Sermon for February 8, 2015

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.

Amen.

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.

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Wait! There is More!

Now that I have the attention of the government…

I received an emailed letter from the Minister of the Environment, The Honourable Peter Kent today. I’m hoping for a letter from the Minister of Health next, and, since Kent forwarded my letter to them, I’m also anticipating hearing from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Labour. I should start a scrap book.


Does it sound like he agrees with us but isn’t allowed to outright say so?

In which I discover that the government does read mail. And then they respond with a lecture.

UPDATE 09/27: A second letter from the Minister of the Environment!

This is a long one… if you don’t read everything in the Government’s letter (and it is all a load of crap), at least scan to the end for my editorializing…!

Back in July, asbestos was in the news a lot. Canada, a leading exporter of the stuff, was getting in hot water internationally for exporting it and not ensuring it was used safely overseas when it is something banned in this country. I got a little miffed about that, given my family history with asbestos, and made some comments on Facebook. Those comments turned into a series of long debates with friends which my sister, Jen, proposed that we incorporate into a letter to the Prime Minister. Since I had just done something similar a couple months earlier, I was definitely game to hate mail our government once again.

July 4, 2011

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

As you may have noticed, your efforts at the recent Rotterdam Convention to keep chrysotile asbestos off the Annex 3 list of hazardous chemicals have garnered some attention.  We are writing you to voice our own concerns about Canada’s continuing role in exporting asbestos.  We are sisters; Gillian is 29 and Jennifer is 26.  

Our relationship with asbestos began fairly personally.  Our grandfather worked for an oil company at their refineries for his entire career.  As a manager, he brought his family to live in onsite housing when his children were young.  This is likely how the family received most of their exposure to asbestos.  When our grandfather died of cancer in 2003 he was also suffering from asbestosis.  When our mother was diagnosed with mesothelioma in the fall of 2000, doctors were shocked to see the disease in a patient so young.  She fought it for three long years, far beyond the maximum 8 months she was originally given, and died a few months shy of her 50th birthday.  Jennifer was 18 and Gillian was 21.  Asbestos touches real people.

We are also concerned about Canada’s place in the global village.  If we ban a substance in our own country but continue to sell it to others, what does that make us? Profiteers at the expense and certain harm to others? Would we expect the federal government to prop up the manufacture of drugs so that we can ship them to other countries? Opiates have a use in the health care industry, as does marijuana, but in reality we get upset at countries that don’t crack down on the manufacture and export of drugs that are illegal in Canada.

Canada should agree to let chrysotile asbestos be listed as a hazardous material and also provide the training necessary for its proper use.  Unfortunately, developed countries have a tendency to sell resources to developing countries with no regard for safety, often exposing them to risks that would never be acceptable here. If we are a global village, we need to act like neighbours who actually care about each other more than making a dollar.

We worry about possibly watching our mother’s three siblings deal with asbestos-related diseases.  We worry about other children losing their parents.   We worry about Canada’s tarnished reputation on the world stage because of the government’s stance on this issue, and we are ashamed.

Sincerely,

Gillian and Jennifer

I didn’t receive a response to the first letter that I sent (though, unlike this one, I only sent it to the PM and not my MP) and so, that was the last I thought of it. Until today. I arrived home this afternoon to a letter in my mailbox from the Ministry of Natural Resources. Ministry of Natural Resources? It wasn’t until I was halfway down the driveway with the closed letter in my hand that I realized what it must be. Inside, I received a two-page lecture from the Hon. Minister Joe Oliver… (text follows) (Sorry for the bad lighting in the first image. Not sure what happened. It was the same time/place… I should get a scanner.)

Dear Ms Gillian and Ms Jennifer:

The Prime Minister’s Office has forwarded to me a copy of your letter of July, 4, 2011, in which you express some concerns related to Canada’s position with respect to chrysotile asbestos.

Please accept my sympathy for the asbestos-related death of your mother and your grandfather. I understand and appreciate your concern for the well-being of others, and assure you that the health and safety of workers and the public is a priority for the Government of Canada.

It is important first to clarify how we use the term “asbestos.” A great deal of confusion arises from the common use of the generic commercial term “asbestos” to describe two different and distinct classes of mineral fibres found naturally in rock formations around the world: amphibole and serpentine.

Chrysotile, the only “asbestos” fibre produced in and exported from Canada, belongs to the serpentine class. Serpentine minerals are structurally and chemically different from the amphiboles. Chrysotile is the only “asbestos” fibre that does not belong to the amphibole group. The risk posed by using chrysotile fibres can be managed if adequate controls, such as those established in Canada, are implemented and completely observed.

In 1979, the Government of Canada adopted the controlled-use approach to asbestos. This means that, through the enforcement of appropriate regulations to rigorously control exposure to chrysotile, the health risks associated with processes and products can be reduced to acceptable levels.

Chrysotile is regulated under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act. The objective of the regulations is to prevent the exposure of consumers to products containing or consisting entirely of any type of asbestos and which can readily shed loose fibres that can be inhaled and cause adverse health effects. Canada does not ban naturally-occurring substances. Canada manages the risks of products and practices derived from these substances where and when required and applicable.

The illnesses we are currently seeing in countries that have intensively used “asbestos” fibres are linked to past high-level exposures and inappropriate uses. These uses have been prohibited or discontinued in Canada since the late 1970s. A total ban on chrysotile is neither necessary nor appropriate. Implementing a ban would not protect workers or the public against past uses that have been prohibited for many years.

More than 93 percent of the world production of chrysotile is used in chryso-cement-manufactured products in the form of pipes, sheets and shingles. Five percent is used for friction materials such as brake pads and linings. Canadian-manufactured products include brake pads, gaskets and specialty products. Fibres are encapsulated in a matrix in those products, thus preventing the release of fibres and allowing their use.

We all share the objective of protecting human health. Since 1979, Canada has promoted the controlled-use approach, both domestically and internationally. Canada continues to work with other countries on matters related to the safe use of chrysotile through the Chrysotile Institute.

The Chrysotile Institute, a not-for-profit organization established in 1984 by the governments of Canada and Quebec, labour and industry, has the mandate to promote the controlled use of chrysotile both domestically and internationally. The Chrysotile Institute provides information to governments, industry, unions, media and the general public on how to safely manage the risks associated with the handling of chrysotile fibres. This information includes technical regulations, control measures, standards and best practices. Over the years, the Chrysotile Institute has assisted knowledge and technology transfer in more than 60 countries.

Thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely,

The Honourable Joe Oliver, P.C., M.P.

Did anyone else notice the excessive use of quotation marks around “asbestos”?

I find it interesting how, in the same breath, asbestos use in Canada is both condoned as safe and labelled as risky. Please, make up your mind. And then instead of giving me a history lesson and lecture, trying to placate me with lots of information and overwhelm me to silence, actually address my concerns. While I appreciate that the government actually replied to my letter (First time that the Conservatives have ever replied to anything I have written. Though I would also like to take this opportunity to state that my wonderful NDP MP has responded to every letter I have ever written her.), I feel a little patronized and completely unsatisfied by this response. Basically, it is another rehashing of this government’s position: “I am right, you are wrong. Shut up, get out of our way while we screw this country over.”