A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 5B, Mark 1:29-39
Five and half years ago I suffered a life threatening illness. From a fractured tooth came an abscess, from the abscess came an infection that ran 2-1/2 inches through my jaw bone. The infection followed the nerve in my jaw, leaving me unable to feel most of my bottom lip and teeth. The infection then travelled up the side of my face. All of this developed over the course of one week, taking me from a dentist who thought I had TMJ to a hospital room and a team of doctors including a surgeon, an internist, and an infectious disease specialist. At first the hospital attempted to cure me with IV antibiotics. But 48 hours later, with the infection increasing, I was prepped and waiting for surgery.
I remember waiting for the surgery; it was about 5:00 in the evening. I was taken down to the surgical unit and left in this holding area. Alone. Well alone except for some guy in surgical attire who was tinkering on some piece of equipment. I have no idea who he was or what he was doing – and in my drugged state I had this sense that I had been parked in a hospital version of a mechanics garage – the hospital equivalent of a Jiffy Lube stall. I waited there for nearly 90 minutes, while they prepared the operating room. A big clock hung on the wall, literally reminding me just how slow time can pass. It was a very surreal time for I was in both profound pain and profound peace. I just gave myself over to God, trusting that one way or another everything would be all right.
As we hear in our Gospel this morning, Peter’s mother in law is sick with fever. Having a fever was no small matter in the ancient world – people knew that there were many causes of illness and that fever carried with it a high potential for death. Then, Jesus comes into the home and into her room, and heals her. Upon which she immediately rises from the bed and begins to serve her guests. “Being raised up” is how the Gospel describes this healing, using a verb, egerio, that is common in the Gospel of Mark. This verb suggests that a new strength has been imparted to an individual laid low by illness in order that they can rise up and take their place in the world.
Think about that – a new strength imparted to one laid low by illness in order that they can rise up and take their place in the world.
The Gospel tells us that this is exactly what Peter’s mother in law did – she rose up from her illness and began to serve them. It was after all her home and her calling, as the matriarch of that home, to tend to her guests. The same verb “To serve” is used in Mark to describe both the actions of the mother-in-law AND the actions of Jesus – both are called to serve in the same way. It’s a calling from God, and it brings with it a sense of the holy. This same verb is used to describe the ministry of the disciples, too. But in the Gospel, this woman, this mother, is the first character who is described with these verbs – making her the first disciple, one who is doing God’s work in the world by serving others.
Following this story about the mother in law we find Jesus healing many others. Not everyone, mind you, is healed, but many are. We see Jesus in action, serving others, as an agent of God’s healing love in the world. You might say that the door of the woman’s house, where she was healed, becomes the doorway where all in the city are healed.
It’s all kind of ordinary, the way the woman serves and the way Jesus serves, and the way in which healing occurs. Ordinary, and yet, extraordinary, because healing comes from God, and is an expression of God’s power, grace, love, mercy, and compassion.
And so, healing is one thing, being cured is another. Not everyone who is healed is actually cured of illness and disease. But in and through the grace of God, deep and profound healing can take place, even in and within the course of an illness. Even a chronic illness or a terminal illness can become the means by which a person finds healing.
Being cured means that the symptoms of the illness are gone and one can resume one’s every day activities. Being healed means that regardless of the illness and symptoms one finds a sense of peace and wholeness, a sense of being complete and held in God’s love, one can be healed even when one remains ill. Anyone who lives a life with a chronic illness understands what this means. Healing allows us to reclaim our vocation, our calling from God, to serve God, to tend to people as God’s hands and heart.
One of the primary ways we access the healing that God offers is through prayer. I’m not really talking about prayer where we plead with God for healing, nor prayer where we bargain with God – although I am sure God accepts our prayers however they come from us. But there is a particular way that healing comes when we pray as Jesus did, in silence and stillness.
Scripture helps us understand that we are called to stillness, to pray, to reflect – Remember Isaiah’s promise, “those who wait for God…shall run and not be weary, shall walk and not faint.” God calls us to be still, to wait, to reflect on our lives, and then to trust in God, in God’s steadfast love. Jesus takes time out for stillness, to pray, to reflect and from it he finds his direction. The stillness, the prayers, point us to see our lives as they really are. We are more than the illness in the body. We are more than the suffering in the body. We are more than the fear and more than the pain. We are loved by God and that makes us more than anything that tries to hold us down.
One of the primary purposes of Sunday morning worship is to offer us this time for stillness and prayer, a time to be lifted up out of the concerns of our lives and be reminded of who we are and whose we are. We hear this affirmed in our scripture readings, in our prayers, and in the Eucharist – a reminder that our brokenness is healed and renewed, over and over, through the grace of God’s love. Through the praying of these prayers a new strength is imparted onto us, and our illnesses are laid low, in order that we may rise up and take our place in the world. Sent out into the world in peace to love and serve God.