Raised up to Serve
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
Rev. Julie Emery
February 5, 2012
Text: 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 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. A Preaching Tour in Galilee
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.
A few weeks ago, a group of young mothers gathered on couches and chairs, to connect and support one another in their parenting and lives. The topic for the day was self-care, but before we began, women were asked if they had any prayer requests. Slowly, almost every woman lifted a concern for an aging loved one. A mother-in-law still grieving the loss of her beloved husband, a parent who was getting more forgetful, another burdened under the care for his spouse, another struggling with the question about moving into a facility with more assistance for increasing needs.
The stories were offered as a communal prayer for those gathered, like many gathered here, who are caught between the increasing needs of beloved parents, as well as the ever present day-to-day needs of caring for immediate family. There were prayers for healing and wholeness, comfort as we shared grief over the loss of relationships that were once vital and supportive; prayers of acceptance, as each adjusts to what is a “new normal” for their family.
There were tears, whispers, words and advice: a shared yearning, a deep and longing prayer for guidance and support.
In our text this morning from the first chapters of Mark’s gospel, we discover that this newly gathered group of disciples may not have been just a band of lively bachelors. Simon, apparently, has a wife, and consequently, a mother-in-law. This text is the only indication in all of the gospels that any of the disciples were married, which gives scholars cause to suggest at least the possibility that Simon was not the only one. We only hear of Simon Peter’s family because of his need.
Fresh off his first exorcism, Jesus and the disciples regroup to Simon Peter’s home, only to find the primary caretaker sick with a fever. While fevers come and go here in the 21st century, in Simon Peter’s day a fever would have meant the possibility of death – this was no small thing. The mother in law would have been the matriarch in Simon Peter’s household, and therefore central to their ability to offer hospitality and care to his family, and to Jesus.
Upon entering Simon’s home, Jesus hears of the fever and goes directly to the woman in need. He merely takes her hand and, “raising her up,” the fever leaves her. This verb, “raising her up‚” is used by Mark in other points of healing throughout the ministry of Jesus, as well as the verb used to describe the resurrection.
The word, as one commentator describes, suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world.
And this is what she does. She gets up and she begins to serve.
We have to be careful, here, as we read this text, not to place our 21st century values on a first century story. As the eldest woman in her household, it was likely her calling and honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by her illness, she was kept from doing that which connected her to her community and to Christ.
Her healing was a restoration to life and wholeness, to calling and self. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.
Another Greek word is of interest to us in this text: The verb to describe her action after her healing is “diakoneo,”which, consequently, is the same word from which we get the word,“deacon.” Her response to God’s grace and healing is to serve, to care. Just as this woman set the table for Jesus and the disciples, the deacons are the ones who prepare our meal, here, around the Lord’s table, inviting us in and providing for that spiritual sustenance we so deeply need.
Now, there is no way to know whether or not Simon Peter also had children in his home, and so it may be a stretch to imagine him as a biblical representation of “the sandwich generation.” We can only imagine what may or may not have been his burdens as he cared for his wife and her ailing and aging mother. We can only guess at the ways he worried after her, checked in on her, became frustrated by her, or suffered for her.
What we do know, what is wonderfully clear, is that Jesus understood and cared for them as a whole family. His very first act upon entering their home is to reach out and touch her, to raise her up to renewed strength, and his second is to join them around the table she sets before them.
During my time as a hospice chaplain, and throughout my ministry, I have encountered families struggling to care for aging loved ones. Sometimes those challenges come after parents have lived a full and vital life, and children are at peace with this aging process. More often, it is a slow journey over many years, as each year, each month, each day, brings adjustments and need for flexibility.
One family I met, who had to face this suffering far earlier than they expected, had recently been told that their beloved matriarch had pancreatic cancer; she had three children, the youngest was twenty.
By the time I met them the cancer had progressed and caused significant jaundice: her eyes and skin were yellowing. But those eyes were filled with light and joy. The family had decided to honor who their mother was by not closing the door to anyone: you see, she was a queen of hospitality.
So throughout her illness, they continued to have family meals together, each Sunday. Most meals included a beloved neighbor or friend. When she was too tired or no longer able to get into her wheelchair, they brought the meals to her bedside.
Around the table, they shared favorite stories which were told again and again. They shared their love for one another. They laughed and cried. They did not shy from the inevitable, they simply acknowledged it and moved forward. Eventually, they talked together about her service, and what she wanted. They made a bucket list, and took some final trips, completed long-standing projects she had never finished. She told her children how proud she was of them, how much she loved them. They ate and prayed together.
Perhaps their awareness of the end that was coming made them treasure their time together ever more, perhaps it shrouded everything with darkness. Perhaps both. But those meals they shared kept each of them going, in different ways. And I do believe, they still continue today.
There are many days when I long for the kind of profound healing that Jesus performs. For the miraculous to break in, heal a loved one in body, release us from our suffering entirely. Instead I am compelled to look for different definitions of healing and wholeness, and different ways to get there.
Perhaps what we learn from this story is that we are all shouldering this together, and that through prayer and common sustenance, we will find new wholeness. Sometimes that wholeness looks differently than we imagine.
Perhaps there is a way that a diagnosis or illness can have a similar affect as a healing: restoring us to who we truly are in Christ; perhaps a life change like that can make us more loving, or at least more vocal about our love for life and each other; can make us more intentional about time; can make us slow down, smell the roses, watch the birds flash in the trees.
These stories are common, and parts of each of our lives and journeys. But whatever your story, whether you are being cared for or whether you are caring for someone you love, Christ offers healing, sustenance, wholeness, strength for your journey, at this table. Come gather around the table and be nourished.