Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
St. Philip Lutheran Church
7 February 2021 + Epiphany 5B
Rev. Erin Coleman Branchaud, preaching
Over the last several weeks, we’ve been making our way through the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, and we’re still in chapter one. This is still like Jesus’s debut album, where we are learning for the first time what this life and this ministry are all about. The story began when Jesus was baptized by John, then tempted in the wilderness. John was arrested and Jesus called the first disciples, fishermen. Jesus went to the synagogue to preach, performed his first exorcism, and now in today’s story, Jesus heads from the public realm into the private.
From what is traditionally the realm of men, power, ideas, politics—into the home, the realm of tenderness and care, a place for the embodied and the ordinary parts of life—for bathing and resting and eating. A space that is traditionally associated with women and children.
And this space is where Jesus performs his first miracle of healing. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick, in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and she is well again.
And the story says that after she is healed, Simon’s mother-in-law “begins to serve them.” Now you know that this part of the story always got on my nerves. This woman—who doesn’t even get named by the gospel writer—has just been sick in bed, and now the second she feels well again, she’s supposed to go around serving everyone? Give the poor woman a rest! I always thought.
But there is more going on in this story than that. Because the word that the gospel writer uses to say “she served them” is the Greek word diakonia, the same word that we use to talk about deacons in our church. So this is not a subservient kind of service, not service under obligation, but a service that arises from God’s call.
All throughout this season we’ve been focusing on our vocations—How paying attention to God’s call in our lives leads us into being the people that God is calling us to be. And here in this story, this is exactly what Jesus heals this woman to do. Her fever is preventing her from the diakonia that she is called to do—showing hospitality to a visitor, hosting Christ in her own home. And Jesus removes that obstacle so that she can live out that vocation in wellness and freedom.
The story brings to my mind all those people who are called by God, and who are held back from their vocations not by fever but by discrimination or exclusion. Today on RIC Sunday we celebrate God’s welcome for LGBTQIA+ people, but at the same time we must be honest and lament and repent that the church has not always celebrated and welcomed us. Queer people have always served God’s church as pastors, church musicians, deacons, Council presidents, knitting ministry leaders, Sunday school teachers, maintenance people, and more. But for too long in our history, the church’s theology and our policies acted like the fever that kept Simon’s mother-in-law in bed. She was unable to fully step into the calling that God had spoken to her. This fever had her held back, confined, even trapped.
Many of us whose identities fall under the diverse LGBTQIA+ umbrella have had experiences like this, both inside and outside of the church. There are theologies that make God’s love too small and exclude us from it. There are gender norms and cultural expectations that try to limit how we move in the world. There are stories about who we are and who we should be. There are people who bully or threaten. There are laws and policies that erase, or endanger. This is even more true for those of us whose bodies also carry other marginalized identities: people of color, disabled people, immigrants, children.
Like a raging fever, there is homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia—making the church and the world very sick. These sins hurt LGBTQIA+ people and hold us back from being able to live fully as the beautiful and wonderful people that God made us to be. And these sins also hurt those of us who are cisgender and straight. Because the ideas that we internalize about who it’s okay to be, or who it’s okay to love— These ideas keep us all confined to these small tiny spaces. They keep us afraid of being too much or not enough. They lie to us, saying that there is one right way to be a person, or to be a woman or to be a man.
Jesus’s love isn’t confined by boundaries of gender norms, of power dynamics, or of societal expectations. In that way, Jesus ministry can be thought of as delightfully queer.
The prefix “trans” as in transgender means “across” or “crossing over.” In the story of Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus crosses over from the realm assigned to his gender—the public realm—and does his very first healing miracle in the domestic realm, with and for a woman. Jesus’s love is always crossing over: to the other side of the road, to the “other” kind of people, away from what is considered normal or acceptable or powerful, and instead towards the margins, towards the strange, beyond the norms.
On my refrigerator held up by broken magnets I have a card that I received from Drew Stever, a candidate for ministry in the ELCA who this past summer ran an online “Queeranteen” summer camp for Lutheran LGBTQIA+ youth. The card says, in bright blue ink and squiggly font: God loves weirdos. I treasure it and read it to myself every day.
Those three words encapsulate Jesus’s ministry so simply. It is not the small business owners or elected leaders or all-star athletes who come looking for Jesus at sundown, after Simon’s mother-in-law is healed. It is those who are living with chronic illness or disability. Those who are possessed with demons. People who aren’t really doing okay. And the story says, “the whole city was gathered around the door.” Jesus healed them because Jesus loved them. God loves weirdos.
And that is good news for you and for me, for LGBTQIA+ and straight/cis people. Because it means that God’s love is so powerful that it knows no bounds. God doesn’t need you to be a certain way, to love a certain way, to dress or act or understand yourself in a certain way. When God came to live on earth, God lived in a body that defied expectations. And so any of us who dare to be different, to exist in marginalized bodies, to love in ways that break the norm—we are following in the way of Jesus.
This is one of the many gifts that LGBTQIA+ people bring to the church—this gift of expansive imagination about what love can look like. God’s love is so creative, so dynamic. We can spend a lifetime learning about God’s love and we will never stop being surprised.
Which brings me to the joy and the challenge of growing in love. We are all still learning to love; none of us have arrived. Congregations that are RIC don’t get to check that off the list, as if loving LGBTQIA+ people is something you do once and forget about it. Martin Luther spoke of the baptismal journey as a process of daily conversation, washing away sin and rising to new life each and every morning. And the sins of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, are no different. God calls us in our baptismal vocations to daily and always grow, always on the journey of love and acceptance, of liberation and healing.
It is a process, even and especially for those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and more. For all of you who are still working towards love and acceptance for your own selves, I want to say that wherever you are on that journey, your experience is valid. Your struggle is important and holy. Your liberation matters to God, and today Jesus is crossing over into your realm, to be with you. To touch your hand and lift you up. To bring you into a future of healing and freedom. Empowering you for a vocation of love and service because who you are is a gift and your calling is a gift to the whole world.
And for all those of us for whom God’s love feels far off, who feel weary or tired, who wonder where to find God in the mess that is the world these days, the prophet Isaiah has a word of hope.
To a people suffering in exile, wondering if or how restoration will ever come, God speaks power and healing and mighty love.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
In your despair, remember that God is the one who created the world and is still creating! Who makes God’s home with us, like a person setting up camp. The power of earthly rulers, all the forces of evil are nothing compared to the one who made us all, and who is still making sure that no one is missing.
To a people enduring great suffering, the prophet asks, Why do you wonder whether God cares for you?
There may be exile. There may be pandemic. There may be suffering, or fear, or death. And yet—
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Who does not faint or grow weary;
whose understanding is unsearchable.
Who gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
May it be so for you this day and always. Amen.