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Lifted Up for Service

Carolyn Thompson M.Div
Sun, Feb 05

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Lessons: Mark 1: 29-39

In this account where Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law there is no mention of his speaking any special words or doing anything more dramatic than simply taking her by the hand. Two weeks ago Ute Molitor talked to us about a taste for grace and peace, the taste for freedom, the taste of community and wellbeing. Later this morning we will share the taste of Communion.

In today’s gospel we have an example of God’s love expressed by one hand touching another.  Taste and touch, two common physical ways for God’s healing presence to be experienced. God knows that we humans need this incarnate presence of Jesus in order to trust in his love. There is a lot going on in these ten verses from Mark: a woman is healed, she takes up her role of service, and Jesus’ ministry moves on.

Let us begin by reflecting on the healing.  Jesus simply “took the woman by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she got up...”  She felt whole again, renewed. Her vitality was restored. She rose and went about her tasks.

We do not always know why we feel under the weather, why we are sometimes able to fight off an infection and other times it gets the better of us. But we know when we have been revived. And the individuals, like this woman, who experienced Jesus’ healing touch knew when they had been made well. Touch signifies relationship; it can bestow a sense of comfort and peace, as well as intimacy and vulnerability. In this story healing is accomplished through gentle, tender touch, yet what a powerful gesture it is.

Let me tell you about a contemporary healer who sheds some light on how important touch can be.   Maybe some of you have read the fascinating novel, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (ver-GEESE)¹.  It was on the Best Seller list much of last year. The author is a marvelous storyteller with a degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is also a physician.

Abraham Verghese acquired his early medical training in Ethiopia and India, then specialized in infectious diseases here in Boston. He worked with AIDS patients in rural Tennessee in the mid 80’s, and then helped establish the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the Health Science Center in San Antonio. Today he is professor and senior associate chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford U.  He is hoping to reshape the way medicine is currently practiced in the United States.

Some of us can remember a time not so long ago when the doctor’s senses  -- hearing , vision, touch and even smell and taste – as well as skill at taking a patient’s history were the anchors of the diagnostic tool kit².  With the rise in advanced imaging techniques such as ultrasound, CT and MRI scanning, and echocardiograms in the 1970’s, the patient’s history and doing the physical exam have become less and less important.

The results of all these scans, tests, surgeries, drug reactions, and consultations get plugged into a computer record that constitutes what Dr. Verghese calls the “iPatient.” He says that this iPatient threatens to become the focus of attention while the real patient in the bed is neglected and treated as a mere place holder for the iPatient who resides in the computer³.  Verghese is on a mission to revive the importance and skills for doing a basic physical examination of the patient.

Dr. Verghese says that in his experience, being skilled at examining the body has a beneficial effect beyond finding important clues that lead to an early diagnosis. This physical contact – the laying on of hands – has therapeutic benefit that is both physical and psychological4.  There are intangible aspects to this ritual of the bedside exam.

When viewed as ritual, it is a reenactment of a healing scene that has played out through recorded history: one individual with expertise and authority attempts to relieve the suffering of another. A careful exam invokes the mythic rites of priest and confessant, of saint and disciple, of healer and sufferer. At the end of this ritual, physician and patient are no longer strangers but are bonded through touch.  That bond moves the patient toward healing – not just of the body, but of the psychic wound that accompanies physical illness5.

Rituals are about transformation, the crossing of a threshold. Dr. Verghese says that in the case of the bedside exam, the transformation is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship and it conveys an important message to the patient6. The message is this:  “I will see you through this illness, through thick and thin; I will never abandon you, I will be with you to the end.”

Are these words not similar to the message Jesus gave to his disciples and to us today?  You are not alone. I will be with you regardless of what happens.  I will be with you to the end of time.

I am not trying to say that we have no need of medically trained physicians, nor am I presuming that Jesus had specific training as a physician.  But the gospel story today and the experience of Dr. Verghese both testify to the power that attentive, loving presence and touch can have in bringing about healing.

Now, let’s look at what happened next during that evening at Simon’s house.  When the mother-in-law had recovered from the fever, she resumed her role and began to serve them. She had been made whole and restored her to her rightful place in the household.

We know that the first Christians regularly met in house churches where women played an important role in welcoming and feeding the guests. More than one scholar has referred to Simon’s mother-in-law as the first “deacon” in the church. “She is the first active witness to what a resurrected life in Jesus looks like.  Touched and healed by Jesus, she becomes a minister of healing herself.

What about the end of this story? We read that later that evening a crowd gathered around the door and Jesus healed many people of various afflictions.  But “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’"

(Remember, these new disciples had only been with him for a few days and still had much to learn. They did not yet realize that Jesus would frequently withdraw to a quiet place away from the crowds.) He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."

Wait a minute! What’s going on?  Why didn’t Jesus stick around to heal the others who had come to see him?  This may be puzzling to us; it certainly caused his companions a lot of consternation.  Why didn’t he heal everyone?  He was on a roll. The news had traveled quickly and many had come to meet this amazing man. It was obvious that the people needed him. He could have set up a clinic right there and spent the next fifty years curing all sorts of diseases and impairments.

I wonder if there was even the temptation to stick with a routine that was working, that was successful instead of pressing on. Tuesdays might be set aside for people who were blind, Wednesday’s for people possessed by demons, Thursday’s for people who were crippled or paralyzed. You get the picture.

For many people, life with disability raises troubling questions:  Why did this happen to me, to our family? Why doesn’t God cure me?  Is it because a person’s faith is not strong enough?  Did I do something to deserve this?

There are many accounts of individuals being healed of various ailments through their encounters with Jesus.  Some came to him on their own; some were brought to him, and some he just met along the way. The healing also restored people to their rightful place in the community. Sometimes it seemed like the crowd just could not comprehend the forgiveness and peace of Jesus’ blessing without a physical sign of his power.

Today, in a like manner, the focus of these stories is frequently placed on the mending of bodies rather than souls. We also get caught up in thinking that our relationship with God is all about rewards and punishments.  I believe that God is more about forgiveness and generosity.  Let’s look again at what can really happen when there is healing.

Healing puts meaning back into life whether the person’s physical condition improves or remains the same. I believe that healing is more about creating wholeness than about fixing or correcting some functional limitation. What does it mean to become “whole?”  Perhaps this personal anecdote can shed some light on the subject.

About 20 years ago I had just moved to Washington, D.C.  Having visited the area only once, I was very excited about now having time to really explore the city and all its museums. I had a job but not many other responsibilities, and I was planning lots of weekend trips to nearby historic places like Harper’s Ferry and Williamsburg. However, the first week I was there, I went out for an early morning walk and slipped on a steep embankment. Both bones in my right leg snapped just above the ankle and had to be pinned back together.

After a few days in the hospital my new friends set me up temporarily in the accessible apartment in the conference center where I would be working. But how could I go anywhere? I could not drive my car. There was no laundry in the building. I knew only a few people.  I felt stranded.  I was angry at my leg and blamed it for letting me down.

Eventually, I realized that my leg was not at fault; it had not intentionally sabotaged my plans. This leg was just as much a part of me as my other limbs. The whole of my life included this part that was no longer functioning the way I had expected it to, and it needed my care and attention as much as any other component of my body. I would have to adjust my plans.

I know of other individuals who have become angry at a body part that no longer functions as it once did, of families who become irritated at a relative who has become ill or disabled and can no longer perform particular tasks; I know of people in work places and even churches who have become resentful toward a co-worker or minister who is requesting accommodations for a disability.

Healing and wholeness may be needed on several different levels, and it happens when all the parts of our individual and corporate lives that have been left out, neglected, or excluded are brought together in love. To become whole, all the parts that have become estranged need to be reclaimed. The challenge is to reconcile the disparate parts, to welcome even the least significant or least capable one, and know that it is all holy and acceptable before God.

Healing and wholeness happen when we bring together all the different pieces of the puzzle so the picture can be complete.  This task of integration is challenging work; it is an ongoing process of recovery, both for the individual person and for the church as we try to create a place where everyone can participate and feel that he or she belongs.

Jesus went on to other cities and towns to spread the good news of God’s redemptive love, but he also taught the disciples how to do his work and bring healing to people’s lives. We also have this task. What are the ways we each experience Jesus’ healing presence in our lives, and how do we share this with others?

Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) When Jesus raises us up from low places, he sets us free to serve those around us. It is God’s desire for us to rise up from the lethargy that has stolen our vitality. Then the question is, what are we going to do with this new vitality?  We are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We are each to serve as instruments of healing, and help raise others to new life.

¹Verghese, Abraham, Cutting for Stone (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2009)

² Richter, Ruthann,  “The Healing Hand: Putting the physical back in the physical exam,” Stanford Medical Magazine, Summer 2010

³Verghese, Abraham, “Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan,” New York Times, 27 February 2011, Opinion article.

4Richter,…,  “The Healing Hand: …, ” Stanford Medical Magazine, Summer 2010

5Verghese, Abraham, “A Touch of Sense,” Health Affairs, 28, no. 4, (2009) pp. 1177-82.

6Verghese,…,  “Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan” New York Times, 27 February 2011, Opinion article.

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