Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 5)
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, MA

(Watch Here – TLC Worship Service 2/7/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

It’s unfair.

  • It’s unfair that some who contract the virus remain asymptomatic and don’t even know they’ve been infected, while others contract the virus die in a matter of a couple of days.
  • It’s unfair, and unjust, that people of color are dying from Covid-19 at higher rates than white people.
  • It’s unfair, as some have pointed out, that communities most at-risk for the virus are not getting access to the vaccinations and that while some must wait, others are finding ways to cut the line.

I’m sure people in Capernaum, in Jesus’ day, also said, “Wait, this isn’t fair!” Today’s Gospel reading from the 1st Chapter of Mark, records Jesus as healer, and tells the dramatic story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law. But Jesus didn’t heal everyone – there were others who came to Jesus who were not healed.

In commenting on today’s gospel, theologian Stephen Cook acknowledges this unfairness, he writes: “Scandalously, the cries of many went unanswered. Jesus left plenty of sick bodies and tormented spirits abandoned as he secretly retreated to a deserted place (vs 35). The unhealed populace he left behind must have felt cheated and disowned by Jesus. Many of us today who have experienced life’s tragic dimensions can imagine their bewilderment, frustration, and anger. “Why has God dumped us?” we cry out.”

Those who had heard the exciting news that this rabbi was healing people, must have been devastated when he left without a trace.

The question today, in the midst of a global health pandemic, that has killed nearly 450,000 Americans and over 2.2 million humans worldwide … in the midst of this jarring contrast between Jesus taking the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, in bed with a fever, with Covid19-like symptoms, and raising her to health, with the fact that so many people are dying today, alone and isolated, with no one to hold their hand as they die … in the midst of our personal realities where at the same time we acknowledge and give thanks to God for very real experiences of physical healing, at the same time we reel from death and loss, or prayers that seemingly go unanswered … the question is this:  

What do we do with these healing stories of Jesus? How do we understand the healing power of Jesus, especially when it seems as if some receive it, while others don’t?

As we sit with that question this morning, I believe it’s helpful to reflect on the healing stories of Jesus in their context. What was the reason Jesus healed people in the first place? What role do they play in the gospels themselves?

Again reflecting on this morning’s Gospel reading, Stephen Cook suggests this: “Jesus’ healing and exorcisms are not intended primarily to moderate the sufferings of the present era … Rather, they are deathblows against chaos and evil.  They aim to overthrow the world!” What Cook suggests, is that the healing stories of Jesus are not about fixing broken individuals, but they are about proclaiming the power of God to fix the brokenness in humanity. The ministry of Jesus was not about nursing and caretaking individuals in pain, but rather, to invite people to faith by revealing the power of God.

“Yes, Jesus paused for some healings in Capernaum out of mercy for the masses,” writes Cook, “but to stay there longer would have been to focus on people’s wants, not their callings.God is unsatisfied here in Mark to allow us to remain minors in the faith, hedged about with structure and protection.  That is why Jesus leaves town.  God desires free and mature disciples, who have moved beyond handholding and pampering.”  

Jesus didn’t want to become known as a miracle worker, catering to individual needs, Jesus was not a self-help expert or personal trainer. Rather, Jesus was public witness of God’s power bringing healing and salvation to the world.

This is also why Jesus commanded the demons, in the story today, not to speak about him. In the command of Jesus to the demons, is a foreshadowing of other times in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus will tell others not to talk about what just happened.  One scholar (James Childs) writes: “Jesus commands silence, scholars have concluded, because he did not wish to be identified with a false understanding of Messiah as a mere miracle worker. God’s messianic agenda was far greater than those individual acts of immediate blessing or even than the fortunes of Israel itself.”

So, what role do the healing stories of Jesus play in the gospel witness? Maybe they are less about comforting and curing individuals, and maybe they are much more about drawing individuals through faith, into the power and promises of God? And maybe they are meant to give us hope, in the very times where disease and death have seemed to win the day?

Professor James Childs points out an interesting thing about the Greek verb in the used in the Gospel which we translate “lifted her up” [Vs 31 – “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” ] The professor notes that this is the same Greek verb used frequently in the New Testament for Jesus’s resurrection. Childs acknowledges it might be a stretch to suggest that this healing story foreshadowed Jesus’s own resurrection, but, writes, “it is consistent with Jesus’ self-revelation to say that the miracles of healing and exorcism signifying power over evil … and point to the ultimate healing of Jesus resurrection and its triumph over evil.”

What if we understood the same power that raised Simon’s mother-in-law to new health … is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead … and is the same power at work in the world bringing healing and into which we are called to have faith? What if we understood the healing stories of Jesus, not as pointing to Jesus as miracle worker, but as God’s resurrection power at work in the world today? What if the healing stories are not meant to turn us inward into ourselves to lead us to what we want, but to invite us out of ourselves, into God’s resurrection work in the world working healing for all people?

One of the important lessons of this pandemic, is that we have come to appreciate that health is more than just physical health. Early in the pandemic, there were those who suggested we replace the term “social distancing” with the term “physical distancing.” There was a recognition that for the sake of mental and emotional health, and even actually for the sake of physical health, it was not good to be socially distanced, disconnected, and isolated from one another – we felt in a new way that health is more than just about our physical bodies.

Another resource that gets us thinking about health in more expansive ways is the Wellness Wheel. The Wellness Wheel identifies 7 (and sometimes 8) aspects of wellness that, when taken together, form overall health. In addition to three aspects of wellness I’ve just named (physical, emotional, and social) are added spiritual, financial, intellectual, environmental, and occupational health. The ELCA encourages Candidacy Committees to use the Wellness Wheel in working the candidates discerning a call to rostered ministry in the Church – as candidacy committees discern with men and women their health and ability to meet the demands of public ministry.

What if we receive our Gospel reading today, as a sign of God’s resurrection work in the world? And what if we look for that resurrection work in the world, not just in physical cures of our bodies, but in all the ways God is working resurrection health across all areas of our lives.

Where is the resurrected Christ bringing physical health in this pandemic? – In people wearing masks, getting vaccinated, foregoing family gatherings for just a bit longer, in those demanding that vaccination rollouts be fair and just.

Where is the resurrected Christ bringing emotional health?  In each of you checking in with one another, loving one another, supporting one other – in people maintaining social connection and intimacy, even when physically distanced.

Where is resurrected Christ bringing financial health? –  In advocates for the poor, in those insisting on living wages, in those rooting out and standing against economic oppression; in the generosity and sharing of those who have means with those who don’t.

Where is the resurrected Christ bringing environmental health? –  In those taking action on climate change, in those promoting and using renewable energy.

Where is the resurrected Christ bringing social health? – In white people answering the call for racial justice, in acknowledging and confessing white privilege, in advocating for education, policing, and criminal justice reform.

I think Christian singer Matthew West puts it well in his song “Do Something.” The song starts with the singer troubled by all the pain in the world. He shakes his fist at God at the unfairness of it all – people in pain, people living in poverty, “God, why don’t you do something?” To which God replies, “I did. I created you!”

The healing power of God is not revealed in a miracle worker dispensing private cures, the healing power of God is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ raising the dead to new life. In our baptisms, we have been joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. Having already died in Christ in our baptisms, we have already been healed and raised to life in Christ – in our baptisms we are already begun living our eternal lives!

The healing power of God is revealed in us, in us today, when we as disciples joined to Christ’s resurrection, live as people of healing in the world today. Raised to resurrection and healing in the power of Jesus, God is calling us to stretch out our hands in resurrection power, to speak life and healing to the world around us.

Friends, the Good News today, is that while physical cure may not always be available for our bodies, the resurrection power of God is always available for us in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ!

And yes, we should pray for physical healing, we should pray for one another to experience healing in all aspects of our life. Our prayer for each other is itself a sign of resurrection healing – of community gathered together in faith and hope.

And, may our participation in God’s resurrection work be our true healing.  Raised to new life in Christ, may we stand against the unfairness and injustice in the world – may we work for a day when all people are bathed in love, abundance, and healing.  

Indeed may it be so.