Sermon February 11 2024 Why Am I?                                       Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever heard of St. Ignatius of Loyola? This might seem a strange question to put at the beginning of a sermon in a Protestant church… but there it is, and we shall be quite ecumenical for the moment, and also not incidentally set aside any and all discomfort we may have with 16th century evangelism of the “New World” at its very worst…

And briefly contemplate St. Ignatius of Loyola. A Spanish Catholic scholar and monk of the early modern period, early to mid 1500s, who among other things founded the Jesuit monastic order. 

Which, I have to say, notwithstanding the whole “evangelism of the New World” part – the one thing that it IS fair to say about the Jesuits is that as monastic orders went back then, in the days of the Spanish Inquisition… they could’ve been way worse.

And in fact were generally quite a bit better. NOT, of course, by post-colonial standards and our current awareness of egregious legacies of cultural genocide and damage-with-intent – but the Jesuits in fact were sort of the anarchic anti-institutional revolutionaries of their time.

They regularly got in trouble with the Inquisition and the institutional church, for example. They always had a tendancy to challenge and push back against established norms and churchy expectations. They were always looked askance upon as being sort of dangerously uncomfortably educated, and so dangerously uncomfortably radical. 

It's not incidental that the current pope is in fact the first ever Jesuit pope. It’s not incidental that it took five hundred years for a Jesuit pope to happen, and it’s not incidental that THIS pope – who keeps betraying a very definite desire to try to go rogue – is a Jesuit. 

So Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order -- an interesting figure in church history. Not a lover of status quos. Fairly passionate about rigorous scholarship. 

And also, for the purposes of this sermon, the builder of a WAY of doing Bible study and contemplation of the scriptures that I absolutely love. And is the reason I’ve been rattling on about him. 

Because what Ignatius of Loyola taught, as a way of doing Bible study and prayerful contemplation, is at once quite simple – and also wholly grounded in the Jewish tradition of locating God’s actions in story and in history – and I think pretty spectacular. In terms of the depth and nuance of revelations it can provoke.

But it really IS quite simple. Because all it is, the Ignatian Method, as it were, is that when we read a piece of the Bible, we try to put ourselves inside the story.

So we sort of imagine that we’re a character in the story. Like, take a familiar Bible story like the Good Samaritan. And imagine you’re the fellow who “fell among thieves” and got beaten and left on the side of the road. What are you feeling? What are you seeing? When the priest and the Levite come along and they both pass you on the other side, what are you seeing? What are you feeling? And when the Samaritan stops – how does that feel? What is that like? 

But then the Ignatian Method takes it another step. Now imagine you’re the priest or the Levite. What are you seeing? What are you feeling? Why are you responding to that man the way you are? Where’s that coming from?

It’s actually remarkably psychological, sociological, emotional, spirit-centred and yet intellectual, the Ignatian Method. Pretty amazingly radical coming out of basically the Middle Ages. Before any of those were even categories of contemplation.

And I have to say – I do have a major bias as someone for whom storytelling and history-telling is for me absolutely primary in terms of making “meaning” in this old world – but I’d heartily commend it as a way of reading the gospels in particular. 

Because you just never know what revelations might arise. Particularly in different contexts or at different times.

Which brings me, at long last, to Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother in law, which Paul read for us earlier. Only Jesus’ second healing miracle in the gospel of Mark – the first having been when he cast out a demon from that heckler in the synagogue –

And it’s so… sort of gentle and domestic by comparison. Equally unexpected and unprepared for – Jesus and the disciples have basically just gone back home to Peter’s house after having been to the synagogue – but infinitely less dramatic and mind-blowing than a casting-out of a demon.

Because Peter’s mother in law just… isn’t feeling well. I mean, she REALLY isn’t feeling well, I don’t mean to downplay that in any way – but the gospel tells us that she has a fever. Which in the absence of aspirin or willow bark could absolutely be serious or even QUITE serious – but it’s also not a permanent condition. 

Jesus will later heal people of blindness and paralysis and leprosy – he’s already healed someone of a pervasive and serious mental illness – but a fever… it has a timeline. And there truly doesn’t seem to be any sense in this passage that Peter’s mother in law’s life is in imminent danger. 

This healing’s just more lowkey, less fraught, less existentially dramatic, than what we usually see in the gospels. It’s still thoroughly amazing and it certainly gets the attention of everyone in the neighbourhood – so much so that Jesus winds up overwhelmed by people crowding around him and demanding their own healings for themselves and their loved ones –

But the scene is quite domestic. And I use that word on purpose. Because for lo so many years, in the good spirit of operating by the Ignatian Method of contemplating a story of scripture by imagining oneself within the story, as a character in the story – whenever I contemplated this passage about the healing of Peter’s mother in law, putting myself in her place, I’d always get reactive.

Like, Peter brings Jesus and the lads home for supper after they’ve all been to the synagogue, and there’s no supper on the table because his mother-in-law has a fever, so he says to Jesus “Yikes!” -- and Jesus helpfully heals the mother in law, so up she can pop and make them all dinner. Or as the gospel puts it more genteely, “then the fever left her, and she began to serve them”.

It annoyed me every time I read it. Like, they couldn’t just let her rest? I was never going to assign expediency blame to Jesus, like he did this miracle just so they’d all get some supper, but Peter? I was ALWAYS quite prepared to assign some serious expediency blame to Peter. Because this ALWAYS seemed to me to be the most self-serving healing miracle that ever happened in the whole of Jesus’ ministry.

But not any more. It’s so interesting how using the Ignatian Method can change God’s Word that’s revealed for us in a reading over time, even taking on the perspective of the very same character, just by virtue of how our own perspective has changed over that time.

Because now I can see – what a gift of a healing this might have been for Peter’s mother in law. To find herself able again to do at least a part of what it’s always felt like she was for. The offering of hospitality, the providing of a welcoming table and a good meal, the presiding over a household. 

I hear and feel grace now, in this story. In letting it unfold and contemplating it from inside the character of Peter’s mother in law, I hear and feel grace now in its unfolding. The grace of God in Jesus recognizing and honouring through this story how very deeply it matters to us to be able to do what it feels like we’re for. 

And how painful to our bones and to our spirits it can be… when we can’t. Or more poignantly, when we can’t anymore. I hear and feel in this story now kind of the ultimate daydream perfect miracle for every single one of God’s children who have ever found themselves wondering – with a shift, in a moment, with a loss, like Peter’s mother in law laid low by infirmity – who’ve ever found themselves wondering in the absolute bewilderment of that change, what’s even the point of me now? When what was an essential piece of what it always felt like I was ‘for’ is no longer possible?

For the rest of us, of course, there’s no miraculous restoration to our essential selves, like there IS for Peter’s mother in law. She gets the beautiful healing, Jesus holding out his hand and lifting her up. She gets the beautiful healing, in which just like “snap”, the barrier, the loss, the fever, gets erased – and she can pop back up into her old familiar identity – with the gracious hospitality and please sit down and she’ll rejoice in offering Peter and all the lads their supper.

For the rest of us, not quite so much, the miraculous restoration. The healing of that poignant reality from which Peter’s mother in law gets healed.

But I think it matters that it gets noticed. I think it matters that what we see here is Jesus recognizing and honouring that it’s a woundedness. That it needs healing. That if it’s hard to figure out in the first place what we’re for – and it is, it gets at the heart of our selfhood – it’s even harder when what we were always for, we simply can’t do it anymore. 

So lucky lucky Peter’s mother in law, who however briefly has that reality forestalled. But lucky I think also US. Because we know now -- that hurting place is seen. What’s revealed in this miracle is that God sees it. God knows it’s a thing. That we have a lot wrapped up in our sense of identity and our sense of the point of us – and when that gets shaken or it gets taken from us, it’s hard. It’s like finding ourselves in exile, torn away from the familiar home of who we were and what we were for. It’s a hurt. And that hurt needs healing.

The good news is that God has been healing God’s people from the hurt and bewilderment of exile since way back in the days of Isaiah. When the only familiar heart of “what am I for” that was left to them was remembering – when they could even manage to focus on it – to start with “love God and love my neighbour”.

But everything else wasn’t commentary, as the old quip goes, but just gone. Changed. Taken. And what’s even the point of us anymore, they cry out to Isaiah, God’s people in exile. We imagine ourselves alongside them, inside them, inside the story from Isaiah that Paul read for us, waiting for the answer.

And God holds out God’s hand and lifts them up. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Those who trust in God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

So hold fast, God says. You will always have a point of you. Hold fast, God says, and let me lift you up, into it. Amen.