Epiphany 6B Sermon (2003)

6th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:40-45;
2 Kings 5:1-14; 1 Cor. 9:24-27


Healing. These four Sundays in February our Gospel Lessons from Mark feature the healing power of Jesus. And so for four weeks we are talking about healing.(2) But you may have wondered to this point: Has Pastor Paul really been talking about healing?

Two weeks ago we began by lifting up what I would suggest as the first step of healing: taking a Hippocratic oath of sorts, to do no harm. As disciples of Jesus, committed to bring healing to our broken world, we will follow him by pledging to do no harm to anyone. We make this pledge in light of Jesus’ initial act of healing: casting out an unclean spirit from a man. Most often, placed in that same situation, we would simply see an unclean man and drive the man out. But Jesus does no harm to persons, so he sees a man with an unclean spirit and drives out the spirit.

As Jesus goes on in the Gospel story, however, he will increasingly find resistance to being able to drive out unclean spirits without harming the persons. By the story’s end there will be a whole community of people — the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor and soldiers, the crowd — who are possessed by the unclean, Satanic spirit of wanting to kill Jesus, and he will not be able to drive out these spirits without doing harm to the persons. As a healer who will do no harm, Jesus will not even defend himself from being killed because his way is to unconditionally bring life and healing, never death nor harm.

Last week, we named those most resistant demons as ones that possess our human institutions. We talked about the modern demons of racism. Casting out racism involves so much more than simply casting out demons of prejudice and hate that may possess individuals. Racism also possesses our institutions, which were shaped for centuries by those demons of prejudice and hate, so they won’t go away over night. Jesus encountered those kinds of institutional demons that seek to unify the group by driving out scapegoats. Those demons had such a hold on the institutions of his day — and they are still strong with us, racism being but a modern example of it — that he could not cast them out without doing harm to persons, so he let himself be made the scapegoat, trusting that God would raise him as the beginning of overturning those demons through the power of forgiveness.

But you may say: ‘Pastor Paul what does all that have to do with healing? When we come here today for a healing service we have in mind things like arthritis and osteoporosis, hypertension and heart disease, M.S. and cancer. You haven’t talked about any of those things that we normally think about when it comes to healing.’

That’s true. But the point of this series of sermons on healing and, I think, of these stories of healing in Mark’s Gospel, is that Jesus’ power of healing goes far beyond our usual thoughts and feelings on the matter. Jesus healed physical ailments, yes. But that was as a sign of something much bigger: nothing less than the ultimate healing of humankind and of God’s creation. He widens our horizons of healing so that we might find healing for all our sicknesses, racism as well as cancer, violence as well as heart disease. How? By casting out the demons that bind us, especially those most persistent demons that bind our institutions in ways which cause us to sacrifice a minority in favor of the majority.

Let me cut right to the chase with a nugget from my mentor, René Girard, who has spun out of Scripture a Gospel anthropology to show us more clearly this disease which has plagued humankind since the foundation of our worlds — namely, this disease of saving the majority by sacrificing the minority. Girard, in a chapter on the work of the Holy Spirit throughout history, says this:

The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. (The Scapegoat, pp. 204-205)

What does he mean by that? Christians of Medieval times did things like burning witches at times of community crisis. Most often, these crises were of a physical nature: people were dying of bubonic plague, or starvation, or floods. Feeling out of control, they interpreted these things as punishments from God for an evil in their midst that needed to be cleansed, or purged. So they did things like burning witches. They thought things like a witch cast a spell over their town so that they were sick, or starving from drought, or some such thing. Once this witch was purged from their midst, they would be fine. If not witches, then perhaps the Jews on the edge of town, or the town hunchback, or some heretic. Someone was to blame for the evil in their midst, and they would cast out or kill those persons.

But as we’ve been saying the influence of Jesus’ ministry is to cast out demons, and never to harm people. So gradually the power of the Holy Spirit led us to another approach. The persistence of these demons invading our institutions has meant that not even Christians have been immune. But with the Gospel operating nearby, the Holy Spirit has the chance to work almost like a counter-virus, making us feel uncomfortable with things like burning witches. When a few sought another explanation of things like plagues, modern science gradually dawned as an alternative approach, along with modern medicine. So, when faced with a plague, we began to seek casting out germs instead of witches. Do you see? It’s like what Jesus did from the very beginning: he cast out an unclean spirit from a man, not the man himself. And when faced with more persistent demons, he would sacrifice himself on the cross rather than do any harm to persons.

In today’s gospel, Jesus encounters a leper who has been cast out of town because he is seen by the villagers as unclean, a contamination to the purity of their town. In the context of this worldview, it is astounding for Jesus to touch this man in order to heal him. The way that everyone of his day saw the matter is that Jesus would make himself unclean, too, by touching him. But Jesus completely reverses this thinking: in touching him the leper is instead made clean by Jesus’ holy power of life. Jesus tells him to go back into the heart of his society’s perceived holiness, the temple, to show himself to the priest, and to offer a blood sacrifice according to the law of Moses. But Jesus’ first touching him to heal him has made these things seem unnecessary. Why go do the old institutional things in order to get healing when one has already been healed by a new power of healing that flies in the face of the old one? The man goes instead to tell everyone about this new power. Why does Jesus tell him to go in the first place? I would suggest that it is precisely to continue his work of challenging the old institutions of human culture with the Good News of God’s dawning new culture. More than just healing the man with leprosy, Jesus is challenging the whole institution that sacrifices a minority in favor of a majority. For this, the conventional sacrificial institutions will make him the ultimate scapegoat, the Lamb of God, so that in his resurrection the Holy Spirit might be unleashed on the world to continue the work of reversing this most persistent and ancient sickness of humankind.

In short, Girard makes a rather bold claim that the best aspects of our modern medicine have come about due to the work of the Holy Spirit. He suggests that we have been able to make such advances in healing people because we no longer take superstitious approaches like casting out witches to cure a plague. The way of compassion is seek things such as germs and cast them out without harming any persons. Or we find cancer cells and do our best to kill them rather than killing a the person.

If Girard’s thesis seems too bold, giving credit for the best of our health care to the Holy Spirit, is it any more audacious than taking credit for it ourselves? This, in fact, is the other side of his anecdote. We think that we stopped burning witches because we were finally smart enough to invent science. The truth, as he sees it, is the opposite: because the Holy Spirit of Jesus made us feel uncomfortable with burning witches, we finally found a way to halt plagues without killing anyone. We could bring healing by killing things like germs instead of killing people.

But because we try to take credit for our own brilliance in inventing science, the sacrificial disease still plagues us, doesn’t it? Even though our medical treatment itself is so much more humane and in line with Jesus’ Holy Spirit of healing, the institutions of medicine still sacrifice a minority in favor of the majority. For example: The more money and insurance one has, the overall better health care one receives — while those who have no insurance at all are sacrificed in favor of the majority who do have insurance. And that’s the tip of the iceberg of some of the demons that still possess our health care systems.

So this morning Jesus still comes into our midst with a touch of compassionate healing like the one he had for the leper that day. But it is a touch of healing that can go far beyond the cure of diseases like leprosy. It is a Holy Spirit that has the power to bring healing to even our institutions of healing themselves. It is a power which can help guide us in making these institutions more humane, finding ways to make sure that everyone has equal access to health care.

But if Jesus’ Holy Spirit is helping to bring such ultimate healing to humanity and to creation, then it certainly also brings a compassionate healing to each of us for whatever ails us, in body, mind, and spirit. Please come. Amen

[Followed by the Hymn of the Day, “Healer of Our Every Ill,” by Marty Haugen, and by a liturgy of laying on hands and anointing with oil for healing.]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 16, 2003

1. This title is borrowed from the chorus of Marty Haugen’s “Healer of our Every Ill”:

Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow,
Give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow.

See, for example, Hymn #738, © 1987 GIA Publications, Inc., in With One Voice: A Lutheran Resource for Worship, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.

2. This sermon is the third in a four sermon series on healing. Link to Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.

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