Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 8, 2015 (Epiphany 5, Year B)

There are times when you write a sermon and it flows seamlessly from one point to the next. Times when it becomes an integrated whole. Times when the poetry of the words blends beautifully with the theology of the text. Times when there is great synchronicity between the Scripture and the preacher and the congregation.

This is not one of those times.

I’m not sure if it was the cold I had all week or the realization that we are woefully understaffed at the moment — though I generally don’t recommend it as a coping mechanism, denial has carried me a long way the past few months. And then there was the burst pipe in Upper Weld Hall yesterday just before a major funeral which included three bishops and a whole bunch of nuns. But whatever the reason, I invite you to think of these reflections on this morning’s gospel as snapshots. Which beats the less forgiving term “disjointed.”

mrs-slaghoopleI do love this story of Jesus healing Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law on so many levels. First of all, mothers-in-law generally get short shrift in popular culture. Now, if you are a mother-in-law yourself, I’m sure you’re the perfect model — you never meddle in your daughter’s marriage or google all of her wildly successful former boyfriends in order to tell your son-in-law all about them. But think about some of the examples that first come to mind. Fred Flinstone’s mother-in-law, Pearl Swaghoople; Marie Barone, the mother-in-law in the sit-com “Everybody Loves Raymond;” Jane Fonda even played to obnoxious stereotype in the 2005 romantic comedy “Monster-in-Law.” Which I thankfully never saw but the title fits into my larger point.

Before I go on, for purposes of self-preservation, I should mention that my mother-in-law, Rosalie, is terrific. Even if she did live with us for seven months after she moved up here from New York before settling in a condo in Hull. Seven long months.

What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, but that he had a relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother. This relationship was such a non-factor that there wasn’t even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter treated this woman, to whom he had no emotional or fiscal responsibility, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. Sound familiar? They’re all dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry.

Now, at first glance this illness doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever. Give her some Tylenol and send her to bed. For us, the word “fever” minimizes the potential dire consequences of the situation. Depending on its nature and cause, fevers could be fatal in the ancient world. You couldn’t just go to Urgent Care and leave with a prescription for penicillin. So this was a potentially life-threatening illness that chicken soup in itself wouldn’t cure.

Unlike Jesus’ many public healings, it’s significant that he enters the home of someone so close to him. Peter must have been distraught to hear about the suffering of someone he loved dearly — I think we can all relate to such feelings. And Jesus leaves the public square to minister to one with whom there is a personal connection. A reminder that Jesus’ life and ministry isn’t just a good example for people in general but for you in particular. Jesus makes it personal here for Peter just as he makes it personal for you and me.

I have to admit that one reason I like this story so much is that it turns church hierarchy on its head. I mean, if we look to Peter as the foundation of apostolic ministry and trace the lineage of bishops all the way back to his being set apart by Jesus as the rock upon whom he will build his church; and if popes in particular are viewed as direct successors to the throne of Peter; then why exactly can’t some clergy get married? Peter had a mother-in-law! Which means he had a wife!

The stumbling block when we examine this story in a bit more depth is always that one line that sticks in the craw of us enlightened, modern folks: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Nice. So basically Jesus healed her so he and his buddies could sit back and have this woman bring them nachos and beer. I mean, if we’re honest, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, right? Where’s the recovery period? Where’s the TLC? Where’s the Saltines and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup?

But that’s just our own cultural filter. The story in context is actually quite progressive on several levels. Let me explain. Besides demonstrating the complete nature of the healing itself, so much so that no recovery period was necessary, it’s a powerful statement about the role of women in Jesus’ ministry. Her act of loving service shows to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, can be disciples of Jesus. This wasn’t a given — no teacher would take on women as students or followers. It would have been scandalous! So taken in context this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. 

Nonetheless, we need to be very careful about perpetuating outdated and harmful gender stereotypes when we look at this passage. As much as we talk, truthfully, about the shame of not serving a guest in your own household and how her act of humble service honors Jesus and how it was a sign that her both her health and dignity were restored, the traditional gender roles need to be intentionally shattered here lest we fall back into old patterns by mere inertia.

Epiphany-6-Icon-Jesus-Healing-Peters-mother-in-lawThe final snapshot here is what I see as an incredibly moving act of pastoral care. Jesus, we hear, came, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. That healing touch is both palpable and indicative of a larger movement. Not only is this woman lifted up physically but even more importantly, spiritually. She is raised to the status of disciple, as one who serves the Lord; again both physically and spiritually. It is the transformative moment of her life; she is forever changed. And we can be too, by allowing Jesus to take us by the hand, to lift us up, and to restore us to the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit that only comes through faith in him.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

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