Real life. Abundant life. The Good Life.
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, MN
February 8, 2015 – The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
A mentor once told me that, in preaching, it is best to make no assumptions. Do not assume to know what your audience is thinking, what they believe, where they are coming from, or where they are going. Do not make assumptions about how much they do or do not know about the material at hand.
And so, I have tried to make no assumptions over the years as I have preached here in this pulpit. Instead, this morning as any Sunday, I will start with what I do know. For instance, I know that some of us are wrestling mightily with grief. There have been deaths this past year and even this past week that weigh heavily on the hearts of our community. There have been painful anniversaries and joyful ones too. As in any congregation this morning, there are those among us more keenly aware of their own frailty and mortality – struggling to recover from addiction or illness and from the breaks and bruises inflicted by life and relationships. This morning we have survivors in our midst, widows and widowers, empty-nesters and new parents. Though our pews have seats left over enough to welcome dozens more, this place is already bursting at the seams with what we already know about one another – this place is full to brimming with real life.
I say all of this today because without this acknowledgement, this morning’s gospel may mean very little to us as individuals or as a community. Once again Mark presents us with a Jesus in a hurry. The scene opens with him having just cast out a demon and having instructed it to keep silent about his true identity as the messiah, the Christ. And he enters the home of Simon and Andrew – most likely to find some respite. He has been healing and exorcising demons and the spiritual toll must have made him exhausted. But, upon entering the home he is greeted by yet further need. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever – a condition that would have been understood as “life-threatening” by any of Mark’s first readers. The scene moves so quickly that we never catch the woman’s name, and without ceremony or preamble, Jesus takes her by the hand, raises her up, and she is healed and begins to serve. Soon the whole city is at their doorstep demanding a touch, demanding to see this mysterious healer, and he obliges and heals many, casting out demons, and again commanding them to remain silent. And, finding no rest in that home, he retreats to a deserted place to pray. Finally, in typical Markan style, he is on the move once more, never pausing but for a beat.
But we can pause. The lectionary helps us this morning by framing our lessons as it does every week with a “Collect” or a prayer, which invites God to set us free from all that would hold us back, from our pride and our shame, our fear and our greed, that we might experience the liberty of abundant life. Note that it does not say so that we might be eternally happy, or joyful, or so that we might be free to live to our heart’s desire…rather that we would know and receive the liberty of abundant life.
As we have already seen this morning, abundance of life is not always an abundance of that which we typically call good. We know, because we are living it, that life brings grief and loss and suffering along with celebration and joy. These things come to us inexplicably and, at times, as a confounding and entangled whole, which cannot be sorted or separated. Abundant life means an abundance of the whole – all of it, the pain and the pleasure.
And, it is this abundant life that comes first, in today’s gospel lesson, to the mother-in-law of Simon as Jesus raises her from her sickbed. He raises her to a home that needs her keeping. Let us not forget that Simon and Andrew have forsaken this household and their familial obligations to follow this itinerant rabbi. Whatever dependents they’ve left behind, are now in the care of those who remain. Her life is, then, a difficult one. She may have been raised to the abundant life, but this means she has also been raised to more difficulty than most of us will likely see in two lifetimes.
Then in the midst of this reality, the gospel tells us only that she rose and served them. This simple line could almost be viewed as a pretty bow on this scene. But, the church over the years has been captivated by it and finding it to comport with so much more in the gospels, it has helped support one of the defining practices of Christianity – service of others.
While I was in Uganda I had the opportunity to spend a night with one of the staff members of our clinic in Kayoro, Fred, the day watchman and groundskeeper. Fred lives like many rural farmers in the area, on a small compound of four or five very small mud huts. Fred is 28 and lives with his young wife and their seven children (some of them orphaned nieces and nephews, adopted when Fred’s other siblings died) as well as his younger brother and new wife and their soon to be growing family. Being mindful that we had come to Uganda in part to be of service, everywhere we went our group tried to find ways of being useful. We painted walls and offered seminars on public health and hygiene, and drew blood for diabetes testing. So it was that when I came to stay at Fred’s house I desperately wanted to find a way to be of use and of service. To their credit, Fred and his family allowed me to shell groundnuts for our evening meal and the next morning turned me loose with a hoe in the cassava field. But, truth be told, as in most other places we visited in Africa, it was I who ended up being served by Fred and his family. When I visited the latrine, a family member followed at a respectful distance with a jug of water for me to wash my hands. When dinner came I was given a double portion. When night fell, the bed which I had brought as a gift for their family, as a thank you for their generosity in hosting me, was offered to me to sleep upon.
While we were at table that evening, we made small talk about our lives – I showed them pictures of home and they described what life was like in Kayoro. As we talked, I began to hear a familiar refrain, the litany of family deaths and setbacks, the losses and struggles they had endured, and it staggered me. While the poverty was evident and everywhere, never would I have ascertained or assumed that indeed their plight was so hard, overwhelming in fact. And, toward the end of the meal, after I had offered what remained in my bowl back to the table, and it had been consumed, Fred’s younger brother Moses made a somber statement of fact – “Life here is difficult” he said, “very difficult.”
Then he stood, retrieved the pitcher of water, and a bar of soap, and he washed my hands.
There is no way around this truth, that in the midst of it all, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of joy and celebration, whether the good or hard or easy or happy – this is life. And, our promise this morning is that in being raised with Christ, as we believe happens to each of us in our baptism, we will find more of it – an abundance of life. This may come as a hard pill to swallow. This may not sound exactly like good or happy news to all of us. But, this morning we are also assured that we are raised to freedom – freedom to be like Simon’s mother-in-law, like Fred’s brother Moses, and, indeed, to follow in Christ’s example to serve – not with grandiose gestures, but in humble acts – sharing our food, washing one another’s hands and feet, tending the sick, and welcoming the stranger and the homeless.
This is the freedom of abundant life.
And this, I can attest (for I have seen it with my own eyes) is the good life – the best life.