To Run and Not Be Weary 02/04/18

To Run and Not Be Weary
Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
February 4, 2018 ~ Fifth Sunday After Epiphany ~ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Artwork: The Healing of Peter’s Mother in law, a sketch by Rembrandt (1660)

 

“Jesus came and took her hand and lifted her up.”

That tender, intimate act of touch is one of the things that makes this healing stories one of my favorites. To set the scene: Jesus has just casted out the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue in Capernaum, and now he, James, John, Simon, and Andrew leave and go to Simon and Andrew’s house. They tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. One of the dangers – then and now – of taking care of someone who has a fever is contagion. In the hospital, we often don paper gowns and latex gloves in order to protect ourselves and the patients from disease, and of course we all (hopefully!) use copious amounts of Purell. But when Jesus hears that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick, he goes to her at once and – heedless of contagion – takes her by the hand, and lifts her up.

There is no verbal fight with a demon. There is no dramatic show of power and might. There is just this: a hand fearlessly outstretched in mercy and healing, the meeting of two people palm-to-palm, and the lifting up of the one who is sick. Understated though it is, this is the first resurrection story in the gospel. It’s a metaphorical resurrection, to be sure, since she isn’t literally dead, but from a place of darkness and danger she is restored to wholeness and health. And it’s the first resurrection story in the gospel because it’s the first episode that foreshadows the death and resurrection of Jesus. The phrase “Jesus lifted her up” is beautiful in its simplicity and tenderness, but if we heard it in the Greek it would be even more so: what Jesus does for the sick woman – egeiro – is the same thing that God does for Jesus after the crucifixion. Jesus raises her to new life. And he does it with a touch of his hand.

If only the story ended there, with the fever vanishing at the touch of Jesus’ hand and Simon’s mother-in-law being lifted up off her sick bed.

If only.

But no. Mark deems it important to let us know that as soon as the fever left her, “she began to serve them.”

Really? As in, “Here you go, Mom. Let’s get you all fixed up. OK, that’s all done, great work, Jesus. Now, we’ve had a long and exciting day watching Jesus cast out demons at the synagogue, and we’re really hungry. When’s dinner?”

I know I’m being a little glib here, but this really does bug me. I just don’t imagine that a man would have gone straight back to work after being healed. But apparently a woman’s work really is never done.

But is that really all that’s going on here? A woman being restored so she can get back to her menial task of serving the men?

As I considered this text, it occurred to me that this story about Simon’s mother-in-law is not only the first resurrection story. It is the story of the first deacon of the church.

Yes, Jesus has called four of the soon-to-be-twelve male disciples. But so far all they’ve done is follow him and watch him in action. They haven’t done anything worthy of being called disciples yet. But Simon’s mother-in-law (oh, how I wish she had a name!) is a different story altogether. The moment she encounters Jesus, as soon as she is touched by him, she begins to serve them. But make no mistake. As one scholar has said, “This is no woman bowing to cultural convention and keeping in her restricted place as a servant; this is a disciple who quietly demonstrates the high honor of service for those who follow Jesus.” [1]

To serve: diakonein.

We see this verb, diakonein, right in the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus has been baptized and then is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. In English we are told that the angels wait on Jesus in the wilderness, but it’s the same verb that we find with Simon’s mother-in-law: diakonein. The angels served him. (Mk. 1:14).

Later, much later, at the cross, we are told that there were many women who “used to follow Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee” (Mk. 15:40). “Provided for him”: diakonein. The women served him.

But it certainly isn’t just that others –angels and humans alike – serve Jesus. Jesus also serves others. Later in Mark’s gospel he says to the disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mk. 10:45). Again, diakonein. Jesus’ ministry is one of service.

Of course, we should note that the men around him don’t get it. Right up until the end, they don’t get it. In fact, just before Jesus lays it out for them so plainly in the verse I just read, James and John have been begging him to name them as his two chief lieutenants. “Make us to sit, one on your right side and one on your left.” They want being a disciple to be about power – his, and their own.

And in our text this morning, Simon doesn’t get it either. He sees Jesus heal his mother-in-law and watches her serve them. He witnesses Jesus healing many from throughout the city. And when Jesus leaves for some quiet prayer time, Simon hunts him down and chastises him: “Everyone is searching for you.” Simon wants Jesus to do some more miracle stuff. He doesn’t recognize Jesus’ activity as a servant ministry; he only sees deeds of great power. Furthermore, it never occurs to him to try to help anyone himself.

But this unnamed woman, Simon’s mother-in-law, is a different story: she is Jesus’ first diakonos. From the same word as the verb “to serve,” a diakonos – a deacon – is a servant of the church. Here she is: the earliest members of the nascent church have gathered in her home, and as soon as she receives the healing she needs, she undertakes the ministry of being of service.

You know, it helps to look at how stories are told. Mark is a story of verbs. Jesus goes to the synagogue. He enters. He teaches. He casts out a demon. He leaves. He enters Simon’s house. He comes. He takes her by the hand. He lifts her up. He cures others. He gets up. He goes to a deserted place. He prays. He goes throughout Galilee. He proclaims the message. He casts out demons.

He proclaims, he heals. He heals, he proclaims. This is what being a Christian looks like. To proclaim the kingdom of God; that is, to share the good news of God’s deep desire God for us and for all. That is, in Jesus we see the possibility of a new kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of the world with their grasping for power and their striving for might. Jesus shows us God’s hope for a world that is just and peaceful and healed and whole. This is God’s kingdom, and it is God’s desire for us. But the desire comes with a call. God’s call to us is to do everything we can to help make that world a reality. To serve others until justice, peace, and wholeness reign.

But oh, it can be such hard work. There is so much to be done. There is so much healing we need ourselves, let alone how much healing is needed in the world. It can be so…exhausting. And discouraging. And we can feel so hopeless in the face of it. We can find ourselves crying out with the ancient Israelites: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Lost, lonely, depressed…Sometimes in the face of all of our own pain and brokenness, not to mention that of the world, we can feel as though God is so far away as to make us invisible and irrelevant.

But we can’t stay in that place of darkness and despair.

Parker Palmer is a wise Quaker teacher and author, and I am inspired by his vision of possibility and hope in the face of all the work that there is to do. A man who has suffered several bouts of debilitating depression, he knows what it is to be thoroughly exhausted and hopeless. And yet, he says:

[I am] someone who believes that there is a hidden wholeness beneath the very evident brokenness of the world…[I want] to say that somehow part of that hidden wholeness is love, part of that hidden wholeness is our fellow feeling for each other, part of that hidden wholeness is a desire to make this thing [called life] work, and to work it out together…[Courage is] the act of persisting in those fundamental beliefs…and I try to call myself to it every day. [2]

And so I listen to the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law and restoring her so that she might serve others and I am reminded that I want to make this thing called life work – not just for me, but for the world.

And so I chose to read the passage from Isaiah this morning, alongside this beautiful story from Mark’s Gospel. Written to the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon, this text speaks of the nature of God, who is both transcendent and immanent. God is the majestic one who created all that is and who sits above the circle of the earth, and God is also the one who gives individual people strength and lifts them up, the one who keeps them going when the going gets really, really hard.

The prophet says, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

When we get tired with the work of service – the work of peace-making and justice-building to which all Christians are called – then we lean into God. We lean in to the one who is as expansive as the cosmos and who is as immediate as a loaf of bread, and we trust that healing comes, wholeness comes, and the kingdom comes. And we – we, the servants of the church and of the world – are part of its arrival. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1.

[2] “The Inner Life of Rebellion: Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin.” OnBeing.org, 22 Sept. 2016.

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