Readings from Scripture (CEB) Mark 1:29-39
29 After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. 31 He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.
32 That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered near the door. 34 He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.
35 Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. 36 Simon and those with him tracked him down. 37 When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”
38 He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” 39 He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.
Free at last
I have a confession to make. It’s taking everything in my being to not crack a joke about mother-in-laws (because of today’s scripture). And not just because my mother-in-law has been known to watch church on occasion. It’s more that Jesus doesn’t have time for mother-in-law jokes.
(ok maybe just one – Why did Jesus heal Simon Peter’s mother-in-law? Because none of the men knew how to make a sandwich for themselves!)
The scene starts as Peter invites his friends to his home as they return from synagogue. It was at the synagogue where Jesus performed his first miracle, casting out the demon that imprisoned and impoverished a person. Imagine the astonishment after that. I imagine the walk, made longer by Peter continually stopping Jesus in his tracks, wondering what just happened. Yeah…but how did you do that? Are you really the Holy One of God? What should have been a short walk took forever because of the disciples’ questions.
As they come close to Peter’s home, he comes back to his senses. Oh, by the way, my wife’s mother isn’t well. And Jesus sees his moment to turn the questioning back on his friends: what symptoms is she experiencing? Does she have difficulty breathing? Has she travelled out of the country recently? Has she come in contact with another person who had the fever?
It turns out it’s just a fever, but the brief interchange enables us to learn a little more of the “real life” humanity of one of Jesus’ closest friends. Simon Peter was married. He had a family. He knew love. His sacrifice in dropping his fishing nets and following Jesus put his life more at risk than others. His faith journey included more than just him. Unfortunately history has deemed this inconsequential as neither Peter’s wife nor children help further the story of Jesus, so they go unmentioned. Jesus’ focus is on the mother-in-law.
Jesus went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up.
The fever left her, and she served them.
Joking aside, two important things are happening behind the scenes of these two sentences, particularly in the words raised and served. When Jesus takes the Peter’s wife’s mother by the hand, she was in bed. She was vulnerable and suffering, and Jesus raises her up. Call it a limit of the language, but the word ‘raised’ here is the same word used to describe how Jesus raised Lazarus, and how Jesus was raised by God following the crucifixion. Limited language aside, this woman was dead or near-death, and experienced a resurrection. It almost doesn’t matter how she was prior to meeting Jesus, it’s that the new life that she experiences that transforms her life.
There’s plenty in this life that makes us feel ‘dead’ or ‘near death.’ It’s why so many of our systems of ‘death’ were put on hold because of covid. Can’t make those student loan payments? The federal government can put those payments on hold. (The U.S. system is currently mulling over $50,000 in student loan forgiveness.) Getting evicted because your job is uncertain, ok that’s paused too. Mortgages, debt, all that causes fear and panic was magically paused in these last 12 months because “we had to” keep everyone safe. What about covid – if that magically disappeared tomorrow – if all that kept you awake at night – if you had all your worries miraculously lifted from you – what would your response be? If all of that which held you back or held you down was gone, how would you respond? If you had your needs met, what would your response be? If you felt that touch of Jesus, raising you to new life, what would you do next?
The fever leaves Peter’s mother in law, and she serves them. Just like the word raised there’s more than just a couple of sandwiches going on. I’m sure there’s been plenty of sermons preached about how she was restored to her role as mother, opening her home and serving gifts to her guests. That profound gift and ministry of hospitality should not be understated. I remember lovely people over the lifetime of my ministry that have opened their homes and hearts to us. I can remember with fondness the stories of those who opened their homes to family in profound ways. I even remember the story about how one night not unlike the last couple of cold nights, a congregation member heard a knock at their door. Out in the country, in the nighttime, you don’t often get many visitors, but the knock came nonetheless and the traveler was invited in, given food and a warm place to sleep before leaving in the morning. When the person told me of this profound hospitality, generosity, and trust, it made me reconsider Peter’s mother-in-law. Because she’s not just making sandwiches.
The word served is the same (root) word that we use to describe a deacon or Diaconal ministry, ministers like Valerie Pitt who served St. James’~Rosemount or Marilyn Shaw. When the mother-in-law feels the touch of Jesus, and she is raised to new life, and begins her call to ministry. She felt that tap on the shoulder saying, this time it’s you…this time is for you.
The same tap comes to all of us, the same new life calls us forward to serve, as the Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey speaks of this as it came to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
People came and found Dr. King and challenged him and encouraged him to lead. God in fact found him and gave him this tap on the shoulder saying, this time is you…this time is for you. It came about in a similar way to the text that Michelle read today about Samuel. It said the voice of God called Samuel, and that same voice called Dr. King. The voice of God found him. What we learn from his own memoirs a little bit later is that he had a profound experience like Samuel did about hearing the voice of God. He wrote ‘early on a sleepless morning in January 1956 rationality left me. Then almost out of nowhere I heard a voice that morning say to me, ‘Preach the Gospel! Stand up for truth! Stand up for righteousness…(and Dr. King went on to say) since that morning I can stand up without fear, so I’m not afraid of anybody this morning!’ He had gone to bed many nights scared for what would happen to his family. His house had been bombed before, he had had death threats, he worried about his wife and his children. But somehow this voice came upon him, and he found himself found by God and found with a new direction, a new strength, a new vision, a new power.
The grace and the power of God King went onto say ‘Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting, and I’m gonna stand up to them. Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing, and I will stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy. Because I have been to the mountaintop, and have seen the promised land. And it’s going to be here in Montgomery. The old Montgomery is passing away, and segregation is dying.’ Powerful words, brave and courageous words, even though he felt that deep sense of fear, he was able to hear the voice and experience a new energy, a new power, a new faith. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1961, he explained what happened next. He said ‘More than 99% of the Negro people of Montgomery rose up with righteous indignation, I would say this led to the bus boycott. They asked me to serve as a spokesperson, and from this time I found myself in a leadership position in the civil rights struggle.’ So he talks about how he came to this. It was through a dream from God. It was through the encouragement of others. It was from him stepping into his destiny and his calling by God. He was found as the one needed for this moment.
He was found as the one needed for this moment. This time is you…this time is for you…
Dr. King was found to be the one needed for his moment. And he doesn’t wait for the systems of death to disappear to serve. He feels that tap on the shoulder, he feels the lifting of all the world’s problems and he knows that he’s not alone to face the horrors of his time. Peter’s mother-in-law was called to the same service, literally lifted up by the hand of God, raised up by Jesus, and through that, she discovers her own call to serve.
You are the one needed for this moment. God tapped you on the shoulder, got you out of bed today, turned on church (and boredom isn’t enough of an excuse).
The people in our lives need us. They need to be served by someone who rises above the worries of this world. They need to be given hope in this profoundly hopeless time.
The tap on our shoulder, the hand lifts our own, the voice of God calling…
This time it’s you. This time is for you. You are needed for this moment.
And if you had all your worries miraculously lifted from you – what would your response be?
If all of that which held you back or held you down was gone, how would you respond?
If you had your needs met, what would you do first?
If you felt that touch of Jesus, raising you to new life, what would you do next?
And what is stopping you from living that life now?
For when we are free…from the fears and the fevers, from pandemics and stay at home orders, from the limitations both imposed upon us outside and from within – when you are free, when that new life finds us, we will be free at last. To live into that calling that God has for us.
But we’re free now, to love and serve. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.
 Excerpt from January 24, 2021 sermon by Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey, Parkdale United Church