February 8, 2015
“How are you fixed for socks and underwear?”
This is the response I would hear from my mother whenever I would get overly demanding as a child. Interestingly enough, I seemed to hear it more frequently when I was a teenager. Yet whether I was being a demanding child or a demanding teen, I heard these words in response to my verbal lists of things that I needed or wanted from my mother. “Mama, I need that permission slip signed.” “Mama, I need to sell 50 raffle tickets, by tomorrow.” “Mother, I need my favorite jeans washed or I can’t show my face at school.” “Mother, I need… Well, you get the gist. My mother, who worked full-time inside and outside of the home, would listen to my never ending list of demands; those things I needed her to do for me now, and she would calmly reply, “Okay. How are you fixed for socks and underwear?” This phrase was a vivid reminder to me that the person I was demanding so much of was my mother. She was not a housekeeper, nor a servant. However since I was obviously treating her like the maid, she might as well make sure I had enough socks and underwear too. Although she rarely if ever said, “I was not put on God’s green earth to be your servant,” that’s what her socks and underwear retort meant. I’m your mother, not your servant. Please treat me accordingly. I do not live to serve.
As I read it, “serve” is the critical word in this first part of our gospel passage. To be honest, whenever this text has appeared in the lectionary readings in the past, I’ve either focused solely on the last part of the passage where Jesus goes off to a quiet place to pray, or I’ve avoided it entirely, and preached from one of the other texts given for this Sunday. The reason I’ve done this is because this particular healing story bothers me. It does not bother me that a healing occurred. It does not bother me that it was a woman who was healed, or that the only clue to her identity was being Simon’s mother-in-law. What bothers me is that the minute she was healed, she began to serve. My mother may not have lived to serve, but this woman did. She literally lived to serve.
As I said, this text has bothered me for a long time. I realize that I read, hear, and experience this passage through my own particular lenses: two of them being that I am a 21st century woman and a mother. I’ve long believed that figuring out the length of a mother’s illness is like reading the rings on a tree trunk. The more rings, the older the tree. The higher the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, the longer the mom’s been sick. When I read about Simon’s mother-in-law, it’s hard for me not to think about those times when I’ve been sick in bed. Yet when I finally felt well enough to rejoin my family, I was compelled to immediately start cleaning because the house had fallen apart while I was down for the count. I did not want to feel better only to have to play servant in my own home.
And while traditional gender roles concerning what work is designated women’s and what is designated as men’s are changing, they still exist. As one who has chafed at some of those roles for most of her lifetime, reading a passage about the healing of a woman that seems to imply Jesus healed her solely so that she might serve them is a struggle for me. That’s why I’ve avoided it, rather than dealing with this story and the way it rankles me. However I think my avoidance has deprived me, deprives us, of the beauty that is to be found in this text; specifically in this profound moment of healing.
The story immediately follows Jesus’ exorcism in the synagogue. From there Simon took Jesus and the other disciples to his mother-in-law’s house. We don’t learn her name or anything else about her, except who she was to Simon and that she was sick in bed with a fever. To our ears having a fear may not sound life threatening. High fevers can still be dangerous, but modern medicine has ways of treating them. But modern medicine was not at hand in this situation. There is no reason for us not to think that her illness was potentially fatal. That makes Jesus’ healing of her even more powerful. Just as people marveled at his authority in teaching and casting out demons, he also showed authority in healing. He brought this woman back to life. What’s more, his authority was so unlike any other authority ever witnessed. He needed no words to perform this miraculous healing. He simply took her by the hand and lifted her up.
Why did Jesus do that? Was it because she was Simon’s mother-in-law? Was it because they were hungry and needed dinner? Or was it because that’s what Jesus did. Jesus healed. He healed her because that is what he came to do – to heal the sick in body and mind, to find the lost, to restore those on the outside to community, to give new life. We don’t question his motives for other healings, why question him over this one. Jesus healed her because that’s what Jesus did. He restored this woman to health, and to her rightful place in her household and in her community. She responded by serving.
There’s that word again. Serving. It’s that sentence, that verse that rubs me and a lot of others the wrong way; especially because it has been so abused and misused against women in other contexts and times. I understand that this was a patriarchal society. I understand that a woman’s role and duty was to tend to the household. She was responsible for offering hospitality to others; and as we learn time and time again, hospitality in that culture was not taken lightly. In serving, Simon’s mother-in-law was doing what was required and expected of her. She was restored to health and she responded by serving.
Yet what does the word serving mean in this context? The word in Greek is a version of diakonos; the word our word deacon comes from. Traditionally, the deacons in a church are those who offer pastoral ministry. They help those who are sick, lost, hurting, alone. In other words they serve. This is also the word that Mark used to describe the attentions the angels gave to Jesus after his time in the wilderness. The angels ministered to him. They served him.
Seeing the woman’s actions in this way is eye opening. Her response to being healed by Jesus was just that – response. He healed her. He manifested God’s love for her. She responded by serving. Yes, serving would have been her role and duty at that time, but I can’t help but believe that in that precise moment, she was not serving out of begrudging obligation. She served out of love. She responded to love with love. She lived to serve.
How has Jesus healed you? How has Jesus healed us? I can’t say that I have experienced a physical healing such as this one, but I know that I have had moments when I have felt the tangible presence of Christ right beside me. I know that I have experienced his unconditional love and grace wash over me and his hand take mine and lift me up. In those moments, I have wanted nothing more than to give back, to respond in kind. I wanted nothing more than to live to serve.
Perhaps that is the real purpose of our worship. It seems to me that the foundation of our worship is response. We worship as a way of giving thanks and praise to God in Christ. We worship to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. We worship to refocus and re-prioritize our lives. And in our worship we are reminded of how we have been healed, and how we are covered by grace. Through worship we remember that we are surrounded, enfolded, and embraced by God’s complete love. We remember the new life that we have right now because of that love. So we respond. We serve. We live to serve because God, in love, has first served us.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.