The Holy Gospel According to Mark 1:29-39
As a pastor, I have spent a good bit of time with people who are sick. It’s both a scary part of this work, and a life-giving one, because it allows me to walk into spaces where people are often at their most afraid. A routine check-up suddenly turns into a rush to the hospital because their heart needs a repair. A test comes back with results that require much more time in the hospital, and lots of fear about what lays ahead. Sometimes sickness is long- with many steps along the way, and I am honored to stand alongside someone as they navigate the questions and the choices that arise as they figure out how they want to live, and sometimes, how they want to die. But, when I work as a therapist, the kind of sickness that people bring into the room we share looks a little different than what might immediately come to mind when we think about being sick. Because in therapy, many times, people show up to their first visit not quite sure what it wrong. They don’t feel sick, but they don’t feel well. Sometimes, they have been crying a lot, or fighting with those they love a lot, or feeling lonely, or feeling scared. Many times, I hear someone say, I just don’t feel like myself- I don’t feel right. I don’t feel like me, I’m lost, I’m lost to myself.
Today, in the gospel of Mark, we are confronted with more healing. We’ve now been reading this chapter of Mark for the last three Sundays. First, we heard about the calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John, right out of their boats. Then, we encountered the story of Jesus healing a man with an unclean spirit in the temple, while a crowd looked on and exclaimed at his authority. And now, 29 verses in, we are in the middle of another healing story, this time beginning with Simon’s mother in law.
Now, before we get too far into the text, I think it is important to name some of the really tough aspects of this story. Simon’s mother-in-law, like many women in the bible has no name. And the we get to verse 31: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” I feel uncomfortable that this woman, who doesn’t even get a name, is healed by Jesus and she goes straight back to work. She doesn’t get a moment to sit and eat with her friends like Lazarus did when he was brought back to life. She doesn’t have the opportunity to leap and shout for joy her praises to God, to go and tell what’s been done for her. She gets up off her fever bed, which in those times could very possibly have been her death bed, and starts serving the crowd of men that have followed Jesus to her house. It’s almost as if Jesus heals her simply so he and his disciples can get some dinner. To my modern ears, this feels like it dismisses her personhood, it makes her merely a non-named servant, healed and then sent of to do “women’s work.”
Simon’s mother in law and her healing and return to work trigger for me all the times that female presenting folks get sent into the kitchen, rather than given a place at the table, all the times scripture has been used to tell us we ought to sit down, at best, and shut up at worst, because we have no place being leaders, or disciples. But, despite the best efforts of those who would rob us of our voices, who would say that what Simon’s mother in law did here was the only work we are good for, female presenting folks keep on finding our way into pulpits, into spaces where we are unwelcome and unwanted, and it is often Jesus who is cited as the one who called us out, and empowered us to claim our rightful place.
So, with that in mind, I want to read this text through the lens of the Jesus I know, the one who breaks barriers and boundaries, and wants us to live and love, who crushes the rod of oppression and sets people free.
Jesus shows up at Simon’s mother in laws house because she is sick in bed with a fever. This is pretty serious stuff, as infection and disease in the ancient world often meant a death sentence. And, when he arrives, our text says Jesus lifts her up, the same phrase used when Jesus is lifted up on the cross- he lifts her up, her fever is gone, and she is healed. And then, she begins to serve them. Now, for all the ways that this bothers me, it deserves a little unpacking. And the word used to talk about her serving? It’s diakoneo, which is where we get our word deacon. Two other places in Mark where this word is used, it get translated “ministered to”. This is not merely a mother-in- law doing her duty, this is a deacon of the newly forming church, a minister serving her Lord. As a number of scholars point out, assuming Simon’s mother in law is a typical Jewish woman of her day, her role in the household is to serve. A woman’s honor in that time came from how well her household was kept, and for her to serve a distinguished guest like Jesus well would have been a privilege and a way to increase her honor in the community. So the fact that she isn’t able to, the fact that her illness has taken away her rightful place in the household, and in her community, is important. Jesus’ healing of people is always about something more than just the physical. He restores them to a place in community. So for this unnamed woman to be healed, and immediately be restored to her role as the server of the household is Mark’s way of telling us that she is fully healed.
And quickly, as things happen in Mark’s gospel, our view of Jesus ministry moves to the threshold of the door, because this healing, coming so quickly after the one in the temple, has people crowding to see Jesus and to ask that same healing for themselves. They bring the sick and the suffering, their loved ones and neighbors, that this teacher might heal them, too.
Here we are- healing upon healing, and I’m left wondering- how do you know if you need to be healed? In only a few minutes, we are going to offer a laying on of hands, where people in this congregation can be anointed with oil, and reminded of God’s power to heal. But, how do you know? How do you know if you need to be healed?
Sometimes, healing seems obvious- people get a diagnosis that something is wrong in their body, and through the hands of doctors and nurses, we ask God to bring about healing. We ask God that they be freed from cancer, or heart failure, or whatever else it is that afflicts them. But, that’s not the only healing we hear about this morning, and Simon’s mother in law points us toward it. Because healing, when we look deep into scripture, is not just about restoring the body, it is about restoring one to right relationship- with the community and with themselves. And sometimes, that is what we most desperately need- to be healed not from a disease, but healed that we might be freed to live as our most authentic selves.
Let me try to expand this a bit more. All too often, like those people coming in to start a first session of therapy, we get lost to ourselves. The person we are gets crowded out by shame, and anxiety and fear. We hear the voices of others that tell us we aren’t enough, we ought to be someone else, we ought to cover up the most true expression of who we are, because it’s flawed, or broken, or ugly. And that covering, the hiding away of ourselves, some of us are really really good at it. So good at it, that we can convince even ourselves that the person we really are can just stay hidden forever. But, when I read this story of Simon’s mother in law, and I hear that she was restored to what we can imagine bound in the time of the gospel of Mark was a true expression of herself, well, I start to think that maybe part of the healing that Jesus is offering is not just for the illnesses we can diagnose, but also for the things we can’t. Jesus, in his love, in his embodiment, in the way he became truly human, in this messy and sometimes ugly and often scary human life, God says, your truest self, messy as it is, it is holy. Your truest self, even if it is buried deep, God wants to release you to be free. You are the only you in the world, and because of that, you are a part of God’s plan to make this world more holy, more full of God’s very self.
Because when Simon’s mother in law was raised up, restored to the person she had been, she began to serve Jesus. And when we are raised to our truest selves, when we are freed from those things that weigh us down, our shame, our guilt, our fear, when we are freed to be ourselves, we are also freed to serve. We are freed to serve this God who is always on the move- who is freeing the world from all the demons and the darkness that seeks to rob us of our joy. We are freed to give of ourselves, to tell the story of how Jesus has raised us up, given us the freedom to be who we are.
In just a minute, we will have a healing ritual, something that you as a church have done before. And maybe something springs immediately to mind when you think of healing, and we invite you to be anointed with oil and to remember that it is God that gives you strength. But even if something doesn’t spring to mind, if you might just say that something feels off, that you need to be reminded that you are freed to be yourself, that you are beloved and called to serve in God’s holy work in the world, then I invite you to participate as well. Because God is here, the same Jesus that raised Simon’s mother in law, that caused people to crowd around the door, that cast out demons, and raised us to life, that God is here, in this community now. And simple things- oil, testimony, prayer, laying on of hands, those are reminders to us, that we are freed, we are raised up, we are welcomed into this holy work, as our truest selves. Amen, and thanks be to God.