Here is last Sunday's sermon, which one or two people have been asking for.
The Gospel reading that I have just read contains within it something of a conundrum. There is a hidden puzzle in it. An embedded surprise.
We are reading just at the start of Mark’s gospel – the first of the gospels to be composed. And within the first 30 verses of the start of the gospel, there is just a glimpse of a character who might surprise us. Yet she is important for she appears in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that she existed.
Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew. And someone is in bed with a fever. He hears about her and goes up and takes her hand and heals her. And up she pops and gets on with keeping house and serving the men.
The person we have met, is clearly attested. It is Simon’s mother-in-law.
Now, in know well enough that speaking about Mothers in Law in public is a very dangerous thing to do. The days of making comic moments out of mother-in-law jokes are long gone. Notwithstanding their comic heritage, mothers in law are funny no more.
But the point about Simon’s mother in law is important. For if Simon had a mother in law, Simon also had a wife.
And if Simon had a wife, who was she. And who was her mother?
They don’t have names. Simon’s wife. Simon’s mother in law. Neither of them are given the dignity of a name and so far as I can remember, they do not appear again.
I’ll come back to their lack of names in a minute or two. But first, we need to step outside the house and see what Jesus gets up to there.
For our gospel reading has two stories contained within it today and then a wee bit of commentary tacked on the end.
We’ve heard what happened in the house – the mother in law gets up from her fever and begins to serve them.
Outside the house, word seems to have got around. Outside the house there is a collection of those who are described as sick or possessed with demons. Jesus has a job to do here.
Just before I was ordained, I travelled a bit in Egypt – paid for by a lovely trust fund who rightly suspected that I had nothing better to do. One day I was in a fairly remote place, in a monastery. In the desert, the Christian monasteries tend to have high walls – protection from attackers and also from wild animals. The gate is a carefully guarded feature. You have to be known to get in. I remember passing the gate one evening and seeing a crowd of people – shabby and weary. They had walked or in some cases, probably, dragged themselves through the desert.
I asked who they were and was told that they were the sick. And they were there, so I learned, because the monastery had a particularly good exorcist who was visiting and word had got around.
Another interesting snippet that I remember being told was that the crowd included both Christians and Muslims and that the reverse held too – a mixed crowd would also approach a Muslim exorcist. If you are desperate – you are desperate and will do what you have to do.
Its not hard to see that something similar to that little crowd was going on in the gospel reading. Local sick people turn up to be healed by Jesus – they knew of his power and his ability to heal. Jesus had the power to cast out demons.
It probably goes without saying, that I’m not terribly comfortable with people going to see an exorcist when they are sick. But standing in the middle of the Egyptian desert looking at desperate people, I realised that their options were few. If you start to realise that things within yourself are not what they should be and you have no access to what I would think of as conventional mental health resources – if you’ve nowhere else to go, of course you will turn up and queue to see the best local exorcist when he is in town.
And now as I stand in the pulpit of a gothic cathedral in Glasgow’s prosperous west end, I still find the idea that Jesus curiously attractive.
I can’t get inside the language that speaks of individuals having personal demons the need to be cast out. But I don’t find it hard to think of the demons which possess our society. And I hope that we and others can be Christ and name the demons and deal with them.
Notwithstanding the prosperity of the place that I live and work, the demon of Poverty is a demon I encounter all too often. In our times of recent prosperity, did we work as a nation to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Or was the demon Greed so well disguised that we saw him as a friend.
Notwithstanding the fact that I believe in a progressive society, we still have our demons. The demon of Sectarianism still stalks this city and I suspect may be on the rise. The demon of anti-Semitism rears its head hanging on the coat-tails of an ugly war against the people of Gaza. The demon twins Xenophobia and Racism are nothing new and not too difficult to recognise – but I fear the danger that they will grow stronger and fitter as they feed off the bitter pickings of economic recession and fiscal gloom.
Notwithstanding the fact that I work in an open, inclusive congregation, I know that the demon Homophobia is still so fit and well in the church that we have learned to live with it as though it is normal. Anti-gay attitudes and prejudices are the unwelcome guests at every Anglican table and have been promoted even this week by the international meeting of Primates of the Anglican Communion. Such things have become so familiar that we are in danger of learning how to live with them. Such accommodation is an accommodation with evil.
Exorcism begins by giving things names. Naming what is wrong is the start to making things right again.
Can Jesus help us to name our demons? Will he stretch out his hand? Can he heal us?
Well, I turn back to Simon’s Mother in Law for hope this morning. Jesus reaches out to her. Jesus heals her. And then she begins to rally round and serve them.
There are two ways to understand this little encounter. A pious one and one that is rather cynical. The cynical interpretation of this is that those apostle boys took Jesus home to get mother on her feet again and back in the kitchen where she belonged. (I fear that seems most likely).
The pious interpretation is that our first reaction on encountering the healing of Christ is to want to get up and serve others.
I probably believe the cynical interpretation was more likely. But I know for sure that I choose the pious version.
In entering her room, Jesus chose to stand beside someone who was voiceless, nameless, powerless and helpless and hold out his hand to her.
At this time and here in this place, I tell you that this is the way the demons of ours society will be exorcised.
The way to health is to stand beside those whose names are unknown, to work with those whose power energy is yet untapped, to reach out to those who are so consumed with fever that they have no health of their own.
In that little tiny encounter with someone who otherwise seems neglected and insignificant, Jesus points us towards our own healing and inevitably, serving others is one of the responses that people make when they know their own healing.
Simon’s mother in law had a high fever – a serious thing in a world without antibiotics. A world where no-one would have known what best to do for her. Jesus stood beside her.
Today the world can seem aflame with problems that we know not how to solve. We must take courage, and with open hands, open our hearts.