A Sermonic Feast

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Rev. Dr. Jill Crainshaw, Wake Forest Divinity School
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Available online at: http://www.goodpreacher.com/shareit/readreviews.php?page=3&cat=12
Text: Mark 1:40-45

Listen to multi-vocal soundscapes.

Discover an animating pulse.

Spread a sermonic feast table.

We were an eclectic bunch—divinity school professor, mother of children with special needs, teacher of teenagers, woman who battles Lupus, man who is legally blind, and teacher who has a rare type of epilepsy. All of the students but one are enrolled in, or have graduated from, our Masters of Divinity degree program. Each week of Summer Session II, we discussed a book about ministry, theology, and disabilities.

The course, called “Disabilities, Theology, and the Service of God,” provided an extraordinary opportunity for ministerial formation. When theological questions about God, healing, and ministry surfaced around our conversation table, responses were cutting edge, sharpened by the realities of these students’ lives. On many days we cluttered the table with substantially more than the two or three questions that initiated our discussions. To linger in the questions—no easy answers or quick fixes accepted—was difficult but life-giving work. Because of our roundtable dialogue I will never again hear the story in Mark 1: 40-45 in the same way.

Abandoned—Judged—Silenced— Feared—These and similar words might describe the life of the man with leprosy in 1:40-45. Class members contributed descriptive words of their own: exiled, alienated, alone. Disabilities are often accompanied by social stigma and ostracism.

Such was the case for the man in Mark 1:40-45. To have leprosy was to be labeled “unclean.” To have leprosy was to be shunned, excluded from religious and communal life. The pain of the disease and resultant social and religious restrictions compelled the man to seek Jesus, saying: “If you choose, you can make me clean” (1:40).

This healing story, like the previous two Sunday’s healing stories, affords various animating homiletical pulses. My students highlighted possibilities: “The man in the story was one of the ‘disinherited,’” one student remarked. The physical disease caused physical pain. The community inflicted another kind of pain. Communities sometimes “disable” people who have physical illnesses.

Theologian Howard Thurman pens a vivid definition of “the disinherited” in his paradigmatic 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Many people, Thurman writes, “need profound succor and strength to live in the present with dignity and creativity.” The disinherited are “those who live with their backs constantly against the wall.” Though they face physical and psychic pain, the disinherited nevertheless “know that the contradictions in life are not ultimate.” They “know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in the world…which is committed to overcoming the world” (1).

The man with leprosy has his “back against the wall,” but believes Jesus can cleanse him. To focus on this dimension of the story quickens a lively, animating, homiletical pulse.

Another student gravitated toward the man with leprosy as an unlikely protagonist, saying: “Jesus cures the illness. But the man with leprosy, even before the healing miracle, is not voiceless. He is desperate, perhaps, but he also has courage, even a kind of self-confidence.”

Others around the table agreed. People with disabilities, when given voice, can be powerful self-advocates. Jesus has healing power. The man with leprosy boldly calls for Jesus to “choose” to share his power. Jesus chooses. He touches the man. He “rips apart” boundaries that separate the man from society. What if, my students asked, in congregations, people of varying abilities and capabilities shared power? Another potential animating homiletical pulse comes to life.

“Maybe ‘restoration’ is at the heart of this story,” one student reflected, circling back to the idea of “the disinherited.” “People suffer with diseases, but they suffer even more when communities ostracize or alienate them.” The man in this story asks Jesus to tag him with the moniker, “clean,” so he can go home to his community. He seeks to be restored physically and relationally.

Several students recounted times when they were relegated to an adjectival existence, times when they were burdened by labels like the “blind student” or “the disabled child.” What, the students questioned, can congregations do to restore names and voices?

This question stirs a profound animating impulse, but my students are archaeologists, aware of disabilities’ and ministry’s multiple layers. They dug deeper and one added, “If Sharon Betcher (Spirit and the Politics of Disablement) is right, then we have to be honest about restoration. People can be restored to community, even when their illnesses cannot be cured. But there are costs of restoration—for everyone in the story.” Some costs frighten. To share power with people for whom physical cure is not imminent or likely stirs deep fears and realities about human contingencies and capabilities. To “touch” as Jesus touched is to reject social boundaries and risk being labeled “unclean.” To be restored does not mean returning unchanged to an unchanged community.

As classroom conversation continued one thing became clear. The story in 1:40-45 is about restoration in all its audacious corporeality. Something else also became clear, that to move from text to sermon calls for preachers to listen to multi-vocal soundscapes and discover an animating pulse. To move from healing texts to honest and prophetic sermons challenges preachers to spread a sermonic feast table.

When preachers expand their study tables, when they make room for people whose lives resonate with truths embedded in Gospel healing stories, preaching becomes a sermonic feast. Summer Session II exemplified this reality. The dialogue was an abundant feast of theological wisdom, forthright biblical interpretation, and honest uncertainty about disabilities, and faith. Preaching from healing texts requires preachers to engage in dialogue with others, even as Jesus engaged in dialogue with the man with leprosy. It requires a table expansive enough to include the presence of those who live with disabilities, because in the face of suffering, their voices and stories offer “wisdom to make the world go on” (2).

1. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press, 1996), 109.
2. Sharon Betcher, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 194.

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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