Mark 1: 29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
Trailers and Peelers: you see them all the time. By “trailers” I mean the four, five or six drivers who continue to go through an intersection long after their light has turned red. They’re each thinking that if I stick close to the rear bumper of the car ahead of me, the people with the green light will wait for me to get through like they did for the car in front. So cars might keep trailing through a red light almost until it turns green again. As for the “peelers,” those are the drivers behind you on the freeway who, when they see you signal for a lane change to the left or the right, they press on the gas pedal, peel out from behind you, and race you for that space.
Trailers and peelers: I mention them this morning because when I say the word, “feverish,” they come first to mind (And maybe I’ve got to repent of that and get over it). People trail through red lights or peel around people in front of them because they are feverish to get somewhere, in a hurry, in spite of minor obstacles like red lights or other cars.
The word “feverish” comes from today’s Gospel passage. Simon’s mother-in-law was feverish too. Except that she was not behind a wheel, but effectively paralyzed and powerless, on her bed, laid out sick. Feverish, powerless and paralyzed: three words that often describe the human condition.
Communities and organizations can get feverish, and effectively paralyzed and powerless. That’s how some people might describe politics anymore. Or the economy. But in today’s case, a person, Simon’s mother-in-law, was feverish, and relatively paralyzed and powerless, until Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up. Then she was empowered to serve. This happened just after a sabbath service in the synagogue. So Simon’s mother-in-law likely served the Jewish sabbath meal, with the candles, the prayers and the food. That was an act of worship, as well as hospitality. She was serving God as well as people. The two kinds of service often seem to go together. Or at least they should.
Down and out for the count, until a heavenly hand-up raised us. Sound familiar? It should; its the story of many of our hymns. “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.” Or “When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”
This pattern of paralysis and empowerment, of being stuck down and then rising, fits with the disciples’ stories, too. Jesus finds them feverish, powerless and paralyzed, feverish with fear, feverish with racism, tribalism and ethnocentricity, feverish with greed as in the tax collector Matthew’s case, until Jesus touches and raises them. Then they too can serve, serving even the people they had once hated and feared.
If you have ever attended a 12 Step or Self-Help meeting, you will hear similar stories. Step I: I acknowledged that I was powerless over my addiction. Step 2: I realized that only a higher power could release me from its grip. The week before last I spent a wonderful Thursday morning with the residents of a halfway house release program for men making their re-entry into home and society from prison, homelessness, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Talk about fever, paralysis and powerlessness. Mike Lillie was teaching a class on the barriers to forgiveness, because grudges, and the failure to forgive or accept forgiveness, constitute an emotional and spiritual kind of fever that keeps people paralyzed and powerless in the grip of addictions and self-defeating behavior.
I saw a lot of people being touched and released in the course of that class. The tell-tale signs were that people were laughing, telling stories, asking good questions and making real-life connections to their situations. And because they had nothing left to lose, and no pretenses to keep up, they were telling the truth. Just as importantly, they were hearing the truth, with compassion, honesty and appreciation for one another. No one responded to anyone else’s confession with “You did WHAT?” or “How Could you? Shame on you.” More often, the response was, “Yeah, I know that story,” or “Been there, done that.”
One young man was there with the book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, by John Bradshaw. Shame is another powerful force that will leave us feverish, paralyzed and powerless. I had read it too, long ago. We both agreed that it seemed as though the author had read our mail. I leafed through the book again recently, and was struck by something I had forgotten about it: the last few pages talk about service and empowerment. According to Healing the Shame That Binds You, serving others is a result of our healing and empowerment, and it increases our healing and empowerment. For as long as our eyes are turned only inward, on ourselves, we will be stuck, going in circles. Happiness, health and healing are not just about what we get; they are about what we give.
I noticed the same thing this summer at the PULSE community in Pittsburgh. The young adults in that Christian service community struck me as very happy people. They were in a wonderful feedback loop in which they gave and received, that is, they received even as they gave. They gave time, energy, sweat, prayers and tears on behalf of homeless people and families, on behalf of the community through art, urban forestry and gardening, on behalf of children who needed tutoring, even on behalf of each other as they worked through things like who’s doing dinner and who’s doing the dishes and when, or who seems to dominate conversation here and who seems to be fading away from us, and what are we going to do about it? As they gave, they also received.
This cycle, this feedback loop, means that each step of healing and empowerment leads to another step. Just as emotional and spiritual fevers, paralysis and powerlessness can become vicious cycles in which people get stuck—that’s the condition we call “sin”—so can people get into the flow of virtuous cycles, where every step of healing, rising and empowerment leads to the next. That we call “grace.” Or even “discipleship.”
To get into that flow of healing and rising to serve God and people, and to stay in it, here’s what we have to do: 1) recognize and admit that, left to ourselves, we too are feverish, powerless and paralyzed. That’s easy to recognize when the fever and paralysis involve alcohol, drugs, pornography or promiscuity. But there are more socially acceptable and respectable forms of fever and paralysis, like the fear and the greed that drive the stock market. Or militarism, or racism, or the constant drumbeat of blaming, shaming and victimhood claiming that passes for politics of the left and right.
But I have to confess, there’s something appealing and tempting about such fever and paralysis: they absolve us of the responsibility to do and to become the positive solution, the loving, life-giving alternative to everything we decry. That’s why I say we must name and claim as ours the temptation, the gravitational pull back down to the moral and spiritual equivalent of the bed on which Simon’s mother-in-law was stuck, if we are to fight it.
The second thing to do is to reach out and hold on to the hand that’s always outstretched to lift us up. That hand may have skin on it, it may come with a human face and a human voice, calling us to better things. But behind it is the same hand and heart and voice that got Simon’s mother-in-law out of bed that sabbath sunset.
We marvel sometimes at the brokenness and ugliness of the world in which we live. Its easy to fixate on that. But if anything, it should amaze us that anyone is up and walking, alive and coping at all, somehow or other. And that should occupy us even more. Philosophers and theologians struggle long and hard with the problem of pain and evil in a world created by a good God. Why do bad things happen to good people? we typically ask. But just as baffling and illogical is the problem of pleasure, health, strength and peace in a broken, suffering world. Why do good things happen to anyone at all? And not just good things, but such extravagantly good things, above and beyond the mere needs of survival? Why, in a world like this, is anyone alive and well and walking about on their own two feet and even doing things to help other people?
Jesus gives and lives the answer to that second question, and to the mystery of grace and goodness. He’s always there for us with his hand outstretched, reaching for ours, to lift us up so that we might also do the same with others. Or so that he might do the same for others, but through us.
Since we’re not there on that bed in ancient Capernaum, at dusk along the Galilean Sea, we reach out for that heavenly outstretched hand by faith. You’ve likely heard me quote him before, but I’ll do it again. Karl Barth, some 80 years ago, said that faith is courage, “the courage to accept that we are accepted.” Faith in Christ means exercising our courage to do what we can, whenever we can, to reach out to the One reaching out to us, and to rise, to walk and to serve.
Once we’ve begun to experience that healing and rising, the third thing to do is to stay on our feet and keep walking. Fight the desire to lay back down in our all-too-familiar beds of feverish fear, resentments and shame. Just like when riding a bicycle: keep going forward, or you’ll go down. But when we’re walking with Jesus, movement forward amounts to service, service to God and to people. Such service is the best thing we can do to keep going and growing. For it keeps our eyes pointing upward and forward, rather than downward and inward on ourselves.
But bicycles eventually stop, and walkers need to rest. None of us is a perpetual motion machine. So the fourth thing to remember is that we don’t get raised just once and for keeps. Rising to serve is not just an event, it is the very process and movement of the Christian life. For we will have to take that outstretched hand many times, daily, if not several times a day. Its one way to think about prayer. I’ve just compared it to grace. And grace, like manna in the Sinai desert, has no shelf life. We can’t live off of yesterday’s grace.
So, whenever we find ourselves feeling feverish, paralyzed and powerless, again, lets be patient with ourselves and each other. Getting down on ourselves and saying, “Haven’t I learned anything? What’s wrong with me?” is part of the fever. It may just mean that we have had a relapse. The disciples did. Like when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans, for not welcoming them. Jesus slapped that one down pretty quick.
The fever showed up again, even after Jesus’ resurrection, when these same disciples asked him, “Will you now restore dominion to Israel?” But the Spirit of Jesus, the hand-up from heaven, came down to them and raised them up higher on the Day of Pentecost, so that Peter could preach a new kind of Israel to his fellow Jews. Relapses are not terminal, and they put us in good company.
So be prepared to take that heavenly hand up as often as needed. It may even come as a compliment. It may mean that God is saying, “My child, you have learned enough so that now you are ready to go on to the next class.” So the heavenly hand-up comes reaching down into a deeper level of ourselves, revealing and teaching us new things, so he can also lift us higher in service, to God and to people. For what Simon’s mother-in-law experienced that sabbath evening in that little house by the Sea of Galilee was not only a one-time event, it is the movement of the Christian life, the rhythm of discipleship, the very trail we walk as we follow in Christ’s footsteps, until the very last time he raises us…. forever, never to fall again.