February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
The Rev. Canon Donna G. Joy
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21C; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
N.T. Wright tells the story of a great disaster at sea – probably around the turn of this century - in which a tourist boat, loaded with cars – many driven by people on holiday – had failed to shut its doors properly. Because of this, water began to pour in, the boat began to sink, and people very quickly began to panic. A trip across the water which began as an exciting tourist experience quickly disintegrated into a terrifying event.
But suddenly, a man from among the tourists took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do; leading them to safety. And once people recognized that someone was taking charge, many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed. Furthermore, the man himself made his way down to the people trapped in the hold, where he formed a human bridge: holding on with one hand to a ladder and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned.
The point that N.T. Wright is making in telling this story, is that this is the type of scene that we find in this morning’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. Finally, after centuries of human turmoil, tragedy, and despair, Jesus has arrived, acting and speaking with the voice of God’s authority. Fast forwarding to the cross, and Jesus lays down his life so that humanity might be led through the storms that continue to rage, from one generation to the next.
This scene in Mark’s gospel portrays a storm is raging; that is, the storm of a Roman occupation which was oppressively hierarchical with vast societal inequalities, economic exploitation, and severe political injustices. The hierarchy included several layers of ruling elites with varying degrees of wealth, power, and status (perhaps 2 to 4 percent of the population), and a middle group with some resources to enjoy a comfortable way of life (perhaps 7 to 17 percent).
So, as you can see, the wealth and the power rested in the hands of a very few. Those who were poor lived in varying degrees of unhealthy, intolerable conditions and would be identified as 80-90 percent of the population. This 80-90 percent were vulnerable to numerous forces that could severely impact their livelihoods: work availability, variable harvest yields, high prices, profiteering, war, irregular food and water supply, low wages, unsanitary and crowded living conditions, housing costs, taxes, rents, natural disasters, and so forth. In this imperial system, control of and access to good quantities of nutritionally adequate food reflected societal power and inequities. Food was a sign of elite, conspicuous consumption and power and, as we know, a consequence of inadequate nutrition is disease. Poor nutrition results in lowered immunity and renders people more vulnerable to infectious and often life threatening diseases. It is not surprising then, that Mark’s story this morning is full of people who are sick and going to Jesus for healing; the whole city was gathered around the door! Indeed, a storm is raging.
I think one of the key lines in this reading comes from Simon, who says to Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.” People have heard of this Messiah who acts and speaks with authority; this Messiah who offers healing and hope in the midst of despair – in the midst of this raging storm - and they are searching to find him.
The presence of so many sick people attests to the destructive impact of Roman power. Numerous imperial sources claim that the R.E. was making the world healthy; Augustus had, apparently, launched a “golden age” marked by health & abundant fertility. But decades later when Mark’s gospel was written, the “golden age” had still not dawned. The gospel interprets Jesus’ healing actions as manifestations and anticipations of God’s new world, marked by God’s life-giving purposes, fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus’ healings repair the damage inflicted by imperial structures and systems.
But these healings are not simply about individual healings. Often this is how such stories are interpreted, which creates tension and confusion when our own illnesses, or those of the people we love, are not cured; or when the demons that haunt us (and we all have them) are not miraculously removed. But this interpretation is too simplistic. These healings have a much deeper meaning. Passages such as this envision the establishment of God’s reign/empire that confronts the societal ills that create such trauma in people’s lives. These stories of healing align with other Jewish texts that envision a new age under God’s reign that transforms the inequities and injustices.
Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah this morning takes place during the Babylonian captivity. God’s people are slaves in a foreign land, and Yahweh reminds them that he is creator of all the world, an everlasting God who gives strength to the powerless, a God who always understands the storms of this life; a God who, “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”. Our Psalm emphatically makes the point that God is gracious, one who rebuilds that which is broken, who gatherers the world’s outcasts, who mends the broken hearts, heals our sorrows; God is one who cares for the downtrodden. God is one who bears and transforms the ruptures in our souls and in the world.
So, this story of Jesus healing those with demons, and those who are sick, is the fulfillment of this vision. Jesus’ healings display God’s reign/empire in the midst of Rome’s empire. His healings serve as signs or displays that embody God’s transforming reign/empire in the present moment; not the fullness of God’s reign yet, but anticipate this coming future.
All of this leads us to the questions: what are the storms raging within and around us at this moment in time? I subscribe to Sojourners magazine which publishes monthly editorials and articles on such topics as Christianity and politics, the church and social issues. This week I received the February edition of this magazine, and as I was reading through it I was reminded of some of the serious struggles of our time which are symptomatic of deeper injustices. While this magazine is published in the U.S., many of the concerns can also be identified north of the border.
Increasingly, what many would define as a political storm in the U.S., along with the constant, non-stop, inundation of news through social media. The consequences of all this are numerous. Among them is increased anxiety, hopelessness, despair. This is a very real concern. Also, there exists increased tension within Christianity between those who uncritically support these politics, and those who believe it is time to resist. Increasingly, the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his efforts to resist the Hitler regime is resurfacing as a challenge to Christians today.
And beyond that particular political regime, on a much larger cultural scale, we are reminded that sexual violence and harassment has been and all-too-often continues to be systemic. According to many, this is normalized by individuals who hold high positions of power in organizations from the arts, to government and everything in between. This is a painful symptom of systems embedded with people abusing positions of power. It has, believe it or not, even been known to exist within the church.
In addition, we hear of neighbourhoods that are demolishing people’s homes only to build condos and Starbucks, so that those who were living in those now demolished homes cannot afford to live anywhere else. Addictions such a fentanyl, heroin, and crystal meth have reached epidemic proportions, allowing people to numb the pain of sexual identity and orientation, poverty, hopelessness, mental illness. Small neighbourhood businesses close – people’s livelihoods – as we increasingly order our books and clothes and whatever else on line. Environmental concerns are raised: far too many to mention.
These are just some of the storms that are raging in our time, and those of us here today, we come here searching for Jesus to receive healing, and comfort. And like that man on that boat full of tourists, Jesus comes to us, and acts and speaks with authority. He has laid down his life so that a new day of hope for a better world may begin.
To those paying attention to the deeper rot underlying certain political injustices, he says that through his Spirit working in and through us, the world may find hope and comfort as we, in whatever small or large ways, resist such politics. We resist it because it runs contrary to way Jesus loves us, and contrary to the way in which we are called to love others.
To anyone who suffers sexual harassment and/or abuse, or any kind of abuse, Jesus speaks through men and women who help to name it, address it, and insist that it not be tolerated. Here in Winnipeg, as more and more people experience homelessness because of the increased cost of housing, Jesus offers healing through such Christian communities as St. Matthew’s, whose transformation turned that enormous church into affordable housing. As drug addictions reach epidemic proportions Jesus speaks and acts through those who work tirelessly to challenge systems so that more and better equipped rehab facilities may be established; Jesus speaks and acts with authority through wise counsellors who help addicts discover the roots of their addictions. As small businesses continue to close, Jesus speaks and acts through those who speak up and name the importance of buying local.
And so it goes, with environmental, health care, and so many concerns, too numerous to mention. (Here in Canada, our relationship with Indigenous people; the ongoing important work with Truth and Reconciliation…) All this, and more, is what we carry with us today as we join with those who gathered to search for Jesus in Mark’s story. These are the concerns, deeply embedded in our politics and our lifestyles. And, of course, we come here today with our own personal challenges; our own personal storms raging. We, who search for Jesus in this place, we discover him in each other, our readings, and prayers spoken and sung, and in this meal where Jesus is both the food and the host.
Through all this we are reminded that on the cross Jesus completed the healing work he began on the day that Mark refers to in our reading this morning. Jesus spoke and acted with authority that day; he speaks and acts with authority today; and we, in turn, are called to speak and act with this same authority: serving as channels through which this healing and comfort may be made known to a broken world.
Amen. Let it be so.