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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
During the speeches at the wedding reception, it is customary for the mother-in-law to receive a bit of a ribbing from their newly welcomed son-in-law. Even in the Holy Land they joke about mothers-in-law. Do you know why on the night he was betrayed Peter denied Jesus three times? Because Jesus healed his mother-in-law? Of course, I would have never made a joke like that at our wedding reception. My mother-in-law was wonderful, saintly woman… and her daughter follows in her footsteps, I might add. Years ago when I was studying French, I discovered that the French word for my mother-in-law is my beautiful mother, ma belle-mère. She was very pleased. Leave it to the French to see beauty where English speakers only we see legal relationships. I rather suspect that Simon-Peter saw his mother-in-law in that same way.
Nowhere in scripture is any name given to Peter’s mother-in-law, though she certainly must have been loving and tolerant. After all Simon-Peter was not the easiest son in-law to have around. He was unreliable, impetuous, and hotheaded. She certainly couldn’t have been pleased when she heard her that Peter and his brother Andrew had abandoned their fishing nets to follow an itinerant preacher from Nazareth. But then again Peter possessed some positive characteristics. He was a generous man; he was warm and outgoing and enthusiastic. Most importantly, from his very first day as a disciple, he was devoted to Jesus. Jesus would say that “He had nowhere to lay His head,” but when he came to Capernaum, Peter offered him hospitality in his home. He would open the doors to Jesus, and Peter’s mother-in-law grew to know Jesus through her son-in-law.
St. Mark writes in the first chapter of his gospel that shortly after Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and his temptation in the wilderness, when John the Baptist had been arrested, that Jesus began his ministry. He began by proclaiming the Good News of God in his hometown of Nazareth. But it seems that every time that Jesus proclaimed the message of God’s health and salvation that someone or some event prevented him from making his message heard. So Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth to begin this ministry in the fishing village Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee where he called his first disciples, Andrew and Simon-Peter, James and John, all fishermen.
Today’s gospel reading opens on the Sabbath day where Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. St. Mark tells us while Jesus was teaching a man with an unclean spirit interrupted him. Dramatically, Jesus drove the spirit out of the man. After the worship service concluded Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, John and Jesus walked over to the home of Peter and Andrew, where Peter’s mother-in-law was also living. They were immediately informed that she had a fever.
Bouts of fever were common along the Sea especially in the swampy northern regions where the Jordan River meandered into the Galilee. The fever was similar to what is known today as typhoid fever. It was a mosquito borne. Peter’s mother-in-law was in a life-threatening condition. And so we read that Jesus merely held her hand and the fever was dispelled. He raised her from her bed and, without any time to rest or recover, she began to wait on her guests. And that was Jesus’ first miracle in St. Mark’s gospel.
Peter’s mother-in-law had been healed by Jesus on the Sabbath, but as soon as the sun had set and the stars were clearly visible in the night sky, people began to bring the sick to her home to be touched by Jesus. Mark tells us the “whole city” gathered door. Late into the night miracle after miracle took place. And once again Jesus was being deterred from his main purpose of proclaiming the message of God’s kingdom. Still, diseases were defeated, demons were denounced and all of these miracles were giving hope to life. That is God promise to us as well.
Physical healing was important to Jesus, but it certainly wasn’t intended to be the entirety of the gospel. Interestingly, the early church fathers spoke of health and salvation as one of God’s promises. Indeed, in some languages health and salvation stem from the same word. Unfortunately, generations have been raised with the belief that faith is merely the cure for an unfulfilled, frustrated and diseased life. They believe that religion is simply an ambulance at the foot of the precipice to pick up those who have fallen over. But my friends, I would like to challenge you with my conviction that the teaching that Jesus proclaimed is that trust in God and his health and salvation is the fence at the top of the precipice to prevent your falling in the first place.
Later in St. Mark’s gospel, Jesus asked the Pharisees who were criticizing for his message of God’s kingdom, “Who needs a doctor?” The answer should be clear. Everyone of us. Myself included. For those of you who believe as the American humorist Mark Twain that “the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and to do what you’d druther not,” let me suggest instead a three way prescription in which the Christian faith may be healthy, preventative medicine. It be summed up in three words- Embrace, refrain and moderate.
Life will return to its former color and richness. Joy will come in the morning and broken hearted will rejoice again. That is our hope after this pandemic, but then what? Will we simply return our old unhealthy patterns? Embrace, develop and embody healthy, life-giving habits now. And what are these? It’s hard to know who was changed more that day by Jesus’ healing, Peter’s mother-in-law or the son-in-law disciple. Their priorities shifted. Possessions no longer held the same place in their lives. Time and time again as the sick and oppressed were brought to her door, Peter and his mother-in-law understood their human desperation. Suddenly, they knew what they had to do. They needed to open their hearts and homes to help people find Jesus. That is the lesson this story teaches us. The gift of God’s healing challenges us not to protect ourselves selfishly and our time, and our possession for ourselves only. But God’s gift of healing calls us to be selflessly generous to those still in need. Like Peter’s mother-in-law, we are called to lift others up. It is the natural response to God’s gift.
Second, exercise restraint. It should be common sense, but refrain from those activities and habits which do not give life. The early church taught that even though all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial, nor do all things build up the faith. In order to maintain a healthy life and faith, you need to refrain and avoid those habits which are self-destructive. No family can battle physical, emotional and spiritual abuse alone. You cannot survive the uncontrolled and uninhibited power of wealth and affluence. Exercise restraint and learn to live sensibly within your needs, and not simply within your wants.
Third, exercise moderation which means simply to find a balance in your life. In the little known apocryphal book known as Syrach, it is written, “In everything you do be moderate.” It even goes on to say, “Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation is rejoicing.” It is not healthy to work seven days a week; you lose perspective on that which is important. You cannot work and play without a balance of rest and reflection. You cannot expect your spouse to shoulder a yeoman’s burden of the household responsibility, while you enjoy the public image without cracks appearing in the foundation. Your family cannot tolerate the lack of balance either. Exercise moderation in your work and in your leisure. It will be life giving. That was the message of God’s kingdom Jesus came to proclaim. It is still the healthy and life giving pattern in invites you to embrace.
One day when a pastor was visiting a trauma center at a local hospital, he asked a medical professional who was a member of his congregation how he could continue to smile in the midst of the suffering he encountered day after day? He answered somewhat technically, that faithful believers can maintain higher levels of effectiveness even in the “no man’s lands” of life, when they see themselves as carriers of the cure. Unfortunately, it is easier for many today to look around and curse the darkness, than to light a candle and become a part of the “cure.” Why me, they ask? My friends, Jesus comes to heal, but he has also invited you to be a part of the cure.
After the last miracle of the night was performed in Capernaum, the townspeople made their way home. Each of the fishermen and Jesus found a corner of the house in which they could curl up for the night. Before dawn broke, Jesus slipped out of the house to a lonely place to pray. In that time of early morning solitude Jesus teaches us that that even though the spirit is willing, the body is weak. We can’t hope to be a part cure, to speak with power, to lift up others by the hand, transform lives, or even bring healing comfort to another if we don’t build a rich, strong foundation of faith for ourselves.
My friends, staying healthy in these anxious and uncertain times begins with daily discipline of seeking nourishment for you own body and soul. God is our ultimate health and salvations. And we have been healed, it is then in thankfulness that daring to go out and be the cure for others. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.