Mother in laws can’t seem to catch a break. What other relative gets made fun of so much? They are immortalized on the big screen with a movie entitled “Monster-in-law.” They have a blog column dedicated to their antics called “Mothers in brawl.” Even Pope Francis got on the bandwagon on Valentine’s Day a few years back when he addressed a crowd in Peter’s Square saying, “We all know the perfect family does not exist. The perfect husband does not exist and the perfect wife does not exist,” he said. Then, after pausing as if for comic effect, he added: “Let’s not even talk about perfect mothers-in-law.” It is reported that the crowd roared with laughter.
Our gospel lesson today, however, paints a different picture. It is Peter’s mother-in-law, his wife’s mother, not his mother, who is at his home, very ill in bed. The text raises some intriguing questions: was she a widow? Why wasn’t she in her husband’s care, or more traditionally in her own son’s care, or her brother or uncle’s care, which might be more expected. We don’t know her circumstances. We do know that Simon has opened his home to her and now she has taken ill. The word “fever” also means “to be on fire” and is found only in this story in the gospels. She was ill enough that as soon as they left the synagogue, they went to Peter’s house, and told Jesus about her condition at once. Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up. She is cured and in turn immediately begins to serve them.
In the passage before this in Mark, Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit by rebuking the demon on the Sabbath. In doing so, Jesus broke the religious law about working on the Sabbath. Once more Jesus breaks the Sabbath rules by curing this woman. This is the first-person in Mark’s gospel that Jesus heals. Jesus touches an ill person, an ill woman, a double whammy. We see on the first day of public ministry Jesus manages to break three rules: working on the Sabbath, touching an ill person (rendering himself unclean in the process), and touching an unrelated woman, Peter’s mother-in-law.
Jesus sets a new standard for Sabbath observance: healing and restoring people, families, communities is holy. It is as part of worship as our prayers, readings of scripture and singing of psalms and hymns. It is part of God’s redemptive plan in Christ. Lifting up the downtrodden and confronting evil is an integral part of the teaching Jesus proclaims. What an impact Jesus’ message in word and deed had. By nightfall, the whole city was gathered at the door of Simon Peter’s house. The whole city! And Jesus continues curing those who were sick, casting out demons. Everyone was searching for him. Everyone was searching for hope – a renewed life – to be lifted up, like Peter’s mother-in-law.
In this amazing story that lifts up a mother-in-law, cured and loved, we discover something important that sets an example for us. The text tells us that once the fever left her, she began to serve them. Maybe she got them lunch, or a snack, or an ice-cold drink on a hot, balmy day. What’s the big deal in this?
The first time we heard that Jesus was served in Mark, is back at v. 13, which states: “3 He (Jesus) was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark uses the same word – so we can say the angels served Jesus. Later in chapter 15, the first women who faithfully went to tomb to anoint Jesus’ body that Easter Sunday morning, the first witnesses to the resurrection, were the same group that Mark says provided for Jesus; or served him. (15:41). It is the same word that Jesus uses three times again in Mark when he lays down the fundamentals of faithful living:
In chapter 9 Mark records: 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”9:35 then later in Chapter 10, Jesus again reminds his disciples: 43 … whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, … 5 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 10:43:45.
Our English word “deacon” comes from the word for serving that Mark uses in the gospel. Deacons are recognized from the early church as servant-leaders -- in many Christians traditions, including the Presbyterian denomination, deacons are an ordained office of the church, as along with ruling elders and ministers.
This service ranged from offering the basics of hospitality to providing financial and spiritual support. To serve, as our mother-in-law did, is a decision to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the divine Servant of all. So, it has been said, that our mother-in-law is not only the first woman healed by Jesus, she is also the first disciple to live out her faith in service.
It is easy to overlook that simple phrase: “she began to serve them.” She didn’t get up to go play with the grandkids, to catch up with the neighbors, or to look after herself. She was sick, indeed very sick, in bed. No one would have blamed her if she continued to convalesce in bed. But she didn’t. Jesus’ healing not only cured her body, but it left a mark on her spirit that she just had to get up and do something for others. It is a natural consequence of coming in contact with Jesus. In Christ we are healed, we are touched, we are lifted up, we are restored in order to be restorers. That’s the hallmark of true spirituality – the sign that Jesus is present in our lives: we serve.
All of us have a fever of one kind or another. Not all fevers are physical. Some of our fevers are spiritual or emotional, or mental. Some of us burn with anger. Ambition. Some of us feel the heat of unreached goals, or unrequited love. Who hasn’t felt the heat of some form of sin. Some of us have another kind of fever – a fever to find a place in the world. A longing we can’t put our finger on. To feel connected to something or someone significant.
The fevers that ravage our body, our minds, our very soul – they lay us low. They keep us down. They knock us off our feet and cripple us. So, we live fevered lives – until we feel the hand of Jesus lifting us up – replacing the fever with a focus – a purpose, an understanding that we are godly servants. Whether we serve with the angels, at the dinner table, providing support for God’s mission, or ministering to the oppressed, the sick and dying – serving lifts us up.
A church I used to serve at had this saying in their bulletin: “our worship has ended now our service begins!” What service has God lifted us up to? Whether you are a teacher, a musician, a business person, a parent, a student, or a mother-in-law, we all have the ability to help. What is First Presbyterian Church of Freeport lifted up to do? Who needs lifting up in the community? We are lifted up to love, to care, serve.These are the questions that lead us to healing and renewal. Let Jesus’ touch lift us today, in worship, so as we can say, as worship ends, let our service begin. Thanks be to God!