On August 28th, 1955, a young African American man from Chicago, named Emmett Till, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was dragged from the house of his great-uncle taken by two white men, who proceeded to torture him before shooting him and dumping him in the Tallahatchie river. His crime was allegedly having whistled at a white woman in a general store—the wife of one of the men who ultimately lynched him.
A horrific, if all too common, story in the South during the first two-thirds of the twentieth-century. So while I want to be honest, I also want to be sensitive, because there are still open wounds. At the time, these sorts of violent crimes against African Americans were a common way of warning black people to “stay in their place,” and therefore didn’t usually received much media attention—nor, I might add, hardly any attention from white churches, a sin for which we have not, in my estimation, sufficiently confessed or atoned.
And the murder of Emmett Till might have gone unnoticed except by those closest to the crime, if it were not for his mother. Mamie Till Bradley made the decision to have an open casket. That young Emmett Till’s body was unrecognizable because of the brutality of those who murdered him made the decision controversial among many. But Mamie Till Bradley said, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see."
Tens of thousands of people flocked to A.A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago to pay their respects, and to bear witness to the racist brutality visited not only upon one young African American man, but because of the terrifying nature of the crime, upon all African Americans. Jet magazine was permitted to photograph Emmett Till’s body. The photographs were subsequently published in Jet magazine and the African American newspaper, The Chicago Defender. A picture of Mamie Till Bradley hovering over the body of her son was later published in Time magazine.
The photos in The Chicago Defender ignited fury among the black population of the city. The pictures published in Jet and Time gave much of the rest of the country a rare glimpse into the unspoken horror and savagery against people of color that the country had allowed to go unchallenged for too long.
Emmett Till’s murder and the public nature of his funeral arguably lit the fuse for the Civil Rights movement that was to be launched shortly, which gave the world such luminaries as Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Fanny Lou Hamer, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Funerals with open caskets are fairly common affairs. I’ve participated in funerals where, despite condition of the body and the counsel of the funeral director, people have made the questionable call to go ahead with open caskets, even though some have thought it unwise.
But the open casket funeral of Emmett Till wasn’t just an open casket funeral, animated by a mother who couldn’t bear the thought of letting go of her son. Because of the social climate at the time—which was marked by the pervasiveness of black suffering at the hands of white people—that act meant inestimably more. It carried a symbolic meaning that launched a revolution.
Some acts aren’t just acts; they have much greater meaning.
The kiss of your beloved after a fight isn’t the same kiss you get when you head to work. The physical act may be the same, but the meaning of that act changes, depending on the circumstances.
Walking up the steps of your family home after being away for ten years can be an entirely different experience, depending on your reason for being gone so long. It could be exciting; it could be full of dread—even though the steps still creak in the same way, regardless of what you anticipate when you walk through the door.
The miracle stories in the Gospels are the same way. Jesus isn’t just wandering about curing people and doing magic tricks. In the ancient Near East, there were plenty of wonderworkers. What set Jesus apart was the backdrop against which he did these acts.
Take healing, for instance. The Gospels are less interested in the physical details of people’s maladies—which is entirely the opposite of how we deal with sickness today, isn’t it?
“Oh, you’ve been sick? What’s wrong?”
“I have the flu.”
“Did you have that wracking cough for, like forever?”
“And the fever and the chills?”
“And the weakness?”
“Yes, I hated that.”
“Man, the flu’s the worst!”
“I know what you mean.”
Instead, in ancient cultures these episodes are treated more generally, which is to say, more as illness than as sickness.
All right, what could that possibly mean?
Prior to the kind of medicine practiced in modern times, one’s health was a description of the whole self, not just the modern fixation on physical symptoms. One’s health took into account not only the physical, but also the social and economic.
For instance, in an agrarian society like the Galilee of the Gospels—which always dwelt on the razor’s edge of poverty—for most people being sick didn’t just mean suffering physical symptoms; it also had socio-economic implications. For a poor day laborer, not being able to work even for a short time could spell financial ruin and, ultimately, destitution.
It’s not that different today, even with modern medicine, being sick if you’re rich is entirely different from being poor and sick—even for life expectancy—let alone the socioeconomic costs of illness. Who’s going to pay? Will I be able to keep my job? If I lose my job, will I be able to keep my home, my children? If I have to buy expensive medicine, will that mean I can’t by food or pay for the electric bill?
If you’re wealthy, being sick is mostly about being sick. If you’re poor, being sick is oftentimes not even the worst part of it.
Consequently, we should note that Jesus’ healing ministry almost exclusively focused on the illnesses of the poor, not the sickness of the rich. In that sense, his healings were a statement about the nature of a world in which being sick and poor could be deadly. These are the kind of inequities the kingdom of God would remedy.
Also, in s society where sickness was a sign of religious impurity, your place in the religious and social order would be damaged. So, leprosy in the Gospels, for instance, wasn’t necessarily anything like what modern medicine classifies as leprosy. In the world Jesus lived in, being a leper not only meant you were sick, it also put you outside the boundaries of the community—cut off from your family, from polite society, even from God.
As a consequence of this dynamic, the Gospels talk about Jesus in terms of healing, and not in terms of curing. That’s not necessarily to say that Jesus doesn’t alleviate people’s physical suffering, but that that those acts take place in a framework in which the very lives of the poor—their lives in totality—are imperiled by illness. And so healing isn’t just an act like other acts, it can be revolutionary. Think about our text today.
Upon leaving the synagogue after healing a man with unclean spirits in our Gospel last week, Jesus goes for the traditional post-worship pot roast dinner at Simon and Andrew’s house, only to be told upon arriving that Simon’s mother-in-law is laid up with a fever.
Jesus takes her hand, lifts her up, and, what do you know? She’s better—able to get up now and take the yeast rolls out of the oven.
Now, let me be quick to underscore the point I was just making: When we moderns hear that after her fever breaks, Simon’s mother-in-law gets up and starts serving everyone, we blanch. It sounds like Jesus has shown up just in time to heal her, so she can set out the hors d’oeuvres.
“Women aren’t just around to serve men,” we think indignantly. We’re thoroughgoing egalitarians, after all. And rightfully so, I might point out. Me too. Time’s up. Women have been victims of patriarchy for too long.
But though our modern reaction to this text might very well be enlightened and progressive, it fails to take something very important into account . . . context. The problem this poor woman suffered, apart from the critical problem of having a fever (an often life-threatening condition in the ancient world), was her loss of place. As the matriarch of a home, a woman’s responsibilities as hostess bestowed upon her a great honor, important status. The woman’s sickness would have vexed her, not just because it was dangerous, but also because it prevented her from fully living up to her social role—one that gave her both dignity and identified her within her community.
In other words, Jesus’ healing restores her not only to health, but to the community as a fully functioning participant.
We have good intentions, but we must be careful not to project our understanding of how the world ought to work on Jesus. We’d like to think Jesus would do the things we think are right. Problem is: He always seems to resist working anybody’s agenda but his own. He knows who he is, and he’s perfectly content to do what he needs to do, whether it meets with anybody else’s approval or not.
Let’s consider the first two stories of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark. In the first, he cleanses a man of unclean spirits in the synagogue. And in the second, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.
In the first case, the man who had been unclean is made clean and returned to the worshiping community. In the second case, a woman who has been prevented from fulfilling her role in the community is raised to health and allowed to resume her duties—duties that define her sense of self, that mark out for her her place in the world.
If we take the first two stories of Jesus’ ministry seriously, we’re left to conclude that Jesus understands the right thing to be the restoration to full participation in the community those who have been cut off, left on the sidelines, forced to press their noses against the stain glass windows to try to get a glimpse inside. He offers not just a cure, but what people really need: true healing.
Because here’s the thing for those who follow Jesus: there are too many people who’ve been cut off from the community that the church at its best has to offer. The mentally ill, the physically sick, the immigrant, the poor, the imprisoned, and those just too scared or too tired to risk walking up the steps and through the front door.
Because of divorce, or sexual orientation, or gender expression, or race, or just because they’ve cheated on their taxes, or on their spouse, or themselves out of a future they once thought possible . . . too many people have for too long been made to feel as though the table around which we gather has a place only for people who look and act and sin like us.
But if Jesus’ mission is about healing, about reestablishing the dignity and purpose of others, of helping them to find a place that’s safe and affirming—then, perhaps, we who are his followers ought to follow suit.
Perhaps, we should be less concerned with doing what everyone else thinks churches ought to do, and worry more about doing what Jesus calls us to do—to make a place in the world for those who have no place.
Can you imagine that world—a world where everyone has a seat at the table, where no one is outside the bounds of community, where the divisions that keep us cut off from one another have been healed?
Not all acts are created equal. Some acts can start a revolution.
According to the way the rest of the world keeps score, it’s not much of a mission. But that’s ok. We follow Jesus. We know what it looks like to know who you are. We don’t need anyone else’s approval to do the right thing.