Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
One of the last films starring Peter Sellers was released in 1979. It was called “Being There”. Sellers played a simple-minded gardener named Chance, who lived in the town home of his wealthy employer his entire life. Everything he knew, he had learned either from watching television or tending his employer’s garden. When his employer dies, Chance is on his own, wandering aimlessly about in his employer’s expensive clothes. While out on a walk, Chance is hit by a car, and there begins the strange and wonderful farce for which Peter Sellers was so widely celebrated. Everyone around Chance attaches interpretations to him. His name changes from Chance the Gardener to Chauncey Gardiner. His observations about how the garden changes with the seasons becomes national economic policy. The rumors and myths about him grow until he’s assumed to hold advanced degrees in medicine and law, profound business expertise, and great sexual prowess. He’s named chair of the board of a huge company, following the death of the company’s owner whose wife’s car was the one who had hit him earlier. Oblivious to all this activity, Chance is seen near the end of the film, wandering through the garden of the now deceased new benefactor. He stops to straighten a bent pine sapling, then walks off across the surface of a small lake, while the voice of the U.S. president is heard in the background, offering one meaningless platitude after another, ending with “Life is a state of mind”.
You can imagine how well received this film was by Christian fundamentalists. As a public movement, in 1979 Christian fundamentalism was still finding its footing, but even so, “Being There” was smashed to smithereens in one sermon after another, as profoundly disrespectful, insulting, offending generations of the Christian faithful. It’s a strange irony how the extreme criticism laid on to the film the same extreme interpretations the film itself satirized. But in any case, the point was made.
Let’s look for a moment at today’s gospel reading from Mark about Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. The story is found early in the gospel, early in Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, it is the first of many healing stories told by Mark. Jesus simply took a woman’s hand, lifted her up and the fever left her. No matter what else you believe about Jesus, unlike his apparent ability to walk on water, that he physically touched and, the gospels tell us, healed hundreds of people is something about him that we have to take seriously, which is hard for most of us. It raises all kinds of theological and metaphysical problems. How did he do it? What kind of ability did he actually have? Why couldn’t others seem to do it? Why hasn’t it ever been done to such a great extent since? Why didn’t he ever get sick? Did he really heal people or did he just make them feel better for a little while? Does physical sickness mean spiritual sickness?
Occasionally, the Gospels tell us, Jesus told the healed person that it was her faith that made her well. Several of the healing stories involved the exorcism of demonic spirits that, once gone, left the person drained but restored to health. There is one healing story in which Jesus asked the person, do you desire to be made whole? Once the affirmative answer was given, the healing occurred. Another story tells us that Jesus healed a woman without even knowing he was doing it until feeling that power had gone out from him into someone else. And twice, the gospels tell us, Jesus brought back to life those who had already died. How did that happen? Maybe they weren’t really dead but just close to death and Jesus recognized shallow breathing and a faint pulse and called them back from the edge over which they had not yet fallen.
The healing miracles are not the only stories about Jesus that are difficult for our rational, 21st century minds to accept. Time after time, the Gospels report, Jesus acted and spoke in incomprehensible, unbelievable ways with incomprehensible and unbelievable results.
So, are those stories true? Or have centuries of needy disciples surrounded him with identities and attributes that we need, like the poor gardener Chance. When the word spread that Jesus was someone who could heal, people flocked to him. There were so many who were suffering from various diseases, “the whole city was gathered around the door.” Does that description tell us as much about a desperate people as it does about a healing Savior? I think it might.
Our Board of Deacons for Religious Life has proposed that as many of you as possible read the book Saving Jesus From the Church, by UCC minister Robin Meyers. Some years ago, many of us read The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg, in a similar effort to get a lot of us talking about our Christian faith together, prompted by the provocative writing of these fine authors. We’re serious about asking you to read Saving Jesus from the Church, and we’re going to try to find as many ways as we can to make that possible during February and March. It’s a fine, fine springboard for good conversation about what it means to be a disciple with a progressive Christian theology.
Let me add this one note of caution. Those of us who are progressive Christians, and next Sunday I’m going to preach on that term with something of a definition of what that means, those of us who are progressive Christians need to be careful that we not only apply our powerful skills and passion to the work of deconstruction. It reminds me of my advisor’s note on the bottom of the first draft of my ordination paper, “OK, OK, but what do you believe?” We may be very, very good at deconstructing the myths, the hyperbole, the layers and layers of self-serving interpretation, but if we do not allow God to reveal the leap of faith, we have only succeeded in tearing the temple down. We have not constructed the multi-purpose community center in its place. And, if we only name the sins of Christendom, numerous as they are, we will have done nothing about looking at our own sinful hearts, minds, and deeds. And we will have not committed ourselves to the proactive discipleship I believe the stripped down, demythologized Jesus requires of us.
Well, read the book. And then enter the conversation. And finally, make a commitment to be a disciple. This last, becoming a disciple of Jesus, will honor who he was. Amen.