“From Ailing to Serving”
Message preached on
February 4, 2018
I find it interesting that this is the Gospel lesson in the lectionary for today, on the Sunday I return to preaching following my surgery over two months ago… Pause with me for a moment of quiet before we continue.
In Mark’s gospel, this episode lies at the beginning of the earthly ministry of Jesus. In less than 30 verses, Mark tells of how that strange character, John, prepared the way for the Messiah, and then baptized Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordon river. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” came a voice from heaven. “With you I am well pleased.” All too quickly, our Lord is then driven into the wilderness, where 40 days of wrestling with temptation is mentioned in one verse.
Then comes the statement which – according to Mark, defines Jesus’ mission. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;” this One from Nazareth proclaims, “repent (turn toward God), and believe in the good news.” In quick succession, four fishermen are called as disciples: Simon (later known as Peter) and his brother, Andrew, then James and his brother, John. On the Sabbath, they all then do as good Jews should, and go to synagogue. But on this day of rest, a “man with an unclean spirit” jabbers at Jesus – something about knowing who this “Holy One of God” really is. “Silence!” Jesus says to the inner demon, and with a word that man is set free. Thus, is inaugurated the earthly ministry of Jesus, according to Mark.
On that very same day, the episode we heard earlier continues. Actually, we received it in in three portions, with three readers – the healing of a loved one at home, the healing of many in a crowded setting, and a prayer retreat and moving on. As I would like to approach the first portion of today’s Gospel story last, let me jump over it to what happened next.
As the sun was setting, lots people came to Jesus – a follow-up to what happened earlier in synagogue, no doubt. Do remember that in the Jewish measurement of time, a day begins as the sun sets. Therefore, this evening part of the story is really taking place on the day after the Sabbath. With the day of rest over, it is okay – according to the law of Moses – to work. Carrying someone who is sick is work. Healing them is also, but that is an issue for another day.
Note, as well, that people deeply care for their loved ones and friends, enough so that they bring them to this traveling healer and proclaimer from Nazareth. Perhaps a bit of desperation is in the air, mixed with hope. Another word in our language for illness is “disease.” When we are ailing, we are not at “ease.” Life is hard, not easy. It operates at a different pace. We become more dependent on others. We set aside control over our comings and goings, along with modesty. Others may have to take care of our bodily functions, which is humiliating. Being ill at ease, we are not sure we can handle this. Hope seems very distant.
Wonder of wonders, as night descends in Capernaum, the seaside hometown of Simon, Andrew, James, and John, many are healed as the first day of the week begins, the day after the Sabbath. The great physician is at work. “He healed many,” it says. Of course, does this mean that not “all” were healed? If so, why not? Were there just too many persons in need? Was there not enough time? I ask because there are some questions for which I have no good answers. Still, on this evening beside the sea of Galilee, many are healed. And there is no mention of a faith requirement, or some special action that makes it so. There is just Jesus, and “many are healed.”
Along with those who were ill, others were brought to Simon’s home – folks plagued by demons. We don’t talk much about demons today. Perhaps that’s because we know how easy it is to blame some external force instead of taking responsibility for our own actions – as in “the devil made me do it!” Even so, some compulsions at times seem downright demonic, if you will. It’s one thing to have a degree of control and power over your life, something that flies out the window when your ill. It’s another thing to have an overpowering unhealthy need for control and power over other people. Might this lie at the heart of what we’ve heard in the news recently about sexual harassment – which is less about sex and more about power and control? Is this an inner demon? Sometimes it seems so. In our gospel story, “many” demons are thrown out, but (again) not “all.” Some may be harder to handle. We’ve learned, for instance, that healing - if possible - is extremely difficult for those who habitually rape women or sexually abuse children. Are they among the “not all”?
Power and control are hard demons to heal – in persons as well as (by the way) in nations. I find it interesting that Jesus in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel does not allow demons to speak. “They knew him,” it says, they recognized who he was. Did Jesus silence them simply because it wasn’t yet time to reveal the secret that he was the Messiah? That’s what some commentators say about this passage. I’m not so sure. I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with power and control. One of those ten commandments given to Moses speaks of not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is not really about saying bad words as it is about trying to control God. To call down damnation in the name of God is an act of power. Remember what God told Moses beside the burning bush? Give me a name, Moses had asked, so I can tell folks who sent me. A tempting moment. “I am who I am,” came the answer. “Tell them: ‘I am’ sent you.” In other words, tell that demon to be silent!
Well, in our Gospel story, Jesus himself needed silence. He snuck away from the clamor of that evening crowd for a deserted place. If even Jesus needed to do this, what makes us think we can avoid it? Last week, with our children, I mentioned certain muscles that we need to exercise – ones that help us to be still and to quiet ourselves. Is this a silencing of our inner demons? “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalmist sang. “They who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength,” Isaiah prophesied.
Jesus got away to pray, but not for long. Simon and the rest hunted for and found him. “Everyone is looking for you.” There was so much need back at Simon’s home. So many were ill at ease - ailing, possessed. However, instead of saying, “Okay, let’s return to Capernaum,” Jesus pointed to the next town. “I’ve a message to share, which is what I came to do,” he said. That is, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.” And they head off as the sun rises.
Let me return now to the first portion of our morning Gospel story. In it, by the way, we learn that Simon (also known as Peter) has a wife. Why? Because he has a mother-in-law. Mark doesn’t name her. Why not? Maybe by the time Mark (who wasn’t among the original twelve disciples) wrote all this down, her name was forgotten, and Peter wasn’t there to ask. Or maybe, like elsewhere, we’re invited to write in the name of someone we know and love. I could stick in “Doris,” the name of my mother-in-law. Or, how about “Edna,” who read to us these words?
Here is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, suffering from some ailment. And here, also, is Jesus, who has entered her space. On the screen you see Rembrandt’s drawing of this scene, with Jesus reaching out to her. “He came,” it says, “and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” A healing scene. What you may not know is that the Greek word Mark uses for what Jesus did: “lifted her up,” is the same Greek word used at the end of Mark’s gospel for when the angel tells the women, who came to anoint the body of Jesus in the tomb, that “he has been raised” – he has been “lifted up.” We’ve got a big word for that: “resurrection.” But remember, its simple meaning involves being lifted up – which is what Jesus does here at the beginning of the gospel with “Doris” or “Edna” or whatever this mother-in-law of Peter’s name was.
She is lifted up from her ailment. Jesus empowers her to stand. I’ve got to tell you that from my perspective as someone recovering from major surgery on my leg, standing up is a marvelous action. But that’s not the biggest good news, my friends. It’s what comes after this uprising that is a significant. Now, I know some translations say that she got up and fixed them food or did some other domestic stuff. However, words matter, and the Greek word chosen by Mark for what this woman did after Jesus raised her up is: “diēkonei.” If you heard the word “deacon” in that, ring a bell. One might say that this woman Jesus raised up is the first deacon.
This story is thus about lifting up someone for a purpose. Before Jesus stepped into her home, this woman was just a sick person, ailing from some illness. But with an outstretched hand, Jesus did more than heal her. He empowered her to take care of others. Where once she needed others to take care of her, now she could stand up and serve. Just so you know, in the Jesus way of doing things, being a servant is the most important calling. It’s not about power and control over others, putting them down. It’s about helping others up. Whatever ails us, Jesus reaches out by hand and raises us up, so that we might serve. That is health. Even if we are not cured of a disease or freed from a demon, we can be well by the hand of the One who lifts us up, and commissions us to go and serve others in his name. From Ailing to Serving.
On the back of your bulletin, also projected upon the screen, is a prayer of commissioning. Please rise as you are able, and let us pray it together, hearing our own voices sending us forth…
Remain standing and join in our final hymn,
hearing God speak a benediction to us through the words.