Strength in Numbers – Rev. Amanda Wagner
February 8, 2015 (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany)
Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
This story takes place early in Mark’s narrative, at a time when Jesus has only called four of his twelve disciples: Simon, Andrew, James, and John. They have gone to the fishermen’s hometown of Capernaum, where on the Sabbath Jesus joined those who had gathered to worship in the synagogue, and taught them “as one having authority.” Mark says this act astounded all who were in the synagogue, which indicates to me that Jesus looked like a carpenter, but talked like a rabbi. And that would have been astounding.
His authority was so great, in fact, that he drew a demon-possessed man into the synagogue – a place where by law, the man was not allowed to enter. Even if nobody else knew who this carpenter was, the demon certainly did. It recognized Jesus for the rabbi, teacher, and healer that he was. It already knew what the disciples had yet to learn: Jesus was the son of God.
So Jesus cast the demon out of the man, once again astonishing everyone in the synagogue. Immediately, his fame began to spread throughout the region of Galilee. But this was just the beginning of their day. When Jesus and the four disciples left the synagogue, they walked next door to Simon and Andrew’s house, where they found Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever.
Recent archaeological discoveries have been able to give us some insight into what Simon’s household actually looked like, and as is the case with many families today, it wasn’t just a single, nuclear family unit. The house was more like a multi-family compound, with three shared living areas surrounded by an exterior wall with a common entrance. And just outside that front entrance was a large open area, where a crowd could assemble.
Simon and Andrew both lived in this compound, along with whatever wives and children they may have had. Mark also mentions that Simon’s mother-in-law lived there too, though he doesn’t mention Simon’s wife. Perhaps she was no longer living, and her mother had moved in to help with the household. Or maybe Simon’s mother-in-law had no other male relatives to provide for her.
There are many reasons why she might have been living there, but what we do know for sure is that Simon’s mother-in-law was an important part of the family. She was in charge of hospitality, which is a place of honor in this kind of household. But on this day she wasn’t able to assume any of her roles as head cook or hospitality coordinator because she was in bed with a fever.
Now think about this. Here is a woman whose life revolves around caring for her extended family and guests. But when Simon and Andrew arrive with three surprise guests, she’s in bed with a fever. And this wasn’t a case of the sniffles, or a 24-hour bug. This was like the nasty flu that’s been bringing everyone down this year.
Whatever she had kept her in isolation, stuck in bed away from her work and away from her family. In other words, as long as she was sick, she couldn’t fulfill her role in the family, couldn’t take her place in their community. How can anyone feel like they belong, if they can’t find their place or fulfill a role as part of a family or community?
When we first read this story in Mark, it can seem a little, well, “typical” that a bunch of men find a woman sick in bed and she drags herself up to serve them. But there’s much more going on in this story.
Just a few minutes earlier, when they were in the synagogue, Jesus restored a man’s place in the community by casting out the demon that had possessed him. Once the demon was gone, a priest would be able to declare the man clean. He would once again be allowed to worship in the synagogue and be around other people without causing them to also become unclean.
The same thing happened with Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus wasn’t pulling her out of bed just so that she could serve the men. By healing her, by grasping her hand and raising her up, Jesus restored this woman to a place of honor in her family. He didn’t just heal her physical illness – he restored her completely.
What is especially interesting in this story is that Jesus didn’t say any special words over her. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all to her. He didn’t pray to God or perform some kind of ritual. He simply took her hand, and helped her to her feet.
Just that simple act of physical contact made all the difference for Simon’s mother-in-law. Now I know that not everyone here is a hugger, and that’s ok. But imagine if you came here to be a part of community and nobody offered you a hug, or a hand to shake, or even a kind smile. You could be in the middle of a hundred people and still feel completely isolated.
But what if someone does say hi? Or good morning. Or offers you their hand, or just gives a smile from across the room. Just think of how far that could go toward making you feel noticed, cared about, and included.
It’s really hard to trust in a love that is never expressed and never felt. How can you ever really believe that someone loves you if he or she never says so or does anything to make you feel loved? As humans, we have an innate need to love and be loved and to feel that love.
God knows our need, and that’s why God sent Jesus to be with us as a real, flesh and blood person. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. And now that Jesus is no longer with us in body, we are called to follow his example and show God’s love to the world.
As scary as it might be to realize, we may be the only disciple that some people are ever going to meet. So we need to ask ourselves, what kind of disciples are those people experiencing through us? Can the love and influence of Jesus, our teacher, be recognized in our actions as individuals? Or as a church?
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul stated that he became what each person needed in order to help them experience the good news. When Simon’s mother-in-law met Jesus, she experienced kindness and compassion through a simple touch as Jesus gave her a hand and helped her to her feet.
We don’t have to be a great speaker or theologian like Paul to share God’s love with others. Sometimes all it takes is a giving a hug or showing some interest in another person’s life to help them experience the compassion and inclusion and love of Jesus.
We’re often told that there is strength in numbers, and for the most part that statement is true. But as followers of Jesus, as his disciples, our strength also comes through our unity. We are more effective when we work together than when we work alone, but we are even more effective when we’re all saying the same thing.
Even Jesus didn’t go out and attempt to do ministry on his own. He called his disciples and taught them so that they could join him in his work. Now I’m not claiming that anyone here is Jesus, but we have been called as his disciples, to learn through his teachings and follow his example.
Humanity in general has been done a disservice by those so-called Christians who use the Bible to bring others down and use their self-proclaimed authority to spew hate and venom and pretty much do the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.
But our silence regarding those who perpetuate that hatred as well as our refusal to weigh in on divisive social issues means that we’re no better than the haters. In fact, it makes us worse because we could be out there spreading the good news of God’s unconditional love but instead we’re too afraid to move outside of our comfort zone.
In a world where folks are hearing all sorts of false claims in the name of Christ, we need to draw upon our strengths and be a beacon of light and love in this community. But in order to do that, we first need to be unified as this church community, get to know one another, become comfortable being around each other, both inside and outside of these walls.
Then we must commit ourselves to learning and growing in our faith. This church is a place where we can come to be equipped for ministry. And even though on some Sundays we may leave church feeling really jazzed and good about ourselves, and other Sundays we feel like we don’t ever want to come back again, what we need to realize is that worship is not about making us feel good. First and foremost, worship is about gathering together to be equipped for ministry.
And by the way, if you feel that you’re not being properly equipped, then join the Wednesday night Bible Study, or even start your own. At the very least, talk to me or the deacons about it. If you’re not being equipped as disciples, then we’re not doing our jobs.
Once we are united as a congregation, under a common bond and a common understanding, then we are called to be that beacon of light in our community. We are called to be a voice of love, of inclusion, of compassion, a voice crying out in the wilderness of West Concord.
We are called to be not a single voice, but a united voice, saying to everyone: we see you, we care about you, and we love you. Moreover, it doesn’t matter what your background is or where you are on life’s path, because God loves you unconditionally and you are always welcome here. Amen.