Text: Mark 1:29-39, preached at St Andrew Memorial Anglican Church, London Ontario.
I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether or not to post this one. It is a little bit more personal than usual, but it was a story that wanted to be told in light the readings of the day and in light of life in my placement parish. In addition, people have asked to read it and, ultimately it has already been offered to a community and this is another, albeit more public, community of mine. The story wanting to be told came out of a conversation with my Homiletics professor about how challenging the idea of healing is for so many people, especially those of us who have grown up with the stories of Jesus healing people throughout the gospels. What does that even look like? So, with some help that is noted at the bottom, I wrote a sermon.
Perched on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, the town of Capernaum is today in ruins. Visitors can wind between the ancient stone walls and palm trees while enjoying the sunshine as they stroll out the walkway over the Sea. For the Romans, Capernaum was the town that supplied their fish: upwards of 200 boats set out from here daily to ply the waters of the largest freshwater lake in Israel, catching boatloads of fish and making their living. Capernaum, in the region of Galilee, is just down the road from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It is likely that Jesus visited here with his father, Joseph, to ply their trade as carpenters. And it is in this region, in this town, that Jesus begins his ministry. He launches it from the synagogue, the town centre of worship, justice, and community life.
Jesus has come to the synagogue to teach. And teach he does. We heard in last week’s readings how he taught with authority, even more authority than the local teachers. Then he amazed everyone present by casting an unclean spirit out of a man.
Perhaps it was this event, the healing of a man with an unclean spirit, that prompted Simon to look over and catch the eye of his brother, Andrew. The nod in return settled it. And there we pick up the story this morning.
There is an urgency where this morning’s reading from Mark begins: “As soon as they left the synagogue they went to the house of Simon and Andrew…”
Simon must have been tripping over himself to catch Jesus on the way out of the door: Teacher you have to come with me, come back to my house – right now!
And, immediately, back to Simon and Andrew’s house they go.
Simon: the impetuous first-called disciple of Jesus. The fisherman who Jesus called to fish for people instead.
We don’t know what his wife’s name was. We probably wouldn’t have even known he was married if it wasn’t for this story. But he must have been married, because now we are face to face with his mother-in-law.
I imagine her a strong woman, a capable woman who manages the household well. Goodness knows, with Simon, the rash decision-maker, and his brother Andrew in the house, she must have a strong personality in order to compete with theirs. I’m guessing that she has a strong handle on the dealings of the place, probably does a lot of the work of making the food that they eat and caring for the affairs of the house.
But she is sick. Not just any kind of sick – she has a fever. If they’ve had good times with the fishing, they’ve had the money to bring in a doctor to look at her. But whether the doctor has been or not, it is clear: there is not much they can do. A fever is pretty dangerous – there is not much that anyone can do to lessen its hold.
So Simon and Andrew drag Jesus home from the synagogue. After all, he has just demonstrated his authority to teach and cast out unclean spirits with a word. Maybe he will speak a word for Simon’s mother-in-law.
But Jesus does more than that. He walks over to her bedside, looks at her flushed and sweating face, stares into her feverish eyes, takes her by the hand and lifts her up.
And here is where I get stuck in today’s reading: She is healed.
The fever is gone and Simon’s Mother-in-Law is healed.
So what does Simon’s mother-in-law do? She goes back to life-as-normal. She gets up and begins to serve Jesus, Simon, Andrew, and the whole crew.
That’s normal, right?
Except it isn’t.
Healing hardly ever comes like that, at least not in my experience. You’re not sick and dying one day and carrying on as if it never happened the next. Even a minor cough or cold can put you out of commission for weeks. And for those who have been laid low by serious illness or a traumatic injury, it is hard to say if the healing will ever be complete. Indeed, all of those of us who have broken bones in the last year can attest to that: we are still doing the therapy needed to regain full use of our broken fingers, wrists, and arms. It is unheard of that someone as ill as Simon’s mother-in-law could get up and go about the task of feeding a full house so soon after her fever left her. In this world, in this life, it just doesn’t work like that.
Which is probably the point.
It is no wonder that the news of Simon’s mother-in-law’s healing spread so quickly – seeping out of the house and down alleyways, drawing everyone in the city to gather around their front door, bringing with them all of their sicknesses and troubles.
It is no wonder, really. Because who doesn’t yearn for that time before: Before I fell. Before the terrible car accident. Before the diagnosis was given. Before my relationship fell apart. Before my loved one died.
Before. Before. Before.
Before and as full of the old life as Simon’s mother-in-law now appears to be.
But could she really have returned to “before” – been fully returned to how she was before she was sick?
She has experienced something that, though it didn’t take her life, has still taken something out of her and replaced it with something entirely new, something different. If nothing more, she has an awareness that she did not possess before.
For her, and for all of those crowded outside of Simon and Andrew’s front door seeking healing, life will never be the same as it was before: they have experienced the depths of despair, the heights of hope, and the wonder of life renewed in a way they likely haven’t felt before.
At least that is how it was for me.
I have to go back many many years now to get to that place, to the autumn when my mum died. To those long weeks, months, and years while we watched her health decline, watched her get weaker and weaker, and then struggle just to breathe – all of the while yearning and praying – to go back to before. Back to a time when she was healthy and we could just be a normal family. And while our prayers for her to be restored to health increased in frequency, our awareness that this was not likely to be also increased. At least it would not a return to health in this life.
Of course, this is not a perfect example, because we did not get that miraculous healing – at least not in the conventional sense.
But I will not forget the awareness that came to me one night as I was sitting in my friend’s van, while we talked and cried together. I realized that while I would do anything to have her back, for things to go back to how they had been before, I would be hard-pressed to give up anything I now knew:
About the preciousness of human life and the gifts of the laughter and music as friends gathered around mum’s bed to talk and sing songs.
About the wonder of community who showed up in a thousand and one ways to love us and care for us.
About the bond of family and friends who will drop everything just to come and be present.
About my own resilience and the profound, inexplicable, but so very real presence of God.
And about how faith did not die when it came up against some of the worst of what life can deal, but was mysteriously strengthened.
I wonder if Simon’s Mother-in-Law and all those gathered around their door, those who encountered the healing touch of Jesus experienced something of that as well in the aftermath of their respective miracles and their return to their ‘old lives.’
Of course, even the stories of healing we hear now are just a glimpse of what will be one day. Jesus knows this, which is probably why he didn’t stay in Capernaum in the house of Simon, of Andrew, and of Simon’s mother-in-law.
Before today’s reading is done, we’ve followed him, in the wee early hours of the morning, to a deserted place where he rests while he prays.
Perhaps he, too, is trying to make sense of everything that he has seen, heard, and experienced. Maybe Jesus is trying to put things into perspective as well, and the only way he knows how to is in the presence of God.
And then his disciples track him down – everyone is searching for you, Lord. And so are we… and Jesus recognizes that there is more to be done, because the work of God is so much broader, wider, and deeper than any of us can ask or imagine. His preaching, and his healing, throughout the region of Galilee is a taste of everything that God will one day do.
It could not be contained by the four walls of one family home. It could not be contained by one small fishing town. It couldn’t even be contained by the whole region of Galilee.
It is meant for all of the world.
While this story is completely mine, the inspiration for the second half of the sermon came from Rev Dr Janet Hunt, whose words and story so clearly articulated what I was trying to say that I borrowed many of her ideas and some of her words and phrases. She has graciously posted on her website that those of us who preach may use her posts in whatever ways we feel called in our sermons. I am so grateful for them because they gave voice to what I was trying to say. Thank you for those words and allowing them to be shared even further. She posts weekly, generally on the lectionary, and I always find inspiration in what she writes, even if I am not preaching.