Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, February 04 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 40:21-31; Ps 147:1-12; 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mk 1:29-39

There’s a part of me that is always tempted, when this reading comes up in the lectionary, to make a rueful comment about the necessity of getting Peter’s mother-in-law back on her feet so that she could make all the guys their dinner. But there really is more than that going on in the passage. For one thing, the verb used to describe her activity after she is healed is diakonein, an extremely important word in the gospels, one which Jesus himself preferentially chose to describe his own mission, and one which probably, even at the time Mark was writing, suggested an ordained ministry in the church—not so much, then, a restoration of a woman to her proper domestic duty, as her rising to a duty of ministry, one modelled after Jesus’ own.

I read an interesting piece on this incident, in which the writer pointed out that, if Peter’s mother-in-law was living with her daughter, this suggests that she had no living male relatives of her own, and that, in that case, Peter’s decision to follow Jesus may have come at great cost to her, leaving her alone and vulnerable. The writer made an important point—that the choice to follow Jesus is drastic, that it comes with consequences, and that, in the gospels, it tends in particular to destroy the bonds of family in favour of a wider loyalty with all the outcast and marginalized, not only the people to whom we have immediate connections. And I don’t want to take away from the seriousness of that; it is true that sometimes the greater loyalties demanded of us disrupt families, close relationships, and, especially, socially expected duties.

But I would also suggest that there is another option in reading this, one which we are pointed towards, perhaps, by that word diakonein__—that Peter’s mother-in-law took to the road with Jesus too, that she was one of the many women who, in defiance of the norms of the period, played key roles in this first community; that she was not a helpless victim of circumstance, but a woman who was raised up in order to seize control of her own life, and take on her own vocation. When Mark talks about the women who stood at the cross, he uses that same word, __diakonein, to describe the work they had been doing throughout Jesus’ ministry, and their travels with him. It begins here in Peter’s house, perhaps, and goes on all the way to that faithful vigil at the cross, and that fearful witness in the dawn of Easter. We cannot know—but there are reasons this story was remembered, and perhaps one of those reasons is that, like the calling of the fishermen, it marked the first moment of discipleship for a known member of the emergent church.

It is also an early example of what will become a sort of escalating pattern of boundary violations on Jesus’ part, as he touches a woman to whom he himself is not related, probably a significant taboo. And also, of course, touches a person with a potentially contagious illness, which is not so much a symbolic boundary violation as a movement beyond fear, beyond normal and even sensible caution. It is even simpler and quieter than the exorcism in the synagogue; he takes her hand, and she rises. Illness, suddenly, is no thing, not even a matter.

And immediately, as soon as it’s dusk and the Sabbath is officially over, the people of Capernaum make their way to Jesus with apparently every sick person and demoniac in the city. For a few hours, he sets about solving all their problems for them; then, once it’s fully dark, he takes off into the hills, and the next morning gets out of town before anyone other than his handful of disciples can find him. This, too, is the first iteration of a pattern which will become strangely familiar through all four gospels—Jesus failing to live up to expectations, not delivering the complete and universal fix for suffering which the crowds will over and over again anticipate and demand. In one instance in Luke’s gospel he confronts this directly, and tells them that not everyone is going to be miraculously healed, that this is not what he came for, and the crowd responds by trying to throw him off a cliff. Eventually, of course, the crowd—not exactly the same crowd, but all crowds are in some way the same—responds by participating in the process which leads to his crucifixion.

The demons, Mark tells us, know who Jesus is. The crowd, probably, does not. The crowd wants a magician. They do not want someone who will lift them up only to lead them into the demanding, complicated, self-giving life of God, who will heal and then head off to the next town, leaving them to deal with things on their own.

Healing, of body or mind or heart, can be real, it can be a truth, it is something many of us have experienced in our own ways—but Jesus has not come to be a miracle-worker. He has not come to sort out every problem in Capernaum, or in Toronto. And he has not come to take our pain away. He has come, as he himself says here, to proclaim the message, to speak liberation, to set the vision of the kingdom before the lost and the suffering, the weak and the lawless and the law-obsessed, the possessed and the dispossessed—and to challenge us, like Peter’s mother-in-law, to stand up and get about our own callings with that vision before us.

And perhaps we will not get the particular kind of healing we want. We know, and it is a hard truth, that many will not be healed, at least not in the ways we may have desired. We suffer sickness, we suffer age and disability, grief and loneliness. We are hurt and hungry. We want to be loved, and sometimes we are not loved, or not loved in the way we want. Our demons haunt us endlessly; we are in a city filled with affliction, with the knowledge that a killer could target some large unknown number of brown-skinned or socially marginalized queer men for years, one of them part of this neighbourhood and known to some people here, before anyone outside the community bothered to care; with the knowledge that at least 94 homeless people died in Toronto this year, most of them in middle age, and more have died in emergency shelter during this bad winter; with the knowledge that we are all frail and mortal, that we can fall to violence or a passing flu, to active evil or to the simple sad way of bodies.

We wish for a world of justice and compassion, and we wish especially, because we are human, for the people we care about to be safe and well forever. We want the hurt to be taken away. But it doesn’t happen like that. We are given signs of the meaning of the kingdom, and then we are given absence, or—and it may be the same thing—the call to pick up the work on our own. Sometimes, often, we carry our own affliction into our vocation; sometimes our vocation can only be what it is because of our affliction, because of our sorrow, because it is in this way that we can begin to be open to the affliction of the world, as God in human flesh carried the body’s suffering all the way to the cross.

And yet we are embraced, we are known, by the God who stretched out the heavens. We are as tiny as chirping insects, as brittle and transient as dry grass, and yet we are loved. Even when it seems like God’s immediate presence has hiked off to the next town, and we are left with all those unhealed sicknesses and the memory of word and touch; or when we need to uproot ourselves, and travel with that presence towards an unknown future. Every star is known by name. The ravens cry, and are fed. Every heartbreak is held in God’s own heart, every hurt which seems disregarded by this world is part of God’s own life. It is not an easy comfort. But in the heart of our winter we remember that there is rain and there is green grass, that the birds of spring will be nourished, that there is music; and even if, all too often, we have to rise up from our sickness and go straight to work, still we have known that touch, and our story is not over.