GOSPEL Mark 1:29-39
Everywhere Jesus goes, many people expect him to set them free from oppression. Everywhere he goes, he heals people and sets them free. Disease, devils, and death are running for their lives. The forces that diminish human life are rendered powerless by Jesus.
29As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And 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.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He 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.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Once upon a time – we were studying this text from Mark – in seminary – translating – word for word. and suddenly one of the women spoke up. I hate this text. I do not like what Jesus does in this text. This text does not make me feel good about the Savior of the world. A few guys were quick to point out the miracle of healing – that Jesus spent time with a woman – that isn’t it great he healed her, picked her. etc. And then a few other women spoke up. Yeah, yeah, isn’t it wonderful how Jesus made a sick woman get out of bed and make everybody dinner. Sounds like business as usual.
Immediately after dispatching a demon, he pops over to Simon’s house where his MIL is in bed, with a fever. Remember now, there’s no antibiotics or scientific knowledge of infection and inflammation, so a fever for a grown woman is no joke. She could die. The miraculous part of this story is not just the healing – but the presence of Jesus the rabbi who has been identified as the son of God and his physical touch. No rabbi in their right mind would risk contamination like that, let alone touch a woman who was not his wife. And Jesus walks right in, and takes her by the hand, lifts her back to life, and her fever is gone. And she gets back to the kitchen.
It’s a joke, right? To our ears, it must be. But there is more going on here than just our 21st century perspectives on a 1st century social system.
Mark’s story of Jesus emphasizes that he crosses the boundaries set up by that social and religious system. He breaks boundaries. He stands in the gap between the things that aren’t supposed to touch, the clean and the unclean. Among the boundaries he breaks are those set up to separate the genders for the sake of good order. What is acceptable for men and for women and what is expected. It is not just men who follow Jesus and spread the word of God’s kingdom come near – but unfortunately, it is usually just the men telling the story….
There are women embedded in every aspect of following Jesus from the beginning. Some named, many not. Those who would lead churches in their homes. Those who would bring Paul’s letters to churches and read them as his representative. Those who would serve as missionaries, benefactors, evangelists, apostles, and deacons, in a time before ordination in the institutional church existed.
So, Mark writes that the fever left her and she served them. She is restored to life – and she gets up to serve. She’s not cooking, or cleaning, or getting them fresh coffee or making sandwiches. In the Greek, she diakonea – ed for them. She deaconed. This word, to serve, to minister to, is the very same verb that God’s angels are about mere verses ago when Jesus was in the wilderness tempted by Satan.
Simons mother in-law is not named, but she becomes the first deacon in the story according to Mark, not counting God’s messengers in the wilderness. And what do deacons do, in 1st century times? Many of you remember Deacon Amy Santoriello who preached here a few times in my absence.
Deacons in the Lutheran Church are ordained to word and service, rather than word and sacrament. Often to a particular and specific way of serving – to a particular community, or a specific ministry of care. Food insecurity, mental health needs, medical and spiritual care. Grief and loss care. Specialized ministry to the young and the old. Making connections to other social services. Helping volunteers figure out their place in the ministry. Not just taking care of physical needs, but the emotional needs of people who live with food insecurity and find this ministry a safe place. A deacon is a resource connector.
This is what the earliest deacons were. In the book of Acts, some of the people were set apart for the ministry of deaconing. To take care of the physical/emotional needs of the people with the resources of the church. To identify those in need and figure out how to distribute resources.
Simon’s mother-in-law did not just go make a sandwich. She deaconed for them. Read the very next verse. That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. Who do you think coordinated that in her own house? She has been miraculously healed, and knew she had a resource to share, and out of a grateful heart – she wants to continue this ministry of healing. She’s going to know the people in the community who are ill. She’ll know the families in need. She’ll know where to find them and how to approach them.
She may very well be the original deacon of the church. Her ministry may have shaped the path for countless women and men after her – who saw the needs of the community and knew how to respond.
There are many in our own community who would lack the official title and seminary degree of a deacon – but know what it means to connect resources with people in need. To share what we have. To know what we have to give our neighbors, and to do so with a grateful heart for all we have been given.
Sometimes though, we have to learn the hard lesson that it’s not about us. The disciples search everywhere for Jesus, as he’s taking some time to replenish and restore himself in prayer and solitude. They want him to keep going, keep working, keep healing, and keep making people happy – and he says but that’s not what I was called to. That’s not my mission,
We are reminded that this ministry is not our own. Our agenda is not always God’s agenda. We may see great need and no resources to help – or be overrun with resources and no one seems to need. We may think we have great ideas for ways to fix and heal and uplift, and it doesn’t work out the way we thought. The great success of a ministry does not mean that it will be for all times and all places. The failure of a ministry does not mean we were not faithful. Everyone tires eventually – folks get burned out – which is why we must constantly be reminded that this ministry does not belong to us.
Being all things to all people is only possible if we put our own agenda and desires aside to let God work through us. This is the challenge and the joy of ministry – to let go of our own power AND let go of our own powerlessness – to give way to the power of God. Amen
Pastor Erin Evans