Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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

I couldn’t help noticing, as I read the texts for today that, while Isaiah reminds us that God knows the name of every single star, the writer of Mark’s Gospel couldn’t be bothered to find out the name of one woman, even though she happens to be a central character in his story today. All we know about her is that her daughter (whose name we also do not know) was married to one of Jesus’ disciples. We do know his name: Simon Peter. The contrast of who gets called by name in these readings is an interesting study in priorities, I think. In Mark’s world, women’s identities were entirely bound up in the men connected to them. In God’s enormous universe, there is not one iota of existence that is not noticed and appreciated, called by name, by a loving Creator.

Remember last week’s reading from Mark, when Jesus was interacting with a man possessed by an unclean spirit? Remember how shocked everyone was? That’s because the conventional wisdom of the time was that illness—even mental illness—was contagious. But Jesus showed that God’s compassion was more powerful than any demon which sucks the life from the people God loves. Today we see Jesus in a similar situation, surrounded by sick people, and yet not becoming unclean because of them. Instead, right on the heels of last week’s story, we see Jesus exiting the synagogue and immediately entering the home of a sick woman. Eventually we see him healing many, many people. I think this ever-expanding circle of healing is intended to illustrate what Jesus meant by saying, “The kingdom of God has come near.” This is how God’s presence would be made known among mortals—with a wave of broken people being restored to wholeness.

These two stories, back to back, remind us that God is not just a spiritual idea, and God does not choose to interact with humans in a merely spiritual way. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. And Jesus life and ministry demonstrate that God is very, very interested in bodies, in created beings. Sure, humans are messy and complicated, but Jesus seems to want to hang around us anyway, and not just when we are at our best. It’s worth remembering that in his last night on earth, Jesus didn’t offer a lecture on conceptual truths of the universe. He invited them to eat supper together, and as they arrived for the dinner, he washed their feet. When he fed them, he didn’t say, “When I’m gone, think about this in remembrance of me.” He said “DO this.” He gave specific, concrete, physical things for them to do that would connect them to him forever. In the case of the meal, he offered things that they could smell, taste, and swallow. In the case of the feet, he gave them a task that would require them to get up close and personal with one another, that would make it necessary for them to be close enough to one another that they would have to touch each other, literally. To follow Jesus means we will have to get up close and personal with other parts of creation that God loves, not just for their sake, but for our own. Our relationship with God is not just enhanced by, but actually fed by our intimate relationships with the rest of creation.

When Jesus touched Peter’s mother-in-law, she was made well. And then? Her first reaction was not to go on a weekend silent retreat to ponder the meaning of her experience. It was not to study the Torah to see if Jesus really was the fulfillment of all the prophets had said the Messiah would be. Her first reaction was to get up and serve. Maybe that’s a sign of partriarchy, that a woman’s job was to care for the men. But I think it’s also more than that. I think that, physically restored to her body, she expressed her gratitude with a gift she had to give that could not be found elsewhere—she could cook. And so, using earthly elements—including her own flesh and blood—to prepare a meal, she passed on her gratitude for physical healing by caring for other bodies—hungry bodies, needy bodies, Jesus’ body.

Whether or not we are told her name, we are told her story. Why? Maybe because it is a perfect example of discipleship, of responding to God’s goodness with her whole self. Peter’s mother-in-law did not just intellectually grasp what Jesus was about, she acted it out. Jesus’ body, which soon will undergo much pain and suffering, at least here, in this moment, is given all the goodness and joy of human contact. It makes me wonder if Jesus was thinking of her when he later washes his disciples’ feet saying, “I am among you like one who serves.”

Why does Mark tell us these stories about Jesus spending time with sick people’s bodies and spirits? Maybe it’s to make us wonder, “Whose flesh are we touching and why? Whose flesh are we NOT touching and why?” Those are the essential questions about our faith and our lives. If an idea we believe doesn’t have an impact on our embodied lives together, then that belief is probably not a core conviction. I think that’s what Isaiah was trying to say with all his talk of grasshoppers and eagles. It may be what the psalmist wanted us to ponder when he wrote, “{God} heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names…he makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. He provides food for flocks and herds, and for the young ravens when they cry.” God cares about the physical world, and if we are God’s servants, we have to care about it too.

Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches ethics at Duke, writes: “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines. It is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.”  We don’t have to be able to make intellectual sense out of the Holy Trinity, and how God can be three and one at the same time. We don’t have to understand the Nicene Creed (I see the relief on your faces) or be able to rationalize how we believe simultaneously that Jesus was, and is, and is to come. What we really need to do is to practice the Incarnation—living in our bodies and allowing our bodies to communicate the Gospel truth to all the world—that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, that hope is stronger than apathy.

How do we do that? Isn’t it sad that for many of us, we’ve spent literally years and years in churches and at retreats and study groups, we do not know how to honor God in our bodies, with our bodies? I’d like to blame the Greeks. St. Paul’s congregations were mostly Hellenistic, and that culture split the world neatly into things “of the spirit” being Godly and things “of the flesh” being evil. But they missed out on the critical essence of Judaism, which is the parent of our Christian religion. They forgot that the God made bodies out of earthly stuff—literally earth. The word Adam actually means mud creature, which is what we are. God did not split us into unclean bodies and clean spirits. Instead God infused the mud-creatures with a holy, life-giving spirit, and the two aspects together made the human live. The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, are jam-packed with stories of God’s attention to bodies, from sending manna into the wilderness so the people would not starve to raising the dead son of the widow of Zarapath.

And we, as Christians, see God’s interest in bodies move into an even more central place in our faith in the Incarnation at Christmas. God chose to enter the world not as a flaming bush or a whirlwind, but—at least this time—as a human baby. God trusted flesh and blood to bring the love of God into the world, to be the physical presence of God among us. If that is how God operates, then why do we take our flesh and blood so lightly? These are instruments of God’s grace. WE are instruments of God’s grace in the world God so loves. Let us be as quick to rise up and serve as Peter’s mother-in-law was.

Let us pray. Creative and creating God, we thank you for all the wonders that your hands have made. For the grasshoppers and the eagles, for mountains and for rivers, for stones and for each shining star you call by name. Thank you for our bodies made from clay that come to life when you breathe into us. Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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