5th Sunday of Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
29 As soon as Jesus and his companions left the synagogue [in Capernaum], they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in- law was in bed with a fever, [she was very hot and sweating a lot], and they told [Jesus, “She is very sick.”] 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and [she got up from her bed] and she began to serve them. [She gave them some food to eat.]
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons, [the people with bad spirits in them.] 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." 38 He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Looking at the first chapter in Mark, which we have heard most of in worship throughout January and now into February, you might think that the writer knew about modern movie trailers. The scenes move very quickly giving us the essence of what Jesus and his story is all about. He is committed to and blessed by God at his baptism….he gets his strength and power by going into wilderness solitude for prayer…he proclaims a new message about God’s presence in the world saying, "Now is the time! Here comes God's kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!"[i] Then he begins healing folks who are outcast because of their illnesses, unclean by religious law, like the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue who Carla lifted up for us in last week’s sermon. You could say that Jesus is now really on a roll!
Everyone is bringing people to Jesus for healing and he is casting out their disease and their dis-ease, their bad spirits. First Simon’s mother-in-law and then all the sick of the city of Capernaum! Just as the disciples think, “Wow! We’ve got a good thing going here in our hometown,” Jesus tells his them that his purpose, his mission, is to proclaim God’s message and take the healing throughout all of Galilee, not just in Capernaum. They are on the move! Proclaiming the message of repentance and trust in God goes hand in hand with healing, “casting out demons.”
We love Jesus, the teacher, the storytelling rabbi, the proclaimer of wisdom, the social justice prophet who speaks truth to power about change. But what do we make of Jesus, the healer? In our time of pandemic, what do we make of Jesus as one who not only prays and proclaims, but also heals? Does the talk of spontaneous healing and being possessed by demons make us squeamish? We know and trust science. We know the advances of medicine in the last 2000 years. We are particularly grateful for the advances of medical science in this time of pandemic! More and more of us are getting the vaccine. Much to be grateful for! Medical and mental health sciences do not have all the answers. Yet the answers they do have heal so much! Unlike Simon’s mother-in-law, when we have a fever, we can take a pill.
So what do we as 21st century people, disillusioned by radio and tele-evangelists who are shysters and money grubbers, do with Jesus, the healer?
I found help from the late scholar, Marcus Borg, who is much beloved here at Plymouth as our first Visiting Scholar and as a much-read author guiding us in faith formation through so many profound books. You may know that Marcus was part of the Jesus Seminar, a think tank of scholars and lay people, who worked in the 1980’s and 90’s on the quest to discover more about the historical Jesus. Marcus, spent much of his career asking, “What can be historically verified about Jesus? In his last posthumously published book, Days of Awe and Wonder; How to be a Christian in the 21st Century. Marcus writes that historically Jesus was a traveling rabbi and mystic healer following in the tradition of other Jewish mystic wisdom teacher and healers of his time.
Revering Marcus as a scholar and knowing that he had the research to back it up, this statement about Jesus was took me by surprise! Marcus believed Jesus was a healer, who healed through the power of his relationship with God, a relationship that involved his heart as well as his head, in fact, the devotion of his entire being, body and soul, a mystical relationship, if you will. Marcus goes on to define a mystical experience as an episode that invokes “sheer wonder, radical amazement, radiant luminosity [and often] evokes the exclamation, “Oh, my God!”[ii] He claims his own conversion to mysticism even as a scholar, through these experiences that take over all your senses. Experiences of the Holy that connect one with the “more” that is God. Not with a supernatural, parentified, Santa Claus God who will give me what we want or think we want if we just pray hard enough. But with the transcendent “God who is more than the space-time universe of matter and energy” AND the immanent God who dwells within, “the presence of God everywhere.”[iii] The God in whom, as the apostle Paul said, we “live and move and have our being” (Acts17.28).
I have had these, usually too brief, numinous moments of “knowing” God, trusting with my whole being the God who is vaster than the cosmos, yet as intimate as my breath. Have you? And they connect me to Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of history who made God manifest in the world. These moments are not sought. They come upon one, not frivolously, but unexpectedly. I have found that I have to place myself in way of such moments by simply opening to the opportunity of them through habits of paying attention to the whole of life as sacred and to listening for the Holy in prayer. Just as Jesus did.
Leaning on the scholarly and heart-felt testimony of Marcus Borg, I confess to you in simple confidence, not needing to know with my head all the scientific or theological facts, that I trust Jesus was a mystic healer in his day. He healed people of whatever ailed them – from fever to “bad spirits.” Bad spirits that might have been mental/physical illness, such as depression, bi-polar or epilepsy. But also, bad spirits that might have been being allowing anger, resentment and holding grudges to consume life, seeking relationship to power over relationship to people. Jesus healed not through his own power, but through the power of God. He sought perfect attunement to God in his whole being, in his prayer life and his religious study life, yes, but also in his relational life, his community life of love and fellowship and in his life of social action for justice. Through being in-sink with God, he healed with his presence, his touch, his love bringing people into wholeness and new life. How, exactly? I don’t know. But I believe, I trust in Jesus’ healing. I know he still heals souls. And that healing goes hand in hand with proclaiming God is here Now and God is love.
We can participate in the liberating message and mission of the historical Jesus in our own time which we know needs so much healing. I am not saying we are called to lay hands on people and spontaneously heal them of Covid! We are not Jesus. What I am saying is that we each have the opportunity to open our hearts to healing change and redemption through the wholeness of God’s love. And then to share that opportunity with others.
The healing process of God the historical Jesus participated with began with bringing folks in and meeting them right where they were. In whatever state they were in. Loving them with the fierce, unsentimental, unconditional love of God. Seeing them for who they were created in the image of God. Calling them into this image. And then casting out whatever was harmful, not needed, not useful, what was bad for the health of the body, mind and soul, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.
Try something with me for just a moment. Let’s put ourselves in the way of the Spirit, open our hearts and minds to the opportunity of God’s healing through Jesus. Close your eyes, if you’d like. Take a deep breath and let it our slowly. Using your prayer heart or meditation mind or simply your imagination, bring all of your Self to stand before Jesus as if you were one of those folks brought to the door of Simon’s mother-in-law’s house in Capernaum. Bring all your longings, your frustrations, your illnesses of any kind. All your angers and resentments, your failings, your successes. Bring all your relationships. All the things you love and the things you don’t love about yourself. Your self-hatreds and lack of self-forgiveness, your pain in body, mind and soul. Bring your gifts, your joys, your thanksgivings. Present yourself before the spirit of God in Jesus for healing. God in Jesus sees you just the way you are created in God’s image. (pause) Is there anything standing in your way to wholeness that needs to be cast out by God’s powerful and loving presence? Let that thing go. Perhaps, there is there a healing word or image or idea that has come to you. Nothing is insignificant. Acknowledge what you receive and bring it more deeply into your soul. Let it anchor you in God. Is there a surprise gift that has popped up in an image and is yearning to be used for God’s good in the world? Receive it and say, “Thank you.” Take a just a few moments to be in this place of before the power of God we know in the face of Jesus.
Now I invite you to take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Open your eyes if you closed them. Wriggle your finger and toes. Come back into the physical space of your home. Standing before Jesus’ presence for healing is a place you can go again and again. Because healing is a process. And you don’t have to do it all alone – that’s why there are ministers, friends, counselors and therapists, doctors, spiritual directors, the fellowship of a faith community. Remember the people came as a crowd.
Jesus calls us to healing so that the world may be healed. Remember the woman from Children’s Time? “But this is all I know of dancing.” I invite you to know the healing power of God through Jesus so that you may dance your life with both hands flung joyously into the air! Remember Simon’s mother-in-law? Her healing prompted her to servant leadership. She got up and fed all the disciples and Jesus, the healer. She was dancing in the Spirit with both hands up! May it be so with each of us.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
[i] Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 39204-39205). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Marcus Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder; How to be a Christian in the 21st Century, (Harper One Publishers, New York, NY: 2017, 43.)
[iii] Ibid., 39.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.