Our gospel lesson this morning has a woman who, whenever I read about her, reminds me of my own grandmother. My grandmother is a fiery Italian woman who is known across southern New Jersey for her cooking, particularly the twelve to fifteen hundred Christmas cookies she bakes every year.
Growing up, whenever we would travel to my grandparent’s house in North Brunswick, New Jersey, my memory of arriving at their home is always the same. We would walk in the front door and be blasted by a wall of heat, noise, and delicious smells. Now, if you grew up in an Italian family, or even know an Italian family, none of those should surprise you! The kitchen was always cranking out something to eat, there were always people around, and that inevitably led to never needing to turn the heat on in the dead of winter.
In my memory, grandma and grandpa’s house seemed always to be filled with people; it felt almost as if there was constantly a party at Grandma’s house! The Aunts (my grandmother’s sisters who we simply call “The Sisters”) would be sitting at the table talking (yelling), eating, or teaching my brother how to cheat at cards; Uncle Tom and Uncle Phil would either be yelling at a football game on the television or fast asleep in front of said football game. Kids would be weaving in between the legs of the grownups, playing at cowboys and Indians, tag, or some other made up on the spot game.
And in the midst of all this would be Grandma, playing the role of hostess. As the years have passed she has gradually given over this role to others, but I remember her always busy at hosting: cooking up something in the kitchen, bringing a plate of stuffed mushrooms or roasted red peppers to pass around; She loved to serve us; the love language she speaks is, as it is with many grandmothers, that of food! Just try telling her you don’t want thirds!
There are a few things in our gospel story this morning that should strike us as unique and interesting. First, we are still in the early stages of Jesus’ gathering of the disciples and the beginning of his public ministry, but, as we know of Mark, things don’t move slowly. We are off to a quick start! At Capernaum on the Sabbath, he taught in the synagogue and performed an exorcism of a demon-possessed man right there in the midst of the crowd, and news spread fast!
Second, we learn a little bit about Simon Peter. While we don’t know much about any of the disciples, we know the most about Peter. For most of them, we only know where Jesus called them from, and maybe who their father was, a sign of importance in those days. But here, we get a little bit of insight into Simon’s personal life. For example, he was married! While this isn’t a huge, earth-shattering finding, consider that we generally think about the disciples as these twelve bearded men, between the ages of 20 and 40 who followed Jesus around the Judean countryside, were taught by him, who occasionally messed up (well, maybe more than occasionally!), and whose eyes were eventually opened to the amazing Word of God. Yet we don’t often think about these guys as being just regular, everyday guys, with families, jobs, and lives apart from their role as disciples.
Here in chapter one, we don’t learn much more about Peter’s life, but this is significant. It humanizes him. It puts a little bit of the dirt of the real world under his fingernails. It makes him relatable. I mean, the guy has a mother-in-law! That’s pretty real world stuff, wouldn’t you say?
The third thing that should strike us is two-fold: Jesus’ movement through the text, and the role of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, particularly her relationship with Jesus.
Movement in scripture is always layered with meaning, so take a minute to think about how Jesus moves through this story. We begin by leaving the synagogue where he has been teaching, and where he healed the demon-possessed man; so not only are we moving away from a site of importance, but we are also placed in time: it is still the Sabbath, the day of rest.
With James and John fast by his side, he goes to Simon and Andrew’s home. Anytime we read that Jesus “went” somewhere we know it is important. The fact that he is going to this home of two of his disciples shows us how deeply he is invested in the relationship with these men whom he has only just recently called to follow him. The relationship is immediate and profound.
Once inside, he is told of Simon’s mother-in-law’s illness; she is in bed with a fever. A fever is an indication of some type of illness, indicating that the body is trying to fight some sort of infection. A fever in the ancient world was not only debilitating for a short while but was often a symptom of a condition that would lead to death. We don’t know much about this fever- its intensity, its duration, or its cause- but we do know that it was severe enough to keep this valued family member from being up and playing at her role of the hostess (Henrich).
And despite the risk of contagion, which was very real, Jesus goes to her, takes her hand and helps her up, and she is made well. We will come back to her movement and response in a minute, but let’s first follow Jesus through the rest of the story.
Here we have to read between the lines a little bit because the story jumps ahead to later in the evening (still the Sabbath), but we can safely assume that dinner was had and conversation enjoyed.
Jesus’ day doesn’t end there, however. Instead, his movement continues as “the whole town gathered at the door,” and he goes on to heal all the sick and demon-possessed who were brought to him.
Then it is the next morning, “very early… while it was still dark,” and Jesus is moving again, this time on his own, leaving the house quietly to go to a solitary place to pray. While every other move he has made has had its significance, it is this action that bears a striking meaning for us. He has left everyone behind, and his movements are quiet and purposeful. Now that the healing has been accomplished (a very long day, at that), he draws away to be in prayer, to connect with his Father.
This is something we should pay close attention to; after the work is done, and before more work can be done, Jesus prays. We don’t know what he said while he was praying; really it doesn’t matter. Whether it was thanksgiving for the work that was done, or guidance in what comes next, it is the act of quieting our hearts and our minds that we might connect with God that we should be doing. Of course, entire sermons, nay, entire books have been written about this!
Now let’s turn our attention back to that other central character in this story: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. There is something about this story that should make us, pause: Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, and immediately she goes about the business of serving them, the “them” being Jesus and the others who have gathered there. The second person healed by Jesus in the gospel of Mark is a woman, and immediately after she is healed, she gets back in the kitchen. As a man, this is dangerous ground I now trod!
Later in the gospel story, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus doesn’t get up and start back to work. Instead, he reclines at the table, and Martha, the woman in the story, serves them. The mother-in-law is the one who has just been healed, so shouldn’t she get a little relaxing time? Why can’t Peter go make some sandwiches and let his mother-in-law put her feet up? I mean, the guy couldn’t have been that helpless! The joke in my family is that even my Grandfather can make a toasted cheese sandwich!
There are a couple of ways theologians have glossed over this in the past. One way is by saying that this was such an extraordinary miracle that she didn’t need any recuperation time! She was back at it, ready to wait on these gentlemen…
Or maybe we could talk about her service as being a sign of respect and gratitude for her healing; she serves God by serving Jesus…
Or perhaps we could allude to the traditional gender roles of men and women, noting that it would have been shameful for a woman in a household in this time and culture to neglect to feed a guest…
Well, I’m not sure about you, but all of those answers seem to me to fall a little short, and miss a larger point.
The word “serve” in this story is from the Greek word diakoneo. This verb is “the same that Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry later in Mark chapter 10: it is ‘to serve’ rather than ‘to be served’ that characterizes the Christ of God. It is also ‘to serve’ that characterizes his disciples” (Henrich).
So instead of being “a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life,” Simon’s mother-in-law is rather “the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship”: she has risen up to re-claim her place in the world (Henrich, emphasis mine).
An interesting side note here: it will be women who are described as having served Jesus in chapter 15 verse 41 diakoneo as well. This is not a verb used of Jesus’ male disciples who famously do not quite “get it” within the gospel itself… but I digress…
We also need to notice in addition, that illness, whatever the illness, bore a heavy social cost, not only here, but throughout the gospel story. “[N]ot only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed” (Henrich).
Simon’s mother-in-law is much more than a cook, waiter, and dishwasher. She is also a follower. And a follower who is willing to serve as she goes, then she is also a disciple. I have to say, I learned more about serving others by watching my grandmother all those years than I ever learned anywhere else. That has had a profound effect on how I understand what it means to follow Jesus, to serve rather than be served.
This is the same lesson we learn from the example of all of our Western Horizon members: those in our congregation who have been faithful members of this congregation for fifty years or more. The ways they have loved the Lord, served God’s people, and taught others by their faithful example, is a direct example of how to love and follow Jesus.
This past week in our Finance Team meeting, we reviewed a list of activities and ministries this church has been engaged in over the past year. As I looked at this list, I was in awe:
- The backpack program that sent food home with 95 kids every Friday afternoon
- The summer lunch program at the library
- Our Sunday school teachers
- 9 youth who were confirmed in the spring
- The beautiful music the choir and bell choir bless us with each week
- The Good Neighbor Fund
- The Angel Tree project
- Rummage Sales
- Our incredibly active Deacons
- Our support of the food pantry
- and so much more!
Serving is our call, and it appears to me to be something this church does well!
In a few short weeks, we will be fully immersed in the craziness of the holiday season. This is typically a time in the church when we highlight opportunities to serve, to give back, to respond in our faith. This morning, I want to challenge all of us to consider how we can take our servanthood and make it a core of our being, not just during the holidays, but throughout the year.
As you enter your week, ask yourself, where can I serve this week? Who can I serve? Remember, you have been healed, raised up to new life. Follow in the footsteps of Simon’s mother-in-law, of our wonderful Western Horizon members, of those saints who have mentored and served you. Go forth from here to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
Henrich, Sarah. “Commentary on Mark 1:29-39.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 05 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.