Epiphany 5B: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Sunday, February 4, 2018
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
As you might remember, last week we heard the story of Jesus exorcising the demoniac in the synagogue. I can only imagine what the immediate aftermath of that might have been: Jesus and his new found friends are walking out of the synagogue and they are amped up, feeling pretty good about themselves right now, all rowdy and boisterous. Simon, who is also Peter, says, “Hey! Lets go back to my place and celebrate.” Everyone thinks this is a good idea and as they walk to the house they continue with their self-congratulatory conversation—reliving the event of the demon possessed man; how he just barged into the synagogue and started calling out Jesus and then out of nowhere, Jesus seemed to grow larger than life and powerful and with this great authority casts out the demon telling it to be quiet and get out—“Did you hear what he said?” “Be silent and come out of him!” “That was awesome!” “Did you see the look on everyone else’s face?” “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen!” “What luck for us to find this guy, he is going to do amazing things!” “Hanging out with this guy is going to really make us look good.” Remember, we are in the first chapter of Mark, the disciples don’t really know who Jesus is. All they know is that there is something about this fellow that draws them inexplicably to him.
So, they get to Simon’s house and upon their arrival discover that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever. They tell Jesus and he goes to her and heals her. Her response? She gets up and fixes them something to eat, makes sure they are comfortable and enjoying themselves. And that’s where my hackles start to raise. Its not that I am an uber-feminist; I like having the door opened for me and will stop and wait for a man to do so; I cook and clean at my house—partly because I have control issues and partly because I enjoy it; I prefer to think of my marriage as a partnership, but I am aware of gender differences and play to those which offer me an advantage—much to a feminist’s chagrin. But this crosses the line for me—Jesus is supposed to bring transformation, a new way of being, and yet in this incident he perpetuates a stereo-type and relational way of being that contributes to the male/female gender distinctions of power and powerlessness. It’s off-putting to say the least.
Of course, I read this passage from my own modern experience in which the contemporary woman is much more self-actualized and doesn’t define herself by the house she keeps or the dinner she serves or how good a hostess she is. But, of course, these are assumptions I place on what it might mean to not work in the professionally oriented, career driven world. My assumptions that a career and a paycheck provide self-worth are more than a little false and reflect my own arrogance and self-centeredness.
An elderly acquaintance tells the story of her mother reading A. A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six” poem* to her and her brother as young children. She remembers the delight she would take in her mother’s exuberance, her hand motions, dramatic pauses, and joy in the simple counting of numbers. My friend’s eighty-year-old face lights up when she recounts these memories and she too becomes more animated and exuberant in the telling of them. She finishes the thought by saying that the reason her mother was so animated was because she had been told it was important to make her children laugh. Her role as a mother was wound up in the service of her children—not simply clothing and feeding them, but in nurturing them and teaching them joy so that they might grow up knowing their own value.
Self-worth is not a product of a paycheck, it’s a product of our efforts. So, when I step back from this place of labeling and judging Simon’s mother-in-law, I can discover the value and significance she has in teaching me something about my relationship with Jesus.
Everything we have is a gift from God—our gifts and talents, even our possessions. The Offertory is one way in which we recognize this. When we put money in the plate and it is brought forward to the altar, we are taking a symbol of that which we have been given and offering it back to God. The priest then offers that to God at the altar while we say or sing a particular doxology that reflects this theological belief that all things are God’s.
This act of giving, receiving, and being blessed sanctifies our offering and thus the work that we have done that resulted in that which we offer. In other words, no longer is the work that we do done simply for our own benefit, it is holy work—it is work we do in partnership with God to do His work f redemption in this world. It doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer, a priest, a stay-at-home-mom, a postal worker, or a garbage collector—all that we do has value and contributes to the well being of our community. It is in understanding our role in society through the theology of the Offertory that we can begin to recognize God as the center of our work.
It is in this light that I can begin to value the story of Simon’s mother-in-law as less about serving men and more about serving God. Jesus is God after all. He is fully human and fully divine—the two cannot be separated. Whatever attitude or stance one takes toward Jesus encompasses both of his natures. The stance that we are called to take in the presence of Christ is to glorify, worship, and serve him. This is what Simon’s mother-in-law does—the act of her healing glorifies God and then, having been restored to wholeness, she serves him. Her service is not a reflection of powerlessness or the meekness of a woman’s place. Instead it is a demonstration of her power, a restoration of her identity. With the fever, she had lost her identity. She could no longer function in the ways in which defined who she was and her value to the community. When the fever leaves her, she is restored to that identity, can claim her self-worth, and does so within the context of he who heals her.
The healing allows her to reclaim her place in the order that witnesses to and serves the Lord. Her healing is a reminder that the victory of life is the ability to serve the Lord now and evermore. If you’ve ever been to a healing service, you’ve probably heard this language because it is the blessing and intercession that we offer as we anoint those who come forward for healing. “I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with this oil in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain you with his presence, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and evermore. Amen.” Our very existence is wrapped up in our ability to serve God. If we are breathing, we are serving God. In our suffering and dis-ease, that ability to serve becomes limited and broken; our prayers for healing are not so that we might feel better but so that we might be better in order to do that which we were created for—the service and good pleasure of God.
From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is orienting us to our proper stance in relationship to him. We are partners, but not equal partners. Everything we do is in service of him and participates in the work he is doing in this world. We can and should get excited about God’s work—it is powerful and can bring us redemption, renewal, and transformation. Maybe all those things don’t happen at once, but within the work of God we are given the opportunity to participate, to be a part of something that is greater than ourselves and yet, requires all the gifts and talents we have been given to achieve that work.
To be healed is to be brought back into the wholeness that is God. Dis-ease is just that, a state of no longer being at ease, a state of brokenness. That is what Simon’s mother-in-law was experiencing, a state of brokenness. To be brought back to wholeness leads her to the only response she could make—the service of the Lord.
*When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.