a homily preached at Trinity College Chapel on January 16, 2019 based on: Mark 1: 29-39
Growing up, I had three primary heroes: Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, and my Grandmother.
My grandmother was a marvellous Swede transported to the Southern United States. She swore like a sailor, chain-smoked nearly until the day she died, and prayed even harder than she did the first two. The other thing that she instilled in me was a deep sense of honouring guests. I remember learning from her (along with her rich and varied vocabulary) that the best pepparkakor on the cooling trays were not for my eating, but for the mysterious guests that may or may not turn up during the coming days. The ones that the family should choose to eat were the misshapen ones, the ones on which the almond pressed lovingly on the top was slightly off centre, or the ones that had perhaps gotten a bit burnt around the edges. This made sure that whenever anybody stopped by there was always a perfect plate of cookies to put out for them alongside a beautifully perked pot of coffee or a pitcher of sweet tea. That this idea of transforming stranger into guest that my grandmother was lovingly enforcing into my childhood cookie cravings was Biblical was unbeknownst to me at the time, but it shows up in our gospel today.
This gospel has, at times in my budding feminist theologian history, been a troubling one for me. Here we see a woman, stricken with fever nearly unto death. Jesus heals her– and rather than be allowed to take a nice rest, she immediately arises and begins cooking dinner for the houseful of people who have come to see Jesus. In angrier, less contextual times, it might be easier for us to think: “why did this poor so recently nearly dead woman need to go about the business of immediately caring for others?” “couldn’t she have put her feet up and perhaps had an extra cookie herself before she had to get into the kitchen?”
But, when Jesus lays his hands on you, you need to go about the business of service immediately.
I think instead that this gospel demonstrates that the healing that only Christ can give us is so deep and so complete that it is utterly transformative. She didn’t rest because she no longer needed to rest. Indeed, the idea of rest would have been anathema to her new condition, a condition that was beyond health. When the Lord touches you, you get to work.
Martin Luther’s ideas about faith as justification often get so muddled that we think he abandoned deeds and works entirely. It’s not true. Luther said many things, and never talked about works as an exclusive path to heaven, but he has this to say, in his commentary to accompany Paul’s epistle to the Romans about doing good deeds accompanied by faith: “when it comes to faith, what a living creative, active, powerful thing it is. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do, rather, before the question is raised, it has done the deed, and keeps on doing it.” In other words, when the Lord has laid his hands on you–you get to work.
In our reading from Hebrews today we’re also shown that God wants to understand us deeply, that God came down to earth and became one of us to understand what it is to be human, but also to “break the power of the devil,” “and of death”. Jesus’ healing of the woman close to death shows us the immediacy of this power–but the energy that the Holy Spirit gives all of us to work for that which is good, just, and righteous in the world is the continuation of that promise. Even today, the Lord lays his hands on us, and we are inspired to do better.
It’s impossible to watch the news or open twitter or facebook or read anything in the news really without feeling close to the death of righteousness and justice in our world. It would be so easy to cozy up close to death, to join the cynics who claim that there’s no point in doing good works because the problems of our world are simply too big. The Goliaths of our world will continue to crush the Davids, and in our lifetimes we will not see the “mighty put down from their seat, or the humble and meek be lifted up”.
We know differently though, because Jesus has laid his hands on us. We are creatures who have been transformed through the light of Christ and instilled with the hope that the Kingdom of God is at hand, close enough to touch– and we must go about the work of trying in any small way to bring it about.
My other childhood hero, that magnificently deranged proto-feminist Joan of Arc has many perhaps apocryphal bon-mots that are on coffee mugs everywhere, but my favourite one attributed to her is “Act, and God will act.” It’s a wonderful summation of the idea that we are still a covenant people– that if we continue to move forward in faith, the Holy Spirit will continue to meet us there, continue to comfort us, continue to inspire us, and continue to give us work to do.
There’s a beautiful post-communion prayer that I used to say weekly when I worshipped with an Episcopal church in Maumee, Ohio it includes the marvellous turn of phrase:
“And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do.”
I love this part of this prayer because it charges us with a dual responsibility and a recognition that our work is sent from God and that we are sent by God out of the church and into the world. We save the best of ourselves for the guests of the church in the world, enriched by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In just a few moments, Christ will once again lay his hands on us in the renewing power of the eucharist, and then, thanks be to God, we can get to work.