Sustaining Ministry

Sunday, February 5
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Focus Theme
Sustaining Ministry

Weekly Prayer
Everlasting God, you give strength to the powerless and power to the faint; you raise up the sick and cast out demons. Make us agents of healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creations. Amen.

Focus Reading
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.

All Readings For This Sunday
Isaiah 40:21- 31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Focus Questions

1. How do you think you would have responded if you were Simon’s mother-in-law, healed by this stranger?

2. If your church, and the people in it, are “the only Jesus” some people will ever meet, would those people recognize him? Why or why not?

3. Why do you think Jesus had to move on from Capernaum and the crowds?

4. How do you think you would have responded in Simon’s situation? How well do you think the followers of Jesus today understand what Jesus was about?

5. What might be the problem with coming to Jesus for healing and seeing him only as a healer? 

by Kate 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. The house was a large complex of clan dwellings with three shared courts, surrounded by a common exterior wall with a single entrance….To the east of the house, just outside the entrance, was a large open area where a crowd could assemble.” 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 status. 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 and history) 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.

What an interesting, and challenging, text for Women’s Week in the United Church of Christ! What is the “rightful place and role” for women in the church, and in the world? Indeed, is it even appropriate to say that gender determines a person’s place or role in the church or the world? In any case, I’m reminded of my grandmother, who birthed triplets at home in 1929 at the age of 39 (after five other children) and later survived tuberculosis. She and my mother (I bear both their names; it’s a lot to live up to) taught us to “rise to the occasion,” but they taught us with their actions as well as their words. What are the “occasions” we need to “rise to” today, as Peter’s mother-in-law did so long ago?

Mark doesn’t mention the woman’s “faith,” and he 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. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for incarnation. 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.”

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 who has to get up (no matter how sick she’s been) and take care of the men who apparently haven’t learned to take care of themselves? Some would say yes. Many others would take a second look, though, 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 “over” (as these same disciples will request in chapter 10, having missed the point of this incident), but service “to.” 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 will say, “deaconed” to him throughout his ministry.

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. “Service,” she writes, “is a key topic in the call and pursuit of Jesus. This woman 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.” It sounds a little bit like a conspiracy, since we can break down that word into “con” (which means “with”) and “spir” which means both “spirit” and “breath.” Can’t you just imagine a conspiracy as people “breathing together”? I love to say that a church ought to have a conspiracy of hospitality, for example. Not so much talking about it, but quiet work, behind the scenes, welcoming, being aware of the “stranger,” working together to offer gracious hospitality. Perhaps Jesus and this woman were co-conspirators in hospitality, healing, and service, all of them more important than traditional religious rules and observances.

The whole city at the door

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 DVR’s that enable us to play back what we just missed, the hearers of this story would be drawn into the rhythm of Jesus’ work, the urgency of the pace that takes him from place to place, on his way to Jerusalem. Over and over again, they would have heard what Jesus was 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 perhaps a time of wrestling and questions. It may be a break in the relentless pace and pressing needs of the crowds, yes, but also a time of wondering about the next step, and 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. 

Jesus had “handlers,” too

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. (We suspect that this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to Simon.) 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: “When Simon and those with him interrupt Jesus at prayer (1:35-38), their misunderstanding of his priorities introduces a tension which will become a major theme of the Gospel. 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.”

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 would find ourselves in what Williamson calls “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.”

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.” And we are still only in the first chapter.

Moving right along: The Spirit of God on the loose

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.” Jesus, with his reputation growing and his followers as well, 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. 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.” 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 beyond its walls? What are the perils, and blessings, of being well-known, as a pastor or a congregation? 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 are we living out our call to be healers to those who are “gathered around the door” of our church, seeking God’s mercy? How are we living out our call to “proclaim the message,” too? How are those two related in the life we share?  What sustains you in your ministry? How does your ministry, individually and communally, sustain others?

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 relig
ons 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
God is so large she requires all life to express herself. (adapted from her grandmother’s journal)

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.