The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2018
This week we celebrated the eve of Candlemas with a wonderful solemn high mass, a procession with blessing of candles, a potluck that was an embarrassment of riches, and a burning of the greens that was, despite the drizzling rain, dramatic to say the least. The flames were higher than the roof of the parish house. It was a great time to be together. And the very next day, due to the strangeness of the American calendar, Groundhog Day coincided with Candlemas itself. Just before Morning Prayer in the lady chapel, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, emerged from his den and saw his shadow, predicting six months’ more of winter. But take heart, Staten Island Chuck, a rival rodent, did not see his shadow. So maybe spring is just around the corner.
While I wish that Chuck were right, I suspect that Phil is the more accurate predictor, if groundhogs have anything at all to do with the weather, which they don’t. I wouldn’t be sad to see winter wind up early, though, primarily because it’s flu season, and I’m concerned about the prevalence of the flu we’ve seen this year.
This year the flu season is particularly bad; I’ve read about how the flu vaccine doesn’t contain all the right strains this year, and I keep hearing from many of you how you’ve gotten the flu--and how bad it is. But there is one bright spot in flu season this year. Doctors have at their disposal an anti-viral medication called Tamiflu that is reducing the severity and the duration of the flu. I’ve heard great anecdotal stories about people that, as soon as they got the flu, immediately started a regimen of Tamiflu, and have gotten back up and back to work in days rather than weeks.
It’s truly a modern miracle. This antiviral medication is reducing suffering and pain and getting people back on their feet. If we must have six more weeks of winter, at least we’ve got Tamiflu.
In our gospel today we hear the miraculous story of Jesus healing the sick, particularly the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother in law. The mother in law isn’t named; Peter’s wife isn’t named. The important thing for the gospel writer to convey is the healing.
Think of it: the apostles didn’t have Tamiflu. Peter’s mother in law (let’s call her Jane for purposes of this story) has gotten sick. Jane is a force to be reckoned with; even Peter is a little afraid of her. But he’s married her daughter, and Jane has made the best of it. She loves her daughter and her son-in-law, and part of her mission in life right now is to take care of them and her other son Andrew. She knows how Andrew and Peter are captivated by this teacher Joshua that they’ve met, and so, when Peter asks if they can have him over, she dutifully sets to work planning a meal. But about that time she catches the flu. She was so careful, using her Purell hand sanitizer and trying not to touch doorknobs or stair rails or anything that, and now she’s down with the flu. Bedridden. Can’t get up.
And Peter and Andrew have the nerve to bring his friend Joshua over to the house, along with James and John.
What could have been a disaster, the burden of all these guests arriving, turns instead into our gospel story of healing, however, as Jesus, Peter’s friend Joshua, takes the hand of Jane, the mother in law, and lifts her up. She’s healed, restored to strength and wholeness. They don’t have Tamiflu. It’s only the power of God, working in creation, the very presence of God in Jesus Christ, which heals Peter’s mother in law. And the news spreads. The demons are cast out and the ill are restored to wholeness; the fever lifted, and Peter’s mother in law is restored to health. And by that evening everyone who was sick in the surrounding area turned up at Peter’s house. The whole city gathers around the door, the gospel writer tells us, as people come to seek healing. (Mark 1.33)
I realize that these stories of healing in the gospel are included to show us a visible, tangible revelation of God’s healing power, God’s restoring power, God’s renewing power as revealed in Jesus Christ. I give thanks for these miracles and find strength and hope in them! But I also get anxious about the people that didn’t make it to the door that evening to be healed. What about people in other towns? What about the folks in other places? What are they to do? Peter’s mother in law is healed—but what about everyone else in need of healing? What are we to make of them?
After all, we hear that, after that evening of healing, the next morning,
“while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He 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.’” (Mark 1.35-38)
The healing of sickness and casting out of demons are amazing things, to be sure. Just the idea of cure, of relief from fever, that Paul’s mother in law experiences is a miraculous thing. When you think about it, it’s a miracle our bodies work at all—anytime we recover from the flu it’s a miracle! In our postmodern culture, with the benefit of medical science, we tend to pathologize things that make us “sick”—things that make us less than our normally performing selves, the state of self which we consider normative —and as our understanding of mental health has developed, we’ve lost a sense of “possession” of the demonic sort, generally leaving that sort of thing up to horror movies and sensationalist television shows. Healing the sick mother in law and casting out demons are things for modern medicine, and Jesus’s actions may seem like foreign, unfamiliar ideas to us—and may seem quite different categorically from one another, too.
But they begin to seem more familiar—and to look quite similar—when we consider the outcome of these healings and exorcisms. Bruce Malina and Roger Rohrbaugh have argued that there is a difference in disease and illness: that disease is a biological process, but that illness is the way we relate—or stop relating, in the face of biological breakdown—to our culture, to our communities. Using that model, we realize that Paul’s mother in law, healed from her disease, her fever, is able to return to the work she wants to perform—healed from her illness she is able to rejoin her role in community as a leader in the house—so that she is once more able to be a hospitable caregiver, welcomer, mother, and friend to these followers of Jesus. She serves them—the Greek diékonei implies even a kind of table service—that she might have risen from her sick bed and fed all her guests. Freed from her illness, she is free to serve—to cook, to welcome, to entertain, to celebrate.  Similarly, those who are possessed by demons, whatever the sort they may be, are freed to be themselves—to rejoin community—to live lives of purpose and meaning no longer held back by outside possession; free from the control of an outside force; freed to be the people that God had made them to be.
Everyone is searching for you, Jesus! Everyone is hunting for Jesus, looking to have their diseases cured, but underneath the process of curing disease, they’re really seeking healing of illness--wholeness, restoration of relationship, and new life.
So to use this model of disease vs illness, Tamiflu can shorten the length and severity of the disease process of the flu virus. But only Jesus heals their illness.
And so it begins to make sense that Jesus says, “Let us go on…so that I may proclaim the message there…; for that is what I came out to do.”
We can get caught up in the healing of disease in this story, and why wouldn’t we! The usefulness of the medical arts in our society, in our world, is so important. It’s a ministry of healing; it’s joining in the work of God’s restorative acts in creation, and so it’s no wonder the whole town turns out at Peter’s door. There’s such longing for healing in our world. And thanks be to God for those of you who have given your lives to the healing arts--to those of you who develop curative measures like Tamiflu, or penicillin, or any sort of healing protocols that help our bodies work as God made them to.
But let’s not miss the deeper implications of this story. Let’s not show up only for the physical healing but for the spiritual healing as well.
For now, we know the brokenness of things—that illness is real, that possession—however we name that demon, be it schizophrenia, addiction, lust, or greed—is a real thing—that sin binds us—we know that we are not fully the beings that God has created us to be, not fully occupying the shape of us that is being made in the image of God.
Jesus comes to give us that message of healing, of freedom, of restoration—the promise of healing for even illness—the promise of freedom even from possession—the promise of restoration in, with, and through God. The main thing—the most important thing—that Jesus is about is not only curing Peter’s mother in law, though that’s an awfully good thing. The most important thing is that he is telling people about God. About the transforming power of God’s love for them. The freeing, healing, restoring power of God’s love. That freedom, that love, that everyone is searching for.
The collect this morning reminds us that we are turning the corner from the revelation of the Incarnation, from the epiphany moments of the wise men, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the wedding at Cana in Galilee, even the wonder of the Transfiguration which we will read about next week—we are shifting from a focus on the recognition of God’s incarnate Word breaking into the world—to Lent--to a realization of the world’s brokenness, our own brokenness, that ultimately results in the death of our Lord—and is transformed and redeemed by his resurrection.
And that’s what we’re longing for, that transformation. That’s why people are hunting after Jesus. They want to be restored to wholeness--to right relationship with God, with creation, with one another. And that kind of spiritual healing, that freeing from illness in our model, comes only through Jesus.
That kind of healing is about relationship. About being seen--and known--by someone who truly loves you, by God who truly knows and loves you.
And so Jesus goes out to tell the message of hope, of good news, casting out demons along the way. To know people, and to be known by them. To love them. To give them hope.
You’re invited to share that kind of healing with the world. To show people Jesus’s love. To show people Jesus.
We prayed today:
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ
As we move towards Lent, I invite us to keep praying for that freedom from brokenness, from sin—even for transformation in the brokenness of the world that we cannot control, knowing that in the fullness of time the kingdom of God will fully come. Rather than being bound by the things that seek to control us, I invite us to be wrapped in the love and grace of God.
I invite us to share that love of Jesus--to be people of mercy, hope, and love. I invite us to show people Jesus--through small, simple acts of lovingkindness and gratitude. Through forgiving. Through inviting. Through being with the other.
The healing miracles of Jesus prefigure the kingdom of God--not merely in that disease is wiped away, but in that relationship is restored. That we know and love one another, that we know and love God, as God knows and loves us. That’s the message Jesus is carrying out.
Hunt for him in your Lenten lives, each and every day. He has already found you. Let your freedom, your hope, your joy be found in him.