Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As we make our way through Mark’s gospel this winter, we’ve been asking ourselves: how did Jesus come across to those who met him face to face? How did he look through their eyes?
We started by considering the perspective of his own family members, and then of the twelve disciples, and last week we talked about how Jesus must have looked not only to his hometown crowd in Nazareth but also to his fan club, the great crowds that followed him around as his fame spread.
Those crowds included people of all kinds: people of widely varying income levels and social standing, women and children as well as men, Gentiles as well as Jews.
But there’s a category of encounter so important to Jesus’ identity that it merits its own separate discussion today. And that is the category of “outsiders.” Individuals on the margins, at the fringes of society. Those who for one reason or another didn’t fit in. Those who lived, metaphorically and sometimes even physically, outside mainstream society in his day. People who were dismissed, discounted, or even shunned entirely by those on the “inside.”
To give you a sense of just how important it was to Jesus’ ministry to befriend these outsiders, I need you to open your Bibles to the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, p. 912 in your pew Bibles. Go ahead and flip quickly through the first several chapters and call out as many people as you can find who – in that time, in that context – mainstream society would have been surprised to see Jesus spending time with. Hint: a couple of them Steve just read about in our texts for today. You also have helpful subheadings in your pew Bibles.
[E.g. the man with an unclean spirit (1:21-28), those with diseases and demons (1:24), the leper (1:40-45), the paralytic (2:1-12), Levi the tax collector (2:13-17), man with a withered hand (3:1-6), Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20), sick girl and woman with out of control flow of blood (5:21-41). If you keep going, you find more sick people healed (6:53-56), a conversation with a Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30), encounters with a deaf man (7:31-37), a blind man (8:22-26), another boy with a spirit who is suffering from convulsions (9:14-29)… and so on.]
You may have studied or heard sermons about particular episodes from that list. There are fascinating details to dive into in each story, but what I found most compelling this week was the fact that you can hardly flip a page in Mark’s gospel without finding Jesus spending time with outsiders. Whether because physical disabilities prevented them from engaging in income-generating work, or because contagious diseases kept them living outside the city, or because unsavory occupations meant people didn’t want to associate with them (tax collectors who were despised for colluding with the Roman authorities, for instance, or women who had resorted to prostitution to earn their daily bread). It seems everywhere polite society said: “don’t go there,” Jesus went. He wasn’t afraid of touching sick or broken bodies or soothing anguished spirits. He wasn’t worried about being tainted by association with this or that supposedly undesirable element. The result? I wonder if sharing meals with him, being treated as fully human by someone who enjoyed their company, was – for those who’d been on the outs – as powerful a balm for their spirits as any physical healing he offered them. Those who’d been friendless found in Jesus someone who truly cared.
There is so much about Jesus that can inspire us as we read through the gospels. But as I see him again this morning through the eyes of these outsiders, I’m struck by how life-changing it would be to meet someone who looked you in the eye, held your hand, broke bread with you, treated you as an equal, if you’d never experienced that before. Everyone in that list you just named as you flipped through the gospel of Mark – they were always beloved children of God. We know this; the Bible itself tells us so. But that doesn’t mean they were treated accordingly. They may have even stopped believing in their own worth themselves. What a gift, then, to meet this Jesus of Nazareth, to benefit not only from his healing touch, but from his compassion, his friendship, his love.
The Church has shined brightest through the ages since Jesus’ day when it has followed his example of standing at the margins of society, bravely befriending those who’d have otherwise been denied a place. Like those in the Middle Ages who ministered to victims of the bubonic plague, risking their own lives in the process. Like 20thcentury American Christians who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, and those who were first in line to reach out to AIDS patients when that disease was little understood and greatly feared. Like Mother Theresa and her community ministering among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. Like Christians standing with refugees of the Syrian war, or with immigrant families separated at our own southern border today.
Back in our text, stories like those we’ve read today about Jesus casting out what the gospel writers call “demons” and “unclean spirits” raise all kinds of medical questions for contemporary readers. Did the boy who cried out with a loud voice have Tourette’s Syndrome? Did the one who convulsed and foamed at the mouth have epilepsy? Should we on any level equate these and other unclean spirits in the gospels with what we would now call mental illnesses of varying types and degrees of seriousness?
These are fascinating questions to consider, but it seems to me no amount of newer medical terminology, insofar as it might apply, would undermine the point of these Jesus stories. Whatever the affliction of body, mind, or spirit someone battled, and however uncomfortable it made those around them, none of it lessened Jesus’ compassion or stifled his hospitality or limited his healing power. On the contrary! So much of his mission (as we saw on our whirlwind tour of Mark today) led him to those who were considered different, other-than, less-than, whether their wounds were visible or invisible to those around them. And anyone who’s done battle with mental illness, whether personally or with a family member or dear friend, knows that fight still carries a stigma today, much as we know it should be otherwise. It can be both exhausting and isolating even in an age of powerful medications and advanced medical practices. So whether the source of these particular gospel afflictions involved supernatural forces or was largely due to brain chemistry, there’s no question the individuals involved would have been eternally grateful for Jesus’ understanding as well as for his healing touch.
Jesus through the eyes of these and other outsiders was not only a powerful healer. He was a man with a God-sized heart, unafraid to be associated with anyone others might shun or ignore. The last and the least, the sick and the suffering, found in him a kind, generous friend.
There could of course be any number of takeaways from all of these stories about Jesus among the outsiders. For instance, what message might he have for comfortably middle-class Seattle residents in the face of a citywide epidemic of homelessness, or for American Christians in the face of a massive global refugee crisis, or for white Christians who are largely protected from the tragic effects of pervasive racism? Where would Jesus position himself today? Who would he be focused on befriending and including and uplifting? Whose tears would he be drying, and in whose homes would he be eating? To the extent that we in the Church are insiders, are we hesitant to spend time in those places, and invest in those relationships, where Jesus remains busily at work?
Meanwhile, both within and outside these church doors, today’s other takeaway is surely for those who worry they’re not welcome, not fully one of us, or that the wounds you carry prevent you from being worthy of an invitation to Christ’s table. We all have our moments of self-doubt, I imagine. Battle scars, both visible and invisible, can fool us into thinking we’re outsiders when it comes to God’s Church, God’s kingdom, God’s love.
So whatever it is about your neighbor, or yourself, that feels most unlovable. Whatever it is about your neighbor, or yourself, that you can hardly stand to think about, because it pains you too much, worries you too much, is too uncomfortable or too frightening. Whatever it is about your neighbor, or yourself, that deceives you into believing some are worthy of compassion and others are not, that some are welcome at Christ’s table and some are not. Whatever makes you worry that God can’t possibly love them, or love you - not really, not fully, until you get it together, make a change, become someone else. Whatever it is, however scary it is, however much it hurts, there’s one thing I know for sure.
Jesus is there. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine.
And he’s not for a minute going to leave you to face it alone.