February 4, 2018, Free to Serve – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000062
Today, Mark continues to tell us what happened on a certain Sabbath Day in the little fishing village of Capernaum, in the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Last week we read how Jesus had everybody dumbfounded by his teaching, compared to what they were used to hearing from the Scribes. It was kind of like the difference between hearing a scholarly paper read by a first year medical student, as compared to watching a world-class surgeon actually perform a heart transplant. There was just no comparison.
The reading today continues when Jesus and four of his disciples – the only four who had been chosen so far – went back to Simon Peter’s house for dinner. It was the family home: Simon and his brother lived there, and Simon’s family as well, because his mother-in-law also lives there. This family home became the house that Jesus and his disciples returned to as a kind of home base throughout Jesus’ years of ministry, and in fact. archeologists have uncovered an eight-sided building near the synagogue in Capernaum. It is quite likely that that building is the very same house where Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and healed her of her fever. And Mark, who heard the story from Simon Peter himself, tells us that when she was healed, that good lady got up and began to serve them all.
It is so wonderfully natural and believable a story. Just imagine any older woman you know, finding herself suddenly well again, and her men home from church or synagogue, with at least three extra mouths to feed on top of the whole family (and we have no idea how big that household might have been) – we all know that the first thing she would do would be to tie on her apron and see about getting some food on the table.
We don’t often get to hear what people went on to do after Jesus healed their disease or set them free from demons or restored their sight, what happened when they returned to ordinary life. Iin the story about the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law we get to see that her healing became an opportunity to serve. And it’s here in black-and-white for us, because that’s not just a mother-in-law thing, it’s not just a woman thing. Simon’s mother-in-law, whose name we don’t even get to know, is a sign for all of us: because the truth is that all human beings are most perfectly well and whole when they are serving others. We all know that old saying that it’s more blessed to give than to receive, and we also know that it’s a fact. The times in our life when we are most filled with joy, when we feel most satisfied, when we feel most ourselves, are not those times when we are being admired and waited on hand and foot – they are those times when we forget ourselves in giving to others. It might be as profound and life-changing as our love for our spouse or our children, or as simple as serving out chicken and biscuits for our neighbor. But something deep in all our hearts knows the rightness of being a servant.
It is that very pattern of servanthood that Jesus came to model for us. On the same day that he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, when the word had spread about what Jesus was able to do, the whole village showed up at the door and Jesus attended to each person’s needs and hurts, healing all manner of illnesses and setting people free from the demons that oppressed them, one by one, hour after hour.
But servanthood didn’t always come naturally to his disciples. He had to explain it to them and remind them continually. When they got into arguments about who was better than who, as they did more than once, Jesus sat them down. “You know how it works in the world,” he told them. “In the world the great and powerful get all the glory and lord it over everybody else. But that’s not how we do it. In the kingdom of God the greater person serves the lesser. And the one who wants to be number one – he has to be the servant of all.”
It was the lesson he was teaching his disciples continually, day after day, and right up until his last night with them, when he got up from the table and wrapped a towel around his waist and shocked them all by kneeling at their feet like a servant to wash their feet. It shocked them, even though he had been with them for three years, day and night, teaching them and showing them by everything he said and everything he did and everything he was. Servanthood doesn’t come naturally to us.
And the reason for that is that one of the most basic ways sin has pulled the wool over the eyes of mankind and corrupted the very sense of what it is to be human, is that it has made us forget who we are. We were formed by God in the beginning to be servants. Adam was not set in the midst of the first garden to sit in a hammock and drink lemonade. He was put there to serve, to tend the plants and to care for the animals, giving each its proper name. When God gave mankind, male and female, dominion over his creatures, it was as a servant. And when Eve showed up, it was as a helper suitable for Adam, as a fellow servant. It is the greatest glory of humanity that we are created, not in solitude from each other and the rest of creation, but as servants of one another and of our fellow creatures, of all kinds.
And if you feel any discomfort hearing that, it is because some of the most terrible and destructive evil that sin has brought into the world is to corrupt and distort and ruin the goodness of serving. Because if it is true that loving service is the height of human identity, then it is also true that enforcing servitude on our fellow creatures in any way is the demonic opposite – the destroyer of our identity, the great de-humanizer. No evil is more terrible than good that has been twisted and poisoned by greed and self-interest. Every abuse of power in the history of mankind: slavery, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, the oppression of the poor – all of these are cruel perversions of the true servanthood we were created for. Sin has made servanthood ugly.
Because true servanthood, as Jesus modeled it for us by his own life, true servanthood is the opposite of slavery – it is perfect freedom. It is only in wholeness and joy, in the confidence of knowing ourselves to be beloved children and worthwhile human beings, that we can really enjoy the freedom to serve others with the kind of extravagant grace that Jesus had toward all people: lepers, the blind and deaf and lame, little children and elderly people, men and women, rich and poor – and especially the poor.
The problem is that living in this world most of us have come face to face with the corruption of servanthood in our lives. None of us have been enslaved – although slavery is still a horrible reality in our world – but many of us, right here, have suffered the abuse of corrupt authority: an abusive spouse, or a cruel parent, or a harsh and unjust employer. It’s no wonder at all that people tend to think of servanthood, any kind of servanthood, as suspicious at best and oppressive at worst, something that detracts from the quality of human life rather than enriching it, something we would only wish to be set free from, or else, maybe most terribly, something God wants us to endure because we aren’t good enough for anything better.
When Jesus stood up to teach in the synagogue in Nazareth, he announced, “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, and liberty those who are oppressed…” The first need of the world, our first need is to be healed and set free from those things that have perverted and corrupted our true freedom and humanity. We need to be healed from the hurts of those who put chains of blame or fear on us, or who used us for their own ends. We need to be healed from our own abuses of power, from the times we took advantage of those we considered beneath us, out of our pride and self-interest and greed.
Like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, we need Jesus to take us by the hand and raise us up from all has crushed us and frustrated us, year after year. We need him to speak words of healing to each one of us, to restore us in all that has oppressed us and made us less than we were created to be. We need him to cure us of the blindness and selfishness that has sometimes allowed us to us to make use of people instead of being useful to them. Because when we have been healed, then, and only then can we begin to live in the joy and freedom of true servanthood, as Jesus lived it out among us, who is our Teacher and Master and Lord, and also the one who lived and died for love of us, and who continues to live in loving service to us.
I’d like us to close by praying together, slowly, the prayer of St. Augustine that Karen has printed on the back page of the bulletin today.
Eternal God, you are the light of the minds that know you. the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you. Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom. Amen.