A sermon on Mark 1:29-39
(For an audio recording of this sermon, click here.)
You know almost nothing about me, not even my name. I’m just Simon’s mother-in-law. A woman whom Jesus healed, and then she served lunch. Of all the things to be known for down through the ages it’s not bad. It’s a good story – a story of grace and hope. And there are no messy details about Sabbath laws or debates about sin causing disability.
Mine is a simple, easy healing story, told in just 2 verses: I was sick. They told Jesus. He healed me. I began to serve.
But I wonder if you can really understand my experience from just those two verses…. How this one interaction was touched by all that went before… and what that context means for my experience of healing, and what came after.
Depending on how much you know about biblical history, you may have some sense of what it was to be a mother-in-law in a family like ours. It’s a dependent relationship. I had no means of self-support after my husband died, and I was grateful to have a married daughter. It meant a household I could join. It meant safety and economic security. So, those mother-in-law jokes that are so common in your culture… they don’t really translate. I know my place in society, and in this family. My place is to serve.
That might sound off-putting in your context. Women in the 21st Century have freedoms and responsibilities I could never have imagined. You all have the benefit of a culture that recognizes the minds, and strengths, and capacities of women in ways that no one in my time could have contemplated (except, maybe Jesus. He definitely pushed against a lot of social assumptions, and he valued the voices of women).
But, I can see how grating it would be to a woman in this congregation to be told that it was her place only to serve. You get to lead – in ministries, and on Council, and even in the pulpit. You get to be seen in your own right, and not just in the ways that you are defined by a man. You get to use your voices as well as your hands to seek the good of the people around you. And while I know you sometimes still have to fight for these opportunities, they are still there. Your lives are so very different than mine!
But it wasn’t the cultural values or the familial obligations that I struggled with in the days before Jesus came to our house and healed me; it was the fear.
You see, the well-being of our household depended on the male heads. As a household headed by two brothers who were fishermen, we were part of the professional class. We were not wealthy by any means, but we weren’t peasants either, and we were comfortably removed from the danger of falling into slavery.
That is, until Jesus walked by their boat and called Simon and Andrew to follow him. It wasn’t just their lives that were disrupted by Jesus’s call. It was our whole family. Palestine had a social hierarchy, but it was fluid. People could move up or down. And with Simon and Andrew suddenly leaving their profession to follow an itinerant preacher… they compromised all of us. In a very real way, it was a betrayal. Extended family units work because we each have our role to play and we work together for the good of all.
But when Simon and Andrew abandoned their boats and nets… they abandoned us too.
Maybe it was the shock or the stress that made me so ill. I had suffered loss before, but not this kind of fear for my future. And that’s a point on which I imagine many of you CAN relate to my experience. You know what’s it’s like to have a certain pattern of life on which you depend, almost without thinking about it, only to have it suddenly ripped away. In your case, it’s a wider-scale trauma, impacting more than just your family. But the pandemic you are living through represents the same kind of danger to both your physical and financial well-being.
So, I hope you won’t judge me if I gave way – for a time – to despair. Different people handle anxiety differently. Sometimes it comes out as anger or aggression. Sometimes it comes out in desperate efforts to control the uncontrollable. Sometimes it comes out in our bodies. But whatever the cause, I know that I was desperately sick, and I was scared.
Have you ever noticed how fear makes you turn in on yourself, in fever dreams of worst-case scenarios, and exhausting but fruitless ruminating on how to keep yourself safe? It’s a self-centering and self-consuming experience.
And it’s hardly how I would have chosen to meet Jesus. I don’t quite know if I wanted to be strong and self-assured enough to tell him what I thought of his call to Simon and Andrew…or open enough to recognize the authority to which they had responded… but either way, I didn’t get the chance.
When I met Jesus, I was feverish and weak. I was turned in on my own needs and unable to either advocate or adore.
Thankfully, none of that mattered to Jesus. As soon as he heard I was sick, he came to me, and he took my hand, and he lifted me up.
It’s one of those phrases that’s so easy to miss, even in a two-verse story. It’s easy to rush ahead to the miraculous healing and the end of the fever. But when Jesus lifts you up, it’s not something you can skip over. It’s a life-giving, transforming experience.
It’s a touch that straightens your spine… where you had been curved in on yourself, you head comes up and you see everyone around you. You remember that there are other needs besides your own. And you find in yourself the strength to serve them.
Did you know that the word used to describe my service is the same word the gospels use to describe the angels who serve Jesus’ needs at the end of his 40 days in the wilderness? Did you know it’s also the word Jesus applies to himself when he washes the disciples’ feet and tells them “I am among you as one who serves”? And did you know it’s the word the early church used to commission the first deacons, whose leadership in the church was as “servers.”
So yes, I am the woman Jesus healed, who then serves lunch.
But that’s not a story the relegates me to woman’s work. It’s a story of what an encounter with Jesus is supposed to do to all of us: it is supposed to teach us:
to teach us that while fear turns use inward, healing turns us outward;
to teach us that the grace we receive is not just for our benefit, but also for others;
to teach us that when Jesus lifts us up, it’s to empower us to lift others.
I know not everyone responded to Jesus’ healing that way. Among the crowds that searched for Jesus, there were some who couldn’t see past their own needs. And in desperate situations, I hope we can all understand how that can happen.
But I also hope we can see that the miracle we want may not be the one we need. Because what we want to often arises from our fears. It turns us in on ourselves and away from others.
But when Jesus lifts us up, we recognize that we are not alone. And when we are healed, it is our joy – not just our place – to serve.
Thanks be to God.
 For background on the economic and family dynamics relevant to this story, see N. T. Wright & Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians, Ch. 6, “The Jewish Context of Jesus and the Early Church”, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019.  See Debie Thomas’s commentary, “A Day in the Life,” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2897