Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
A children's book, The Hundred Dresses, tries to make a circle of a story and sum "it" all up in one theme. Here Wanda, a little Polish girl wears the same faded blue dress every day to school. She claims, though, that she has a hundred dresses of silk and velvet at home in her closet. She just doesn't feel like wearing them. Peggy and Mattie can't resist mocking her for what she makes up…and thus the story spirals and circles to a happy ending, after much hurt is exchanged. There is a healing but there is also first a hurt.
In another childhood tale, we get to know Zoom, a cat in search of his mysterious, seafaring Uncle Roy. His search leads him to his uncle's friend, Maria, whose house holds not only the ocean but also —somewhere up near the attic—the North Pole and—behind the books in the library—Egypt and its Nile River.
Both children's stories try to put a period at the end of the sentence. They try to circle the world and hold it whole and holy. Zoom, the cat, doesn't just take a little journey to find his uncle: he navigates the known world. Wanda, the blue-dressed girl, doesn't make a little story out of her poverty and hope for wealth. She uses a magical number "100" meaning infinity: she has an infinity of beautiful dresses at home in her closet.
Unlike these children's stories, our text today is an incomplete story. It is a jagged edge story, one that sits out they're begging for the rest of the story to unfold. It is the poignant story of some scattered healings. Devils are cast out throughout Galilee: someone has cared enough to serve and served enough to care. But the story fragments because we all know that Jesus can't keep this healing going forever. Particularly since the healings are in the synagogue, he must be careful and soon will be warned and judged. The cost of caring does not seem to matter to Jesus. He heals anyway. Here we remember that we are all on the same boat—and that we have a place together in the great circle of humanity.
Some of you know the nautical language so ably quoted in The Boater's Manual. There are burdened boats and there are privileged boats. Privileged boats have motors—they must yield to those who depend on wind. At God's table the privileged and the burdened get out of each other's way: they/we sit down together.
Despite the obvious unity of both time and boat, much of life still feels jagged to us. Many fears and burdens and privileges threaten our completion. What if the dresses in our closet are tattered and torn? What if we don't need anyone to tell us that we are all in the same boat—we know that—but we fear the boat is filling with gasoline and someone is about to strike a match? What if we are sick and tired of worrying about the world and want someone to worry about us? And we don't even care anymore if that sounds selfish?
Even in our modern age devils abound. They are disease and they are disease-plus. They are anxiety, boredom, and general unhappiness. They are also the deep-down feeling that we don't matter much no matter what we do. In our overpopulated world, one healing—or even the healing of all of Galilee—might be a vexing matter as well as a pleasing matter. We are aware of the largeness of the world and of how much trouble there is in it.
This Markan story of a multitude of healing shows that Jesus cared enough to serve. He leaves the synagogue and comes into the house of Simon and Andrew, accompanied by friends James and John. There is a "but" in this otherwise happy sounding opening. When they get to the house, Simon's mother-in-law is laying there sick. Jesus goes to her, takes her hand, lifts her up, and the fever that had felled her is gone. We then return to the Sabbath dinner direction: she then "ministers" to them. There is a fine reciprocity here: Jesus heals her so that she can serve others. She too is expected to care enough to serve.
The text continues towards the evening and the Sabbath "breakfast." At evening, the healings begin again. (This is an interesting contrast to the stories in which Jesus is tested about healing on the Sabbath.) "At evening, when the sun did set…." The disciples brought to him all that were diseased. Seeing what happened to Simon's mother-in-law (how I wish she could have a name) got people's attention. There were many more fevers in the city than hers. The disciples brought these people to the door of Andrew and Simon's home. Here he healed many diseases, cast out many devils, and "suffered the devils not to speak, because they knew him." This intimacy with the devils is understood somehow as Jesus' power to heal.
In the morning, rising early, Jesus goes out to pray. We are not told, but we can surmise that he has a sense of lost power and wants to be restored. Thus, he prays to the one he calls father. During this solitude, Simon interrupts. Does he not know that many are looking for him? Jesus does not seem to mind the interruption.
Jesus agrees to go on into the next towns. He does not agree to heal but instead to preach. He doesn't seem to see much difference in the verbs to preach or to heal. Instead, he sees a similarity and a connection. "He preached in their synagogues, throughout Galilee and cast out devils."
Healing seems to have at least three parts: the removal of the devil, the preaching and the relinquishment of disease. Likewise, this text is one of the more Jewish of the stories told about Jesus. It is book ended by experiences in the synagogue and on or near the Sabbath. We are beginning to find out what a wonderful Jew this Jesus is. In this text we are on the road to Jesus becoming Messiah. He is both inside and outside of the Judaism of his birth, and he is typically transcendent of these kinds of religious categories. What he really does is to heal. He also preaches. But the preaching is about casting out devils, which results in healing. His battle is cosmic, with the devil, and not temporary, with the Jews. Jesus is there to cure evil and in the cure, we find service, and in service we find the cure.
This is about confronting all the hurt and harm in our world. Today because of the wonderful and dreadful numbers of ways we receive information we seem to be more and more aware of the amount of hurt and harm in our world. In fact many media outlets seem to concentrate upon the very, very negative aspects of our whole world. However, Jesus sees that hurt and harm and calls for us to serve one another and by that service to help heal the hurt. Jesus’ major weapon against evil is loving service.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In 1955 there was a famine in China. Many people urged President Eisenhower to send small sacks of grain with the message, "If thine enemy hunger, feed him. Send surplus food to China." But the surplus food was never sent. The campaign seemed an utter failure. Then there was a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the United States bomb mainland China in response to the Quemoy-Matsu crisis. At the third meeting, President Eisenhower turned to a cabinet member responsible for the Food for Peace Program and asked, "How many of the grain bags have come in?" The answer was 45,000, plus tens of thousands of letters. Eisenhower's response was that if that many Americans were trying to find a conciliatory solution with China, it wasn't the time to bomb China. The proposal to do so was vetoed.
Non-stop healing can take its toll on anyone. Extremely long hours have traditionally been part and parcel of being a young doctor. But recent changes aim to make it possible for future physicians to be a little less sleep deprived. The organization that accredits the nation's training hospitals instituted strict new rules last year that would limit medical residents to 80-hour workweeks. The residents would be required to be able to get at least ten hours of rest between shifts and to have at least one day off per week. The new rules take effect in July 2003. Although working 80 hours a week may not sound like much of a break, it is an improvement over the 100-plus hours a week that many medical students currently work. Part of the blame for the problem is assigned to hospitals, which often look at residents as sources of cheap labor. Yet studies find that there is an increasing cost in that the long hours are resulting in the residents making more and more medical mistakes. Representative John Conyers of Michigan, who introduced legislation to limit residents' hours commented, "We wouldn't let anybody drive a truck that long or fly an airplane that long, much less operate on people."
In many respects, drug manufacturers are aware of all the sicknesses that people have, and so they see the whole world as a potential audience for their products. As a result, more and more pharmaceutical companies have focused on advertising their medications not just to doctors, but to the general public as well. That direct marketing is paying off. Studies find that if people ask their doctor for a drug they saw advertised on television, there is a 69% chance that the doctor will write the prescription for it. At the same time, however, the commercials might be sending some wrong messages to people. For instance, when a doctor in Baltimore informed a black female patient that she should be tested for osteoporosis, she was shocked. She told her physician, "I can't get that—white women get that." She explained that in all of the commercials about osteoporosis she had seen on television, only white women were depicted as suffering from that condition. Currently drug companies spend about $2.5 billion a year directly advertising their products to consumers. There is considerable debate over whether the ads are good or bad. A survey of the National Medical Association's members found that 50% of all physicians thought that advertisements had the positive effect of educating people about troublesome symptoms or new treatments that have been developed. Yet a third of the same doctors admitted that they have felt pressured to prescribe a particular brand of medicine that their patients had seen promoted on television or in a magazine.
Some people, like Peter's mother-in-law, are always ready to serve, even if in humble ways. The central English town of Kettering is haunted by a "phantom street-cleaner." Each night a resident of the town masks his face with a scarf, puts on a black raincoat, and travels through the streets picking up litter. People first became aware of the phantom when shopkeepers showed up early in the morning at their places of business to find the streets outside their establishments immaculately clear of all debris. No one is entirely sure of the fellow's identity, but a security camera outside one business did catch the phantom in action with his broom. When he finishes his cleaning, he attaches a note to the garbage can encouraging the citizens to keep their town tidy. One merchant quipped, "It's a real pleasure to see the streets looking so good again. I think I might leave out a bag of soap and some water, so he can do my windows as well!"
Scientists believe they can confirm the long-believed theory that a touch can be healing to a person. In the August 2002 issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers explain how various kinds of nerve cells in the skin transmit various messages back to the brain. Some register tactile sensations, while others detect temperature or pain. A few of the nerve cells, however, seem to be especially attuned to detecting gentle touches. Physicians at the University of Montreal were able to conduct a study on a woman who suffered from a disease that caused her to lose her normal sense of touch. When the researchers stroked her hand with a soft paintbrush, she could not "feel" it, but she reported an overall sense of pleasure, and brain scans showed that regions associated with the emotions lit up significantly with that stimulus. Apparently, the nerve cells that detected gentle touch were still alive, even though the other kinds of nerve cells had been rendered inoperable. The scientists are theorizing that their discovery may explain why infants are so much in need of gentle touches and why so many people find therapeutic massages so soothing.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (January 2002) reports that during any given week, more than 80% of all Americans take at least one type of medication—either prescription drugs, over-the-counter treatments, or herbal supplements. A phone survey discovered that 50% of those polled said they take prescription drugs at least once a week, and 16% regularly use one or more herbal supplements. The most popular herbal supplements are ginseng, gingko biloba, garlic, glucosamine, and St. John's wort. The researchers found that women 65 and older are the most likely to take medications, and men between the ages of 18 and 44 were to least likely to be on medication.
A young man was born and raised in one of the darkest jungles in Africa. He grew up in his small village, living with about three dozen of his fellow tribesmen. One day this young man had the opportunity to visit an uncle in a larger village many miles away. While he was there, one night he was awakened by the loud pounding of drums. Half asleep, he asked what the noise was all about. His uncle told him that a fire had broken out in the village and the drum-beating was their fire alarm system to put the fire out. Satisfied with that answer, the young man rolled over and went back to sleep. But that experience left an impression on him, because when he returned to his own village, he told his fellow tribesmen that when there is a fire in that other village, the people beat their drums and pretty soon the fire is no longer a problem. His fellow villagers shared his excitement and set about to the task of making enough drums so that every family in and nearby the village would have one. The next time a fire broke out in that village, you could hear the drums beating for miles around. But their high level of excitement quickly turned to shock and sorrow. The sound of the drums finally stopped when the entire village had burned to the ground. That tribal village thought that their drum-beating alone would put out their fires. They failed to realize that the drum-beating was really just a call to action.
Peter's mother-in-law certainly looked beyond her own needs to the needs of those around her. During the Civil War, during the bloodiest fighting in the history of this nation, the Presbyterians in the North raised the money to start a mission in the African country of Cameroon. At the same time Southern Presbyterians, while their cities were burning, raised the money to send a missionary to Brazil. If ever there was a bad time for Presbyterians to give, that would have been it. But not only did those Presbyterians take care of their own churches and their own members, but they had the faith to raise the money to help other people around the world, even though they themselves were in need.
"If you start to think about your physical or moral condition, you usually find that you are sick" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).
"Medicine makes sick patients, for doctors imagine diseases, as mathematics makes hypochondriacs and theology sinners" (Martin Luther).
The decision to be a servant in a nation that has gone through a civil war to free one from all forms of servitude is one that will put one out of step with the times. Yet, a world without servant leaders who seek the good of those whom they serve is a barbaric place.
To give of oneself until it helps, not just until it hurts, is to be a follower of the Great Servant, Jesus Christ. A servant asks about his or her duty and obligations, while a master asks himself or herself about his or her desires and wants. The world has way too many masters and not near enough servants. Caring comes from self-forgetfulness in the presence of another's need. Which comes first serving or caring? One's feeling eventually follow one's actions, so as one invests one's life in service to others there grows in one's heart a great care for those so attended. "The greatest among you shall be the servant to you all." These words of Jesus are the final words about human destiny.
The XYZ group went on a very nice day cruise a few weeks ago. We all were wearing our nametags, which included our names and XYZ. An elderly gent came up to Judy and asked her what XYZ meant. (Judy has given me permission to tell you this story.) Judy told the elderly gent that XYZ meant Extra Years of Zest. He must
have heard inaccurately, for he replied, "Wow, that is great; just think extra years of sex." How can I join your club?" So much is misheard and misconstrued—and not just by the elderly. We often get things more than a little mixed up in our everyday lives.
Overheard at a rugby game at a Quaker college: : "Fight, fight, fight for the inner Light, Kill Quakers, Kill."
Dorothy Parker once said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for Curiosity. Young writers, if they are to mature, require a period of between three and seven years in which to live down their promise."
Roboticists may be the only ones who are not confused by Babel. In the chess match between Garry Kasparov and IBM's Deep Blue, many strange things happened. Many have used Deep Blue as an example of artificial intelligence that achieved something of the presence we associate with sentience. During one game, Kasparov reported signs of mind in the machine—and this put Kasparov off his game. Kasparov then adjusted his play, looking for the strategies of so-called mind, which failed to reappear. The program had not achieved sentience; instead, the human had projected sentience onto the machine and become flustered.
What Roboticists agree upon is that the uniqueness of the human is consciousness that it is embodied. They even think that our mind is programmed by our bodies needs. We are eating machines. But the final mark is that we recognize our own kind. Others do not. We advanced mammals do. And consciousness—what we have that robots don't have—allows us to interact with each other. It's not mystical but an evolutionary imperative, a matter of life and death. We are born helpless, and we must reach out to another to find life.
Nadime Gordimer makes art out of what I clumsily describe as knowing Jesus and knowing what Jesus would do. In her short story, "Safety Procedures," she tells of an airplane accident where the passengers are forced to make an emergency eviction. When the main character first boards the plane, she has a jaded, know-it-all passenger for a seat-mate, with whom she wanted nothing to do. As they left the plane on the yellow emergency slide, however, the two women held hands fiercely.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Here we are again God. Or are we here? Or at least is all of us here? Whatever part of ourselves we managed to bring, O Lord, we are glad to be here in Your presence. We hope that in these moments we can find new reasons to serve and in that service bring more of ourselves closer to You.
We confess that our life feels jagged and looks jagged. We cannot make the pieces fit together. We know we need to have healing layer upon layer, but we just want to wait a minute and see if we can do it for ourselves. O Lord, please give us the courage to confess our inabilities, our lack of control and hand all these things over to your healing hands. Amen.
We keep missing what You have given us, but with these gifts we take a moment and try very hard to remember Your many moments of graceful giving.
Time twirls and turns around us and we wonder where we are and what we are doing here. Then your Spirit comes to fill our hearts and we know. You are here to heal us. But even more we are here to help to heal others. You are here to befriend us. But even more we are here to be a friend to another.
But there is much more here and for us from You. You are here to point us to truth. May we point to the truth we know. You are here to grant us peace. May we be peace for another. May we follow so that we may lead. May we suffer with others so they can see that Your
Son Jesus has suffered for them. May we pass the joy we have found in You around and around. May we turn around and around and finally turn to You, Mighty God, so that we may stand in the long line of humanity who have passed on what they knew of You. Amen.