A Sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
Like many Bible stories, this morning’s Gospel story has a central character, whose name we do not know. Reading the story isn’t often a problem, pronouns do just fine. However, preaching or teaching can be a challenge because pronouns don’t work as well, the distance between the pronoun and its associated noun phrase is too great. So, we are left with a long cumbersome descriptor; this morning it is “Simon’s mother-in-law.” That is a lot to say repeatedly. I wondered if it might be appropriate to imagine a name. I took the first letter of each word ‘s,’ ‘m,’ ‘i,’ and ‘l’ and googled it using a find a name web site. I got an answer ‘Smiljana’ (pronounced Smil’ ja na). Does the name fit the character? I googled the name and learned it is of Indo-European origins likely Serbian. It means dear or beloved; which is a good meaning for a biblical name; so, maybe it makes sense to use it. On the other hand, why did Mark not give her a name? To know someone’s name is to have power over them. I don’t think Mark is protecting her, nor do I think he is concerned about anyone having power over their mother-in-law. Power over is not the concern; but, a name does make a character specific, and I wonder if Mark isn’t providing us with a casting for everyone. Therefore, “Simon’s mother-in-law” it will be; and I’ll have to say it 85 times to have saved any words.
There are two stories in this morning’s reading from Mark’s Gospel narrative. The first one is the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. The other is Jesus’ decision to leave Capernaum to proclaim the message in neighboring towns. Both have the common feature – the revealing power of ‘and.’
You know the story of Simon’s mother in law. They leave the synagogue, where Jesus taught and cast out a demon, and returned to Simon and Andrew’s house. They tell Jesus Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever. He lifted her up, the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
The phrase lifted her up has been translated he raised her up (Hart; Kittredge) which is clear resurrection language. Here is the first occurrence of ‘and’ that caught my attention. This time connecting us to the phrase she began to serve them, which has an unfortunate history. The phrase has been improperly used to put women back in the kitchen or in their place. However, the verb diakonein is the verb used when the angels serve Jesus in the wilderness. It is used to define Jesus’ ministry who came to serve (Mark 10:45). Karen Lewis writes
She serves because this is what discipleship looks like. She serves, showing us what following Jesus will really means.
Lewis sees this as Simon’s mother in-law’s calling to discipleship (Kittredge; Lewis; Harrelson).
Illness is more than the physical issues. There are also emotional, social, and spiritual effects. When Jesus raises her up she is freed of her fever and she is no longer emotionally isolated (Perkins); she is restored to the honored social position of being a hostess, and her spiritual life grows as she serves Jesus as a disciple. Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, she is restored to wholeness of life; she knows shalom.
After dark, when Sabbath is over, all Capernaum, can bring their sick or possessed family to Jesus, and all of them do (Keener and Walton). He heals many and casts out many demons. Early the next morning, Jesus has gone off to a quiet place to pray. The disciples aggressively hunt him down (Harrelson), rudely telling him “Everyone is waiting on you!” Jesus did not come here to be a local healer or holy man. Jesus’ calling is to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near throughout the region (Perkins). So, he tells them Let’s go to the rest of the villages so I can preach there also. This is why I’ve come. (Mark 1:38, The Message) They follow Jesus and he proclaims the message and casts out demons. Here is that word ‘and’ again. This time it connects Jesus’ preaching with Jesus’ healing. In Mark’s Gospel story preaching and healing are connected; to do one, is to do the other (Perkins).
Today’s Gospel reading is full of connections. There is the connection between healing, serving, and calling; and the connection between healing, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. Connections like these are and will be important for us.
Today is our first Sunday together when I am not your full-time vicar. As I have said and written I will continue to lead Sunday worship and as a pastoral presence. We will have to learn to go our separate ways together. For me not being a full-time vicar/rector/missioner will be a challenge. I don’t know how not to do what I have been trying to do for 23 or so years. You have some experience without a fulltime vicar or rector. It has been awhile and many, actually, most of those who were here then are no longer here. St. Stephen’s resources are not what they were, and it will be a challenge. You have a challenge, and I have a challenge. However, that we share this trait is not the ‘and’ I see that we share with this morning’s Gospel. Actually, I think we share the ‘and‘ from both stories.
As you become a church without a full-time vicar or rector and as I become a priest who is not a vicar or rector we will continue to proclaim the message in how we become this particular reflection of the image of the Kingdom which is right here, right now. As Jesus’ healing and proclaiming the message are one so our living into our new callings is the same thing as our proclaiming the message. As Simon’s mother-in-law is healed she is restored to shalom fullness of life, physiologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually; in our living into our new callings we are being restored to shalom fullness of life physiologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. A lesson from these two stories in Mark’s Gospel narrative is that life with God is not a series of independent events that have to be carefully balanced by some secret knowledge in order to gain access to God’s Kingdom sometime in the future, someplace else. This morning we witness how life with God has many facets and all of them are interconnected to all the others, just as the lives of all people, are interconnected images of God. None of the facets and none of the images is complete on their own. Each of them is dependent on all the others, and all the others are dependent on you as the emerging lay lead St. Stephen’s and me as the emerging well I’m not even sure what I will call myself and that is okay, I’ve always wanted to be an enigma.
Even as I see darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12) at this moment. I am sure of the future because even as we are less connected to each other in a formal way we remain interconnected, along with all of creation to God/Jesus/Spirit who makes us whole and who loves us forever.
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