Sermon Seeds: Sustaining Ministry
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Year B
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Perhaps the phrase “moving right along” could be paired with the often-repeated “immediately” to describe the pace of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. Before he even leaves the synagogue, Jesus is already a sensation because he’s backed up his powerful preaching with an equally powerful act, expelling the demon from a man in the crowd. People are talking about Jesus, spreading the word, while he quietly slips into a private home, Simon’s home, next to the synagogue. Douglas Hare cites recent archaeological discoveries that are vividly detailed in situating Simon’s house, “with its northern wall right under the synagogue balcony….To the east of the house, just outside the entrance, was a large open area where a crowd could assemble” (Mark, Westminster Bible Companion). More things are about to occur that will draw that crowd.
Like many families today, Simon’s household doesn’t fit the usual “nuclear” unit of one husband, one wife, and their children. His mother-in-law is not only living with him but is apparently in charge of hospitality, a role that carries its own particular honor. There are many reasons she may have moved in, including dependency on Simon because she had no other male to provide for her, or perhaps because Simon needed her help in running the household while he fished (his wife, as so often happens in the Bible, is not mentioned in this story). In any case, the mother-in-law (nameless, again, like many women in the Bible) is in a bad way. She’s very sick, probably not with a cold or the flu but with something more serious that manifested in a fever, isolating her from everyone else. She couldn’t assume her role as chief cook and chair of the hospitality committee, that is, she couldn’t take her place in the community. How can we belong if we can’t find our place, or fulfill our role? Mark’s prose is spare as he simply presents the problem and Jesus’ response to it, a response that may remind us of something else: he lifted, or raised, her up. However, in raising her up, he also restored her to her rightful place and role, and she proceeded directly to serving him.
Mark doesn’t say that Jesus spoke special words over the woman or that he did anything more dramatic than simply taking her by the hand. And yet, what a powerful gesture, one that brought her from “un-wholeness” to “wholeness,” P.C. Ennis says: “It might even be said that in Scripture touch is a metaphor for intimacy, for presence, for relationship.” Right here, at the beginning of his ministry, after dramatic and even disturbing experiences (the river Jordan and the sky ripped open, time in the wilderness, unclean spirits shrieking), Jesus’ first healing is accomplished through gentle, even tender, touch. “Love not expressed, love not felt,” Ennis writes, “is difficult to trust….God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, which makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). What if your church, and the people within it, are “the only Jesus” some people will ever meet? Would they recognize him?
Much of the commentary on this short text focuses on the healed woman’s next move, getting up and serving them. There’s no clear agreement about how to view that “service”: is this one more woman (no matter how sick she’s been) who has to get up and take care of the men who apparently haven’t learned to take care of themselves? Some would say yes, and perhaps there is some of that in the story. Many others would take a second look, though, for more: they would dig deeper and explore what the word used for “serve” really means. Perhaps Jesus and this unnamed woman are in a kind of conspiracy to show what Jesus is really about: wholeness, healing, service, humility. Beverly Gaventa reminds us that Jesus will later try to get his disciples to understand what it really means to be his disciples: not power (as these same disciples will request in chapter 10, having missed the point of this incident), but serving others, serving God (Texts for Preaching Year B). More than one scholar calls Simon’s mother-in-law the first “deacon” of the church, and Richard Swanson even turns it into a verb, applying it powerfully to the women who stood at the cross, who had, the text says, “deaconed” to him throughout his ministry (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).
Ofelia Ortega develops this line of thought even further, tracing it to the early church, where “house churches” were the place of Christian community and ministry, the setting and support for living out their call to serve. “This woman,” Ortega writes, “gets up and turns the Sabbath into a paschal day of service to others. Jesus does not command her. She is the one that assumes the initiative and awaits the consequences, discovering the value of mutual service above the sacredness of the Sabbath” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). It does sound just a little bit like a conspiracy, doesn’t it? Things happen, things are understood, things are shared that move along the greater plan.
Moving right along….Jesus has barely had time to enjoy a meal when the crowd, the whole city, has gathered at Simon’s door. While Jesus has already broken a rule about healing on the Sabbath, sundown has made it possible for the people to carry their sick to this astonishingly gifted man, and he heals them, too, and expels more demons from those possessed by them. You may recall the suggestion from a past week to read the entire Gospel of Mark, aloud, from beginning to end. I think such an exercise is the best way to understand the effect of Mark’s repetitive account of Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons. In an age before books or television, let alone DVRs that enable us to play back what we just missed, the hearers of this story would be drawn into, caught up by, the rhythm of Jesus’ work, the pace that takes him from place to place, on his way to Jerusalem. Over and over again, they would keep hearing (and seeing, and feeling) what Jesus is about.
It’s clear that Jesus could have quite a successful career for himself, perhaps opening up his own healing mega-center and waiting for the crowds to find him (they will find him, anyway, everywhere he goes). Instead, he sets out on that long journey, heeding a call that includes but is not limited to one thing, in one place. In this first chapter, Jesus has been in the wilderness, in a river, in a synagogue, and in a private home. Now he gets up early and goes out to a quiet place, not the wilderness but some place of refuge inside or just beyond the city, and he prays. For a little while, in the quiet dark before dawn, the pace slows. We get the impression, however, that this isn’t a time of serene prayer but maybe a time of wrestling and questions, a break in the relentless pace and pressing needs of the crowds, yes, but also a time of wondering about the next step, and perhaps even anguish over the suffering that engulfs him. Jesus has faced down the temptations in the wilderness, but here in the city, he must be tempted by compassion to stay longer than he should.
A blundering Simon interrupts Jesus’ time alone, like a modern day political handler moving a weary candidate along, telling Jesus that he needs to get back to the healing part of his ministry. We picture Simon, in a huge transition of his own, having abandoned his nets at the lakeshore, eager to make sure this phenomenal man he has brought home will continue to do marvelous works, right here in Simon’s own town. And we might also picture his wonderment and even disappointment when Jesus moves on. Lamar Williamson, Jr. reminds us that Simon’s dismay will continue throughout the Gospel, along with his, and just about everyone else’s, misplaced priorities: “Those who should know Jesus best seem so often to understand him least. The significance for disciples today is as painful as it is evident” (Mark, Interpretation). How do you think the followers of Jesus today understand what Jesus was about? How do you think we would have responded in Simon’s situation? And how important do we consider prayer in the larger life of the church – is it a priority, really?
And so Jesus moves on, and the crowds are left behind, along with the expectations and assumptions of Jesus’ disciples. And we might ask why and how Jesus could walk away from so much suffering, “humanity with all its needs,” as Williamson describes the crowd. We wonder where we would be in this story, with our own needs, our own suffering, where we find ourselves, as Williamson writes, in “the Marcan picture of desperation and hope with which we reach out to Jesus and the mixture of power and compassion with which he reaches out to us” (Mark, Interpretation).
Of the many words written on this question, Dianne Bergant’s response is most elegant in its simplicity: “Jesus realizes that the crowds are coming because they want miracles. He, on the other hand, wants crowds to come to hear the gospel he will preach, yet he still performs miracles. The demons seem to know who he is and what he is about, while his followers and the crowds he attracts misunderstand him and his mission. Everything in this episode,” she writes, “is complicated” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). And we are still only in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel.
Complicated, and moving quickly, moving right along: Deborah Krause says, “The spirit of God is on the loose, and Jesus and those who follow him are awash in its promise and demands” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). Jesus, with his reputation – and followers – growing, was surrounded by those who were undoubtedly in need, in pain, hungry for his healing touch. Others may have come for the show; after all, it must have been quite dramatic, quite memorable to see the dead raised, demons expelled, and the blind restored to seeing. Wouldn’t we have gathered at that door, too?
Mark goes on, though, to show the other side, to paint a fuller picture. This Jesus was no celebrity-of-the-moment, any more than he was a magician (like some) or a rebel leader (like others). And, to him if not to the crowds or even to his closest followers, his purpose was clear. He was not about being a “sensation,” or a success, or even popular. What he “came out to do” – his whole purpose – was to proclaim a message, the Message: The Reign of God at hand. Jesus will push his disciples, then as now, taking them in new and unexpected directions, moving on in ministry to do what he came out to do, even if it’s not the most popular thing to do, even if it’s the very thing that will lead to his death.
“Preaching and healing. Healing and preaching. This,” Mike Graves writes, “represents the ministry of Jesus in a nutshell, and it represents still the ministry of those who follow him” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). What is the purpose of your church? For what is your congregation known? Is your church small and quiet, or large and famous? Does your church receive a lot of attention for what you do? Note that this passage, describing a private healing in a home, follows a public one. How is God’s power at work, within the life of your church, but also beyond its walls? What are the perils of being well-known, as a pastor or a congregation? What are the blessings? How do prayer and quiet time happen in the life of your church, re-charging spirits and reorienting disciples who may have wandered or lost focus? What might be the problem with coming to Jesus for healing and seeing him only as a healer?
If the church truly is the Body of Christ, how do we live out our call to be healers to those who are “gathered around the door” of our church, seeking God’s mercy? How do we live out our call to “proclaim the message,” too? How are those two related in the life we share?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection for your congregation (including free subscriptions) is available at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
George Bernard Shaw, 20th century
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Paul Tillich, 20th century
“Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.”
Neale Donald Walsch, 21st century
“Honor the tradition but expand the understanding. That’s what religions must do right now if they hope to be helpful to humans in the years ahead.”
Libanius, 4th-century pagan philosopher
“What women these Christians have!”
Dori Grinenko Baker in Doing Girlfriend Theology, 20th century
“God is so large she requires all life to express herself.” (adapted from her grandmother’s journal)
Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Fred Rogers, 20th century
“Life is for service.”
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Praise God! How good it is
to sing praises to our God;
for God is gracious,
and a song of praise is fitting.
God builds up Jerusalem;
God gathers the outcasts of Israel.
God heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
God determines the number of the stars;
God gives to all of them their names.
Great is our God, and abundant in power;
whose understanding is beyond measure.
God lifts up the downtrodden;
God casts the wicked to the ground.
Sing to God with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
God covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
God gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
God has no delight in the strength of the horse,
nor pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but God takes pleasure in those who fear God,
in those who hope in God’s steadfast love.
Praise be to God!
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Mark 1: 29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.) Green is the color for the rest of Epiphany season, until Transfiguration Sunday, when white is used again.