Why Did He Do It?

5th Sunday Ordinary time,  2-4-18

Job7:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 147: 1-6, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, is credited as one of the main points of emergence for the feminist movement.  She encouraged many other women to enter professional jobs and employment in business, industry and government.

It was a seismic shift for the American culture which produced a broad range of response. Some screamed that a mother taking young children to day care was an evil rejection of nature and responsibility.  Some demanded that all women must be employed to find their dignity and purpose.   Women had to find a balance between the extremes of being limited in their options or trying to lead both the life of a corporate leader and the mom who did everything.

So today we hear the story of Simon/ Peter’s mother-in-law. It tells us that Peter is not the simple fisherman.  He has a wife.  There is no mention of children, but the idea of Peter, Jr., drifts thru our minds.  Is this a peaceful house or is the mother-in-law having some kind of stress reaction to Peter’s coming into the house with a bunch of hungry men?  We could construct lots of different scenarios, but this is a reading from the Gospel of Mark, and Mark tells his stories in a straightforward way.  We will not be graced with more details.

However, we do know that Jesus is “immediately” told that Mrs. Peter’s mother is sick with a fever. Here we meet the first problem with culture.  We shrug, and say, “So?”  Put her in the car, take her down to the Minute clinic, get her some antibiotics and she’ll be fine by tomorrow, right?  Wrong, of course.  This is 30 AD.  No car, no urgent care, no diagnosis, no pharmaceuticals.  Just fear of what might be wrong, fear of long term disabling decline.

And Jesus “grasped her hand and helped her up”. The fever was gone and “she waited on them”.  Under our liberated breath, we mutter, “Couldn’t they have just gone to the store or drive thru and gotten something to eat?  Did he heal her just so she could fix them dinner?”

Well, as harsh as it sounds, it is a reasonable question. Why did Jesus heal this woman? And knowing that a horde of people who were physically and psychologically sick were about to gather outside the house, why would Jesus submit this woman to having “the whole town gathered at her door”?  To find the answer, we must put on the brakes, back up, and reset the clock.  One of the least productive things we can do to a good Bible story is to interpret it in the light of today instead of understanding what was happening in that day, in time past.  That is how to understanding what Jesus’ intent was with the Mother-in-law, and with us.

In that day, a woman worked from sun up to sun set to feed and clothe the family. From growing the food to preparing it to keeping the fire going to hauling water, to raising sheep for wool, weaving cloth, sewing clothing, washing  – you get the idea, sort of.  I doubt if any of us have ever had to create food, clothing, and shelter, everything, from scratch.  It is over-whelming to a 21st century suburban middle class American when you think about it.

The point is that women then had no other options available to them. And did you miss the fact that Peter’s mother-in-law would be a widow, or she would not be living in his house?  She was totally dependent on her family, and without them she would die, quite literally, of starvation or lack of shelter.  In exchange for life itself, she is more than eager to take on the tasks of the household and take pride in using all those skills she learned through the years.

But she was sick, and suddenly not an asset but a burden. She was terrified.  Was Jesus restoring her to health for his convenience?  No! Not at all. He restored her to her place in society, a place where her dignity was secure and she could be admired for her skills.  She was freed to be able to provide hospitality to her guests and the community; she was eager to share this with the whole village.  She, an older woman, was the center of a miracle, the first sick person to be healed by Jesus, the example that everyone would remember.  She was no longer just a widow whose prime had passed; now, she was someone.

Jesus continued to cure, to heal, to restore the sick to their places of wholeness.  That is an idea that transcends culture and time.  In our day, being productive in a job offers people independence and a boost to self-image.  When someone is released to go back to work after an injury or illness, once again enjoy their place in society and feel they are “part of life”.

The same is true for spiritual healing. In fact, we could talk about Jesus’ time on earth by thinking about redemption and restoration.  His death on the cross was a “one-time forever victory” which redeemed everyone. He “saved” us and opened a way to God’s love and forgiveness.  His teaching and actions restored us to how God created us to be, and he commanded us to continue that restoration with others.

It is the first responsibility of the Church to share the message of the Good News of Easter with people.  Discipleship begins when people discover the freeing power of redemption, by being re-connected with God’s forgiveness.  Worship and prayer are not an obligation; instead, worship & prayer are the natural language of those who are redeemed.

The second responsibility of the Church, that is us, is the work of restoring the sick, the addicted, the poor, the marginalized, the lost, to wholeness. We call that outreach, or mission.  Restoration is also called the “coming of the kingdom”.  If “saving the world” is redemption, then “changing the world” is restoration.  Deep love and dynamic caring are not a social norm; instead they are the natural behavior of the restored.

Those are big ideas, but crucial ideas to the growth and success of Holy Trinity and any Christian community. I will be sharing concrete and practical information about them with you in the weeks ahead. So, remember what Jesus did after he healed this widow – he prayed.  Please pray for our church that it may be a place of redemption and restoration.

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Dry Bones or Live Bones?

5th Sunday Lent A, 4-2-17; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Dry Bones or Live Bones??

Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us.  Let’s start with Ezekiel.  As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture.  So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel.  The peasants were left, abandoned.

Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land.  He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen.  Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future.  He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding.  But the vision is more than just restoration.  It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones.  I’m sure you’ve heard the story.  Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’”  And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.

Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.

From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again.  The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land.  But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.

It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John.   At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness.  Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it.   There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death.  Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.

John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time.  At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.  Christians expected to live to see him return.  But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.

Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died.  For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused.  They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.

John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.

When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come sooner?”  But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.

Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her.  Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.

Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”

No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.

This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John.  It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge.  Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.

When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering?  Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services.  These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people.  But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.