Scripture: Mark 3:1–6
Part of our Blue Team had a planning meeting last week. Our goal was to figure out where our long run in the fall will be. We finished our summer run in Colorado, and now we are figuring out where to go next. So, we pulled out the map from a previous run, and looked at the options, and considered running…down here. Or perhaps…over here. And then found ourselves intrigued by a possibility…up here. Off the map. What if we started up there?
There is something both exhilarating and terrifying about going off the map. That hiking trip in Scouts where you pulled out the map and compass and realized that nothing around you matched what you saw on paper. That moment in the car when you take a wrong turn, and you sit there watching your phone, hoping you have enough cell coverage for the app to recalculate.
How often in our lives do we have these “off the map” moments? A downsizing happens at work, and HR calls you into their office. A spouse asks for a divorce. Our child gets sick and ends up in the hospital. We have in our heads this map and we know where are headed, and then all of a sudden, we are…up “here” and have no idea where we are or where we are going next. Last week, we gathered to write down some of the things that had happened in our world and in our church in the last 40 or so months, since the beginning of the pandemic. In our remembering, we recalled plenty of moments where we quickly discovered we were “off the map.” We had never been here before, and there was not a plan or blueprint or map for where to go next.
I return again to the fascinating study of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, who have written extensively about the social-science realities of first-century Palestine, during the life of Jesus. They suggest that in the culture of the Gospels, there existed a very clear set of what they call social “maps.” There were these clear, shared, and culturally-agreed-upon standards…rules for how things were supposed to work.
- There was a map about places…what places were considered acceptable or clean, and which were considered unclean. Areas of the home. Areas of the Temple. Geographical regions like Galilee or Samaria.
- There was a map about meals…rules and unwritten regulations about table culture; who should sit where and how their place was determined by their social power.
- There was a map about persons…who was clean or unclean. Pure or impure. And what could be done to make an impure person pure. We read about this last week in Luke, when those with various skin diseases were told that they had to go to the priest in order to be pronounced clean. According to the map, they were unclean, but they had a clear path on the map to become clean again.
- And relevant to today’s passage, there was a clear map about time. Certain things had to be done within certain hours of the day. And within certain days of the week. And within certain weeks of the year. The Pharisees were kind of the self-appointed keepers of these time maps. They were kind of the hall monitors of first-century Palestine. And if someone went off the map, they considered it their duty to explain to them that they were wrong, and were, in fact, threatening the very rules laid out by God, even risking judgment and punishment upon the whole community.
And now, 2,000 years later, it is easy for us to roll our eyes at the Pharisees. We laugh at their social maps and cultural expectations. We, who are so much smarter and more godly then they were, would never do anything so silly. Would we?
- I was once told that I cannot mow my lawn on a Sunday. That just isn’t the day to do that kind of work.
- I once had a fellow pastor who was told by church leaders that she had to be in the office for certain hours of the day, because that is what the congregation expected. Oh, and when she was caught posting on Facebook during those hours, she was reprimanded for doing something she should be doing “on her own time.”
- And you know that we have these sayings that tell us what time of day we are supposed to do certain activities: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy, and wise.”…or “Nothing good happens after 2 am.”…or consider a famous song that pushes back on our expectation of when certain activities are allowed: “It’s 5:00 somewhere.”
We have these maps in our heads. And I am not suggesting that there aren’t good reasons for some of those expectations. But reminding us that the Pharisees had good reasons for those expectations, too. They saw value in upholding the commandments of God, in order to keep Sabbath, or to celebrate various holy days. So when this guy in need of healing came into the Temple, the Pharisees were simply following the rules of holy living. They weren’t saying that this guy shouldn’t be healed. If it happened on the map. Within the boundaries of the time map. Stuff like this ought to fall into the correct time and place.
That’s where Jesus shows up…and messes with their map! It’s not as if Jesus is against rules in general. He has plenty of rules. The Sermon on the Mount is filled with ways that we are to follow the law of love. It is good to have limits. Boundaries. A rule of life. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with Sabbath or with rest or with honoring God in this way.
The problem is that the Pharisees insisted on using the rules in the wrong way! The map had become more important than the journey, or the travelers. The expectation had become more important than the experience. It had become a weapon for control, not a tool for healing.
So Jesus called them on it. By the time we get to Mark 3, Jesus has already been building tension, messing with their assumptions. Pushing back on their time map and their rules. Again and again throughout the Gospels, Jesus heals in ways that simply wander off the map of expectation. The people he eats with. The people he touches. The places he goes. And the times he does what he does. So right before this passage, at the end of Chapter 2, the Pharisees are mad because he is messing with their map, and so he throws his hands up in exasperation: “Sabbath was made for people…not the other way around!” The map is designed to help us through the journey…not box our journey into a certain set of limits that were healthy once upon a time. What if, Jesus asks, we used the map until it wasn’t helpful anymore. Until it caused more harm than good? And then, when we reach that point, we trust God to help us make a new map? It is good for us to have limits and boundaries, but there are times when those limits need to be redefined, readjusted, and reconsidered.
We end our series on healing today, and like Jesus in the passage, I want us to explore the possibility that sometimes our healing happens in ways that we do not expect. I want to end with three different stories. Three examples of how the healing that we receive from Jesus might be “off the map.” Not quite what we expected. Perhaps they are true to your experience, as well.
First: I was a hospice chaplain in the era of “death panels.” Perhaps you remember that phrase, coined by politicians who had a political interest in making sure that no governmental money was spent for any healthcare for individuals. One of the targets of their fear-mongering was that there were doctors who formed these shadowy, diabolical panels that decided who was going to die and who wasn’t: “Death panels.” Of course, they were revealed as ridiculous when folks realized that they were talking about hospice doctors, and nurses, and chaplains like me. Folks who helped individuals and families discern when it became more important to think about quality of life than quantity of years. These politicians were guilty of trying to scare people about going off the map. Death is always bad and if someone was even considering a healthy and comfortable process of dying, they were “death panels!” But what I saw in my training as a hospice chaplain were some of the most sensitive, caring, life-affirming individuals that I have ever met. They worked gently and honestly with families to help discern the possibility that, indeed, death was a form a healing. A good, comfortable process in which family members and the patient could be engaged in their anticipatory grief, in decisions about life-saving measures. For those who believed that death was always failure, this didn’t fit their map. But for those who were ready to ask how God might be in the middle of it, I saw incredible healing and powerful hope.
Two. Another story from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. In the book Kitchen Table Wisdom, in an essay titled “Grace,” she tells the story of her patient, a doctor who had cancer. Knowing her awareness of healing that is mind and body, he had found a parable and wants to tell her all about it. In the parable, a divine couple sees a poor and shabbily-dressed man walking down the road. One of them is filled with compassion and wants to help, but the other says that the man is not ready to receive it. “How ridiculous!” the other cries, and creates a bag of gold and drops it onto the road in front of him. Meanwhile, the poor man looks ahead and sees the bag, and at once cries out, “Woe is me! My life is filled with suffering, and now there is a rock in the middle of my way! But at least I saw it before I tore up my sandals any worse!” And he stepped over the bag of gold and went on his way. Dr. Remen asked the physician with cancer what meaning that parable had for him? What bag of gold had been dropped into his life that he had finally realized was not a rock but an opportunity to be blessed and enriched? He smiled at Dr. Remen and responded, “I thought you’d guess. It’s my cancer.” For that man, even the biggest challenge of his life was a chance for healing and grace.
Finally, a third story from the book that I have referenced multiple times before, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. I have told you about Belden Lane’s stories of desert mothers and fathers. And I have shared his wisdom about mountains and wilderness and desolate places. But perhaps some of the greatest learning is the story that he weaves throughout this wisdom: the story of his mother’s long battle with dementia. Lane tells the story throughout the book about her struggles at the end of her life. About her forgetting. About the confusion in the details and specifics, interwoven with confusing hallucinations and wild stories. For those of you who have watched a loved one struggle through such a debilitating and destructive disease, his stories of grief might be meaningful to you, as they were to me.
But what touched me perhaps most was the way that he assessed what had happened to her, after her death. Wrestling with his decision to place her in a nursing home, in a tiny room, where she had little freedom to leave or live her life, he came to an epiphany:
“Without leaving her room, my mother traveled everywhere in the last few years of her life. As her body remained still, her mind learned to release its overzealous control of all the stories she’d lived. Boundaries were dissolved between past and present, living and remembered places, hallucinations that operated as sickness and also as cure. Often the stories we most need to recover surface only as the body comes to a reluctant stop….Her fantasies grieved me at first. It seemed sad that she retreated so often into an escape from reality. But I came to recognize her fictions as far more than a mere avoidance mechanism. They provided also a way of recovering the most penetrating and healing narratives of her life, becoming deeply curative, for myself as well as for her.”
Dementia. Cancer. Even death itself. For these individuals, each became an opportunity to see the healing power and presence of God. Please don’t hear me prescribe that you have to feel the same way about your struggles. And please, please, please don’t hear me suggest that God purposefully forces these painful realities in our lives in order to test us to see if we will be thankful!
But perhaps, if the grief is not too raw, nor the pain too great, you may hear me suggest that sometimes, in response to the evil and brokenness of a fallen world, God heals us in ways that we do not expect. Sometimes, God helps us see that even in our “off the map” moments, God comes to us in our pain, invites us to draw a new map together, and reminds us that we will never journey alone.