The following sermon was preached at S. Stephen’s Providence, at 8am and 10am on Sunday February 8, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. The mass setting was the premier of a work by Steven Serpa, sometime member of the Schola at S. Stephen’s and currently a doctoral candidate at University of Texas, Austin. He calls it his Missa Brevis ‘Eya martyr Stephane’ after the medieval carol which provides the musical inspiration for the work.
Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins and give us, we beseech thee, the liberty of that abundant life which thou hast manifested to us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him of her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted he up, and the fever left her; and she began to serve them.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Today’s Gospel gives us a rare peek into the domestic life of Jesus and his first disciples. Simon Peter had a mother-in-law who lived in the same town just a short distance from his own house. She was sick. Simon and his brother Andrew, obviously fond of her, tell Jesus about her illness. He goes to her immediately and performs his second miraculous healing in the Gospel of Mark. Mark, in his characteristic style, is breathless to tell us what happened, piling clause on clause: “and this, and that, and then this.” The whole thing is a touching scene of familial devotion.
What is really unique, however, is what Simon’s mother-in-law does after she is healed: she gets up and serves them. In other healing, the person healed goes home, praises God, gives thanks, tells their neighbors, talks with the priests, or decides to follow Jesus. But in this case Simon’s mother-in-law gets up from her sick bed and serves them. How does she serve them? The text tells us that evening is advancing. Maybe she serves them dinner. Maybe she washes their feet. We don’t know.
What is certain is that it is her own particular response. Just as Mary’s reply to Gabriel, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” is not mere passive assent but a supreme act of personal agency; just as Mary Magdalene, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair is to her credit through every generation; so also with Simon’s mother-in-law. Her response to her healing is to get up and serve Jesus and his disciples. It is a free act, the first choice of her new life, free of fever and sickness.
Her actions were typical for women of the period. Keeping a household fed and in order would have been a familiar task, and a heroic one. But getting up from her sickbed to serve Jesus and his disciples began a new thing. By this act she enters into a new kind of relationship with the one who healed her, and with Peter and Andrew her family. Jesus for her is no longer just someone her kids talk about. Her sons-in-law are no longer just fishing industry drop-outs. She has experienced healing firsthand, and by serving she makes herself part of the household of the one who healed her.
What about you and me? Some of the most significant moments in our lives, some of the most powerful stories we tell about ourselves, are of times when we have experienced firsthand the forgiveness of God: Divine healing and restoration in parts of our lives we had long since consigned to hell, or to Judgement Day at the very least. Some people today even continue to experience miraculous recoveries from illness. Wherever we are in our lives, each of us can probably identify at least one or two moments when we have known firsthand the grace of God.
The magnitude of our healing is always clearly visible by comparison with the depths to which we had sunk. Addicts in recovery know this better than most. Like Simon’s mother-in-law bed-ridden with fever, so we can find ourselves dead in sin, unable to achieve even the smallest good by reason of our being mired in destructive habits and misaligned priorities. In these moments, it takes a Savior to bring us to our senses, to give us the medicine of grace, and to lead us in a better way.
When this kind of healing happens, it is cause for rejoicing, and for response. As a priest one of my most treasured privileges is to hear, occasionally, a first confession. The pure, unmitigated joy that a penitent shows when his or her own specific sins have been absolved is nothing short of miraculous (and contagious!). To me it always speaks volumes that their next impulse is to amend their lives with loving enthusiasm, out of thanks to Christ who gave himself up to death that they might live. Our forgiveness, our healing, always demands a response to our Physician.
That response, whatever it is, is always an expression of liberation from death. It puts us in a new relationship to the one who heals us. Maybe you remember the show, “Rescue 9-1-1” narrated by William Shatner. It documented 9-1-1 calls, and the stories of the patients and their families with the rescue team and health workers who nursed them back to health. In every case, Patients and Rescuers both expressed clear affection and familial devotion for these new people in their lives, in addition to the gratitude and satisfaction we might expect. It is the same with us and Jesus. Our healing brings us into a new relationship with him, and with everyone else whom he has also healed.
What is this new relationship? For Simon’s mother-in-law, it meant being incorporated into a larger household than she had at first, the household of her healer and redeemer. But more than this, she is sometimes regarded as the first Deacon. The Greek word which we translate as “she served them” is diakonei the same root word which describes the first seven official “Deacons” at the beginning of Acts. Simon’s mother-in-law is the prototype of the protomartyr, Stephen, our patron here and the patron of Deacons. Our Lord healed her from a deadly illness, and she served them; Stephen served in the Lord’s name, and died for his sake, whereupon he received the martyr’s crown of eternal life. They are mirror images of one another.
What about us? What do we become when Jesus heals us? Each of us is inclined, by personality and by gift of the Holy Spirit, to respond in different ways. But what is common to us all is that we are brought into closer relationship with Jesus and with all the redeemed in the body of his Church. Closer, more in touch, more deeply bound to God and to one another, more responsible for each other’s welfare and integrity.
In a special way, Simon’s mother-in-law lived the words which Jesus will preach later in the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant … For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” She makes no further appearance in the Gospels, and we are left to surmise that she lived the rest of her life in this pattern of response to the healing Word which Jesus spoke to her. That Word formed the foundation of her life from then on.
It is the same with us. The Word which speaks forgiveness and healing into our lives remains a constant companion our whole lives long. At times comforting, at times unsettling, it continuously refreshes us even as it continuously calls us into a closer relationship with the One who speaks it, and with all who hear him speaking. It does not leave us the same, but draws us ever on: to new heights of joy, to new depths of humility, to new deserts of repentance; to new gardens of higher innocence, to a new household of deeper love.
What do we take from all this? Do not stay on your sick bed! The Word of life is spoken, the Son of God is risen from the dead. Do not stay on your sick bed. It is comfortable, its contours are familiar, it is a world in which we flatter ourselves to think we are sole kings and undisputed monarchs, masters of our own destiny, and deserving of all honor and indulgence. But the sickbed of sin leads only to death: to stay there is to be deaf to the Word, and to consign ourselves to silence, isolation, and the grave.
Instead, hear the Word of forgiveness and healing: “Take up your mat and walk.” Get up from your bed, and serve the Lord who heals you. Take hold of the new life his forgiveness brings. See the great multitude who are now your brothers and sisters, who share in the joy of eternal life. See them, and love them. We are all members of the household of God, and therefore members of one another. Let us love one another, serve one another, and so join our voices to all those everywhere who echo the Word of life: Speaking healing into the lives our neighbors, and living to the praise of his Name who makes us his own forever.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.