Re-Imagining Healing: A Sermon On The Miracles in Mark
You don’t have to read through the gospels long before you encounter Jesus healing those he encountered. Jesus healed people from illness and disabilities. From birth defects to mental illness. Indeed, this is a big part of how we see God show up in the person of Jesus. How we see the power Jesus holds.
Yet what we are to make of these seemingly supernatural events today is no easy question, and indeed, in the complex world of illness, disability, and the socio-political landscape of both of these things, how we hold these stories can be harmful. The theology we hold about healing can bring real and actual harm to the lives of those who are disabled.
The story I am going to share with you today is difficult. There is no way around that. It is the story of my journey through evolving faith and re-imagining what it means to belive in the bible. It is a story that touches on the most painful thing I have gone through as a parent. But it is a story that — if I hold out any hope that the church can truly be a movement for justice and liberation — I feel compelled to tell today.
As many of you know, Rebecca and I have an amazing daughter named Liv, who has a genetic condition that, among many things, affects her ability to walk and talk. She is someone that our society labels as “disabled.” While Rebecca and I have been fairly honest about this reality in our family, we have also been very protective of Liv, as her story is not ours to tell. We are blessed to be stewards right now of the amazing story she is writing in the world, but her story is not ours to use for our own personal or professional agenda.
However, today I am making a small exception to this practice. Because it is impossible for me to tell my story today without talking about Liv. Because at the end of the day, this is a story about the world I want my daughter to grow up in.
This is the story of my journey to understand Jesus the healer.
I grew up in the Evangelical Pentecostal church world, where Jesus the healer was front and center. Quite literally, it was one of the four squares, that emphasized the four primary ways we understand Jesus in our world according to the Foursquare Church where I spent half of my life.
In this world, the stories of Jesus healing people of illness and disability were real and historical. Not only did God work through Jesus in the first century to tangibly heal people, but God was STILL working through the Holy Spirit today to do the same thing.
I grew up with stories people told of seeing healing actually happen, right in front of them. And I was even told with faith, I could see the same things happen. Even when I began to see a problem with a God who healed one person but not another, I was told God’s plans are not our plans, and that we had to trust in God’s will.
My concern about a God who selective cared about certain people but left others to suffer and die only grew, and once I got to college and began studying the bible and the story of Jesus more intently, I realized that not only what this view of God wrong, but very harmful to those affected by illness or disability. Whatever miracles you believed happen when Jesus walked the earth, to claim this supernatural healing was happening today if you only believed the right stuff or had the right faith was deeply problematic.
So I studied and read more, and through this process, I began to see these stories through a different lens. No longer bound by the literalist readings of the bible that I grew up with, I began to see these healing stories of Jesus as powerful expressions of God’s liberating love. I began to read theologians like Ched Meyers, who talks about the power in the miracles of Jesus not being in their divine manipulation of nature, but in their “confrontation with the dominant orders of oppression and in witness to different possibilities.”
In other words, Jesus’ healings were not about “magic,” but about recognizing the social implication of illness and disability, and how Jesus’ healing about freeing people from the oppression and marginalization they faced in their social location. Indeed, Meyers points out that in the book of Mark, the “power” in Jesus’ healings is often located in the faith and agency of those impacted. They are at the center, and not mere objects in making Jesus look good. Jesus centers them and, in doing so, helps to break some of the social stigmas of their illness or condition.
It was this understanding of Jesus’ healing stories that I carried with me into seminary and into my eventual ordination into pastoral ministry. While my theology and understanding of the bible continue to grow and develop (as it should for all of us), this understanding of Jesus the healer helped me greatly.
And indeed, as much of my pastoral work involved people experiencing homelessness and illnesses both physical and mental, this understanding of Jesus the healer provided a way to live out the good news of Jesus by working to help ease the oppression and marginalization faces by our unhoused neighbors.
It was during this part of my story that I got married and moved and helped plant a church and had a beautiful kid named Liv. And while I was always open to a new understanding of the Jesus story — God is still speaking after all — I didn’t think much about the healing stories of Jesus.
Then that day happened. It was a day like any other, but a day that would change my life forever. It was the day we received Liv’s diagnosis — that her condition would affect her for the rest of her life, and that with this diagnosis Liv would carry with her the identity of someone with a disability.
To say that this was a disruption to my faith is an understatement. I found myself wondering how I could reconcile my theology and my beliefs about God and all that came to encompass my faith with this random genetic condition that was affecting my amazing daughter and would for the rest of her life.
As I wrestled with all of this, if I am honest, I longed for the old beliefs I once carried. I wanted to believe that there were certain things I could do that would heal my daughter. That if I held my faith in a certain way, the random genetic mutation that caused her condition would be supernaturally fixed. But what if that was the case? What kind of God would heal my child but not someone else’s? The weight and pain of these questions only grew.
And while I still held my more nuanced beliefs about Jesus’ healing miracles, I still wanted them to go further. I wanted a bloody miracle.
And one day, I saw a glimpse of that miracle. It wasn’t supernatural and it didn’t come with a loud booming voice. Rather, it came in a quiet recognition: Jesus did call us to the miraculous. But not the kind of miraculous that involved magic and supernatural belief. No, Jesus called us to the miraculous that involves a radical re-ordering of our world, such that those who find themselves marginalized by their ability have a place squarely in the center with their agency and existence fully realized and affirmed.
I did not have the power to heal my daughter and those experiencing illness and disability. But I did have the power and privilege to help create a world where people like my amazing daughter are affirmed and have all the healthcare that they need and don’t face any barriers to their engagement with the world.
And this is who we are called to be as the church. A group of people committed to re-imagining a world in which ableist systems are torn down and where those who have what is currently labeled as a disability find no barrier to full participation in our world.
For someone like me, this means repenting of the ableism I have carried with me from my upbringing. The ableism I benefit from as someone the world sees as “able-bodied.” And it means we as the church must reckon with our awful past when it comes to the inclusion of those with disabilities. Where churches should have been leading the way with inclusion and accessibility, sadly many faith communities lobbied to be excluded from the ADA when it was signed into law. Our repentance — a true change of action — must be real and embodied.
We as the church need to be leading the call for inclusion and accessibility. If we want to be part of the miracle that is the salvation Jesus calls us to, then this is the work we must be doing.
And furthermore, living into this reality is not limited to ableism. Jesus’ call to radical and miraculous justice and liberation is all-encompassing. It means we must be committed to reimagining a world in which systems of white supremacy and racial injustice are no more and full and true equality as realized. A world in which those who are LGBTQ and gender non-conforming can be who they are called to be and find full affirmation in all areas of our society. A world in which systems oppression and marginalization are torn down and a new and beautiful and inclusive world is built on their ashes.
Transforming our current systems of power and privilege that bring harm and oppression and marginalization might seem like a miracle given the current state of our world, but this is that miracle we are called to realize as people of God. It is that miracle that lies at the center of the good news of Jesus Christ. It is not a supernatural miracle, but one that must be embodied through the hard work and determination of a people committed to seeing justice break into our reality in such a way as to remake our world into one of love and liberation.
Will you join Liv and I and indeed the entire church in this hard but beautiful work of living out the good news of God’s love and justice in our world?