A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 4, 2018 (Epiphany 5B)
A stomach virus is a miserable thing. A nasty strain has been going around this winter and a good number of us have succumbed to it. The reason I’m up here in the pulpit this morning and not Natalie — as it says in your bulletin — is because she was stricken this week. Please keep her in your prayers and good wishes.
But if the flu gods have passed you over this year — I mean, there’s still plenty of flu season left — but if you’ve been lucky so far, chances are you can vividly recall a time when you weren’t so lucky. It truly is miserable. The nausea, the fever, the achy-ness. The writhing uncomfortably on the bathroom floor as death seems like a more attractive option than another round of, well, you get the picture.
Not to get too graphic, but this must have been what Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law was going through when Peter and and his brother Andrew showed up with James, John, and this Jesus fellow. Mark’s gospel brings us into this story at the worst possible moment for this poor woman. She’s burning up with a high fever, probably drenched in sweat, weak and woozy. And as she contemplates the relative merits of living versus dying, she must have been just thrilled to hear that company had arrived. Her son-in-law barges in unannounced with his entourage. And at one level this woman must have thought to herself, and probably not for the first time, “I cannot believe my daughter married that fool!”
In a state of barely feeling human, quite possibly actually on the verge of death, she must have been further outraged to hear footsteps coming toward her. Her daughter had actually married a man who would introduce someone to her in this state? It’s hard to know exactly what happened next. Jesus approaches this woman and takes her hand. Without a word he lifts her up. And the fever immediately leaves her. In an instant she is restored to health and wholeness. And in an instant she has become a disciple of Jesus. Like her son-in-law Peter, who just a day or two before dropped his fishing net to follow Jesus, this woman, too, experiences a profound moment of healing and conversion.
Now, at this point, the story seems to take an offensive twist. At least to our modern ears, attuned as they are to issues of gender equality. Because the instant Peter’s mother-in-law is cured, she begins to serve the men who had arrived. You can almost hear one of them saying, “Now that your fever’s broken and, well, as long as you’re up, could you maybe hook us up with some nachos?” And in other ways, too, the whole story isn’t exactly a paragon of women’s liberation. The men are named, the woman is anonymous, identified only in relation to her son-in-law. The men are healthy, the woman is sick. We hear no mention at all of Peter’s wife, who was presumably also in the house. And then this whole business of leaping to her feet after she’s cured, to bring them some food.
But despite the difficulty of hearing this through the filter of our own culture, the story is actually quite progressive. What’s surprising here is not that Peter actually liked his mother-in-law, which in itself goes against our own Fred Flintstone-inspired stereotypes, but that he had any relationship with her at all. For the culture of first century Palestine, this was a boldly counter-cultural relationship to begin with. A man might have had an obligation to his mother and his sisters but he had absolutely no obligation to his wife’s mother.
This relationship was such a non-factor that I don’t think there was even a term for it. So in showing concern for his sick mother-in-law, Peter refused to be bound by the cultural norms of the day. He treated this woman, to whom he had no obligation, as family. His mother-in-law was an integral member of the family unit, rather than the outsider that society would have dictated. So in this relationship we see love, inclusion, and a breaking down of barriers between people. All dominant themes of Jesus’ own ministry. And all themes we continue to struggle with in our own supposedly more “enlightened” cultural context.
The other important lesson in this story is that the woman’s act of service showed to a disbelieving culture that women, as well as men, could be disciples of Jesus. This was not the norm. Men formed communities of learning around teachers in the ancient world. But the women were not invited into these circles of intimacy and discipleship. Yet we see Jesus again and again subverting this through his interactions with women: Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, Mary Magdalene. So taken in context, this story is not one of male dominance but one of female liberation. This story helps to show that we are all, men and women alike, subservient to one master only, Jesus Christ. Lessons we are still learning and issues we are still struggling with in every single facet of society, including the church.
But back to those nachos. On one level it’s still just so hard to reconcile this story with our modern value structure. But on another level the newly healed woman’s immediate response to serve makes perfect sense. She was called by Jesus and her response is to serve. Just as we are all called by Jesus and our response is to serve. We do this in different ways but when Jesus took this woman’s hand and lifted her, she was tangibly touched by Jesus and called to service in his name.
Like Peter’s mother-in-law we, too, are touched by Jesus and called to service. We are touched by Jesus through our common worship, through prayer, and through acts of kindness done by our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life. We are called to service in his name each day and our response must be to serve Christ. That’s why we’re here this morning: to be touched by Jesus, to be lifted up by him, and then to be sent back out into the world to reach our hands to others in his name.
It’s a work in progress, no doubt. And Jesus may reach for our hands when we’re feeling least prepared to look up and take it. But he’s always in our midst, always reaching out that hand to lift us up, to heal us, to convert us, and to call us to service in his name. So, take his hand. Stand up. And serve.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018