This week I was struck by Laurent Duvernary-Tardif’s story, some of you may know it, I only learned of it this week. Last year Laurent had just won the Super Bowl playing offensive guard for the Kansas City Chiefs. He also happens to be from Montreal where he studied medicine at McGill University. When the pandemic hit, he heard the pleas of the Quebec government and he decided that during the off season he would work as an orderly in a long-term care facility in Montreal. Then in July, he decided to opt out of the 2020 NFL season so that he could continue to fight the pandemic and in the fall he began to take classes at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I wonder, as he watches his teammates prepare for another Superbowl match up today whether he has any regrets. But in an interview this week he said, “Of course I miss football….five years from now, I’m going to be able to look at 2020 and be like, “Alright, I followed my conviction and I made a move that I’m going to be proud of.” In my humble opinion Laurent not only followed his conviction but is fulfilling a pretty special calling- one that he may not have discovered had it not been for a pandemic.
You might be wondering where I am going with this, but this morning’s Gospel lesson is all about fulfilling your calling in the face of illness- more importantly, that when faced with the inability to fulfil one’s calling, Jesus is the only one who can provide healing and restoration. Last week’s reading and this week’s reading actually occurred on the same day. You might recall last week that the focus was on Jesus’ authority wrapped in a story about healing a man with an unclean spirit. This week’s story actually shifts us to Jesus’ healing powers wrapped in a story about a woman’s calling.
The passage begins, “as soon as they had left the synagogue”. Remember Mark loves the word “immediately” and this is another time it comes up. Immediately after leaving the synagogue they head to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew, where Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has been gripped by a fever. We have to realize that in the ancient world a fever was a fatal situation in most cases and one that they didn’t really understand. In fact most fevers were treated as if they were demonic possessions. A fever was often a symptom of a much more serious condition that often lead to death. The original readers would have understood that the prognosis for this mom-in-law was not good. The household immediately tells Jesus about the situation. He takes her by the hand, lifts her up and immediately the fever leaves her and she begins to serve them.
In our NRSV version we hear the term “lifted her up” but a lot of other translations use the phrase “raised her up” and I think that the second phrase lends itself to a much deeper meaning. She is raised up, much like Jesus will be later on in the Gospel. Mark uses this turn of phrase more than once to describe the healing miracles of Jesus- because in being raised their is a sense of a new strength or new energy. It is through this new energy that people can fulfil their calling. Just as immediately as Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law is healed she is also able to serve.
Now, I have always struggled with that part of the story- that as soon as she is well again she begins to serve them, like, common on, let her rest! But theologian Sarah Henrich helped me understand something about her service. Sarah writes, “The verb “to serve” used here is diakoneo, the same verb Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry later on in Mark. It is “to serve” rather than “to be served” that characterizes the Christ of God. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.” Meaning, that this woman is fulfilling her calling, not because it is her role in the household but because she wants to be of service. In fact, in Mark, it is only women and Jesus who use this verb- the male disciples never seem to quite get it.
Once I understood that this woman was fulfilling her calling as a disciple I was drawn into what holds us back from our callings. We can certainly think of literal illness. When cold, fever, cancer holds us back from doing what we are called to do. Illness at any time, but especially in the ancient world, carried a heavy social cost. When a person was ill they could not longer earn a living and would thus loose status in the community.
Perhaps, after our own experiences with Covid-19, we understand this more than ever. Illness can make us feel cut off from our community and calling.
But what if we think of this figuratively. What “illnesses” are holding us back? Fear? Shame? Idolatry? Uncertainty?Those things can make us feel cut off from our community and calling too. But Jesus heals and restores. Sarah Henrich continues, “Jesus’ ministry involves restoration of those cut off from community to a full role in community. Those who have been seriously ill in our own time will understand the joy of simply being back as a participant.” Through Jesus, we can be lifted, raised up, to serve one another which means that the cycle of restoration and healing continues in and through us.
The Gospel lesson doesn’t stop there, however. After the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, word gets out and Jesus is bombarded with people in need of healing. He worked well into the night, never turning down someone’s cry for help. I can’t imagine how tired he must have been. But not only does Jesus know how important it is to restore others to health, he knows how important it is to restore himself. While it is still dark, early the next morning, Jesus finds a quite place and prays. Clearly he doesn’t even tell his disciples where he has gone because they go hunting for him. In order to serve others, to fulfil this disciple calling, one needs to be restored themselves. So, if you are listening to this and thinking, I don’t have the energy to serve, know that finding peace within yourself and prayer is an important part of the restoration process.
I don’t know who is going to win today, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that important. But we have learned more than ever, how illness can change our lives, even when we aren’t the ones getting sick. We have learned how much we need restoration and healing but not just to feel well, but to feel whole as we live out our calling and serve one another. Amen