Healing and Discipleship: A Homily for Epiphany 5B, 2021

5 Epiphany

February 7, 2021

One of the things I’ve struggled with most over the past ten months is the helplessness I often feel when pastoral concerns arise. I’m unable to visit people in their homes, or hospital beds, or hospice. Phone calls or emails are no substitutes for a face-to-face conversation, for being present with someone who is suffering or struggling, to offer prayers, words of consolation and comfort, or communion. 

I’m not alone in this. It’s something clergy talk about when we gather but it’s a general problem as well. We have been cut off from each other and in spite of all of the ways that technology enables us to worship, to have fellowship, to continue to do our work, we miss the simple pleasures of being together with friends, family, coworkers, other members of the body of Christ. We feel the sense of that loss every day. 

The little gospel story we heard today seems straightforward, perhaps even uninteresting but hearing it in our context brings out new themes that speak to our situation. 

Recall that we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Earlier that day, he had visited the synagogue in Capernaum where he taught (with authority) subdued a man with an unclean spirit. Now he is going home with Peter, where they discover that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever. 

In moving from the synagogue to a home, Jesus is not only going out for lunch after services. He is moving from the public, male-oriented space of the synagogue to the private space where women could act as agents. But in this case, Peter’s mother-in-law is incapacitated by illness and unable to fulfill her traditional and important role of offering hospitality. Jesus heals her and Mark says that she got up and served them. 

That little detail might be something we overlook, or it might be something we notice and even offend us. Think about, one could interpret this story to mean that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law so that she could get up and fix dinner for him and his disciples. 

There’s more to it than that, of course. First off, the word used here for “served” is the Greek word diakosune—from which we derive our word “deacon.” Significantly, Mark uses it at the very end of the gospel to describe the women who watched from afar as he is crucified. There, Mark is contrasting the behavior of these female disciples with Jesus’ male disciples, all of whom abandoned him at the end and left him to die alone. For Mark these women are models of discipleship. It’s appropriate, then, that at the very beginning of the gospel, Mark shows a woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, modeling discipleship by serving Jesus.

That’s not the end of the story. As evening falls, ushering a new day and the end of the sabbath, the townspeople bring all of their sick and those possessed by demons to Jesus. Mark says that he healed many of them—not all. And then Mark tells us that Jesus went off to a deserted place to pray. When his disciples caught up with him, they told him that “everyone was looking for him” implying that he was wanted back in Capernaum, to continue his ministry of healing. But Jesus demurred. He told them his work was elsewhere, to proclaim the good news, heal the sick, and cast out demons in the towns and villages of Galilee. 

Packed into these few verses are some important lessons for us. We see models of both ministry and discipleship. For Mark, one key theme discipleship and ministry is service—Jesus will later tell his disciples in 10:45 that he came not to be served but to serve (using the exact same Greek word here). While healing is central to Jesus’ ministry, it’s important to keep in mind that healing was not only about a physical illness. In the ancient world, illness affected the whole person, body and soul, and to be healed meant being healed spiritually, and restored to the community. Peter’s mother-in-law was isolated in her bed. When Jesus healed her, she was restored to her place in the community. 

In addition, in Jesus’ actions we see an important reminder to us as well. In the first place, while all the sick and those possessed by demons were brought to him in Capernaum, Mark says he healed many, not all of them and that he left to go to a deserted place to pray. Even Jesus couldn’t solve all of the problems of the people and he needed to take a break, get away from it all, to pray and recharge. 

I’ve been inspired as I’ve watched Grace members come together over the last months. In spite of the challenges facing us all, in spite of the many limitations on what we can do, we are still caring for each other, preparing meals, praying, reaching out to those in need. We are doing ministry in all kinds of ways, sharing God’s love with each other and with the larger community. The phone tree, the healing prayer team, pastoral care committee, the nourishing community group are all working hard to keep us connected and to respond to needs as they emerge.

But we should remember that even as we seek to do ministry, to follow Jesus’ example in serving others, healing and restoring them to community, we should not lose sight of our own needs and limitations, that we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it by ourselves. Our work needs to be centered in prayer and in our relationship with God. The prophet’s words should inspire us:

“but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? A Homily for 4 Epiphany B, 2021

4 Epiphany

January 31, 2021

Yesterday, we held our vestry retreat. As with so many things over the past 10 months, we had to adapt our practices the realities of social distancing, so we held it over zoom, and for a much briefer period than we would in normal years. We did the usual beginning of new year things, appointed some officers, discussed the 2021 budget and the like. We also took some time to talk about what we missed about church and to begin thinking about how to prepare ourselves as leaders, and the people of Grace for our common life and worship as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

Almost everyone who spoke about what they missed mentioned something about the beauty of Grace Church, the sacred space into which we enter each week and where we worship. Some of us talked about the opportunities we’ve had over the last 10 months to spend time by ourselves in the nave, being in silence with God, and experiencing the sights, sounds, and sounds of an old church.

One thing no one mentioned was missing the occasional disruption to our worship—the noise on the square, a police officer interrupting worship to warn us that our cars might be towed, or a homeless person sleeping in a back pew whose snores finally became too loud to ignore, or a someone beginning to shout.

Jesus is confronted by such an encounter during his visit to the synagogue in Capernaum as he begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Mark. And given our own memories of those disruptions to our services in the past, we are likely to try to interpret this story in light of our own experiences. We are also very likely to seek explanations from our world and worldviews. So a man with an unclean spirit becomes someone suffering from mental illness or epilepsy, or some other condition with which we are familiar and which our medical and social establishments have named and categorized.

But that’s precisely the wrong interpretive move to make. When we try to reinterpret phenomena like an unclean spirit into terms that are comprehensible to us, we fail to see the power that those phenomena had or still have in traditional societies. In the case of this particular story, to ignore the power of the unclean spirit robs us of the ability to see what’s really at stake here—for while it is a story of Jesus dealing with an unclean spirit, more fundamentally, it is a story about power, or to use the story’s language—authority.

In fact, if you think carefully about it, the one who creates the disturbance in the synagogue is Jesus, not the man with the unclean spirit. For when he confronts Jesus, he asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words, he is questioning Jesus’ right to be in the synagogue, and presumably to be teaching there. Jesus has already upset things for his teaching was as “one with authority” not as the scribes. And of course, it was the scribes who had the right to be teaching in the synagogue, and the authority to do so.

Jesus’ authority is further demonstrated when he casts out the unclean spirit and we hear the onlookers’ response: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

One more thing. This is how Mark starts his story of Jesus’ public ministry. Like Luke, who has Jesus begin his public ministry by teaching in a synagogue (in Luke it’s Nazareth, however, and we get a synopsis of Jesus’ sermon), in Mark, we hear nothing of what he has to say, but rather this confrontation with a man with an unclean spirit. It points to one of Mark’s most important themes—that in Jesus we see the coming of God’s reign, but that this coming involves a confrontation with the evil and demonic forces that oppose it. 

Here is where we might find a way of bringing the themes of this text into our world and our lives. Without trying to explain away the presence of this unclean spirit confronting Jesus, we can see clearly the evil and demonic forces in our world—racism, sexism, the assault on truth, white supremacy, violence, intolerance, rampant individualism, unfettered capitalism. We are seeing played out in our culture what seems to be a battle between good and evil, a battle that takes place on the streets of our cities, in our state and national capitol, in grocery stores and vaccine lines.

In the midst of our struggles, as we watch these battles playing out, the Gospel of Mark suggests that the first and perhaps most important step is to name the demons in our midst. By naming them, we begin to have power over them. That may be one reason Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent, not to name him. We can see in our daily news the consequences when people are to afraid or unwilling to name evil—it is allowed to grow and become more powerful.

But a second step is prayer. We often think that prayer is a last resort and it has become commonplace to ridicule the call for “thoughts and prayers” after national or local tragedies. But prayer is not always an act of compliance or resignation. It can be an act of resistance and it can or should be an act of faith. When we pray, we are struggling within ourselves against the temptations of despair or unbelief. When we pray that God will bring justice and peace, we are imagining God’s reign coming into being on earth, we are expressing our hope and faith that God is acting in history to liberate God’s people, free prisoners and captives, give sight to the blind, and bind up the broken-hearted.

Mark’s Jesus isn’t comfortable or warm and fuzzy, reassuring us that we’re ok. Mark’s Jesus speaks and acts with authority; he confronts the powers and principalities. Mark’s Jesus challenges our complacence and complicity. It may be that when he comes among us, as he came into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught with authority, that we are the ones who would cry out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” 

May Jesus’ authority inspire and fill us as we seek to follow him, to speak with authority, to name and cast out demons and unclean spirits. May Mark’s Jesus inspire us to speak boldly about and to the evil we see, and to heal the wounds of the suffering, and bring justice to the oppressed. 

Naming, Casting out evil: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2018

Corrie and I caught the first episode of a new documentary series that’s airing on PBS this winter. It tells the stories of people who met during significant historical moments and the efforts to bring them back together after decades. The first episode told the story of Reiko, a Japanese-American woman now in her 80s who was among the hundreds of thousands who were taken from their homes and lives and interred in camps for the duration of the war.

Reiko wanted to reconnect with Mary Frances, a Caucasian girl who had been her best friend. Their friendship was opposed by Mary Frances’ parents and broken when Reiko and her family were interred in Wyoming. After the war, when she returned home with anti-Japanese sentiment still running high, Reiko was afraid to go to school. But on her first day back, Mary Frances ran up to her, took her hand, and walked with her into the classroom. Continue reading