Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
Old Testament reading: Isaiah 40:21-31
The last couple of years, I’ve been baking my own bread. Homemade bread, to me, is one of the great pleasures in life. I have a sweet tooth, but I will choose bread over ice cream or pie, my favorite desserts. My grandma used to bake bread and she had a tiny little loaf pan she would give to me. Side by side we would knead our dough. I can still smell that bread baking. When I first started baking on my own, I had some pretty bad failures. If any one part isn’t right, you don’t achieve the rise you need to give the bread the sponginess. If the dough is too dry, if the flour isn’t glutenous enough, if the place where the bread is rising isn’t warm enough, the dough just won’t be lifted up.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus lifts up Simon’s mother-in-law, raises her. When we say on Easter morning, “Christ is risen!” we use this same word. Simon’s mother is risen! She is resurrected!
Of course she had been very sick, with a fever. And not only her, but the whole city has been suffering from illness. Maybe they never asked because they already knew the answer the question, “Why is everyone so sick?” Maybe they assumed that was just the way it was. Or maybe they knew there are powers in this world that keep people sick, that keep them from the nutrition they need to be well, that control the water, that make them work so long and so hard that their bodies fall apart, that greedily collect all the money and land for themselves so that regular people can’t get adequate shelter to stay healthy.
Certainly they weren’t sick because God created the world this way! God created a world to give health and wholeness, gave rules to give balance and rest. If God created this world good, how had it come to grind people up, like Simon’s mother-in-law, and leave her sick and deflated and unable to serve or participate in the family or community?
Like the forces that stand against my rising bread, there are many reasons, and multiple ways that life and rising can be taken from people. We’ve both experienced them ourselves, and we’ve participated in them, taking the breath right out of someone. We’ve found ourselves sick, although it isn’t always easy to say it was because of some missing vitamin or a pollutant in the air or because of mold in our house or apartment. Sometimes it is easier to see if it was the greed to the folks selling us things that are bad for us, although we accept some of the blame ourselves for participating in the vice in the first place. Sometimes it is easier to figure out what is keeping us sick, if we can’t afford to go to the doctor or pay our medical bills, so we forgo the preventive checkups and diseases spread before we ever know they are there.
It is harder, sometimes to accept the part we play on deflating others and keeping them from their rise. It turns out I have a child who is as stubborn as I am. We struggle with each other and I am starting to see myself through his eyes. He is going to remember these struggles. He truly sees me when I am not acting like an adult. So, God help me, I am trying not to deflate, but to help him rise to meet whatever challenge it is. I am trying to back off on the pressure and help him find the motivation. It is an art-form I wish I had a recipe book for, but instead it is full experimentation, learning from each struggle. Inhibiting rising bread can happen in so many ways. People we will never meet suffer to provide cheap clothing and food for our families. People suffer for our convenience—that we drive everywhere we want to go, even that we have a church that is so difficult to walk to. If we were faithful, wouldn’t we ask you to find a church near you that you can walk to and join that church? We are enslaved to convenience, to the forces that deflate, that make people sick.
Now Jesus enters the story. He takes Simon’s mother in law by the hand and lifts her up. The Gospel of Mark is said to be telling the story of a new exodus, that Jesus is leading the people out of the slavery of illness and death, into a new direction in the wilderness, where they/we will be learning a new way of following God and receiving new life. Jesus is taking us by the hand, and raising us up, to walk in a new way, to live in a new way, in relationship, in abundance.
The Israelites were deflated in exile. They complained against God. This reading from Isaiah is God’s response through the prophet. It is perfectly obvious that God knows what is going on and loves the people, according to Isaiah. Just because this rising is taking a little time, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. What seems like forever to ordinary people, the length of time a corrupt leader governs, or the number of years a people are enslaved, is just a blip to God. It is temporary. These powers of oppression do not have the kind of power God has. God is created everything and knows their name, knows their nature. God’s got their number, you might say. So even though people are oppressed, God has not forgotten them. God empowers them with God’s own strength, like eagles. They will be given God’s strength and God’s endurance and God’s patience and God’s power. God will lift them, they will rise with wings like eagles. They will experience resurrection life.
Jesus raises Simon’s mother in law, heals many in the city, and casts out demons, but the people still want more from him. They want to own him. They want Jesus to be their personal healer. However, Jesus goes out while it is still dark to pray. I actually take some comfort in knowing that Jesus sometimes had trouble sleeping. He woke up really early and he couldn’t sleep. He was shaken by the amount of need all around him. Maybe he wondered if he would be enough. Maybe he was worried he would let people down. But he went out to pray and there he was reminded of what he was there to do. He did some healing and some raising, but he needed to get out and get people ready for the second exodus, to help them turn in a new direction, to prepare to follow a new way of relationship and health and service and the sharing of life.
It was like Jesus was a bit of yeast and he needed to be stirred around the dough. He didn’t come to one little place. He came for the life of the whole world. So he starts out in Galilee and begins to preach the good news, breathes a little holy spirit life into this dense dough. He raises Simon’s mother in law, he begins raising others in the city. It was like concentric circles. He goes out from there throughout all of Galilee and then out even further. His ministry was then multiplied in those he raised. Simon’s mother in law then takes up the ministry of lifting people up through her own service. She begins to serve Jesus and the Disciples, one imagines through cooking for them, but come on, why do we hold her back just because she’s a woman. It is likely that she went out and preached the good news of what happened to her, maybe she took a few hands and Jesus healed people and lifted them up through her. There are several times groups of unnamed women ministering in the Gospel of Mark, maybe she is there among them, serving God, lifting up, learning Jesus’ way of new life.
Jesus raises up so many people in the Gospel, not so they can return to their old, oppressed and oppressive, disconnected life, but so that they would be empowered by the same Holy Spirit that he had to bring healing and connection and new life, so they would be empowered by the holy spirit to serve God, and live abundantly a kingdom life.
You may or may not remember that the Gospel of Mark ends with an empty tomb and no Jesus. We are left hanging about what happened to Jesus. Some scholars have argued that the Gospel of Mark is so full of resurrection stories, stories of being lifted up, that having read the Gospel and coming to the end, we know what happened to him. Jesus is one who continually lifts up and resurrects. So it only makes sense that this resurrection life continues and that Jesus is risen indeed.
When Jesus ascends into the heavens, he then leaves this ministry of lifting up with the Disciples and with us, to continue that work of lifting up. Not that we do it by our own power, but he leaves the Holy Spirit with us to empower us, to work through us to lift up those who are sick or hurting.
Simon comes to Jesus who has been praying alone and he says, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus knew what they wanted. They wanted him to be their personal physician. They wanted healing for a few, they wanted a procedure, they wanted something temporary. But Jesus knew that he came to be the great healer. To bring a kind of healing of all creation, more like wholeness, or shalom. This healing is for all creation, is a new way of life, it is something in which we can all actively participate, and it is forever. Jesus couldn’t let himself be distracted by these individual healings, and keep himself from the larger goal of wholeness. And he couldn’t let himself take away the power we all have for healing by doing it all himself. But I hear this statement on another level, “Everyone is searching for you.” Everyone is searching for short-term healing, the easy fix. But under all that is a deeper hope for meaningful connection to everything, for love and forgiveness, for learning a new way of life and a new direction, one in which we all rise to greater heights of love and service to God and lift each other up and find ourselves embraced by wholeness.