On February 8th, 2009, The Rt Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori preached a sermon on Mark 1:29-39, the text appointed for this coming Sunday. As always, our former Presiding Bishop shows herself as wise and thoughtful. Enjoy!
5th Sunday after the Epiphany – Year B
I had news recently of the death of a friend’s brother-in-law. He was a 60-year old Viet Nam War vet, a man possessed by the demons of war, until he was finally released in death. The last several decades of his life were filled with midnight terrors and round-the-clock attempts at self-medication. As I wrote his family, I prayed that his wounded life might be resurrected in the healing of God’s ultimate grace. There are increasing numbers of haunted souls like him, each in need of healing.
Healing the sick and similarly possessed was a central part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. His gift of physical and spiritual healing restored human beings to full participation in their communities. Healing and deliverance from pain and illness is a hallmark of the great prophetic dream called the Reign of God, where no one goes hungry, the ill and grieving are healed, and those in various kinds of prisons are set free for abundant life. Over and over again in the gospels we hear that Jesus “went about healing many who were sick or possessed by demons.” It is a foundational image of the work we share as his followers.
When Jesus went to Simon’s house, he had just come from healing a man like that veteran. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever, and Jesus walked over, took her by the hand, and “raised her up.” That same word for raised or lifted up is used on Easter morn — “he is not here, he is risen” — but it is also used of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is raised up from her illness, and what does she do? She begins to minister, to serve. She is the first active witness to what a resurrected life in Jesus looks like. At baptism, we too are raised into a new life of service or ministry to others and acknowledge that ministry is a matter of lifting up our crosses daily.
We may not know her name, but the mother of Simon’s wife is a model for our own servant ministry. Touched and healed by Jesus, she becomes minister of healing herself. She gets up from her bed and presumably begins to feed people, as any good Jewish housewife of the day would do for her son in law and his honored guests.
The very next encounter that Jesus has in Mark’s gospel is also about touching and healing someone — this time a leper. The leper is told to keep quiet about his healing, but he can’t do it — he has to tell the world. The upshot is that Jesus can’t even enter a town without being besieged. The world is desperate for healing. Like the street outside Simon’s mother-in-law’s home, the streets out there are also filled with the sick and possessed, each one eager to be made whole.
The touch of a hand can heal, restore life, and exorcise our demons as well. Michelangelo used that powerful image of life-giving touch when he pictured creation as God reaching out a hand to Adam, offering life. We often say that Christians are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. How do our hands serve as instruments of healing, and help to raise others to new life?
Simon’s mother-in-law gets up and serves a meal. Food and feasting and the heavenly banquet are central images of a healed creation. The Good Samaritan ensures that the robbery victim he lifts up and takes to an inn is provided with food and drink for healing. The resurrected Jesus shares breakfast on the beach with his grieving and dispirited disciples. You and I have abundant opportunities to feed the hungry – through soup kitchens, reformed farm policies, and development that helps people around the globe to grow nutritious and affordable food.
The touch of healing is obviously about caring for those with physical illness. Our hands may be put to healing work in literally tending the sick, infirm, or housebound, but, equally importantly, ensuring that all members of the community have access to medical care. Our hands may serve in the voting booth or the sickroom.
Hands can also heal psychic illness. My friend’s brother-in-law had the demon called “no hope.” He didn’t meet the needed hand of healing in this life; we pray that the good shepherd hands that led him home will bind up his wounds. Yet we see others who do find the needed touch of weal, whether in a person who will sit and listen to the pain behind the war stories or the searching hands and eyes that will take a fallen comrade to shelter or hospital.
Hands may provide hope in surprising ways. I visited a congregation in Florida recently which has for many years been host to an Ethiopian Orthodox community, nearly all of them refugees. That community worshiped with us on a Sunday morning, and shared a joyful telling of the story of Israel going down into Egypt and being led out by the hand of God. That was what we were told before the story began; and as the chanting started, we may not have understood the words, but we did hear and see the liberation of that journey to freedom. During the lengthy singing a young woman beat the rhythm of the tale on a large and powerful drum, three feet across and five feet long. She alternated between loud booming beats on the large end and staccato conversation on the small end. Her hands held the whole of the singing group together. Those who sat in the congregation accompanied her with complex clapping rhythms and hula-like movements of their hands. Together a varied and disparate group of hundreds formed one whole, focused on the power of God to lead us into wholeness and holiness.
Where have you met the healing hand of God? Where has that hand, gloved in human flesh, reached out to lift you up? Maybe that hand has fed you or soothed your troubled and fevered brow. Perhaps that hand has even shaken you to greater wakefulness, to notice the lonely soul or the suffering mob in the street outside.
Jesus’ healing touch was grounded in open vulnerability. He received the yearning masses, healing as many as he could. He taught the crowds about the present reality of God’s reign, breaking in all around them, and he offered hope. He silenced the demons who would cry out that there is no hope. He formed disciples by letting them try the work themselves, even though they frequently failed. He held himself open to whatever and whomever the day presented, even the terror of execution at the hands of an occupying government. His service was one of constant lifting up, in the face of forces that would tear down.
Will you let yourself be taken by the hand and lifted up? Where and how will you join hands, reach out, and lift up others to healing? For, indeed, as Simon and his companions said to Jesus when they found him at prayer, “everyone is searching for” that physician of hope.
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
–Thomas A. Dorsey, 1932
Let us pray.
O God, your loving hand has made us in your own image, given us all we possess, and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: reach out your hand again and heal us, that we may respond in kind, offering your hope and healing to all who are broken in body or spirit, that together we may be your whole and healed and holy Body on this earth. This we pray in the name of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.