[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 4, 2018 (Epiphany 5, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]
He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
Mark 1:31 (NRSV)
There is a story told of a man who lived in a house in a flood plain. One day, as thick, black storm clouds loomed on the horizon, a flood warning flashed along the bottom of his television screen. The warning advised all residents whose homes were in the flood plain to evacuate as soon as possible. “No need to hurry off,” he said. “If worse comes to worse, God will save me.”
The thick clouds soon blanketed the sky, horizon to horizon. Then the rain began to fall. After a morning of constant rain, the flood waters spilled over the banks of the river and quickly surrounded the man’s house. A police officer in a canoe came down the flooded street to evacuate residents who had stayed behind. “Thanks for stopping by, but I don’t need your help,” the man said. “God will save me.”
The rain kept falling until it had covered the man’s house. Just before the waters covered the second floor, he managed to scurry through an opened window and climb on his roof. After a long while, a National Guard helicopter flew overhead. When the pilot spotted the man on his roof, he circled back, dropped a rope ladder, and urged the man to get in. The man refused, but the piloted insisted, stating that the storm was forecasted to intensify and there would be no more rescue operations that evening. “No thank you,” said the man. “I appreciate you coming by, but God will save me.”
A few hours later, the flood waters covered the man’s house and he, unable to swim, drowned. When he got to the Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, the man said, “I would like to file a complaint.” Saint Peter, unaccustomed to such audacious language, was taken aback.
“To which divine department might I direct your complaint?”
“To God,” the man said.
“What is your complaint?” asked Saint Peter.
“Why didn’t God save me?!” the man asked indignantly. “I had faith that God would save me and God did not. What’s up with that?”
Peter looked at the man curiously. “Let me find your file.” Saint Peter pulled a stack of papers from under his golden desk. His eyes squinted as the poured over the parchment. “Ah. I see here that you died from drowning. My condolences. I also see that you received a news bulletin, and both the police officer and National Guard reservist tried to save you. The question is not ‘why didn’t God save you.’ God tried! There times! What exactly were you waiting for?”
Dear friends in Christ, I have a question for you: what are you waiting for? What holds you back from the work to which God has called you? What prevents you for taking the next steps to deepen your faith and your relationship to God? God tries to reach us over and over again. What are you waiting for?
Our Gospel this morning recalls the story of a Jesus on-the-move. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is in perpetual motion, moving from scene to scene, place to place, town to town, encounter to encounter on his way toward his ultimate destiny in Jerusalem. When we find him today, he is leaving the synagogue and entering the home of two of his disciples – Simon Peter and Andrew. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is ill, so when Jesus comes into the house, he heals her. Her response to her recovery was διακόνει, related to same word from which we derive the word “deacon,” a word that literally means “service.” Curiously, right after this exchange, Jesus goes away to pray and then convinces his disciples to leave Capernaum, even with so much ministry left undone, because they have work to do elsewhere. And thus he goes, on his mission, to his destiny, leaving the people of Capernaum behind.
When I initially read this story, I was troubled by it. I had a challenging time coming to grips with a Jesus who looks human need in the face and turns the other way. Compassion is not a zero-sum game, there is enough to go around, enough to meet every human need, and Jesus turns away, leaving the sick and hurting people of Capernaum with no help.
Or so I thought.
As I wrestled with this story, I kept coming back to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, a woman who stepped out of sickness and into a ministry of service. She never comes back into the text and we aren’t told what happens to her. For the writer of Mark’s Gospel, her purpose in the story is complete; however, for our purposes this morning, I want to draw out her story.
Hadassah had come to live with her daughter Miriam, son-in-law Simon Peter, and his brother Andrew after the death of her own husband. Ancient Roman and Jewish societies mandated the women’s lives be mediated through those of men. With the death of her husband and no living brothers or sons, Simon Peter was the closest male relative she had.
A few days prior, Simon Peter and Andrew had come home from fishing all abuzz about some teacher and “messiah” they had met on the shore who asked them to follow him. Hadassah had heard that there was a new teacher in town the last time she visited the well. She had never met him, but heard he was a student of John the Baptist and something had special happened when he was baptized. Could this be him? Could it really be him?
Following this new teacher, this messiah, this Christ, is as simple as this – being reached by Christ to reach out our hands in loving service to those around us.
Whatever the answer, Hadassah didn’t have time for such fantasies. She had to maintain the household for her family.
One morning, as she and her daughter rose to prepare lunch for Simon Peter and Andrew to eat when the went out fishing, she noticed herself feeling ill. By midmorning her fever left her bedridden. By the time Simon Peter and Andrew returned that evening, she was gravely ill.
The next morning, during the Sabbath, Hadassah was awakened by commotion across the street in the Synagogue. There was a lot of yelling, and she faintly heard the words “Holy One of God” before falling back into a fevered sleep. The next time she awoke, she was greeted by a man standing at the foot of her bed. His eyes were beautifully deep, brown pools that seemed to hold eternity in them. She couldn’t turn away. Something about this man called to her. When he extended his hand to her, she reached back, almost without a second thought. As he pulled her up, she could feel her fever breaking and by the time she was fully upright, she felt well, except that everything had changed. In that brief moment she learned a simple truth: following this new teacher, this messiah, this Christ, is as simple as this – being reached by Christ to reach out our hands in loving service to those around us.
When Jesus and his disciples left that next morning, Hadassah went to the town square. She saw all the men and women who had come from all over the region hoping to be healed. Her heart broke for them because she knew that Jesus wasn’t there anymore. But instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the need, she knelt to the first woman she saw. Her name was Leah and she had a debilitating pain in her leg. Hadassah, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the woman whose life was changed when Jesus reach out to her, didn’t wait for someone else. She reached out to those in need.
What are you waiting for?
Your invitation to follow Christ is here when we gather around this sacred table. When we reach forth our hands to receive the bread and wine, it is Christ himself who invites us to do so. We reach back because Christ has first reached out to us. Each one of us is called to follow the blessed example of Hadassah, to reach out in compassion to those in need around us. Each of us is called to this servant ministry. Each of us is called to follow in the footsteps of the one who said, “the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve.”
A hallmark of the Reign of God is that the Risen Lord leaves willing servants in his compassionate wake. The world is changed when Jesus passes by, not simply because of what he does, but because of what of what he leaves us to do. We are his hands, his eyes, his feet, his heart. Through us, Christ’s loving and saving presence is born anew into a world of darkness and anxiety.
Dear friends in Christ, there is really only one question: Jesus is reaching out to us today. What are you waiting for?
 Mark 10:35 (NRSV)