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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Sermon for January 18, 2015 (Epiphany 2)

Text: Psalm 139 and John 1:43-51, preached at St Andrew Memorial, London Ontario.

 

I want to start by telling you a story.

It may be a familiar story, it may be not.

It is a story that I grew up with – my Sunday School had it on flannel graph.

It wasn’t directly in our readings this morning, but it was there, hovering in the background.

It’s a story that all of the individuals in today’s gospel would have been very aware of. Jesus would have known it, educated as he was in the stories of the history of his people. Philip and Nathaniel surely would have known it. It is likely one they grew up with on cold evenings around the fire before bed.

It is a story everyone in Israel would have known because, even though it had taken place centuries earlier, it was a significant story of the founding and establishing of their nation, of their people.

The setting of this story is centuries earlier than where we are with Jesus, Philip, and Nathaniel. To get to its location, we must go a little ways south of where the gospel is set in Bethsaida, south past Samaria and towards Jerusalem, but not quite that far.

It is mountainous country here, rocky and cold; the kind of barren land that makes it an unlikely place to stop and spend the night. But when you are fleeing for your life, anywhere that seems safe will do.

Fleeing for your life.

Jacob, the younger twin son of Isaac and Rebekah, is fleeing from his brother Esau. Esau the hunter, whose hunger for lentil stew was more important than his birthright. Jacob the deceiver, who tricked Father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, and thus earning the hatred of his elder brother. To escape being killed by Esau, Jacob runs.

The Psalmist (139) says, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.”

Jacob runs until he can run no more, until he is covered by the night – both a night of darkness and a night of despair. At night it is cold – as cold as the angry brother left behind – and having nothing soft to lie on, Jacob takes a stone and makes it his pillow.

But, again, as the Psalmist says, “You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways … You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me … Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast … For even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

Jacob may be able to flee from his angry brother, but he cannot flee from God.

So Jacob sleeps using a stone for a pillow. With an uneasy resting place like that, it is no wonder that Jacob has a vivid dream:

He dreams of a ladder set up on the earth. It must have been a ladder without end for its bottom rested on earth and its top rungs reached all the way to heaven. If that were not enough to make it an unusual ladder, the angels of God were ascending and descending on the ladder: crossing between heaven and earth. Heaven’s gate, where the earth becomes heaven’s door.

God has found Jacob – he cannot flee from God – and now God is standing right beside Jacob:

He speaks: You may be called the deceiver, Jacob, but I am the God of your father and your grandfather, and I know you. I know you and now I want you to know that I bless you. I promised to Abraham, I promised to Isaac, and now I promise to you: I am with you always. I am with you and your descendents – even when it seems all hope is lost and I’m not there, I am. And from your descendents will come the one who will end all of our exile…

Jacob awakens and takes the stone that was his pillow and makes it into a pillar and calls the place Beth-El – the house of the Lord. And it is at this place, Beth-El, that God changes Jacob’s name from Jacob – deceiver – to Isra-El – God is triumphant.

Centuries later, where we began with our gospel, this is the vision that Jesus presents to Nathaniel:

“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

You are no Jacob, the deceiver; you are Israel – you speak your mind and you speak the truth.

“Where did you get to know me, Jesus?”

“I formed your inward parts and knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are fearfully and wonderfully made – your frame was not hidden from me when you were being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” (Ps. 139)

“I saw you under the fig tree,” says Jesus. I saw you… sitting, enjoying figs, philosophizing with the best of them … I saw you scoff in disbelief when Philip told you that they’d found me in Nazareth; that they’d found the one about whom Moses and all of the prophets spoke – the Messiah, the Anointed.

And as Nathaniel glances around, trying to remember if he’d seen someone hiding, eavesdropping, in the fig tree while he and Philip had been speaking, he has an epiphany – his sudden and striking realization:

“Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It is YOU!

Jesus, in turn, offers him a further vision: “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Remember the dream of your ancestor, centuries ago? I am the ladder, says Jesus. Come and see, heaven is open. The kingdom of heaven is upon us.

Come and see.

And that is how we got here, in Bethsaida, with Jesus and Philip and Nathaniel:

Philip sought Nathaniel and told him they’d found Jesus.

Nathaniel scoffed.

Philip’s only reply:

“Come and see.”

Come and see

That is all that is asked of us, and it is especially relevant that we get reminded of that in the gospel this morning, during the season of Epiphany.

Nathaniel came and saw and found Jesus and, in finding Jesus, found himself as a disciple.

The shepherds came and saw and found a baby, lying in cloths in a manger and, in finding Jesus, found themselves his messengers proclaiming what they had seen.

The magi came and saw and found an infant king and, in finding Jesus, found themselves the bearers of extraordinary gifts for a king.

God sees us – where we are, who we are, what we are.

God knows us – every single intricate part and all of the thoughts we daren’t even voice aloud.

God calls us – calls us by name. Our deepest names. Because of, and in spite of, knowing us, God calls each one of us.

All we need to do is come.

Because it is in answering the “come and see” that we have our own epiphany – our sudden realization: we find Jesus and Jesus finds us. In that finding, we realize who we are – who we are as Jesus’s followers and we learn what it means to believe.

Come all you who are faithful, and all who would like to be faithful.

Come all you who walk in darkness and hunger for the light.

Come –

Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, disbelief enough to draw near and see for yourself.

Come.

Come and see.

Come and be found.