This week I found myself immersed in my favourite collection of short stories by Kentucky-based poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry. It’s a collection I return to time and again because I love it so much. But it wasn’t till this week, while re-reading “Fidelity,” the fourth story in that collection, that I heard such deep resonances with today’s gospel.
“Fidelity” is a story of dislocation and homecoming in the midst of a clash of cultures. It’s the story of a rural farming family whose patriarch, at 80 years of age finds himself in increasingly ill-health. One day, they discover Uncle Burley lying in a field nearly on death’s door. What can they do, the family wonders, but take him to the hospital in a far away city to receive treatment? What can they do but place him at the mercy of the experts? There seems no other option. And so, this is what they do.
But what they discover in Louisville is more than they bargained for, and less than they hoped. They come face to face with an understanding of health and wholeness divorced from community, family and relationship. At the core of this story is the notion that health is more than how well your body and mind work. In short, health is membership. In a family. In a community. In a way of life. But here, in a mechanical room awash in harsh light, surrounded by tubes and machinery, these most vital elements of their Uncle’s health are stripped away. Berry writes of the old man’s family as they enter the hospital:
“They were brought back as if by mere habit into the presence of a life that had once included them, and now did not, for it was a life that, so far as they could see, no longer included even itself. And so they stood around the image on the bed and waited for whatever completion would let them go.”
For Berry, powerlessness, dislocation, and disorientation emerge when we’re divorced from our relationships. Health is about more than the body and mind. Our health is as fundamentally connected to our social being as it is to how well our bodies work.
This week, it was this story I had ringing in my ears as I read and re-read our passage from Mark’s gospel, a passage that immediately immerses us in the urgency of a similar cultural clash. Mark’s loaded prose draws stark contrasts between the kingdom Jesus imagines, and the one arbitrated by the imperial powers and the religious elite.
“As soon as they left the synagogue,” the gospel reads, “they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.” The contrast is made clear in these opening words. The synagogue, its practices and economics are at odds with the household economy. And Mark makes it clear which one Jesus favours.
Throughout his gospel, Mark portrays the household as a positive, safe space for the community of Jesus-followers. The home is where Jesus attends to the crowds and offers vulnerable instruction in the way of discipleship. The home is a space where Jesus offers much of his healing. The home is off the grid, so to speak. It’s outside of the power and control of the religious establishment. Instead, the home is a site of deep relationships that offer followers of Jesus – like those in this gospel, and like those of us here tonight –a place to grow in fidelity to God, to one another, and the world God loves.
And so, when we meet Simon’s mother-in-law, a lot has already happened. Jesus has left the synagogue where he just shushed a demon on the Sabbath, before escaping the crowds. And now in Simon’s wife’s childhood home the text suggests that she is healed, and somehow reincorporated back into her community.
Jesus heals her, she gets up, and is suddenly off to the kitchen making Latkes for her son-in-law and his friends. Which is good, because the whole famished city is about to arrive at her door. The text does not tell us whether Jesus and his merry men handed out hot chocolate to the line snaking itself around the block, but I like to imagine that for Jesus, food was part of the healing.
And it’s here, in this home that Jesus continues to heal those who had been excluded from their place of worship and their community community because they were considered impure, diseased or possessed. Jesus’ ministry is one of healing, of restoration, and of reconciliation. Yet all too often, our modern ears get hung up on the “magic” of the cure. Did he cure them? Did he not?
The story itself never really says. Mark is far too concerned with the social and economic ramifications of the healing to fixate, in a way modern readers tend to do, on whether or not a particular biomedical event has taken place.
To fixate on this is to anaesthetize our imaginations. It is to miss the audacity of what Jesus is up to. Which is this:
In the face of the well-guarded social barriers of the time – norms that made clear delineations between clean and unclean, worthy and unworthy, saint and sinner, Jesus welcomed one and all.
By healing the sick, the diseased, and the demon-possessed, he restored them into the community, rather than kicking them to the curb as the religious authorities were wont to do.
Jesus healed individuals that they might be restored to the beloved community, and invited them to follow a God whose kingdom, as we might recall, has drawn near.
He kicked at the darkness of the shame system that would scapegoat anyone judged to be unclean. Instead, he offered healing, restoration, and reconciliation that would make whole those who came to him in their brokenness and vulnerability. People like you. People like me.
Jesus’ healing creates space for those the religious authorities cast out. Those considered to be of no use, no worth. With the whole city at the door, Jesus offers wholeness, community, and a role in God’s kingdom to one and all.
The revolutionary miracle of Jesus’ act of healing not only offers health to individuals, but also offers social health and wholeness. And it does so without the official sanction of the synagogue the government, or any earthly authority. Jesus offers healing steering clear of the centres of power and significance.
We even see it at the end of today’s Gospel, as Jesus heads into the wilderness, taking his ministry to rural towns and villages. Jerusalem and Vancouver are not yet on his radar yet. Instead, he’s got his sights set on a place like Ladner.
And each time Jesus offers restoration and healing, he also offers an invitation. An invitation into a wholehearted life free from shame. An invitation into a community where all can share their gifts, where we can all see one another, and be seen for who we truly are.
The healing Jesus offers is an invitation to the journey. With the beloved community. To bear God’s image free from the shame and oppression so often doled out in this world.
And this is an invitation extended to each of us. To you, and even to me. For our own healing, for the integrity and restoration of our communities, and for the healing of the nations.
And so tonight, I offer this question to continue our shared reflection:
What might it look like, or what might it take for us to continue to grow as a healthy, flourishing, God-bearing community in this world?