A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on February 8, 2009 (Epiphany 5, Year B)
I have a confession to make: I actually like my mother-in-law. Which is a good thing because she lives across town. But this also goes against every cultural stereotype. From Fred Flintstone to Marie in the sit-com “Every Loves Raymond” to the old joke from Mark Twain: “Adam was the luckiest man; he had no mother-in-law.” But maybe a shift is taking place. Thanks to our new president’s living situation, mothers-in-law are all the rage. Michelle Obama’s mother has been dubbed the In-Law in Chief. And can you imagine the mother-in-law suite in the West Wing?
I take from our gospel reading this morning that Simon-Peter also liked his mother-in-law. The one we encounter lying sick in bed with a fever. Why else would he have summoned Jesus to come to his house to heal her? And he does just that. Jesus comes to the house, lifts her up by the hand, and her fever immediately leaves her.
On one level this story is yet another one of Jesus’ miraculous healings. His divinity is manifested in such acts – it’s not a parlor trick but a sign that he is indeed the Messiah. But at a more personal level, if we’re honest with ourselves, it seems unfair. Unfair that Jesus had such a great impact upon the lives of his earthly disciples while we’re seemingly left without these benefits. Why can’t he heal my mother-in-law or my friend or my brother or whoever it is in our lives who is suffering and in pain?
A miraculous healing would make life a lot easier. And yet it doesn’t happen. So we tend to look at these stories of healing with mixed emotions. But I like to think that there’s a distinction between healing and curing. The miracle wasn’t the curing of the woman’s disease, though that was a nice side benefit. The miracle was the healing presence of Jesus Christ and that transcends the relief of physical symptoms.
The reality with all the healings of Jesus is that those involved, even Lazarus who was raised from the dead, eventually got sick again and died. The cures are all temporary; since they’re all done within the context of our humanity they don’t last forever. But the miraculous healing presence of Jesus abides. Nonetheless, it would be awfully nice to get a piece of that miraculous cure-all action for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our mothers-in-law.
Over the past number of years my own mother has struggled with severe bouts of depression. None of this was present during my childhood but started coming on about 10 years ago. She was institutionalized for nearly 12 months over the past two years. It has been a difficult and painful time – watching someone you love deeply suffer, engaging in family therapy sessions, praying and worrying and wondering about your own future.
While a few people around here have known about my mother’s situation, many have not. Some of this is due to my own tendency to keep painful things to myself. Some of it stems from my priestly desire to be there for others, rather than to let others be there for me. I much prefer bearing others’ burdens to having others bear my own.
But I’ve also come to see that this is not a helpful model for building Christian community. If I hope to encourage you to open up to me, I also need to open up to you. This doesn’t mean airing my dirty laundry from the pulpit every week. No one needs that. But it does mean sometimes preaching the gospel from a place of vulnerability rather than strength. We all come here for different reasons at different times. Sometimes it varies by the seasons of our lives, sometimes it depends on what happens to be going on in a particular week. We come here rejoicing or grieving or questioning or sorrowful or seeking solace or looking for encouragement. Sometimes all on the same day. But ultimately we come seeking communion with the divine; and Jesus touches us in different ways at all these points. He laughs with us and weeps with us and walks with whatever our particular state of mind might be on a given Sunday morning.
One of my favorite quotes from Scripture comes from Philippians: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” And I think I’m drawn to it precisely because I always need to be reminded of this. It is our vulnerabilities that leave room for Jesus in our lives. Admitting our weaknesses or troubles or hurts allows Jesus in. And only then can the process of healing and forgiveness and comfort begin. Which is the only thing that can lead us back to wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Because when we try to do everything ourselves, when we put our trust in our own power rather than in the power of God, we’re always going to come up short.
I find the story of Prometheus informative to this situation. You may recall from your Greek mythology classes that he was punished by Zeus for stealing fire and giving it to mortals. And his sentence was to be tied to a rock. Every day vultures would come and peck at his liver and overnight it would heal only to be pecked at again during the day. Sometimes life can feel like we’re constantly being pecked at – by demands and stress and other people. And we need to take the time to be healed. We need to come to this place each week to receive Jesus in our hands and be filled back up so that we can go back out into the world to love and serve the Lord. And I’m convinced that it is only an active faith life that builds up immunity to the constant pecking of the everyday. It is our form of healing at the hand of Jesus, even if we are not so dramatically healed as Peter’s mother-in-law.
Mark tells us that “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” I think that was in large part Jesus’ own building up of immunity to the hurt and pain of his ministry – the rejection, the scoffing, and eventually the crucifixion. Through worship and prayer we can do much the same thing.
When we pray for “Lois” each week during the Prayers of the People, that’s my mother. Please keep her, and me, in your prayers. She’s been doing really well the last few months – back to her enthusiastic and energetic self – which has been a joy. I’ve come to accept these times and enjoy them. Sometimes living in the present is sufficient. So while part of me would love a miraculous cure; most of me knows that Jesus’ miraculous healing touch of presence and relationship is enough.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009