Year B; 5 Epiphany, FB; 2.7.2021
My dad was a pharmacist. He was trained not only to know the pharmacology of the drugs of the various prescriptions he filled. He also knew how to make cough syrups, ointments and medicated lotions. He kept a supply of pharmaceutical grade lanolin on the back counter of his drugstore for use in making a silky, healing skin lotion. But he never made it to sell. This time of year, when my mother’s unusually dry skin – when the skin on her legs flaked and her hands cracked and bled – Dad dutifully created the lotion, put it in a small glass jar with a screw cap and handed it to Mom to help her hands and legs heal.
I grew up believing in pharmaceuticals and I loved pharmacies. My heart still skips a beat when I go the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and gaze on the rows and shelves of medicines, and the pharmacists wearing white lab coats counting the pills or capsules at the counter.
Over the years, as I grew deeper in my faith, I learned about healing from bible stories. I learned that the healing power of God meant more than just pharmaceuticals or ointments or syrups. In Scripture, healing meant a profound returning to the wholeness God places in each one of us at birth. I love the truth of Psalm 139 verse 12, “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” God knits wholeness in each one of us from our beginning.
The Gospel story today tells of a profound healing and a woman setting herself in the service of hospitality. Peter and Andrew bring Jesus and the two other disciples to their home. I imagine that they were really excited to be bringing this healer and preacher to their home. But they arrive and find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever and in bed.
Fevers are dangerous, not only then, but even now, especially for older people. They require immediate attention. Today, we have antibiotics and aspirin to bring down fevers. But rest and hydration were the only remedies then, and water was usually scarce.
Mark tells us that this is Peter and Andrew’s house. But we know nothing of their mother and father. We assume that Peter has a wife since Mark gives us the specific information that his mother-in-law is the one who is sick. We don’t know much more about her. I wish I knew her name. We only know that she is sick with a fever and that she is laid up with it.
We also know that Jesus, a guest, goes right to her, takes her hand and raises her up. She is made well. She is made whole. Mark uses the same “resurrection” verb for her healing as he does at the end of the Gospel for Jesus rising from the dead. Listeners hear the verb “raise up” for this healing and for Jesus’ resurrection and know God’s power directs them both.
After being “raised up,” this mother-in-law sets herself to the task of serving her guests. Jesus had made her whole to carry out her God-given calling: to serve her family and guests. In this story healing and hospitality are partners for wholeness. They go hand-in-hand for the nourishment of the guests.
Jesus healed her not to serve him, but to set her free to participate in God’s Kingdom which had come near to her and her kitchen, from where she surely served nourishing food and neighborly table fellowship.
In their tri-fold leaflet entitled “Hospitality,” the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist teach Christian Hospitality and describe their calling to offer this hospitality in all encounters with others, friend and stranger. Let me share with you what they say about hospitality:
“Hospitality is not about entertaining, not about impressing others with your stuff, nor is it only expressed in sharing meals and shelter. It is about saving lives, [IT IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES!!!] for our journeys are challenging and we need one another. The word ‘hospitality’ has the same root as hospital, hospice, and hotel, places of safe lodging AND healing. Hospitality becomes healing when I am so present to another that they are able to be fully themselves…Hospitality means my attentive response to you, making space for you to show up as you are.”
Not only did Jesus save the life of Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her. She turned right around, and in serving him and his friends, saved their lives in offering them her attentive response.
What if healing and hospitality are about saving lives? What if healing and hospitality are about being fully present with loved ones and strangers? What does it mean, in a pandemic to make space for them to be fully whole as God made them to be?
A friend of mine has given me cookbooks for Christmas presents that are written by African American chefs. I sometimes read them at night before bed. It’s great reading because they are filled with history, authenticity and just plain good recipes. One cookbook I have been reading is the one by the late African American chef, Edna Lewis, “In Pursuit of Flavor.”
In this book by Edna Lewis, she describes growing up in Freetown, Virginia, a town settled by freed slaves after emancipation. You can follow the “farm to table” ethic in all her books. That ethic was not fashionable when she wrote her cookbooks, but “farm-to-table” for her was just plain practical. She learned to cook foods that were in season and fresh. Even late in her life, she describes her love/hate relationship with refrigeration because she believed refrigerators tended to turn households away from food that was fresh and seasonal.
She describes growing up living close to the land learning to cook the harvest in a wood stove and “…using wells and streams to keep food cool.” In an interview for the New York Times in 1984, Edna Lewis describes rural neighborliness and hospitality. Neighbor saving neighbor.
She said, “If someone borrowed one cup of sugar, they would return two. If someone fell ill, the neighbors would go in and milk the cows, feed the chickens, clean the house, cook the food and come sit with whoever was sick.”
In her cookbook, there is a section that describes the importance of cooked greens. She writes, “cooked greens are a dish that most Southerners would walk a mile for. They were part of the daily meals and believed to be very good for you. If a neighbor fell ill during the winter, friends would search the countryside to uncover some wild cress growing in the lowlands along streams. After it was found, the cress was quickly washed and cooked and taken to the sick for nourishment.”
After reading this, I like to think that greens are a healing and saving food!
These winter days in Maine with snow predicted once again, I’m wondering, how is God calling us to participate in life-saving hospitality?