The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday February 4, 2018.  

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When you combine last week’s gospel reading with this week’s you have roughly a 24-hour time period starting on the Sabbath and ending on a Sunday morning. Combined they give us “a day in the life” of Jesus and his first disciples.

On this particular day, we see Jesus performing miracles by healing one person of demon possession and another of an ordinary fever.  We see Jesus at work in the public setting of the synagogue and the private setting of the disciples’ home. We see him interacting with men and with women, with individuals and with crowds, and then, thankfully, we see him taking some private time to himself to regroup and to pray. And, in typical Mark fashion, most of these things happen “immediately.”

Immediately Jesus goes to the synagogue, the disciples tell Jesus about Simon’s mother in law “immediately” and so on.

Because these readings are early in Mark’s gospel, we are also witnessing a lot of “firsts.”  This is the first exorcism, and the first healing of a physical ailment recorded by Mark.

Today’s gospel also gives us a glimpse into the home life of some of the disciples. Simon and Andrew live in the same house, for example, and Simon has a mother in law so he must have gotten married at some point.  Although there is no mention of his wife in this passage, thereisa passage in 1 Corinthians that infers that in his later life Simon may have taken his wife with him on some of his missionary journeys. (1 Corinthians 9:5)

Now it’s confession time everybody. How many people snorted or thought something sarcastic when you listened to the gospel Gladiola read tonight? Specifically when she read the sentence directly after the description of Jesus healing Simon’s mother in law, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Anyone else snort? Or think something really sarcastic?

“Nice job Jesus, you healed her just in time to make supper!”

Anyone else?

Oh good, I didn’t think I could possibly have been the only person here to have that reaction.

What is going on in this story?

I haven’t read every single commentary ever written on this passage, but in the dozen or so I did page through, I noticed some themes. There seem to be two main ways to interpret this passage.

The first, and by far the most common, is to largely ignore Simon’s mother in law and to pay very little attention to this story of healing.  To maybe note that given how early this is in the gospel that the point of this story is to demonstrate Jesus’ power and ability to heal. It shows the breadth and depth of Jesus’ power, and there is nothing else left to say about it. The point, in this school of interpretation, is that Jesus is able to heal people. The point is not to think about the types of people Jesus heals or how that healing might impact their lives.

The reason, therefore, that we are told in the gospel that Simon’s unnamed mother in law gets up from her bed and begins to serve them is simply to prove that Jesus has in fact healed her and she is well enough to do so.

In the second school of interpretation, the focus is less on Jesus’ ability to heal and more on the people being healed.  If we read the gospel in this way, we will look carefully at the impact that Jesus’ healing had on Simon’s mother in law.  The person who was healed and the impact of that healing on their life, not just the act of healing itself come into focus.

Jesus heals her and immediately she gets up and begins to serve him.

What did she serve him? A sandwich?

How did she serve him? Willingly? Grudgingly? Was there something about being healed that transformed her service?

There may have been. It’s possible that Simon’s mother in law rose from her bed and made Jesus a sandwich. It’s also possible that she arose from her sick bed  – healed both of her fever and the demands of the patriarchal culture she lived in -and took her rightful place at Jesus’ side as a disciple.

It all depends on how you understand the word that is translated into English as “serve.”

The word that is translated here as “serve” is also the same root word as our word “deacon” and it is used in a few other places in Mark’s gospel to describe the actions of the angels who “serve” Jesus in the desert, and the women who “serve” Jesus by following him to Jerusalem.  It’s also a word that Jesus will use to describe himself when he says, “I came not to be served, but to serve.” (10:45) So it might be less about making sandwiches in the kitchen and more about work in the public sphere.

Scholars also point out that this is the first in a series of incidents in Mark’s gospel in which a woman’s actions are praised as an example of a right response to an encounter with Jesus. (poor widow, woman with the ointment, women at the cross and at the tomb) In contrast, the male disciples actions will often, although not always, be shown to be examples of a wrong response – bickering over who gets the best seats in heaven, for example.

This text can therefore be seen as the early stages of an argument that will be developed throughout the gospel of Mark, that a person whose life has been transformed by an encounter with Jesus will be a person who lives a life in service to others. A person who will humbly put others first, rather than being concerned about things like rank and station.

If this is true, then Simon’s unnamed mother-in-law is really a model of Christian discipleship, and not just a model for other women, a model for everyone who wants to follow Jesus.

Simon’s mother in law can be seen as the embodiment of the type of discipleship that Jesus will embody in his own life and ministry, and which he will call his disciples to emulate.  A type of service, that his male disciples will often fail to live up to.

One commentator goes so far as to say, “both at the outset and at the conclusion of Mark’s gospel, women, in a society which devalued them, are identified as the true disciples…. Mark is serving notice that patriarchal theology and the devaluation of women will be overturned.”  (Mark and Empire, 52-53)

I like this reading, I like it a lot. It sits well with that initial feeling I had that caused me to snort and think sarcastic thoughts.  It sits well with my strong desire to see someone who looks like me in the gospel narratives.

And yet, just as with the first school of interpretation, something about this second way of reading the gospel didn’t sit right with me this week.

Something that made it impossible for me to simply present this interpretation as gospel truth to you this evening.

And it’s this.

Why is it so important to me that Simon’s mother in law didn’t make Jesus a sandwich? Why would I prefer that the text clearly articulate that she took on some sort of leadership role among the disciples while some other unnamed person was in the kitchen making dinner. Does that, perhaps, say more about me than it does about this story?

In addition to preparing this sermon, here are a few other things that happened to me this past week.  I officiated a funeral service last weekend – for someone outside the saint ben’s community – and it got me thinking about my Grandmother, who also died this past year.

It is true to say that my Grandmother and I loved each other and we knew we loved each other. It is equally true to say that we didn’t really understand each other’s life choices. We both believed it was important to love and serve God, but we had very different views on what that service should – and even could look like.

My grandmother was a pastor’s wife. I’m a pastor.

Once, when I was in university I was visiting my Grandmother and we spent an afternoon looking through photo albums. As she thumbed through the pages of neatly organized photos and other memorabilia – mother day cards, wedding invitations – she told me story after story. I remember being so impressed by her quiet life of service and the care she had taken in preserving those memories.

I also realized, that in that household, there was no pastor, without a pastor’s wife. My grandfather’s service was more public, more noticeable, much easier to acknowledge and praise, but he only preached, taught, counseled and did all the things he did because when he went on a preaching trip, my grandmother washed and ironed his shirts and packed his suitcase.  And she managed the house and looked after the kids when he was away. And when he came home, she fed him. And not just sandwiches either.

They both served in very different ways, but to imply that one way of being was better than the other is to miss the point.  There are valid questions around the choices my Grandmother had and what she may had done if she’d had more options, but that is not the same as saying that the person who serves in a public way is doing something more important than the person who serves behind the scenes.

So perhaps, the challenge of this gospel isn’t simply to identify which side of  a black and white debate we side with.  Perhaps the question is not did Simon’s mother in law arise from her sick bed and make Jesus a sandwich or did she arise and take her place with the disciples. Perhaps she did both. Perhaps she arose from her bed, healed, a disciple of Jesus equal in his sight to all the other disciples… and then she made him a sandwich.

Perhaps, given that this is not the only example of service in the gospels, and it’s not even the only example of service performed by a woman in the gospels, perhaps there is no reason to infer from this passage that because one woman made a sandwich, all women have to make sandwiches. Maybe we can simply say, “sandwich making is a valid form of service.”  “

This is not to erase all the problematic questions the text raises such as “why does Mark identify this woman only by her relationship to Simon and not tell us her name?” or “given the patriarchal nature of the culture was she really free to choose the public sphere over the private one or was the kitchen really her only option?”  “Was sandwich making a choice or her only option?” Those are all good and valid questions.

But in asking them, and I am often guilty of this, we need to be careful not to rush to privilege some forms of service over others.

We need to work to remove barriers to some kinds of service – like the priesthood – so that more people can freely exercise their call to that form of ministry, while also being careful not to invalidate or create new types of barriers around other forms of service like ironing linens or baking communion bread, both essential acts of service that can sometimes be thought of as “women’s work,” that are currently being done by men in our community.

I’m a pastor, but I don’t have a wife. I will never be able to pastor in the way my Grandfather did, and that’s OK.  I’m a woman, but while I value the work by Grandmother did, I don’t want to be a pastor’s wife either.

Right now, in my basement on my drying rack, you’ll find tea towels I use in my kitchen, and some of the linens we use for communion hanging side by side. And there is something really beautiful and holy about that and it has something to teach me, if I’ll let it.

Kathleen Norris talks about this in her book, The Quotidian Mysteries.

She begins by describing her first experience  attending mass in a Roman Catholic church. The whole process felt strange and alien to her until she nudged her husband and said, “Look.,… look at that! The priest is cleaning up! He’s doing the dishes!”

She says that this realization, “brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning. It welcomed me, a stranger, someone who did not know the responses of the mass, or even the words of the sanctus. After the experience of the liturgy that had left me feeling disoriented, eating and drinking were something I could understand. That and the housework. This was my first image of the mass, my door in, as it were, and it has served me well for years.” (3)

I think it is good to challenge gospel texts and ask hard questions. If something makes us snort out loud, it’s especially good to wrestle with that.

But with this text in particular, I think we would be missing the point if we take it to mean that ways of serving that have sometimes been called “women’s work,” are either things that only women can do, or are things that are of lesser importance to other ways of serving.

Because not everyone loves writing sermons, and sometimes what a person really needs is a sandwich.  Thank God that we have people who can do both.

By the way, the details of our Lenten series are now up on the website and this year we are going to be exploring what Kathleen Norris calls “quotidian mysteries-” which is basically the fanciest way to say “ordinary things” I’ve ever heard.  We’re going to be exploring the various ways that some members of our community have found something beautiful and holy in the ordinary.  I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll be able to join us.