Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Feb. 7, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Feb 7, 2021 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 7, 2021

Konstantin Stanislavski once said, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” To which Dabbs Greer, known as ‘a bit actor’ but who managed to do that ‘bit’ in some 700 supportive appearances, added that “Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.” 

Today we have met Simon Peter’s mother in law, who is in such a small role that we have no name for her and we know very little about her. We know she has a fever and she is the mother of the woman married to Simon (whom Jesus soon names Peter, meaning ‘rock’).  So, Peter, one of the first disciples Jesus called, was a married fellow whose household included his wife’s mother. Do we ever think of those guys as being married or having wives and children to leave behind as they go off ‘discipling’ with Jesus? Told with only two little sentences, Peter’s mother-in-law might appear to have only a bit part but in Jesus’ healing story she is the lead. 

Women were expected to stay more in the background, supporting roles to their husbands, fathers or sons, less often out front or named in writing. That Jesus comes and heals her first is a message that she too is important. That he touches her breaks with societal norms, and on the sabbath no less. That Jesus ‘raised her up’ underlines that same importance, especially when we will hear Mark use the same words when the angels at the tomb tell the women, “He has been raised!” Imagine the murmuring after he heals her, ‘How can she be up ministering to people’s needs when a moment ago she was too fevered to leave her bed?’ ‘Is it possible this Jesus means God’s healing is for all of us?’ ‘Does this good news Simon Peter came home talking about traverse other boundaries too, and how far will this go?’

At sundown, which means the sabbath is now ended, the whole city gathered at her door — at the home of Peter and his wife and mother in law, and perhaps children too. They bring all who are sick and those possessed by demons seeking Jesus’ healing — and he does so. Mostly. They brought all of their sick or possessed, and Jesus healed many, cast out many demons. Mark is clear about it not being all of them. This draws us into the particularity of what it means to be healed, touched, raised up. God isn’t painting us all with a one wide swath of a brush; Jesus becomes human and touches, heals, other human beings; male and female, demon-possessed and lepers, sick, or disabled or fevered, clean and unclean. We are left to wonder why some are not.

In one of his poems (I couldn’t find which one), Walt Whitman wrote that “Good can be done only in the particularities.” I don’t know this claim is unfailingly true; I do know it is the only way I can set out to do good. A woman with a houseful of her son in law’s friends and the whole city coming to her back door is restored to wholeness, able to rise up and serve — the word is διακονέω diakoneó, which means to minister, to care for the needs of others, and it’s where our word ‘deacon’ comes from. I can picture her finding herself well and able again, jumping into action to care for the guests in their home, to see to needs that are her ministry, while only moments ago she lay there thinking she could do nothing, fearing she’d be shamed by this, seen as useless, or even die. And then taking her hand he raised her up. 

Many of us think we don’t do enough or feel useless because of circumstances like this pandemic or a worrisome vulnerability. We think we ought to be able to raise successful well-mannered children or grandchildren who get good grades, work and rise in our careers, make a lovely home that’s tidy and Marie Kondo-organized, while we also take care of parents or anyone we worry about. Strung altogether that way we can laugh and know doing it all is an impossible feat. Yet when things go worse than we expected or just plain fall apart, we focus so much on all the things we miss or do imperfectly. How we fall short. If we don’t do enough maybe we won’t matter enough? If that’s what Jesus’ message was that day, he’d have healed them all, not just some, he’d have stayed to bask in the adoration and success. Instead he does what he can, and then he sleeps. 

He rises very early the next day and before starting work as a Super-Savior — he goes into the darkness before dawn to pray. I wonder what his prayers were after all of that. What happened in his prayer time to be confident his work there was done? How did he know it was time to move forward and continue what was his to do? Mark is quite clear that Jesus made sure he took intentional time to go pray, to listen, time to be open to what might direct his steps, to be uninterrupted (even though they looked for him!). He went to “a deserted place” —and that word placecan mean a seat or a location, and it also means opportunity! To go to where we can be with God is opportunity, and from that experience to go forward into the day. What could be greater than that? If ‘place’ can mean ‘opportunity’ what does that mean for our community’s ministry, virtual or otherwise?

This small passage shows us the humanity of Jesus, of his disciples, their families, and of their lives. Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John are right away looking for Jesus, in fact everyone is it seems. When they find him, he wants them to go with him to those neighboring towns, where there will be more healing and demons cast out, more proclaiming his message “for that is what I came to do.” He looks ahead instead of tallying up losses, those he missed, or waiting for people who didn’t come or who refused to listen. Not even our Lord expects to do everything and touch everyone – and with that practicality he continues on with what he came to do. One individual touching another, healing, calling, sending us, because we are each unique and beloved. God who numbers the stars and calls them all by name, as Isaiah says, surely knows the innate beauty and ability of each one of us.

There’s the start of a chain reaction in our gospel reading today, like the lovely old dominoes I found for our granddaughter to play with. Set close enough together and upright, each will tap the next one, setting it in motion. Jesus has already called Peter as a disciple, and then Peter brings Jesus to heal his wife’s mother. Jesus does so, and she gets up to minister to them. They in turn minister to those who come in droves, learning from Jesus healing and driving out demons. The next day he calls them to go with him to take the message into the next town. Jesus sets his message in motion himself and then through the disciples, from one to the next and to the next. Does he know many he heals will tell the story too? Each one in that sequence is important, and each effects the next by personally carrying the good news from town to town, generation to generation. Yes, a good many won’t, they break the flow by being silent. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed or that we give up, we aren’t quitting what we are uniquely called and qualified by God to do.

It might mean we need a quiet place for prayer where no one can find you, to rest with God and pray, for new direction, a place for divine opportunity. Maybe in these days of being more stressed, more at home together, more pressed, we need to ask those we live with to help us have that time and place to be in prayer with our Lord—and perhaps offer it to them too. Such places are divine opportunity for ourselves and for God in us.

Let us pray.

Holy One, you who give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless, give us confidence to turn to you to nourish our spirit, to rest and pray, and then to rise to your call, revealing the truth of Isaiah’s prophesy, that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” In Christ we pray. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.


View lectionary readings: