Monday, February 5, 2018

Thoughts on fevers and healing, after a visit to Hebron (4 February 2018)

Sermon for Sunday, 4 February 2018
5th Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s nothing like a visit to Hebron the day before you’re supposed to preach on “healing” to really mess up a gal’s sermon.

To be fair, I was having a bit of a struggle with focus this week anyway, and had been praying hard for the Holy Spirit to be generous and reveal something new about these texts sometime before this morning. Ideally, something inspiring. Something encouraging! Something relevant to our context.

And then I went to Hebron.

In my mind were these words from this morning’s Gospel according to Mark:

“As soon as Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” (Mark 1:29-33)

Our guide Afnan tells us: “In 1997 the Hebron protocol divided the city into two parts: H1 and H2. H1, under Palestinian rule, is 80% of the city. H2, under Israeli rule, is only 20%--but it included all of the Old City and the main areas of commerce. There are at least 3 police for every 1 settler there now.”

“And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” (Mark 1:34)

“I will have to meet you on the other side of Shuhada street” says Afnan. “I’m not permitted to walk there, because I am a Palestinian.”

“The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names.” (Psalm 147)

“The Palestinian residents of Shuhada street must present their IDs to the guards” says Afnan. “But they do not look at their names, only their numbers. Each resident is known only by a number.”

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

“The first time we were under 24-hour curfew, we thought it would be over soon,” says Abu Abed, as he serves us coffee with cardamom inside his tiny shop. “But when it happens the second time, and the third time, and on and on for years—what can we do? Many choose to leave, to find homes in a safer place. They want a better life for their children. But I am still here.”

Dear friends in Christ, what shall I say about healing today? How can we comprehend the promise of Christ’s healing power when we live and work in a place that has been so sick, for so long?  How do we think about the miraculous healings Jesus performed in this land so long ago, when no such miracle seems to be happening in this same land today?

As I walked through Hebron yesterday, with this unwritten sermon on my mind, my thoughts kept going to Peter’s mother-in-law, lying on her sickbed in Capernaum. In Mark’s Gospel, it simply says she had fever. And when we read those words today, we may think, “Well, a fever is not too bad! This is not like those stories where Jesus heals those possessed by demons, or men who have been born blind, or women who have been bleeding for twelve years. This is a fever. Jesus only needed to give her a cup of tea and tell her to take a good nap!”

But of course, the reality is that a fever in Jesus’ time was often a “sickness unto death.” It was indeed life-threatening, and not only that, it was often assumed to be caused by something demonic. For this reason, it was also shameful! Peter’s mother-in-law not only had a fever—she was in mortal danger, and so was her family. She was confined to her room, cut off from society, suffering alone, with little hope of a cure.

Making my way through the streets of Hebron, passing under the metal netting which keeps the settlers’ garbage (but not their dirty water or urine) from hitting the heads of those walking below, I thought: 

“This land is like Peter’s mother-in-law. Here is she is, suffering with the life-threatening disease called Occupation, and so many of us write it off as a simple fever.

Those who haven’t seen (and even those of us who have!) really don’t understand the illness—so we don’t understand the urgent need for healing.

 “There are two sides to every story,” we often say.

“It’s too bad that the Jews returning to the land has inconvenienced the people who were already here,” I have sometimes heard.

Or, all too often:
“These folks have been fighting for thousands of years, and nothing will change until Jesus comes back!”

Nothing will change until Jesus shows up.
Nothing will change until Jesus shows up.

This is both the most aggravating thing—and the most truthful thing—that my fellow Christians say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nothing will change until Jesus shows up.

On the one hand, I reject this way of thinking entirely.

I don’t think it’s in any way right for a Christian to look at the Middle East (or any other part of the world) and say, “Well, this is all really messed up, but Jesus is coming soon, and he’ll fix it. These people are really suffering, but Jesus will show up soon and heal them.”

Friends, Jesus did not suffer and on the cross so that we could throw up our hands and say, “Well, I guess he’s covered that! Nothing else for us to do.”

We have been saved. We have been healed. By his death and resurrection we have been granted the tremendous free gift of grace and forgiveness and salvation—and now what?

To paraphrase our brother Martin Luther: “We don’t have to do anything. And we are entrusted to do everything.”

We have been healed…and now we are freed to be a healing presence for others.

The Gospel according to Mark tells us when the mother of Peter’s wife was healed of her fever, when it left her for good, she immediately got up and began to serve the disciples.

Now there is a completely different sermon I could preach on how we interpret the typical gender roles in this verse, and what Jesus might say about it today! But the thing I want to emphasize this morning is the fact that this woman who was suffering, who was confined to her room, and who was unable to fulfill her role in the community…was brought to healing and wholeness through the presence of Christ.

And the first thing she did was join his movement—not as an apostle, not as a preacher or prophet, but as a deacon, serving Jesus and the disciples in the way she knew how, thereby becoming part of his healing ministry in the world.

Peter’s mother in law was healed…and she became a healer.

For this reason, when someone says, “Nothing will change in Hebron, in Israel and Palestine, or in the world, until Jesus shows up”, I want to say: That’s exactly right.

As St. Teresa of Avila famously wrote:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”

Christ has no body on earth but yours...therefore, sometimes healing looks like Jesus entering a sickroom in Capernaum, taking hold of a feverish woman’s hand, and lifting her up so that she can serve the disciples dinner.

But sometimes, healing looks like 13 people (some Christian, some not) entering a tiny shop in Hebron, drinking coffee with cardamom, and hearing one man’s story.

“Life is very difficult here,” said Abu Abed, as he showed us photos of what life in Hebron was like before the closing of his street. “Life is very difficult, but when you come to us, it is like we can breathe again. When you come to us, we breathe fresh air through your lungs.”

Hear that again: “When you come to us, it is like we can breathe again.”

We had no special credentials.
We brought no medicine,
And we possessed no magic.

But by the grace of God, drinking coffee in a tiny shop in occupied territory, there was a small measure of healing for Abu Abed that day.

Not wholeness, as yet—but comfort.
And hope that change is coming soon.

Wholeness will come when Abu Abed, and his family, and Hebron, and indeed all of Palestine and Israel are freed from the deadly fever called Occupation. 

Wholeness comes when all people have not only heard the Good News, but are able to enjoy the love, the liberation, and the healing of God’s Kingdom—on earth, as it is in heaven.

Dear friends, how shall we talk about healing when we live in a world that has been so sick, for so long?

This is what I can say:

If Jesus has come to you and touched your hand,
If your fever has been relieved and you can once again breathe deeply,
If you know that you are loved by God,
If you know that you are called by name, not by number,
If you know that oppression and occupation are not God’s will for humanity,
If you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good,

Then you have the privilege,
You have the power,
You have the freedom,
You have the gift,
Of bringing fresh air,
And forgiveness,
And human rights,
And justice,
And liberation,
And above all the Good News of God’s love,
To all those who so desperately need it. 

You have been healed!
You, too, are a healer.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.