Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

On this snowy Fifth Sunday after Epiphany I am, once again, at All Saints Church in Worcester. Below is my sermon manuscript for the day.

Most of us in this room have not experienced war first-hand; but no doubt some among us have. Yet I trust that all of us know that war leaves an indelible mark on soldiers – sometimes in obvious external ways like the loss of a limb and sometimes in less obvious ways that are more internal in nature. But you also know that the casualties of war extend far beyond the battlefield. When you get rid of the infrastructure of a country and there is no clean water or the food supply is limited because there are no bridges or trains left, or there is no basic healthcare (and often all of the above) then you don’t need to be an economist to know what results from this loss: poverty, disease and famine. It takes a long time for a war-torn nation to recover from that.

So what I want you to know as a matter of context is this: only a decade before Jesus began his public ministry, there was a Roman-Jewish war that Palestine facing these post-war realities, especially those who lived in rural areas like Galilee. The reason I want you to know that is because it situates all those healing stories we find in Mark’s Gospel into a socio-political context. Sometimes we tend to skip over those healing stories as if they are just personal. Or maybe they even embarrass us a little bit, because we read about something like that man “possessed by a demon” and we have more sophisticated ways to speak about mental health issues; so we may be prone to dismiss the New Testament language. But I want to say that we need to see these stories within that political, post-war context.

A few years back I read an extraordinary commentary on Mark’s Gospel by a guy named Ched Myers entitled:  Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. (Orbis Books, 1989.) Myers helped me to see all these healing stories in Mark’s Gospel as signs of God’s Reign breaking in.

Providing healthcare is a political act. Regardless of your party affiliation, I suspect there is not a person in this room who does not know that after watching the politics around the Affordable Care Act play out over the last six years or so.  What I hope you will notice with me is that in that first-century post-war setting, healing people is also most definitely a political act. And if you take nothing else away from this sermon I hope that you take this at least: that the key to understanding all of these healing stories in Mark’s Gospel (including the rather innocent looking one we heard today) is that Jesus is doing the work of restoring people in a war- torn land to dignity. As he heals the physical bodies of men and women and children, he is also beginning to heal the body politic and building the City of God. As another scholar puts it:  “Jesus was not a healer who found out he had something to say, but a teacher who found it necessary to heal" (Leander Keck)

So this is how Mark’s Gospel opens:  the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As the gospel writer sees it, Jesus’ public ministry marks a new beginning - a new era - not just for first-century Jews but for the world. Mark doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ birth or childhood. For him, this new beginning takes place out in the Judean wilderness where we are introduced to John the Baptizer, who is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. (In fact it’s from the very same chapter that we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 40.) John is out there in the desert preparing the way of the Lord and reminding people of the prophets of old as he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

In those days,” Mark goes on to tell us, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” As he comes out of the water, he is identified as God’s own beloved. And then immediately he is driven into the wilderness to be tested by Satan. There the angels minister to him. (Remember that little detail because it will be on the quiz that is coming later in this sermon.)

And then, just after John the Baptizer is arrested. Jesus comes to Galilee to proclaim the good news of God, saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  

Two weeks ago, still in the first chapter of Mark, we heard about how Jesus passed by the Sea of Galilee and called two sets of brothers to follow him; they were fishermen. He tells Simon and Andrew and the Zebedee boys that he is going to teach them to fish for people. And then last weekend while I was busy focusing on Paul and the early Christian community in Corinth, our gospel reading was again from the first chapter of Mark: Jesus and his disciples were in Capernaum. There, on the Sabbath, he enters the synagogue to teach not as the scribes, but as one having authority. He silences an unclean spirit and calls it out from a man, which leaves everyone totally amazed. Word spreads quickly in a small town like Galilee when something like that happens.

So we come to today’s Gospel reading – yes, we’re still just in that first action-packed chapter of Mark. Still part of this beginning of the “good news.” To recap: a great deal has already happened. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan, he has announced that the time is at hand, he’s called the first four disciples, he’s preached in the synagogue, and he’s silenced an unclean spirit. As Myers puts it: Jesus has announced a new Way of being in the world and he is now in the process of summoning others to follow him and join him in that Way.

So he leaves that synagogue at Capernaum with his four fishermen/disciples– same day, still the Sabbath – to enter the home of Simon Peter. There we learn that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. So they tell Jesus about her at once. And Jesus takes her by the hand.

In doing that, he violates two religious and cultural norms at once. First of all, it’s still the Sabbath day. Even though this is in the privacy of Peter’s home, it’s a preview of conflicts that will become quite public. Later in his ministry, when he’s confronted about healing on the Sabbath, he’ll defend his actions by saying “look - the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” But for the keepers of the religious status quo, it’s hard to understand why Jesus won’t just wait a couple of hours until the sun goes down…

Second and I think more importantly, Jesus touches this woman. Since she is not his wife or his sister or his mother, this is taboo: first-century Middle Eastern men are not supposed to touch first-century Middle Eastern women to whom they are not related. But Jesus takes her by the hand. Mark is putting us on notice that Jesus is willing to push the buttons of the keepers of the religious status quo. And what he does here in private will also soon become a public expression of his ministry, which will bring him into conflict with those who don’t like their boats rocked.

So the fever leaves this woman and then - remember how I said there would be a quiz later in this sermon? She began to serve them. In English that sounds kind of sexist, doesn’t it? Like Jesus and his friends are lazy men who can’t cook their own supper, so Jesus does a little magic and heals Peter’s mother-in-law because they are hungry. But the Greek verb here is exactly the same word that Mark used just eighteen verses earlier. Remember? It was used to describe what the angels did for Jesus in the wilderness when he was being tempted by Satan for forty days.  It’s the Greek root word diakoneo, yes, the same word from which our word “deacon” is derived.

Mark is suggesting that Peter’s mother-in-law is like an angel! That she is a deacon! This verb goes to the very heart of who Jesus is and what he is about. In the ninth chapter of Mark he is trying to get these male disciples to recognize that the whole point is for them and all who mean to take up their cross and join in this Way is to be like deacons, to be servants of all. It will take them much longer to get it than it took Peter’s mother-in-law.

But that’s not all!  When Jesus “lifts her up”—that’s how we heard it in the NRSV today—it could just as easily be translated, “he raised her up.” It’s the same verb we’ll see again in just eight weeks, on Easter morning. It’s what God does to Jesus on the third day: raises him up. This little healing story, in other words, is an Easter story. Already in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, this woman shows us what discipleship is about and that Jesus is about is Easter and that his followers are called to be Easter people. She got it that the Paschal mystery requires a response from her; so she accepts his call to share with him in the ministry that he is in the world to do. Jesus has announced the beginning of this new Way of being in the world and is summoning people to join him in this work, and she says “here I am!”

By getting up and ministering to him she shows that she is light years ahead of her son-in law and his pals, whom it will take until Pentecost to figure this out! So who knows, maybe she does make some hummus and pita, but it’s not because she had to. It’s not because of social convention. Social conventions are being turned upside down here, so it would be ridiculous to make this story into a defense of the status quo. If she does make supper, then it’s only because she has accepted the call to share in the very same work that Jesus will take on on the last night of his life he washes his friends’ feet: she is responding to the love of God as an equal participant in this new household of God, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.

We see in today’s reading that Jesus is about to take this message public. He is about to head out into this first-century Palestinian context to ask still others to join him in this work of being instruments of peace in a warring world. Eight more will be called to join that inner circle, but countless others will accept the call to be his followers and to share with him in this work as they join him on the Way. After his death and resurrection they will continue that work and invite still others to join them, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has announced a new Way of being in the world and he is now in the process of summoning others to follow him and join him in that Way. And somebody told somebody, who told somebody, who told you and who told me. We are indebted to all those saints who have gone before us and now it is our turn: all saints, this is the work God has given us to do: to be healers who assist in binding up the brokenhearted. And to study war no more. 

We are somewhere still in the midst of it all, and we remain a long ways from the end of the story when every tear is wiped from every eye and death is no more and mourning and crying and pain are no more. But here and now we are a people who have been called by Jesus and raised up to share in this work of ministry. May we, with glad hearts, heed this call, and join him on the Way.  

Lord, make us instruments of thy peace. 

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