5th Sunday after Epiphany
February 4, 2018
Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon:
29As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. – Mark 1:29-39
Imagine the scene that is taking place when Jesus leaves the synagogue and enters the house of Simon’s mother-in-law. There has just been a very public healing of a man with an unclean spirit in the middle of what everyone in town expected to be an ordinary – maybe even boring – gathering for worship. They are amazed both at Jesus’ teaching and that it is backed up by the power to command the spirits. The crowd comes pouring out all a chatter, while Jesus and his brand new disciples head just across the path in this small village for lunch.
The village, looking out on the beautiful Sea (lake, really) of Galilee, is small, certainly by today’s standards, but the houses are packed on top of each other in the style of the day. Stone and mud rooms built closely packed on top of one another, buildings that speak to the interconnected communal living that was the norm of their place and time. People bustling around, each room housing more people than we would put in anything that size but sharing space as a community as they shared the tasks of daily living – the cooking, the exchange of food, the care of the young and old, the making of household goods. Every person depending on the next.
But in the midst of this bustle of community, this shared experience of daily living, there are those who have been cut off from the community: the sick, the injured, those wrestling with unclean spirits. And one of those cut off is someone close to Simon, his mother-in-law. Jesus, who has suddenly become the talk of the town, the person others were perhaps clamoring to invite to their own homes, has come to her house. But she cannot be a part of the celebration. She is sick. Whether she is deathly ill or down with an illness that others just didn’t want to catch or sick with a bad cold isn’t really clear. But in a lot of ways it doesn’t matter, because all of those to some degree or another remove her from the community.
We still know today the social disconnection of illness: everything from a bad cold that keeps us from sitting too close to others for fear of spreading germs to life-threatening illnesses that prevent us from getting out to be among the friends and communities that give us strength. There is still a social stigma around certain illnesses – everything from HIV/AIDS to schizophrenia. Diseases like dementia and cancer have the capacity to alienate us from our own bodies and minds. Our healthcare systems all too often serve as a means of separating those experiencing illness from their community even when those illnesses aren’t contagious. And we live in a world that is mostly not designed for people who by birth, injury, or illness don’t move about the world in the way that others do, cutting them off even from getting into buildings where people are gathering. One of the most profound things I have learned as a pastor is the depth of disconnection that begins to happen as soon as someone becomes ill.
But the disconnection does not stop there. Read any newspaper, magazine, or follow any news site or podcast and sooner rather than later someone is bound to raise the issue of an increasingly disconnected society. I’m not one to decry this generation as worse than others, and I think that social media, which often gets blamed for disconnection, has at least the potential to aid connection as much as it does to hinder it. But we alienate people who break laws, in many cases permanently removing them from a social network. We label people based on their offenses and shut them out of our communities. We dismiss people experiencing poverty and immigrants to our land as not part of “us.” We hide our own grief when the community implicitly decides it is time for us to move on. Most of us respond to the question of “How are you?” with the expected response of “I’m fine,” since in most instances anything else isn’t really considered socially acceptable. So we learn to suppress in public any feelings that aren’t happy or excited. We may live together in bustling communities, but often we know little about one another’s actual lived experience.
And in walks Jesus. And what I love about this story isn’t just that Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Though of course that’s great. And that she gets up to attend to the guest in her home isn’t, as many have preached, a suggestion that Jesus healed her just so he could get lunch. Instead it’s a sign that in being healed she is restored to the interconnected community in which every member, young and old, mutually serves the others.
And then people begin to gather outside the door. Remember this is a crowded little village, so they are clogging the pathways and looking down from rooftop workspaces to jostle around the tiny door to what was probably a very small room. And suddenly they find that Jesus has not only healed a woman but created church.
Yes, they have all just been at the synagogue and that was church, too. But having experienced the healing power of Jesus, the witnesses went out and found the broken ones, the sick ones, the disconnected ones, and they gathered them to Jesus. And that’s church – not just worship, but church itself: a community of people who have experienced the healing power of Jesus to reconnect them to one another. And a community like that cannot help but open itself to others who are disconnected and invite them to gather around Jesus. Arguably the second miracle here (or third or fourth – I’m already losing count in Mark’s fast-paced storytelling!) is the reconnection of the whole community, not just the healthy ones, around Jesus. And that’s church.
Today this congregation gathers for its annual meeting, and we will talk about our year together, we will talk about our year ahead, we will talk about the ministries we have that serve each other and which lift up the power of Jesus at work among us, and we will talk about the gift of the larger church community of which we are a part. But at the heart of it is a recognition that we are a community of people who have been drawn and continue to be drawn around the healing, life-giving power of Jesus, and who through that experience of healing are knit into a community of mutual service not only to one another but to the community and perhaps especially to Christ who shows up in our midst as the guest and stranger. A central part of our work together as a community is connecting and reconnecting those on the margins – joining them in witnessing the healing power of Jesus.
And today we also rejoice in formally welcoming 6 more people to do that work with us in this place. Like the crowd gathered around Jesus at the door of Simon’s house, we make room and keep making room for more people to be gathered around the one who brings us healing and life. Then together we work, each in our own ways, to keep building and keeping making room until everyone is gathered around.
This is what Jesus does when he enters the town. He brings healing, yes. But in the weeks and months and years to come there will be other illnesses and other unclean spirits at work. But Jesus re-centers them around the power of God and reconnects them one to another. He reminds them of the ones who are not present in the gathered community that they, too, might be brought in. And that is what Jesus does here in this community. Calling those who are disconnected from self and community to experience again being together around the healing power of Jesus which brings us from disease to wholeness and from death to life.
-Pastor Steven Wilco