Carol preached at First Christian Church in Tucson Sunday. Here's the gist of it...
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 8, 2009
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
In the small town I grew up in, the Presbyterians were pretty proud of the fact that they always got of church earlier than the Methodists across the street. This was exiting to the Presbyterians because it meant that on most ordinary Sundays they got to the one restaurant in town first.
It was a pretty ordinary Sabbath when Jesus left the synagogue. Maybe he and his friends were hungry. I’m guessing there weren’t any restaurants in town. Maybe they were hoping that Simon’s mother-in-law had made that delicious fish casserole she promised last time. For whatever reason, on this ordinary Sabbath day they head straight to Simon and Andrew’s house after synagogue. And when they get there the first thing Simon says to Jesus is that his wife’s mom isn’t feeling too good. She’s got a fever. There will be no famous fish casserole.
We don’t really know what is going on behind the scenes in this family. The disciple Simon has or had a wife. Maybe she’s died; maybe she’s taking care of the children. The Bible doesn’t always mention women and children, even when they most surely are there. But here is Simon’s mother-in-law.
Now what Jesus does next isn’t really socially appropriate, if you follow all the rules. In this culture at this time, men weren’t supposed to be touching women they weren't related to. But Jesus goes right in and takes her by the hand. Jesus crossed a line here. He crossed the boundaries of who is family and who isn’t. It was love and compassion that compelled him. You could call Jesus a border crosser. Crossing borders brought healing. Not playing by the established social rules, brought healing and freedom.
After Jesus heals her, this dear woman gets up and starts serving all the four men gathered there.
At first this perturbed me. Here you go, here’s some healing, now make us supper, woman.
Most translations shortchange this healed woman by translating the word for what she did next for Jesus as “serve.” … Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. In Greek the word used here for serve is the same used just a little earlier in Mark when it talks of Jesus being tempted in the desert for 40 days, and it says that angels “waited” on him, or in some translations, “ministered” to Jesus. The Greek word is the same. What this woman offered to Jesus was on the same level as angels.
Her healing allowed her to offer her gifts, and perhaps it truly was her deepest hearts desire to minister to her guests. Hospitality is a tremendous spiritual gift. It can be as comforting as having angels minister to you. And she was freed to serve, to share her gift.
As another generous response to her healing, she next opens her door to the whole community. Other families and friends brought those who were sick or possessed with demons to her house to be touched and healed by Jesus. From the threshold of her home, healing poured to a whole community. She gives us an example of faithful discipleship. She did what she could, opened her home, as a source of healing. She didn’t do anything drastic, just opened the door on an ordinary day. And the whole city limped and was carried and made their way there where Jesus healed many of them. Notice it doesn’t say, all of them. Many of them.
Early the next morning, before the sunrise Jesus goes and finds some solitude and talks to God. Wouldn’t you like to watch and listen to Jesus pray? Don’t you just wonder what he was thinking that morning?
Maybe he had questions?
Why couldn’t I heal everyone? Didn’t you see that man, the look on his face? Why couldn’t I heal him? Why wouldn’t you heal him?
Maybe Jesus was afraid?
You heard those demons. They knew who I was. They are going to out me. I’m not ready for everyone to know
Maybe he had doubts about what to do next.
I love these people so much. I’m so welcome here. There’s more I could teach them. Do I have to go? Simon’s mother in law could really use a new table. I could stay here and build her a table. And all those people. Those faces. They need me here.
Don’t you bet Jesus could still picture their faces from the night before? All those people, longing for healing. Wanting to be free. Pressing into him with so much hope and despair in their eyes.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Jesus did have questions and fears and doubts. He was human. He was one of us. And so many of us wonder what to do next. We question our ability, we are afraid.
Gandhi once gave some good advice to people like us. It’s wisdom that Jesus seemed to know and live by too. I’m pretty sure they were both tapped into some of the same sources of wisdom. Here’s what Gandhi said…
“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man or woman whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore her to control over her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away." [quote changed to use inclusive language]
By the next morning, when his friends found Jesus, if he had any doubts and self, they seemed to have melted away. Without fear or hesitation, he said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
I am struck by the phrase came out…“for that is what I came out to do.” This passage is at the beginning of Mark. Jesus is just getting things rolling. He’s just coming out. The night before he didn’t want the demons to out him publicly. He wasn’t ready. But perhaps it was those faces, that woke him up early, that drove him to prayer, that made his next step clear.
When the issues and headlines turn into faces for us, we often know what to do next. We may at first be disturbed and loose sleep. But Jesus gives us a model that will show us what to do. He prays. He takes time to perhaps share his doubts and fears with God, perhaps he sits in silence or perhaps he only groans. Those faces plant seeds of compassion. When compassion takes over it leads us along the way of Christ. Perhaps the issue is the border. Maybe it’s racism. Maybe it’s gay marriage. Maybe it’s poverty. But when that “issue” has a face and story and name, we often stop and re-consider our next steps.
This passage for today shows that we have a very queer God. Jesus didn’t obey the social norms of who was family and who was not. Jesus was creating a new family of God. This was part of his message. This was part of the way he lived. Even Jesus had to “come out” about who he was and how he was meant to do his loving in the world. Yes, this one sent to incarnate God among us, points us to a very queer God indeed.
As Jesus unmasks this God to us. We find a transgressive God. A God that moves beyond social codes, that transgresses boundaries and borders. Jesus was a border crosser. God is a border crosser. God is willing to go where we don’t expect.
We also discover through this act of Jesus that God comes to us in ordinary ways. We don’t get any indication that this dear woman was in danger of dieing. She wasn’t getting to live fully. Jesus wanted her to have abundant life right then. And so he healed her.
But what about us? What about those of us who are unemployed or underemployed. Where’s our abundant life? What about those of us who can’t afford medicine that we know we need? What about those of us who owe more on our house or car than it’s worth? Where’s our abundant life? What about those of us knocked down time and time again by one of those demons named ism…racism, sexism, ageism, classism? Where’s our healing? Where is the healing for our community?
We are living in extraordinary times. The front page of the New York Times this morning tells the story of Lehigh Acres, a town in Florida. One in four residents received food stamps in December. 221 families stood in line for free bread at a church one recent Friday morning. The reporter calls it the American Dream in high reverse. And says, I quote, “and now the bust is testing whether the experience of shared struggle will pull people together or tear them apart.”
Isn’t that the question for all of our communities these days? Will the shared struggle pull us together or tear us apart.
Jesus lived in a time when empire and poverty was trying— and often greatly succeeding in tearing people apart. Jesus responded by healing whole communities as he did in the passage today. He restored those who were outcast by their diseases back into community. He touched and restored women, even in a society that didn’t care much about them. He showed that he meant it when he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full.”
He also said, I will not leave you alone. Whenever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I will be with you.
We are not alone in this. You are not alone in your struggle and pain and heartache and grief. You do not have to face your demons alone. God is still at work and the spirit of Christ is here. God wants you to be free. God wants the whole world to be free.
As difficult as our lives may seem sometimes here in Tucson, Arizona, in the United States of America in 2009, most of us are pretty blessed compared to much of the world. Bombs don’t fall on our city everyday. Drinkable water comes out of public and private faucets. The air is clean enough that we can see the mountains around us almost everyday. A free lunch and clean clothes are available for those who can get to Casa Maria. We don’t have to worry about being blown up by a buried bomb in the dirt as we walk down the street.
Some of us don’t need healing. We just need to wake up to our freedom. Our healing has come. We are freed. Now it’s time to serve.
No matter where you are today, desperate for healing, out of touch with your own pain or grateful for the healing and freedom you’ve been given from God, Christ is here among us and with us.
Christ still stands on the threshold. He’s not afraid to go in. He’s here and willing to meet you at the place of your deepest pain and longing. He’s still willing to take your hand, lift you up, and free you to serve.
Let us pray.
God you are as near as our breath. We thank you for the life that flows through us. For the gift of breath, of shelter, of food, of community. You have promised never to abandon us. We know that nothing can separate us from your love. God we know that you want all people to experience abundant life. And that wherever healing is present, you are its source. Transform us now in our body, mind, spirit, emotions, and relationships to be more free, more whole, more able to serve you and love our neighbors. Amen.