As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 1:29-39

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 5th Sunday After Epiphany (February 8, 2020) on Mark 1:29-39. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Our reading from Mark today is a continuation of what’s been happening for the last few weeks - all part of one big experience. Jesus is out, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here, gathering together his early followers, and sharing that good news with everyone. Last week, we heard Jesus enter the center of community life - the synagogue - and teach about the presence of God’s kingdom - and then casting out a disruptive spirit while he’s there. And today, right after Jesus leaves the synagogue, he’s invited to hang out at the home of his new disciples, Simon and Andrew. So he walks through the front door and they immediately let him know that Simon’s mother-in-law is ill. She’s in bed with a fever - and it’s serious. They can’t just go to Rite Aid or CVS to pick up some aspirin to try and break the fever. People are scared because she might die. They immediately grab Jesus, I imagine right before he even has time to shake the dust from his shoes - and he’s taken to where she’s lying. And Jesus, without a word, grabs her hand - lifts her up - and she’s cured. The fever is gone. Simon’s Mother-in-Law, feeling much better now, gets up, breaks open the kitchen cupboards and feeds them. The word that we translate as “serve” is really tied to feeding, to waiting on others. So Simon’s mother-in-law is freed from death’s grasp, liberated by the Son of God - and she responds by making lunch. 

And we don’t even know her name. 

This little episode in Mark is a bit problematic and it leaves me with many hard questions to answer. Why is Simon’s Mother-in-Law’s first act after being healed to make her son-in-law, and his friends, lunch? Why does Mark not even bother to record her name? And why does her encounter with the Son of God seem to just leave her where she was before? I mean, her son-in-law was told to leave his nets and follow Jesus. The man who had that demon cast out, was sent back into the community to rebuild and form new relationships that the unclean spirit had delighted in destroying and denying. The text, as it’s written, seems to imply that Simon’s mother-in-law, after meeting Jesus, just goes back to what she always does. She’s back to the same old thing. And that makes me uncomfortable. Because when she meets Jesus - something more should happen. 

Now it’s easy to try and explain this uncomfortable feeling, away. We can just say that this detail doesn’t matter - that Mark wanted to let us know that she was instantly healed. Or we can say that this was what women did back then - ignoring that the church has used texts like these to limit possibilities, job choices, and opportunities for women in ways that still impact us today. Or we can say that she was showing hospitality, honoring Jesus for healing her and being a guest in the house. Yet each of these explanations takes what Jesus does - his healing - and sees each one as merely an act of restoration, an act of returning people to what they were before. Jesus’s healing is limited - losing its edge - losing its sense of new possibilities and being a new creation - and, instead, is just a way to return people to how they were before - or maybe to return people to a better version of what they should have been before. Jesus’s healing can feel like merely restoring people to what they should have been in the first place - to a more perfect past - to an imagine history of just how great things were before. Jesus’s healing ends up being about a return to a past that we remember, a return to an image of history, a return to “just how things were.” Simon’s mother-in-law is healed - and ends up as a hoped-for image of what’s already come before. 

Earlier this week, an article on the Huffington Post caught my eye. An Episcopal Priest, the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, wanted to know just how many words in the bible were spoken by women. So she took the translation we use in worship - the New Revised Standard Version - and she started to catalog who said what, trying to find the stories of women who speak and raise those stories up. It took her and three other women three years to complete their work. And what they found was that in the entire bible, only 93 women speak. And only about half of those are named. So if you add up all the words they speak, they account for only 1.1% of all the words in the bible. That’s it. Their voices are barely there. And even in our story today from Mark, Simon’s mother-in-law doesn’t speak. She’s a character who is acted on and who acts - but she doesn’t say anything. Her voice, and name, is lost behind the written words Mark used. 

Yet - if we let our creativity, our imagination, and our experiences peel back the text a bit - we can uncover that more is being done here. And here’s where our translation breaks down and where it pays to have a semester of greek and a fancy computer program to help you out. Because the word we’ve translated as “serve” appears only four times in Mark. And if you work backwards, starting with the last occurrence in the gospel - showing up in chapter 15 - we hear that as Jesus was on the cross, in the distance were women, watching. The disciples and apostles had run off, scared and not knowing what to do - but the women who had served and provided for Jesus - who probably gave money and goods to keep his ministry moving from town to town - they were there, watching. The apostles ran but the women who followed - they stayed. 

And then, when you jump to the first time that word appears, you hear a story we haven’t heard this year yet - but one that we will in two weeks on the first Sunday in Lent. We hear that Jesus, after he was baptized in the river Jordan, he went into the desert for 40 days. There, he was alone. He was tempted by the devil. He was isolated - but the angels were with him - and they served him. 

Even though the text doesn’t tell us the names of the women who watched in the distance, I like to imagine that Simon’s Mother-in-law was there. She had served Jesus, and she kept serving, right through the Cross. And her serving in the house wasn’t just making a lunch for her son-in-law’s new best friends. She was now like the angels, doing what they did when there was no one else around. So when Simon’s mother-in-law was healed - I don’t see here as being merely restored to what she was before. Instead, she became what I said a few weeks ago Mark is trying to show through his entire gospel. He’s trying to show - he’s trying to answer the question of just what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And Simon’s mother-in-law - she gets it. She does what the apostles and disciples and male followers of Jesus don’t get until after the resurrection. Simon’s mother-in-law meets Jesus, touches him, is lifted from her bed by him - and she’s more than just restored. She’s resurrected into something brand new. She’s a disciple - a follower of Jesus in ways that Simon - who we also know as Peter - he won’t get till much later. She’s felt Jesus presence - she’ll shares a meal with him - and, in Jesus’s presence, she’s made new. That’s her story. That’s what gives her life. And that’s what gives us hope - because - her story is our story too. 

Because, right now, Jesus is here. In our baptism - in this community - in the meal we’re going to share together - Jesus is here. We’re now encountering Jesus all over again - and that’s the point of worship - that’s why we’re gathered here. Because like Simon’s mother-in-law, we know that once we meet Jesus, we’re not left where we were before. We’re not called to just be what we’ve always been. We’re not called to point to some past tradition and try our best to live into that. No, we’re called to be brand new - to live into that brand new identity given to us because we have been met by Christ. The world might look the same as it did before- it might feel the same too - and we might find ourselves doing the same things we did before - but, with Christ, and because of Christ, we’re heading somewhere new. Our invitation, then, isn’t to just limit our imagination to what has been - but to see, instead, the brand new thing that God is calling us to. Because, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we’ve been grabbed by the hand - we’ve been held - we’ve been lifted up - and now it’s time to live that experience, to live that love, to live that hope - and see exactly where Jesus is leading us to.