February 7, 2021, Love Is Not a Package Deal, Mark 1:29-34 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I became a mother when I was still in my teens. Being a new mom, and being barely an adult myself, I had a lot of insecurities about my ability to be a good mother. I struggled a lot with nursing, and I felt like an utter failure when I had to supplement my breast milk with formula. I never succeeded in getting Emily on a reasonable schedule. She almost never took a nap during the day, but Emily and I spent countless hours rocking together at night while I read long Russian novels out loud to her to keep myself awake. I think it’s pretty normal to feel nervous as a brand new mother, but being so young just seemed to make it that much worse. Carroll was teaching at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, and I was taking classes there. We had to shuffle Emily off between classes, Carroll keeping her in his office while I was in class, and me taking care of her in Carroll’s office while he was teaching. And on those days that we were both in class, I would bring Emily to the campus daycare center.
The daycare center was the site of one of my worst, most terrible, unspoken fears. There were a lot of little children there, many of them about the same age as Emily, most of them white, a lot of them fair-haired, and it was my most secret, most horrible fear that I would come in to pick up Emily and have a hard time picking my child out from among all those cute little babies, who looked so much alike. To me it felt like a test: if I had any trouble picking out my own child from among thirty or forty little blond babies that would definitely mean I was a failure as a mother. It would mean I was the worst mother ever, who didn’t even know her child from among every other child. Now I will say, it never happened that I couldn’t find Emily in the midst of all those kiddos. But day after day, I was haunted by that dreadful fear. I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody about that.
But the truth behind my fear is that every child, every human being, needs to be known. We are born with a need to be known intimately, to be known as ourselves apart from every other human being, to be known and to be loved by name, just as we are. We all know that song “Jesus Loves Me”. It’s a children’s song, but it’s comforting sometimes even when you have left childhood far behind you. It’s good to remember that we are loved. But the thing is that being loved doesn’t really mean much if it’s just a package deal, something that we have because we belong to the right institution, like a group discount. It is only comforting for me to sing “Jesus Loves Me” if “me” is Kathryn, a woman, almost 65 years old, mostly Irish, a little bit fat, married for 47 years, with ten kids, who loves Welsh Corgis and books and gardens, who plays piano and guitar and flute but none of them very well, who has a lot of insecurities, who has never been a very good housekeeper, who gets really excited about new ideas, and bakes very good bread. If Jesus really loves this “me”, me, my one and only self, that means that he would know me if I were in a room with a hundred other gray-haired, middle-aged chubby women, or a thousand, or a million, or a billion. And that is exactly what he tells us in his word.
One of the most comforting and reassuring passages in all of Scripture, at least for me, is chapter 49 of Isaiah. God compares himself to the mother of a baby, nursing at his mother’s breast. It is the most tender of pictures. “Can a woman forget her nursing child?” he asks. And the obvious answer is “No, of course not!” But the truth is that there are mothers who fail their children. We are all only human. Some of us have had parents whose lives were so hard that they failed to know us in the way we needed them to. Sometimes our lives are so hard that we are in danger of losing sight of the people who depend on us. The strength of God’s word is that it never sugar-coats the reality of our human condition. “Even these may forget,” he says, “yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” That is such a striking image. “God called me even before I was born,” the prophet writes, “from within the womb of my mother he called me by name.”
In David’s wonderful Psalm 139, David talks about God’s intimate knowledge of the individual person. “Lord, you have searched me and known me,” he writes, “you know my sitting down and my rising up. Before a word is even on my lips, O Lord, you already know it.” God’s knowledge of us is perfect, David writes, because he’s the one who formed us. He’s the one who made us what and who we are. “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. My body was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. You saw me – me, not it – when I was just an embryo; when I was an unrecognizable mass of cells you knew me.”
Jesus told his disciples,“You know those little sparrows that are sold cheap in the marketplace, two for a penny? Not one of them falls to the ground without God knowing it. So you don’t ever need to be afraid, because you are worth more to God than a whole lot of sparrows. God knows you so well, so thoroughly; he even knows how many hairs there are on your head.”
And in his famous chapter on love, Paul looks forward to the glorious day when we will see God face to face, when at last we will know him as we have been fully known from the moment of our conception.
In the Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah points to the stars in the sky, beautiful, mysterious, unapproachable – humanly speaking. “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” asks Isaiah. “He is the one who brings out the whole host and numbers them. He calls each and every one of them by name. Because he is great in strength, because he is mighty in power, not one of them is missing. So, why do you say, “My way is hidden from the Lord?”” How can you possibly think, says Isaiah, that he would ever lose sight of you?
In the gospel story today, Jesus comes to Peter’s home after attending the synagogue on the Sabbath. We don’t always think about Peter having a family, but we know that he had a wife, and most likely he had children. So they went to Peter’s busy, probably noisy home, right after church, as we would say, and as soon as the sun of that Sabbath Day began to go down so that people were allowed to go places, the whole village appeared at Peter’s door, seeking Jesus, desperately hoping to find healing for themselves and their loved ones. But first something very important happens. The stories of Jesus’s healing so often take place in the midst of a faceless and nameless mass of people. There were so many healings. We can’t know the stories and the names of every one whose life was changed by Jesus. But sometimes we do get to see an individual. Sometimes we do get a little bit of someone’s personal story. And that’s what happens today. When they arrive at Peter’s for lunch, someone tells Jesus, because he’s the one to tell, that Peter’s mother-in-law is laid up with a fever. We don’t know this woman’s name; Mark doesn’t tell us. We do know that she lives with her daughter and her son-in-law Peter, and that means it’s likely that she was a widow. We really don’t know very much of her story at all, but Jesus knew her. He came and took her by the hand. Miriam, or Sarah, or Eunice, whatever her name was, Jesus called her by her name. He looked into her eyes and when she felt his strong hand holding hers, her strength returned, and the fever was suddenly gone. She sat up, a little surprised, I’m sure, delighted to hurry off and help her daughter in the kitchen, delighted to prepare a special meal for her wonderful guest.
Mark tells us that all of Capernaum showed up at the door that night when the sun went down. The population of that village was probably around 1500, so even if Peter was exaggerating a little bit when he told Mark the whole city showed up, there must have been a pretty enormous crowd. But one thing we know, because we see it again and again in the gospels, Jesus healed the people one by one. He healed each person, he looked into each person’s eyes. One by one, he touched them. One by one, he spoke to them. He knew them, this old man, this young woman, this child. And one by one, he made them well.
I’ve been dealing this week with a mix-up of my medical records, which seem to have gotten lost in cyberspace somewhere. My name, my medical history, all manner of personal details are kind of in limbo, which is frustrating. But the good news, the best news, the gospel that Paul was telling the Corinthians about, is that we can know, when we pray to the Father, that we are always speaking to someone who knows us. He never confuses our name with someone else like a confused parent or an overworked receptionist. He never gets overwhelmed and loses track of which one we are. He never assigns us a number and sends us to the back of the line to wait our turn. No one is forgotten. No one falls through the cracks.
David wrote that God knows every last little thing there is to be known about you. Know that he loves you, not in spite of that, but because of that, because you are his beloved child, irreplaceable, unique, the apple of your Father’s eye. He knit you together in the womb of your mother. He called you by name. And he says to you, you yourself, “You are my beloved child.”