Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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(Isaiah 42:1-5, 10-16)+Psalm 107:1-9, 19-22+James 1:17-21+Matthew 8:14-22

A lot has happened in the lives of Jesus and his followers since last week when he called the first disciples and began to heal folks around Galilee. He delivered what we now call the Sermon on the Mount that covers three whole chapters, and after coming back down the mountain, he healed a leper and a centurion’s servant and then arrives back at Peter’s house. And I want to pause here to point out this parallel action of healing the servant of a Roman soldier – a tool of oppression for the brutal empire of Rome – and his friend’s mom-by-marriage. He doesn’t even see this servant, much less touch him. He performs that miracle from afar, just based on the plea of the soldier.

And then he enters Peter’s house, a place he had probably been many times before. It was likely the kind of house where he didn’t even have to knock before he entered, where he could grab something out of the fridge and put his feet up, TV remote in hand, even if no one was home.

But this time, he enters and finds that his friend’s mother-in-law is sick.

One of the things I really like about the translations of the texts that we are using is that Dr. Wil Gafney always makes explicit that it wasn’t just men who were followers of Jesus, and the crowds who gathered around were also not just men. Women and children were undoubtedly present, but rather than just having us imagine that they are there, Gafney writes them in. This may not sit well with some folks, but just because ancient writers did not think women and children were worthy of inclusion does not mean that we need to perpetuate that. So, I encourage you, when you are reading the bible or encountering some story where it talks about disciples or followers or crowds, to recognize that everyone is included. Everyone. Full stop.

Now, back to Peter’s mother-in-law. We know nothing about her other than what we are told. She is one of any number of women who appear in the bible who are given no name and are known only by their relationship to a man. Clearly, Peter has a wife, and his wife has a mother who lives in his house. If you allow your sacred imagination to operate even a little bit, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that Peter’s wife and mother-in-law were fully complicit – all in – on this Jesus character. They used what resources and gifts they had to support Jesus and the named disciples, providing food and shelter and perhaps evangelizing their own women friends who may have then gone to tell their spouses about this prophet who had come to town.

It used to annoy me no end that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and then sits back so she can wait on him. But using my imagination, Jesus has healed her so that she can fulfill what she has claimed as her role in proclaiming that God’s reign has come near. Supporting Jesus and Peter and the other eleven and their families together with the other women who did the same made it possible for Jesus’s ministry to thrive. When the text says that she began to serve him, the verb is διακονέω, where we get the word deacon. It is the same word used for the angels in the wilderness who ministered to Jesus following the temptations of Satan. Peter’s mother-in-law wasn’t just a nameless woman in whose house he flopped from time to time. Serving was her part of the mission and ministry of Jesus and his followers.

As soon as Jesus heals this unnamed woman, others come to him, pressing in on him to the point that he needs to get away, to cross to the other side (meaning the Sea of Galilee). And still they come, pleading their case, making promises they won’t be able to keep.

“You’ll follow me? Then be prepared to have no place to sleep and no place to hide.”

“You need to bury someone. That’s seven days sitting shiva – we have to be on the move, so leave that to someone else. Time’s a ‘wasting, people.”

This past Monday, the church commemorated Philips Brooks, once the most famous preacher in America, who died 130 years ago on January 23. Brooks is probably best known as the author of the Christmas hymn “O little town of Bethlehem.” He also served as rector of Trinity Church Copley Square in Boston and as bishop of Massachusetts. He once said, “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger people. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.”[1]

You know who was a miracle? A young man named Tyre Nichols. Artistic and kind, a loving son with a loving mom for whom he cried out as five Memphis police officers beat the life out of him earlier this month. There are those would argue that this was not additional evidence of rampant racism among the police because the officers were Black. That is simply a failure to understand the white supremacist system that is law enforcement in this country. It is a failure to comprehend that law enforcement directs its gaze at people of color differently than it does white folk like me.

These are hard things to say. You, like me, probably know someone in law enforcement. Maybe someone in your family. But the system is broken no matter how many “good” cops there might be.

We must become that miracle that Brooks wrote about. No one said following Jesus and speaking hard truths would be easy.

For those whose excuses prevented them from following Jesus, maybe the desire for an easy life won out. It’s a sentiment that continues even now, I think.

We read in the letter of James a little while ago that “every good gift, every perfect gift, is from above” (1:17). We need not try to make ourselves into something we are not. All we can do is open our hands and our hearts to receive by God’s grace whatever gifts God wishes to give. And then we use those gifts. Then the work we do – whether providing service and support or being out front in the lead – is not a miracle. We are the miracle for doing that work because it is of God and not of ourselves. Striving for justice and peace for all people is what we do, including for young men like Tyre Nichols.

The nameless mother-in-law of Peter, she knew what her ministry was. She received the miracle of healing from Jesus, and she passed life-giving service on to others. We, too have been given the gift of serving, in whatever capacity that might be, to make this world a safer place for everyone.

And when that happens? What a miracle that will be.

[1] Source unknown.

allsaintsadminSermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas