As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
I, like many of you, am no stranger to fevers. About seven years ago this month I traveled to Tampa, Florida for a conference and came down with what I thought was food poisoning, on the very first night I was there. I couldn’t think of anything else that could make me so sick, so quickly, for I was in bed for three days with a very high fever, night chills, and the expulsion of some really inhumane bodily fluids. It took me about two weeks to fully recover, until I encountered the same illness just two months later in April. This prompted a trip to a gastroenterologist, and an eventual colonoscopy, but these tests returned negative results. My next business trip in July returned me to Tampa again, where I suffered the same fate; three days in bed with a near visit to the hospital. But I persevered, and since I did not want to be stuck in the hospital in such a foreign country, I made my flight home; clutching the barf bag throughout the next 6 hours. My doctor became increasingly concerned and ordered CAT scans and X-rays trying to locate the cause of my symptoms. While waiting for these results I fell ill again in August for a period of three weeks, this time suffering a fever of 104 degrees for two and three days at a time. Perplexed and bewildered, my doctor sent me to several specialists trying to identify a diagnosis and possible treatment. Throughout September and October I gave up at least a dozen vials of blood for testing, several more expensive computer imaging scans, lost 20 pounds, and racked up more medical bills than I’ve had in the last 30 years combined. My doctor suspected a variety of possible health issues that might be responsible for these symptoms…everything from lymphoma to Ulcerative colitis. My family and friends grew concerned for my well-being.
Now even as I retell my story I can almost re-experience the emotional desperation during that health crisis. And I know that many of you have probably experienced this same fear, and are perhaps struggling with serious health issues now. And I bring all this up this morning to help us empathize with our gospel story. Last week we experienced chaos in our sacred story when the demon possessed man disrupted worship in the synagogue. Jesus confronts the craziness of the situation by speaking truth to the man, and heals him. By the time Jesus leaves the synagogue for Simon's house, he's already a sensation, but Simon's mother-in-law is too sick to notice. This is no cold or flu, but a fever that endangers her life, isolates her from the community, and prevents her from fulfilling her role and duties at home.
Now there are a few words in our text that have very unique meanings in the Greek that we don’t quite get in an English translation. First, the Greek word for being sick with a fever is pyressousa. The root word is pyre, which means fire. Webster’s dictionary gives two definitions for fever:
1. (n.) A diseased state of the system, marked by increased heat, acceleration of the pulse, and a general derangement of the functions, including usually, thirst and loss of appetite. Well, that could sound like some of our Vestry meetings in the past.
But the second definition is; 2. (n.) Excessive excitement of passion in consequence of strong emotion; or a condition of great excitement. This definition reminds me of a condition suggested in Peggy Lee’s 1958 hit, “Fever.”
Never know how much I love you;
never know how much I care.
When you put your arms around me,
you give me fever that's so hard to bear.
You give me fever, when you kiss me,
fever when you hold me tight.
Fever, in the morning, fever all through the night.
Now, to the audience of Mark’s gospel, it was demonic forces that were usually attributed to fever. You will notice verse 31 says that the fever “left her” upon her healing; as if some hostile entity was to blame. So to the ancient community hearing this story their immediate assumption is probably that something is spiritually wrong with Simon’s mother-in-law.
The second interesting thing in our text is in verse 29; the Greek word for house is oikia. Now that’s not Ikea, but it is close. Oikia describes more than just a physical structure, but a meeting space for family and relatives, a privileged place of the community. It is in this communal place that Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. The same Greek verb that describes Jesus action of lifting her up is the same verb for Jesus’ resurrection at the end of Mark. But more importantly is the response of Simon’s mother-in-law in verse 31; and immediately she begins to serve them. The Greek term here is diakonisa, which is where we get the term deacon and deaconess; service is the key topic in the call and pursuit of Jesus. Notice that Jesus did not command her, but it was her response to being healed. She responds to this gift with service. We cannot interpret this service as some kind of menial work, but as true messianic ministry. She becomes Jesus’ first deacon; the first servant of the church of Jesus. She understands the message of the Jesus’ Gospel even before the disciples get it.
What makes this healing so beautiful is because it happens in a home; the oikia which reflects the earliest Christian communities, were house churches. These meetings in homes made the life of the community possible; they were the missionary platforms, a welcome place for itinerant preachers, and they provided economic support for the growing Christian movement. Christianity was nurtured and affirmed in these social, not sacred spaces. We experience this same kind of oikia when we gather for small groups in the homes of Debbie and Harold Leaman, Deborah Redmon, Brenda and Lynne Frye, Kristy and JoBeth Petty, even in the church fellowship hall. The Jesus movement spread in daily life, in small communities where service to others was the mark of the Gospel. And friends, our small group leaders are the deacons among us, as they serve the spiritual needs of our church. Simon’s mother-in-law understood this long before any of the male disciples of Jesus did.
This story raises a question that we all struggle with. How can we belong to our community of faith if we can't find our place, or fulfill our role? The structure and purpose of church has evolved quite a bit over the last two thousand years. The reasons for being a part of a worshiping community in the first century after the death of Jesus are probably quite different from our reasons in the 21st century. You see, from the moment of Jesus’ first day of ministry he and his followers were on dangerous ground. Once Jesus spoke those first words at his baptism he became a heretic, an outlaw, a marked man. Jesus knew the danger he was in. Throughout the gospel of Mark Jesus continually tells his followers and those healed by him, not to speak a word of those miracles to anyone. He repeatedly talked about his impending death. And I personally believe that he tried to put off the inevitable for as long as possible until he could spread his message as far and as wide as was possible. He knew he had a job to do, and he wanted to complete that God given vocation. He was intentional about “clocking in” on God’s ministry time card.
What strikes me about today’s gospel text is the tenacity in which Jesus followed that calling. If we were to imagine his ministry as a time card, then he never really clocked out. He never stopped ministering to the sick and those afflicted by evil. The text says he healed their sick bodies and expelled the evil spirits. He did this until late in the night—and then got up early before dawn to pray and recharge his spiritual power.
Simon’s mother-in-law is a central figure in the text because it gives us a model for following Jesus. Jesus took her hand and lifted her up from the bed. And at that moment her fever of the body turned into a passion for service. Jesus took away her diseased state and gave her a new spiritual fervor, a passionate emotional response to serving this new family of faith.
I finally received a long awaited diagnosis in early December after suffering 10 months of such a strange and baffling illness. An infectious disease specialist discovered that I had a parasitic micro-organism called giardia, often called the travelers bug on top of an emerging celiac condition related to gluten insensitivity. He suspected that I had picked this up when traveling to Brazil in 2004 for a ministry trip and it lay dormant in my body for 8 years before wreaking havoc in my body. But 10 days on prescription medicine and a strict gluten-free diet my body was cleansed, and my health was restored. And while a quick fix may not be the remedy for the dis-eases that plague our communities and our world, I do believe that the touch of Jesus is the cure for what ails us. All throughout the gospels Jesus touches the troubled and tormented with his compassion and love and they are healed from their afflictions and reconciled to their community, just like Simon’s mother-in-law. And their response is to always serve their healer.
Let us be as Jesus; touching our world with compassion and turning them into followers of the Christ. As each of us commit to daily clocking into our responsibility as Christ-bearers, then the walls of this church will not be able to contain his disciples. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, and for some people, you might be the only Jesus they will ever meet.
You know, Peggy Lee was on the right track. But I’ve asked Emily to sing it with me the Holy Trinity way.
They’ll never know how much you love them;
never know how much you care.
You’ve gotta put your loving arms around them,
give them a fever they have longed to share.
Give them God’s fever, when you touch them,
fever when you hold them tight.
Fever, in the morning, fever all through the night.
Fever, not just on Sunday, but fever all through the week.
Fever, in our homes and workplace,
and fever in the way we speak.
Give them God’s fever, when you touch them
Fever shining with God’s light.
Fever, in the morning, fever all through the night.
And everybody said, Amen!
Let us pray.
O God of our being, we recognize and celebrate the fevers that Jesus takes away, and the passion he gives us in return. Thank you for the signs of his love and commitment to making us servants of his kingdom. Open our eyes so that we may see the opportunities for serving our world. Empower us that we may be Christ’s hands and feet in the ongoing labor of caring and compassion. Let us never deride or put down those opportunities for humble service. But give us patience and humility that we need in order to do our daily work with joy. In all things, teach us to respond in love and not hate. And grant us the ability to show others the way to your grace. In the name of the one who showed us the way—Amen!