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Each Called By Name

  • February 7, 2021
  • 10:30 AM

Sermon for 7 February 2021 (Epiphany 5 B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-12,21c; Mark 1.29-39

Title:               Each Called By Name

In the Name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. Amen.

“Simon’s mother in law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus 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” (Mark 1.30-31).

Why is it that we don’t know her name? Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. All she gets is two brief verses in Mark’s Gospel. And we don’t even know her name.

Is that all we get? For most of us, anyway, for us ordinary people. A few minutes in the sunshine? One brief opportunity to shine on the surface of this planet earth, and even then our name is soon lost and forgotten?

There certainly are others who get far more than one moment to shine in the light of day. Do I even have to mention the name of Tom Brady, that pretty boy? How many Super Bowls has he played in now? Tonight’s will be his tenth…so far?!

Even though I am not a fan (seriously, not a fan at all), it is a remarkable achievement, one not likely to be repeated anytime within this century.

However, we can be assured that God is not impressed by this. But don’t take my word for it! It’s right there in the Psalm we prayed together. “God has no pleasure in the strength of a man” (Psalm 147.11). Which we can faithfully extrapolate to say, God has no pleasure in hands full of Super Bowl rings.

Be that as it may, what about Simon Peter’s mother in law? Why does she get only these two verses in the Bible, and nothing more?

We don’t even know her name, the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, but perhaps we should. Perhaps we should. Perhaps this is a mistake, an oversight made by the Gospel writer that God wants us to notice.

One of the Desert Elders whom I study once remarked that “the root of all evils is forgetfulness” (Anonymous 65). Thank God that this does not refer to ordinary, everyday forgetfulness, because then I would be lost! This elder is thinking primarily of how easily we humans forget God and forget the contingency of our lives, but this is equally true of how we forget about others, and how easily certain people are forgotten.

This week I came across a meditation from Alfred Delp. He was a German Jesuit priest who joined the Resistance against the Third Reich. After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944, Delp and all in the Resistance were imprisoned and forced to wear handcuffs day and night. While in prison, even with those handcuffs, Delp wrote letters and meditations before he was executed. In one of his meditations on the Lord’s Prayer, he wrote this about the phrase, “Hallowed Be Thy Name”:

[Here in prison] “I have been a mere number long enough to know what it means to be nameless and what effect it has on life. Let us resume the practice of giving names to life and to things,” he wrote, and most of all to recognize the name that is “the holy of holies, the central silence, the thing that above all others calls for humble approach.” – that is, the Name of God.

Stripping away one’s name, replacing it with something else, like a number – this is one of the ways by which those in power attempt to crush the souls of those under their thumb.

By contrast, one of the majestic beauties of the biblical tradition is the insistence on the importance of names, and the very process of naming.

In the beginning, God named the light as Day and the darkness as Night. Soon God called on Adam to name all the animals and birds of earth. Not long after, God called Abram by the new name of Abraham, and thus set in motion a long chain of generations that led straight to Jesus of Nazareth, who himself was named by the angel Gabriel. And Isaiah tells us that God calls each of the stars in the known universe by name.

All throughout the Bible, there is an insistence on the power and importance of names, and especially the name of God. We pray it every day: “Hallowed be thy name.”

By faith, we understand that the name of each human being matters, and especially the names of those who are most easily forgotten, the weak and the powerless. We need to say their names, to remember their names.

And yet, right here, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is raised up to life again, and we don’t even know her name. Why is she left nameless?

And thinking about her further, I wonder what happened to her after this moment of being touched by the Savior.

It is certain that this woman had another fever later in life, that more illnesses and bacteria and viruses affected her body as she aged. It is absolutely certain that she did eventually die. So what changed for her after this moment with Christ?

What we seem to pray for when we pray for healing is for a person to have a certain amount of time before death arrives, or for a person to accomplish certain numbers of things before their heart ceases to beat.

But, how much time is the appropriate amount of time for a human to live? And what is on the list of things that a human is supposed to accomplish before they die?

And, more importantly, who determines these matters?

My hunch is that Jesus sensed the precariousness of healing when he went out alone on that morning in Capernaum. He had raised up Simon’s mother in law, and that evening, he had been besieged by every single ache and pain and dysfunction in the entire region!

Seriously, can you imagine what it was like? I mean, if his was the magic touch that restored everything back to its ideal condition, wouldn’t you go and see if you could get some of that healing – for whatever was ailing you?

“Lord, the skin on my neck is sagging down, and it’s really bothering me. Can you touch it please and tighten it up? Just one little finger right here, please?”

“Lord, my knee hurts all the time. Can you please touch my knee and make it like it used to be when I was young?”

Honestly, don’t you think that a lot of this was going on? And why not? I mean, you never know unless you ask, correct? If he was in front of the house just dishing out healing left and right, all night long, then he probably wasn’t doing any screening to see who needed it most! “Free healing for everyone – just come and get it!”

So my hunch is that this entire experience exhausted him, and when he went out all alone to pray and watch the sunrise, he reconnected with the divine aspect of his being, and the Holy Spirit reminded him that this is not the way.

After all, what was going to last? What would Jesus offer that would truly turn the tide for humanity? What would Jesus do with his short time on earth that would actually make a difference for the long haul?

Well, throwing out healing power left and right was not going to do it, because that neck skin is just going to sag again eventually, and that knee is going to hurt again the next time you fall awkwardly into your boat. And all of these people are going to die anyway, so what is this Messiah going to do to change the world, to advance the kingdom of heaven here on earth?

Simon and his companions find Jesus and say to him, “Everyone is searching for you!”

But Jesus already knew that! And he knew why. He could see what was going on. No offense to them, but these people did not want to change. They were not searching for him because they were passionate about the kingdom of heaven, about being transformed until they themselves were actively engaged in the mission of God.

THAT is not why they were looking for him. The people were looking for Jesus to help them get more of what they already wanted. To them, he was like the genie in the bottle, the winning lottery ticket, the rich uncle who never says no.

So he pivoted and changed direction. “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns” – and why? – “so that I may proclaim the message there also, for THAT is what I came out to do” (Mark 1.38).

Do you see it? THAT is what I came out to do. THAT is my primary mission and purpose. To proclaim the message! To teach people how to LIVE in the kingdom of heaven.

To build on what God the Creator has always been doing – giving power to the faint and strength to the powerless, and calling each person by name.

Why is it that we don’t know the name of Simon Peter’s mother in law? I think we should. But perhaps this oversight gives us a chance to place ourselves in that story, and to use our own name to fill the void.

Jesus takes Nathan by the hand to raise me up. Use your own name! Jesus takes …you …by the hand to raise you up. And when the fever finally leaves us, we are ready to serve.

What is this life of following Christ all about?

Certainly not getting more from God, more of the stuff we want!

It is about finding our place in the kingdom of God! It’s about being known and called by name until we are finally free to serve, ready to engage our lives in God’s work of empowering the powerless.

Are YOU ready to do that?

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