Asbury First United
Text: Mark 7: 24-37
Half of the Gospel happens Upstate! Jesus meets us this fall along the lakeshore, in the north country, by the Sea of Galilee. Are we holding up our end of the stick? Have we balanced the teeter-totter as promised? Are we alive to His Presence in Our Place? The first half of Mark’s Gospel, and thus all subsequent Gospels, happen Upstate.
The Sea of Galilee, to the north, resembles nothing so much as one of our own Finger Lakes. If you stand in Capernaum, at that Lake’s northern tip, and look due south, you see for ten miles an inland fresh lake, about 2 miles wide, resting in the sloping embrace of hillsides like our own here in Upstate New York. Jerusalem, the great city, is found due south. People go to Jerusalem from the north. Especially for festivals, as we go to the great city on the Island of Manhattan. Go south for Sukkoth or Macy’s Thanksgiving Party. Go south for Hanukah or the New Year’s lights. Go south for Passover or the Easter Parade. New York City is to Jerusalem as the Finger Lakes are to Galilee. Downstate, Upstate. Northern Kingdom, Southern Kingdom. Both have their place. But come to lakeshore for lessons about living.
I was encouraged in July by a good old friend to drive with him along the western shore of Cayuga Lake. It is a road from memory and youth, one on which I had not driven in 20 years. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, is there really a more beautiful summer sight than Lake Cayuga from its crest along route 89 south? Slow down for cyclists. Pass by the Blue Heron. Catch a glimpse of Taughannock. Bask, Bathe, Breathe in the pure health of deep greens and blues on a sun spangled jewel of a lake! We came near the hospital in Ithaca, a place of wondrous change, the house in which our two older children and so many others were born. Bernice Danks taught generations of nurses there, using particularly her favorite epigram: “we call things routine because they are the most important things we do”. Lay Leader, lead soprano, member to conference, Veterinarian’s wife, head of nursing instruction, Bernice embodied today’s gospel. As we come once more to the Lake today, the Gospel is health! Jesus heals. We know how to heal. Your health matters.
In the first place, let us firmly hold the centuries old memory that Jesus was a divine healer. Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, upon paths perhaps familiar to him from youth, Jesus (always here in Mark’s particular memory) preached and taught and healed. Jesus did more healing than anything else: by the time we reach Mark 7:24 Jesus has already banished an unclean spirit, cured Peter’s mother in law, cast out and silenced demons, cleansed a leper, stood up a paralytic, repaired a withered hand, exorcised the Gerasene demoniac whose name is Legion, brought Jairus’ daughter back from the brink of death, staunched by a touch a flow of blood, made alive the synagogue ruler’s daughter, “ and as many as even touched his garment were made well”. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do. The healthy beauty that is our home here Upstate lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel.
I worked for a man once who spent a third of his adult life in Switzerland, but he hated cheese and never wore a watch. You have heard of people who reside in our sister city, Buffalo, but have never seen Niagara Falls. I expect there are people who live in Rochester who have no interest in photography, and not the slightest appreciation for photocopies. We can name two people who live in Syracuse but have not ever shopped at the Mall. (I am one of them.). One man who lives in San Diego doesn’t own sunglasses and has never surfed and wouldn’t recognize a Beach Boys song. Are there Alaskans who despise igloos? Lord have mercy. Frenchmen who dislike wine? Saints preserve us. Hawaiians who won’t swim? Oh, pshah. Methodists who can’t sing? Heavenly day. What an earthly shame, all. I hope someone is shutting the windows of heaven whenever there arises such bald lack of appreciation for what has been given! Sin is refusing to receive what we are given.
God’s natural bounteous gift to Upstate is the Finger Lakes, a world class handful of beauty. It is natural setting for healing, for healthy living. In the Gospel of Mark, at every turn, Jesus meets us with healing. Before we begin too quickly to debate the theological nuances of the healing ministry recorded in Mark, may we look at the big picture? Let’s stand for a moment on the lakeshore and take in the whole beautiful body of water. However finally you understand the Gospel record, there is no mistaking the sharp thrust, the surgical cut, the saving remedy of today’s Gospel. Jesus is mightily concerned with health, with healing. Whatever else the earliest Christians remembered of his lakeside ministry, his upstate work, this much is sure: Jesus is mortally concerned with healing.
The lessons of Tyre and Sidon, here along the Sea of Galilee, are lessons in living that sharply engage Jesus in the hard work of healing. In fact, Jesus continues toward healing even across two prodigious boundaries. Here is what I mean.
The concern of second Temple Judaism for cleanliness included a significant wariness about interaction with non-Jews. There is no mistaking the abiding influence of these kosher codes in the text which may be Jesus’ harshest comment: “we don’t feed dogs”. If any dominical saying is historical this surely must be for it is so uncomplimentary, so unflattering. Every editor to Mark and beyond would have ample reason to erase it. We might have done it ourselves. Jesus is a person of his time: speaking Aramaic, thinking David wrote the Psalms, riding donkeys, wearing sandals, expecting the Apocalypse, picturing a flat world, and, yes, concerned about the cleanliness codes: “it is not fair to feed the children’s food to dogs”. But hold the good news! Remember Jesus the Healer! At this, the only point in Mark’s gospel that it occurs, Jesus stretches out beyond Judaism, beyond inherited religion, beyond cult and culture, beyond tradition. There is something more important to him. Health. Here is a mother who craves her daughter’s health. Jesus hears her voice, honors her need, heals her daughter. Health takes Him beyond the barrier of religion.
There is no mistaking the power of this pronouncement for the 70AD church in Rome, made up of Gentiles. They, we, all are included in the healing ministry of Jesus.
There is a still more personal barrier which Jesus also crosses today. As so often in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus hides. Have you ever noticed that? Read Mark again this afternoon, and it will jump off the page at you. A dozen times at crucial moments, Jesus hides. He heals a woman, then says “shh”. He gathers a crowd, then says “shoo”. He preaches with magnificence, then “strictly charges them to tell no one”. He tries, according to Mark, to keep his nature a secret. No one really has fully explained the Messianic Secret of Mark. We need not try this morning. What is astounding, however, is that Jesus will not let this personal barrier—his hiding—keep him from healing. There is something more important to him than his own safety. Health. A man begs, and Jesus heals.
Health is more valuable than religion and more precious than safety. Jesus heals. Says Mark.
In the second place, we too know something about healing. People need more reminders than insights. Truth, saving truth, comes often in the guise of a forgotten understanding. Our friends, our church, our families, at their best, give us ourselves by reminding us of Truth we used to know well.
I understand that we have some ongoing struggles in health care around our fair city. I read about it in the paper. I hear about it on the phone. I learn about it in conversation. The Christian Gospel, though, is an empowering reminder to those sturdy souls, many present today, who are laboring in the corporate work of healing. It takes a community to heal a body. Real healing is holy, in the sense that whatever is holy is at least whole: real healing attends to the whole human being: body, mind, spirit, community. We know about this. Here.
We know how to heal. We know about healing, or at least we used to know. I have a clipping in my sermon box from a newspaper article in September of 1992. There is a heated political debate flooding the Presidential election. Disagreement and dissent abound. There were more points of view on healthcare then, than there are gubernatorial candidates in California today. But there is consensus, says this article, about one thing. There is at least one city in the country that knows how to do things right. There is at least one community, and this in the area of the Seas of Galilee—the Finger Lakes—that is a model for what might be. There is a point of promise, what one calls a part of the new covenant and the other calls simply a point of light. It is as if the whole country is seated around the TV together, watching the World Series. There is no agreement about anything, until, sitting on his haunches, Uncle Bill or was it Uncle George, says: “well, it can be done. I mean look at the way they do things in Rochester.” And all 260 million eat another potato chip and nod their heads in agreement.
I have no interest in going backward. Generally. Once though Jan and I were driving somewhere and, remarkably, we got lost. I know it is impossible to imagine. At some point it was suggested: “maybe we should turn around and go to where we knew where we were going.”
In short, I hope this year to read two books, both as yet unwritten. You may write one, or both: one on what has happened to us in the last decade; one on what we can do in the next. Take heart. The day is coming when across this land, men and women will point to our city and say: “health—they know about that in Rochester”!
What is true of medicine is true of ministry. Spiritual health is a communal endeavor. We have come to a time to build in our ministry! To build space, relationships, habits of welcome, an open vibrant spiritual village green to focus all that is lastingly good across our county. Your church leadership is preparing to get some fresh air in here, to let a clean wind blow through a new century of ministry, to open up space and place for grace.
I wonder if a visitor here, today, hearing of our plans for a welcoming space, might particularly hear this morning’s gospel. You are sitting perhaps in the back pews, with a child or two. You hear that this church is setting out to build space to welcome newcomers. It dawns on you that many of the people giving most of the effort to this will not necessarily benefit directly from it. They are giving to an unknown future, an unforeseen generation. They are giving of their resource for people they don’t know, a generation yet unacquainted with Christ, a generous gift with no strings and no expectations. Given to you. You are being included! That is the feeling Mark’s church had to hear about Jesus healing a Gentile, one of them. In ministry as well as medicine, we have known what makes for health. Look what others gave us, no strings, no mortgage. It is time for us to do our part.
In the third place, these two healing accounts force upon us a therapeutic way of viewing the world. Staying again simply with the main thrust of these ancient readings, it is scarcely possible to hear Mark 7:24 and discount your own health. Health mattered enough for Jesus to break the barriers of religion and safety. Health has thus been central to the church’s ministry, and central to our city’s history. Which means this: your health matters. I suppose I could dress it up a little bit and make the interpretation a little more theologically obscure: “your personal and physical well-being are valued in this dominical periscope that defines the Markan presentation of the Christ”. Or, just, your health matters.
You were made in the image of health. You deserve health. You were created for health. You ought to have health. You need health. Your health matters.
The word salvation is a Latin root term, coming up from the noun “salvus”, which means, yes, health.
You will not expect, I know, that any interpretation of this Gospel can finally answer all of our questions about illness. We surely understand that the roots of disease are transgenerational, multicultural, and finally mysterious to a vast degree. Our Scriptures from the ancient world both veil and reveal insights about health. We can be more than joyful that our medical science is not that of first century Palestine. There is no way to explain why illness befalls saints and good health sinners. There is no way to understand the times and seasons for such episodes. You might as well blow against the wind, or stand on the shore and command the tide to turn.
And finally, the Lakeside Healer is the one who embraces us when, as is finally true for all, merely physical healing ceases.
But our gospel today makes a simpler and earlier affirmation. Your health matters. To God. To Christ Jesus. To the Spirit of Love. To those around you. To the mission of the church. You are meant for health! So, as you have breath and power: seek it, desire it, prepare for it, look for it, work toward, invest in it, share it, respect it, love it! How?
Spiritual health depends upon worship and prayer.
Fiscal health depends upon industry, frugality and tithing.
Relational health depends upon discipline, listening and awareness.
Physical health depends upon diet an exercise.
Psychological health depends upon friendship and rest.
Communal health depends upon justice and peace.
Professional health depends upon communication.
Sexual health depends upon commitment and fidelity and openness.
Religious health depends upon humility and honesty.
I was truly touched this summer to read my former teacher Elaine Pagel’s book Beyond Belief. Her reflections begin with the illness and then the death of her younger child. Midway through her review of the Second Century church, she makes a simple observation about those who came to Christ in this period. A great many, she notes, came because they were hurting, or ill. They heard in the preaching of the Gospel a healing word. And they responded quickly. Others, she also notes, came more gradually, not out of immediate need, but with a thirst for ‘living water’. Yet both earnestly desired health.
We have affirmed the healthy lake setting of our region. First, we have heard the Gospel of Jesus who heals. Second, we have recalled our healthy tradition of medicine and ministry. Third, we have accepted that God loves us and that our health matters. There will be, on the minds of many, perhaps on your own, a thought now of a decision to be made, a choice to be entertained. The choice will be as varied as the congregation of several hundred here. It will be a choice as simple as leaving tobacco, or alchohol, or other addiction. As routine as a physical exam, a check up, a procedure. As challenging as a selection of care givers, providers, settings. As complex as a review of technical alternatives. Or, as sobering as the readiness to face the end of choices and the acceptance of God’s embrace that is Eternal Health itself. To this choice, now, in a moment of silence, I invite you today.