Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
In our scripture today, we are still early in Jesus’ ministry, but he is on the move. The scholars I read this week suggest that we should pay attention to these moves... moves between public spaces and private space, and to his movement into isolation, to learn about how the author of Mark thought Jesus worked in the world. This reading begins where many of our journeys of faith began, within a family home, among people who love and care for one another. In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston reminds us that, in this time and in this culture, several generations lived with each other and, many times, branches of extended families lived together. This home is Simon and Andrew's, two brothers who were among the first disciples, but they weren’t the only ones who lived in the home. Simon's mother-in-law lived there, too, and likely several others. And, this family is well known by James and John, the other two brothers who were early disciples of Jesus.
The first part of the story is in a family home and “family” can be a contentious concept in Mark. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, reminds us that, in chapter three, just a couple verses after this one, when Jesus’ own family comes looking for him, he says his real family isn't necessarily them, but anybody who does the will of God. We should be prepared for Jesus to challenge traditional ideas about what family is and does. And, yet, among the first things he does in his public ministry is travel to his disciples’ family home and meet their extended family. And, the second healing we see him perform is healing one of the family members of his disciples. Even as Jesus will suggest an expansion of what “family” means, Dr. Kittredge reminds us that friends and family will continue to be drivers of compassion and care through the rest of this Gospel. Parents will ask Jesus to heal their children several more times in this book. These two sets of brothers, James and John and Simon and Andrew, will continue to care for one another even as they follow Jesus. Faith in Christ will consistently be situated inside the family, with family members encouraging one another to believe and to be healed. And, Jesus will consistently respond with compassion to those who advocate for the people they love.
James and John become some of the first people to show us how the community members will advocate with Jesus for the people they love. They tell Jesus that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. Jesus responds by healing her. Dr. Thurston notes that Jesus touches her to heal her, a risk for a couple reasons, first because touching a sick person risked ritual uncleanliness and second because touching a woman risked a different kind of ritual uncleanliness. Jesus, knowing the risk of being excluded from fellowship for ritual uncleanliness, still chose to touch this woman and heal her, restoring her to full life and fellowship with the people in her family. When she has been restored to health, she begins to serve.
This word “serve: is a little difficult to parse out. Are we to believe she was healed just so she could feed Jesus and his buddies supper? That is certainly how some have interpreted this verse according to Dr. Osvaldo Veno, even using it to assert that the proper place of present-day women is only in support roles of the Gospel, not in proclamation. Dr. Veno thinks that kind of interpretation is unwise. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Kittredge notes that Greek word for service is used throughout the book of Mark to mean both serve at a table and also to do ministry. Much of the time, it is used to describe discipleship or work that is divine in nature. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for “serve.” The angels served Jesus in the wilderness. The scholar Karoline Lewis notes that, in Mark 10, Jesus will describe his own ministry as service: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Both Dr. Kittredge and Thurston suggest that given the expansive meaning of “serve” in this Gospel, it would be fair to interpret this passage as Simon’s mother being healed and serving them by welcoming them into her home but also, in response to her healing, she began a life of service, that is discipleship, with Jesus. Her discipleship would not have been possible had her friends and family not advocated for her.
As this woman shifts into discipleship, the story shifts from the private sphere of the home and family to the public sphere of a crowd of people who have gathered outside of the mother-in-law's home. Once Jesus healed the possessed man with his words and the sick woman with his touch, he went from one who was relatively unknown to someone the whole town would talking about. Seeking healing, people came to him in droves. And, Jesus healed them, one by one, from their various diseases and possessions. Interestingly, for the second time in just a few verses, we see Jesus communicating with the demons as he draws them out. The first healing was in our verse from last week. Remember the demon who tried to say out loud who Jesus was, and Jesus stopped him. In today's reading, he does the same thing, forcing them to be silent because "they knew him."
This theme of secrecy is unique to the book of Mark. Why would Jesus not want the demons to say clearly who he was? Dr. Thurston thinks this has something to do with how Jesus prefers that people come to know him in the book of Mark. It is one thing for people to observe him themselves and choose to follow. It is another thing for people to be convinced of his power by the word of supernatural beings. According to Thurston, for Jesus, it is most important that people observe him themselves and then choose to follow him. Faith can’t just come through word of mouth. It is best for people to see and believe. I mean, at one point in Mark, Jesus will even tell Peter not to tell people he was the Messiah. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact, that during this era, it was understood that any kind of magician could perform miracles. Jesus wasn’t any old magician. Maybe he didn’t want the public spectacle of the healings to overshadow the grace and compassion that was the reason why he was healing people in the first place.
As the story shifts into the third part, we see yet another shift in location... into a deserted place. When Jesus needs to reconnect with God, this is what he does. God is the source of his power and the foundation of his identity and this time in the wilderness in prayer is how he rebalances his life after intense bouts of teaching and healing. Thurston asserts that periods like this, where he is in the desert praying, remind us that all of his authority is rooted in his dependence on God, not in flashy feats of magic. They are necessary times of respite and reconnection in the midst of his hectic ministry. But, his disciples didn't seem to understand that. He is so far out of the way that the scripture says his followers have to "hunt" for him, as though he was lost. Their hunt isn't necessarily described as a good thing.
We should remember that Jesus was not interested in popularity. He would have directed everyone, human and demon alike, to spread word of his miracles if he was. But, he wasn’t. His ministry was grounded and compassionate, not flashy and theatrical. In his time in prayer, Jesus came to some clarity about their next steps. As Dr. Thurston put it, “[his] task was not to be a wonderworker but to ‘proclaim the message’ in the towns around Capernaum.” And, that’s what he tells the disciples that they will do. So, they began the Galilean mission in earnest, bolstered by prayer and reconnection with God.
Covid is strange. It has disrupted so many ways that we think about public and private life, about isolation and connection, and this change has affected how I read this portion of scripture. I have new questions after reading this story of a Jesus functioning in three spheres, in public, in private, and in isolation, particularly in this era where we are trying to live out our faith when our private homes have become many of our offices and classrooms, and when we are navigating crowds and public spaces while managing two important necessities: public health and social connection. When work is home and home is work, how do we find space for prayer and reconnection? How can we shift the aloneness that this era requires away from a kind of harmful isolation and into the something that is more like the prayerful connectedness that Jesus found in deserted places? And, how do we continue to be drivers of compassion and care, like James and John, who helped Simon’s mother be healed and begin her own discipleship, an act which is the foundation of discipleship? I don’t have good answers for all of these questions yet. But, I can see that Mark, a Gospel where Jesus moves through public and private and into isolation, will be a good companion through the rest of the lectionary year. May what we see in this scripture point us to Christ the healer and helps us follow him in healing this world.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39-5
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3547
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.