The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 15, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine G. Flexer, Rector
I read a piece in the New Yorker magazine from a few weeks back about the Ebola crisis in West Africa. It’s a terribly depressing story, but I couldn’t stop reading it. It brought home to me just how horrifying this disease is. Whole families die of it, one after another. The sicker a person gets the more contagious they become – so the more a person needs the care of those around them, the more they are likely to infect those around them. The only way to stem the epidemic has been to quarantine people, which means that 6 year old children are left alone in their family’s house, their parents and all their siblings dead and no one allowed in to care for them – just a bowl of rice left outside for them each day by neighbors. One of the few bright spots in this story, however, is those who have survived – those who come through the disease alive are immune to the virus, which means that they can take care of those who are sick or quarantined. One woman in the story runs a children’s quarantine center, daily receiving new shell-shocked orphans and loving them back into life. She had been terribly sick, and saw her fiancé and other family members die. But she is someone with faith, a Sunday School teacher and childcare worker before she was ill, and she put those gifts and that calling to use with these kids who are so in need. She should have been the center of that whole story. She is a picture of what you do when you come through to the other side.
Last week I talked about how God stands against everything that blocks people from full and abundant life – how God longs to free us from what enslaves us, and to work with us to free others also from the powers of darkness. Today’s gospel gives us more of that, with Jesus acting as healer to one woman and then to a whole city. The woman who is healed is mother-in-law to Simon Peter, who has just become Jesus’ disciple. (She’s not named, unfortunately.) She’s suffering from a fever, and Jesus comes to her and takes her by the hand and heals her. And she gets up and begins to serve them.
As one writer protests, this seems pretty lame on the surface of it. The second she’s healed she has to get up and cook and wash dishes? Peter can’t even give her a little break to recuperate from her illness? Didn’t she have anything more wonderful than that to do, having just been brought back from the brink of death?
I admit I took a while to temper this reaction. Life-threatening illness or no, taking a sick day sounds perfectly lovely to me, frankly. My daughter Frances was home with the flu a few days last week and marveled at how when you’re sick you get fussed over and you get to watch TV. Yeah, I’d like some of that too. But think of an illness more like Ebola, where being sick means you are immediately thrown out of the village. Or something less infectious but still serious: not only can you not work to keep the household going, to earn a living and feed your loved ones, but you’re isolated and cut off from your identity in the community. That was true in the biblical story and is true even for modern day – being fussed over and watching TV begins to wear thin, and you start to miss your friends and regular life. So much more for those whose illness goes on for years.
However we might react to this poor mother-in-law of Peter’s, her healing does two things, besides taking away her fever. Being healed frees her from sickness and isolation, and it frees her to live out her calling in the community. Showing hospitality to guests in her home is integral to who she is and how she relates to others. We don’t know her story enough to be sure, but we can imagine it: the first thing she does in her healing is to serve, because that’s who she is. Being healed restores her to community and restores her to her purpose.
Setting people free from what enslaves them means setting them free to be who God created them to be. They’re not just free from the chains – they are free to do and be something in the world. So the second part of being freed by God involves asking the question: who did God create me to be? What is calling to me? What or who needs me today in this world?
There’s the famous quote from Frederick Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Sometimes we think a lot about the first part, the deep gladness – what do I want to do? What makes me deeply happy? – and we forget to think about the second: Where is the hunger around me? What am I needed to do? The two need to line up, of course. If the world needs free tap-dancing lessons and I don’t dance, then I can’t be of much use to that need. But if the world has children struggling in school who need extra care and attention, and I have a passion for education and some time on Thursday afternoons, then there might be a calling there. If people I know are lonely and hungry and I love to cook and entertain, that might lead to something. And so on. It’s how we decide where to spend our time and serve – and it’s how we as a congregation can determine our mission as well.
But I’m talking of this in the context of freedom, remember. This is different than feeling like you really oughta…or somebody really oughta…the really-oughtas can tend to take over our moral and ethical selves. There’s no end to the really-oughtas, and we can exhaust ourselves in that line of thinking before we even start helping anybody. Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t stand up and mutter, I really oughta serve someone. She was healed, life was given back to her by that touch of Jesus’ hand. In that moment of total freedom came clarity of purpose and role – this is who I am and what I’m meant to do. That is true freedom indeed.
Several of us attended the celebration yesterday at the cathedral for Absalom Jones, the first African-American ordained in the Episcopal Church. The preacher spoke ofd his story as being part of the eternal work of God for freedom, past, present, and future. Absalom Jones refused to be turned out of church because of the color of his skin and instead found refuge in the Episcopal Church; freed from the barriers put up by others, he then used his freedom to serve and lead others as their priest. God is always liberating God’s people from what enslaves them – in the biblical story of the Exodus, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the healing and prophetic work of the church today. God is always working to free God’s people from the evils of racism and oppression and so much else that is still so prevalent in our world. It is our job, our joy, to work with God to do the same. Freedom from what enslaves us leads us to freedom to free others – from the very things we ourselves came out of, like the Ebola survivor in the story, and from things we may never ourselves have experienced. God is always calling us; we are always free to respond. We always have something to give.
Our prayer today asks God to set us free from bondage, and asks for the liberty of abundant life made known to us in Jesus. The liberty of abundant life – life lived in fullness of freedom and joy, lived with such clarity and trust that we can stop worrying about ourselves and start serving others. So I leave you with this question: Where do you think that call might be coming for you today? What have you been freed from in your life – an illness healed, or a grudge forgiven; a broken self made whole, a loss turned to joy? And from that, how might you now turn to free others? How can you give of the gifts you have been given? Who is God creating you to be?
Let us pray: Set us free, O God, from what enslaves us. Bring us out of our brokenness to wholeness. And lead us into how we can serve to bring wholeness and life to others, to be part of your work in our time, so that we and all of God’s children may be free. Amen.