Epiphany 7B Sermon (2012)

7th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 2:1-12;
Isaiah 43:18-25


Question #1: Where does this sermon fit in the 3-D faith that we’ve been talking about? Answer: with the second dimension, the social, political, and cosmic dimension. Our theme for this epiphany season is healing, and the cross and resurrection of Christ launched healing into this world like we’ve never seen. Jesus anticipated that healing power in his ministry, and he calls you and I to be part of that healing.

So I’m going for broke with my second question this morning: What is the number one disease that has plagued humankind over the millennia? Think about it. We’ve heard many stories from history about plagues of things like small pox, or bubonic plague, killing millions upon millions. A lesser known pandemic is the Spanish flu of 1918, which historians now say went global and killed between 50 and 100 million people. The tragedy of AIDS might top them all before we find a cure.

But as deadly as such plagues have been, they are primarily isolated instances — not a number one disease that has plagued us throughout our history. I would like to make a suggestion this morning that the number one disease which has killed us in huge numbers throughout all of human history is: our own human violence. Have you ever thought of violence in that category? As the number one killing disease of all time?

I can assure you that peoples before us have thought of violence in that way. Last week, we mentioned that ancient peoples saw bodily and spiritual matters together. So they always tried to find spiritual causes for bodily diseases. Every disease had to do with evil spirits. So killing witches in Medieval Europe used to be a response to plagues. They blamed witches for the evil spirits that were killing them. When we finally stopped reacting to plagues in such a manner, we had to find another cure. We began to cast out and kill germs instead of people.

But let me give you another quick example of how far back this witch-hunt approach goes. We get our word pharmaceutical from the ancient Greeks, whose word for drug was pharmakon. It can be translated as both remedy and poison. That’s what a drug is, of course. To the right person in the right situation of illness and with the right dose, a drug can be a remedy. But to most other people that same drug is a poison. That’s why we put those child-proof caps on our drugs — which, of course, only children seem to be able to open. If the pharmacist makes a prescription mix-up, it can be deadly. One person’s cure may be another person’s demise. Drugs are both remedy and poison.

Now here’s the most interesting thing about that word pharmakon: there was a closely related word pharmakos, and the pharmakos in Greek society was a person who dabbled in evil potions and spirits, a “sorcerer,” if you will. They would ritually run the pharmakos out of town, and sometimes off a cliff, during a time of crisis. In other words, the pharmakos was like the witch, during medieval days in Europe. The pharmakos was the person blamed for the evil spirits that were plaguing them.

Think for a moment about how that relates to the pharmakon, the drug. Certainly, driving someone out of town and killing them is an evil, poisonous thing to do. But the instinct was that the community had to risk just the right dose of this poisonous thing in order to be cured from an even greater outbreak of death. In short, we would say that they would risk a small dose of violence, ritually killing just one person, in order to find a remedy against the greater evil of many people dying in larger outbreaks of violence. So the pharmakos could be used when they were attacked by a physical illness, but the pharmakos could also be used as a remedy against impending rioting and unrest, or civil war. In other words, ancient peoples generally experienced violence as in the same category as physical illness, as diseases that kill you. And so they used a dose of violence against any and all diseases that they feared. That’s why blood sacrifice is so universal across the beginnings of all human cultures. Killing a person or an animal on an altar was experienced like a drug, like a small dose of violence that was used as a remedy against wider outbreaks of violence, the most feared of all diseases.

This is very difficult for us to understand because modern medicine has given us a different way to look at such things. We no longer put physical illness in the same category as violence. When there is an outbreak of illness we seek to kill germs and viruses, not people. This is part of the amazing break-through of healing in Jesus Christ: that we would learn, first of all, that physical illness is not cured by violence of any dosage. Jesus didn’t drive out people possessed by demons; he drove out demons. Jesus didn’t expel diseased people like lepers from society, he compassionately touched them and healed them, and brought them back into society. In modern medicine we have gradually learned this way of healing with pretty spectacular results.

But there is one most important lesson about healing that I’m not sure we have learned yet. We have learned to distinguish violence from physical illness, so that we no longer use small doses of violence to ward off physical illness. But we have not yet learned the same lesson about violence itself — namely, that a small dose of violence will never be the ultimate cure for violence, either. Think about how often we still think this way. We believe that capital punishment, a small dose of violence, will help cure wider outbreaks of murder. Right now, we are thinking that just the right dosage of violence against terrorists will be part of the cure against terrorism. Isn’t that the way we are thinking? Isn’t that the same pharmakos principal? Don’t we still need to learn the lesson from Jesus about our number one human disease of violence?

Think about the cross of Jesus, for a moment. Jesus didn’t die of cancer. He didn’t die of AIDS. He died a violent death, at the hands of our very remedy for the disease of violence, namely, capital punishment. He was violently executed. So for what disease does the cross offer us healing? Violence!

This is very important to understand. Since the beginning of humankind, what is the most feared form of violence? The answer: vengeance. Reciprocating violence. Once we get in a cycle of escalating back-and-forth violence, it typically doesn’t end until a disastrous proportion of people lay dead — like a plague, like a flood, like a forest fire. In mythology, in fact, things like plagues and floods are symbols for run away violence. (1) Ritual blood sacrifice was the medicine for warding off this kind of violence by everyone uniting against one.

So we must ask ourselves Question #3: if human violence is the most deadly disease of all time, and out-of-control cycles vengeance the most feared form of violence, then what is the number one cure for that disease? Jesus came to precisely give us that answer on the cross. The number one cure for our number one disease is forgiveness.

Our Gospel Lesson this morning brings the two together: healing from disease and forgiveness. At first it seems like a non sequitur. Jesus is confronted by a man with a physical ailment; he can’t walk. But out of nowhere Jesus raises the issue of forgiveness, too. And he juxtaposes these two, physical healing and forgiveness, in a question: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (Mark 2:9) We would be tempted to answer the latter: ‘curing the lame man is a miracle!’ we would say. But think again in the context of what we have talked about this morning. What did we say is the most persistent disease to plague humankind since the beginning of time? Run-away violence — vengeance. We have come a long ways in being able to cure many physical ailments. We have sought out the causes and found many cures. Can we say the same thing in the case of our violence? Have we found the cause? Do we know the cure? Even when Jesus comes to show us that the cure for vengeance is forgiveness, do we use it? Or do we still resort to finding just the right dose of “good” violence to try to stop the bad violence?

Let’s finish this morning, then, with some reflections on our lingering disease of violence, beginning with the now ten years-old war on terror. We think that we can stop terrorism with just the right dose of “good” violence against bad people like Osama bin Laden. The President opened his State of the Union Address a couple weeks ago by reminding us of the satisfying revenge on bin Laden. But will this, in fact, stop the vengeance? Or will it only fuel it more? When we consider our response to the horror of terrorism that we experienced on 9/11, which seems easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? Don’t you see how difficult forgiveness remains for us? Forgiveness seems ridiculous in the face of terrorism.

Or let’s say someone hurts you deeply, but then you hear that they’re sick. Which is easier for you to do, forgive them or tend to their illness? We have come a long ways in our compassion for treating physical ailments. But have we gained at all when it comes to hurting one another and healing the brokenness of relationships and community? How often do we still resort to the age-old remedies when it comes to stemming violence?

“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — Jesus said to the paralytic — “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” I say to you, in the name of Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven — go your way and live in the healing power of that forgiveness. Learn and live what it means to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.'” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 5, 2012

1. The account of the flood is introduced in Genesis 6:11 with this observation: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”

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