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.
Rev. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Let’s talk about…Jesus.
Now, you may say to yourself, Hal you talk about Jesus almost every Sunday, and that’s true. But how often do you talk about Jesus with your family, your kids, your friends, even with your friends here at Plymouth? I’m guessing not very often.
When I was younger, it seemed that in my church we talked about “Christ” as a more refined, less emotional kind of a figure. It’s easier to make “Christ” conform to your own norms and standards than it is when you think about “Jesus,” the Galilean peasant who preached regime change to overturn the Empire and the forces of this world in favor of the kingdom of God.
It’s also because of the rise of anti-science, anti-gay, anti-woman evangelicalism in the 20th century that led to the Religious Right. It’s because we don’t want to be associated with the televangelists who talked a lot about Je-ee-sus (with three syllables). That Jesus is perceived by some as having one purpose: to get you into Heaven by being saved through a profession of a personal relationship with him as your personal Lord and savior. That theology invites radical individualism (it’s about me and Jesus) and it is centered in the mistaken perception that Jesus’ reason for being here in the first place was to die a bloody and agonizing death on the cross so that believers receive a get-out-of-jail-free card in the hereafter. If Jesus — that Jesus — doesn’t care a fig about social justice, then it’s all about reaching the pearly gates. I imagine that is the Jesus many insurrectionists in DC were praying to on January 6. Don’t you wonder what they would do with the words of the historical Jesus: “Blessed are you who are poor.” “The kingdom of God is among you.” “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And sometimes we in the mainline churches talk about the Christ of faith as the “post-Easter” Jesus, the one who rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God. (That’s a metaphor, by the way.) We speak of Christ whose presence is with us today. And that’s really important…but there is more.
But I have an invitation for you. We are going to be hearing a lot from the Gospel According to Mark in the lectionary this year (with a detour into John’s Gospel during Lent), and Mark provides a punchy, no-nonsense, early account of Jesus, the historical Jesus, who lived, walked, talked, preached, healed, proclaimed, and died in the Jewish homeland. Mark gives us a sometimes raw and unvarnished vision of who the Jesus of history was.
You may ask why the historical Jesus is important. The big theological answer is the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but I’ll set that aside for now. Jesus set an example of what it looks like to live a life fully in congruence with what God intends for humanity. In the version of the Lord’s Prayer we often sing, John Philip Newell writes “May your longings be ours,” which is another way to say that what mattered to the historical Jesus should matter to us…because it matters to God.
The historical Jesus is not so easily bent and contorted to fit our American vision of what a messiah should be. Instead, he was a disturber of the religious and political status quo, a sage of alternative wisdom, and a healer. The Jesus of history is an antidote to Christian Nationalism that co-opts the Christ of faith by putting words in the mouth of Jesus that he never spoke. He never said a word about abortion or same-sex love. The historical Jesus is also the yardstick by which Christians can and should measure our theology, whether it is our idea that God is still speaking or whether it is someone claiming to be a prophet thinks the former president should still be in the Oval Office. If you want to measure your message from the Holy Spirit, see how it looks in comparison to the life and teachings of the historical Jesus, and if it doesn’t measure up, it’s more likely to be your superego talking than it is God.
So, here is the invitation I extend to you: I invite you — no I implore you — to start talking about Jesus. Talk about Jesus and what he said about the poor, what he did in healing people without charge, what he meant by the phrase “the kingdom of God,” what Jesus was trying to do through his ministry and his public witness. As I watched the events of inauguration day last week, it occurred that we have entered a new era for progressive Christianity with a president informed deeply by Catholic social teaching and the social gospel. And in this morning’s New York Times, there is an article, “In Biden’s Catholic Faith, an Ascendant Liberal Christianity” that quotes Dr. William Barber saying, “Birth pangs require one thing: pushing.” Are you willing to push?
Have you ever noticed that the Black church has never had a problem talking about Jesus? We have something to learn! And the Jesus they talk about is most often the Jesus who blessed the poor, healed the sick, and stood up to empire. Can you push yourself outside your comfort zone to talk about Jesus? It’s a new day, and it’s time for us to claim our faith: to show people that the stereotype of White evangelicals doesn’t describe all Christians, and it doesn’t mean our view is exclusive of other faith traditions.
At the end of last year, I received a very thoughtful email from one of our members who wrote, “’We stand on the side of love’ or ‘Come just as you are’ constitute nice sentiments, to be sure. But how do they move us forward? Rather, perhaps we should say: ‘Come just as you are…but don’t expect to stay that way.’ Expect to be challenged and changed…and, occasionally, to be made a bit uncomfortable — that is how growth and progress occur.” YES! This is exactly the centerpiece of Plymouth’s mission statement that describes inviting, TRANSFORMING, and sending. The word you heard in our text this morning, REPENT, in Greek is metanoia, the shift of our hearts, minds, and actions toward the things that mattered most to Jesus. And it’s hard. Transformation is hard!
You may think that it’s hard to talk about Jesus…so just try it! What have you got to lose? People probably think you’re a bit of a crackpot for belonging to this church anyway! Try it! That’s my challenge to you this week.
And if you think talking about Jesus is difficult, imagine for a moment that you met Jesus, and he said to you, “Follow me and leave your classroom or your law practice or your small business or your retirement behind. I’m going to make you do something new that involves changing peoples’ lives!” What would you be willing to leave behind? Would you abandon your career? Your assumptions? Your fear of talking about Jesus? Your wealth? Your family? Imagine him speaking one-on-one directly to you.
It takes an incredible amount of trust in Jesus to take big steps. But here is something I know about you as a congregation: you have big hearts that match your big minds. Once something grabs you, you’ll give it your all, not just for a day or a week or a month. And if we really trust Jesus, we can take big risks for the kingdom.
So, what do you think Jesus is asking you to do as a person? What do you think Jesus is asking us to do as his followers? Where do you think Jesus is calling Plymouth in this new year? As we eventually leave the pandemic behind and we can come back together, what do you think Jesus wants us to do together for God’s world?
These words of Amanda Gorman are worth repeating:
“For there is always light if we are brave enough to see it,
If only we are brave enough to be it.”
Let’s be the light.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.