Mark 1:29-31; Zephaniah 3:14-20
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
23 January 2022
The ancient prophet summons the people to rejoice, for God is restoring the people. “Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout, all ye Israel!”
We will be renewed in love. Our oppressors vanquished. Our outcasts gathered. Our brokenness healed. Our shame turned into praise. All of us gathered home again, and our fortunes restored. For God is salvation.
Now, we note, this hasn’t actually happened yet. The prophet is looking forward to it. But he summons the people to rejoice now nonetheless. To rejoice now in the God of salvation, even as that salvation is yet to come. To rejoice now looking forward in anticipation of the fulfillment of the promises of restoration.
Now we also read that “the mother of Simon’s wife was in bed with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her. Jesus came and lifted her up, taking her by the hand. Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”
A daughter of Zion is sick and need of healing. And through Christ she is restored. In these two short sentences in the Gospel story we read a narrative that embodies the promises of the prophet, so today’s let’s look more closely at this story and what it teaches us about our humanity, God’s love, and the healing power of the divine that brings about our restoration.
In the last two years, we’ve all learned that even if illness can strike anyone, anywhere from the White House to the homeless shelter, those most likely to become ill and to be struck down by it are those without power and affluence. The Covid pandemic has more deeply impacted racial minorities, especially Native American communities. The poor and the working classes. One thinks vividly of the meat packers who ended up on the front lines of the pandemic in April 2020. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, the ability to isolate and protect oneself and ones family was generally a sign of some affluence and privilege, while “necessary workers” put their lives and health at risk.
We know that illness has a greater impact upon poor and marginalized communities because of a history of neglect, lack of access to quality health care, food deserts, higher rates of crime, violence, and drug use, and the presence of pollution, dirtier air and dirtier water. That oppressive systems of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy are also public health problems.
And so when we hear that a daughter of Zion is very ill, we bring all of that knowledge to bear and wonder—is this just an infection or is it a metaphor for everything else we know about disease and illness at the intersection of injustice and exploitation? She just might represent the ways in which women’s bodies are harmed by patriarchy.
Now, at the same time, she can also represent something more universal—the reality that all of us experience these moments of vulnerability, illness, and pain.
“To be alive today is to live with pain,” declares Rita Nakashima Brock in the opening sentence of her marvelous book Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power. She continues,
For some of us, our pain is the daily struggle to survive and to find a safe place to live. Others of us work to lift oppressive barriers that silence us and batter us into submission. For those unable to hope or to find one sustaining, ennobling relationship, a quiet, desolate loneliness defines the center of our existence, a center sometimes hidden by intense, aimless activity or hollow friendships. To live with our pain without some comprehension is to exist in the denial of pain or in the overwhelming, intractable presence of it. Both lead to despair.
“Rejoice, daughter . . . God will renew you in love, daughter,” the prophet promises. And so, “Jesus came and lifted her up, taking her by the hand. Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”
Rita Nakashima Brock calls this deep human experience of pain “brokenheartedness” and writes that the way to healing is through the heart. To find the power that lies within our hearts. A divine power of love. What she calls erotic power.
She is not alone among feminist thinkers to focus on the importance of the stories of Jesus healing. And how those stories often feature women and other marginalized people. And how those stories aren’t just focused on the physical, but so often reflect an attention to the whole person—emotional, spiritual, even social and political. How in healing a person Jesus restores them to life, to their own power and agency, to their relationships with others, to their places in the community. The pioneering feminist scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote that “Jesus makes people whole, healthy, cleansed, and strong. [He] restores people’s humanity and life.”
Rita Nakashima Brock explores this divine erotic power present in the healing stories of Jesus and cautions that we misread the stories if we see them as Jesus having some supernatural magical power. Rather, Jesus is attuned to the divine power of love within his own heart, and in those moments of healing, he awakens that power within those he touches. For healing, according to Brock, genuinely occurs in relationships of mutuality that empower our own agency.
She writes, “The unexpected and new power is participated in by Jesus, but it is not his alone. . . . The point is . . . the revelation of a new understanding of power that connects members of the community.”
Studying this week, I turned again to the insightful Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldua and her book Light in the Dark, which is a rich exploration of brokenness and healing. Anzaldua reminds us that “We are all wounded” but that we “can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others.” By embracing our vulnerability and our brokenness, and using that to connect with other people, we then gain the power to heal.
And that healing begins by imagining something different. We change our own “perspectives and perceptions.” We choose a different future. We imagine a better world. So, “As we think inspiring, positive, life-generating thoughts,” she writes, “and embody these thoughts in every act we perform, we can gradually change the mood of our days, the habits of years, and the beliefs of a lifetime.” Anzaldua also reminds us that healing is an on-going process.
It is this consciousness that we must cultivate in relationship together, using art and storytelling and writing.
I was drawn back to the idea that the prophet is summoning the people to rejoice, despite the fact that God’s promised salvation has not yet arrived. This isn’t the party after the victory, this is the party anticipating the victory, trying to embody that future restoration even now, to participate in its birthing. To rejoice now is to help make it happen.
Jesus, in touch with the divine erotic power present in his own heart, comes to the sick mother and he lifts her up, which I imagine we can interpret both literally and figuratively. The divine power in him connects with and awakens the power of God within this daughter of Zion. And then Jesus takes her by the hand. The importance of touch. Of sustaining one another. And then the fever left her. Whatever was the cause of her illness, whether the injustices of patriarchy, an infectious disease, a broken heart, the universal human experience of pain, the power of God’s love sets her free, heals her, and restores her. “Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter.”
Now, what happens? We read, “and she ministered to them.”
We might initially think—oh the boys healed mother-in-law so she could get up and fix them lunch.
But I think something more is happening here. We are told that she ministered to them. She is a minister. She who was in need of care is now an active agent in caring for others. Her power has been restored.
The Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye helps us to see something we might miss in this final phrase of the Gospel story. Oduyoye writes that hospitality is a key experience of African women and also a significant theological concept. Hospitality is about much more than welcoming people and providing food and shelter, as important as those are. In the African experience, she writes, that “offering and receiving hospitality” reveals an “emphasis on sustaining our life-force at all costs.”
The healed mother of our gospel story is a minister. She is practicing hospitality. She who was in need of the divine power of healing is now herself engaged in sustaining the life-force.
This Gospel story truly is about connection, relationship, mutuality, empowerment. We are restored by God through the ways that we sustain the life-force in one another.
And Oduyoye echoes what our other teachers today have reminded us, this connection comes in our shared vulnerability and woundedness. She writes that practicing hospitality, the power of sustaining the life-force, paradoxically makes us vulnerable. The very thing that strengthens life also risks it. She writes, “Hospitality is built on reciprocity, openness and acceptance, but to open one’s self to the other is always a risk.”
“Fear not,” the prophet reminds us. God is present with us. God is actively working in us and through us, to bring about this healing, this salvation, this restoration.
And so I turn again to Rita Nakashima Brock and her insights on the divine power of healing that resides within each one of us. She writes,
No one else can stop the suffering of brokenheartedness in our world but our own courage and willingness to act in the midst of the awareness of our own fragility. . . . Our heartfelt action, not alone, but in the fragile, resilient interconnections we share with others, generates the power that makes and sustains life. There, in the erotic power of heart, we find the sacred mystery that binds us in loving each other fiercely in the face of suffering and pain.
“Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout all ye Israel!”
For God is restoring our fortunes.
Within us is the divine power of love that helps us to connect with one another, inspires us to imagine a new and better future, and gives us the strength to sustain life.
“Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!”