Every now and then I watch a show on TV and see the ads and am shocked by the behavior. I’m shocked at people gathering together in close proximity with nothing covering their nose and mouth. I recoil when I see people greeting one another with kisses on both cheeks and tasting food off of one another’s plates. A weird mix of fear and disgust comes over me. Does that ever happen to you?
Everything has changed so much in a year. There is BP and AP, before the Pandemic and after the Pandemic. Behavior that seemed completely normal and acceptable a year ago is now dangerous and scary.
These experiences shape how I read Scripture now. Familiar stories take on new meaning. Commentaries and Bible studies written BP no longer apply in the same way. I have new eyes and ears for the words and stories. I am reminded that we are not the first to undergo such death and disruption. There are plagues and exile in its pages. There is also insight, strength and courage as we face an uncertain future.
Every three years for nearly 30 years I have preached these texts. But this week was different. I got shocked when at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus enters the bedroom of Peter’s mother-in-law where she lay consumed with fever, unable to move, possibly deathly ill. And the first thing he does is touch her. He gets right next to her in order to lift her, no the Greek word actually means “raise her up” out of bed.
He risked so much in this action. I realize how dangerous it was for him to be closely exposed to her contagious illness. After all there were no antibiotics or other treatments for whatever virus she had. And then, it was the Sabbath. He and his newly minted disciples had just returned from Synagogue. To heal is to work and to work on the Sabbath is to break a sacred commandment. If you read further in Mark’s gospel you’ll see how much trouble healing on the Sabbath brings upon Jesus’s head.
Finally, he’s crossing those rigid, cultural boundaries between men and women, between public and private space, between a bachelor, religious leader and a respectable, married woman. And while it doesn’t immediately bring censure down upon his head, it does cause word to get out and soon he is completely surrounded by the sick and demon possessed and has to get up before dawn the next day in order to escape the press of people.
He didn’t have to heal her. He could easily have made some excuses and avoided the awkward and potentially dangerous situation. Instead, he rushes in where others might be more cautious.
And I couldn’t help thinking about all the women and men, suffering from fever and weakness, alone in their rooms. All those in nursing homes and congregate living situations who have been put in quarantine and will not feel the touch of a human hand or a kiss for weeks or even months. All who die alone, maybe just with a stranger holding a phone up to them or most often with no one else in the room.
Will Jesus come in to them? Will Jesus respond immediately to their need? Will Jesus risk everything for their sake, to be with them, to comfort them and to raise them up? It’s not an idle question. My dear mother-in-law got ill from a non-COVID bacterial infection during this pandemic and had to be put into a hospital, then a nursing home, then another hospital and finally an adult care home. Each time she was quarantined and we could only visit by phone or sometimes through a window. Jean was extroverted, loving and hugely social but most of her final months she was alone, including at the time of her death.
What are we who care about those who are ill to do? Where can we turn for help? Peter (originally named Simon) and his brother Andrew had just met Jesus and just began to follow him. I’m sure they knew their mother-in-law was sick and I’m certain that they were desperately worried. Their invitation for Jesus to visit their home may not have been entirely disinterested. In fact, the first thing Peter does as soon as he gets Jesus in the door is to tell him about his mother-in-law.
I get it. When you care about someone and they are desperately sick and nothing seems to help, you will do anything to save them. You will try every treatment, ask for as many second opinions as you can get, call in all your chips on their behalf. There’s no time to waste. Peter and Andrew even forgo the polite acts of expected hospitality. They don’t care that it’s the Sabbath. All they want is for Jesus to do something, to make her well. They may have even made that bargain so many of us try, “I will follow you anywhere, Jesus, if only you…”
This gospel story has a happy ending. The mother-in-law is healed. Many others are made well. Peter & Andrew along with James and John continue to follow Jesus. But we’re reading this AP or maybe DP, during Pandemic and we know that not everyone recovers. Not everyone is healed. Even Peter’s mother-in-law will ultimately die. Before she does, Jesus himself will die.
Jesus knows this, long before his disciples do. Before dawn he goes out alone, to a deserted place and he prays. He finds strength and courage to carry on. He commits once again to the mission of proclaiming the good news of God. His ministry includes healing and deliverance as signs that God is near, not separate from us, but as close as the very breath we take. In fact God breathes with and in us. God is infected by us. Jesus shares our air and is willing to die from the experience.
Are you humbled and grateful for those who are on the front lines of this pandemic? EMTs picking up people who can barely breathe from their beds at home and delivering them to the hospital; caregivers in hospitals and other facilities who show up day after day to face danger, death and despair; essential workers making barely enough to pay their own bills while taking care of everyone else’s needs? We see the face of Jesus in them. We know that Jesus touches others through them and provides comfort, strength and love at the last because they are there.
A woman who had known my mother-in-law for less than a week, stayed up through the night with her because she was suffering and scared and didn’t want to be alone. Jesus was present in that room. Even when no one else is there, we trust the risen Christ to be present, to bless and heal, to bring mercy and grace and comfort at the last.
Every Thursday some of the many members of the Prayer Group meet on Zoom to pray for the needs that have been brought to our attention. It’s a powerful time. Many on our prayer team have the gift of praying in the Spirit in a language or awareness that transcends understanding and brings a connection to God beyond words. We all join in the Prayers of the People weekly and each individual adds their own prayers. Like Peter and Andrew we can “tell Jesus about our concerns at once!” This pandemic reminds us of how much is not under our control. In the middle of our fear, insecurity, sadness, anger and grief, we can call out to God and ask Jesus to come to us and to others.
As we do, we sometimes sense the inner touch of a hand, a reassurance, a steadying presence that gives us just enough strength to carry on, to continue with our mission, to believe there is good news in the midst of all that is wrong with the world and our own lives. Illness and death will not disappear before Christ’s return, but we will be able to bear it and to bear the presence of Jesus to others in need.
At the end of her life, I believe Jesus came to Jean, my mother-in-law to touch her, to take her by the hand and to raise her to new life. And I believe he will do the same for you and for me.