And She Began to Serve Them
Mark 1:29-39; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Corrie Ten Boom was active in the Dutch underground in WWII. She’s one of our few Dutch Reformed saints. She and her father and sister sheltered Jews and other refugees in their home in Harlem. Eventually the three of them were arrested and sent to Dutch prison camps. Ten Boom tells, in one of her writings, how someone in her barracks had managed to smuggle in a tiny Bible. They carefully tore out the pages and secretly passed them around to each other, day after day, month after month. It was their only reading material. Ten Boom says the Bible had never been so alive for her; the snippets of text were like current events, the latest news---that relevant, that riveting. More necessary than food.
(I do wonder if she felt quite that enthusiastic when she drew Leviticus.) But I envy her that experience of scripture being so alive. Do you have to go to prison to make the Word of God alive? When I looked at the Mark text, I felt resistance, like the stories were behind closed doors and would not let me in. When I looked at the 1 Corinthians text, I felt annoyed. Here’s Paul, what, boasting about how humble he is? Here’s Paul, pushing me away with his paradoxes: “I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all.” I wonder if the Bible ever feels this way to you? Does the Bible sometimes push you away?
Take this mother-in-law in Mark, Simon’s mother-in-law, being healed of a fever. Why doesn’t she get a name? Why did Jesus call these four fishermen? Why were all the disciples men? Why is it that the first person healed in the gospel of Mark seems to get healed so she can make the disciples lunch? And behind that there are questions I get asked all the time, as a chaplain: Do you think Jesus still heals people? Are miracles only for Bible times? Will God heal me? Why so much suffering?
I read all of Mark, chapter 1 again. And again. And I prayed. The gospel of Mark, of course, starts off with a bang. There’s urgency. Immediately this and immediately that. It’s also spare, few details. In Chapter 1 there is no birth story, no coming of age story, and no mention that John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin. It’s John the Baptist preaching repentance, it’s Jesus’ baptism, his time in the desert, no specific temptations mentioned. Then there is John’s arrest. It is John’s arrest, in Mark, that is the catalyst that catapults Jesus into ministry.
Why did John get arrested? He was telling people to repent. That sounds like harmless church talk to us, so used to freedom of speech, so accustomed to the separation of church and state. In John’s context, however, politics and religion was one thing, inseparable. For that matter, it’s probably true for most countries today. So “repent and be baptized” was a political/religious statement in the context of the Roman Empire, where there was no freedom of speech.
“Repent and be baptized” is in your face. It questions the order of things, including the carefully worked out political deals between Herod, the Jewish puppet king, and the Romans. John’s message felt like, maybe, the demonstrators chanting, “we can’t breathe.” Or like that blogger in Saudi Arabia who was writing positive things about democracy---you know, the one who will be flogged publicly every Friday for the next six weeks. When Jesus hears that John has been arrested he knows that John will be tortured, surely. Killed, probably. Jesus, in taking up John’s message, is running toward danger. It’s like he’s heading straight for Selma.
Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. Jesus feels in his bones that the time is ripe for him to act. Jesus feels in his bones that the Spirit of God is with him and in him and through him. He surrenders control, he surrenders to his baptism, as Pastor Renee’ preached about a couple of weeks ago.
He thought he was going to be a preacher, like his cousin John. But the Spirit had other plans. I don’t imagine that Jesus knew every morning when he got up what was going to happen that day. He didn’t have s script. (That’s what the incarnation means; he lived inside time, like us, yet was free, by God’s Spirit, from the fear of the future and the fear of death.) So I imagine when Jesus enters the house of Simon, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen; all he knows is that he is empty of everything but love. In the Spirit’s love he touches her. He’s not supposed to do this of course. If he were really culturally competent he, as a man, would not touch a woman who is not his wife. He touches her and pure love heals the fever, tssssss, like water putting out a fire.
Jesus’ mission is one: he is healer and teacher, he is prophet and priest. His disciples, when they began to follow him, were aware of the prophetic agenda; they can feel, in this Jesus, that God is very near. But they didn’t know he could heal people. Once the Spirit’s physical healing power is released, they forget all about the first mission. When the sun goes down, after the Sabbath, the “whole city,” as Mark puts it, is at Simon’s door. The love pours out of Jesus, he can’t control it. It’s a healing frenzy. And the disciples want nothing more than that it continue. But healing people is not Jesus’s whole mission and he knows it. He finally goes to bed, but I don’t think he slept much that night.
As soon as it is light he goes out to a deserted place to pray. He needs to get away from people. He needs to be with the Spirit in prayer. He was beginning to feel enslaved. Tell me again, dear Spirit, help me discern. I get the part about setting the captives free and telling people to turn from their evil ways, but there’s no end to these sick people. Healing. As a culture utterly obsessed with physical health, we can understand. People want this even more than other freedoms, even more than freedom of speech or freedom from fear, or a lot of other freedoms you could name. But Jesus recovers himself in prayer; Jesus recovers himself in fellowship with the Spirit. Healing is a sign of the kingdom of God that points us toward the healing of the world, but it’s not the whole thing. He says, surely disappointing his starry-eyed disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.”
Once I was visiting a man in the hospital who was recovering from heart surgery. He had nearly died so you can imagine that he was very grateful to be alive. In the course of our conversation I asked him what he hopes were now that he had been given this second chance. He thought for a moment and he said, "Well, I really like to watch TV." At least he was honest. I don’t know what I said, probably just nodded and gave him a blessing. But my inside voice was yelling---you’ve been healed to watch TV? Are you kidding me?
Simon’s mother-in-law gets the connection between grace and gratitude, between word and sacrament, between healing and service. Her healing is like a baptism. She gets up to serve them because she has been filled with another kind of fire, the pure energy of the Spirit. She chooses to serve them. Simon Peter doesn’t order her to serve them, she chooses it. She has felt in her own body that the kingdom of God has come very near. She knew that service was the only option she could freely choose. She knew what Paul knew: 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.
I spent the past few days on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, just south of here on the Hudson. It was a healing and nourishing experience. I observed the monks and how they share the tasks of hospitality. They take turns doing dishes. Cleaning up. There’s somebody vacuuming. There’s somebody sorting the clean silverware, making the coffee. They offered us worship five times a day-- scripture, chanting, sacrament.
I stood before the icons--I mean that specific tradition of religious paintings, not statues---which are everywhere at Holy Cross. In particular, I was struck by a small icon just outside the chapel, above the little bowl of holy water. It depicts an angel, a human looking angel with skinny brown legs, whose arms are holding the head of John the Baptist. Beheading. Is there any death more abhorrent to us? Yet, both John and the angel are looking right at you, making eye contact. They look both fierce and peaceful, as icons do, as if to say the kingdom of God is very near, as if to say all things shall be well, as if to say even death shall not separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
Corrie Ten Boom’s father and her sister Bessie died in prison camp. Before Bessie died, of tuberculosis, she said to her sister Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.” This is what Jesus knew, this is what Simon’s mother-in-law learned, in being healed by Jesus, this is what the Spirit knows and wants us to know. Another way to say it? The kingdom of God is very near. I imagine Corrie and her dying sister as icons, looking at us, inviting us to see that kingdom.
Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. See her as an icon; she’s looking straight at you. She says, my story is not meant to teach you that women were born to serve men. This is not about men or women, slave or free. Look again, look deeply and you can see Christ in her, you can see Jesus kneeling to wash his disciples’ feet.
Look again. Can you see yourself in her? Can you see in her that you are healed and forgiven, freed to love and freed to serve? Why is there so much suffering? Why is the kingdom of God so hard to see? I guess we’ll be asking these questions until we die. I suspect that some of you are suffering right now as much as Corrie Ten Boom and her sister suffered. I suspect this because I have been a chaplain for 20 years. This means that I have been privileged to see the face of Christ in people who are suffering, day in and day out. I have seen joy and felt love and peace. I have felt the kingdom of God come very near.