Sunday, February 7, 2021
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Prayer of the Day
Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 40:21-31 The creator of all cares for the powerless
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 A servant for the sake of the gospel
Mark 1:29-39 The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law
Title: Doing the Epiphany Dash
There are four weeks in Advent and five weeks in Lent. There are twelve days of Christmas and fifty days of Easter. These rich liturgical seasons give us time and space to prepare and reflect, rejoice and celebrate. We are currently in one of my favorite seasons – The time following Epiphany, however it is a bit problematic. Due to the ever-mobile Easter, this season following Epiphany can be as short as four Sundays and as long as eight (nine if you count Transfiguration that we will observe next Sunday). Now some call this post-Epiphany period general time and others ordinary time, but I say it is a time that is anything but ordinary, quite extraordinary to be sure, and (in my humble opinion) should be seen as a season like the others. Because there is a lot to be appreciated and examined in these winter weeks before Lent begins. Looking at it, a post-Epiphany list of topics and foci can rivel any Advent to-do list of Christmas preparations.
I offer a short list. We have just received this wondrous gift of God’s heart, born into human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. These Sundays following Epiphany are our time to explore this life-changing, world-changing present who is present with us now. Through our gospel readings we witness him beginning his ministry of teaching and healing, challenging power structures and lifting up the powerless, searching out the lost and giving hope to the despairing. Who wants to be deprived of any of that good news? And then of course there is the calling of the first disciples, which leads us into the other great focus of this time – our own call to be Christ’s disciples. Asking ourselves: in this time, in this context, what does it mean to follow him?
I bring all this up because this is one of those years that our post-Epiphany time is quite short. We haven’t even moved out of the first chapter of Mark. There are still only four disciples mentioned in today’s reading. Jesus hasn’t even called the other eight. Today’s reading begins with only the second miracle recorded by Mark. And already next week we are going to jump to chapter nine and then it’s Lent. We need more time.
Well thankfully, today’s gospel reading, coming from that fast-paced and succinct gospel of Mark, offers us a concise yet full expression of this season of discovery and identity.
The prophet Isaiah provides us some preparation for what will be a short, but full sprint. Before we can examine the one who has come to save us and what he is calling us to be, we must first see who we are and what we need to be saved from. In this morning’s first reading, Isaiah is speaking to exiles. People who were removed from their God-given homeland and are existing in a foreign land. They have lost it all and don’t know if any of it will ever be restored to them. In faith. we know that Isaiah is talking to all of us across time. For all are exiles in one way or another. Though living in our own homes; as children of God, citizens of God’s dominion, we are pilgrims in a strange land. Perhaps in light of current challenges we are feeling a deeper sense of exile-ness. As we continue to be exiled from many of those simple and daily joys that have filled our lives with free movement, friendly contact, and social gathers that are not socially distant. Exiled even from our sanctuary where we long to gather for worship. Politically, some are watching events and movements in our own country and feeling less a part of this nation that seems suddenly strange. Some are being treated as if they are less than, have less rights to justice and freedom, have less protection under the law. And some are truly exiles searching for safe harbor in this land of exiles and refugees and, rather than receiving a welcome, they are being inflicted with more suffering by the very ones who have the power and resources to deliver them.
But God, through the prophet, is speaking words of comfort and hope. “Exiles, though you feel like bugs about to be squashed, and the princes and kings you see appear to have all the power, know this, all of you, God has not forgotten you or forsaken you. And the God who holds the ultimate power is calling you by name, not one is missing.” What a wonderful four-word phrase. Not one is missing. It is not ALL of you are included. It is: not one is missing. God knows our name. God speaks to the one, the exile, the oppressed one, the suffering one, the despairing one, the searching one.
This is the God who has sent the gift of Jesus, the word incarnate, the love made visible. So that we exiles might see, and touch, and hear, the one who calls us by name and who makes sure that no one is missing. Not even Peter’s mother-in-law.
We can make a pretty safe guess that she is a bit of an exile. If she is living with her daughter and son-in-law then she is probably a widow. But if a widow in that ancient culture, then it would have been her son who should have taken her in upon her husband’s death as the oldest son ascended to become the new head of the family. But here she is with her daughter. Her son-in-law didn’t have to take her in. Did she not have a son? Had he predeceased her? Either way, she had little to no standing in this family or the community. But she gets all of Jesus’ attention and healing power. He does not leave her behind. She is healed, restored, and immediately gets up and serves. Thus, in this season-in-a-nutshell of a passage, we see who Jesus is and who we are. We are the ones who are in need of healing, who are healed. And our thank-filled response is to serve.
Mark moves us right on to “that evening” where we get our next significant seasonal image for this dash through the themes of Epiphany. Another four-word phrase sums it up: They brought to him. While I typically like to take shots at the disciples and other attenders to Jesus’ teaching when they (so often) do not understand the message and ask silly questions; this time they clearly get it. They have witnessed the power and the compassion in this new teacher, and they respond by bringing to Jesus all who are in need of healing. They spread the word. They carry the weak. They encourage the forsaken. They bring hope to the despairing. In their actions and their welcome, they reflect the life and light of the one who makes sure that no one is missing. It is the call of every disciple to go and do likewise.
Continuing our Epiphany dash with the gospel writer who is never one to dwell, we are quickly sped to the next morning, before sunrise even. Jesus gets up and again he teaches by example. After a busy day, he withdraws to a quiet place, he takes time for prayer. Using today’s jargon, we would say he engaged in a little self-care. The call to discipleship is not just a call to do in the name of the one who leads. It is also a call to be in the presence of God. To be still, to listen, to breath in the spirit, to be refreshed and nourished for continuing the journey. One of the more helpful paradoxes that was shared with me is that in order to be self-less you must be selfish. Paul sort of taps into the same wisdom with his statement in the second reading: though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all. Luther echoed it with his “a Christian is subject to none, and servant to all.” We are wise to embrace our freedom to come to God in prayer, not always feeling like we must search for the right words, instead just sitting in silence; so that from the healing and strengthening we gain, like Peter’s mother-in-law, we can rise to serve.
The final image of this Epiphany-season-summating passage again puts the disciples in a good light – they are on a roll, I must admit – for we find them hunting for Jesus. Something we should all make a life-long endeavor. And when they find him, they say to Jesus: Everyone is searching for you. But Jesus reminds us that the word of God must continue forward and does not settle in the midst of popularity. There are more exiles to find. Jesus and his disciples go on so that: No one is missing.
The gifts of Epiphany: discovering our savior who is sent from the God who calls us by name, exploring Jesus the Christ who teaches and heals, embracing the healing that he offers and that we need, rising to new life from the healing waters of baptism (the river is where we were with Jesus back near the beginning of this extraordinary time), so healed we are freed to serve, bringing others so that no one is missing, resting in the comfort and peace of God’s presence. Richer gifts are these than the treasures of the magi whose visit initiated the a-ha’s of Epiphany. Pack them all up, hold them fast, engage them regularly. They are much needed for the Lenten journey ahead. They are essential for the living of our lives as children of God, disciples of Christ, and instruments of the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Mark Erson,