Today, we decided to push nametags for everyone, so I wanted to do something in the sermon that would connect with that. Today’s gospel wasn’t an obvious fit, and in any case, it’s one of those passages that doesn’t preach itself. I finally figured out how to do it, and some of my sermon is below.
But I began in the aisle which isn’t my practice. I began with an allusion to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about welcoming the stranger. At the early service, I asked everyone’s name, and then asked them to talk about the gospel with me. At 10:00, I had people turn to their neighbors. Here’s what I meant to say:
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece in This Week at Grace about welcoming the stranger. It came after a vestry retreat when we had talked about the fact that we need to be more systematic about our welcoming of newcomers, not just visitors who might drop in for a service, but also those people who come for several Sundays. I mentioned the experience of a visiting priest a couple of months ago, who told me after his visit that other than his conversation with me at the door after the service, no one had greeted him with more than the perfunctory handshake at the peace, no one had asked his name, no one invited him to coffee hour.
This week, I had a conversation with another parishioner, who mentioned that she had sat near the back this past Sunday, and looking around saw few familiar faces. Of course, that’s great. It means we are attracting people to our services. But it also means that we all have work to do. We all have to be involved in welcoming visitors and especially inviting them into deeper relationships with us, with our congregation and with God.
So that’s why today is Welcoming Sunday. And that’s why I am going to stop right now and make you do some work. Look around. Is there someone near you in a pew that you don’t know? Someone you’ve seen before but don’t know their name? If you’re visiting, sorry, I’m going to embarrass you. I can promise you though, if you make it through today, we’ll go back to being ourselves next week and won’t bother you. We’re much too polite.
But to make it easier to greet someone you might not know, I’m going to give you an icebreaker. Look at the gospel reading again and think for a moment about what the most interesting thing, the thing that puzzles or surprises you, the thing that challenges you the most, what is it in today’s gospel that you want to know more about? So turn to your neighbor, the one you don’t know, not your spouse or partner, turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself, and talk about today’s gospel. No, I mean it. I’m going to give you a few minutes.
OK. I’m going to ask you to stop now. You can return to your conversations during the peace, after service, and at coffee hour, and I hope you do. But now, I want to hear from you. What are some of the things you talked about? What are some of surprises, puzzles, challenges, that you heard in today’s gospel and would like to know more about?
An obvious one, like Simon’s “mother-in-law.” Why did Jesus command them to keep silent? Why does he seem to run away from the crowds? What’s the relationship between his preaching ministry and his ministry of healing? Good.
In this little stories, in these few verses, Mark has once again packed a world of ideas. First of all, think about the difference in settings between the healing that occurs in today’s story, and the story last week. Last Sunday, a possessed man was rid of an unclean spirit in a public space, in the midst of the synagogue. Today’s story takes place in private, in a home, in domestic space.
There is a difference as well in the healing and in its aftermath. The unclean spirit, recognizes and identifies Jesus—You are the Holy One of God, but wants nothing to do with Jesus, and we don’t know what happens to him after the exorcism. In a way, the possessed man and Simon’s mother-in-law are in the same situation. They are both debilitated by their maladies, and by definition, they are robbed of whatever status and role they might have had. The possessed man can only disrupt synagogue services, and Simon’s mother-in-law is bed-ridden. Jesus’ act of healing, in both cases, restores them to their roles. Simon’s mother-in-law takes her place again, serving Jesus.
Now, we might be inclined to see nothing of interest in that little piece of information, that cured of her illness, Simon’s mother-in-law served Jesus and the others. But it is interesting. It’s interesting not because it is behavior we might expect of a woman in a traditional culture, or too often, in our own. Our culture, indeed our church continues to be conflicted about such roles. In the context of Mark’s gospel and early Christianity, her serving takes on added significance. For one thing, the term used is the greek word, diakonia, which of course is the word from which our own word, deacon, comes. But there’s more. In Mark’s gospel, at the crucifixion, there are women watching from afar, and Mark writes that these women had followed Jesus and “served him” in Galilee. They were his disciples, and as we shall see, in some ways these women were model disciples, disciples who stayed with him, while the men ran away.
To put it clearly. Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is not just about restoring her to her community and to her role. It is about equipping her to be a disciple. She got up and served them. We might be tempted to see this as her simply returning to the traditional, role of a wife and mother in a patriarchal culture. But for Mark, it’s more than that. She stands as a disciple, one who follows Jesus and ministers to him. She stands as a contrast to the unclean spirit who wanted to have nothing to do with Jesus. She also stands in contrast to those other disciples who came looking for Jesus when he went away for prayer and solitude.
This little gospel reading is challenging in so many ways, not because we have to struggle to make meaning out of it, but because it reflects our own situation, our own relationships with Jesus. Imagine the scene, after these two healings, everyone with a problem comes to Jesus. They’ve heard of his miraculous powers, and they want him to help them. We can imagine the scene. Dozens, hundreds of people waiting in line, pressing at him to get his attention, to feel his healing touch. At the end of it all, Jesus is exhausted, worn out, and he goes away by himself to pray and recover. But even then he’s not left alone. His disciples come after him. And what do they do? Do they ask, “How can we help? How can we serve you?” No, they tell him the obvious, that everyone’s looking for you.
Jesus responds enigmatically, saying, we’re not going back. We’re moving on. I’ve got more work to do. “I have to go elsewhere, to other towns, and proclaim the good news there.” Jesus turns his back on Capernaum, he turns his back on whoever back there he might not have healed, or whoever might have come late and missed their chance, and he moves on proclaiming the good news, of the coming of God’s reign.
Mark’s gospel is in many ways a handbook for discipleship. It’s a how-to guide on how to be a disciple. There are clues here and there on what Mark thinks a real disciple is; and Jesus gives instructions along the way to his disciples. But for the most part, it’s a how-not-to guide. Those who are identified as Jesus’ disciples very often, almost always, get it wrong. We see that here, where the one who is not clearly identified as a disciple, serves Jesus; while those who bear the name disciple ignore his needs.
The church, this congregation should be a school for discipleship. We don’t think of it in those terms very often. That’s obvious from the contrast between the numbers who attend Sunday services and the numbers who come to adult forums, or even more, to weeknight offerings of Christian formation. But Jesus calls us to follow him, and we all have, in one way or another, answered that call, probably many or some of us with some ambivalence or uncertainty. Nonetheless, here we are. And in response to that call, we need to take seriously the demands of discipleship, of growing more deeply in our knowledge and faith in God, and growing more deeply in our service to others. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can only do it as we grow more deeply in relationship with one another, to know and share with one another, to reach out a hand when our neighbor stumbles, to bind their wounds. That is the nature of Christian community. That is discipleship.