Whenever I read the healing stories in scripture, I often think back to my time as a hospital chaplain many years ago. You can’t help but hear and see healing stories in the hospital. I heard and I saw people who were healed, cured, made well, prescribed medication, sent home. There were some joyous moments in the hospital, but there were also some painful ones. For every few patients that got better, there was one that didn’t. For every few healing stories, there was a story of sadness and loss, a heart-breaking reminder that sometimes we don’t get better; sometimes we aren’t made well. Those are the stories I remember the most clearly from my time as a hospital chaplain. I also vividly remember the long nights on-call, when I would stay overnight at the hospital, responding to whatever needs the patients had. It was usually during those long nights that patients would request to speak to a chaplain. You see, after the busyness of the hospital day, the hospital night can be very quiet. There are no diversions, no distractions to keep you from thinking and wondering and asking questions. The hospital was full of lonely and isolated patients who would tell me about their fears, and their aloneness, and about their need to just talk to somebody to make things seem normal again. Each patient was searching for something, a sense of normalcy, or a moment of companionship, or a prayer for wellness, or some reassurance that they aren’t defined by their illness.
In my mind there’s a pretty clear connection between the crowds of hospital patients and the crowds of people who came to see Jesus. Our New Testament reading for this morning tells us that everyone was searching for him, and that’s not all that surprising. The crowds of people who came to see Jesus were searching for something. They were demon-possessed. They were lepers. They were fever-stricken. They were sick, and frail, and ill. They were diseased and unclean. They came to him because they were broken, and in need of wholeness. They came because they were damaged goods. They came because they had been told that their illness was punishment for their sins, that some god had afflicted them due to their own choices and failures. This was a very common view of illness during the time of Jesus. So, they came to him, knowing deep down that something was not right with them, searching for rightness, healing, and forgiveness. Jesus, somehow, gives each and every one of them exactly what they need.
When he and his disciples leave the synagogue that day, it is to visit Simon’s mother-in-law. She is stricken with a fever, which was the tell-tale sign of a disease that was liable to kill her. Jesus gets to the house and she’s still alive, this ill and unclean woman. She’s diseased and dying, and everyone there knows that you’d have to be crazy to touch her or anyone else who is diseased or dying. Yet Jesus stands right next to her bed! He reaches out and takes her hand! He lifts her up, and suddenly the fever is gone. The fiery heat of disease departs. And in an instant, she resumes her relationship with those assembled in her home: she serves them as someone who has been made well.
After this, of course, word about Jesus spreads quickly. Throughout the afternoon they search for him. They are demon-possessed. They are diseased. They are outcasts. They are unclean. They follow him with wonder and hope. They approach him, and he reaches out. They look into his face, and he touches them. They are made clean. They are made well. It’s no wonder that this caused such a stir wherever Jesus went. The religious leaders of the day taught that God, who is holy, expects us to be holy as well, and holiness means being separate from the riff-raff, the outcasts, the poor, and the unclean of the world. Being holy means maintaining a higher standard, living up to the letter of the law, separating oneself from the uncleanness of life through righteous living. But Jesus turns all of that upside-down. As he touches, and blesses, and heals, Jesus is sending a message. Jesus is teaching that being holy doesn’t mean being separate; it means being in relationship with the riff-raff, the outcasts, the poor, and the unclean. It means loving them, healing them, touching them, making them whole. It means that God, who is holy, is not apart from the world. God is in it! God is here with us!
And the crowds keep coming. There’s a beautiful image in this scripture reading when the sick and needy come to Jesus at sundown, in the cool of the evening, after Sabbath. It a bit like all those night-time hospital patients who reach out to the chaplain with their fears, and their loneliness, and their isolation. And they all come to gather around Jesus, knowing that the answer to their fear or loneliness or isolation is right here. And I love that image because that’s the church. That image is an image of what church is—the place where human need, whatever it is, encounters Jesus Christ, the place where the human search, the quest for happiness, fulfillment, wholeness, and salvation, ultimately leads.
I have a pastor friend who once said that every Sunday when he looks out over the church parking lot, he doesn’t see cars. He doesn’t see trucks, or minivans, or SUVs either. He told me that he sees a parking lot full of ambulances. The truth is that people come to church because they need to. You come here when you’re broken and you’re looking for wholeness. You come here when you’ve fallen short and you need to know that you’re forgiven. You come here when you feel worthless, and you need to hear that in God’s eyes you’re worth more than you know. You come here when you’re poor in spirit. You come here when you’re mourning. You come here when you’re hopeless and powerless. And you come here because you know that the answer to your fear, and your brokenness, and your isolation is in Jesus Christ. You come here because you’ve heard the message, the promise that to anyone in crisis, to anyone who is in need of healing and wholeness, to anyone whom the world calls a reject, Jesus says, “I am with you, right beside you, and the kingdom that I bring is especially for you.”
Sometimes that message rings out loud and clear in our communities of faith. Sometimes it doesn’t. Several months ago I remember reading a story about a church that removed a young boy with cerebral palsy from their worship service because he was making noise. It was a horrifying testament to our tendency exclude or avoid people who are unwell, people who make us cringe, people who make us uncomfortable. We sometimes tend to push out and keep out and isolate the very kind of people who would have been among those crowding around Jesus as he went from place to place. I’d like to think that most churches wouldn’t turn away or remove anyone who seems more broken than the rest of us. The truth is that our collective brokenness, and the answer to it, is what keeps us coming here week after week after week.
What Jesus did was something different. He taught that God is here in the world, right where we are, right here with us. He showed that true healing and wholeness and rightness takes place in community. I like to imagine those crowds of people who heard about Jesus and came to see him. I like to imagine those unclean, unwanted, unloved, unhealthy, un-chosen people traveling for days to get to where Jesus is, and then finally the moment their hopes have led them toward happens. They get close to him, close enough for him to reach out and touch them, close enough to see him face to face. And then their lives are changed forever. Suddenly they are no longer outcast, no longer despised, no longer seen as unclean, or sinful, or diseased. Suddenly they aren’t asked to leave wherever it is that they show up, and they aren’t avoided like the plague, and they aren’t treated like something less than human. Suddenly, they are a part of a community again. They stand in a crowd of people and know that they belong there. Their fellowship with others has been restored. Instead of being isolated, they are part of community again. If there’s one thing that this text teaches us, it is that Jesus heals the demon-possessed, the fever-stricken, the man, the woman, the insider, the outsider, on and on and on he heals, and he loves, and he forgives all sorts of people. The end result is a gathered community of all sorts of people, all of whom know that they were broken but now have been restored. They are a family of seekers who have found what they’ve been looking for! That sounds a lot like the church, doesn’t it?
I think that in a very real way, every healing story in the Bible is a story about us. Sure, a lot has changed in the two-thousand years since the stories were written, but we see ourselves in passages like this one if we look closely. We all know and feel deep down that something is not quite right with us. We come as broken people who see and feel our own brokenness every day. We come as people who lie awake at night with feverish concerns over employment, or health, or relationships. We come as people who wrestle with demons, though we call them by different names now, names like addiction, autism, cerebral palsy, aids, and depression. The names are all different, but the message is still the same. Jesus touches the suffering and says, “rise”. He reaches out to the outcast and says, “welcome”. He speaks to the sinner and says, “forgiven”. That’s the message that we cling to so tightly. That’s the good news that we seek and at last find. It’s the promise that the healer has come to us, the one who touches those who suffer, the one who welcomes into the kingdom all those on the outside looking in: the lonely, the isolated, the unloved, the unwanted, the un-chosen, you and me when we are quarantined for whatever reason, when we’re worried, or afraid, or anxious, or guilty, or sick in body and soul. He reaches out and touches us!
The good news is that the healer has come. His name is Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.