“Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up; then the fever left her and she began to serve them.”
These words, taken from today’s gospel, from this little vignette of Jesus and Simon’s mother-in-law, this is what you might call a loaded sentence.
If you are a 21st century feminist, as I aspire to be, your first reaction might be that this sentence is loaded with assumptions about patriarchy and gender roles. I mean, really, Simon, your mother-in-law has been sick in bed with a fever, and the moment she feels better you expect her to be serving drinks to you and your friends? Sometimes that’s how we read this verse, sometimes that’s how we react. It gets even worse if we hear church people use scripture verses like this to promote gender roles and enforce biases against women. So if that’s your reaction, I get it, and I share it, and we need to point these things out rather than simply let them slide.
But Mark, the gospel writer, is not a 21st century feminist. He’s a first century theologian. He’s loaded up this sentence alright, but he’s loaded it up with two incredibly important theological words.
“Jesus raised her, and she began to serve.” “Raised” and “serve”. Raised to serve.
Raised, ‘lifted up’ in some translations, is the verb form of resurrection. In this first chapter of Mark, Jesus raises Simon’s mother-in-law. In the final chapter, the angels will tell the women who come to the tomb that Jesus has been raised. Today, and every Sunday, we are here because we celebrate resurrection. Usually we think of the big “Resurrection”, resurrection with a capital R, that first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead to new life. But we can also think of resurrection as something that happens all around us, something that needs to happen all around us. That needs to happen to us and for us.
And if ever we had to be reminded of our need be raised up, I think the pandemic has done that for us. We are tired, we are worried, we are down, we long to be raised up.
There are so many things that can get us down, so many forces that can suck the life out of us. Last Sunday’s gospel was about a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. That’s how people in the first century talked about the forces that weigh us down. We name these things differently: illness, addiction, abuse, racism, depression.
Some of these things are huge; others might seem small and relatively innocuous, that is, until they knock us off our feet.
We heard last week that in the synagogue Jesus raised up a man with an unclean spirit. This was a man who suffered from intrusive thoughts, whose voice and body were not his own, who needed to be given his life back. Jesus gave him his life back. He lifted him up. He raised him to new life. In last week’s gospel though, we never got to see the man’s response – Mark focused instead on the amazement of the crowd. But in today’s gospel we get another resurrection, and this time we do get to see the response.
I expect that you know what it’s like to be sick. We hear a lot about illness these days. It’s draining. It’s isolating. It’s scary. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever, at home, in bed. She didn’t get to go to the synagogue today, she didn’t get to be with her community, she didn’t get to witness what Jesus did. She didn’t get to share in the amazement of the crowds. No she’s at home, sick in bed, likely in pain, surely, she’s afraid – after all, there was no Tylenol to take away the pain of a fever in the first century, and no anti-biotics to treat the infection. She might never get out of bed again. And so there’s an urgency when Jesus gets to the house of Simon and Andrew, and they tell him about her right away, and he goes to her bedside. First, he takes her by the hand. Human touch is a powerful thing. That’s something that many of us once took for granted but we sure have been reminded of the power of human touch over the past year. He takes her by the hand, and he raises her up.
That’s resurrection. We don’t have to limit the word to a literal death to life experience, Mark doesn’t. Resurrection is to be raised up. It’s that experience of suddenly feeling the fever break, of having renewed strength and vitality flow through your body, mind and spirit. We know that feeling, you know what that’s like, whatever form it takes. We know the life-sucking feeling of being held down and oppressed, and we know what it’s like to be set free and restored to new life.
Jesus came to raise us up. To give us new life. Jesus proclaimed a new way of being, a new way of living, a new kingdom, the kingdom of God he called it, in which people are raised to new life. Over and over again. As many times as it takes.
And when we are raised up, when we are restored to new life, as followers of Jesus, how are we to respond?
We are to respond the way that Simon’s mother-in-law did. Jesus raised her up, and she began to serve. Serve is the second loaded word in this brief vignette that Mark gives us. Service is at the core of our Christian life. From the original greek word we get the word “deacon”, and through the latin, our word “minister”. And we are all ministers by virtue of our baptism. To minister is to serve.
The call to follow Jesus is meant to turn our world upside down. And of the people in the room in today’s gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law gets it. But not everyone does. Consider James and John. James and John had illusions of grandeur. Later in Mark’s gospel, even after they’ve been with Jesus for some time, they come to him with a request:
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
“What is it you want me to do for you?”
“Grant us to sit one at your right hand, and one at your left, in your glory.”
And Jesus responds, not just to James and John, but to all of his disciples, “Whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
James and John didn’t get it. But Simon’s mother-in-law got it right from the very moment she saw Jesus. As followers of Jesus, as his disciples, we are raised to serve. Jesus raised her up, then the fever left her and she began to serve them.
I don’t know how she served them. Maybe Jesus just needed someone to listen as he unpacked the story of all that happened in the synagogue that day. Maybe he was exhausted, and needed some compassion and empathy. Maybe she brought a bowl of water and washed his feet just as he would bring a bowl of water and wash the disciples’ feet at the last supper on the night before he died. Maybe she brought food. There are so many ways we can serve one another. We are raised to serve.
And, to complete the circle, surely one of the ways we serve each other is by raising each other up. By practising resurrection. And that is something that we can do every day of our lives.
It might be hard to see sometimes, especially when we’re all staying at home. It might be something we’re good at hiding even when we do gather in person, but I can pretty much guarantee you that there is someone you know who needs to be raised up today.
So practise resurrection – with a phone call, with an email, with a smile, with a gesture, with a prayer – oh yes, don’t forget to pray, it’s such a big part of what we’re talking about, it’s such an essential part of Jesus’ ministry. While it was still very dark, Jesus got up (there’s that resurrection word again) and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.
They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will be raised.
Be raised, and serve.
Homily: Yr B Proper 5, Feb. 7 2021, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 40.21-31; Ps 147.1-12, 21c; 1 Cor 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39
Image by Dennis Dixson, Creative Commons