Where is God in this?
A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my strength and my redeemer." Psalm 19:14
As I sat with the scripture readings for this Sunday I was particularly drawn to the Gospel of Mark.
In the first chapter of Mark and we are already getting a taste of Jesus's radical ministry, a ministry that will challenge the authorities and shake their religious foundation.
If we remember from last week's Gospel reading, it's the Sabbath and Jesus is in the Temple with the high chiefs and elders. They are astonished by his teachings; he is teaching with "authority" unlike the scribes. And he is bold enough to cast out demons.
In today's Gospel reading it is later in the day and Jesus goes to the home of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Simon is the fisherman who will later be named Peter, whom Jesus will refer to as the rock on which the church is built. The symbolic contrast between the synagogue and the simple home of a fisherman is something that we should pay attention to. We are only in the first chapter of Mark and already Jesus is beginning to reveal to us his new ministry. He is associating with all people. Many are drawn to him and he shows his love for those in need regardless of their class, gender, or status. Today we are still challenged to live into what Jesus does in the first chapter of Mark and what our Baptismal Covenant calls us to do, "to strive for justice and peace among all people, and the respect the dignity of every human being." (BCP, page 305)
As I often do with Bible readings, I try to get "into" the story by closing my eyes and imagining the scene before me. I envision Jesus entering the home - a small dwelling, one story, typical of that period, with a low ceiling, simple furnishings and perhaps a bit dark and stuffy. Simon is distraught; he desperately wants his mother-in-law to be made well. Immediately upon Jesus' arrival, Simon tells him about her condition and asks him to help her and then . . .
Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up.
Then the fever leaves her, and she begins to serve them.
As I rested with this part of today's Gospel – I have to admit that the last verse and she begins to serve them gets under my skin. As a woman and feminist it just doesn't sit well with me. What were the men thinking? The mother-in-law had just been lying on her death bed and they are going to let her get up and serve them? When I wrestle with parts of the scripture like this, I realize I need to step back and try to understand what the writers of Mark were trying to convey in a period of time where customs and behaviors were so different from those of the 21st century. I have to ask, "Where is God in this?" And then I remembered a story and it all made sense.
It was October 1989 and I was very pregnant. I remember calling my husband telling him I was seeing stars—as in the cartoons when a character is hit and stars circulate around his head. Before I knew it, I was in the doctor's office and then sent to the hospital. And if you have ever been very ill, you typically remember snippets of your illness and that was what it was like for me. After a few hours the doctors were concerned for the health of the baby, so I had an emergency c-section. As I came out of the anesthesia I remember being told that I had a healthy, beautiful baby girl, Lauren Susanne Hennessey 8 lbs 12 oz and 22'' long. When the nurse asked me if I wanted to hold my baby I said no, I was so tired and afraid I would drop her. My mother later told me her heart sank when she heard that because she then realized how sick I was—so sick that I didn't want to hold my newborn child.
Later on, I remember telling my doctor that I was seeing stars again. I don't recall anything after that until I awoke in ICU several hours later. I had lost a tremendous amount of blood and according to the nurses I went into a convulsion moments after telling the doctor I was seeing stars.
And then there was this woman, standing tall and in charge at the foot of my bed. Her face looked familiar, she was the younger sister of a former colleague of mine; her name was Ruth Roney and she was the head of nursing at Frederick Memorial Hospital. Although Kevin and I were new to All Saints' at the time, we knew that Alma, her sister Ruth and the entire Roney family were pillars in our faith community. But that day, Ruth was my angel as were the nurses and doctors who took care of me. As Ruth stood at the foot of my bed she asked, "Nancy, what can I do for you?" She was being a servant to me. I told her I wanted to see my baby. I had already been told by others that babies were not allowed in ICU. Ruth clearly looked beyond the rules and had Lauren brought into me and I was on the road to recovery.
I don't know what it must have been like for the mother-in-law lying in her bed with fever. I imagine she was delirious, and like me, she had snippets of memories of her loved ones caring for her. Perhaps she felt the touch of her grandchild's small hand or heard the murmur of a prayer being said over her. Those who tended to her were similar to the hospital community that tended to me. She knew what it was like to lie in bed deeply ill, and she was made well by Jesus. Possibly, she even realized the significance of Jesus, a man who was not her relative, who broke the purity laws to touch her in the name of love. She was rejoicing in the best way she knew how – to serve the one who had healed her and those who had stood by her. It wasn't about those being served; it is about a woman thankful for being made well.
I know what the mother-in-law must have been feeling because since I had lost so much blood, I needed a blood transfusion. After receiving my transfusion I was amazed how strong I felt, my energy had returned. In fact, the morning after the transfusion I called my family asking them when they were going to come visit me; I wanted to be with my community, to rejoice with them for being made well! You may not think that strange, but I called them at 6 AM in the morning I was oblivious of the time.
You see my friends, in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus showed us the importance of a loving community that cares for those who are ill and rejoices with them when they are made well. Throughout his ministry Jesus teaches us that community is an essential component to one's faith journey. Time and time again Jesus will challenge the religious leaders and even his disciples as he insists on being in community. Later in this story he will not listen to Simon and the others who want him to remain in Capernaum and continue healing people, instead, he will move on to another town because he knew that his ministry wasn't for some, but for all who were willing to follow him.
How many of us have heard our friends say that they don't need "church" to be spiritual and that they have an individual relationship with Christ? They tell us that religion is outdated, boring, and often hypocritical. And sometimes they are right. I don't doubt the sincerity of their statements, but I wonder how much deeper their faith would be if they had a faith community in which to share and challenge their spiritual journey. A community that openly asks, "Where is God in all of this?" when wrestling with issues of sexuality, racism, budgets, membership—any issue, complicated or mundane. In a community of faith we should always be asking ourselves this deeper question and others like it because it forces us to look at our actions from a different perspective than that of the secular world. If we don't do the asking, perhaps we are no different from any other organization.
I can only speak for myself, but I know when I look out into this congregation I see those of you who have helped form me, prayed for me, and even some of you who have challenged me. There are many of you who are a part of my spiritual tapestry and my faith would be lesser for it if I had not been a part of you, a faithful body of followers.
I imagine each of you can look around and see those who are a part of your own faith formation. And for those who have graced this sanctuary for the first time today—I not only welcome you, but I assure you that your presence here today is equally as important as anyone else. Whether you stay with us for only today or return another Sunday you are forever a part of us. Wherever you go from here, you leave a bit of yourself with us and you take a bit of us with you. Because today, together we will lift up our voices to God in song, praise, prayer and thanksgiving—not as separate individuals, but as a community with one voice.
And just last Sunday, we witnessed 9 members of our faith community come forward to be confirmed, received or reaffirmed by Bishop Burnett. They didn't do this alone, but in community so we could stand with them, affirm their faith and receive them as members of the Body of Christ.
In Mark's gospel reading for today, we are being shown the importance of servant hood and community by a simple woman without a name. Being a part of a faith community is essential as we grow into what God is calling us to be as individuals and as a Body of Christ.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, in today's Gospel reading there are so many messages from which to take away. But the message of community spoke to me. Throughout Jesus's short ministry he teaches us this over and over again. We are told in Matthew 18:20:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.
How can one deepen one's faith alone?
Coming together each week allows us to be strengthened by others around us through prayer, song and thanksgiving. I know I am lesser for it when I don't receive the love and strength from this community, and perhaps the same is for you.
Be thankful for this community—as fickle and challenging as it may be. We are One Body and together we can deepen our own faith and also change things around us so that it reflects more of what God truly created for us, truly envisions for us and truly wants for us. Amen.