Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Last week I was running an errand, and I passed an old white bus with a group of glum-faced men in orange jump suits in it. A sign on the bus said “trial court community service program.” I wonder what “serving” means to those sad guys? We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
First, let’s spend some time on the Gospel reading. Mark’s amazing: he packs a huge amount of back-story about Jesus and his friends into a couple of hundred words.
[J]esus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. (Mark 1: 29-34, NRSV)
They live in a town that’s anchored by a synagogue. Simon (Peter) and Andrew share a home; they’re either brothers or very good friends. They went home after services and brought along Jesus and his group of people. Their welcome into this house seems like an ordinary Sabbath-day event. That means they and their families must somehow be coming to terms with their new life. It’s only a day or so since Jesus called them away from their fishing nets, but they didn’t just walk away from their community, and they haven’t been ostracized.
Simon Peter has a mother-in-law. This means he must have a wife, and an ordinary human life! Who knew? Mark doesn’t tell us the mother-in-law’s name. Let’s give her a good Hebrew name: We’ll call her Refaela.
Refaela is ill. Jesus, her guest, greets her, takes her by the hand, and helps her out of bed. Then her fever goes away and she begins to serve – the Gospel word means minister to – all her guests. No glum face or orange jump suit for her!
Some Bible scholars make a big deal of wondering whether Jesus was deliberately making himself ritually impure according to Jewish law, by – horrors – touching a woman, not to mention a sick woman, and by healing her – working – on the Jewish Sabbath. Should we read the gospel that way?
Jesus certainly did take Refaela by the hand. He did heal her, and on the Sabbath. But this was right at the beginning of his work. What’s more, the purity-obsessed scribes and Pharisees were far away: They hadn’t yet entered the picture as Jesus’s opponents. We’re still in the first chapter of Mark, so let’s keep it simple. Jesus greeted his hostess like a friendly and dutiful young guest. He behaved like any good friend of her son-in-law would do when he’s invited for the Sabbath meal at his village home. And she responded by gathering him and her other guests for a meal, and feeding them.
So, this domestic scene isn’t about Jesus stirring up trouble. Mark seems to be painting a picture of a joyful gathering on a restful day, eating together and taking care of each other like the realm of God was at hand. These things – serving each other and caring for each other – are wonderful, but they’re also normal.
That’s all in stark contrast to the action beyond the peaceful threshold of the house. Outside, there’s another back-story. There’s no need to stir up trouble. There’s plenty there already. It’s the story of sentient evil: of the demons who recognize Jesus. It’s the story of Jesus silencing those evil demons, and driving them out. It’s a story of battle between evil and good. The people around Jesus can’t see the demons. What they do see is demon-possessed people set free, and sick people made whole.
Mark gives us listeners the whole cosmic back-story. He shows us God’s realm of peace and love (Refaela’s home) contrasted with the realm of conflict (outside her door). Both realms are real. Mark wants us to know that. We do know it.
Certainly the realm of conflict is real for us. In our world, for example, “service” is a chore the trial court makes us do, and takes us to in an old white bus. Peace, healing, and happiness has nothing to do with service. Or does it? Service is a punishment. Or is it?
I sometimes have spent Saturday mornings helping clean up the riverbed of a stream a few miles from here. It’s a chance to get outdoors and spend some time with friends, and maybe do something useful. One Saturday we gathered in a mall parking lot in Lawrence. I got there a few minutes late, so my friends had already taken off in their canoes. Now this part of the river was a mess. Jesus battled demons — willful evil — and I felt we were doing the same thing. Chemical drums, blown out truck tires, huge hunks of Styrofoam, even a cast-off cigarette vending machine. In our world it seems we cast our demons off the nearest bridge to try to get rid of them. That part of the river was foul. I paddled fast by some of this junk hoping to catch up with my friends
I found them with a bunch of tough young men I’d never met. Their language was strong enough to corrode the old steel drums into rusty muck. We definitely weren’t in Refaela’s house enjoying each other’s company in peace.
But, those young men sure could work. Somebody said, “let’s get those barrels up to the road,” and they just did it. Then they tackled the truck tires: dug them out of the muck and dragged them to a dumptruck. They were kind enough to leave the light stuff – foam blocks, car tires – for the older folks like me to clean up. It was awesome to see them work.
Somebody went for pizza, and we got to talking. It turned out these young men were residents of the Riverside School in Lowell. This school takes teenagers who are in trouble with the law, as a substitute for the juvenile lockup. These guys were really happy to be with us helping us casting out our modern demons – toxic greed and carelessness – casting them out of the river.
At Riverside School, they treat community service not as a punishment, but as a privilege. If you misbehave at Riverside – swear at a staff member, smoke indoors, or steal from another resident, that kind of thing – you don’t get to help cook the meals or clean the bathroom. If you’re in trouble, you get to eat, you get to go to class and do your homework, but not serve. At chore time, you sit in your room.
These guys were the privileged ones. They spent the day up to their knees in the mud struggling with filthy rubbish. It was their reward for weeks of positive behavior. They had a great time. What an amazing day it was, to be with people who experienced service as a privilege and an honor.
Back to Refaela: She too knew it was a privilege to serve. When Jesus met her, she had a fever and was lying in bed. Most of us know what that’s like. We’re drawn into ourselves. If we can put together any thoughts or prayers at all, they’re wretched and selfish – Make it go away!
The stranger who visited her home answered that prayer. By his grace he set her free from her pain. Her response was to jump up and welcome her guests by service. So, she’s like those teenagers from the Riverside School: her service is a privilege.
How about you? How about me? Are you and I those sad-faced passengers riding on that white “Community Service Program” bus? Do we serve our neighbors because we’re on trial, and some judge has sentenced us to do it?
Or do we serve and care for one another because we’ve been set free from our sickness and self-centeredness? There’s no doubt that we live in a world full of demons – rusting barrels, bald tires buried in the mud, addictions, anger, pain – but we also live in the realm of God, like Mark teaches us.
It’s my prayer that each of you will, this week, be filled with the joy of God’s realm as you care for somebody and serve somebody. Filled with that holy joy may you dispose of your filthy demons, for Jesus’s sake and for the life of the world +