Epiphany 5 / Year B
Mark 1: 29-39
If you decided to rank Jesus’ miracles from most impressive to least, chances are good the healing we just heard would be at or near the bottom of the list. A woman is bedridden with a fever and Jesus makes the fever go away. On the surface, it feels just a tad more impressive than helping someone get over the hiccups. We are not even told the woman’s name and know her only through her relationship to Simon Peter. I suspect her situation is more grave than it appears. She lives in an age well before antibiotics and an illness of any kind has the potential to be serious. That Jesus deems her in need of healing suggests her situation is dire.
What makes this story stand out is what happens immediately after she is feeling better. The text tells us “The fever left her and she began to serve them.” It almost seems as if Jesus heals her so he and his friends can get a meal. In our sympathies, we wonder why he didn’t direct her to rest for a while before jumping back into action.
Sarah Heinrich, a New Testament professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, notes this:
Illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.
“Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling?”
While the story is hopelessly set in a culture of fixed gender roles different from our own, it is worth noting the Greek word translated here as ‘serve’ is diakoneo, from which we derive the word ‘deacon’, the ordained ministry of the Church’s servants. The woman is healed in order to allow her to do her ministry. Mark tells us as Jesus is dying on the cross a group of women watch from a distance. Some are named, others are not. He tells us these women ‘provided’ for Jesus when he was in Galilee. The word translated here as ‘provide’ is diakoneo. It is very possible Peter’s mother-in-law is one of these faithful servers who remains with Jesus to the end, even though his male disciples all flee after his arrest.
“It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.”
Last week heard about Jesus’ first action in ministry – freeing a troubled man of an unclean spirit. In that story, Jesus delivers a person from something. In my sermon last week I asked what has the power to possess you, to make you unclean or ill-at-ease with yourself. And I invited you to use the time between now and Ash Wednesday to discern how a Lenten period of fasting and self-denial might free you.
In today’s reading, Peter’s mother-in-law is healed not so much from something, but for something. She is healed in order to be able to do the work God has given her to do. She is able once again to claim her identity by living into her calling; thus restoring to her life a sense of meaning and purpose and value.
During this time of pandemic many of us have lost the ability to serve because our ministries have been put on hold. As an example, in a normal year Macey and Sandi are in the parish kitchen preparing Kansas City and Tampa Bay themed soups. Sadly, this is not a normal year. In a normal year our building is used by one group or another pretty much every day of the week. Now, sadly, it sits mostly quiet. In a normal year many of you donate your time and talents to various community groups and efforts. Sadly, most of these opportunities have been paused.
But the diakoneo in us is not easily silenced. We are finding new ways to serve by reaching out to our families, our neighbors, and helping those most in need at this time. It manifests itself in many different ways and I am blessed to see it every Sunday morning as people drive up to receive a communion bag and request another one or two to drop off with a friend.
Another way our diakoneo is being expressed during this time is through our life of common prayer. On a typical morning or evening some fifteen households come together on Facebook live to join in prayer. Others faithfully watch the services at a later time of their convenience. Our diligent prayers are supporting people in need and strengthening us for the work God gives us to do.
Yesterday we held a Vestry Retreat via Zoom. While not ideal, it worked. I am pleased to tell you Bob Leonard has been elected to serve (diakoneo) as our Senior Warden. John Rector has been elected to serve (diakoneo) as our Junior Warden. Mary Ellen Baur will serve (diakoneo) as our register. Beau Holland will continue to serve (diakoneo) as our Treasurer and promises personally to make up for any shortfall in the year’s finances! Our staff ably serves (diakoneo) our parish in so many ways beyond how we can compensate them. Still, they appreciate your thanks, your gratitude, and your support.
And I continue to delight in my role serving (diakoneo) as your Rector. I have told you before I cringe every time I hear a colleague use the phrase “my parish” or “my Vestry”, as if you are our possession. I always say “the parish I serve” and “our Vestry”. Can you imagine the audacity of saying “my Altar Guild” or “my choir”! I sense very deeply most of us think of St. Paul’s not as a faith community we possess, but rather as a place where we belong and contribute. In the thirteen plus years I have served as your rector, never once has a person demanded “their” parish do something. But I can’t tell you the multiple times people has come to me and asked, “What can I do for St. Paul’s?” and “What does St. Paul’s need from me?”
During our Zoom Vestry Retreat two very telling questions emerged. Yes, we talked about when we might think it will be feasible to regather for public events and yes, we pondered the leadership this will require. But more telling of who we are and where our heart is are these two areas of concern we discussed at length. First, who in our parish family are we not reaching during these times? How do we identify them and how can we connect with them? And second, how can we begin to open up St. Paul’s as an outreach center in our community? How can we begin again to be a beacon of God’s love and God’s light in downtown Suffolk? As I reflect on the gathering of our elected lay leadership I recognize acutely these are questions of diakoneo. How can we serve our fellow parishioners and our community in a way congruent with our deep sense of calling and purpose?We are now ten days away from the beginning Lent. Last week I invited you to use this time to discern what you want to be freed from. Today I invite you to ponder what you want to be freed for. No doubt you have heard Lent is not just a time to give up something, it is also a time to take on something; the freed for part. How and where do you sense God stirring you to express diakoneo?