Sermon: Sunday, February 8, 2009: 5th Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31  ;  Psalm 147:1-11,20  ;  1 Corinthians 9:16-23  ;  Mark 1:29-39


God of life, open our hearts and our minds so that we would not only believe that you have come to heal us, but understand that you have come to make us healers. Amen.

If you are a fan of English literature, then you almost certainly have read something in your life by Charles Dickens. Perhaps it was Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, or David Copperfield. If not, then you’ve almost certainly seen a play or a movie based on one of his novels, maybe Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ works are now considered a part of the canon of English masterpieces, but in the day when they were written they were wildly popular with the masses who waited for each new installment to come out.

Dickens you see, or may recall, published his stories in installments in weekly or monthly periodicals. Each chapter generally ended with a cliffhanger, leaving the crowds hungry to find out what would happen next. It’s said that during the serialization of his novel The Old Curiousity Shop, crowds in New York would meet the ships coming from England at the docks, yelling out to the crews, “Is little Nell dead?” Looking for clues to how the story would end.

This style of writing has produced many popular works of literature. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series were also published in this way. The literary structure of the Harry Potter series read as though they were serialized, though they were not. We are used to reading in episodes.

So the way we often hear scripture, in weekly installments read aloud from the center aisle at church, isn’t entirely unfamiliar – though it’s not how it was written to be read, nor perhaps how it best makes sense. There are no cliffhangers built into the selections we read each week, and I would venture to guess that you have not been itching all week to hear what happens next in the gospel of Mark. In fact, because we unnaturally break up this book into bite-sized weekly installments, it’s difficult to remember the flow of the story and the context in which this week’s installment is taking place.

This season of the church year that we are in is called “Time after Epiphany.” There are twelve days of Christmas, from December 25th to January 5th each year. Epiphany is the following day, January 6th, and we transferred its celebration to the previous Sunday, January 4th. The Sundays that follow from Epiphany until we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday at the end of this month form the season we call “Time after Epiphany.” During this season we hear stories about beginnings from which gospel we are reading from that year. This year we are reading from the gospel of Mark, and we have heard the first chapter of Mark serialized across the weeks of January and February.

On January 11, the Baptism of our Lord, we heard how John the Baptist pointed ahead toward the one who was to follow him, how Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan and emerged from the water to hear the voice of God saying, “you are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That was Mark 1:4-11

Two weeks later, after a brief excursion into the gospel of John to hear about the calling of the disciples, we pick up where we left off in the first chapter of Mark, verses 14-20, with Jesus calling Simon and Andrew away from their fishing nets with his invitation, “follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Last week we heard the next eight verses, 21 – 28, still in the first chapter of Mark, where Jesus encounters the man with the unclean spirit and casts that spirit out. Jesus’ teaching is directly associated with Jesus’ healing by the crowds who respond to his healing miracle by asking, “what is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”

And so we arrive at this week’s portion, where we hear yet another story about healing and teaching, teaching and healing. If we’d been reading the gospel of Mark as a novel instead of as a periodical, this all would have been happening very rapidly, or – to use one of Mark’s favorite adjectives – immediately. Things in Mark’s gospel are always happening immediately.

As soon as they leave the synagogue where Jesus has performed his first exorcism they go directly to the home of Simon’s mother-in-law who is sick with a fever. In ancient times, a fever was thought to be the result of a spirit invading the body. That would have made this healing another exorcism in the eyes of those who saw how Jesus healed the woman, though Jesus seems to agree with us that a fever is just a fever. He doesn’t command any unclean spirit to leave Simon’s mother-in-law, he just touches her. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up. The writer of the gospel however retains the ancient belief, you hear traces of it in the following sentence, “then the fever left her” as though it was a spirit, “and she began to serve them.”

By evening the men Jesus had called to follow him, to learn from him, had gathered a mass of people in need of healing or possessed by demons, or fevers, I suppose. And Jesus continues to heal. He has to rise before the sun the next day to find some time for himself, some time to be with God in prayer, but his disciples won’t leave him alone. Our bibles say that Simon and the others “hunted for him” and when they find him they tell him that “everyone is searching for you.” They think they understand already who Jesus is and what he should be doing. They have lined up another full day of miracles for Jesus to perform. It takes a while for them to lose this habit. Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak openly about the cost of discipleship and the reality of his impending death and Simon will take him aside to scold him for speaking so negatively. But Jesus’ response is “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

That is the climactic moral toward which the clues in this first chapter of Mark point. Jesus teaches and heals, heals and teaches. When he takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and heals her, she rises up and begins to serve. Many commentators say that she becomes the first deacon of the church. Deacon, which comes from the Greek word diakonia, means service.

Interestingly the three verses of Mark we have skipped as we work our way through the first chapter this season are the place where that word first appears. After Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan at his baptism there are two little verses describing his temptation in the wilderness,

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13)

Simon’s mother-in-law rises from her healing to continue a vocation begun by the angels, one that sits at the heart of Jesus’ healing and teaching, service of others. Jesus heals so that we might become healers.

It is often those who have been wounded that understand this best. People like Simon’s mother-in-law, who have been touched by God, discover that in their own wounds lay the source of their power to heal others. Henri Nouwen calls these people “wounded healers,” and I think we each know someone who fits the bill. Someone who, having been where we are currently walking, knows how to help and guide us. Maybe it’s a cancer survivor who gives us strength and hope that there is life on the other side of chemotherapy and radiation. Maybe it’s the family that’s navigated the bureaucracy of adoption and helps you trust that there is a child waiting for you on the other side. Maybe it is the person who has gone through the divorce, who assures you that you will not always feel lost in the wildern
ess, that you will find your balance again, that life will go on. People who have been healed become the best healers for others.

That’s the best way, I think, to understand Jesus’ response to Simon when he catches up with Jesus out in the deserted place and tries to bring him back to continue a docket of miraculous healings. Jesus decides it is time to move on. “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. And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Teaching and healing. Healing and teaching.

We have one more week in this Time after Epiphany. Next week you will hear the last installment of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Once again Jesus teaches and heals, this time a leper, someone whose illness marks him as an outcast from the community. I’ll be gone next week at my annual clergy retreat for the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a clergy association living and working at the edge of the church’s public ministry. We’re reading a book together in preparation for the retreat by the African-American lesbian pastor Yvette Flunder titled, Where The Edge Gathers: Building A Community Of Radical Inclusion. So I trust that we’ll each be spending some time next weekend considering similar topics.

While I’m away you’ll have a chance to practice healing and teaching right here in worship. Next Sunday will include the rite of healing that we use periodically, the time when you come forward to receive the imposition of oil and a blessing for healing. Next week though it will be somewhat different. Instead of simply coming forward to have the presiding minister make the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil and to hear those words of blessing, you will have a choice. You will be able to follow that pattern that is familiar of oil and blessing, or you might choose to follow up that blessing with a time of prayer with a prayer minister, a member of the congregation who will be here waiting to hear what in your life needs prayer, and to pray for that with you on your behalf. Listening, teaching, healing. The ministry of Jesus becomes the ministry of the church in ways that we can taste and touch and see.

The story of God, it turns out, comes in episodes as well. Not discrete passages of scripture, portioned out and punctuated by cliffhangers, but coming in installations that manifest each time one of us who has been wounded and healed rises up to take the hand of Jesus and then turns to serve the one next to us still in need of that healing touch. Jesus can move on ahead, bringing the liberating word, that teaching with authority, to those in the next town over because we have been left behind to continue that work here, and we will.


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