Sermon June 28: Mark 5:21-43

June 28, 2009 at 10:08 am Leave a comment

In Steven King’s novel The Green Mile,and the subsequent movie of the same name, the green mile is the stretch of hallway which leads to the electric chair and the prison cells of death row which line that hallway. John Coffey is an inmate of Cold Mountain Penitentiary, a tall, strong black man, on the green mile for the brutal murder of two young white girls.

But, as the story progresses, Paul Edgecombe, his prison guard, sees things that leads him to doubt John’s guilt. How could such a gentle, even childlike man have committed such a terrible crime? Moreover, how can someone who has the power to heal as John does be evil?

For at John’s touch, Paul’s stubborn urinary tract infection is healed; a mouse crushed by a sadistic guard is restored; and in a haunting scene, John heals a dying woman of cancer. In each case, it is as if John breathes the disease into himself and then expels it.  It is an irony not lost on his guard that though John brings life to the dying, he is known as a murderer and condemned to die, destined to walk the green mile.

How can this be? It is like this verse of a hymn we sometimes sing on Passion Sunday: “Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He healed the deaf and dumb, he gave the blind their sight. Sweet injuries! Yet they at these, themselves displease, and gainst him rise, themselves displease, and gainst him rise.” “My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown, that I might lovely be.” Jesus, the giver of life and healing, himself was condemned as a blasphemer – someone who brings death by cursing God’s name – and walked his own green mile which we know as the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows.

This fifth chapter of Mark begins to open us to the mystery. In the opening of the fifth chapter, St. Mark relates the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus frees a man from the possession of demons, and expels them into pigs who immediately stampede and hurl themselves like lemming over the cliff. (Incidentally I should mention that the mass suicide of lemmings is another one of those things which was once taught as absolutely true in science class but has since been proven to be false.)

Then, in the stories which we have just heard proclaimed, Jesus heals the flow of blood of an old woman, and raises a young girl from the dead. In all three cases, we see the healing power of Jesus. But perhaps it is what we do not see which might awe us more.  We do not see that in each of these two cases, Jesus is exchanging his holiness for our sinfulness, his life for our death.

I always think the Gospel of Mark is unintentionally funny right here. The woman with the unending flow of menstrual blood had spent “all that she had on many physicians.”  Don’t we do the same thing? Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying anything about the state of or cost of medical care. Nor am I making a theological judgment about the healing arts. We are rightly grateful for the gifts of medicine and for doctors and nurses.  But at the same time we recognize medicine’s limitations. It serves to preserve life for a longer time, not to abolish the possibility of death. The sign of healing can be a sign of God’s grace in the midst of life. But we run from death, the look of death, the feel of death, we spend our money not only on physicians, but on treatments to make us look younger, so that we may accepted in a society that idolizes youth, on treatments that make us feel younger, so that we may continue to act young. And there is something about us still, even in this “enlightened” age, that does not want to spend time around the dying. Perhaps it is too much a reminder of our own mortality, that someday the keys will unlock our cell and we too will walk the green mile.

These days, many people read the story about the woman and say simply this, “Jesus was breaking down barriers of prejudice.” After all, a woman with an unending menstrual flow was unclean in the Jewish religion of the day, and could not participate with the worshiping community. In this reading of the story, Jesus is saying, “She’s OK after all. It’s you who exclude her who have the problem.” There is always something to be learned about prejudice. In Stephen King’s novel, American racism certainly plays a role in John Coffey being on the Green Mile. But the Gospel of Mark says that power came forth from Jesus. Jesus didn’t hold a discussion group, but simply by touching Jesus’ cloak, the woman was physically healed. Jesus did not say about the little girl, “it’s OK that she is dead,” but taking her hand Jesus raised her from the dead.

These two stories bracketed together tell us that the same thing is happening in both cases. And the earlier story in Mark 5 helps us understand it too – Jesus comes to his people to set them free from all that would keep them in bondage – the powers of sin which plague us, the disease which is living death, and the death which would cast us back into chaos.

But don’t think there is not a cost. There is always a cost. The cost is this: Jesus, in taking our uncleanness and sin from us, takes it upon himself. In taking death from us, he receives it himself. Think about it this way. Those of Jesus’ time practiced a religion strictly divided between clean and unclean. You could not touch a person with a flow of blood, for that was an extension of the power of death. If you did do so, you needed to be ritually cleansed. You could not touch a dead person, and if you did, you needed to be ritually cleansed. Jesus does these things, and giving his life to those in bondage,he takes on the uncleanness associated with death, in fact, he takes on death itself. It is on the cross that he bears our uncleanness, sin and death to the end, so that our sin and death may no longer separate us from God. Though we are still plagued by sin, and are subject to its consequences in this world, even our sin cannot separate us from God, for Jesus has taken on that separation in his own flesh. Though we die, death cannot separate us utterly from God, for Jesus has taken our death into himself.

So, then, what do the healing of this woman afflicted for twelve years and the raising from the dead of a twelve-year-old girl mean for us? It would be a terrible thing if the lesson we got from this story was that chronic disease and death in childhood is a sign of God’s disfavor, that if the Father really loved us he would always heal in this way. There will be chronic disease and untimely death as long as this world rolls. God sees it and God mourns with us and in Jesus makes a way through it.

We always want to remember that the healing that we see in the Gospels points us to the living Jesus in our lives. The new life which the two women experience through Jesus is both perfect and yet to be completed. Perfect because it is new life given by Jesus, yet to be completed because they are not yet free from the cares of the world or the threat of death. It is the same way with us. We may live confidently, knowing in Christ, God comes to us still, speaking words of healing, grace and forgiveness, offering us his holiness and life in exchange for our sin and death. We may experience the joy of being healed of physical and spiritual disease in this life, while knowing that one day we too will walk that green mile, trusting that on the other side of death we will hear those words, “I say to you, arise.”

Entry filed under: Sermons.

Sunday Worship – It’s Not About Us! Sermon July 5, 2009 – Proper 9B

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