Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of a theme – liberation through healing and the casting out of demons. Jesus, after casting out the demons from the man in the synagogue in Capernaum last week, continues this work of liberation by healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. To our ears this is a strange story because it’s easy to get annoyed that her first instinct is to get up and start serving everybody. Kind of like Johnny Cammareri’s mother on her deathbed in Moonstruck when, upon hearing her son will get married, suddenly recovers and starts cooking for everybody, right? But in first century Palestine, the social role and vocation of a mother would be to show hospitality to guests and being ill robbed her of her vocation and sense of purpose. Being healed by Jesus freed her from the bondage of illness and restored her vocation, purpose and meaning. She didn’t just experience freedom from illness; she also experienced freedom to live into her rightful place in society. This is one of the meta-themes in the gospels, and especially in the Gospel of Mark. Healing is liberation, whether it is healing from physical illness or release from spiritual demons. It gives both the freedom from bondage and oppression and the freedom to live fully into a greater God-given purpose and meaning.
As we continue this journey of Epiphany, we are now closing in on the season of Lent. The focus and the questions begin to get more introspective now. We still are exploring the question of “Who is Jesus to us?” but now it is getting personal. We also need to contemplate the ramifications of who he is to us. If he came to liberate people through the healing and casting out of demons, what does that look like for me? What is holding me in bondage? What does freedom from that look like … feel like? For what purpose does Christ want to free me?
This is where it all gets hard in the harsh light of real life. There’s a real temptation to blow sunshine … or smoke … up your butt in all this talk of freedom. And there are a lot of preachers who do just that … you know … the kind who, in Fred Schmidt’s words, “Smile so much it makes your face hurt” while telling you God has a purpose for you. Right … tell that to a young person dying of cancer. Tell that to a mother grieving the death of her child. Tell that to the alcoholic who killed someone driving drunk and the family of the victim. Where’s your healing and liberation there?
Well … I wish I had a snappy answer for that, but I don’t. Maybe the only thing we can honestly do in the face of the crushing blows of life which come and rob us of meaning and purpose is to say with all honesty “life sucks.” That’s the first question in the Dave Test … can you just admit that sometimes life sucks? Can we live in a space where we can hear today’s gospel reading and hold the tension that our life might just suck right now and the appearance of healing and liberation that seems to come so easy in the Biblical narrative may not happen that way in real life? Can we hold to the hope that healing and liberation will come, but maybe not in the way we want it? Maybe it will come in a different package? Can we let go of our desires to have liberation on our terms and our timeline? Can we accept that restoration, a reversal of outcomes or cure isn’t always possible but that healing can come anyway? This is where faith gets down and dirty because it means opening the eyes of our hearts to see beyond our own pain and suffering so that when healing comes (note I said “when”) we won’t be so mired in resentment, anger and hatred that we miss the moment when it gets here!
Dave Schmidt never did get the cure he wanted. He died from his cancer. He never went back to the vocation which had given him a sense of purpose and meaning in life. He had to leave that behind. That sucked. In truth, it will happen to all of us eventually and in some way or form. Throughout our lives, there are times when we have to leave things behind too – jobs, relationships, health, aspirations, dreams, loved ones – and it sucks, it hurts, and it feels oppressive and dark. The last thing it feels like is freedom.
In time though, if we hang on, stop blowing sunshine/smoke and spewing bogus religious platitudes, a deeper sense of the mystery of God emerges. In the midst of suffering, illness and loss, Dave did end up having a purpose. It’s one I hope to have when my life is ending. He taught others how to live in grace, cut the BS, and get real. He helped his brother be a better priest and, in so doing, he inspired a powerful book to teach us all more about a real faith in the face of a hard life. He didn’t get the healing and liberation he likely wanted initially but in the bigger picture he was freed to give a gift that would outlast his earthly pilgrimage: a witness to faith that’s more real and more sustaining than smoke blowing and stained glass platitudes - a faith which makes sense and, in its own way, heals and liberates me.