Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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What are you being healed to do? Mark 1:29-39
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 sundown, 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.
Have you ever been rereading something and come across notes that you made the first time you read it? And, then, you try to remember why you wrote those notes in the first place? That happened to me this week as I prepared this sermon. When I write my sermons, I nearly always use my big, red study Bible that I bought to use in my first New Testament class in seminary. When I turned to the scripture for this week, I found notes from that class. Well, not exactly notes, but highlighter marks and circles. In the first section of this reading, I highlighted the following lines: "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." On top of the highlighting, I also circled, in ink, the words "serve them." Now, I think I know where the blue highlighter came from. I had an assignment where I was supposed to highlight all of the familial language in the book of Mark. But, that circle around the phrase "serve them," that came from something else. When I read that part of the story, something about that particular phrase caught my attention.
It's an interesting story, no doubt. Jesus had just left the synagogue, where he had begun his ministry of teaching and healing. Jesus and his friends then traveled to Simon and Andrew's house. Once they arrived there, we learn that Simon's mother-in-law had a fever. Now, in the days before antibiotics and over-the-counter fever reducers, a fever was not a minor inconvenience. It was often an indicator of serious illness. She felt bad enough that she was laid up in bed. Having just seen Jesus heal the man possessed by a demon, Simon and Andrew told Jesus about her illness. The description of her healing is so spare that you can almost miss it. Jesus came to her, and took her by the hand and lifted her up. And, then, the fever left her.
It can be easy to overlook this miracle because of it's simplicity. Like I've said before, the author of Mark offers little extraneous commentary on what are arguably amazing stories. This healing story follows that pattern. The other pattern in Mark, which we haven't seen yet, is that after the people are healed and they thank Jesus, Jesus will tell them not to tell anybody else about the miracle. It is a curious practice that is particular to Mark. Given that I was familiar with Mark when I read and highlighted these passages all those years ago, maybe I expected something like that to happen. Maybe I expected Simon's mom, to say thank you and then to have Jesus tell her not to tell anybody. But, that's not what happened here. After she is healed, she isn't shown falling down in gratitude as others will be later in the book. No, after she's healed, she appears to make them dinner.
In some ways, this seems all too familiar. I think many of us know a woman like this... The ultimate host. You cannot walk into her house without being handed a drink and asked if you'd like something to eat. And, whether or not you've actually asked for anything, there is a strong likelihood that a plate will be set before you anyway. Now, this woman may be wealthy, but, in all likelihood, she's not. She was just raised right. It doesn't matter how humble her surroundings, she will make sure that any guest who comes to her home has what they need, and probably a little extra for the road.
I have met these women in hills of East Tennessee, in the farmlands of Illinois, and along the lakeshore in Central Maine. In the congested cities of Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Managua, and Madrid, I have been greeted with great hospitality and some variety of the question, "Did you eat yet? Here... sit down. I'll fix you something." So, when I read this story, I'm pretty sure that I can imagine Simon's mother-in-law's face. I've seen it a hundred times. For those of us who know this woman, we may not be surprised in the least that the first thing she does when she is healed from a debilitating, possibly life-threatening, illness is get up and make everybody lasagna. She probably vacuumed, too.
Now, for those of us who know these women, we know that they often take pride in their role as host. The role of nurturer is of supreme importance to them. For some, it is a calling, a vocation even. They could no more imagine resting when company arrived than could imagine growing wings and flying into the air. For others, the expectation of hospitality is so great in their community that the social consequences of being judged lazy, inhospitable, or a bad cook are just too much to bear. It is better to work oneself into the ground than to fail in this social obligation. In either case, and in any case in between, the hospitable women often find themselves doing most of the cooking, far too little of the eating, and nearly all of the cleaning. The work of being welcoming can take its' toll, especially if the host feels like she is doing so out of obligation rather than joy. It is the paradox of this kind of service, hospitality that is can be joyful to offer but often a burden, that is the likely reason for my ferocious circling during my New Testament class.
How was I supposed to read this story? Is Simon's mom only healed so she can slave over a hot stove while the guys sit around and share stories about how awesome it was when that guy with the demon came up to Jesus and Jesus totally took that demon down a peg? Couldn't some of the guys have said, "Whoa, getting healed must be a big deal. Why don't you sit down and tell us about it? How did it feel? Do you want to follow Jesus, too? Andrew can handle the snacks." Knowing that even the authors of the Bible, inspired though they might be, were just as shaped by the social conventions of their time as we are of ours, I can't help but wonder about this short phrase, "she began to serve them." What does it say about Simon's mother-in-law's life and what does it say to our modern readers, many of whom still struggle within the confines of gender-based social convention?
I responded so strongly to this phrase about service, in part, because I came from a community where ideas about hospitality, food-making, and service were heavily gendered. I learned pretty early on that women were supposed to do the cooking and cleaning. Men were supposed to do the eating and loud story-telling, while also carrying the occasion heavy thing. If you were a girl who wanted to do the eating and loud story-telling part, you were doing something wrong. If you were a boy who wanted to host the party and cook the food, you were also doing something wrong. I heard pretty regularly how the serving of food was an important part of being an adult woman, but not so important that the men wanted to do it. In fact, it was the last thing the men were supposed to want to do. I learned this mixed message that food preparation was vitally important but always secondary to whatever the men were doing. Because it wasn't good enough for men to do, I often assumed that it really wasn't a good thing for anyone to do.
When you grow up in a patriarchal culture, it is easy to learn that the things associated with women are somehow second rate or less worthy of praise. I sure learned that lesson about the kind of service that Simon's mother-in-law offered after she was healed. While it was good that women did that work, it was always women's work, and therefore less important. I worry about verses like this, because, all too often, people who are interested in limiting the roles of women and men based on strictly gendered understandings of propriety will look to this verse and say, "Look. See. A woman's place is to serve. A man's place is to lead alongside Jesus." I am fortunate that, this week, I found some scholars who helped me look at service in a different way.
One scholar pointed that the word to serve, when translated back into Greek, is the word diakeneo. This word does usually mean to serve food. And, yes, it is something that women are usually described as doing in the book of Mark, like Martha who serves Jesus after her brother Lazarus is healed. But, do you know who else is described as serving using that same verb? Jesus. Later in the book of Mark, after two of his male followers, James and John, make the ham-fisted request to sit in places of honor by Jesus' side, he rebukes them for their egoism. He then tells all of his male disciples (the women are probably in the kitchen cleaning up), that "whomever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whomever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." The word he uses for serve is diakeneo.
The same scholar points out that, later, at the end of Jesus' life, long after the twelve male disciples have fled in fear for their safety, the women who followed Jesus, the ones who had provided for him throughout his ministry in Galilee, they were the ones who stayed with him and saw him breathe his last breath. This word that gets translated into English as "provided for," in Greek, it is diakeneo. It is these women who went to Jesus' tomb to tend to his body. It is these women who first learn of the resurrection. And, one more thing... if the word diakeneo seems familiar you to, I wouldn't be surprised. It is the root word for Deacon, one of the oldest roles in the Christian church.
Maybe Jesus learned a little something about service from Simon's mother-in-law. After all, her first response to being healed wasn't to lay around talking about how awesome it was. Her first response was to serve and make sure everyone had what they needed. Maybe Jesus was thinking about her when he yelled at James and John for making petty arguments about who was the greatest among them. Hopefully, as Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," he saw the faces of the women who had provided for him and knew that he wasn't alone. The deacons were there with him, even to the very end.
Jesus took quite the risk by identifying his mission not with the work of the powerful men in his community, but with the work of the women and the slaves. By doing so, he told people that this work, this service, was worth more than they thought. It was so important that it became the model for his own ministry. What a gift it is for us today, too. He showed us that following him has been women's work for just as long as it has been men's work. And, we've learned that the most appropriate response to being healed is to offer compassion and hospitality to others. So, friends, how can we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Simon's mother-in-law? How can we put our healing to good use? Who could use a little hospitality and servanthood today?
Work Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
David Lose, "Epiphany 5B: Freedom For": http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/epiphany-5-b-freedom-for/
UCC weekly Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_february_8_2015
Matt Skinner's commentary on Mark 1:29-39: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344
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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.