“Not Just the Healthy, the Sick are Saved, too” – Epiphany V, February 8, 2009 Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Oakland, CA
Epiphany V, February 8, 2009
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Oakland, CA
Isaiah 40: 21-31 Psalm 147: 1-11, 20c 1 Cor 9:16-23 Mark 1:29-39
Not Just the Healthy, the Sick are Saved, too
Last time we read in the Gospel of Mark the way a person with an unclean spirit stood up and disrupted the service in the synagogue where Jesus was teaching. Jesus did not only teach for the mind, he must have been preaching as well, because he was speaking with power and authority. Now that stirred up the folks. He was probably not only preaching, but he was meddling, too. Opposition to God’s Word stood up immediately. A fellow with a really bad attitude got up and challenged Jesus. “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”
As you see, for this fellow the presence of God was not welcome and the fact is, when we have bad attitudes and when we live our lives on a collision course with the way God wants us to live, then we run into the left hand of God and that hand will destroy us.
The word and teaching of Jesus shook the foundations of that congregation in Capernaum to the core. Jesus was, however, full of life and healing. He rebuked the fellow and said, “Be quiet!” and ordered the bad spirit to get out of him. The fellow went into convulsions and screaming in a loud voice, the evil spirit left him.
Now how would you like to come to church and experience that? I’ve sometimes experienced a person having an epileptic seizure and it is really rough to go through. I’m sure that some of the people attending were scared to death. Most of them, the text says, were amazed wondering who Jesus could be, when he even commands unclean spirits and they obey him.
When we had rough kids in our classes in Summer Vacation School, I would say to the teachers, “You have to set a limit on them. You are the teacher and you run the class. Don’t let a bully in your class run it.”
“But they won’t listen to me!” the teachers would exclaim. When I observed them, they had no authority. They were really small, pleading with the children, who had the authority and the teachers didn’t.
Knowledge, of course, spells power. But in these face to face encounters you need to know yourself, because the children can read you like a book and tell where your weaknesses are. Thus like Socrates said, you have to know yourself and know the other. The fellow who stood up before Jesus thought he could overpower him. “I know who you are,” he said, “you are the Holy One of God!” Then he exposes his evil spirit: “Have you come to destroy us?”
Jesus’ wealth of self knowledge, his force of life, and his healing power overwhelm this person and bring him back to his senses under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
After a unforgettable service like that, the presence of God does not disappear at the door of the church. You know the way beggars sit in front of the church or sometimes on the church steps. They hope that the good and generous feeling of those who just attended worship lasts long enough so they get a hand-out.
Jesus is full of life and healing after that worship. He goes with four of his disciples to Peter and Andrew’s house, with James and John, too, and that makes four. Now Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. – Stop and think. If he had a mother-in-law then he must have been married. If St. Peter was the first pope as Catholics say, then the first pope was married. That’s just an aside. – They took Jesus right to Peter’s mother-in-law and he lifted her up and the fever left her and she served them.
Don’t look down on her serving them right away. The word used in Greek is diakonei like the word “deacon,” one who serves. Jesus returned her to her place of honor and the privileged place she had in the house.
Once I was really sick with a fever and I had to do a service. I said, “Lord, I have to do your work so you will have to heal my fever.” I remained sick doing the worship and when I got back home, I was sick as a dog. Miracles are not there for us on demand.
But I believe that these healing miracles happened. Jesus performed them. But we do not come to believe because of these miracles, but because we believe we also believe in miracles. They are not the main thing, however. The message of Jesus is the main thing. That he proclaims the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and that we need to repent so that God’s great and gracious presence comes and turns us into a Beloved Community. The Beloved Community was the way Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven and proclaiming it to be at hand and our believing the Good News that it is, so that God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven; that is the main thing.
In the little city of Capernaum, the door of Peter and Andrew’s house, became like the church doors, the doors to their synagogue, because you see, Jesus, the door to heaven, was standing in it.
A commentary says that Mark exaggerated when he said the whole city was at their door. You have to have seen, however, as we did on our trip to Israel, how small a place that was, how small the houses, how small the streets – so Mark may not have exaggerated at all. Everybody could have been there, bringing all those with unclean spirits or the demon possessed, as well as all the sick with them. It does not say that Jesus healed all of them but “many of them.” He did not let the demons speak, because they knew him, wanted power over him, and wanted the authorities to stop Jesus from working. He overpowered them and gave them a renewal of their minds, which brought them back to their senses.
Jesus healed many very mentally disturbed people of his day. It is important to realize that the kind of psychological problems people have relate to the particular inhuman conditions of the society they live in. Possession related to Israel’s possession by Roman legions. Any protest would bring torture and death upon the cross. Sometimes the Romans lined both sides of the street of a city with the crucified. Anyone who helped them was crucified beside them. It was enough to drive people out of their minds.
Today our mental disturbances are different. Michael Krasny interviews people on Forum, his program on National Public Radio. Thursday he interviewed a psychiatrist, Ira Steinman, who had just written a book called Treating the Untreatable about forty-five years of his work with the talking cure. Most psychiatrists today only give the mental casualties of our day medications. Ira Steinman’s book is an angry protest. Medications have to be used judiciously and wisely. He has a nuanced position. He is not against medications per se, but against their misuse. They are necessary to stabilize someone who is suicidal or someone who becomes violent and could hurt themselves or others. But when the psychiatric community believes that all people who have schizophrenia, who have delusions and hear voices, are hopeless cases and have to be loaded with medications for the rest of their lives, he argues that that is not wise nor a judicious use of medications. In his 45 year practice he was able to help many psychotic persons get better, while almost everybody in the psychiatric community believes they are incurable.
He told the story of one case, whom he called Lois, who was hospitalized because she said she had two rats gnawing at her heart. “Whoops” the psychiatrists said, “This woman is crazy! Load her with medications!” I lied. They did not say she was crazy, they said, “She’s paranoid schizophrenic!” But they did load her with all kinds of medications. That’s no lie and for seven years. When Dr. Steinman saw her she had deteriorated and become mired in misery. She was in very bad shape. She told him, “I have two rats gnawing at my heart!”
“I wonder what that could mean?” he responded. She was surprised that someone was really listening to her and trying to understand her. Delusions are false beliefs firmly believed. That’s the definition. But they have symbols in them that help us understand what is going on in our lives, just like the bazaar things we sometimes dream about. We ask ourselves, “What could that possibly mean?” I once dreamed I stood with my back to an ocean-liner anchored at a pier and it bumped the pier behind me twice. It could have easily crushed me. Two big exams were coming up and I was not getting ready for them. I dreamt of the Pied Piper, who took all the children away from a village. You know the story. Then the church I had served before my second church in Berlin accused me of taking all their children to my new church. It wasn’t true. But do you see how dreams resolve and help you understand some things going on in your life?
About Lois, long story short: her two children had been taken away and not being with them gnawed at her heart. But that was not all. Her father had died many years before and she kept him alive in her imagination. When she made a cup of coffee she always also made one for him. When she went bike riding, she went with him. When Dr. Steinman talked with her about it, she slowly started accepting that her father had died. That gave her a real set-back and she had to be re-hospitalized, because she had never grieved his death and accepted his loss. Then in the hospital she did a creative thing. She started imagining that her two children were always with her. Dr. Steinman said, “Wonderful, that means you want to be with them. Why don’t you make your dream come true?” She did just that and her very understanding husband let her return to her children. Then she recovered, found a job and Dr. Steinman and she gave the lie to our modern healers who insist that someone with schizophrenia cannot be healed. Ira Steinman has many such stories in his book.
This interview took place on Thursday and it is easy to get Michael Krasny and the Forum program on the Internet and listen to the wonderful healing stories yourself.
When Jesus healed all those people, sick in body, soul, and mind, the whole town hunted for him afterwards. Believe it or not they were angry at him. They wanted more miracles and he was now gone.
I remember back in Brooklyn when a famous faith healer visited a local church. The church was packed and the people who could not get in were standing in front of the doors. They had brought retarded family members, mongoloid children, and others whom they were hiding in their homes, all standing there and wanting their loved ones to be healed.
Of course we want healing when we are sick. But what about changing our lives? We believe that physical healing is part of being saved, but perfectly healthy people take revolvers and shoot their neighbors. I visited a woman with lung cancer. She refused to give up smoking, even while she was dying. People say they want to lose weight, but they do not exercise. Health cannot be the main thing.
Jesus left the whole crowd, early in the morning when it was still dark and went to lonely place to pray. When the disciples find him, he tells them that the message of the Gospel is the main thing. He says that he will go from town to town preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. We need to repent and join the Beloved Community and pray for the presence of God to be amongst us and in such a powerful way, that our foundations shake because of our encounter with the Lord of life. That is the main thing.
The good news is that baptized into his name, he rescues us from the powers of sin, sickness, delusion, and death and raises us up to believe in the Kingdom of Heaven amongst us, where we get
up and serve others just like Peter’s mother-in-law. We get up to serve, to share, to help, and love one another in the strength that comes down from on high.
Ah, won’t you listen to Isaiah:
Even young people will faint and grow weary, and they will fall down exhausted; but those that wait upon the Lord, God will renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint! (Isaiah 40:30-31)
The Lord be with you!
And also with you! Amen.