Fever & Faith

feverEpiphany 5B

Someone in this house has just recovered from a fever, has been lifted up, and is serving God. I don’t necessarily know who it is. Although… you may. The person recovered from the fever may even be you.

I know that it has been me. Lord knows I’ve had some debilitating fevers in my life: the fever of self-doubt, the fever of fear, the fever of loneliness, the fever of chasing after and consuming things that are not life-giving. Our opening collect today had us pray for the “abundant life which God has made known to us.” But much as I believe that to be true—that there is indeed abundant life to be found in Jesus Christ—I’ve suffered from the fever of scarcity. There are plenty of times when I managed to convince myself that I didn’t have enough of this, that or the other, and acted correspondingly ungrateful. That’s a pattern of thinking that is, in my case, more than a fever. It’s practically delusional.

But I’m here today because I also know what it is to be lifted up, and to have the fever leave me. I’m not naïve about my ongoing need for healing; I know I’ll come down with other fevers, as I’m sure that Simon’s mother-in-law did. But every time I’ve been met by the God who would lift me up and release me from my febrile false thinking, I’ve gotten a glimpse of what it is to live as a free person. To live as a person capable of serving God out of heartfelt abundance. And whenever any of us have had that experience—even once—we gain some immunity against spiritual sickness. The next time we sinfully sell ourselves short, the fever won’t have the same kind of grip on us.

Y’know, it’s not true that I don’t know who in this house has recently recovered from that kind of a fever. I actually know lots of you who have been there, because so many of you have graced me with your stories. Stories of healing, stories of reconciliation, stories of being lifted up into greater freedom. I’m not going to repeat stories told in confidence, but if you’ve had an experience like that I hope you’ll tell each other. Remember what our choir sang earlier? “How good it is to sing praises to our God…[who] heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” Now there’s a psalmist who’s not shy to admit he has recovered from a fever!

Jesus took Simon’s feverish mother-in-law by the hand, and she was healed and raised up to serve. Right front and center in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, which by the way is what we’ll be reading in church for most of this year. It’s always worth asking ourselves why the evangelists began their stories the way they did, because there are such obvious differences in style. Recall that Matthew begins with a long genealogy, establishing the authority of Jesus’ lineage. Luke begins with an elaborately cordial greeting and stories of angelic visits. John locates Jesus’ earthly arrival within the context of cosmic history. In contrast, we might say that Mark’s story of Jesus begins at home, rather literally. In the lesson we heard today, he let his readers know that Jesus’ great miracles might happen someplace as quotidian as a living room, to a woman so ordinary that she never merits a personal name or a further mention in the gospel.

Now I happen to know that none of you are ordinary or nameless, and neither is Trinity’s Cathedral like any contemporary living room. I’m sure Mark would be pretty surprised by what the church has become in the intervening two-thousand years. But recall that his original hearers were meeting, praying and breaking bread primarily in the houses of believers. So by locating this early, significant miracle in domestic setting, Mark was letting his hearers know that their own homes were holy places. Domestic cathedrals. Places where people could be healed and raised up to lives of service. In that sense, our cathedral is not really so different from the home of Simon’s mother-in-law. We’re still a place where a tired mother, a worried father, a lonely twenty-something, or a grieving elder might encounter Jesus. Our own house of worship—grand though it be—continues to be a place of holy healing and transformation. In fact, Trinity exists for the primary purpose of lifting up all of us who have been fevered with false thinking, and equipping us to serve God.

In this house, there’s no shame in admitting we have a fever. Of any sort. I promise you that if you are disabled by an addiction, by depression, by loneliness or fear or self-doubt, you are welcome here. And Mark clearly would have said the same—indeed he did say the same—which we can tell because of the way he attributed agency to the fever that afflicted Simon’s mother-in-law. It left her, he said, using a personal pronoun as if it were demon.  To be human is to be vulnerable to spiritual malevolence as well as physical illness. It’s not our fault that we suffer, but neither is it the final word about who we are. To be human is also to get up and serve God, which is what we are made to do.

In between our afflicted human nature and our authentic human nature stands the compassion of Jesus. Who was ready to take the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law, and likewise the hands of you and me. Ready to lift us all up. The verb that Mark uses to describe this action is the exact same one he uses at the end of his Gospel when the angelic figure at the empty tomb describes Jesus’ resurrection: “he has been lifted up; he is not here.” I’m convinced that this verbal foreshadowing is no accident, for few things in our well-reflected scriptures are. From beginning to end, the Gospels are stories of human beings just like us—living right here in our God-given homes—being raised up from all that inhibits fullness of life. Including our primal fear of death.

Which is what frees us for authentic service. Because this particular Gospel story has been the unfortunate butt of bad mother-in-law jokes, I think it’s important to mention that the denouement of this story is not that an over-functioning housewife returns to her prescribed subservient role. Although God knows that it has been preached that way. To all the woman in this house who’ve ever been told that their proper role as Christians is to clean up after the men, I want to say that I’m sorry. That’s not what Jesus had in mind, then or now.

Service, for Jesus, meant practicing the values of the kingdom of God. That radical renegotiation of roles wherein the poor hear good news, the oppressed and the prisoners go free, and the blind see. The kind of service that Jesus himself practiced. By, for example, healing on the Sabbath. In this case, Jesus prioritized the health and dignity of a woman over strict adherence to holiness codes. And her natural response to being healed and lifted up was to serve.

Serve as a minister of the Kingdom of God, that is. Diēkonei is the Greek word Mark used to describe her actions, which is where we get the title of “deacon” in the Episcopal Church. It’s same verb Jesus used to describe himself in the tenth chapter of Mark: “I came to serve and to give my life for all.” In this instance, he was correcting his disciples, who were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. Which is its own kind of delusional fever: in my experience the ones making claims to greatness are often the most insecure.

I may not know what kind of fever you have or had or will yet have. We’re all vulnerable to disordered thinking, demons and diseases. But I’m not really worried about that, because I’ve already seen Jesus’ healing ministry at work in your service. In this house, hungry and lonely people are lifted up into more abundant lives. Immigrants who need English in order to thrive are lifted up into greater fluency. People who are ill or in the fever of grief are lifted up by your prayers. Just this week I had the blessing of accompanying some knitters from Martha’s Guild as they delivered handmade lambs to OHSU, where the Labor & Delivery nurses give them to parents who have lost their infants. Lifting up those who have suffered the greatest of loss.

It’s because of your ministries that I know Jesus is just as present in this house now as he was in Simon’s mother-in law’s then. So come, people of God. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Let yourselves be lifted up by the presence of Christ, and then go in peace to love and serve.

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