By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 1:29-31
A couple months back a member of the church where I’d pastored in Castleton died from cancer. While I was at the church John had a nickname for me. Now, we all know nicknames are a powerful thing. They can go either way – good or bad – and they contribute to our sense of identity.
At Castleton, I served as an associate pastor. That was my role. And stepping into the second chair after being a lead pastor for many years can be a challenge; particularly in a large church where the senior pastor often delegates routine administrative tasks to the associate pastor. But John’s nickname was a source of encouragement to me while I was there. His nickname for me was “Rev”; short for Reverend, the formal title for ordained clergy. It wasn’t just the nickname itself that brought me encouragement; it was also the way John said it… always in a way that communicated he was glad to see me. I felt honored and appreciated by that nickname. That simple nickname affirmed the value of my ministry role.
Now we all know that one’s identity should not be defined by one’s profession. Nevertheless, the roles we fulfill – in our work, in our volunteering, in our hobbies, and in our relationships – are of great importance. As human creatures, we are relational and – when it comes right down to it – roles connected to relationships: to ways of being in the world with others. Furthermore, as Christians, we believe that God invites us – calls us – to certain roles and tasks. So, if you work in medicine, your role as one who engages with others to heal and to relieve suffering is, naturally, an important part of your identity. Or, perhaps you are someone to whom others turn when they need a friend who they can trust and who will listen in a non-judgmental way. If so, that role of confidant is an important part of your identity.
This morning’s gospel story is a story about roles… although we need a better understanding of Jesus’ culture in order to see it in that way. When I was a child and I heard this bible story in church, I thought to myself: it doesn’t seem very considerate that this lady who has just gotten over being sick has to get up and fix a big meal for all these people who’ve shown up at her door. Then, as I moved toward adulthood, I began to have other thoughts about this story. It seemed to me to only perpetuate the stereotype of a woman “barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.” It felt like a somewhat oppressive story.
But, it’s important for us to remember that Jesus incarnated in a particular time and place: 1st century Palestine. And if the message of Jesus didn’t connect to that culture, it wouldn’t have taken hold and it’s not very likely we’d be here today. For Jesus’ ministry to be received and his message to be heard, Jesus had to enter in to the culture of his ministry context. And, within Jesus’ cultural context, for a woman to serve guests in the home was an honor. What the woman was called upon to do as a hostess was a privilege that elevated her status within her home and her village. The senior woman of the household was entrusted with carrying out what was one of the most important values in that culture: hospitality.
So, the first thing we need to realize about this morning’s gospel story is that, when Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, he doesn’t just enable her to go about her household duties. For in restoring her health, Jesus restores her to her proper social position: an honored role as the one who provides hospitality to guests within her home.
Secondly, this healing story is better appreciated when it’s viewed within its broader literary context – that is, the Gospel according to Mark because, in Mark’s gospel, “servanthood” becomes the key to Jesus’ teaching. When I presented the scripture this morning, I used a version that translated the last verse like this: “Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.” But, the King James Version says “she ministered unto them.” Now, in English, we might have a different response to the words “minister” and “servant.” But, in Greek, they are the same word. And that word is one Christ chooses to use to define his own role. In Mark, chapter 10, Jesus tells his disciples that he has come not to be served but to serve. Over and over again – especially around the middle of Mark’s Gospel – Jesus goes to great lengths to try to help his close circle of disciples understand what kind of Messiah he is. He is not someone who has come raising a clamor like a bull in a china shop. He does not seek the accolades of the crowd. He is not trying to start his own revolution, oust Caesar and usurp his throne. He has come in humility. He is ready to lose his life; he is ready to take up his cross. Now, his chosen disciples have a hard time accepting that. Peter actually has the nerve to reprimand Jesus. And as they journey toward Jerusalem, the disciples argue with one another about which of them is top dog. They want to be Jesus’ right-hand man; not only in this life, but in eternity. Quite clearly, Jesus communicates to those disciples that he is a servant and they, too, must take on the role of servant. And they just don’t get it. But someone gets it. In fact, the very first gospel character to get it, to live it out, is Peter’s mother-in-law. She models not only hospitality, but servanthood. She becomes a perfect model for what our response should be when we are impacted with the saving power of Christ within our own lives.
Friends: it’s important for us to keep in mind that the miracles of Jesus did more than alleviate physical illness and symptoms; because nearly all those conditions prevented people from being in proper relationship, in honored roles, with those around them. Women sick and hemorrhaging could not carry out the role of cook and hostess. Men with leprosy could not be in contact with their families. People who were blind were judged as having an evil eye and to be avoided. When Jesus performs miracles, he restores people to their proper roles and restores relationships… because that’s the sort of thing that matters a great deal to Jesus.
And that is still the miraculous work of the church today. This gospel story can teach us two things:
Britt’s and my first ministry assignment as young pastors was to a multiple church parish in Erie, PA. And, in one of those churches was a young man named Tommy. Now, Tommy was mentally handicaped. He lived in a group home, used public transportation and had a menial labor job. By outward appearance, Tommy didn’t seem to be a tremendous asset to the church. His limited intelligence barred him from leading committees or ministries in the church. I suspect Tommy tithed. But, his income was so low, his tithe didn’t make a very big impact in the church budget. Tommy read his bible. But, his comprehension was minimal and he had no great biblical teachings to bestow upon a Sunday School class or small group. Since he didn’t have a license or a car, he couldn’t even help transport others to church. But, on one occasion, I was blessed to see Tommy in a whole new light. Our three congregations had come together as one parish for a church picnic. But, the mingling was minimal. Britt and I had decided to end with communion – to seat the people in a circle and have them serve the bread and juice to one another. We thought it would provide a powerful symbol to have people serve the body and blood of Christ to their brothers and sisters from one of the other churches. Well, Tommy was seated next to us. We thought we’d given really clear instructions. The bread and cup would move around the circle in a clockwise direction. Each person would serve the bread and the juice to the person on their left (accompanied by the appropriate words, “the body and blood of Christ”). Then, the person who had just communed would – in turn – serve the person on their left in exactly the same way until the circle was completed. For demonstration purposes, I served Britt and he served Tommy. Tommy served the person on his left. But then, Tommy proceeded to the next person in the circle. The one Tommy had just served seemed a little dumbfounded. But, Tommy was undaunted. He was absolutely ecstatic about this opportunity to serve communion. I don’t think he’d ever done it before. The third or fourth person Tommy served tried to explain Tommy’s error to him. But, I’m not sure that Tommy even heard them. It was a high and holy moment for him; serving holy communion to his brothers and sisters in Christ. It was such a simple task. But, the opportunity to serve that bread and juice – the body and blood of his Lord – nearly made Tommy burst with joy.
Like Peter’s mother-in-law, Tommy – even with his very limited IQ – understood what Jesus’ disciples in Mark’s gospel did not: that Jesus “came not to be served but to serve…”[i] Let us do the same.
[i] Mark 10:45
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