I remember a time working in the hospital when a teenager was admitted to our intensive care unit for a significant head injury. I don’t recall the exact nature of the injury, only that the prognosis wasn’t good, and the doctors prepared the family for the worst possible thing any parent could face. I sat with the family as they watched their beloved child, unconscious on the ventilator. It seemed the only thing in the room with life was the ventilator, providing mechanical rhythm that kept one moment moving into the next. I had been here with too many other families, and I was not looking forward to what would come next.
Only it didn’t. By some miracle the doctors could not explain, this young person recovered. The healing didn’t happen in a single resurrection moment; there wasn’t any instant in time I can point to and say, “wow- it’s a miracle!,” but over time she recovered. And after months in the hospital and months more of outpatient therapy, this kid returned to her life.
What I remember most about that incident was the day she and her mom and sister came back to the hospital to tell us all hi. It was a transformative experience to see the lives that had been changed by the healing that had occurred. These lives, this family, they were somehow more precious, more aware of their connection to each other as a result of what had happened. And by coming back to visit us, each of us in the hospital were changed too. Somehow we were each pulled out of our daily caretaking routines and made mindful of how precious the job of the hospital is: lives are changed by the healing that happens in those walls. Some of it is explainable, some of it not. Healing creates a thin space.
It is in that kind of thin space that we find ourselves in the gospel this morning. Jesus has only known his followers a few days, and for the second time in one day Jesus heals someone. But this time it isn’t a stranger like the story we heard last week in the synagogue. Today it is Simon’s mother-in-law. This is one of their family. And today it isn’t in a public place, but in Simon’s own home. This healing is intimate. It is personal. Jesus raises her up, and the fever leaves her.
As soon as she is healed, she begins to give back, to serve. At the most literal level she may be preparing food or drink. But the word used in the Greek is diakoneo, and this is no menial housework. Her response to being healed is to become the first deacon, though the tradition officially recognizes Stephen with that title. She is raised up and then immediately enters deeper into relationship by serving in ministry. The dean of my seminary, who taught me everything I know about reading the Bible with a feminist lens says it this way: “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). Simon’s mother-in-law is an icon of resurrection and a paradigm of Christian ministry.” Compare that with Simon himself, the first disciple, who in Mark is always confounded by Jesus’ message. In this passage for example, Simon does not serve but requests and compels Jesus to do what he asks. His mother-in-law, on the other hand, simply enters into a ministry of service.
I want to read you two paragraphs of my dean’s interpretation of this story:
“Mark’s gospel invites us to look for experiences of resurrection in everyday life in the lives of families and in the social and political order. A debilitating fever is equivalent to death if one cannot do what is human to do, to serve, to feed, to provide for. To be released from illness and restored to oneself means one can fulfill responsibilities to others. Repair of the bonds of family is a dimension of resurrection. In Mark’s gospel there is no “individual” healing, only those that repair relationship, son to father, daughter to mother, and here, mother to children. Even the unaccompanied woman in the crowd, when healed, becomes “daughter” Mark 5:34.”
“The resurrection life that Jesus proclaims here at the opening of Mark’s gospel and that Christians experience, is not unambiguous or uncomplicated in the world in which we live. The verses that follow this story of resurrection suggest the enormity of the suffering (“the whole city was gathered around the door”) and the toll the ministry takes on Jesus. Mark’s gospel is honest about the opposition to and the cost of proclaiming the good news.”
What I appreciate about this text is that Mark sets the stage for us, the readers, to see that the Christianity arose in homes where the messiness of community life happened, and that the birthplace of holiness is in the midst of lived human experience. Healing and the holiness that comes from it are not set apart in some special place.
And so these thin places, these holy places of healing arise in real relationships, where hurt happens. Where brokenness can’t be ignored. Where illness affects real lives. Because we long for the deeper relationship that healing offers. Because true healing isn’t merely a physical thing: It is about healing the relationships that we are afraid of losing that may stem from physical loss. Healing is about restoring ourselves to relationship with the world around us. Healing viewed this way may even be possible in the midst of the dying process.
Suffering is great in our world. The suffering is so great that when others in our gospel lesson find out there is someone who may be able to create thin places in the midst of heaviness, the whole town comes pounding down the door looking for relief.
There is so much suffering in this world today. There is great need. Voices cry out from all quarters for a way to relieve the burden of living alone; of living together; of fear of being alone or of being together. Where will we find that relief? What kind of healing can relieve such suffering, can restore relationship?
How do we as followers 2000 years later of this One who created thin spaces of restored relationship, of healing, of rebuilt community through miraculous events; how do we endeavor to continue to follow in the ways of service that were so obvious to Simon’s mother-in-law after she had such an experience— especially when the crowds pounding down the door seem so difficult? The protestors at Chicano park, the gun violence in Los Angeles schools, the political maneuvering— and that is just one week.
I don’t know. I have to acknowledge I feel more like Simon than like his mother-in-law. I’d rather demand Jesus return and finish working some more miracles; compelling him to perform some magic to turn the world into the place I think it should be.
But there again is Simon’s mother-in-law in contrast. Responding differently. Serving. Experiencing healing, and witnessing to the holy not by demanding, but by giving. And I wonder how many relationships were deepened because of it.
The Rev Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Epiphany 5B, February 4, 2018
St. Paul’s San Diego
Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.
Briggs Kittridge, Cynthia. “Commentary on Mark 1:29-36.” Preach This Week. Taken on 1/31/2018.