Scripture: Mark 7:31–37
She made a promise to herself then and there: “never again will I enter the doors of a church.”
As her husband loaded the wheelchair into the back of the car and began to drive home, Diane quietly wept in the passenger’s seat. Diane had grown up in the Church, but it was not always an easy experience for her. She was born with a congenital birth defect that made it incredibly difficult for her to walk. She could get around in a wheelchair just fine, but churches weren’t always the best place for someone like her. The awkward stares. The extra work to get in and out of the car. The hope that there would be access for her in her wheelchair. With all of this headache and shame and frustration, Diane had more or less decided that it wasn’t worth it.
Until the Sunday morning when her grandson was being baptized. Her husband still wondered if it was worth it, but Diane wouldn’t miss it for the world. The service was beautiful, and the whole family cried at the baptism, but then the sermon started. One of the reasons that Diane had stopped coming to church was the discomfort whenever they read about a miraculous healing by Jesus. So often, these stories included some version of the proclamation, “your faith has made you well.” Diane could often feel the stares of the congregation members, as she sat in her chair, unhealed. The unspoken question that she imagined they were asking was a gut punch: “why don’t you have enough faith?” When the preacher stood up this baptism Sunday, and read one of those passages, that question was not unspoken anymore. He made it clear that a similar healing was still possible, IF the person wanted it enough, IF they had enough faith, IF they stopped committing whatever sin was blocking their healing. Diane was devastated. She felt ashamed, guilty, and angry all at once. The joy from the baptism was gone. And as they returned home, she decided then and there that she was done with church.
I wish this parable was imaginary and unbelievable. But Nancy Eiesland suggests that the unfortunate reality is that it represents a true story far too often in our churches today. There are several reasons many persons with disabilities don’t come to church. Old church buildings make it physically difficult for many to be able to have access to worship and fellowship, and building upgrades aren’t often a priority. Two, stories like today’s Gospel passage make it tough to feel included. In many of these stories, there is a clear connection between faith and healing. For those who have yearned for that healing, the end result is often a tremendous amount of shame: what is wrong with my faith?
Eiesland adds another reason why many persons with disabilities don’t come to church. Uncomfortable buildings. Uncomfortable stories. And just plain bad theology. The unspoken assumption is that somehow this experience of a disability is connected to sinful behavior. Like the story from the Gospel, the question that hovers in the backs of the minds of a lot of church folks is “who sinned? This person or their parents?” Eiesland writes that there is an unspoken—or sometimes spoken—theology of what it means to be a “normal” Christian, an acceptable Christian, and many who are disabled are simply not included. Unless you fit the mold of what those in the Church suggest is “normal,” there is no room for you in worship, in small groups, or anywhere in the life of the Church.
So what do we do with a passage Iike today’s from Mark 7? Up to this point in the Gospel, Jesus is preaching and teaching and attracting crowds around the region of Galilee. Jesus has attracted enough attention that scholars from Jerusalem have come up to Galilee to challenge him. They notice and point out that Jesus and his disciples are not following all of the practices necessary to be ritually clean. Jesus pounces on their words, and uses them as an opportunity to teach his disciples about what it really means to be clean—or unclean. Instead of outward physicality or appearance, you have to pay attention to what is on the inside. He upends their assumptions about who or what is clean and unclean.
But then Jesus backs up his message with his actions. He immediately leaves the safety of Galilee for the region of Tyre, where he meets a woman whose daughter needs release from a demonic presence. You may remember I began the summer with this passage, talking about Jesus and race and what racism looks like in our world—and our hearts today. This was a woman who most of the good folks of Galilee would have called unclean—a woman, a racial outsider, and someone whose household has been defiled by this demon possession. But Jesus acts out his sermon about rejecting the world’s assumptions about clean and unclean, and engages with her, discusses theology with her, and heals her daughter. Then, he goes to the region of the Decapolis, on the other side of Galilee, where he conducts the healing that I read about this morning. He heals this man in a way that feels weird to us—he touches the man’s ears and puts spittle on his fingers and touches his tongue. We would say that was kind of gross, but for that time, it was worse than gross. The Pharisees who came up from Jerusalem would have freaked out if they saw Jesus do this. Spittle was considered ritually and spiritually incredibly unclean, on the same level as excrement. Everything about this encounter would have struck them as wrong.
These stories are even more arresting if you look at a map. The text says that Jesus left Galilee and went to the region of Tyre, west of Galilee, where he met this woman. But then it says that he travelled to the Ten Cities of the Decapolis, to the east of Galilee, by way of Sidon. If you look at the map in the back of your Bible, you may see that Sidon is not on the way to the Decapolis. Sidon is to the north. It would be like us travelling to see the Royals play in Missouri, by way of Omaha. I think that this was an intentional move by Jesus. He delivers this teaching on what it means to be clean and unclean, shaking up their assumptions. And then he tells them, “let’s go on a field trip,” where he goes out of his way to hang out with those who they would call unclean. By the end of the trip, they have not only heard his words, but seen his actions.
So why did this matter to Jesus? Why did he go out of his way to hang out with these outsiders, these folks who would have been considered unclean? For a clue, I would point to what these two stories have in common. In the first story, we never meet the little girl, but only her mother, who comes on behalf of her daughter. Who puts herself on the line for the sake of her daughter. And then in the second story about this man unable to speak or hear, there’s this line that you might have missed—I know I did the first time I saw it—“they brought to Jesus (this man)…and they begged him to lay a hand on him.” I have heard this story a ton of times, but this is the first time I think I realized that there was a “they.” Who are “they?” His family? His friends? His community? Does it matter? Someone in this man’s life loved him enough to bring him to Jesus and beg Jesus to heal him. Once again, they acted on his behalf and that is what made all the difference. In both of these stories, Jesus ministers in the land of the “unclean” outsider, where they demonstrate hospitality and welcome and inclusion and caretaking and love of other, and because of the entire community’s faith, healing comes to those in their midst.
Mark is making a significant theological point about the ministry of Jesus. Those who were previously considered unclean are actually demonstrative of kingdom values in the way they care for their neighbor. “They”—who the disciples and others would have considered unclean and lost—already get it! Those who would have heard Mark’s Gospel in that day likely would have recognized the connection to Isaiah 35, where the lame and blind and deaf and Gentiles are all brought into the healing power and presence of God. Mark’s theological point here is that this ancient passage from Isaiah is coming to fruition in your presence, in the person of Jesus. It may look like two individuals are healed, but the reality is that these entire communities, the entirety of the surrounding region, even the entirety of the world is now coming under the healing presence of God in Jesus!
So what? What does that mean for us today? Nancy Eiesland doesn’t mince words when she writes that churches are sometimes the least restorative and welcoming places to those with disabilities. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if we are to enact a Biblical model of Church. She argues that the God of Scriptures is not an “overcomer God,” a military commander or lordly king. Instead, in Jesus, God is a “disabled God,” a human with a tortured, crucified, and what would have been considered “unclean” physical body. Thus, Jesus who was human and divine, shows us what true power is from a position of disability and interdependence.
It is an extension of what I think Jesus was preaching and enacting in Mark 7 with his teaching about what it means to be clean and unclean. It’s what Jesus saw demonstrated in these outsider Gentile cities: this interdependence and reliance and support of neighbor, is the very nature of who God is in Jesus. Jesus the healer doesn’t always look the same. I would suggest three manifestations of healing:
• Sometimes, healing looks like someone with a disability gaining a new ability, in a way that feels miraculous.
• Sometimes in a demonstration that is no less miraculous, healing looks like a community seeing a person with a disability and understanding them and practicing radical hospitality to them. Those who feel shamed and ignored by the church…those who feel in one way or another unclean. Those considered outsiders because of physical disability like Diane. Those considered outsiders because of gender or sexuality. Those considered outsiders because of race or nationality. Those considered outsiders for any reason. Sometimes healing comes when a church says “you are not unclean. You are beloved.”
• And finally, sometimes, and this is the most radical part, healing looks like a community learning from that person, that outsider, recognizing that they have something to share and teach and show, and that interdependence is not just one-sided charity. We go to them not as an act of charity, but to understand and incorporate and indeed learn from them. That is what interdependence is. That’s what Isaiah yearned for and anticipated in the life of Jesus. That’s what Jesus preached and lived and, as Eiesland points out became as “the Disabled God.” That’s what Paul called the Body of Christ, proclaiming that that which was once considered unclean has been made clean. That is true interdependence, and that is Gospel. The good news for us isn’t just that we have a chance to be good “clean” Christians and go out and show acts of charity. The good news is that in welcoming those that the world and the church has unfairly called unclean, we are the ones who are healed! We receive transformation! New eyes to see and new ears to hear!
Today we celebrate communion. The table has long been the symbol of Christian welcome and hospitality. And unfortunately it has too long been the symbol of leaving out some because of outward appearance. Today, may our welcome to the table be a reminder to those of us called to do the welcoming, that interdependence means that all are invited. All are welcome. And in the welcoming, we too may be saved.