A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ
by Rev. James Eaton • © 2024 All Rights Reserved
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • February 4, 2024
Ready, set, go! It’s how children’s games often start: hide and seek for example. It’s also how races start. I was a track parent years ago: my older daughter ran sprints and relay races. Being a track parent means you sit in the stands on cold, rainy days, waiting, waiting until someone says, “Oh, Amy’s lining up,” and then you stop your conversation, look down and hear “Ready, set, go!” And watch for a minute or two while your kid and some others run around a track. It’s a rhythm of wait, wait, get ready and then an explosive start and rush to the finish.
This image captures for me the Gospel of Mark. Especially here in this first chapter, Jesus seems to be on a race. Over and over, we hear the word, “Immediately!”. Jesus is baptized: immediately the Spirit throws him into the wilderness. Jesus invites people to become his disciples; immediately they follow him. Jesus preaches at a synagogue, defeats an evil spirit; immediately his fame spreads. It’s one thing after another and sometimes I read these stories and want to say to Mark, “Slow down! Let me ask some questions, like Pastor Sue did a couple weeks ago.” Jesus goes on: encounters a man with leprosy and immediately he was made clean and Jesus is off to other places.
The Urgency of Now
The urgency comes from the importance the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the urgency of now and said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” This is the time, Jesus says, right now, right here, the reign of God is happening. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Everyone hearing this story knows how it ends. “After John was arrested…”, Mark begins and we already know the destination is the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus himself. Mark is inviting us in between the arrest of John and the death of Jesus and there’s no time to waste. Immediately: get ready, get set, go.
Last week we heard the story of Jesus casting out a demonic spirit. He’s been to the synagogue, he’s been to worship, just like we’re gathered here. In the midst of the service, someone possessed by a spirit caused a commotion and Jesus casts the spirit out. Now the service is over and they go out, across the street, to Peter’s house: “Immediately!” Now I suspect you’ve all had a preacher drop in so you know there’s a bit of preparation involved. In our house, it means cleaning and straightening and making sure there’s a bite to eat. If it’s Pastor Sue, it means having tea on. But here, Jesus and a bunch of his friends are coming over and the matriarch is sick; Peter’s mother in law has a fever,. Jesus goes to her and takes her by the hand. It’s easy to rush by this detail but it’s important. Good Jewish men don’t touch women in Jesus’ time. Women are in the background, working but not seen, certainly not touched. Yet when he encounters this woman he touches her, takes her by the hand, just like in the song Joe sang, “Precious Lord, take my hand…” and lifts her up. The word here for being lifted up is the same one translated elsewhere as ‘resurrection’. This is the first resurrection, this is the model for our call to grace, that Jesus lifts us up, raises us. Just as Paul says: “…if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” [Romans 6:8]
Call and Service
We’ve been talking about calling for a few weeks and I want to notice this woman’s call. It doesn’t look like what we’ve often been taught. This woman doesn’t comes to Jesus, he comes to her. The effect of being raised by Jesus is to make her well, to liberate her from the fever, just as the man with the demon was liberated. When God calls us, God makes us ready, gets us set. And finally, there is the “go!” Jesus raises the woman and she gets up and serves. Mark doesn’t tell us how she serves. Does she prepare a meal? Does she fix him a plate? Does she help him prepare sermons? We don’t know. We simply know she serves. The same word is used by Mark to describe the angels who care for Jesus in the wilderness. When we serve, we become then angels.
The call of service can change the course of lives. Robert Coles is psychiatrist whose life has spanned an amazing group of people. His aunt was Anna Freud, he grew up during the depression and later in life he had the opportunity to interview and talk to a great number of people involved in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s. He became fascinated with people who felt what he called “the call of service”: privileged college kids who went to poor people to teach children to read. One of those children later said this about the difference one of those teachers had on her own life.
He was a frail-looking Jewish kid with thick glasses, and at first I didn’t know what we’d even talk about. Bt I’ll tell you he saved me, that’s the word, saved. He was kind and thoughtful and he loved reading and he taught me to love reading. He was the one who said to me, “You can get out of all this, you can…”
What that kid with the thick glasses did was simple: he healed her, he freed her, to hear her own call to service. She grew up, went to college and Harvard Law and then gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars so that she in turn could tutor children in Roxbury, a poor area of Boston.Robert Coles, Call of Service, p. 176.
I hear this call to serve in my own life here with you. For most of the last 48 years, I’ve served as a pastor of a church. Then I retired and moved to Harrisburg and had to do something I’d only done once before in my whole life: find a church not as a prospective pastor but as a member. I wandered in here at Salem, thinking it would be one stop on a tour of local churches and you all said “Welcome! We hope you come back!” And I did. It wasn’t easy: I’ve had to learn a whole new set o skills. I’m used to preaching sermons, not listening to them. My wife likes decorating; she’s a flight attendant and in a different hotel room two or three nights a week. She imagines rearranging them. The same way, I automatically imagine rearranging the liturgy. It wasn’t easy to not be able to do that. It wasn’t easy to sit in a pew. But I knew I needed to find a place to serve and you gave me one.
Your Own Call
What about you? What about me? What is your call? How does that call turn into serving? The story in Mark doesn’t stop with raising Peter’s mother-in-law. When the sabbath ends at sundown, people from all over town are brought to Jesus so he can heal them and liberate them from the things that are holding them back. That’s the meaning of healing, isn’t it? We focus on Jesus and the healing but we ought to notice the crowd that brings people: they also serve. This is the real church, this is who we are when we are truly servants of Jesus Christ. When someone asks me about Salem, the temptation is to describe the beautiful building or the wonderful organ. But that’s not Salem; that’s not the church. The real church is you and I serving together. The real church is you and I helping each other find our call, get ready, get set, and then going. It’s not always as immediate as Mark’s gospel would have it yet there is a faithfulness that lasts. When Jesus is on the cross, the disciples are all absent. It’s the women who are there, perhaps this very woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, serving to the end. Jesus raises her and she serves. This is our call as well: to serve with others, bringing those who need healing to Jesus. Ready, set, go: listen for the call, find the way you can serve.