Sickness and health

Epiphany 5B (RCL)
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

One day in Lui, about our third day there, Deb and I were walking over to the hospital to begin our assessment of its present state. On the path, we met a man in shackles. He wasn’t poorly dressed, though a little disheveled. He had shackles around his ankles, so he could not take very large steps. A bicycle chain ran from the shackles to a set of hand cuffs around his wrists. He was holding the bicycle chain in his hands so it didn’t drag on the ground. As we came nearer to him, he smiled and greeted us enthusiastically (people in Lui pretty much greet every white person they see enthusiastically, we’re such a novelty). He let go of the bicycle chain in order to shake our hands (a requirement in Moru land). We in our turn greeted him, and then walked on our way. No one seemed to pay him any mind, but we were puzzled by the whole exchange and wondered what it meant. Was he a prisoner? Was he a danger to himself or others? Should we have been cautious of him?

Later in the day, we had the chance to ask someone who this man was. It turns out he was the brother of John Noel, the steward of the guest compound. He was being treated for sleeping sickness. Sleeping sickness can make people a “bit mad,” we were informed, and he was shackled so he wouldn’t run away and not finish his treatment. Several days later, we met him again, this time without the shackles, when he came to visit his brother at the compound. He did not evince any shame at having been shackled. It was just a matter of course for the treatment of sleeping sickness.

It strikes me how much of what we consider sickness or illness or disease is in fact social. Certainly, in sleeping sickness, there is a physical pathology at work, but the “madness”, while part of the pathology, is also socially experienced. When we were at Lozoh, a young woman with nodding disease began “fitting” during the church service. The people around her simply laid her carefully on the floor, and the pastor came down from the chancel and sat on the floor with her so she wouldn’t hurt her head. Deb took his place, and the service went on. If that had happened at Advent, we would have had our own fit, or quickly rushed her from the Church so her fit wouldn’t disturb anyone else.

I was surprised by the number of people with river blindness, nodding disease, sleeping sickness and other illnesses just at large in the population. Everyone knew them and knew their illness and the madness that sometimes accompanied it. At the Cathedral, we laid hands on several people with nodding disease or sleeping sickness. One young man, who was quite mad, prayed by leaping during hymns, even coming into the chancel to leap before the cross. No one seemed the least bit perturbed by him (except maybe myself). They would just move him off to the side a little so he wouldn’t step on anyone.

Jesus cures many with weaknesses, demons, and illness, all crowding around his door. In fact, that seems to be the content of his teaching “with authority.” These would have been people moved out their proper social context by either a physical pathology (illness) or a social dislocation (demon possession).

But then, he does something startling. He moves on. He hasn’t come to be a chaplain to his hometown. He’s not there to make everyone feel good. He is there to bring the socially marginal back into community, and then leave the community to deal with them, while he goes on to the next place to announce the kingdom. We’re supposed to “get it” and keep up the work. We are supposed to see the marginal brought in, and then make sure they continue to stay in.

I also get know why Peter’s mother-in-law gets up to serve after her fever has left. Several days, Christina came to the compound complaining of ‘flu’, but she wasn’t about not to cook for us. It was not only an obligation, but a privilege. To have been so sick as not to be able to cook would have been a source of shame and a source of displeasure for her. Jesus makes it possible for everyone in that social world to fulfill their roles, to fit in their places.

Paul talks about become a slave to make a gain for slaves, a person under the law to make a gain for persons under the law, lawless to make a gain for lawless persons. He is willing to make himself the locus that holds the disparate aspects of a fractured community together; to become ‘mad’ so that the ‘mad’ ones can be included. Paul is not concerned about his own status in the community, but the status of everyone else.

Isaiah speaks of God strengthening the weak, probably in the context of holding out hope for the Exiles, or for the beseiged and beleagured of Zion. And it is not just any God, but the God who created the stars of the universe and calls them out each night. What a magnificent image. Sitting under the spectacular Milky Way in really dark Sudan nights, imagining God calling each one of those stars to appear boggles the mind. That God strengthens each person to take his or her place in community, even the mad and shackled. How poorly we approximate that community.

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