(A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany February 8, 2009 Mark 1:29-39)
A couple of weeks ago, my computer began acting funny on a Thursday morning. Really, I must blame myself, because I clicked on something that looked innocent and as soon as I did, I had a feeling I’d made a mistake. News reports at the time announced a virus making the rounds and by the end of Day One of tending to the computer, my husband suggested I try something called “System Restore.”
System Restore, at least in theory, resets your computer to an earlier point in its history, and I hoped it would get me to some safe place before the incursion of the virus, a sort of time travel for my laptop and the programs and documents on it.
System Restore sounds sort of like what the President and the Congress want to do for our economy right now, plagued by multiple viruses of “living-beyond-our-means-itis” and “confidence fatigue syndrome” and “lost-job-osis.” No one seems able to agree on a plan, though we can give a lot of credit to our Senator for working at a compromise this week.
The trouble is that no one really knows what the solution is, how to heal the broken institutions or to cure the ailments plaguing them. We can only make our best guesses and trust.
It puts us in a position much like the people around Simon’s mother-in-law. There she lay abed, with some sort of wasting fever, and the cause and cure remained as mysterious to them as the inner workings of our financial system are to most of us. They only knew something terrible had happened; they only knew they didn’t know how to bring her back to good health. That may surprise us, since we live in a time when we expect every twinge to come with a diagnosis and an effective prescription. But not knowing what caused the trouble didn’t surprise anyone in the first century.
What did surprise them was Jesus, taking Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, and raising her from the bed, system restored.
So it should not surprise us that the word of Jesus’ powers spread and soon people of the town surrounded the house, bringing their sick friends and family members. Jesus sees to them, and night falls, and people return home and begin to think about who they might bring back tomorrow, the grandmother who cannot stand but could be carried, the infant no one expects to live, the cousin afflicted by a troubled mind or maybe even a demon.
But in the morning, in the morning when it’s light and people want to see Jesus again, no one can find him. The gospel says the disciples “hunted” for him; they did not know where he had gone or what he might be doing. They looked for clues and tracked his whereabouts.
And they found him praying, resting, restoring his own system in the best way available to him.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has a rhythm of teaching and healing, then retreating for a time of restoration. It prefigures his death and resurrection, when he is revived and restored to show that with God all things are possible. With God there may be death, but there will always be rebirth. For Jesus, the power to continue to do ministry came from the hours he spent in the tomb of prayer, reconnecting with his God-ness.
I came to First Parish last spring as many of those people went to Jesus, ill but not knowing what was wrong with me. I embarked on an effort to discover the trouble, with the help of several doctors. I learned something that bothered me a lot. Oh, I didn’t like hearing that I had rheumatoid arthritis. But worse than the diagnosis was the treatment: I learned that I needed to rest more. This bothered me because in my mind, doing more meant being a better pastor, a better mother, a better wife, a better friend and a better person. The thought of just sitting still, of taking a nap, of going to bed early not once in a while but nearly every night—intolerable!!
How would I accomplish everything on my list?
But listen to Jesus and what he said to his disciples when they “hunted” him down:
1:38 He answered, "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."
He came not to do the chores of ministry, the healing and the miracles, although he did them. He came to proclaim the message, to keep moving along the way, to share the word of the Kingdom of Heaven far and wide.
He didn’t stay to accomplish everything on the list for Capernaum.
This very short story gives us a model of faithfulness.
We begin with healing in the extended family. I love it that the person Jesus heals is Simon’s mother-in-law. The wife’s mother, so often the butt of jokes in our culture, becomes the very first lay minister. The Greek work used her for serve is “diakonei,” the word we know as Deacon. Earlier in the chapter it describes the work of the angels who minister to Jesus in the wilderness of his temptation. Simon’s mother-in-law gets up to minister to her visitors, to Jesus and his friends. Here in Chapter One of the earliest gospel we have, an older woman rises up, restored, to minister to others, by the hand of Jesus.
So, we begin ill, and we rise healed, and as healed people, we minister to others.
But no one can do that forever without a break. Even Jesus couldn’t. And so we must make time to restore ourselves again and again. How do you spend restorative time? Jesus goes into the wilderness to pray, and in one story he naps in the back of the boat! A seminary classmate gave me the boat on the worship center as a reminder to take that holy rest that everyone needs.
Of course you’ve heard me say I didn’t want to do it. I liked being busy. It felt useful. It felt important. But faced with the possibility that I might be sicker and not able to do anything I considered worthwhile at all, I went to the wilderness, too.
And I prayed.
Sometimes healing doesn’t come with a cure. Sometimes it comes in the midst of the difficulty and changes us in ways we did not expect.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that people around me stepped up and helped with things I couldn’t do myself anymore, and it didn’t hurt them one bit. It might not even surprise you to hear that when I sleep more, I feel better and think better and write better and live out my relationships more fully, too.
So we have two building blocks of a faithful life: accepting the healing love of Jesus, calling on it to minister to others and finding ways to restore it when we run dry.
That all sounds good, but it doesn’t get us all the way there. We could do that all year long within our own little circle, and we would be good to one another, and we might sleep well, too, but we would be missing a piece.
You see, it’s been true since long before the current economic downturn that there are always people in need. Just as the people lined up outside Simon’s mother-in-law’s house, people have flocked to places where they might get help throughout human history: the sick, the troubled, the homeless, the hungry and the cold. Some approaches to solving the world’s problems would leave them to sort out their difficulties on their own.
But in this story that models a faithful life, we learn to go on a different journey. We learn to go outside our own home circle and share the good news far and wide.
Sue and Paula modelled this with help from many others this weekend, supported by prayers and chili and Martin’s Stew and friends from church and Freeport Community Services. I stood with them for the first hour on Friday and heard their plans for the night, their hope for publicity that would let as many people as possible know that here in Freeport we know people are hungry and we know people need help heating their homes, and we care enough to do something about it.
I went home and slept in a warm
bed, a little guiltily, while our heroines spent the night in front of the church, with occasional trips inside to get a little less chilly.
Near the end of the 24 hours, I came back with Molly, and while we waved to people driving by and Pat approached shoppers at the crosswalk, a car stopped out front, and two little boys tumbled out of the back seat holding a glass box with Hebrew letters at the top. Their father came around the car and advised them on getting out the money they had been collecting for a long time. They brought their family’s Tzedakah box.
Tzedakah is a Hebrew word often translated as “charity,” though the roots of the word are “justice.” This young family puts money in the Tzedakah box each week before their Shabbat dinner. Thinking of others forms part of their ritual, every week.
I think I can safely speak for all who saw them and say it touched us to know they had come by earlier, learned what we were doing, and gone home to get their money. Their smiles as they poured it into the collection jar brought tears to our eyes.
How do we live a faithful life? We do it by getting up to serve, by standing in the cold, by restoring the system of charity and justice to those who need it most. And just as Jesus’ fame spread, just as he moved on to other towns, our actions will spread the word further, letting people know that God lives among us, that God’s healing love shared in the world will restore us all. Amen.