Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
February 9, 2003
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Itís no secret that in many ways I am, for want of a better word, a very liberal Christian. I know that my liberal bent has led me to take some positions that some of you disagree with. I said a couple of weeks ago, and I will say again, that I think one of the great things about the UCC is that our way of being church allows us to disagree about things, even things about which we feel very deeply, and still stay in fellowship, in covenant, with each other. There is a lot more that holds us together than that separates us. I hope and pray that this is the case among us here at Monroe Congregational UCC.
That being said, this morning I want to talk about one of the ways in which I am perhaps not as much of a liberal as many in our denomination, especially at the national level. That disagreement is illustrated in a way by this morningís Gospel reading from Mark, the part of it that deals with Jesusí healing of Simon Peterís mother-in-law. In that story, Jesus and the first disciples Simon (later known as Peter) and Andrew his brother, and John and James, the sons of Zebedee, have just come from the synagogue where Jesus healed the man with an unclean spirit, the story we heard last week. They have gone to Simon Peterís house. His mother-in-law was in bed sick with a fever. Mark tells us that as soon as Jesus heard of it "he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them."
Now, if that little story, like any Bible story, is going to have any real meaning for us, it has to be about something more than the healing of one person two thousand years ago. One of the arts of reading Scripture is the ability to find contemporary meaning even in these little, seemingly insignificant stories. So what is the meaning of this story for us? Well, it actually can have several. Now, some of you may be familiar with the UCC Desk Calendar and Plan Book. Itís a desk calendar that contains, among other things, the lectionary readings for each Sunday. For each Sunday it contains a suggestion of a theme or sermon topic based on one of the lectionary readings. The stated theme is coordinated with a church school curriculum called Seasons of the Spirit that we donít have here. The reading from which the theme is taken is highlighted in black. For today, the passage from Mark is the highlighted passage. And the suggested theme is: "Raised Up to Serve."
Now, I donít know what Seasons of the Spirit has to say about that theme. But I can almost guarantee you that the emphasis is on the "serve" part not the "raised up" part. I believe that because of my belief that in our right and proper passion for justice ministry, we in the very liberal UCC often tend to forget that the ministry of Jesus Christ, while certainly being profoundly about justice, is about more than that. We tend to overlook the personal, spiritual dimension of the Gospel. You can easily get the impression that the UCC, at the national level at least, is only about social justice witness. Look at the website ucc.org for example. The home page usually displays most prominently stories about social justice issues rather than issues of the churchís beliefs, or personal spirituality, or corporate worship. Today, for example, the two lead items at the top of the siteís home page deal with the Iraq crisis rather than about anything specific to the UCC. Or look at the kinds of resolutions usually passed at General Synod, our biannual national meeting of delegates from all of the denominationís Conferences. They tend to deal almost exclusively with social justice issues. It is therefore not surprising that when some UCC entity at the national level looks at the little story of Jesus healing Peterís mother-in-law, it goes immediately to her service to others that resulted from the healing, tending to skip over the healing itself and its meaning for her, and for us and our own personal faith, rather than its meaning for our call to serve others. I have a problem with that. I think the personal, pastoral, and spiritual aspects of this story are at least as important as its social aspect. After all, if our faith were only about social justice issues, I doubt that many of us would be as attracted to it as we are. Certainly my own decision to devote the rest of my life to work in the church was motivated only in part by a desire to work and preach on social justice issues. And so this morning I want to stop on the "lifted up" part of the story of Simonís mother-in-law and see what it has to say to us today.
The story is about a woman, Simon Peterís mother-in-law. She apparently lived with her daughter and the daughterís husband Simon. We donít really know anything else about her. We do know that she is ill. She has a fever, a very serious matter in those days. When Jesus learned of it, he didnít hesitate. He went to her. He reached out his hand to her. He took her by the hand. He "lifted her up," and she was healed. Then, and only then, in response to Jesusí healing touch, did she begin to serve others. The touch, the lifting up, the healing came first. Without it, the service would not have been possible. And so I think it is entirely appropriate to look first at the first part of the story, the lifting up.
For me, this little story, to which we probably donít often pay much attention, is a beautiful illustration of the way the presence of Jesus Christ works in our lives. e all get sick. We all have fevers. Sometimes our illness is physical. The fever is literally an abnormally high body temperature. Sometimes, fever is more of a metaphor for what ails us. Our maladies can be biological, but they can also be emotional or spiritual disorders (which are usually the same thing) that trouble our hearts, minds, and souls. Either way, we suffer. Maybe we suffer in both ways at the same time.
In those times, we can turn to Jesus for help. Or, as happened here, others can turn to Jesus for help on our behalf. After all, Simonís mother-in-law didnít call out to Jesus. Her family did that for her. We do that here in our service every Sunday. I trust that we do it daily in our own times of private prayer. We offer prayers for ourselves. We offer prayers for others. When we or they are struggling with physical or emotional or spiritual illness, we turn to the Lord for aid and comfort for ourselves and for others. Simon and the others could do that in person. So can we, except that in our case our reaching out takes the form of prayer. Thatís our way of talking to Jesus in person.
And our Gospel story this morning tells us, and I can tell you from personal experience, that when we do that, Jesus responds. Jesus comes to us just like he came to Simonís mother-in-law in this story. Just like he did for her, Jesus reaches out his hand to us. He takes us by the hand, and he lifts us up. He supports us, comforts us, heals us. Iíve experienced it, and I know that many of you have as well.
Now Iím well aware that there is a bit of a problem here. In the story, Simonís mother-in-law was healed of her fever. She got physically well, or at least so I understand the story to say. We know that that doesnít always happen. We and our loved ones donít always get well. Sometimes the illness gets worse. Sometimes we or our loved ones die from the illness. Does that mean that Jesus didnít hear us? Does it mean that he didnít come to us and reach out his hand to us? I know as well as any of you that it can sometimes feel that way. But Iím here to tell you this morning that it isnít so. It doesnít mean that at all. Or at least, it doesnít have to mean that if we can open ourselves to the other ways in which Jesus can come to us, touch us, and lift us up.
Iíve told this story before, but I want to tell it again at least briefly because the passage from Mark this morning that says Jesus "lifted her up" reminded me of my one experience of Jesusí healing touch so powerfully. Last summer, a few days after my wife Francie passed away from breast cancer, I had a powerful experience of calling out to Jesus to hold me up as the weight of my grief was driving me to my knees. And I immediately felt myself physically lifted up, raised from my knees to an upright position. I didnít do it. The Lord did it for me. Of that I have no doubt. It was the most remarkable, immediate, and powerful spiritual experience of my life. And many, many times since then, when I have felt overwhelmed by grief, or fear, or loneliness, I have again felt myself physically lifted up. It happens all the time now. When it does, I usually whisper a quiet "thank you." Because I know that that sensation of being lifted up is a sure and trustworthy sign that Jesus is present in my life, reaching out to me, touching me, and lifting me up. And I know that in other ways Jesus did that for Francie too, and still does.
And so, while we must never forget that we are indeed called to serve Godís people in response to the grace God gives us in Christ Jesus, letís not forget the other part of the Gospel message. Jesus is there for us. Jesus comes to us when we pray and when others pray for us. Jesus is always reaching out to us, touching us, lifting us up. He did it for Simonís mother-in-law, and heíll do it for us. All we have to do is ask. And that, my friends, is about the best news we could ever hear.