February 4, 2018
Text: Mark 1:29-39
Mark’s gospel, earliest of the four Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, is not long on detail. We can understand - these were handwritten and hand copied texts, often shared orally. To get to some of the details we have to look at archaeology and historical context; for others we have to compare which verb used in multiple stories implies shared meaning between them. And sometimes, to develop a nuanced story, we use theological imagination.
Today, we’re going to share the same story, told four times, using all these ways to explore its meaning.
Here the story for the first time, as written in the Gospel according to Mark, 1:29-39:
1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue [in Capernaum], they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
1:30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.
1:31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
1:32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
1:33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
1:34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
1:35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
1:36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.
1:37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you."
1:38 He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."
1:39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Let me tell the story to you again.
Jesus had a busy weekend. You know, he was down by the Sea of Galilee when he called Simon and Andrew and James and John, fisherman, to follow him. They didn’t leave home right away - he went with them into Capernaum, a village on the shore of the sea where Simon and Andrew lived with their families. They took him to their synagogue on the sabbath. And this visitor - he preached, he taught, and he cast out a demon. This would have been enough for one Sabbath, mind you, maybe Jesus thought so too - because when they left the synagogue that day, they went to Simon and Andrew’s house. Maybe he wanted to rest up.
Their house: some archaeologists say it was right next to the synagogue, “its northern wall right under the synagogue balcony...to the east of the house, just outside the entrance, was a large open area where a crowd could assemble.”
But there was no moment to rest for Jesus. There, at home, was Simon’s mother-in-law, sick with a fever. This was an ordinary fever, mundane except that fevers killed people pretty often in 1st century Palestine. Jesus went to her and raised her up. That’s what the text says. Jesus raised her up. Now, wait a minute, that’s important: Jesus raised her up - the Greek is Egeiro, and it is the same verb Mark uses for a lot of Jesus’ healings - and it is the same verb used for Jesus’ resurrection. People, it is only a little stretch to say Jesus resurrected her - he restored her to her life and community, “he restored her to her rightful place and role.”  And then she stood up, raised and resurrected, to serve. To serve, the verb is the same as the way the angels ministered to him in the desert, the same as the women who ministered to him even to the cross, the same verb - diakoneo - as when Jesus said, I came not to be served but to serve. She was the first to Deacon.
Night came, the sabbath ended, and new crowds gathered there at Simon’s house, but Jesus did not turn them away. The whole town of Capernaum, those who had heard demons were cast out, those who heard this new preacher, those who had seen James and John drop their nets, those who saw her raised up - they were drawn to that extraordinary grace.
It was a busy weekend for Jesus and early that next morning, he tried to slip away, just for a little while, to a quiet place. Don’t we all need a quiet place? A solitary, quiet, wilderness place. Jesus, who could preach and heal and call, also needed to pray. But they drew him back, and the busy weekend continued.
Hear the story, from Simon’s mother-in-law’s view. Now, Mark does not give us her name, but I would like to give her a name, just for this morning. What name will we give this woman? (In worship, someone suggested Orpah -a name from the book of Ruth, and that is what we used.) Here is how I imagine the story might have felt to her:
She woke up that morning with a fever and body aches and a hacking cough, and Simon said: Orpah, go back to bed. I’m going to bring someone who can help.
It mattered that Simon saw her need.
As Orpah lay in bed, in the house that shared a wall with the synagogue, she heard his sermon. Orpah heard that demon shout out. Orpah heard the congregation gasp. And then, this man came to her house. Simon brought the healer to her! It mattered the Simon saw her need. And it mattered that this extraordinary visitor touched her, lifted her up, raised her.
Yes, the fever was gone.
But there was something else happening.
Orpah was restored to her community, given new joy and new purpose.
I tell you she leapt up and started to plan what she could do to follow him. She began to serve, to minister. She set the table and opened the door and made it possible for more people to know him and follow him. Orpah started the first house church, maybe, made this a place for people to gather near to Jesus.
And then, perhaps... Did she empty her shelves and call her neighbors and ask them to bring food and wine? Did the crowds stay there, balling cloaks into pillows, listening to his good news until they fell asleep in the courtyard? In the quiet before the dawn, did she hear him stir? Did she take him water, and figs and olives? Did she point him to the back gate where maybe he could slip out unnoticed? Did she slip back inside to pack her bags, to join Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John on their journey?
She was raised up to serve; she would follow him the rest of her days.
Hear the story once more:
It takes place in a little village of Newton, three highway exits away from Boston.
As soon as she left worship that day, she drove up the hill to see him. He was just out of the hospital. She had organized the whole congregation to bring meals and on this day she brought soup, and sat with him a while. And then there was dessert, and he practically leapt up out of the chair. She took him by the hand and she raised him up. He couldn’t get to the sanctuary so she brought the church to him, restored him to community, healed him.
He sat at his computer, typing. It’s cold up here. Our grandchildren are well. I read a good book that I’ll send you a copy of. How are you? Mundane, ordinary phrases but they translate to something powerful. They were sent to a man behind bars, a thousand miles away. And those words mean: we have not forgotten you. You are part of our community. You are loved, and known, and remembered.
She called him to talk about Sunday School, from two continents, from two generations, they talked about how they would teach this story. What games would use up fifth grade energy and what words would make sense to the fourth graders and which craft wouldn’t take too long to prepare. And what it meant was that the children know they are loved, treasured, nurtured here.
They gathered in the chapel, around the piano, on a chilly weekday evening. They practiced and they memorized and they listened and they sang. They laughed and hugged and held fellowship and made joyful noise. And the words of the song are: Glory be to God.
She arrived early this morning, with gluten free bread and Welch’s grape juice. She smoothed the tablecloth, and took the thick pottery chalice and paten out of their cabinet, and set the table. She invited the servers, pondering who smiles joyfully and who is excited to serve. It translates to: this is the Open Table, where Christ is the host and all are invited to the feast. You are welcome here.
Early this morning, with the sun still low in the sky, they gathered here, together, in this quiet place. It’s not deserted - it is filled with God’s people. They gave up brunch and skiing, the Times, and extra sleep, they braved the cold and the introverts chose to be with people, they all gathered here in this room to pray, to give glory to God, to feast, to be welcomed, to be restored to community, to be healed, to glimpse for a moment the kingdom of God.
 Douglas Hare, Westminster Bible Companion, Mark volume - quoted by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_4_2018
 Kate Huey, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_4_2018
 Though not quoted directly, other sources of inspiration for this sermon include the Women’s Bible Commentary, Matt Skinner’s Commentary on this passage at workingpreacher.org, and the Feminist Companion to Mark, edited by Amy-Jill Levine.