Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

tlcmsn-logo-butterfly_smFebruary 8, 2015

“Lift up your eyes on high and see,” says Isaiah, pointing toward the stars. Then he tells us that God calls each one by name. A majestic God who can craft the universe out of nothing, and yet knows each tiny part intimately is amazing. By contrast, 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) Is married to one of Jesus’ disciples. We do know his name: Simon Peter.

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, appreciated, and called by name by a loving Creator.

Mark’s story, set in a time when women were insignificant, is also set in a time when illness was seen as divine punishment for evil-doers. Jesus, however, sets out to upend both ideas. Today’s story begins with Jesus exiting the synagogue and immediately entering the home of a sick woman. It concludes with Jesus healing many, many people. This ever-expanding circle of healing points us toward what Jesus meant by when he said, “The kingdom of God has come near.” Whenever Jesus comes near, we see a wave of broken people being restored to wholeness.

Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the essence of God is restorative. In him we are reminded that God is not just a spiritual idea, and God does not choose to interact with humans in a merely spiritual way. In Jesus’ life and ministry we are assured that God is very, very interested in bodies, created beings. How does he heal Peter’s mother-in-law? It’s not when Jesus thinks particularly holy thoughts, but when Jesus touches her that she’s made well. And then?

Her first reaction is not to study the Torah to see if Jesus really is the fulfillment of the prophecies about the Messiah. Her first reaction is to get up and serve him. Maybe that’s another sign of patriarchy—that a woman’s job was to care for the men—but it’s also more than that. Physically restored to her body, she expresses her gratitude with a gift she has to give: she can feed the hungry. And so, using earthly elements—including her own flesh and blood hands—to prepare a meal, she passes 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 can be thankful that we are told her story, for it is a perfect example of discipleship, of a person responding to God’s goodness with her whole self. Peter’s mother-in-law did not just intellectually grasp what Jesus’ ministry was about; she acted it out. Jesus’ body, which soon will undergo much pain and suffering is, at least in this moment, given all the goodness of human attention and contact.

After being served by Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus didn’t lecture on conceptual truths about the nature of God or the 5 best ways to be successful. Instead, he opened the door to heal those who have gathered outside the house. Jesus is invested in human bodies. It’s telling that on his last night with his friends, he invites them over to eat supper together. As they arrive for the dinner, he washes their feet. I wonder if Jesus was thinking of Peter’s mother-in-law when he did so, since he says at that time, “I am among you like one who serves.” And as he fed them, he didn’t say, “When I’m gone, think about this in remembrance of me.” He said “DO this.” He gave them specific, concrete, physical activities to do that would connect them to him and to each other forever. He offered food and wine that they could smell, taste, and swallow, and he gave them the task of footwashing, which would require them to get up close and personal with one another—literally.

To follow Jesus means we have to get up close and personal with various parts of God’s creation—and not just for their sake, but also for our own. Our relationship with God is not just enhanced by, but actually fed by, our intimate relationships with the rest of the universe. If an idea we believe doesn’t have an impact on our embodied lives together, then that belief is probably not a core conviction.

That’s what Isaiah is trying to say with all his talk of grasshoppers and eagles from our first lesson. It also 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 as God’s servants, we have to care about it too—in a tangible, hands-on way.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas 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, how God can be three and one at the same time. We don’t have to understand the Nicene Creed or be able to explain how it is we believe simultaneously that Jesus was, and is, and is to come. What we really need to do is to practice the Incarnation—living authentically in our bodies and allowing our bodies to communicate the Gospel truth to all the world. And what is that Gospel truth? That life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, that hope is stronger than apathy.

How do we do that? As Christians, we throw ourselves completely on the mercy of an incarnate God who knows what it means to cry and dance and bleed and sing. We do not have to reject this world in order to announce the kingdom of God. We are not made of unclean bodies and clean spirits. God fashioned the first Adam out of clay—the word ADAM literally means mud-creature. So God starts with earth and earthiness. Then God breathes into the mud to infuse it with a holy, life-giving spirit. Together, synergistically, mud and breath make a human life. In the stories that follow this one in the Scriptures, many are jam-packed with tales 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.

As Christians, the ultimate sign of God’s passionate interest in and concern for bodies is the Incarnation at Christmas. God chooses 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 presence of God among us and for us. If that is how God operates, then how could we dare to take our own flesh and blood lightly? These are instruments of God’s grace. WE are instruments of God’s grace in the world God so loves. It’s an awesome responsibility. Like Peter’s mother-in-law, let’s use all that we are and all that we have in the service of our Lord Jesus.

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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