Let’s begin with the third reading from Mark. This reading is part of Mark’s emphasis on healing ministry in this church. A couple of things might be said about the ancient congregation responsible for Mark. It was an urban congregation in a large city in the Roman Empire, perhaps Rome itself. Life is intense and fast. Things happen immediately. First century urban life was brutal, with intense crowding, high crime rates, no sanitation, constant fear of fire, and the dread of plague. There were no social services or support systems in play for those who were poor.
The community of Mark was founded in such a city. It began in the Jewish synagogue, but moved beyond that space fairly quickly as it embraced more and more Gentiles.
The congregation focused on caring for the sick, something that was rarely done in Roman cities. The sick were abandoned for fear of contagion. But caring for the sick or healing was a priority in this particular urban congregation just as our shelter work and financial emergency relief is our priority at St. Johns.
The building of the congregation probably looked more like a field hospital rather than a church with sick people everywhere being cared for in every available corner. The church was perhaps overwhelmed by the needs of the sick and did not want to broadly advertise what they did, sometimes being even secretive about their healing center and the healing power of Jesus.
And it may be the case that the intensity and fast pace that is so much a part of the gospel of Mark was due to a plague that had hit the city. In times of plague in urban centers, perhaps a fourth to a third of the city would die, the fabric of social life would disintegrate, and people would wonder if this were the end of the world, as they do in Mark.
So with this intense healing ministry, in a time of health care crisis, these people remember Jesus primarily as a healer. As I noticed earlier this year, in the book of Mark in the thirteen chapters it takes to get to his last week of life, there are seventeen healing encounters. Every time you turn around Jesus is healing.
By contrast, in Luke, written later, there are still sixteen or seventeen healing encounters, but it takes twenty-one chapters to cover the same ground. Jesus becomes much more of a story teller and teacher. That’s even more the case in Matthew who also has about sixteen or seventeen healing encounters. But now there are almost twice as many chapters as Mark. Jesus has long sermons and complex arguments with his opponents.
And in John there are only four healing encounters and Jesus just talks on and on. But in Mark, in this version of the life of Jesus, he is primarily one who heals. Health care is important to these people.
We know that when people are sick, they are more likely to recover if they are cared for. Care, no matter what that care is, often assists in the healing process, and increases the chances that the person will get better, quicker. There are no miracles to this except the miracle of tender compassion and the way the body works. But the miracle of healing was what this congregation accomplished for many people. And they did it by caring for those who were ill rather than abandoning them. So their memory of Jesus recalled Jesus as healer whose death even brought the healing of the universe.
In Mark today two healing stories are spliced together into one account. And in the details of the story are embedded several issues facing these first Christian health care workers.
Who gets the care? In the story the daughter of the synagogue leader and a Gentile woman are both healed. The Jewish healing is interrupted by the healing of the Gentile woman. The combination reminds us of how the health care workers in Mark were probably constantly interrupted as they cared for the ill, moving from one bed to the next. But the story reminds care givers that both Jew and Gentile, old and new, young and old, are to be treated in this field hospital.
How can we provide for all these people? You can see in the second reading that early Christians supported their efforts by sharing their wealth. In the book of Acts we have more descriptions of sharing so that all in the community have what they need. We also sense that the communities in different cities shared with each other in times of crises, and that this inter-urban sharing between churches may have been the first church organization or structure.
What can we really do to bring healing? From our point of view, it seems like ancient healing could not have been very effective. And without today’s diagnostic tools, medicines and treatments, recovery rates were much lower and death rates were much higher.
Still, ancient health care did make a difference. And we have clues to how that healing took place and what the healers did in this passage.
—–There was an emphasis on the healer as a person. We may not think that matters, but even in our highly technical medicine, who the doctor is and who the nurses are really make a great deal of difference even today. Jesus was the role model for these ancient Christian healers.
—–Ancient healing involves touch. People feel better when they are touched, again even today, touch has soothing qualities.
—–There is the importance of cloth, represented by touching the robe of Jesus. This healing property of cloth may seem strange to us. But then we recall how young humans still today will have a special blanket which provides soothing quality. And think of all the cloth or quilts constructed in this congregation and our sister congregations which are used by Lutheran World Relief to provide soothing comfort and relief. Think of the quilts we are giving our graduates today to remind them of their faith home. And think of how good the blanket feels when we have the chills due to a fever. Cloth was used in the healing ministry.
—–And there was an emphasis on getting up. The young woman gets out of bed. That’s how ancient people encouraged recovery. One cannot lie in bed all of the time and recover. Get up. Let’s get going are still the words used by countless physical therapists in our own time.
—–And having a bite to eat, as does the young woman, nourishes the recovery. Some chicken soup gets us moving again.
—–And most important of all, confidence or faith matters. And it still contributes to healing. Those who believe they will get better have a better chance of recovery than those who do not.
So we actually can get a sense of how the healers worked in the hospital that was Mark. The healer mattered. So did touch, movement, blankets, and soup. And through these ancient and yet modern means, much healing took place.
What if people ridicule us? The story speaks to the skepticism and ridicule the healers faced. The Mark community was probably criticized for their efforts. But there remains a confidence in the mission that does not deter the healers even in the face of criticism or the danger of exposure.
What if we are too late? What do we do with our failures, when someone dies? Is that the end? Here in this account of the rising of a twelve year old, we sense not only the ways comas were experienced; but also the growing conviction of the healers that death in the end was not defeat but a passage into a new kind of life and a new kind of health. All of that is not that spelled out in Mark. But it is there. In the healing business, death is also a part of the healing process for all creation.
So today, when we are sick, we do rely on doctors and as the ancient Gentile woman did, we often spend a lot on health care. But even now we touch each other, we embrace, we break bread, we share nourishment, we wrap each other in bands of cloth to protect us from the cold world, and we face our maladies with as much confidence as we can muster while we follow the healer whose death and life brought the healing not only of individuals but also all creation.