Jesus in the Margins

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | February 7, 2021

Mark 1: 29-39

Years ago, when I was interviewing for the role of minister at St. James’ Parish Church in Glasgow, one of the questions they asked me was this: “If a 16-year-old unwed mother came to you and asked you to Baptize her baby, what would you say?” 

I said, “In the worship service when I baptized that baby, I would say to the congregation, ‘who will stand up for this mother and her child?’”

That was the right answer. I said it not because I thought it was what they wanted to hear, but because it’s what I believe. When I was a little kid one of the first songs I learned in Sunday school was the hymn that began with the line – “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

When the Bible tells us things such as, “God is love,” or “Without love I am nothing,” or “The greatest of these is love,” we can take it at face value. Nowhere in the Bible will you read something that says, “God loves you, but…” or “God loves you, except…” or “God loves you, if only…” 

Of course, there are a lot of rules and regulations laid out in the Bible; more than enough to satisfy the most the ardent fundamentalist of our time. There are rules about every aspect of life and a lot of them had pretty harsh penalties if you broke them. Religious extremism is not new. You can look at the most harsh and strict and punitive religious systems of our time, whatever religion it might be and there are parallels in the Bible. 

The challenge in these rules is to determine where they came from. Were they the creation of human culture or where they the creation of God? 

Our readings today illustrate the challenge of finding the balance between structure and spirit. We practice a religion for many reasons, one of which is that it gives meaning to our lives. We want what we do in and through this place and this community of faith with each other to enhance our lives. 

Jesus lived in a law and order culture. Life was governed by written codes and underlying expectations. Religion was at the heart of Jewish culture and Jewish culture was under the thumb of the Roman Empire. It’s how it was and how things were done. 

The people who had a stake in keeping religion under their control would say to Jesus, “You can’t do that – you can’t say that!” It’s against the rules.

The people who stood to be liberated and set free were amazed at what he said and did. 

He came into a village and healed a woman. On the surface the story of Jesus healing a woman who was ill with a fever is simple and straightforward. He was visiting in the home of his friend Peter and Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. Jesus took her by the hand, and she became well again. That’s the sort of thing he did all the time. When it comes to stories about Jesus, there’s always more going on underneath. 

One of the problems I face in telling a story about Jesus healing someone is that in life as we know it, things usually don’t happen that way. Jesus doesn’t show up just in the nick of time and heal somebody. I’ve seen many occasions when folks have cause to wonder where Jesus was when they needed him. Where was Jesus, not just when people were dying, but when they were living; living lives that craved a kind and healing touch? 

One thing that people in ancient days believed about illness was that it had a moral value. They didn’t know about germs and microbes and viruses. They did know that sometimes if you came into contact with someone who was ill, you could catch it yourself. But if you were ill, the general belief was that you must have done something to deserve it. 

They lived in a cause and effect world. If something bad happened, like getting sick, then there must be a good reason for it. God wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people, so illness, they thought, was a form of God’s judgement. Even if you were outwardly a good person, there must be something you were hiding that only God knew about. And if you sick, it wasn’t enough that you felt sick; if you were sick, then you were unclean. 

If you were unclean it was more than that you didn’t wash your hands or neglect your personal hygiene. The physical symptoms of your illness were the signs of an inward dis-ease. Along those lines it naturally follows that to be in close proximity to you posed the danger of catching your moral dirt. So, you would also be untouchable. 

Every society has reasons for placing people at the margins. And there are always people at the margins of every society. That’s how it was in Jesus’ time. When he saw that Peter’s mother-in-law was ill he took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her, and it says, “She served them.”

This is where Jesus broke the rules: he took her by the hand. In taking her hand he made the human bond that showed she was not unclean. She had never been unclean. That sort of thing was all about making sure that there were enough scapegoats around so that people could have someone to blame. And when people have someone else to blame, they can avoid the spotlight into our own heart and soul. 

I shouldn’t say they because we and every society seems to require scapegoats. The scapegoat is the one upon whom we place all the evils of our time and he, she or they serve as the punching bag as punishment for society’s ills. In saying, 

What Jesus did when he saw Peter’s mother-in-law was, he lifted her up: The phrase lifted her up is the same word used for resurrection. He didn’t just give her a boost; he raised her up to new life. 

She served them. It doesn’t say anything about putting food on the table. It says that the response the experience of resurrection and life is discipleship. He raised people to a new kind of existence. Everyone he ever healed eventually died, but what he did was to demonstrate the presence of God in all of life. 

Once word got out that Jesus was pulling people in from the margins, they clamored for what he had to give. The whole city was at his front door saying, “Restore me.” So, he healed people. He cast out more demons. He wouldn’t let them speak, as if to say, “I don’t want to hear it. You have no voice in God’s affairs, so zip it.” 

The disciples could see where this was going. Jesus was a walking health clinic. They could set up shop and people would stream in by the thousands. This discipleship gig was going to be a breeze. But when they got up the next morning, Jesus had already left. He had gone out before sunrise to get some quiet time. 

They found him and said, “What are you doing out here? Everyone’s looking for you. Come on now, you’ve got a ministry to pursue.” But he said, “Let’s hit the road. I’m not in this to build a hospital or a cathedral. I have a message to share.” As if to say, let’s not institutionalize it, but take in on the road where the people are. As soon as we put a building around it, there will be those on the inside and those on the outside. 

If you’ve ever been pushed off to the side of your world, to be told in some way that you are not worthy, that you should be ashamed of yourself, or made to feel through some unfortunate experience, that you are no good, then you know what it feels like to be marginalized. 

If you’ve ever been laid off, gone through a divorce, struggled financially, dealt with mental health issues, or in some way taken on a label not of your own choosing, then you know what it feels like to be marginalized. Invisible, ignored.

When I lived near Tamarack in the early 1980’s I volunteered at the Mash Ka Wisen American Indian treatment center near Sawyer. Mash Ka Wisen means “Be strong and accept help.” Mostly what I did was listen to clients tell their fifth step stories. 

There was a fellow there named Jim who told the story of how he became a Christian and was involved in a church. He found that going to church helped with his recovery. One time he started drinking again and he went to the pastor for help. The pastor told him he had to stop praying to God in his native Ojibwe language. He felt like he could no longer be a Christian if that were the case. 

I asked Jim to pray with me. I said I would pray for him in English and asked if he would pray for me in Ojibwe. And so we did. At the end of it all he had tears running down his face. He found resurrection and life simply by speaking to God in his native tongue. 

One thing that keeps me going in ministry is the hope that Jesus Christ is still in about the task of healing people; of raising them up to new life. I believe he is, and I believe that wherever people find themselves in the margins of life or marginalized by others, that Jesus is there too. That’s where he started and it’s where he goes today. He reaches out through us. Our hands are also his hands. Amen.

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