There’s a moment in this morning’s gospel lesson that grabs us modern readers and won’t let us just walk on by. Jesus has left the synagogue, gone to the house of Simon and Andrew, and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. And then we have this bothersome little moment: as soon as Simon’s mother-in-law—let’s call her Rebecca, since Mark doesn’t give us her name—as soon as Jesus frees Rebecca from her illness, she hops out of bed and begins to serve Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? After someone has been sick enough to call in Dr. Jesus, shouldn’t she catch a break from her normal chores and duties? Is Mark just giving us a story that relegates this woman to a servant’s lot?
Maybe. But I think something else is going on here. I think Jesus knows something about illness we tend to ignore or forget these days. You see, Rebecca doesn’t get out of her bed to wait on Jesus and his disciples hand and foot. In the New Testament, the word translated as “servant” is often used for the vital role of someone who helps with the food, even someone who assists at Holy Communion. Rebecca serves them at the table, with a meal. And, as any good cook will tell you, making a meal for someone else really is a form of service—but service that requires creativity and imagination, and service that is itself a form of hospitality. When Jesus heals Rebecca, he doesn’t make her well so that she can be his servant, his slave. He restores her to a community in which she plays an important role, a community that was broken and dysfunctional without her, as much as she was unwell in her solitude.
The tendency in our day is to take people like Rebecca and isolate them further. Hospitals are truly amazing places for some things, but they remove people from their communities, from the places where their lives make sense and have purpose. When you’re in the hospital, you’re not just away from the home you know. You’re separated from the people who depend on you and on whom you depend each day. Sure, some of them might be able to come see you, but many cannot. And hospitals can become so focused on curing disease or fixing problems that they and the doctors and nurses who work in them lose sight of any bigger picture, any further goal for their work. Why is it so important to cure a disease? Just so that a person’s worn down, tired body can be shoved through a few more years of listless existence? Or is it—should it be—so that a person can be healed, can be made whole again?
And it’s not just doctors and hospitals that are the problem. The more a disease threatens to isolate a person from his or her community, unfortunately, the more likely we are to respond by trying to keep that person at bay. So instead of the compassion Christ shows Simon’s mother-in-law, some so-called Christian preachers have spent the last thirty years spewing hatred against men and women with HIV-AIDS. Or, if you’re mentally ill in this country, there’s a good chance you are or have been incarcerated at some point. Or, if your life has been seized by the disease of substance abuse, you’re likely to be an outcast and to face shame and guilt for a problem people around you think you should be able to control.
Let’s bring this home a little more. Every week here at Centre men and women from all over northern Maryland come to our community building for AA and Al-Anon meetings. My best guess is that some weeks there might be a hundred fifty of them using our space to find healing from their diseases of alcohol and drug abuse. Every week there are more people in those meetings than we have in church on Sunday mornings. Providing space for these groups is one of the most important ministries of this congregation. And it’s also one of the most cost-effective. Offering room for 100 or 150 people every week, every month—the equivalent of helping between 5000 and 7500 people—to find support and healing cost Centre less than $200 last year. That’s roughly 3 cents per person per week. Where else could you spend so little money for such a big effect?
Still I worry that we might think we have fulfilled our Christian duty by providing the building space and leaving things at that. I’m troubled by the possibility that we might think of “over there” as the community building—the place for outsiders who don’t fit in with us on Sunday mornings. And I’d much rather us think of it as the community building—the place where the community Christ gives to us in the church is offered to those who need its wholeness and healing.
This is what Jesus knew and what today we tend to forget: fixing the body is only the beginning of real healing, not the end. So yes, Jesus heals Rebecca’s body, but he goes further. He restores Rebecca to the life cut off by her disease. In fact, her restoration is so complete that she goes from being someone dependent on the acts of others to an actor in her own right, someone with sufficient strength to offer food and hospitality to her guests, someone on whom her community could once again depend. This is the healing Jesus offers to Simon’s mother-in-law; he offers the same healing to you this day.
If you are suffering from a disease that cuts you off from other people, that prevents you from taking an active role in your life, Jesus offers you this community, this congregation of Centre United Methodist Church, as a place where your life can be restored. No disease is powerful enough or shameful enough to separate you from the body of Christ and the love that dwells in it. As for the rest of you, you are only part of this body because the Great Physician has healed and restored your life at some point. If he is about the business of healing and restoring, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing?
You know, the first hospitals were the works of mercy of churches trying to care for the poor and the sick in their cities and towns. I wonder how God is calling Centre to be a hospital of grace for Forest Hill.