Epiphany 5 B: Freedom For

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Well, it was another thrilling match-up. All the players had prepared well, sparing no expense in terms of time and effort. The stakes were high; the competition was fierce; and the whole world watched….
And, no, I’m not talking about the Super Bowl, but rather the Super Bowl commercials!

I have to admit, though, that as much as I found the Budweiser puppy endearing and the Katie Couric/Bryant Gumble BMW commercial clever, nothing really equaled the uplifting quality of last year’s Duracell commercial featuring Derrick Coleman of the Seattle Seahawks. Do you remember that one? At a young age, Derrick lost his hearing. The commercial told in just over a minute the story of Derrick being bullied, picked last for teams, harassed by coaches, even not being drafted by the NFL. And then comes the signature line, when Coleman says, “Everybody told me to quit. They told me it was over. But I’d been deaf since I was three, so I didn’t listen.” The last scene is of Coleman entering the Super Bowl arena and saying, “And now I’m here, with a lot of fans cheering me on, and I can hear them all.” (Followed, naturally, by the tagline across the screen: Duracell: Trust Your Power.)

The commercial is so wonderful because it creates a sense of possibility, potential, empowerment, and freedom. Derrick’s story of living into the person he felt he was meant to be, against great odds to boot, inspires us because we hope that’s our story, too.

As much as I love that commercial, I’d like to think we might get that feeling in places other than Duracell commercials. At home from supportive parents or spouse. At work from good colleagues. On the athletic field from coaches and teammates. At school from caring teachers and friends. And at church.

Hmmm. But is that the feeling people get from church? More specifically, is that the message we preach? It’s certainly part of the Gospel. Consider today’s reading for instance. Last week we watched as Jesus’ first action in Mark’s Gospel is to cast out an unclean spirit and interpreted that as God’s commitment to stand against all the powers that keep us from abundant life. This week that pattern continues. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, restoring her to her community and vocation. And it’s not only this one woman, mother to Jesus’ new disciple. It’s all kinds of people, as Jesus heals and cares and restores countless people, setting them free from illness and possession to be the person God created them to be. So many people set free – a whole city, Mark reports – that the toll it takes on Jesus forces him to retreat for a time of silence and prayer. Shortly however, he is restored, or perhaps senses the profound need around him, and he goes once more to embrace the mission entrusted to him: to heal and feed and care for and set free all who recognize their need and come to him.

This isn’t just the message of the first chapter of Mark, of course, it consumes the whole of his account, all the other gospels as well and, indeed, the whole of Scripture: God wants to set free all of us so that we might live into our God-given identity and potential, claiming our calling as children of God, and join God in the mission to love and bless the world.

But is this what we preach? I wonder. I don’t say this to be critical, but rather to invite self-reflection. And so I’ll start with my own preaching, knowing that yours may be quite different. I think I have often indeed preached about the freedom our life in Christ imparts, but it has perhaps tilted toward naming freedom from the many things that harass us. Freedom from sin, of course. But also freedom from various manifestations of sin we might name as fear, loss, despair, insecurity, and all manner of things that plague us. In my bolder moments, I have also invited us to hear God’s promise – and to help make it true through our actions – to free us and all people from hunger and discrimination and equality of all kinds.

All of this is well and good and, indeed, at the heart of the Gospel and certainly part of today’s passage. Jesus frees Peter’s mother-in-law from illness. He frees crowds of people from disease and possession as well.

But I am not sure I always moved as quickly or confidently to another dimension of the Gospel: that Jesus frees us not only from things that seek to oppress us, but also for a life of purpose, meaning, and good works. (Yes, good works, not those things that we do in the vain hope of justifying ourselves before God or others, but rather those things that we do as a response to the Gospel to serve our neighbor stemming from a sense of joy, love, and freedom.)

In today’s passage, Peter’s mother-in-law is restored to her community and vocation. I realize we may be troubled by the fact that the moment she’s well she gets up to serve Jesus and his disciples. (I mean, goodness, couldn’t Peter have pitched in to give her a little more time to recuperate.) But as my former colleague Sarah Henrich wrote so beautifully in her commentary on this passage a few years ago,

[I]llness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.

Which makes me wonder. What did the man from whom the unclean spirit was cast out a week ago do after his healing? What did all the people Jesus heals in this week’s story do once they are freed from the various ailments of mind, body, and spirit that had captivated them? Some, I imagine, were simply so grateful to be made well – so grateful, that is, that they had been freed from something debilitating or destructive – that they returned as quickly as possible to their old lives and routines and relationships. But some, I’m willing to bet, including Simon’s mother-in-law, recognize that they weren’t only freed from something, they were also freed for something, for lives of purpose and meaning and service and generosity and more.

So here’s my question and thought, Dear Partner. I wonder after opening up this passage and taking a bit of time to make clear this distinction between being freed from things that hold us back and being freed for many more things, I wonder if we then might ask people what they have been freed for. What, that is, calls to them? What – or who – needs them this week? Might we invite them to imagine that each time they are responding to needs of the people and world around them they are responding to God’s call and living into the freedom that is ours in Christ?

You probably know the quotation from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It might be time to invite our people to claim this freedom and this calling for themselves. Today, even now, as we live together into the persons and community to which God has called us.

Thank you, Dear Partner, for your dedication to this particular calling of proclamation. The freedom you exercise for your people makes a difference each and every week. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,

For those of you haven’t seen last year’s  Duracell commercial, I’ll post it below. You can also find the post I wrote on it here if you’re interested.

Notes: 1)  If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click on the title at the top of the post to watch the video.
2) Post image: “Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife,” by John Bridges, 1839.