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Sermon for February 8, 2015

Revolutionary Healing
February 8, 2015
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Mark 1:29-29
Ok, so it’s pretty well established that math and I do not get along well. I’ve mentioned it before. That’s why I’m so well qualified to delve into a basic mathematical idea called Set Theory with you this morning. Wait. Don’t go to sleep on me yet. Let’s work with this idea for a minute. Sets are exactly what you might think they are—groups of things. A set is a collection of distinct objects, which when grouped together become an object in its own right. Like the numbers 2,4,6. They are each individual numbers, but we can combine them into a set of even numbers {2,4,6…}. Sets are groups of objects with common characteristics: Prime numbers, unicorns, tofu recipes, whatever ... you can make a set of it. Set Theory is a way of talking about what sets do and how they relate to each other.



One day, a social scientist came along and said, “You know what? We can talk about organizations as sets. When I look at organizations, I can see that they form around common social characteristics. For instance, some organizations are what I’m going to call ‘bounded sets.’” Bounded-set organizations have firm outer boundaries that must be crossed by those who want to belong to the organization. Bounded-set organizations have strict rituals, rules, and language that make it possible for others to know who is in and who is out. We could say that bounded set organizations tend to gravitate towards a certain singular criteria in order to allow people to become members. Churches are pros at this. Churches tend to have coded church language that newcomers don’t always understand. We have rituals during worship, like when we sit and when we stand. We have rules, like how decisions are made and who gets to make those decisions. The boundaries can be confusing to someone who wants to be part but doesn’t understand the characteristics of the congregation that make it come together as a set.

Some bounded-set churches make “belonging” the requirement to become a member: “You must be one of us in order to be accepted.”

Others make “”believing” a qualification for admittance: “If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior (or affirm the Apostle’s creed, or agree to our statement of faith),you can be one of us.”

Still others require a certain type of “behavior”: “Here is the list of moral and ethical requirements we hold as a church. No drinking, No swearing, No dancing. Follow the 10 commandments. If you obey our behavioral norm, you will be pure and can be part of our group.”

Church consultants tend to settle into one of these areas in order bring renewal to congregations. Some tell us that the renewal of the church will come though working on belief, for instance, reclaiming traditional doctrine. Others emphasize belonging though innovative outreach projects and new member initiatives, new budgets and new buildings. Others may emphasize behaving though social action, creative worship, or liturgical worship. However, each one of these avenues can act like fence that keeps certain members within the perimeter and other people out.

There is another kind of set in organizations. They are called centered sets. Where a bounded-set organization recognizes people in relationship to its boundary, a centered-set organization recognizes people in relationship to the center. If the bounded-set church is like a traditional ranch with high fences to keep the right cattle in, the centered set church is like an Outback ranch with a wellspring at its center. The Outback ranch has no fences, just a watering hole. The rancher has no need to control the livestock. The animals always come back to the center for water. The primary concern of those in this set is to bring others into relationship with the center. Because there are no firm outer boundaries, centered-set of organizations can feel chaotic and disorderly. Let’s be honest. Some people prefer fences. They like a clear line to say who is in and who is out. It can feel better to have some firm guidelines. It is harder to find order in chaos.


I wonder if we could understand God as a centered-set organization. God is like this (throwing arms wide open), forever going out from God’s self, creating out of love, embracing out of love and pulling the creation into the center. Most humans are different. We are more like a bounded set, (hunching over and pulling in arms as if clinging to something). We constrict, protect what we think belongs to us and forming boundaries to keep out those who scare us or who are too different from us. We have all been on the outside of a bounded set. We’ve been told that we lack a certain something for entrance to the get-together: we are too young or too old, too ugly or too pretty, the wrong gender, the wrong sexual identity, the wrong race, the wrong political party. We went to the wrong school or lived in the wrong place. We didn’t have enough money or didn’t belong to the right club or organization. We weren’t smart enough or educated enough. Who’s in and who’s out? Nearly all of us know what it’s like to be out. But the amazing love of God keeps reaches out wide across all lines and boundaries and pulling is into the center to organize us into a new set, a new group – something called the People of God.

I see Jesus doing this in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. For the second Sunday in a row, we have a reading about exorcisms – Jesus casting our demons from suffering people. Unlike today when we are unconvinced about exorcisms, it was a different story in Jesus’ day. Possession was a well-known and accepted reality throughout the ancient world. When Jesus walked the earth, there were all kinds of healers who would make money by going from town to town casting out demons for a fee. Traveling exorcists commonly performed before sensation-seeking crowds. So, at first, it probably looked like Jesus was another one of these faith healers.  The crowds watching Jesus would expect to be entertained, astounded and amazed by the wonder-working miracle show of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, notice how Jesus changes the geography of power. Traveling exorcists who heal others for money don’t do it to restore the suffering person. They do it to become wealthier at the expense of another’s pain. They do it to enlarge their own ego. I imagine Jesus could have been tempted by this. He could have given the crowds a good show and become a famous faith healer. But notice how in the midst of the miracles, Jesus steals away to pray alone. In his times of solitude, as he prays, I think Jesus is re-focusing his mission. He has not come to build his own empire. He has come to topple one. Jesus has come to establish a new government – the Reign of God, built on human wholeness, justice, and compassion.

Make no mistake, people in Jesus’ world needed some healing. Roman rule was emotionally and physically destructive to people in Judea. Despite Rome’s earlier tolerance of Jewish religious life, subjection to Roman rule began to require a break with Jewish religious traditions. Jesus comes to re-direct these realities. His healings are not just random acts of charity. Healings are not side show spectacles to make a quick buck.  Healings are his way of showing that God’s demands human well-being, even in the face of death.

Consider the demon-possessed man in our story. The man is an unwilling participant in a social and religious system that labels, excludes and dominates certain classes of people. Jesus chooses to heal this man to provoke conflict. With all eyes on him, Jesus engages in subversive public action -- he restores the demonized man to wholeness. In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus heals it is an act of public protest. In fact, whenever Jesus heals the sick, conflict escalates between Jesus and the religious leaders. When Jesus heals people, he challenges the authority of the religious establishment that works in collusion with the Roman government. Every time he heals, he symbolically calls for an end to a corrupt religious system that segregates, stigmatizes, and oppresses people. Healing is an act of protest.

Jesus comes to heal the world, to heal us, not only of our illnesses to exorcize the demonic lies that uphold oppressive systems. If we want to walk in the steps of the living Christ, then our teaching, our healing, and our spiritual care must challenge the corrupted foundations that people think will keep them steady.

The renewal of the church, the re-making of our communities, the healing of our warring world will come neither through a recovery of doctrine, nor through innovative projects of evangelism, nor social action, nor in creative techniques or liturgical worship, nor in elegant sermons, nor in new budgets, new buildings, and new members.  Healing renewal will not come about by believing, behaving or belonging. Healing renewal will come about by becoming …by becoming a community of compassion rather than a congregation of condemnation;
  • by becoming the people who share God’s grace instead of those who think we get to decide who is in and who is outside of God’s love;
  • by becoming spiritual beings, living grounded, balanced lives;
  •  by becoming the congregation that can expand the circle of our tribe to include not just our family, our friends, our nation, but all people everywhere
  • by becoming the protesters, the revolutionaries, the peacemakers, the prophets, the activists, the teachers, the leaders, the holy provocateurs, the healers who refuse to let unjust systems of oppression have the last word.
The renewal of the church will come about by becoming a local community whose common life bears the marks of love. For all of us how know love, we know there is some pain involved. But the pain of love seems to be worth the prize.
A Closing Blessing:
That each ill will
be released from you
and each sorrow
be shed from you
and each pain
be made comfort for you
and each wound
be made whole in you
that joy will
arise in you
and strength will
take hold of you
and hope will
take wing for you
and all be made well.
–Jan Richardson

Sources:
http://paintedprayerbook.com/2015/02/01/epiphany-5-that-all-be-made-well/#sthash.Bo5OBD0u.dpuf
http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-healing-mark-129-39/
https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/jbpl/vol2no1/Niewold_Jack_Final.pdf
http://nextreformation.com/?p=5872#sthash.9uQ6fNp1.dpuf
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation/2011/02/belong-believe-become/#ixzz3RA6w9IDt
http://www.geocities.ws/kidhistory/religiou.htm





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