An ancient depiction of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law
As soon as they 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 sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he 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. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Last week, we heard about Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. This week, we heard about him doing more of that, along with more run-of-the-mill healings while they were visiting Peter’s home, and starting with Peter’s own mother-in-law. I once heard a feminist theologian offer a somewhat tongue-in-cheek criticism of that part of this passage, wondering if Peter was really worried about his mother-in-law at all, or if he was just hungry and wanted her to get into the kitchen to make them all sandwiches. I laughed when I heard her say it, and reading the text I can see how she could get that perception. In the end, though, even though I read the exact same words, I don’t draw the same conclusion. I want to believe that Peter did genuinely care about his mother-in-law’s well-being, and even if he didn’t, Jesus did, and he would have healed her anyway, any thoughts of sandwiches notwithstanding. I know the theologian was joking – at least a little bit – but despite that, the fact remains that we were both reading the same exact text, and were different perceptions were coming to both of us, largely because we were unavoidably reading the words through different-colored glasses – glasses that were crafted by our very different, but both very real, life’s experiences.
Beyond Peter’s mother-in-law, the whole issue of healing is all through the gospels and beyond, through scripture. In fact, the whole idea of healing, in different ways, is at the core of the establishment of the church itself. Healing is one of our core reasons for being: Healing spiritual hurts and wounds. Healing physical illnesses, injuries, birth defects, and other physical ailments through the church’s caring ministries. In fact, do you know that the very concept of a hospital, as we understand it today, was the outgrowth of Christian ministries to the sick? There are other aspects of healing that the church is all about, too. Healing social ills by working to change unjust conditions and systems in society. Healing broken relationships.
Healing is a part of the very DNA of the faith, and the church. We were established by Christ, in large part, to be seen as an alternative model over against the way much of the world exists, which in many ways can be anything but healing.
We’re supposed to be a model for healing kinds of relationships, people being in caring, loving relationships who are from across a broad spectrum of who we are – just as the feminist theologian and I saw things through unavoidably different-colored glasses just based on our own life experiences, neither necessarily being totally right or wrong, and both likely having many common points but some differences. We, the church, are called to be this alternative model of being a loving community made up of people with all those different-colored glasses.
That fact is something that any pastor sitting down to prepare a sermon is keenly aware of. Every pastor stepping into a pulpit knows that there’s a fine line between hearing a sermon and a hostage situation – that no matter how many people are in church on any Sunday morning, there’s likely only one with a microphone. It’s a very sobering thought, a sobering responsibility that, I promise you, I think about and pray about every single week: how do I preach a message based on a given text that will be heard and experienced through glasses of as many different colors and prescriptions as there are people present?
Is this week’s text, laid up against the news of the week and the realities of our time, calling for a message that’s more “pastoral” and calming and peaceful? Or is it calling for a more “prophetic” approach, speaking out against some situation in the world that’s contrary to the core teachings of our faith, and that we need to work to correct, but for whatever reason, we’ve grown comfortable with? And whichever of those routes I feel God is leading toward – how do I even really know that my take on it is right? And how do I proceed from there, being aware of all those different-colored glasses – and realizing that even faster than sugar turns to fat in our bodies, the theological becomes the political?
Well, that’s always been the pastor’s dilemma, but it’s become a more difficult tightrope to walk in current times – when our society has become so polarized, so hardened, on both the left and the right. We’ve allowed ourselves to become tribalized – we only associate with people who are like us – who look like us, who think like us, who vote like us, who basically live in the same area as us, who make about the same amount of money as us. We only read the websites that agree with us. We’ll only watch MSNBC but never Fox News; or we’ll always watch Fox News but never CNN. Friends, the church is called to be the “anti-tribe.” We’re called to be an intentional community, a family, that doesn’t pretend those differences don’t exist, but that forms a loving, healing community across all those lines, all those different-colored glasses. And preachers are called to proclaim the gospel to that diverse community – that diverse family. Sometimes, that will be calming and comforting. And sometimes, it has to be challenging.
That “preacher’s tightrope” is something that I’ve tried my level best to walk ever since I began pastoring. And believe it or not, in the past eleven years that I’ve been preaching pretty much every Sunday, I can tell you that hardly a month has gone by that I haven’t gotten complaints both that I said something too liberal, and that I said something too conservative – and a few of those times, these complaints were about the exact same comment I’d made.
When I was at that little church I mentioned last week, and wanting to break that “hostage situation” where only I had a microphone, I started something new – an “open mic time” right after every sermon. I invited people to offer immediate feedback to what I’d just said. People could ask for some clarification about something I’d said. Or they could say that something I’d said made them think of something they read in a devotional that week that they thought would be good to share with everyone. And sometimes – and I encouraged it – someone would say “You know, you said X – but I don’t really agree with that. I think that’s completely wrong.” And while we couldn’t take the time right then and there to get into it, we would set up a time to get together to discuss it over a cup of coffee or a meal, or it would spin into a topic for a future Sunday School class.
Some of my pastoral colleagues said my open mic time idea was stupid and crazy. I prefer to think it was gutsy and creative. Maybe it was all of those things at the same time, but in any case, it led to some of the most wonderful and remarkable and memorable conversations, for the people in the church, and for me, too.
The upshot of all this is just to say that it’s inevitable that whoever you are, whatever your theology – and therefore, whatever your politics – and no matter how hard I try to walk that tightrope, some Sundays you’ll hear me say things you disagree with. Maybe even something that makes you mad. And if you haven’t yet, I promise, your turn is coming; I’ll get to you. I’ll eventually manage to tick off everyone at some time or another. And when it happens to you, know that I love you, and I’m not trying to upset you. I’m just trying to go where I sense God is leading me on that given Sunday. And also remember that at the end of the day, no matter how hard I’m trying to say and do the right thing, I’m still just a flawed, imperfect human being, and sometimes, I just blow it. I ask for your prayers that those times will be few and far between.
That “open mic time” wouldn’t be a good idea here for a few reasons. But I still want that kind of feedback. I still want to share that coffee with you. I still want to have, I still welcome, those kinds of conversations, especially if I’ve said something that troubles you. Maybe sometimes, after listening to you, I’ll say “You know what, you’re right – I went off the rails with that comment. I was wrong; I’m sorry.” And maybe the outcome of the conversation will be for the two of us to share our different takes, and we’ll share a prayer and just agree to disagree, but we’ll each have a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s different-colored glasses. And most importantly, maybe together, we can come up with a way to show how, with God’s help, people with different-colored glasses can be that alternative model for the world – because friends, if we can’t, who can?
Thanks be to God.