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark.  Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ confrontation with the forces of evil using his powers to bring healing to those who were ill or demon possessed.  This week Jesus continues to battle evil, bringing the gift of forgiveness of sins to the people of God.

         Just like last week, we have a lot of ground to cover.  Our reading begins with the familiar story of the paralytic man and his friends.  Once again Jesus is mobbed by the crowds that seek his healing.  Mark tells us that so many gathered around him at home that there was no longer room for anyone, even at the front door.  A paralytic has been brought by his friends for healing, and unable to bring the man into the space, the friends devise an alternate plan.  Going on to the roof, they dig through the mud and straw to create an opening, lowering the man into the crowded room and into the midst of Jesus.

         Needless to say, this is quite the distraction.  Instead of immediately offering healing, Jesus is moved by the faith of the man and of his friends and declares that the man’s sins are forgiven.  Thus begins Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities.  No one has authority to forgive sins but God.  Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness equates himself with God which is surely a blasphemy.  Even though no one says this out loud, the room immediately becomes tense.  Sensing the thoughts of those around him, Jesus declares that he is the Son of Man and he does in fact have authority to forgive sins.  And to illustrate his power he heals the man, commanding him take up his mat and walk away. 

         The conflict with the religious community continues into the next story as Jesus calls Levi the tax collector as one of his disciples.  Tax collectors were some of the most unpopular figures in the ancient world.  The job of the tax collector was to collect money from their fellow Jews to pay off the Roman Empire.  Not only were these folks making friends with the oppressors of their nation, they were known to line their own pockets with taxes, insuring their personal wealth as well.  These folks betrayed their nation and their people for personal gain and were justly unpopular.  Imagine a terrorist, a meth dealer, or someone who has made millions by selling opioids today.  These are the people no one likes.

         Not only does Jesus call Levi to be one of his followers, he continues to associate and eat with the community of tax collectors and other sinners.  Those within the religious community cannot understand why Jesus would spend time with such unsavory characters.  Everyone knows that the company you keep is important; those who associate with sinners are sinners themselves.  When asked about this practice, Jesus replies that he has come to call not the righteous but sinners.

         The confusion among the religious community continues as Jesus also neglects to observe the ritual of fasting.  Just like its practice today, fasting in the ancient world was about separating oneself from the world and purifying oneself for worship of God.  Jesus responds to this confusion declaring that we cannot fast while the bridegroom is here.  He has come to be part of the world not separate from it, and the time for fasting and holiness will be later.

         Finally Jesus lectures us on sewing and viticulture.  We don’t sew new fabric to old garments and we don’t put new wine into old wineskins.  The old and the new don’t go together.  Clearly Jesus has come to do something new, which may or may not fit with the religious authorities’ old ways of understanding God and faith.

         The theme I see running through our readings for today is that of community.  Just as Jesus comes to bring healing to individuals, now we find Jesus bringing healing and transformation to the community that is the church.  Whereas last week Jesus was fighting the power of evil in the lives of individuals, this week he fights the power of evil in community.

         The story of the paralytic man features two distinct communities.  First the crowds that gather around Jesus and block the door.  Then the separate community of the man and his friends.  The first community are insiders, they are literally inside the house with Jesus, and knowingly or not, their position of privilege blocks access to those who are in need.  The second community are boundary breakers; they literally break the boundaries of the house in an attempt to join the community.

         Moved by the faith of those who would go to great lengths to join the community, Jesus offers healing not just for the man but for the community as a whole.  For what is the forgiveness of sins if not a healing for the community?  Sin by its very nature is a breaking of the bonds that tie us together as one people.  To forgive sin is to mend the bond of people in community.

         Unfortunately it is not that simple.  Insiders don’t like new outsiders and the community bristles at this attempted healing.  Jesus pushes the point, physically healing the man and encouraging him to take up his mat and walk.  To walk is to join the first community, those gathered together in the room.  Jesus now physically mends the community bond.  And to carry his mat, the man carries the memory and marker of his ailment.  By the very sight of him and his mat, he is spreading the word of Jesus’ healing power which will inevitably draw more to the community.  In this story, not only is the man healed, the community itself is transformed.

         Jesus continues the transformation of communities with the calling of Levi.  Once again, those that are outside the group are brought in.  As Jesus eats at Levi’s house with tax collectors and sinners he begins to redefine community.  Those that were purposely kept outside the community are now members of the inner circle.  Dangerous people, rule breakers, and sinners are all welcomed in.  Not only are they welcomed in the group of followers, they actually dine at the table with Jesus, making them part of the inner circle.  It’s no wonder that this boundary breaking attracts such negative attention.

         The religious traditionalists literally do not understand what Jesus is doing.  That’s why they ask so many questions.  Why does he eat with sinners?  Why doesn’t he fast?  Why doesn’t he know how to be holy?  Jesus on the other hand is redefining holy.  He is teaching that holiness is something altogether different then what we thought.  Where we once thought holy meant separate and pure, Jesus is demonstrating that holy means bringing different people together.  Holiness isn’t the rigidity of separate communities.  Holiness is the flexibility of strangers coming together.  Like sewing together garments or stretching a wine skin, we need to be flexible to be the people of God.

         Last week we wondered about Jesus bringing the power of the kingdom of God to fight the forces of evil and to heal us physically.  This week Jesus fights the forces of evil that seek to divide us by healing us spiritually.  Like the man on the mat, we are paralyzed by the suffering of our world.  When we hear the drums of war beat, we don’t know what to do.  When we are faced with poverty in our midst, we don’t know how to respond.  When we see the ravages of climate change destroy the continent of Australia, we feel helpless.  We are paralyzed by our collective sin. 

         Alone we can do nothing, but together we can find forgiveness and healing.  Just as the man was helpless without his friends, so too we are helpless without the community.  When we can cross boundaries and form community, we can get ourselves to a place where we are no longer paralyzed.  We can accept the forgiveness of our sins and mend the bonds that have torn us apart.  We can take up our mat and walk into the world together enacting healing change.  The power of forgiveness frees us from our paralysis and unites us together to make a change.  We need to admit our collective sin, receive forgiveness, and form new communities of healing.  This is the only thing that can fight war, poverty, and the destruction of our planet.

         Today we gather at the communion table and this is always a moment and a meal of forgiveness and community transformation.  We never eat this meal alone, we always eat it together.  We need to recognize that God is inviting everyone to this table.  This is a feast for tax collectors and sinners, for terrorists and meth dealers.  This is a place where Jesus moves us toward folks we want to push back against.  This table has the power to transform people from separate groups of Republicans and Democrats, of Americans and Iranians, into one united people of God.  At this table we find forgiveness, and in forgiveness of our sins communities are made whole.

         The message of our gospel today is a challenging one but it is one we need to hear.  Jesus has come to bring healing to communities by offering the forgiveness of sins.  To accept this gift, we need to face the power of evil in our own lives and in our collective lives together.  We need to admit the ways we have fostered division and allowed the sin of brokenness to grow and fester.  We need to accept Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and be willing to move towards those we are tempted to push against.  And we need to work together to form new communities made up of insiders and outsiders, of righteous folks and sinners together.  Only as a community can we receive Jesus’ healing powers. 

         As you go out into the world this week, take the message of this table of transformation with you.  Jesus has come to bring us together in new ways.  As you feel tempted to push against those who are outside your chosen community, remind yourself that Jesus wants to bring us together.  May this table of grace guide our lives this week.  May we seek to be flexible, bringing old and new together, bringing saints and sinners side by side, forming new communities of healing and grace.  I believe this is what our world desperately needs today.  Amen.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Jesus the Healer

January 5th, 2020      “Jesus the Healer”    Rev. Heather Jepsen

Mark 1:21-45

         In our narrative lectionary reading we have finally gotten to the gospels.  This spring we will read our way consecutively through the Gospel of Mark until we reach Easter.  You will notice that Mark packs a lot of story into a small space.  Mark’s gospel is filled with energy and everything happens at a break neck speed.  A sense of urgency pervades the gospel as Jesus’ time is short and he has much to accomplish.

         If you were here last Sunday you heard the beginning of the gospel.  Jesus was baptized, driven into the wilderness, and then immediately set about the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God.  He gathered his first followers and today we find him in Capernaum and Galilee doing the work of healing.

         His first encounter is in the synagogue.  Jesus is busy teaching on the Sabbath and it is clear from his message that he possesses an authority that other teachers do not.  Suddenly a man who is demon possessed appears in their midst and cries out with a loud voice declaring that Jesus is the “Holy One of God.”  Jesus immediately silences the spirit and heals the man, which causes word about him to spread throughout the region.

         When they leave the synagogue they go to Simon’s house and his mother-in-law is in bed with fever.  Jesus touches the woman, a forbidden act, as it would render him unclean until he could fulfill the temple cleanliness ritual.  The woman is healed and rises to serve her guests.

         The word of Jesus’ power has spread and by that night the crowds surround Simon’s house, hoping for a chance to see and touch Jesus.  According to Mark the whole city was there, a nearly unimaginable crush of people.  Jesus cured many people of illness and cast out many demons that night.

         In the morning we find Jesus seeking rest.  Alone he wanders into the countryside for a private moment of prayer and rejuvenation.  As the sun rises so do the crowds, once again clamoring for his attention and his touch.  Simon and the others seek him out, encouraging him to return to the city.  But Jesus insists they must spread this good news beyond Capernaum and the group goes throughout the Galilee proclaiming the message and casting out demons.

         In our final story for this morning Jesus is approached by a man with leprosy.  Ritually unclean and possibly contagious, this man would have lived alone on the fringes of society.  He calls out to Jesus asking to be healed “Jesus, If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Jesus touches the man, again crossing boundaries between clean and unclean and the man is healed.  As with other healings, Jesus asks the man to keep his healing to himself, but the man cannot help but proclaim the good work that God has done through Jesus.  By the end of our first chapter, Mark tells us that demand for Jesus has grown so strong that he can no longer enter the towns but must remain on the outskirts and the countryside, continually mobbed by those who seek his healing power.

         Throughout the gospel of Mark we find Jesus battling the forces of evil by healing those who are under the power of demons or unclean spirits.  In our highly educated American culture this can be a hard concept to relate to.  In other places in the world, demon possession is still a real concern, but here we have written such things off under the guise of mental health and other scientific explanations.  While I admit I am reluctant to believe in demon possession, I think we have lost a vital component of our faith if we toss out this idea all together.

         Readers of my personal blog will know that I recently had a mental health scare.  One of the medications I was taking for the nerve pain in my foot had a possible side effect of depression and suicidal tendencies.  As I continued to take my medicine, I noticed that I was becoming more and more emotional.  One day after little sleep the night before, I reached a breaking point and got to a place where all I could do was lay on the bed and cry.  As a voice in my head told me how worthless I was, I began to realize that I probably shouldn’t be taking this medicine.  I was one of the people who had this strong side effect.  I am happy to report I am off this medication but needless to say it was a frightening experience. 

         I think we often like to tell ourselves a narrative about how strong and free we are, how everything that happens to us is of our own making and in our own control.  Experiences like mine serve as a reminder that we are often not in control, rather we are at the mercy of the forces of the world around us.  Our mental health is much more fragile and precarious then we would like to believe. 

         While I was not possessed by a demon I was certainly under the power of a force outside of myself that was causing me real distress and danger.  Perhaps this serious side effect was a force of evil in my life that day.  It is not beyond the scope of imagination.  Couldn’t any mental illness be categorized as so?  That which robs us of our ability to live, be it PTSD, dementia, Alzheimer’s, addiction, or any other mental struggle certainly feels like a force of evil in our lives and in the lives of those we love.

         In fact, many of our health struggles feel like struggles against evil.  From the cancer that robs us of our lives, to the diabetes that must be constantly monitored, to chronic illness that changes the entire course of our life, these mysterious forces shape our days in patterns of pain and anguish.  No one can answer the question of why we grow ill; perhaps imaging a demonic possession isn’t too far out there after all.

         In our scripture for today we find that Jesus is the one who combats these places of fear and pain.  Jesus calls out to demonic forces and commands them to leave us be.  Jesus touches the fever and brings the cool relief of healing.  When those who are ill are outcasts to the world, Jesus crosses boundaries to bring a healing touch.  In the gospel of Mark Jesus has come to do battle with the forces of evil that keep people captive, be they the power of spiritual corruption or the corruption of our very flesh.

         It can be challenging to make promises about God’s healing power in the midst of a world full of suffering and pain.  As my own health becomes a daily struggle I find that I wonder what exactly to pray for.  What kind of healing has God promised to me in the midst of chronic pain?  What kind of healing has God promised to you?

         When I look at the characters in our stories for today, I cannot relate to those who receive Jesus’ miraculous touch.  I do not know what that is.  But I do see myself in those that are hungry for Jesus.  In the crowds that gather at the door of Simon’s house.  In the “whole city” that gathers to catch a glimpse of him.  I see myself in the disciples that hunt Jesus out, saying “everyone is searching for you.” Mark tells us that “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country, and people came to him from every quarter.”  I can imagine that hunger.  I see it in your face and I know it in my own life.  We are beset by the forces of evil, the pain of suffering, and we long for Jesus’ power and his healing touch.

         The presence of God in our lives brings physical and spiritual healing.  Throughout this narrative we read that Jesus’ message is to proclaim the good news.  Mark tells us that Jesus preaches “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  Jesus calls us to repentance and to change.  Jesus calls us to healing and oneness with our God.  Jesus brings the kingdom close to us, if only for a little while, with a promise of healing and new life.

         This New Year, as you look around and catalogue your life, do not lose hope if you find yourself under the powers of the forces of evil.  It can seem at times that evil has won and that corruption is endemic as the greedy prosper, war wages on, and our health and well-being suffer.  But God has come to combat that evil.  Jesus brings the healing touch that we so long for.  Jesus battles all that threatens to hurt or destroy.  The power of God manifest in Christ can be hard to imagine, but the longing for God’s healing is close to each and every one of us.

         We may not know what form healing will take.  We may continue to suffer as we seek after hope.  But we can be confident that God reaches out to us in love.  There is no point in our suffering that is beyond the reach of our Lord.  There is no contagion or brokenness that renders us untouchable to God.  God’s love and promise of hope has the power to pervade into every dark place in our lives and to cast out any demon that may be tormenting us.

         This New Year, let us continue to hunt after Jesus.  Let us continue to seek him out and chase him down.  Let us not give up on the promise of healing but eagerly call out to our Lord; “Jesus, If you choose, you can make me clean.”  Amen.