“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus 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.”
This is one of those Scripture passages that raises the hackles on the back of my neck, and likely the same for other ordained women in ministry. Those who have questioned the legitimacy of women’s ordination or even women’s roles outside of the home will use this passage to say, “See? Peter’s mother-in-law was healed by Jesus so she could get up to serve him. That’s a woman’s place.” Now, those aren’t sermons preached in an ELCA congregation, but even in a church body that has been ordaining women since before I was born, those two verses stop me in my tracks. The fever leaves and she immediately gets up and serves them? With only a pause long enough for a comma? Come on, disciples of Jesus, someone should have said, “Please, rest. We’ll take care of the guests and family for awhile. Take care of yourself. We love you.” Anything along those lines would have been welcome. This is a frighteningly accurate portrait of how we use the “worker bees” in congregational life, many of whom are women of a certain age. Let’s do better at taking care of each other, especially for those whose work is often behind the scenes making everything run smoothly without any of the credit. So little credit, in fact, that “Peter’s mother-in-law” doesn’t get her own name, but is defined by a man in her family; just for today, I’m going to call her Miriam, to remember that she has her own identity.
Miriam actually does a whole lot more than getting up and serving the disciples, with Jesus’ help.
She is the first to be resurrected.
You see, the word used for “lifted her up” is the same one translated as “raised her up” – as in “resurrection!” This is what resurrection looks like – not just for women, but for all of us. When Jesus takes your hand, and raises you up, you are meant to use your renewed life to serve others: Women, men, children, all followers of Jesus! This word will show up repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus heals people; he’s bringing the resurrection into their lives. There’s no account of Jesus’ actions after his own resurrection in the Gospel of Mark but the disciples are instructed to go to Galilee, where Jesus did all these acts of healing to remember what resurrection looks like. But this Miriam’s story is the first resurrection story of all of them! Let’s consider her for just a minute. We know she’s a mother-in-law, so imagine: probably past the age of bearing or raising children herself. Possibly past the age of being pursued by men who find her attractive. But certainly not – as Jesus’ actions suggest – past contributing to the good of her community and the work of God in it. Huh. I guess a woman’s primary value is not just in producing or raising children, or providing an outlet for the sexual drive of men. Well, I’ll be. If that was her worth, then Jesus could have just let her succumb to the fever, and started the cascade of resurrection healings with somebody else.
Now, if you have been through a serious illness or injury or even childbirth, and healed to the point of returning to your previous life, resurrection might ring true to your experience; just to be able to do the most mundane things for yourself again is like a breath of new life.
But other times we don’t spring back. We don’t end up being cleared from the nursing home, or maybe your condition is chronic and is not going to get better; or new parents struggle with postpartum depression. We don’t know if our Miriam sprang back into action without any side effects. Jesus still extends a hand to raise you up to new life, but instead of returning to the old one, it is to a “new normal,” and we have to learn to navigate what service to others looks like for us now. Part of your new way of interacting could include a new-found empathy with those who are suffering. The “new normal” is new life, it’s just different because we have been changed by our suffering.
After Jesus raised her up, Miriam “served” them (not just Jesus, but the whole lot of them). The word for “served” is the same one we use for ministering, “diakonia”, from which we get “deacons” those rostered leaders who are consecrated to “Word and Service” instead of Word and Sacrament. Miriam is not only the first resurrection story, but the first minister, here in the first chapter of Mark. Serving epitomizes Jesus’ own ministry: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). As one commentator noted, Miriam “is an icon of resurrection and a paradigm of Christian ministry.”
Huh. I’m feeling less defensive and more loved by this story. So now I’m going to do something a little unusual, and talk about the sermon itself: meta-preaching, if you can follow me.
Notice the process I took, in dealing with this Scripture that has been used to hurt people like me.
I named the interpretation that is unjust,
gave a personal connection of how it hurts me,
then gave an alternate interpretation based on a detail of the Scripture that maybe we haven’t considered before.
This is one pattern for speaking to the damage done by bad theology, or toxic churches in people’s past. That may be part of your calling in re-development. You know, it’s kind of hard to exist in our country and not have some exposure – especially in the media – to somebody’s unhealthy version of Christianity. So even if they’ve never been to church, most people have some impression of it and it’s not good. It usually involves the church condemning people for some part of their identity, with verses taken out of context to justify it.
Martin Luther described Scripture as the cradle in which the Christ child lays. The Scripture – especially given how easily we misuse it and twist it to our own agendas, must be read through Christ: all that he was and did. Such as resurrecting one whom others might write off as past her prime, as the first minister of his legacy of resurrection. You might want to have some short, pithy notes about Jesus in your head, adaptable to many people whose faith has been damaged by a church or Christians:
Jesus saw the value in everyone (even those possessed by demons, mother-in-laws, children).
Jesus can bring us back to life after any kind of loss, even death.
Jesus gives us new life so that we can serve others. That’s what we’re about.
That Christianity will not alienate. It only lifts up to new life.
Sermon for a congregation awaiting re-development, on Feb 4, 2018
Gospel – Mark 1: 29-39
Credit to Prof. Karoline Lewis for inspiration: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5052