Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany (B/RCL)
“Saved to Serve”
February 7-8, 2015
I’m thinking that in days to come, when Simon Peter disappeared down the road to follow Jesus, the memory of how Jesus healed his mother-in-law may have softened her opinion about his departure! Sometimes we forget that when Simon & Andrew, James & John left their nets they left their families, too. Peter wouldn’t have had a mother-in-law to be healed if he didn’t also have a wife. It’s a pretty good bet they had children also. Some of you may remember the dinner theatre we had years ago in Fellowship Hall. An actress performed a one-woman play, “All That I Am,” about real and imagined women in the Bible and in church history. One of the characters was Peter’s wife. That creative drama gave us a different and very interesting perspective on “the cost of discipleship” to those left behind at home.
Something that used to bother me to no end about this Gospel story is how Simon’s mother-in-law pops up like toast from her sickbed and heads straight for the kitchen where she dons her apron and gets dinner under way. I’ve always thought, “Couldn’t they have given her a break?? Ordered out? Muddled through and rustled up something simple for themselves and her?”
But then I learned that the word translated “serve” in the verse “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mk. 1:31b) is diakonia. It literally means to serve at table, to bring out the food, to feed others. This is the source of our English word deacon. In the early church deacons weren’t waiters exactly, but they made sure the needy had enough to eat and took care of the community’s other material, physical needs so the apostles and other leaders of the fledgling church could preach the Gospel and care for the faith family’s spiritual needs.
The bottom line is that the woman who was cured of her fever got up and prepared Sabbath dinner for her family and their friends because she wanted to, not because she had to. She served out of gratitude, not out of servitude. Her service increased her dignity; it didn’t undermine it. Serving in this way at this time was a privilege and not a burden. She did it with a heart that was filled with love, not resentment.
If we ever find that we serve with resentment rather than joy, it’s time for a change. The Lord who calls us to serve doesn’t expect us to do what depletes us; when we share our true spiritual gifts we can expect to be enlivened not deadened, gladdened not tempted to run for cover. (There’s a difference between being nervous because we’re doing something for the first time and being on the rack every time we do it because it’s just not a good fit for our personality or talents.) We need to discern carefully how best to serve.
The language describing this healing is beautiful.
[Jesus] came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. (Mk. 1:31)
No bells and whistles. Just healing touch. This was different than common practice! I’ve read that this kind of fever was so common in the Holy Land that the Talmud prescribes a cure for it: tie an iron knife to a thorn bush with a braid of hair and then recite verses from the Book of Exodus about the burning bush three days in a row (Exodus 3: 2-3, 4, 5). Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t need to. When St. Luke tells the story, he says Jesus rebuked the fever, as He had rebuked the unclean spirit in the synagogue that we heard about last week. But according to Mark, Jesus used no words, simply touch. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” (Mk. 1:31a)
That’s quite a metaphor, right? He lifted her up. We can lift a barbell, but we can also lift someone’s spirits. When we say we gave someone a lift, that can mean we drove them somewhere or we brightened their mood. How does the hymn go? “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” (ELW 860) Jesus lifted this woman both physically and spiritually. Jesus is never content with healing the body alone. He alone can also heal the soul.
I found a little passage I love in a book by Louise Penny, a Canadian author. In a novel called A Fatal Grace one character admits to another:
“I’ve been desperately unhappy in my life.” Her voice was quiet. “Have you, Chief Inspector?”
It wasn’t a response he could have predicted. He nodded.
“I thought so. I think people who have had that experience and survived have a responsibility to help others. We can’t let someone drown where we were saved.”1
“We can’t let others drown where we were saved.” That’s why I believe that Simon’s mother-in-law (I wish she weren’t anonymous!) didn’t just serve a meal of gratitude after her healing. I believe she lived a life of gratitude ever after. There’s a Scottish clan motto that fits her -- and us -- well: “Saved to Serve.”
After St. Matthew describes the healing of this lady’s fever, plus the other healings and exorcisms that Jesus performed afterwards, we read:
This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah [Isa. 53:4], “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
That’s the theme of our upcoming midweek Lenten worship services. “Upon him lay the punishment that makes us whole. By his stripes we are healed.” In other words, there is a high cost to our cure. But the Good News is that our Lord gladly paid it and the spiritual cure is complete.
The commentary on this passage had the subtitle, “The Private Miracle.” But just as there is no such thing as a small miracle (the caption on a baby card I received after Kristiane was born), I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a private miracle either. Every miracle is a sign of God’s goodness, a witness meant to be shared. Jesus no longer says, “Mum’s the word!” when He heals. He says to us, as He said to that poor, blessed, liberated man once called the Gerasene demoniac, “Go and tell what God has done for you!” That’s true whether we’ve received the “cure” of forgiveness in Holy Communion, or whether we’ve literally risen up from our sick bed. Remember where Jesus was before He went to sit down at lunch at Simon’s house? He was at the synagogue. He left worship and proceeded to serve. God also intends for us to leave worship and serve.
Our service may be diakonia, providing food for the hungry or furniture for the furniture-less or winter coats for the cold or hospitality to the temporarily homeless. Or our service may be kerygma, sharing the Good News of what God has done for us, mending that which was broken, shedding light in darkness, replacing despair with hope. God does a lot of healing, enlightening, encouraging, through us. Worship fuels our service. Not serving once we leave the sanctuary is like not driving after we leave the filling station. Why? “[We] who have …[suffered] and survived have a responsibility to help others. We can’t let someone drown where we were saved.” We are “Saved to Serve.”
Prayer, as well as gratitude, fuels our service. Today’s Gospel tells us:
In the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
It was in that silent communion with His Father, as He spoke and as He listened, that His energy was replenished, His vision sharpened, His mission clarified, His joy renewed, His compassion deepened and His peace reinforced. We can find those same holy gifts in solitude and in prayer. Lent begins a week from Wednesday. It’s the perfect time to prayerfully reflect on how we are “Saved to Serve” and to live like it.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham
1Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace (NY: Minotaur, 2006), p. 192.