Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, February 7, 2021

YEAR B 2021 epiphany 5

Epiphany 5, 2021
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As you know, lots of people in our community are beginning to get vaccinated against COVID-19.  Thanks to scientific insights, and the hard work of researchers, we have vaccines in record time, and now more people have been vaccinated than have contracted the virus.  We are getting there, and I for one am incredibly grateful for—and optimistic about—all of this, especially because of what it means for our church and for our local community.

Reaching widespread immunity means that we will one day be able to gather together.  We will be able to sing again.  We will be able to share meals again.  We will be able to minister to our community again.  In short, we will one day fully live into our Mission Statement of Worship, Hospitality, and Outreach:  WHO we are.  And this ability to do ministry once again is perfectly connected to the gospel story we just heard:  the healing of Simon Peter’s mother in law.

To remind you of the setup, it is the Sabbath day.  Jesus has just finished teaching in the synagogue, and walks over to the house where Simon’s mother-in-law is lying sick with a fever.  We’re not told whose house it is, but it is likely that Simon and his wife (and possibly his brother Andrew) would all have been living in the house with Simon’s mother-in-law, and other relatives as well.  That arrangement was quite common in those days, and it would’ve meant that Simon’s mother-in-law, the Matriarch would be responsible for hospitality.  It would be her honor in the household community to welcome visitors, to arrange for food, and so on.  

But she is sick in bed.  She is unable to welcome Jesus and the others.  She is unable to do much of anything except be covered in blankets, cut-off from all the joys of her honored position within the family.  So, not only  is she ill, but she is also excluded from the family, and her special place within it.  The Sabbath meal is a big event in any Jewish home, and to be kept away from it is no small thing.  For the person in charge to be excluded is just unthinkable.  Simon’s mother-in-law is not only sick, but probably heartbroken and distressed as well.

And as we heard, the four disciples told Jesus about the sick woman, and Jesus goes immediately to her.  He grasps her hand, raises her up, the fever leaves her, and she serves them.

Now we have to deal for a moment with this idea that phrase, “she began to serve them.”  I grew up in a house of four boys.  I know that my own mother’s read on this would be that Jesus had to heal Simon’s mother-in-law because he was hungry, and these five men couldn’t make a sandwich on their own.  Maybe true.

But this cynical read overlooks the word that is used in the text.  The word in Greek is diaconei, which gets translated as she “served them.”  You can probably guess that this word, diaconei is where we get our word, “deacon.”  And, though our Deacons might feed people, they are certainly more than fry cooks at Denny’s.  Simon’s mother-in-law does not rise up to make a sandwich for the guests.  She begins to serve them, to minister to them.  Which might include making food, sure, but definitely means much more than that.  She rises up to perform her distinct ministry in the house.  

And, as an aside, I feel I should let you know that this word, diaconei is the same word that is used when the angels minister to Jesus in the dessert.  And it is the same word Jesus uses when he says that he has come not to be served but to serve.  There is no instance of men ministering in this way.  In the Bible, Angels, women, and Jesus are the only ones who minister.  It’s almost as if the Church has got a lot of stuff backwards, when you really think about it.  But anyway . . .

Simon’s mother is taken by the hand and healed, and is restored to her place in the community.  She is raised to join in the celebration.  Jesus comes to this woman in a physical, tangible way.  Not with magic words, spoken from across the room, but with a healing touch.  Where she had been excluded on the Sabbath, restoration to the household means restoration to her ministry.

She is not healed so that she might become a highly functioning individual, seeking out her personal destiny.  She is not healed to cook up some food for five hungry men who don’t know their way around a kitchen.  She is healed in order to retake her place in the community.  And her response to that healing takes the form of service, to Jesus and the other guests in the house.

We can contrast this healing with the healing of the nameless crowd that happens later that night.  Here, we are told, the whole city gathers at the door of the house, and Jesus heals many and casts out demons, and then all the healed people just . . . go on home.  Flashy, yes, but all we see is a crowd getting healed.

And then, at the end of this long day, Jesus rises early and goes off by himself to pray.  Can he a get a moment’s rest?  No, he cannot.  Here come the disciples, telling him that “everyone is looking for you.”  The disciples seem to miss the point of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law.  There’s the suggestion here of Jesus being some side-show miracle healer, rather than the one who brings fullness of life, and restoration to community.

There’s a hint that the disciples want the rock star Jesus to come back and bask in the glow of his awesome accomplishments.  They say, everyone is looking for you.  And Jesus responds, then let’s go somewhere else.  He has no intention of setting up Jesus’ Magical Healing Shop in the house next to the synagogue.  Jesus seems to be trying to tell them that there is more to all this than “fixing” people.  Jesus wants to go into the neighboring towns so that he “may proclaim the message there also.”

What message?  The message of the good news.  That God has come near.  That healing and rejoining the community are possible.  The mighty and fearsome God we heard about in Isaiah this morning has come to heal people face to face.  God raises up by the touch of Jesus’ hand, that people might then minister to those around them.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  To stand around the door of the house and get a dose of healing misses the point.  Just as one day getting the vaccine and then staying home for the rest of your life misses the point.  To be brought to physical wholeness is only half the story.  The message to be proclaimed throughout the surrounding cities is seen in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, not in the clamoring crowd.  Jesus reaches out, raises up, and restores to community.  To ministry.

God reaches out to us in this same way, takes our hand, raises us up, and restores us to community.  In Jesus, we are brought back to minister to others, and can take our unique place, fulfilling our own roles, living out our own parts to play in the celebration.

But, just as with Simon’s mother in law, there are times when each of us is debilitated by suffering and isolation.  Especially right now.  Jesus offers himself by stretching out his hand to raise us to new life.  But it’s important to note, we are not raised back to life so that we can continue to live in our little isolated worlds.  The point of being healed is to rejoin the community, because that is where we are nourished and comforted and carried, so that we can do our shared ministry, our diaconei in the world.

When we are too weak to stand, Jesus raises us up.  When we are isolated in our pain, Jesus brings us back into the fold.  And when we feel we cannot carry on, we are carried by those around us, in their ministry.  There are days when any one of us walks in that door and can barely stand.  Days when our personal suffering is overwhelming.  Days when the last thing we want to do is sing or pray.  And on those days, the household sings and prays for you.  You are carried on a song and a prayer because you don’t have one of your own.  The voices of those around you is the song you cannot sing, the prayer you cannot pray, the Creed you cannot proclaim, and the congregation is speaking for you.  The community of Jesus carries you through.

And on those days—and on this day—Jesus is with us.  This God who knows the names of the stars and puts them in their place, knows your name, and meets us as we gather together . . . separate but together.  We are raised up, and restored to health together, so that together we might rise up and minister to those around us.

The days are coming when we will be back together in this beautiful space we call our church home.  And when we are back together, I pray that God will continue to increase our gratitude and generosity, as we minister in Jesus’ name to everyone we meet, and then going forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.


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