Jesus and his disciples, including James and John, left the synagogue and went straight to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever, and as soon as Jesus arrived, he was told about her. He went to her, took her by the hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them.
We are in the latter part of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St Mark this week, and it’s a scene that I think would make very acceptable day-time television. It is very ’G’ rated.
This is not typical of the Gospel stories, despite what you might have heard. Mark’s Gospel in particular is about 50% crucifixion narrative, which is hardly a kid-friendly narrative. Even so, if the Biblical writers had added chapter titles to their stories, this one might have been entitled, “Jesus heals somebody’s mum”, and that’s basically what this passage is about.
Jesus heals somebody’s mum – specifically, Simon Peter’s partner’s mum – and this is followed by some more healings, after which there’s some praying, and after which Jesus moves on to another town to do some more teaching, healing and praying. It’s all very ‘G’ rated – all very acceptable for daytime TV.
Yet I think we know why this particular Gospel story of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has never featured highly in TV dramatisations of the Gospels, despite its apparent wholesomeness, and it’s because it would make relatively boring television. It’s not really a very exciting story.
Now I don’t want anybody to recoil at me using the word ‘boring’ in connection with the Bible, and I’m sure that ‘boring’ is never really the right way to describe a miraculous healing, but I appreciate too that for many of us who have been reading the Gospel stories on a regular basis for most of our lives, we do start to get a little desensitised to Jesus’ healing miracles after a while. The first healing we read about blew our minds, but after the 1000th miracle you do start to ask yourself, ‘I wonder why Mark bothered to include this one?’
With last week’s reading, it was obvious why Mark included it – the crazy guy roaming about the synagogue, screaming, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth” and carrying on until Jesus performed a rather spectacular exorcism on him. This week though it’s somebody’s mum in bed with a fever, and maybe it was a life-threatening deadly virus, but it could have equally been a touch of the flu, and Jesus’ healing of her, and the various other sick people who follow her, seems relatively unspectacular. Another miracle …
You may have heard of the Irish woman, pulled over by the police for driving erratically, and when the woman rolled down the window of the car the officer could immediately smell alcohol. “Have you been drinking?”, the officer asks. “Oh no”, says the woman, “not a drop”. “Then can I ask you what you’ve got in that flask ”, the officer asks. “Ah … that’s water”, she says. The officer reaches in, undoes the flask and takes a look for himself. “This appears to be wine”, he says. “Mother of God”, she says, “Another miracle!”
And I suspect that some of us are tempted to respond in a similar sort of way here: ‘Mother of God, another miracle‘. For Jesus was always performing miracles, and after a while they do seem a little routine, unless, of course, you are the one on the receiving end, in which case no miracle is routine.
Most of you will remember, I think, that I had my own somewhat miraculous if unspectacular healing experience at the end of last year, where I spent two weeks in hospital and where both the medical staff and I certainly reached a point where nobody was sure whether I was still going to be moving when I eventually left the hospital! As one rather frank, young Chinese intern said to me, “We try everything on you. We don’t know what wrong with you!”
And then all of a sudden they did work out what was wrong with me – an illness normally reserved only for intravenous drug users – and just as quickly as I had gone down into fever and helplessness, so was I raised back to my feet!
Fantastic … for me. But for the staff at the hospital, another miracle, and when the annals of that great hospital are eventually committed to history in some great multi-volumed tome, I do not expect that the story of my particular healing will rate a mention, which brings me back to my initial question: why did Mark, the Gospel writer, bother recording this story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, who was running a temperature until she met Jesus?
It wasn’t because it was a particularly spectacular event, but I suspect that it might have been largely because it is so ordinary, and because the healing of this ordinary person was sort of archetypal in the mind of the Gospel writer – paradigmatic of the way Jesus works with all of us ordinary people. In other words, I think Mark has included this story because we can all see something of ourselves in this story
Listen again to the way Mark tells it:
“as soon as Jesus arrived, he was told about her. He went to her, took her by the hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them”
It reads to me as something like a dance step – something that has a beautiful rhythm to it, almost something that should be put to music.
He went to her
He took her by the Hand
He helped her up
The fever left.
It’s a sort of dance of compassion, where Jesus chooses this woman as his partner, takes her by the hand, and waltzes her into new life and health. Can you see something of yourself in this? Is this not our experience?
Jesus comes to us. He takes us by the hand. He lifts us up. We are made whole. Jesus leads us in His dance of compassion. And as modelled for us here, this dance of compassion is one that engages us as active partners. With Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand, helps her up and heals her, and she, for her part, we are told, ‘serves Him‘.
This may have only literally meant that only that she went and made Jesus and His friends a cup of tea. She waited on them. But I think we’re meant to see in this too a part of the divine pattern. Her response to the healing power of Jesus is that she serves Him! She joins the dance, so to speak! She is no longer an unwilling participant, dragged on to the dance floor by an aggressive partner, but an active partner in the dance of faith.
He took her by the hand, He lifted her up, He healed her and she served Him. This is the dance of compassion that becomes the dance of faith, and the great thing is that it doesn’t matter how terrible a dancer you are.
I, like most men, don’t have a clue which foot to put in front of the other. Before Ange and I were married I had to have my boxing trainer teach me how to waltz. It goes ‘jab, jab, step back, jab, jab, step back.’ I’ll always be grateful for that lesson he gave me. It got me through the waltz without being too humiliated, and I only punched one or two other people on the dance floor.
In truth though, I barely have a clue about which foot to put in front of the other, and that’s as true of the spiritual dance as it is of the physical one. Yet Jesus leads the dance, as He waltzes us into all sorts of places that we didn’t really want to go, and where we could not have gone without Him.
It’s a simple message this morning, coming out of a simple story about a rather ordinary woman who received a relatively unspectacular healing. And yet it is all very special – and especially special, I think, because it is so relevant to us simple and ordinary people of the 21st century.
Jesus comes. He takes by the hand. He lifts up. He heals! This is Jesus’ dance of compassion, and it’s something I yearn to see happening a lot more in these streets.
I had a hard week in the Youth Centre and at the Fight Club this week, with a number of young people getting very aggressive. There was a lot of anger and loud talk. There were lots of foul threats, there was talk of a knife fight, and there was a bit of blood. And I know the young people involved pretty well, and I know the problems are complex – a mixture of racial identity issues, anger-management problems, difficulties at home and at school, etc.
And I know that sorting out a complex problem like this requires not only expertise but time to untangle all the painful social and emotional knots. Yet I know too that it can be as simple as having the person of Jesus waltz in and take these boys by the hand and spin them off into a whole new life.
Jesus comes. He takes us by the hand. He lifts up. He makes us whole. We serve Him. Amen!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2009.