Sermon: Epiphany 5B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
Have you ever seen that series of DayQuil commercials, in which a person is seen standing in a doorway, explaining to someone that they’re sick and need to take a sick day? When the camera pans to the person they’re talking to, it’s not their boss; it’s a crying baby or a sad little girl ready for a tea party. The narrator’s voice then says, “Moms (or Dads) don’t take sick days. Moms (or Dads) take DayQuil.”
The advertising for DayQuil aside, I so relate to these commercials. Remember that I spent years as a stay-at-home mom, many of those years overlapping with my husband’s years in the professional testing-ground. He didn’t have the freedom to take off work when I was sick so that I wouldn’t have to take care of the kids. So I had to power through. I remember once I was SO sick, and Brad was at work, and my kids were being especially demanding. When I finally got them down for a nap, I laid down in my bed, closed my eyes, and thought, “Maybe I have the flu, and it will get so bad I’ll have to go to the hospital, and people will have to take care of ME. That’d be SO cool.” I fell asleep to that fantasy.
So I always have an instinctual bad reaction to the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed by Jesus. In this very brief story in today’s gospel, we’re told that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then, in one sentence, we’re told, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
I always want to say, “Seriously? The woman’s been sick and in bed, and the moment she gets better, she has to jump up and get you some nachos and beer?”
And that’s the better of my two reactions. Secretly, I always wonder at the fact that Jesus healed her by hauling her out of bed. As if the Son of God were saying, “Woman, my followers don’t take sick days. Now get up and make me a sandwich.”
Of course, that’s not what the Son of God was up to. The better part of me knows that. And the message of this gospel is not that Christians don’t take sick days—that we’re all supposed to deny our own physical needs and limitations, power through, and serve the Lord until we collapse in sheer exhaustion. That’s not what this gospel is about.
Instead, this gospel is about healing and renewal and wellness, and how God is actually very concerned with all three.
Notice that the gospel as it is written doesn’t have Jesus say anything at all as he heals Peter’s mother-in-law. He doesn’t ask her for nachos and beer, or for a sandwich. He doesn’t kneel by her bedside and say, “Psst…Lady. I’ll heal you if you promise to make me a killer pot of chili after.” No—he just healed her. And knowing Jesus as we do, there are a whole bunch of reasons he might have healed her, none of which have to do with food.
Maybe he healed her because he loved and cared for Simon Peter, who loved and cared for her.
Or maybe Jesus knew her before he walked into her house that day, and he loved and cared for her directly.
Or maybe Jesus just saw a sick woman and had compassion for her.
Or maybe Jesus healed her because that’s what God does. God heals us.
Life is rarely as simple as a bunch of “or” statements make it seem, but we know for sure that the last thing I said is the truth: “Or maybe Jesus healed her because that’s what God does. God heals us.” We know that is true because the gospel goes on to talk about later that day, when “people brought him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of illness. That’s a lot of healing. And there’s absolutely no indication that Jesus asked for anything in return.
So what’s the deal with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law? Why does the gospel make sure to tell us that when the fever left her, she began to serve him?
Because that’s the proper response to being healed by God. Gratitude. Thankfulness. And both of those things lived out in loving service to God and others.
This gospel isn’t about a woman who was healed and then put to work. This is about a woman who was healed and then got to work, doing what she could to further God’s kingdom.
And that’s what we’re called to do.
FULL STOP. Let’s hold on a moment here. What did you just hear me say we’re called to do? Take a moment to think about this. I said, “This is about a woman who was healed and then got to work, doing what she could to further God’s kingdom. And that’s what we’re called to do.” What did I just say we’re called to do?
I’m the one who wrote those lines, and even I heard myself saying that we’re called to get to work for the kingdom. It took me a while to hear myself saying that we’re called to be healed.
But we are. They go hand in hand. We’re called to let God heal us, to renew us, to make us well. And then we’re called to get to work.
Jesus even lives this same pattern in this gospel. He’s out healing all those people—he’s working. And then in the morning, before the crack of dawn, he goes out to a deserted place to pray. He’s healing himself, renewing himself, making himself well, by spending some time with his Father. And then those disciples come and hunt him down and, renewed and healed, he gets back to work.
Even Jesus didn’t run on fumes. We see this pattern repeated time and again in the gospels. Jesus was constantly retreating, going to deserted places by himself, to pray.
We are called to spend time with God, letting God heal and renew us, increasing our wellness. And when we have done that, we are called to get to work, but not forever. Sooner or later, we need to spend some more time with God, letting God heal and renew us once again, to increase our wellness yet again.
It’s meant to be a constant cycle, a constant pattern, just as it was for Jesus. We are to seek renewal and wellness, then get to work, then seek renewal and wellness again, and then get to work again. Over and over and over again.
I don’t think it’s any secret why the Holy Spirit would have sent me this sermon message for today: it’s a sermon message that I needed to hear. Most of you know that I work hard, both here and at home. I’ve admitted to some of you that when the work load gets heavy, I tend to fall into the trap of cutting my prayer and study time so that I might accomplish more tasks. That’s not good. That’s not the pattern that the gospel gives me. I’m supposed to shape my life differently.
And so are you.
I worry, sometimes, about how many of you see this place as work—as a place that demands things of you. And to be fair—it is those things; it is meant to be. But this place should also be a place of renewal, of wellness, of healing. Our churches should be places of renewal, wellness, and healing. If they’re not—well, then, we’re missing an important part of the point. We’re missing an important part of who Jesus is.
Recently, a man named Scott Stoner was on a podcast that I listen to, “Priest Pulse.” Stoner is the Executive Director of Living Compass, a wellness ministry dedicated to making congregations centers of God-centered, whole-self wellness. He talked about how when he gets into conversations with strangers and explains to them what he does, he most often hears, “Huh. I never thought of church as a place of wellness.” And he said that’s just about the saddest thing he’s ever heard.
And I agree. That’s incredibly sad, and incredibly anti-Christian.
So, I need to say this. If this place, this parish, is not a place of wellness for you, then please come talk to me. Yes, I like to get things done. I like to work for the Kingdom. But a congregation cannot be productive unless it is well. You are more important to me than what you can do.
So yes, Scripture and the demands of parish life both call us to get to work. But let’s not forget that other step, the other part of the Christian life. We’re also called to give ourselves the time to let God (and, by extension, the Body of Christ, or other people) heal us, renew us, make us well. To let Jesus take us by the hand and lift us up. Not because he needs us to make him a sandwich. But because he loves us, and because that’s what God does.
The Forward Movement’s daily podcast always ends in prayer, and often ends in a prayer that I find especially useful today. So let us pray:
Oh God, I will try this day to live a simple, sincere and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.
In particular I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.
And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.