Rev. Rainey Dankel | 2.7.21


Epiphany 5 Year B: Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
Mark 1:29-39

Some friends of mine have a daughter whom they adopted from Russia when she was a toddler. Stephanie is now an early teenager, a serious, shy young woman. She is an average student, and she is learning to make friends, but it has been a struggle. Her parents knew when they brought her to this country that she had spent her first years in an orphanage that was ill-equipped to deal with the hundreds of children in their care. Stephanie’s new parents are a doctor and a teacher, and they expected they would have to work hard to help her overcome the deficits of those crucial years. One of the biggest wounds had been inflicted because the staff never had time to pick up the babies and cuddle them. This lack of touch made it very difficult for the youngsters to form attachments with other people, to feel the comfort of being held, and to know they were not alone.

In today’s story from the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus as healer, and touch is specifically mentioned as part of this. The scene is a Sabbath. Jesus and his four new disciples have been in the synagogue. Last week we heard that Jesus’ teaching was interrupted by a man possessed by an “unclean spirit”. Jesus healed the man by confronting the spirit and ordering it out of the man.

In today’s verses, leaving the synagogue, they go to Simon’s home, where his mother-in-law is ill. Jesus extends his hand to her and helps her up, and the fever leaves her. Later, after sunset, many more people come for healing, crowding around the door of the house. Jesus heals them of disease of body and spirit. The next day, after trying to gain some quiet time for prayer, Jesus moves on to another town with his dual ministry of preaching and healing.

In just a few short verses, Mark has given us a vivid picture of Jesus’ ministry: preaching and healing diseases of body and spirit. Mark has told us from the first verse of the Gospel that Jesus is announcing the good news of the kingdom of God. We see his enactment of this good news as he reaches out to those in need, those whose bodies and spirits have been broken by disease.

The good news that Jesus offers is the restoration of health, of wholeness, of binding up the brokenhearted, as the Psalmist says. The kingdom of God is a place of healing, reclaiming the image of God given to us in creation. There is no gap between the speaking and the doing: preaching and healing are one. Jesus speaks to the demons, he commands their attention, and he exerts authority over them that strips them of their power to tyrannize people. The word and the healing go together. Jesus embodies the loving power of God to connect to each of us, to rob our demons of their powers, and to make us whole.

The Scriptures tell us repeatedly that God wants healing for us. In creating a world that was pronounced “good,” God’s desire is for wholeness and goodness for this creation. Illness, hunger, violence, and all the forces that create dis-ease run counter to God’s loving plans for us. The many healing stories of Jesus show an emphasis on restoration and wholeness as a primary purpose of his ministry.

As some of you may know, my husband died after battling an infection for three months in a hospital. I have spent many hours thinking and praying about healing, both for him and for myself. At one point, right after Thad died, someone said to me, “I am sorry that all our prayers did not save him.” I know this person meant that as a way of saying that he was sorry about the outcome, but I wouldn’t say it that way. I believe that God loves us and wants what is best for us. When we pray to God in the midst of illness, I don’t think we are trying to persuade God to rearrange the molecules so that we can be cured. I think we pray in order to be in touch with God’s powerful love for us, trusting that God is doing for us “far better things than we can desire or pray for,” to use the words of one of our collects. And in time God fills us with understanding and enlivens our grieving spirits. Whether our bodies are cured of illness, or our hearts healed from loss, we find ourselves in God’s merciful hands.

The prominence given to healing stories of Jesus in the gospels assures us of God’s desire for wholeness. And by extension, of God’s desire for reconciliation. So often the people who come to Jesus in their suffering have been marginalized and isolated by their conditions. Jesus heals their physical conditions, and he also offers forgiveness and restoration of community with them. These healing stories become an imperative to us, as followers of Jesus, to seek wholeness and healing of dis-ease and brokenness wherever we may encounter it. In today’s story when Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, she gets up to serve the household. Some see this as an unfortunate reinforcement of gender stereotypes, but I see it as a natural desire of one who has been healed to reach out to others. As recipients of Jesus’ touch of love, we are spurred on to share that love.

And that is where we fit in. We come together as a church to give and receive God’s healing. Jesus’ hand extended is a gesture of intimacy, of caring based on compassion, transmitting divine love to overcome the powers that corrupt and destroy us. Learning to follow Jesus means learning to be part of a community of healing. As we acknowledge our own vulnerabilities and our need of God’s grace, we begin to trust each other and become willing to share ourselves with each other. As Henri Nouwen says, “The whole people of God are healers who can reach out to offer healing, and we are all patients in constant need of help,” (Reaching Out, p. 93).

Some years ago I stopped by a day shelter set up to provide respite from the cold of the streets. As I was leaving, a woman came in. I spoke to her and instinctively touched her on the shoulder. Even through her coat I could feel her stiffen as she pulled away and said, “I am not a touchy-feely kind of person.” I apologized for my intrusiveness, wished her a good day, and stepped aside for her to enter the room. As I left I noticed that she had sat near some of the other guests at a table. Perhaps she felt comfortable being close to those whom she had grown to trust.

Forming community to care for each other is a manifestation of God’s love for us. Spending the time to establish relationships becomes the means of that manifestation. Being present to each other is the first step. Then it means being willing to share with each other, to break out of our private worlds so that we can know each other’s hurts and joys and see each other as members of the human family. In so doing God’s desire for healing and wholeness can become real as we work to mend broken relationships and help to build God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

And here we are in a pandemic when physical separation is necessary for the safety of all. How do we give and receive God’s healing in such a time? It takes creativity and flexibility to find ways to “stay in touch,” as many of you are doing, through Zoom and phone calls. We are continuing to feed our Emmaus guests, knowing that handing out a bag lunch provides some connection, while missing the fellowship of sitting down to a meal together. You might want to know that next week’s lunch bags will contain handmade Valentines that the St Paul’s “Women of a Certain Age” are making to offer a personal message of love.

A few years ago I read about a program in a Pennsylvania prison that offered quilting classes to the incarcerated men. After a slow start, the class became extremely popular as the men exercised creativity in making quilts. Two men created a quilt with scenes of the Underground Railroad that was sent to a local school. One man, who was serving a life sentence, made a baby quilt for his grandchild. He said, “I knew that I would never be able to hold my grandchild in my arms. So I made this quilt that he could hug instead of me. I wanted my grandchild to have something to hold onto so he would know that I love him.”

That is why God chose to engage with us humans through the person and human life of Jesus Christ. That we might see God in physical form, reaching out to touch each of us and to draw us together into God’s powerful and healing love.

Richard Selzer is a surgeon and author who writes movingly about his practice and what he calls the pain and wonder of healing. In one essay he recalls a patient, a young woman, lying in bed, her husband standing on the other side of the bed. During surgery to remove the tumor in her cheek, a tiny bit of the facial nerve to the muscles of her mouth has been severed, leaving her mouth twisted. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes, it will” says the surgeon, “because the nerve has been cut.” The woman is silent. The young husband smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.” Then he bends to kiss her crooked mouth. The surgeon recalls, “I was so close I could see how he twisted his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that the kiss still works. I held my breath in wonder at such love.” (Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, pp. 45-46.)

My friends, there is no brokenness that is beyond Jesus’ power of healing. May you always know that you are not alone, that God in Christ is reaching towards you to offer wholeness and new life.