Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
7 February 2021
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
I run my errands on Fridays. This past week I was out a little longer, first hearing on the radio that this was the day when we’d find out whether restrictions may be lifted or extended, then later I heard part of Dr Henry’s address, and finally I overheard a complete stranger express disappointment to someone else.
For myself I have chosen not to second guess our Chief Provincial Health Officer. Of course, I could, but while I am sure she’s not perfect, I still think her guess is better than mine. Besides, I think the better we can control the current situation, the sooner and better we’ll emerge on the other end.
And yet I think I understand the frustration I overheard. This has been a long time. I have not hugged my kids since the summer when the numbers were low. I would love for all of us to gather here again. See each other, check in with each other, even if handshakes and hugs would have to wait.
I was listening to the radio on Thursday and they were talking about how hard this is for young people. I cannot even imagine. You have to have hope and people who love you to make it through this. Some young people who were interviewed spoke about the energy in a room vs the energy on a screen. We need each other, not just virtually.
And then, young people are supposed to build their own lives and relationships. And how do you find a date during a pandemic? And young people are supposed to change the world. How do you change the world when you are stuck at home?
So, I totally get people’s frustration.
Later on Friday I read a piece on Christopher Lasch (social critic and historian). The article referenced how growing economic inequality troubled Lasch, who wrote in the 1990s that, “People in the upper 20 percent of the income structure now control half the country’s wealth.” The author remarked that those were the good old days, now in the US 20 percent of the population control 90 percent of the wealth.1
And I thought, how difficult it is to bring about change, at this time and any time, and at any place, including in the church.
The people in Israel must have been in the same place. Forty years of exile in Babylon and a whole new generation born away from home, away from the temple, and having little idea of what life in the promised land was like. How can you imagine something you have never seen?
And those who had seen it increasingly had trouble imagining it as well.
After hoping for something for a long time without any noticeable change, resignation sets in, and so it seems that not only those born in Babylon but also those brought there against their will can no longer imagine a different future.
It is to these that Isaiah speaks:
Why do you say,
God has lost track of me.
He doesn’t care what happens to me”?
Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening?
God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine. (v.27-28)2
Words are powerful, but after prolonged disillusionment they may not be enough. The people don’t need a pep talk, they need hope.
And because after forty years of exile or 10 months of pandemic words will only carry us so far, Isaiah appeals to the people’s own experience so that they may recover the hope that is within them.
And so our reading begins with the appeal to their own experience.
Have you not been paying attention?
Have you not been listening?
Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?
I remember when I first came to Canada how much emphasis there was placed on a common narrative for this nation of many backgrounds, cultures, and histories. Isaiah does something similar, he reminds the people not only of their history (wouldn’t the God of the exodus make possible a second exodus?) but also their identity that was so intertwined with God’s election, provisions, and call.
When Israel stands on the threshold to the Promised Land, God renews the covenant with God’s people. Moses reminds them of the commandments, and the passage climaxes in these words, “4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6)
So they know the story, it’s not only what they have heard, but it’s who they are. It’s possible to forget who you are but in order to get back on your feet, you need to remember who you are.
Israel is not only God’s people but God has chosen God’s people to be a light unto the nations. They have a purpose beyond themselves which brings us back to changing the world.
These aren’t just words but it is about a relationship with the living God and it is about a way of life. This they must remember to be a people of hope.
In our Gospel passage Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. It is a passage that at first glance seems insignificant. Another one of Jesus’ healings. Except that we all long for healing of ourselves, those we love, and of the whole world. It also happens to be only Jesus’ second healing in Mark.
The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is not only a little resurrection as Jesus raises her (this is what the Greek text reads) but Jesus also raises her to a new vocation. Her serving Jesus and the disciples has nothing to do with a woman’s place but rather she is serving Jesus as the angels served Jesus after the devil had left him in the temptation story, and she serves Jesus as the One whose own mission is to serve.
It seems to me that these are good words for us too who likely are discouraged while still longing for a return to normal. Yes, it seems we are still in exile but God is God and our lives are inseparably intertwined with the life of God. And because this is so, we can hope.
You know I am happy we have been able to stream our services, and while I am profoundly grateful for the work Jordan has done and continues to do, it is only second best, and so on some days it seems like a small thing. Yet Mother Teresa who spent her life serving the poor and saw little that would change the general economic conditions that kept the poor poor, said that God does not ask us to do great things, only small things with great love. And her love not only comforted the poor but also showed their plight to the world.
Doing small things with great love helps us remember who we are and to live our calling. It is a task that’s not overwhelming and yet connects us to our loving God and God’s mission in the world.
2 Translation: The Message, Eugene Peterson