Are you familiar with the comic strip called “Zits”? It is the brainchild of Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. The strip features 16 year old Jeremy and his parents, Connie and Walt. Many years before Covid, the one story series focused on germs being passed from one character to another. First, several of Jeremy’s friends get sick. Then, Jeremy’s dad catches the cold. In one of the strips, Jeremy’s mom stands between her husband and her teen at home. When they both sneeze in her direction, she responds by saying the gracious “God bless you” to both of them, only to end up in bed with the same red nose and swollen sinuses, while muttering under a dark cloud of frustration.
Germs spread quickly. But so does positive energy. Like laughter, positive energy is absolutely contagious. If you have ever read a really good book, you know how you just can’t keep it to yourself. You want to share what you have discovered: the thrill and pace of the book, the insights that you gleaned about your own life through the characters, and the warmth and healing balm of a story well-told. A blessing shared in this way is a blessing doubled.
So who could blame Simon Peter? After he had seen what he had seen in the synagogue, after he had seen with his own eyes the man with the evil spirit freed from bondage, of course he’d want healing for his own mother-in-law. It was like a book that he couldn’t resist immediately sharing, a “God bless you” to pass on. His mother-in-law had been sick, feverish, like when your teeth are chattering and your skin is clammy and you can’t find even a pocket of warmth to hold your shaking and aching bones. As soon as they left the synagogue, Simon Peter asked Jesus if he’d work his miracle on his mother-in-law, because he’d actually seen what those hands, that voice, and that presence could do. When your loved one is sick, you’ll try anything to restore them to health.
And when those healing hands do reach out to her, when her fever vanishes, she gets up begins to serve all of them. Now I realize how this must sound to some of you —a woman gets healed only to stand and serve the men in her household. But, for a moment, I’d like us to think about it in a different way. If you’ve ever stayed home because you were too ill to get up and move around, you know how illness will try—often successfully– to rob you of your best intentions, aspirations, and possibilities for the future. We also know how illness can become an all-consuming visitor. We spend time monitoring our symptoms. Our days are measured by how discouraged or hopeful we feel, whether or not our digestive system is working properly, and whether or not our doctors gave us the information that we needed to cope with whatever is ailing us. We become involved with the details of medication schedules, our symptoms, our diagnosis and prognosis. Illness, particularly the chronic kind, will try to take over our lives, if we allow it to. Which is why, many times, people who are sick often do not want primarily to be identified with their illness or their brokenness. They are more than their diabetes; they are more than their cancer; they are more than their family troubles, addiction, or mental illness. They have hopes, dreams, abilities and a future that do not revolve around their trial—whatever it may be. These folks refuse to be consumed by their ailments.
So, Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever. We really don’t know what kind. But we know that it kept her in bed and most certainly isolated from others, as illness is wont to do. Likely, Jesus knew this and part of his ministry to her was to restore her sense of life purpose and a future. When Peter’s mother in law is restored to health, she is able to shift the focus from her needs and problems to focusing on the needs and concerns of others. She becomes more fully free to serve others because she has been released from all the mental and physical anguish that her illness tried to impose on her. The energy that her illness would have consumed has been re-purposed. At its essence, this gospel story is about freedom. Peter’s mother-in-law is the first volunteer deacon—the first in Mark’s gospel to realize after her healing that part of Jesus’ kingdom life is to serve God, not to be served.
Ironically, though, Simon Peter doesn’t get it. After the healing, both the one that occurs in the synagogue and the one that occurs in Peter’s family, Jesus goes off to a “deserted place” to be with God. When they discover that Jesus is missing, Peter and his buddies hunt for Jesus like they might search for an animal. And there is complaint in Peter’s voice when he says, “[Jesus], everyone is searching for you.”
“Everyone is searching for you.” Do you sometimes feel like everyone in your life is searching for you? Like everyone in your family or in your work setting or in your household wants or expects something from you? Do you ever wish you could just get away from the demands and expectations of others for just a little while—just so you can catch your breath? When Peter wants to know where Jesus has been, you get the feeling that Peter doesn’t understand why Jesus can’t just continue to do what he’s been doing…healing the crowds, answering their needs, and lifting the suffering up out of their beds. But here, and in other places of Mark’s gospel, Jesus needs to pray. He needs time to nurture his relationship with God. You’d think that Jesus – being the son of the Divine– would be able to just go on and on like the energizer bunny, but that’s not the picture of Jesus that we get in Mark.
Friends, we are not machines. Jesus wasn’t some kind of pre-programmed automaton that moved by divine remote control. He, being fully human, also had limits. It seems like such a simple thought, but really it isn’t when you consider that we human beings, for all of our ingenuity, for all of our industry, often forget that we are limited beings. We often drive ourselves hard at the office, hard in our family life, and hard in our communities and wonder why we break down or break up or break out. In all of our rushing and scheduling of daily tasks, we wonder why we can’t find a “deserted” space or quiet time with ourselves to figure out what God’s good purpose for our lives might actually be. And our feverish and chronic busyness can be just as consuming, just as tedious, as any physical illness. Our busyness can be just another way we try to keep God from intruding too much in our lives and upsetting whatever expectations that we think we have for ourselves or even others..
Have you ever grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Have you found yourself sitting in the parking lot of some store trying to remember why you came? If you had a list, it’s sitting on the kitchen table or buried somewhere in your head. Years ago, when my husband was still alive, I stopped by the grocery store thinking to pick up some milk on my way home. I arrived home with probably 10 items that we really didn’t need and didn’t usually eat. Now I confess that –at that time—I was not usually the one to do the grocery shopping. The division of domestic order in our household was that the COOK did the shopping as well as the cooking and that wasn’t me. We avoided arguments that way since I had no idea why one flour might be better for bread baking than another. My husband had the aisles memorized. We had tried grocery shopping together one time—it was a disaster. When my husband shopped for groceries, he planned what to buy in bulk, what stores to visit, and exactly what we needed for whatever cooking would be done that week. I was more “hit or miss.” So it was a little unusual for me to be wandering the aisles of the supermarket. When I got home my husband asked me what took so long. Then he saw the bags. “I got a few things,” I said. “Yeah, I can see that,” my husband said. “Did you remember the milk?”
Did you remember the milk? Sometimes we are driving our spiritual carts around with hungry hearts. We know we need milk, we need nourishment, we need balance, and we fill our carts with all kinds of things that capture our attention, but obscure God’s purpose and promise for our lives. Or sometimes we don’t even bother to notice that whatever we are blindly reaching for is getting in the way of the nourishment of our souls. Or we let other people fill our carts with their constant demands or dissatisfaction.
Now, when Peter tries to turn Jesus around with those words, “Everyone is searching for you,” Jesus tells him that they need to move on. He doesn’t give in to Peter’s complaint, instead, he clarifies for Peter what his purpose is. He says, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus could have listened to Peter and stayed only in Capernaum in order to heal as many people as possible, but Mark’s Jesus believes his purpose is to proclaim and embody a message. His purpose was something greater than simply satisfying the expectations of the crowds, however noble those expectations may have been. And how did Jesus know this? He knew this because he had taken the time, in those wee morning hours, to create the mental space to pray and to nurture his relationship with God.
Friends, do you find yourself running on empty? Does your life lack the balance it needs in order to hear the holy welling-up in your soul? Did you plan to stop for spiritual sustenance, but instead find that you have put too many things in your cart that constantly pull you away from seeking God’s call in your life? Are you or your family paying too high a cost from the constant stress? Perhaps it is time to let yourself be healed of all of your fever-filled, frantic activity. Perhaps it is time to rest. Find your deserted place, whatever that might be.
Have you not heard? Do you not know? Even Jesus needed to take time with God. Even he needed to pray. Even he needed keep a daily appointment with God. And by doing so, he modeled for us a way of healing, praying, seeking, and serving that nourished and strengthened life, instead of starving and stifling it.
Have you not heard? Do you not know? “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall rise up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” May it be so for us. May we remember the milk and find our deserted place.