Since the pandemic began, most of us have spent more time at home than ever before. In ways that we could never have imagined just a year ago, our lives have been completely transformed by our need to shelter at home. At present, many of us work from home, go to school from home, and even attend church from home.
All of this time at home has put both the benefits and challenges of the way we in this culture have been living up for examination. For the young professionals who were accustomed to long commutes, working from home has given them a blessing of time. Many of them report how much being at home benefits their relationships and their ability to enjoy more of life. For many single people, the isolation the pandemic has brought has at times felt crushing. For families with kids at school – perhaps in class from their bedrooms – while parents try to manage their work lives, the stress can be intense. And for some couples without children at home, they are finding at times there is such a thing as too much togetherness. Many of us have also felt the pain of separation from loved ones whose homes are far away, especially when it’s not possible to even say goodbye to loved ones who have died from COVID and other illnesses.
The pandemic has put a huge stress on our home and family lives, while also showing many of us what is wrong with how we have been living.
Domestic life at the time of Jesus was extremely different from domestic life in our culture. Households were multigenerational and commonly included aunts and uncles, like the family in today’s scripture reading that consists of brothers Simon and Andrew, Simon’s mother-in-law, and we can safely presume, Simon’s wife. In all likelihood, children were also part of this household.
Everyone who was able in the family – from the youngest to the oldest – would have tasks to help home life run smoothly. Serving the family offered a sense of purpose, and was a part of how one lived out their religious faith. Jewish law sets out the way that a family lives and worships together in the home. For Jews, the home is recognized as a holy place.
For Jesus, the home is also a place of healing, even if it meant breaking the Sabbath law. It’s fascinating that shortly after Jesus calls his first disciples to join him on his mission, two of them, Simon and Andrew, call him to follow them to their home. This was a time before aspirin or antibiotics, when a fever threatened to end the life of Simon’s mother-in-law. Out of compassion, Jesus breaks through the norms of his days to heal at a forbidden time – the sabbath. Out of compassion, he breaks through the norms of his day to touch a person – a woman – he was not supposed to touch. Touch between genders was only acceptable within families, which may suggest that Jesus wants his followers to see him and each other as family.
I am reminded of the conversation a number of us had on Wednesday night with Gwen about Dr. King. Like Jesus, Martin Luther King did not wait for what others viewed as the “acceptable time” to act. Like Jesus, who challenged the norms that separated men and women, Martin Luther King challenged the norms that separate whites and blacks. Like Jesus, Martin Luther King longed for the day when all of us would see each other as part of the same family of God.
Over the course of Christian history, the church has frequently identified as saints those who have left behind home and family in the service of others, often traveling to distant shores or crossing boundaries of culture, race, religion, or social class. Who do you think of as saints? Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr., St. Francis, Mother Teresa? Some of you may think of a parent or grandparent.
And although throughout Christian history, the people who are often held up as exemplars of faith are those who leave home, for many of us it is someone close to us, like a parent or grandparent, who has most powerfully taught by their example what Christian living and service are all about. If we are honest about it, for many of us, serving our families in love can often be more difficult than the volunteer or professional Christian service we offer others who have no relation to us.
Today’s gospel reading is a reminder that our homes and families are not “second best” when it comes to following Jesus. As Debie Thomas writes, “if anything, Jesus delights in the domestic.” She notes that some of Jesus’s most significant encounters happen in homes. He performs his first public miracle at a home in Cana. He raises Jairus’s daughter in the synagogue leader’s house. His friend Mary anoints him with oil at her home in Bethany. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus when the despised tax collector welcomes Jesus as a houseguest. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus when he breaks bread at their dinner table.
Especially during a pandemic, some of the most significant ways we can follow and serve Jesus are at home and are with our families -whether they live with us or not. When you think about your home and family life, where is healing needed? If Jesus were to come to your home, to whom would he feel called to give attention? How can we bring the compassionate attention of Jesus into our home and family lives?
One group of people Jesus would likely turn his attention to today are mothers with children at home. This week the New York Times published a series of articles about the plight of mothers during the pandemic. One woman was quoted saying, “I wish I had the energy to scream. All my energy just goes into getting through every day, until I can go to sleep. I have three kids, all in virtual schools since March, and work full time. And it just feels like failing, every day, at everything I do. And I just want to change, want to be by myself for one minute. I don’t know how to keep doing this. But there isn’t really another option.”
Psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin points out that the struggles mothers are facing are not caused by burn-out with factors they can control. Rather, she names societal betrayal – a lack of national pandemic policy and unreasonable expectations by employers – that has put mothers in an impossible situation.
Here are some statistics from the Times to consider: 69% of mothers report their health being affected by the pandemic; compared to 51% of fathers; Mothers are 2x more likely to worry that their job performance is being affected by the pandemic than fathers; 1 million working mothers have left the workforce; Not surprisingly, single parents, women of color, and those with special needs children are among the most stressed.
Like Simon’s mother-in-law, many mothers today are feverish, but in contrast, likely feel they don’t dare rest. Can you imagine what Jesus would do if he were to walk into the home of a stressed out family? Would he bring food? Maybe he’d tell everyone to stop what they were doing for a moment and call them together for some silence… for some prayer? Might he sit down and simply listen? Maybe he would suggest that Mom lies on the couch and everyone prepares dinner for her?
During a pandemic that is stretching many of us to our limits at home, no matter what our living arrangements are, how can we make our homes a place of daily encounter with Jesus?
Perhaps the first step is to become aware and to claim that our homes are holy places, potential sanctuaries for body, mind, and spirit. How do you see and honor Christ at home? Does your home life include space and time where you can simply sit with the One who says “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest.”? How is your home a place where you can rest with Jesus?
In this time of pandemic stress, how do you invite Christ’s spirit into your family relationships to bring peace, harmony, love and joy? When challenges arise at home, as they inevitably will, how do you invite the spirit of Jesus to bring grace and healing?
One of the greatest difficulties any of us can face at home is when we or a family member become unwell – like Simon’s mother-in-law – whether due to physical illness or injury, cognitive changes, mental health challenges, or more. When this happens, we really need, like Simon and Andrew did, to invite Christ into our homes. As members of a Christian community, we can call on each other for help. None of us are designed to face the challenges that come when someone in our family is laid low or confined to bed. Do you or someone you know need help at home?
Jesus comes “not to be served, but to serve” and calls us, all of us, to do the same. After she was healed, Simon’s mother-in-law serves others. She gets it. In contrast, throughout the gospel of Mark, the male disciples are frequently portrayed as dunderheads – neither understanding or following through on the call to serve. What we need to remember about our home and family life, especially during a pandemic, is that all of us – women and men, young and old – are called to serve each other in mutual love. Women are not called to “over-serve.” Everyone in the family is called to share in caring for each other and our homes. As Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.”
May we remember that our homes are holy places, places where we can encounter the One who longs to come to us, to touch us, and to lift us from all that weighs us down so that we can live our purpose and serve each other in the world and at home with love and joy. Amen.