4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:21-28;
Safe boundaries are good. We begin with gates across stairways for our children. We teach them that the curb is a boundary. They cannot go into a street without holding an adult’s hand. And we work up to things like ‘stranger danger’ and safe touching. Having a child fall victim to unsafe sexual boundaries is as devastating a crossing of boundaries as it gets. Safe boundaries are good.
People create boundaries for many reasons. One of these reasons is that it is the loving thing to do. It respects rights and diversities. Psychologists tell us people who do not know limits — where they leave off and others begin — do damage to themselves and others. To demarcate is a way of clarifying responsibilities. Without boundaries things become a formless mass, and we do not know how to proceed. We often emphasize the need for community. We insist on connecting lines, both straight and dotted, in our relational and work lives. But we also need to draw circles, to close off others to avoid being swamped.
Parents sets safe boundaries for their children out of love. But we also set and make boundaries for ourselves. And, to be honest, we often make boundaries out of fear instead of out of love. There are the invisible lines that we often draw in our own minds in many cities. “Oh, I don’t go north of Patterson. That’s a bad neighborhood.” And there are boundaries we set between nations. In recent years that has meant more than just an imaginary line between the United States and Mexico. We are actually building a wall.
Legend tells of a training session between Merlin, the master magician, and young Arthur, a boy destined to be King. Merlin takes Arthur into the forest, turns him into a hawk (they could do that in those days) and send him sailing into the sky:
From the earth Merlin shouts to Arthur, “What do you see?” Arthur shouts back, “I see rivers and trees.”
“No,” an irritated Merlin responds and repeats his question, “What do you see?”
“I see cattle and sheep and . . .”
“No,” Merlin interrupts and asks a third time, “What do you see?”
“I see villages and …”
“Come down,” orders Merlin. Arthur, the hawk, returns to earth and becomes Arthur, the young boy. Merlin tells him, “Some day you will know what you saw.” (1)
The day Arthur knew what he saw was the day after his dream of Camelot died. He saw no boundaries. When he was in the sky and looking at the earth, everything was distinct yet also part of a unity. In the universe there may be many lines, but the lines can be viewed as either safe boundaries created in love or dividing lines created in fear.
So people not only make boundaries, they also cross them on occasion when it means trying to overcome fear with love. St. Paul was quite radical when he says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Jesus crossed these well-established boundaries, too. In the Gospel, Jesus especially crosses the boundary of clean and unclean. This boundary had become a division, and the division had lead to exclusion. Jesus represents God’s loving outreach to those whom society, in the name of holiness, had pushed away and whom Jesus, in the name of holiness, draws in. The path of love in a deeply divided society is to cross boundaries.
It is a path to healing, too. It’s clear that love can heal social divisions like racism. But I’d like us to see that love crossing is also behind bodily healing. In Jesus’ day, any and all sicknesses were seen as a spiritual matter. The man with an unclean spirit in today’s Gospel — we usually see him as mentally ill. But he could have had a skin disease and they would still have thought of him as having an unclean spirit. They saw the cause of all sicknesses as having unclean, evil spirits involved. That’s why, even in the Middle Ages, when the black plague hit Europe, they always looked for evil spirits. They would do things like hunt for witches and burn them at the stake in order to bring cures for physical diseases. The thing to do with the man with an unclean spirit in today’s Gospel would have surely been to throw him out, or maybe worse, to kill him. He had come during a holy time, the Sabbath, into a holy space, the synagogue, and brought his unclean sickness with him, threatening to make everyone there unclean. But Jesus, in love, didn’t observe these boundaries between clean and unclean. And he didn’t see the man himself as unclean, just the spirit which made him sick. So Jesus, instead of driving out the man, drives out the evil spirit.
Do you realize that following Jesus on crossing such boundaries helped lead to modern medicine? Yes, those who called themselves Christians succumbed to fear many, many times through the centuries and did things like burn witches. But it was true followers of Jesus, I believe, who also responded to sick people in love, and so they began to find ways of driving out the illness without driving away the person. They began to find things like germs to drive out instead of casting out the person as unclean. And even in our days of more advanced medicine, think of the change we have made in dealing with conditions such as Down Syndrome. We don’t automatically put that person away in fear. We find that in love persons with Down Syndrome become an important people in the community, who return love a hundred-fold.
Now, this matter of whether to create or cross boundaries in love is a complicated matter. Even Jesus couldn’t deal with it in a healing way all the time. When people came to scapegoat him — putting him on the cross just as surely as we done things like burn witches — he was not able to simply drive out the evil spirit with a word like he did so often with sick people on the Sabbath. No, he had to drive out that evil spirit of scapegoating by letting himself be lynched by it. And on Easter he not only defeats death itself but he also defeats the dark powers of our killing one another in fear. We are baptized into that spirit so that we might follow him crossing the boundaries which human beings continue to create in fear.
Where do we find those boundaries today? Policy on immigration? The wait we treat ex-offenders? Police profiling? Lumping all Arabs together as terrorists? Or how about even the polarized partisanship of our current politics? We have been able to take gigantic steps forward in healing bodily diseases, by driving out things like germs and cancer cells instead of persons. Can we make progress in healing some of our social diseases by crossing in love those boundaries created in fear?
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 29, 2012
1. This version of the Merlin story, and the main theme of this sermon, are based on John Shea‘s essay on this text in The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom (Mark – Year B) [Liturgical Press, 2005], pages 48-52.