A Sermon for the People of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
February 8, 2015
Remember last week’s Gospel lesson? Last week we heard about Jesus’s first public act of ministry…and it was a bold one. He waltzed into synagogue, and began to teach (pretty brave, I have to tell you, that whole teaching in a new place thing). While he was there, he was confronted by a demon that identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus tossed it out, and his fame began to spread throughout Galilee.
Well, this week’s lesson takes place on the very same day…Jesus has just left the synagogue and has gone to the house of Simon and Andrew the former fishermen. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick; she’s laid up in bed with a high fever. Now, fever today in this country is not such a big deal if you’ve got good health insurance, but in that time, a time without antibiotics or Blue Cross Blue Shield, a fever worth writing about would likely be fatal.
So Jesus enters the house and simply holds her hand---he touches her—and immediately she hops out of bed and she begins to serve them. Maybe she made sandwiches or a nice fish stew.
Now, a whole lot of people I’ve talked with this week have read this text with a feminist hat on, and they get pretty upset about it. “What if she didn’t want to serve?” “When Lazarus was raised he got to lounge around the dinner table!” Now, I have nothing against feminists, in fact, I might consider myself to be a pretty good one, but here, that particular argument misses the point.
Which is this: Momma is sick. Jesus holds her hand. She is healed. She serves.
Or, Jesus touches her. She is restored. She serves.
She is healed through the compassion of Christ. And her immediate response is one of service.
My grandmomma grew up in the early part of last century, and her family, like so much of America at that time, was very very poor. She worked hard in the fields and then in the mills, until finally, my granddaddy returned home from the 2nd World War and asked her to marry him. He was a master carpenter and on his income, she was able to stay home and raise two boys. What might seem like gender entrapment to many of us was actually liberating for her. For the first time, most likely, she was able to use her gifts.
Grandmomma’s home was always full of people. I spent a significant chunk of my childhood there, and I remember that when it was just us, the house felt weirdly quiet and strangely empty. Because, you see, my grandmother had a spiritual gift…the gift of radical hospitality. And so people were drawn to her. Drawn to her welcome.
She was a woman of deep faith. In her own life, she had seen poverty, depression, and desperation. She had been visited by tragic illness. She had faced hours of loneliness and worry. But she had also known the restorative power of communion with Christ. She had been bound up in our Triune God in a real and powerful way.
And so, you couldn’t leave my grandmomma’s house with an empty belly nor could you leave empty handed. The tables she would set were overflowing with dozens of dishes that usually came straight from her garden. And almost always, there was a plate of fried chicken. The real deal, ya’ll. And always, there was room for one more. Folks would leave with “a plate for tomorry” or “a little something to help you get by”. I can’t even begin to recount the dozens of times she did without so that someone else could have what they needed. The hours she spent tending to family and church family and neighborhood children…or to whomever presented themselves with need. And perhaps the biggest gift, you couldn’t leave her side without the clear understanding that you were welcome with her and that you mattered to someone. And that she knew you mattered to God. Radical hospitality. Bound up in the mission of God through service to others.
Touched by Jesus. She was restored. And she served.
The gospel goes on… “that evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many…”
Remember, that in the time of Jesus, illness was a terrible thing. If it wasn’t the kind of illness that would kill you, then it was likely the kind that would get you cast out of society. Lepers, the blind, the lame all lived on the margins. Cast out. Unclean. Surely they did something that made God really, really angry. Surely they were so bad they were deserving of that punishment. And since “good” folks wanted to stay on God’s “good side” they refused to interact with the “bad” ones.
Illness meant a separation from society. A separation from community.
Who are our “unclean”? Those who don’t “look like us”? Those who speak a different language? Those who are uneducated? Those who qualify for, and God help them, actually accept government assistance like welfare or food stamps? Those who are disabled? Those who worship God differently?
When you look around during your day to day life, who do you see cowering in the corner, cut off from community, made fun of, voiceless, powerless, and in desperate need of something…or someone?
Who? Who is separated from community and by that separation feels cut off from God?
One of our professors, Rolf Jacobson says, “The church, the body of Christ, is in the business and mission of overcoming that separation.”
Just like Simon’s mother-in-law, and like my grandmomma, we have been touched by Jesus. We have been reconciled to God. We have been drawn back into community and into communion with our Creator. We are the church, the body of our Lord!
So as church, how do we participate in the reconciliation that has been extended to us?
I love this snippet from writer Anne Lamott: “Again and again I tell God I need help, and God says, “Well isn’t that fabulous? Because I need help too. So – you go get that old woman over there some water, and I’ll figure out what we’re going to do about your stuff.” (“Traveling Mercies,” p.120)
Whoever had a need that came into contact with Jesus, he tended them. Simple as that. Whoever has a need that comes into contact with us, we tend them. Simple as that. Whether it’s an extra meal for a child to take home over the weekend, time spent helping someone learn to read, giving a neighbor a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or simply playing a board game with someone who needs to know that they are welcome with you and that they matter to someone.
Your job is not to save. Your job is to serve.
You have been touched by Jesus. You are freed; you are forgiven. You have been restored to life in communion and in community. You are beloved. Go out in glad response to a life of service.
p.s. Thank you Goddaddy for reminding me about the bit from Anne Lamott.
p.p.s The flowers are there because I know Grandmomma would have loved them.