“He came and took her by the hand and raised her up. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.” Jesus touched a sick and dying woman and with his touch he raised her – just as he was raised – and she began to serve. Healed and renewed she became a disciple.
A lot has been made of this passage, and especially this verse – it has been used to justify specific gender roles…that the woman’s place is to serve. By making Simon’s mother-in-law’s first action after being healed waiting on them, this verse has been used to oppress women and remind them that they really are not allowed at the table, when in fact this is the story of the first disciple to really understand what Jesus is proclaiming – it is the story of a woman (and it is the women in Mark who understand who Jesus is – not the men) who is raised up – elevated – healed – made new, and her only response to that is to serve. To serve with her whole being. Our english is again limited here. For the word translated as served is the work diakonia – the root of our word deacon. Diakonia service is more than just waiting on tables, it is a kind of service that inhabits ones whole sense of purpose. It is the kind of service that is inextricably linked to the Reign of God as preached and experienced by Jesus. She is raised up. And she serves with her whole being.
This is not what is expected going into this story. No, it is about a poor woman. An itinerant weirdo who just caused a stir in the synagogue, and newly unemployed fisherman. It was not supposed to go this way.
Just twenty four hours ago, Simon’s mother-in-law, whom I will call Naomi because I think she deserves a name, was laying on the verge of death. For a three days she had been suffering from a fever of unknown origin. It began with chills in the night and sweats in the day, and now the horrible dance of the two was tango of misery. Her work as a net-mender of the small fishing town of Capernaum was gone. That was the nature of the economy at the time – if you provided a service and were then unable to provide you lost your income. People needed their nets mended and if you couldn’t do they would have to find another. Within a week, here meager earnings were gone. Her earnings that helped the brothers care for her.
She had felt so blessed when they took her in after her husband died. Simon’s wife, too, had died and they lived with Andrew, just the three of them. She had felt so blessed, that she tried to help them any way that she could. She knew that the fishing business they had inherited from their father was small, and really was meant to provide for the family, but since the Romans had come they were forced to give most of their earnings to the invaders. They barely had enough, and now with her illness – even less.
She knew that whatever it was that was slowly incinerating her would eventually kill her. Too many in the village had died from unknown fevers. There were no doctors, there were no antibiotics, no vaccines that prevented common illness. Fevers were more often than not death sentences. And she knew that her stay of execution has been denied.
Wrapped in blankets, shivering and sweating, she heard the commotion out in the town square, but did not have the energy to see what was going on. She had no clue that in the synagogue, this strangers, Jesus, had just released a man from the talonous grip on an unclean spirit. She had no idea that the boat of Andrew and Simon was now crew-less floating somewhere in the middle of the sea of Galilee, she just knew that there was noise and each breath she took was fire going into her lungs.
Wrapped in blankets, laying on her death bead. She prayed to God that her dying be a blessing for Simon and Andrew – that they would have one less mouth to feed. Supine she sang her own kaddish – the prayer of the dead. At death’s door, she laid, when through the door came her son-in-law and his brother and a stranger she did not know.
This stranger said no words. But looked deep into her eyes, and in them she saw a light she had never known. A light that cause her breath to increase, her pulse to elevate. In his eye, she saw hope and peace. And he stretched out his hand, and like what happens when a child sticks their hand out she just had to hold it. She held his hand and as she did fire shot through her body – fire followed by cool. The sweat on her brow immediately ceased to be, the pain in her joints – gone; the flames in her lungs replace by the breaths of a new born.
His other hand reached down and his arm wrapped around her back and he pulled her close to his chest, he knelt down to her and embrace her and as he stood up he brought her with him. He raised her of the bed of death and into something completely new. For three days she was near death, in her mind already in the tomb, and now she is raised up. And as she is raised she has no words. No words, but tears. Tears of joy, and she goes to the small kitchen and begins to bake bread to feed them. For that is all she can do. No money would suffice, no words. The only thing she can think to do is offer bread in thanksgiving for this new life.
And within 24 hours, this home in the small village of Capernaum has become the place of healing for the whole town. But it was not supposed to go this way. What happened is not what is supposed to happen. What happened was the Reign of God entering into the life of a woman who became a disciple.
This story is the story of what happens when God’s Reign breaks into our lives. It is the story of what happens when God’s Reign comes face to face with the forces of death and despair.
We heard again in the news how the terrorists of Islamic State have killed another prisoner in the name of their religion. We have heard the uproar after the president, rightly in my opinion, called us to remember that fundamentalists of our own tradition have a history or brutal behavior -from the crusades, to lynchings and NAACP office bombings. We have heard how children are becoming sick from a disease that we thought was near eradication in this country because some parents refuse vaccinations. We hear again and again about the violence done in the name of “law and order.” We see families ripped apart in the name of national security. We watch in horror as bombs explode in civil wars and as our nation’s drones drop bombs on innocents.
It’s like this world is lying on its death bed. And it makes it hard to even think about trying to go out of the house. It makes it difficult to find any hope out there. It is easier to just stay at home – or with those who are like us.
And it is not just those big picture things that lay us flat.
No, it is the constant pain we feel as our aging bodies remind us that we are not so young anymore. It is the dread we have when we have to go to work in the morning to a job that just drains our sprits. It is the sleepless nights wondering how rent is going to be paid. It is the anguish of solitude; the heartache of grief; the wounds from being stabbed in the back. We are knocked flat by the power of addiction; the shame of abuse; the crime of being young and black. It is the worry about the future of our church, will we have the means to do what we feel called to do. It is the desperation we hear in the stories fo those around us – longing – hoping for an end to the despair.
All of it adds up and keeps us shivering under the blankets – singing our own kaddish.
And as the fever of all of this begins to grow and our chills and sweats seem to never leave us, we begin to withdraw and become focused only on our selves. Sometimes it starts small by sniping at those we care about, sometimes it grows to alienating our selves from those we love; sometimes it is complete withdrawal into our own safe little words. The deliriousness of our fever wipes out anything but our suffering.
And it is precisely then that a word appears, a word that is reaching out to you today. A word that is the Reign of God come to earth in Jesus Christ. It is a word that tells the story of a woman who was on deaths door and in comes Jesus, and he reaches out his hand and raises her up.
It is about Jesus coming to you today, reaching out his hand and raising you up.
It is about Jesus coming into your place of pain and suffering; your place of question and doubt; your place of hurt and grief and reaching out his hand and raising you up.
Jesus comes through the door of our solitude and with out saying a word, reaches out his hand. Without nagging or harassing. Without guilt or then intent of causing shame – Jesus comes in and just reaches out his hand. There is no quid-pro-quo. There is nothing that you need to do first. Because this isn’t the world as we know it it is the Reign of God, where Jesus comes in and reaches out his hand hand raises you up. Raises you up.
Raises you up like Naomi, Simon’s mother in law.
Raise you up like the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof.
Raises you up like the man with the withered hand.
Raises you up like the little girl – the girl who died and breathed again.
Raises you up like the woman who bled for 12 years. Brought to new life
Raises you up like the boy possessed, brought to wholeness.
Raises you up like blind Bartimaeus – seeing again.
Raise you up, like him on that easter morning. Crucified and killed, having been to the darkest parts the word – now victorious over death. He raises you up in the darkest parts of the world.
Jesus walks through the door and reaches out his hand and raises you up. He comes into the place of despair and hurt; pain and isolation. He walks through the door into the room where you lie engulfed by the fever of the world. And he raises you into something all together new. All together whole. Jesus raises you from the reign of the wold into the Reign of God.
Into that active Reign of God where we can only respond by giving up what we were and serving as someone made wholly new. Someone who was been through the dark valley only to be carried safely to the the shore. We have been raised into the Reign of God where serving others is the way of life. We are no longer living for just ourselves but for all. We are living now as ones raised up. For just as Jesus came to serve are not be served, we are raised up to serve. To become more than just believers but transformed into disciples. To go where Jesus leads:
Breaking bread with the hungry; sitting with the sick; teaching the children; being taught by the children; giving to the work of God’s church in time, talent, treasure. We have been raised up and into the Reign of God.
Thanks be to God.