The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: February 4, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Jonathan Kester, Vicar of Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead, London
Good morning, St Michael’s people. It’s wonderful to be back with you after spending such a beneficial and life-giving sabbatical with you last year.
There’s something profoundly attractive about this great Church, with its richly decorated walls and beautiful Tiffany glass, but above all in its prayerful and holy atmosphere and the warm devotion and friendship of its people, which I feel wraps about me like a cloak whenever I enter this building.
At Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead in London we’re deeply glad to have this special link with St Michael’s Church and we pray for you each day at Morning and Evening Prayer and at the Eucharist.
So thank you for this opportunity of being back with you once again and for giving me this occasion to share with you in word and sacrament.
Our Gospel reading this morning finds us almost at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry after his baptism by John and the call of the first disciples.
Many commentators believe that the passage we heard last week represents a first day in the radical new world of the Kingdom being ushered in through Jesus’ life and teaching.
We heard of Jesus’ authority being clearly shown in the Synagogue at Capernaum, a town a couple of hundred yards in from the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Yet, his authority is very different from that of the scribes, because it is an authority rooted and grounded in love and service – the only authority worth having – an authority which is crowned as he hung on the cross and drew the whole world – without exception – to himself.
No wonder that, in the face of such unadulterated love and amazing grace, the demons fled in such a hurry and his fame spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee!
And today’s passage marks a second day.
Things are moving quickly and the pace of life quickly escalates for Jesus and his disciples.
This morning finds Jesus at the house of Simon and Andrew, together with James and John.
The large construction, thought to be the house Peter in archaeological excavations in the 1990s in Capernaum is typical of such a building from the Roman period with an array of rooms at the heart of it, surrounded by two courtyards.
It would have been large enough for the families of both Simon and Andrew, so no wonder that Simon’s mother-in-law is there also in the tradition of the whole extended family all living together.
Those first four disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John called by Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, witness his first healings and deeds of power on those first few days.
The only other times that the four of them are explicitly mentioned together are on the glory of the Mount of Transfiguration in next Sunday’s Gospel and in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane in the Passion narrative.
And so it is today that Jesus speaks a simple word to Simon’s mother-in-law and takes her by the hand… and instantly the fever leaves her.
It’s clearly an almighty quick recovery, because she gets up right away and begins to serve them.
Mark tells us this, not because he wants to stress or defend the Patriarchal nature of society at the time, but because service and discipleship flow from calling and healing.
Indeed many of the accounts in Mark’s Gospel show the “acts of power” which flow from Jesus’ radical new kingdom are in favour of women, who follow as disciples in the service of the Kingdom and reminds us of the utterly inclusive nature of that Kingdom, which sets worldly values and prejudices upside down.
Simon’s house quickly becomes the place to be and more and more people from all walks of life come to Jesus in search of his healing and liberating power and once again they are set free, symbolic of the inclusivity of the new life and love which flow from the Kingdom.
Like, any great speaker and prominent person, Jesus’ itinerary is jam-packed full of things to do, which is why the next section of Mark’s Gospel halfway through our reading this morning is sometime sub-titled “A preaching tour of Galilee”.
So he’s fast on the road first thing the next day.
And yet, the first thing he does is not to travel, but to go to a deserted place to pray.
Capernaum, like much of Galilee, was highly populated, unlike the distant wilderness of Judea which had many quiet places simply to be still.
The psalms show us that prayer early in the morning was an established part of Jewish spirituality and was central to the world in which Jesus was formed and nurtured.
And prayer is what he does before going off on any new chapter of radical activism – and for him prayer is where he is most connected with God his Father, in whose power he comes to show us beyond all doubt what true love is, a faithful connectedness with the Father which characterises every part of his life and ministry and death.
I must be careful in quoting from the Old Testament prophets when I am here in the States, that I pronounce them correctly your way!
As I learnt last spring you talk of the prophet Is-ay-ah, whilst we Brits talk of the prophet Isa-ai-ah and we teach the kids that he’s the prophet for whom one eye is ‘igher than the other.
But as Is-ay-ah beautifully puts it in our first reading this morning, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles”.
The writer of this section of the prophecy, often known as Deutero or Second-Isaiah, is writing to a people in exile, a people wearied and deflated by all that had happened to them in the ensuing years in being driven out of the Promised Land.
In that situation of exile, more than ever, they needed that sense of prayerful connectedness with God, simply referred to as “waiting upon God”.
For that waiting on God is what will give them enduring strength, power and vision… even in the midst of alienation and vulnerability.
That enduring strength which comes from a prayerful connectedness with God is embodied most powerfully of all in Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel, an enduring strength which is sealed in love and crowned in service and which is a pattern for all our lives, whether here at St Michael’s or at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead.
I know that you have recently had your Annual Meeting and new Warden and vestry members have been elected for a new term of service who will be commissioned a little later in this Eucharist.
I was glad to see them all when I first arrived on Monday night and even gladder to hear from Mother Kate, that one of the first things that you have done as a new Vestry is to go away together for a short time of retreat over the past two days as you prayerfully consider all that lies ahead.
I well remember the first such retreat I led for the equivalent of our Vestry at Emmanuel Church when I first arrived ten years ago and one member said to me, “Oh my God, we’re not going to talk about God are we? The thing was we did… and we have continued to do so ever since!
The life of the radical new Kingdom being ushered in through Jesus was certainly one of activism. Many things got done as signs of his power and authority, but it was a power and authority sealed in love and crowned in service, but above all rooted in quiet attentiveness to God… in a connectedness with God whose strength is enduring even in the midst of apparent weakness and failure.
What I particularly admire about life here at St Michael’s, is that you are a people who get things done and are a powerful witness to the radical Kingdom of justice, compassion and love on the upper West Side.
That you are a people who love one another and offer a boundless welcome and embrace to the outsider.
But above all that you are a people who are rooted and grounded and prayer and this beautiful building is a tangible witness to God’s enduring love which includes all and excludes no one.
All that, we see in this morning’s Gospel on the second day of Jesus’ radical life and ministry, the radical life of the Kingdom given firm foundations in a life of prayer and closeness to God.
Long may you – and we at Emmanuel – continue to do that to the honour and glory of Jesus’ name. Amen.