a sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany
When Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, she was able to return to her truest self.
This past week I went to Jacksonville to visit my mother. Mom is 87 years old, but she looks and acts like someone much younger. She still plays bridge at least once a week. She volunteers to work as an usher at the civic auditorium. And she cooks wonderful Arabic meals anytime that my brother, sister, or I come to visit. In fact, even when she comes to visit one of us, Mom always insists on making a sumptuous feast that could feed dozens of people – stuffed grape leaves, fragrant bread, kibbeh, baked chicken, hummus, tabouleh – all of these are lovingly and painstakingly prepared over many hours, only to be devoured in just a few minutes.
But this trip was different. My mom was recovering from surgery to repair her broken arm in a fall just before Christmas. I fully expected to be the one who cooked for her, or at least take her out someplace for supper. But that was completely out of the question for her. It was her house, and her rules. And her rules were that she was going to fix the meals, unless she was on her death-bed.
There is no question that different cultures have different views on the roles of men and women. In these modern times, Middle eastern cultures are definitely to be more male-dominated than we are here in the United States. And when we look back to Jesus’ day, the differences we see in how men and women relate to each other are even more profound. Men were in charge of everything – except the home. Cooking, cleaning, raising children, that was all women’s work. And if for some reason a woman couldn’t perform her duties, that was a huge embarassment, or worse.
Today’s Gospel story picks up where we left off last week, where Jesus healed a man who was possessed by a demon. Today, the story continues with Simon inviting Jesus, James and John over for Sabbath dinner at his home. But when they arrive, they find that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever. Jesus does something very counter-cultural. He touches her, and she is immediately healed and jumps up and begins to serve them.
Now for many of us, this sounds like a story of sexism in 1st century Palestine. Here comes Simon, dragging Jesus in to heal his mother-in-law, just so she can get up and fix them some supper! Clearly, there are any number of things she could have done that would seem to us more important than serving a bunch of guys who wandered in uninvited for supper.
But there is another way of looking at this story. In the time of Jesus as well as today, sickness prevets us from being who we truly are, who we are called to be. But when we are healed, we are restored not only to physical health, we are also restored to the freedom to be our best true selves.
One of my favorite movies is a comedy called “Groundhog Day.” (It’s particularly fun to watch between the beginning of February and Valentines Day.) In it, Bill Murray plays an egotistical television news personality, who is assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA. He is a bored, self-absorbed, and conniving individual who lives from day to day with absolutely no concern for God or his fellow human beings. As far as he’s is concerned, life is simply about getting ahead. He is accompanied by his producer, who is played by Andie MacDowell, a real-life Episcopalian who was taught Sunday School by our own Anita Stuart in Gaffney, SC. After filming an interview with the mayor of Punxsutawney, the reporter is forced to stay the night in town by a freak blizzard. When he awakes the next morning, he discovers that he is forced to relive the exact same day all over again.
The man’s initial response to this strange turn of events is to take advantage of his situation every way he can. He robs an armored car, indulges in eating unhealthy food, drives too fast, gets into fights and seduces women. After all, if everyday were exactly the same, if there were no such thing as tomorrow, then there are no consequences for our actions. But after a while, he begins to realize that what matters in life is not what he gets out of it, but what he puts into it. Soon he is reading poetry, taking piano lessons, and becoming something of a local hero. Still, nothing changes. Each day is exactly like the day before it. It is only when Phil sets aside his own self-interest and begins to serve his fellow human beings, that he and the world around him are transformed. Phil was healed by serving other people.
Something similar is going on in the Gospel. Jesus restores the woman to health, so that she is free to once again perform the acts of love and service that are so important. She is freed not only from whatever evil spirits caused her illness, she is also freed to pursue her true vocation as the matriarch of the household, the only one who should serve such an important and distinguished guest as Jesus. And by serving, she expresses her true vocation as a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ.
Jesus once said, “I came not to be served, but to serve.” The fact of the matter is, Jesus knew that is true identity was not as lord over all, but as servant to all. In the same way, once she is healed, Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrates her true identity as a disciple. In fact, she’s the only one in the story that demonstrates true discipleship in service.
Our freedom to serve as Jesus served comes from our freedom from sickness in all forms – body, mind, and spirit. It comes when we are restored to God and to our fellow human beings through the love Jesus Christ.
One of the benefits of being part of a community like St. Simon and St. Jude is that we can give and receive care from one another. At any given time, some of us need healing and support, while others are capable of providing it. Our wholeness, our ability to live fully the life God intends for us to live, comes from our relationship with God, but also with each other.
Jesus saw his healing ministry as part and parcel with his proclaimation of the message, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” I wonder what would happen if we saw this parish as a place where people come to be healed and to heal one another? I wonder how each of us would be transformed through the knowledge that through Christ, we are forgiven and therefore have the freedom to become our own truest selves? I wonder what will happen when we fully grasp that because of God’s love, we are free to live our true calling as a community of faith and to proclaim love God for all?
Thanks be to God.