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Sermon for February 8, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Mark 1:29-38

                                      Beyond Dinner

         Who is this Jesus and what does he want with us? This isn’t my favorite story of Jesus. After all, it’s about his mother-in-law and I’m a little suspicious of Jesus’ motivations here. I feel bad about it, because I don’t want to doubt him, but seriously. This doesn’t sound that much like Jesus. This beautiful little story of Jesus’ generous healing and teaching and exorcising demons, opens with a visit to the home of his disciple Peter for dinner. When they arrive at Peter’s house his mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. This is where I get suspicious. Mark tells us that Jesus healed his mother-in-law and then she got up and served them dinner.

         I’m going to give a disclaimer right now about what I’m going to say next, because I AM a mother-in-law, four times over. But here it is, it has been said that perhaps the reason Peter denied Jesus three times after His arrest, is because on that day so long ago, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law.

         Mother-in-law jokes aside, it seems to me that this text is not so much about what happened to the people in this story, as it is about the character of Jesus. Who was this Jesus? What kind of Messiah were they expecting? There’s every indication that Jesus was not at all what they had in mind. And to be fair, people then as people now, wanted different things. Judas and the Zealots around him were looking for a military leader who would rise up from among them to overthrow the Roman Empire. Others were looking for a gentle shepherd who could comfort them in a violent and uncertain world.

         The powers and principalities of the Roman Empire caused unstoppable suffering. The people of Jesus’ time knew crushing oppression from the empire. Their lives were disposable. Any resistance to Rome, any hint of threat, was quickly dispatched. One needed only to start a whispering campaign about someone to lead to his or her eventual imprisonment. To throw a neighbor under the bus didn’t result in mere gossip, it resulted in a public display of humiliation and possible death. It was actually helpful to the empire when someone got out of line so that a display could be made of him. This discouraged others from doing likewise.

         What the empire couldn’t abide was creative resistance. Unexpected resistance. The empire allowed the conquered peoples to gather for religious purposes if it kept them happy and content, as long as it didn’t provoke them to dissidence. People watched for the One to come who would rise up and overthrow the oppressor. They thought Jesus was the one they were looking for. They were wrong. Jesus didn’t want to be militarily powerful to overthrow the government. Jesus came to teach people a new way of resisting the powers of the world that made for peace.

From the time Jesus was tempted in the wilderness just prior to the start of his ministry, Jesus resisted doing the expected thing. The world expected a Messiah who could turn stone to bread and give everyone what they wanted. The people of Jesus’ time suffered for want of provision. They worked hard for the bread on their table, the smoked fish in their picnic basket. The Jesus who would not only turn stone to bread but also multiply the loaves and fishes on the hillside would be a popular Messiah. The people would have been thrilled if Jesus had opened a shop and turned stone to bread everyday and gave it away to them for free. “Make my life easier and then I will bless the Lord.”

This popular and charismatic leader who would not only give them bread once as a sign of God’s power, but who would repeat it every day was the One they were looking for. They thought it was Jesus, they were wrong. Jesus didn’t want to be popular. Jesus didn’t set out to be a rock star. God sent Jesus to rock their world.

In today’s story, Jesus traveled to a little outpost of houses in a rural area on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter lived there with his wife and mother-in-law by the docks where fishing boats came and went toward the eastern Golan Heights, or to the tourist town of Tiberius by the Sea to the west. Their Agamenticus, the setting for the Sermon of the Mount rose up behind them, whose grassy hillside created an amphitheater for teaching as people poured out to see him from all the surrounding towns.

When they arrived late in the afternoon, the disciples discovered that Peter’s mother-in-law was quite sick with a fever. Already people gathered to hear Jesus teach, to receive Jesus’ healing or to be made clean from sin, from demons. First, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, an event so stunning that it was remembered and later recorded.

This sign that God was doing a new thing became the prologue of this early chapter in Jesus work. As soon as she was cured by Jesus, she rose up and served the disciples their dinner. What if this is the point of the story after all? That God healed her so that she could serve? The people wanted magic. God gave them a Jesus who healed the world, forgave their sin, freed them from the vortex of self pity or self recrimination, or anxious worry or judgment or whatever it was that got in the way of faithfully using their gifts so that they could serve one another.

This story only makes sense in this light. Because after this unexpected dinner and after the game changing healings, and after the authoritative teaching and transforming exorcism of demons, Jesus does the one thing no one expects him to do. He goes away. The next morning when everybody wakes up for breakfast, Jesus is gone. The people are looking for an encore. Already new people are arriving to be healed, gathering outside Peter’s door.

The text says that the disciples went looking for Jesus and he was nowhere to be found. “Long before dawn Jesus went off to a lonely place to pray there.” Later in the ninth chapter of Mark when Jesus sends the disciples off to do as he has done, to heal people, to exorcise demons, they return to him unsuccessful. “We couldn’t do it,” they said. We didn’t have the power. Jesus sends them back to prayer. “Nothing is possible without prayer.” The power was not their own. It wasn’t his either. It never was. The power of God worked through him for the sake of the world.

Then the story becomes even more surprising. These ordinary people who are looking for a Messiah who will set up camp among them and perform miracles every day, are left hanging. Like the disciples who went up on the mountain with him that one time when Jesus was transfigured and shone with light, the people want to make a home for Jesus to stay. But Jesus will have none of it. When the disciples eventually find Jesus that morning, they urge him to quit praying and get back to the people, saying, “Everybody is looking for you.” The people were looking for a leader who would stay with them, give them what they needed, make everything ok, show them what to do next.” This is the Jesus they were looking for. They were about to be disappointed.

When the disciples found him, Jesus didn’t go back to the people who wanted more from him. Rather, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let’s go. Let’s get going to the next towns so that I may proclaim the message there too, for that’s what I came to do.” As the passage ends, Jesus continues throughout Galilee proclaiming the message in their Synagogues and casting out demons. Jesus was not the one they were looking for: not the powerful zealot who would lead a military coup to overthrow the kingdom, not the compassionate social worker operating the miracle bread line to feed the never ending queue of hungry people, not the great physician who would open a hospital and miraculously cure everyone brought through the door for the next thirty years of his life, not the psychiatrist who would forever banish every mental anguish and illness with the wave of his hand.

When we think of Jesus, each of us is drawn to a particular image of him: Jesus the sweet shepherd; Jesus the healer of the sick, Jesus the freer of the oppressed, Jesus the satisfier of every hunger, Jesus the comforter to those who mourn. Many people thought that Jesus was this One they were looking for. If Jesus is only that, our Jesus and our God is too small. We too would be wrong.

         While following Jesus does heal, and bring comfort and free us, it also disturbs our rest, shakes our suppositions about the world, and speaks truth to power without taking the expected strategy of some to overthrow it. What if Jesus came to remind us of God’s original blessing for this spectacular world and all that is in it? What if we aren’t the broken who need to be fixed? Since Jesus came to us, we gather to remember that we are already and everlastingly The Beloved Community, forgiven of sin, freed to live without fear or the kinds of anxieties that suck so many lives into an endless vortex of wrangling over little things that don’t really matter so much at all.

What if this Jesus came to proclaim that the kingdom of God is still at hand and urgently invite us to participate in it? What if Jesus came to reveal the power of God to make us fully human, whole and powerful in this present moment? Is this the Jesus you are looking for?

Former Pastor/Theologian, now professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes about our response to this unexpected Jesus that we weren’t looking for at all.

“Committing myself to the task of becoming fully human is saving my life now...to become fully human is something extra, a conscious choice that not everyone makes…Because I am a Christian, I do it by imitating Christ, although I will be the first to admit that I want to stop about a day short of following him all the way.

In Luke's gospel, there comes a point when he turns around and says to the large crowd of those trailing after him, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (14:26). Make of that what you will, but I think it was his way of telling them to go home. He did not need people to go to Jerusalem to die with him. He needed people to go back where they came from and live the kinds of lives that he had risked his own life to show them: lives of resisting the powers of death, of standing up for the little and the least, of turning cheeks and washing feet, of praying for enemies and loving the unlovable.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

We come looking for Jesus, but he is not here, he is risen, he has gone on ahead of us. And this is the really scary part. Jesus left town a long time ago because God through Jesus already gave you exactly what you need. You are beloved, redeemed, healed, forgiven, Rise take up your pallet and walk, go in peace your faith has made your well. Go and love your neighbor as yourself. Go and make disciples of all nations.

What God did through Jesus was simply this. Jesus revealed that the Kingdom of God is at hand, not someday in heaven, in the sweet by and by, but right here, right now. Jesus shows us what God can do in our lives by God’s power, and then Jesus moves on. Jesus asks us to quit making excuses about our hungers and our various infirmities and get on with the only business we have been given to accomplish. Love one another. Serve one another. Love one another. Amen