Fifth Sunday after Epiphany B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
There are few people in the world today who don’t know the name Nelson Mandela.
Mandela, a South African, grew up during the period of apartheid in his country. He joined a number of organizations whose mission was to combat that injustice, and it put him on the wrong side of his country’s leadership. Arrested multiple times, he was finally tried and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow his government, a conviction that carried with it a sentence of life-time imprisonment. He would spend the next 27 years in prison before finally being granted his freedom.
That, to me, is nearly unimaginable. As people like to point out, I’m only 28 years old, coming up on 29. For someone to be imprisoned for the same number of years that I’ve been alive? That’s… wow. Imprisonment is serious business.
In our Wednesday Bible study, we read part of the Gospel according to Luke, a part in which Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah. He reads this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” When he finishes this, he tells the people assembled in the synagogue that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Much–no, most of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ is the living out of this prophecy by Isaiah. Time and time again, Jesus brings release to the captives, and sets prisoners free. Nowhere in the Gospels do we hear of Jesus going to visit a prison, yet everywhere he goes, he sets people free.
Last week, we heard a story about Jesus setting a man free from the demons that haunted him. There are many such stories in the Bible, about Jesus going into towns and the countryside and casting out demons. Even in our story this morning, Jesus spends most of his night casting out demons, releasing people from the oppression and dominance of another power not their own. Exorcism was one way in which Jesus set people free.
Another way, of course, which we also hear about in our story this morning, is healing. In this case, it’s Simon’s mother-in-law, which gives us a few glimpses into Jesus’s life and ministry. The story takes place in Capernaum, on the sabbath day, at Simon’s house. Capernaum becomes Jesus’s “home base”, where his ministry starts, and where, from time to time, he returns. In the Gospel according to Mark, it’s also where he performs his first healing—Simon’s mother-in-law. Not a lot can be said about her. She has a fever, which, in that time, without antibiotics, was a big deal.
One of the reasons I like Mark so much is that, when he tells his stories, he keeps it simple. There’s not a lot of fanfare, there’s not a lot of extraneous information. Jesus simply takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, lifts her up, and she’s healed. The fever’s gone.
And yet, for all its simplicity, it is an event that is profound and spreads through the countryside like ripples on the surface of a lake. As soon as the sabbath is over, at sundown, people start bringing the sick and the possessed to Peter’s house, all night. It isn’t until just before dawn that Jesus gets a break, any time to himself, when he goes off to a secluded place and prays.
Of course, I’m skipping over the part of the story that people like the least, and in our culture, I don’t blame them. Peter’s mother-in-law receives this wonderful gift, this healing, this curing of her fever, and the very first thing she does is serve Jesus and his disciples.
Ugh. Such stereotyping. This is not what we like to see or read, women reduced to a serving role. All I can say is that this story was written down 2000 years ago, and that’s what she was expected to do. Returning to her role as the hostess who takes care of her hosts was a return to what she was supposed to be, to what she was meant to be—at least, according to the story.
But maybe there’s something to that. One of the more troubling aspects of imprisonment in this country is something called recidivism. Recidivism is what we call it when someone is imprisoned, released from prison, and then commits another crime that lands them back in prison.
It’s troubling because, ideally, once someone leaves prison, they are supposedly “set free”. Yet, recidivism shows that when someone is let out of prison, they aren’t necessarily “set free”. They’ve been released from captivity, but somehow, everything else that keeps them trapped in the cycles of behavior that got them into trouble in the first place drags them right back into imprisonment.
43%, so almost half of the people released from prison in the United States end up back in prison. That’s a disturbing, disturbing statistic.
I have to ask, why? Why is being released from captivity not enough? What more is there than the freedom to do whatever we please?
When Simon’s mother-in-law is released from her illness, we may think it backwards and patriarchal that she is healed just so she can get back to work serving her guests. But whatever you may think of the job she was released to, she was freed TO something. She wasn’t just freed from her illness, she was freed TO something greater.
Similarly, a few minutes ago, I talked about Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before being released. But when he was released, he didn’t simply walk around and do nothing, basking in his freedom and release. He was released from imprisonment, but he was also released to something far greater.
Nelson Mandela, in the first election that all South Africans were allowed to participate, became president of his country. He worked for peace and reconciliation, not revenge. He won the Nobel Peace prize. He was known as the Father of his country. And when he died a year and a half ago, the world lost one of the greatest leaders it has ever seen. Nelson Mandela was freed from imprisonment and freed to rise up and lead his people through one of the most difficult transitions a country can face.
So, what about else? What does Nelson Mandela or Simon’s mother-in-law have to do with us?
Every Sunday, we gather at the very beginning of our worship and confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We receive the forgiveness made possible by Jesus’s death on the cross and made alive in his resurrection from the dead. We leave joyous, sent into the world in peace to serve the world.
I wonder, though, if we see ourselves more as released from sin than we see ourselves as released to something else, to something greater.
If we are just released from sin and death, there isn’t much hope for us. We’re going to go back to the way things were before. This is a part of our reality, anyway—no one, after having been forgiven on Sunday morning, has ever made it to the next Sunday without needing to be forgiven again. There is a 100% recidivism rate when it comes to sin.
It happens when we look at the mission God has in store of us and we say, “We can’t do that—we have a building to maintain, and image to keep up. This is the way we’ve always done it.”
If we are not just released from the power of sin and death, but are released TO something else, what is that? What does it look like?
Does it look like a building that is not only used for Sunday morning worship, but is also a center for serving and volunteering?
Does it look like putting aside our own interests for the interests of others, even people we consider undesirable?
Does it look like loudly and boldly proclaiming the good news, that the kingdom of God has come near, no matter what people think of the news?
Does it look like 200 people doing nothing but sitting in the seat, or does it look like 20 who are devoted to the work of the church?
I can’t tell you exactly what it looks like. But, I can tell you that when Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, he didn’t just heal her from her illness, he healed her to her full place in society. When he cast out demons from people, he didn’t just heal them from their possession, but healed them back to full, abundant life.
And when he died on the cross and rose from the grave, he didn’t just free us from the powers of sin and death so that we could go back to being the same old same old people we always were. He freed us to be living disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, new creations as powerful as beautiful and as awe-inspiring as the stars.
This is what it means to be free. This is what liberation means. Go now, and be free!