“To Serve” Colchester Federated Church, February 4, 2018, (Mark 1:29-39) Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

In high school we had a group called The Superintendent’s Leadership Academy.  Once a month, our Wadsworth City Schools Superintendent would bring in speakers from all over Northeast Ohio to speak with a group of students that had been selected by our teachers for this Leadership Academy.  We had the opportunity to hear from some wonderful motivational leaders.  The topic was always on leadership, specifically what makes someone a good leader?

Think about that question for a moment.  Whether we are talking about a leader in a company, school system, politicians, the Church, sports teams, the military, a current or former boss—what makes a person a good leader?  At Wadsworth High School, our city’s Police Chief spoke about having integrity and commitment, being good role models for others and making good choices in our lives.  A local pastor spoke about the importance of reaching out to others, and she emphasized that a leader must be a good listener and understanding.  Our Superintendent himself advised that listening is the key to leadership, and that leadership is ultimately about service and checking your own ego at the door.

We sometimes talk about leadership in the Christian Church using the phrase servant-leader.  Meaning that true leadership is about serving others.  We get our best example from Jesus, of course.  When James and John argue with one another about who will be able to sit at Jesus’ right hand in all his glory Jesus responds to them by saying: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”[1]

Servant-leadership isn’t a tradition that the Church made up somewhere along the way—the idea comes from Jesus himself who advised his first followers to be servants in the service of others.  In Christian circles it’s common to think about servant-leadership as the difference between wearing a bib or an apron.  Think about it: when we wear bibs, we’re looking to be fed by someone else.  We want or need to be served.  When young children move onto solid foods it takes time and practice for them to be able to feed themselves using utensils.  Table manners have to be taught, and a bib may still need to be worn.  But a change has occurred when one moves from being served to serving one’s self.

Sometimes in the Church we still act like we’re wearing bibs.  Operating as if the Church solely exists to meet our needs.  If our needs aren’t met by the staff, programs, or fellow people in the pews—then we may say something like, “Well, I’m just not being fed here anymore.”

When we wear aprons on the other hand, we’re looking to feed others.  We think of the Church as existing to meet the needs of a hungry world.  A world desperate to hear the Gospel and experience the mercy of God through us.  When we wear aprons, we’re looking to grow our own faith and take personal responsibility for our spiritual growth.  Because our faiths grow when we help others grow alongside us.  Over all, when we wear aprons in that spirit of service, we’re not so caught up in needing to be fed that we forget that our job as Christians is actually to feed others.  Just like Jesus instructed James, John, and all of his other disciples when they were arguing about who was the greatest: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”

Truth be told, it’s often easier to wear a bib than an apron.  We can be passive when we wear a bib waiting for somebody to feed us.  We can be upset when we’re not being fed and place blame outside ourselves.  But wearing an apron in service helps us be grateful to God.  There’s nothing like serving others that forces us to sometimes get a grip on ourselves and what we’re facing in our lives, as Jesus reels us back in to remember what matters.  There’s nothing like being grateful for God’s gifts in our lives that helps us to be more compassionate toward one another.  Because being able to wear that figurative apron and serve others is a gift.

Jesus modeled this idea of servant-leadership in a way that still inspires and challenges us to be servants too.  Remember that last week we heard about Jesus healing a man in the synagogue who had been possessed by a demon.  Faith is good for us, connecting our bodies, minds, and spirits in powerful ways.  And God desires for us to be healed and whole.  Jesus’ ministry of healing forever reminds us of God’s desires for our wholeness as God’s beloved children.

This week, Jesus is at it again with his healing ministry as the Gospel of Mark picks up right where we left off in Chapter One.  Jesus leaves the synagogue after healing the demon-possessed man and goes to the home of Simon and Andrew (alongside James and John) and finds Simon’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever.  The disciples tell Jesus about her being sick right away.  Perhaps they were hoping that just as Jesus healed the man in the synagogue, Jesus would be able to heal their family member who was obviously in need.  Jesus doesn’t disappoint, coming into the home and taking her by the hand, lifting her up.  The fever leaves her and she begins to serve them right away.[2]

Now sometimes this story can be read as a little sexist, let’s be totally honest here.  The guys come home, and poor mom’s sick in bed—who’s going to make us dinner?  Be healed mom, so that you can get to work taking care of all of us.  In an ideal, perhaps more enlightened version of our story, Simon’s mother-in-law would get healed of her fever and then be able to drink some tea and talk to Jesus to get to know him a little better and thank him personally for healing her.  She’s been fighting this fever for who knows how long, let the poor woman rest and relax a little.  Meanwhile Simon, Andrew, James, and John would get some dinner going.  They’re grown men after all, they’re not helpless!

In the end, we must be aware of the history and culture in which these Bible stories are written in order to understand what’s what.  Mom was always going to be the one in the kitchen making dinner for everybody after Jesus heals her given Jewish culture in the First Century in a seaside town like Capernaum.  Though we’re missing something important if we don’t go a little further than that.  It ends up that no one commands Simon’s mother-in-law to get up after Jesus heals her and start making dinner for everybody.  She responds to Jesus’ healing of her own initiative by serving others.  She has some agency here.  Yes, of course she’s a woman living in a patriarchal culture and she’s conforming to stereotypical gender roles by serving a bunch of men.  Though Jesus heals her in her own home where she’s living with her daughter and son-in-law Simon.  So this woman shows Jesus the compassion and hospitality that he has just shown her.  There’s some mutual ministry going on here, and that’s remarkable!

Remember how Jesus said that if you want to be great, you will be a servant?  This woman (even though we will never know her name) is great.  She’s a servant-leader.  After all, Jesus constantly redefined who a family is throughout the Gospels.  This woman is showing how much Jesus’ idea of family will expand because she’s being like a mother to all who have gathered in her home.  Can we imagine how grateful she must have felt to be healed by Jesus?  Putting on that figurative (or maybe literal in this instance) apron and feeding the man who just healed her allows her to show Jesus hospitality.

And hospitality is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  It’s a mark of our Christian faith and even a spiritual practice.  Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis reminds us that, “Hospitality was indispensable in the ancient world.  There were few restaurants or hotels along one’s journey on the dusty roads of Palestine.  Little travel was possible without the assumption and expectation of hospitality . . . according to Jesus, discipleship demands dependence on hospitality.”[3]  Jesus and his disciples traveled from town to town and depended on people like Simon’s mother-in-law providing them hospitality.  Just as Jesus taught that we must extend hospitality to one another in our homes and beyond.

After all, Christian communities began in house churches, in small gathered groups of the faithful who cared for each other in remarkable ways.  Hospitality and table fellowship was a central part of the house church as people gathered to break bread together.  Jesus’ ministry was known for table fellowship and he was radical in his day for eating with sinners and people of ill-repute.  The meals that the earliest Christians had in their house churches were fittingly known as Agape Feasts (Love Feasts.)  The Sacrament of Communion was part of the Love Feast and enabled people to both serve and to be served.  We continue on with that tradition today when we gather at the Table.

Sometimes those house churches were in the homes of women like Lydia in the Book of Acts.  And here today in the Gospel of Mark, this woman is Jesus’ first servant-leader who responds to him by serving others in her home, including Jesus himself.  Some people have even called her the first deacon because through her willing service and hospitality, she’s helping Jesus to announce that the realm of God is here and that serving others is what Jesus’ teachings are all about.  Even though it would have been nice for her to get healed, put her feet up, and quietly drink some tea with Jesus—she has other ideas for how she’d like to show her gratitude.[4]  If we want to be good leaders in the Church and beyond, it ends up that we must be servants.  My friends—go and do likewise.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 10:42-45, NRSV.
[2] Mark 1:29-31.
[3] Karoline Lewis, She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, 177.
[4] Ofelia Ortega, Theological Perspective of Mark 1:29-39, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, 334.