There is a bit of a joke among clergy about ‘other duties as assigned’ which is often used as a catch all in job descriptions or even in ordination services. These are the things that might not directly tie to being a pastor, priest, and teacher, to which one pledges when they take their ordination vow, but nonetheless are part of what it means to be a priest. Over the past year, these other duties have included learning how to preach to a camera, closely reading CDC guidelines, and getting really good at making short videos in iMovie to post on Facebook or YouTube. But we aren’t the only ones who are finding our lives and our vocations more consistently full of those ‘other duties as assigned;’ I know that so many of you are spending your working lives thinking and rethinking how to do tasks that you may have spent your whole lives learning how to do a certain way, even a trip to the grocery store is vastly different. University professors and Kindergarten teachers, and everything in between has had to learn how to facilitate virtual learning. Hospital administrators have had to learn how to safely and effectively set up COVID vaccine clinics. Accountants have had to run a juggernaut of fiscal and financial races. And the list could go on and on; very few folks are getting to do the work they love to do in the way that they love to do it right now, and we’re all having to do a lot more of those other duties as assigned than we were this time last year.
For some people this year has been one that has been eye-opening: they simply cannot continue to move at the productivity level that they were maintaining before, and they have realized that it’s unhealthy for them to do so. For some, it’s been a marathon that they can’t wait to finish, even if they don’t quite yet know how far off the finish line is. For some, this time and the abundance of other duties as assigned has given them an opportunity to discern a bit about themselves: are they called to the work they are doing? Does our general, societal over-identification with who we are and what we do for work speak to who they truly want to be? Perhaps for some of us, maybe for the first time in our lives, that we are able to take a step back, look at all the duties that we hold, and gently look at each one to see if it’s something that belongs not only to our jobs or our vocations, but to our lives as Christians.
Our gospel passage today tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law, and then the whole town coming to his house, begging to be healed, and Jesus did so, casting out demons as well. After all these healings, the next morning, the disciples urged Jesus to come back from his private place of prayer to heal more people, and Jesus insisted that they go on to the next town to continue sharing the Good News. This passage contains one of my favorite passages about Jesus’ behavior, “ he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” Away from the constant rush of those who were in need of healing, away from the disciples that, though they were faithful in following Jesus, tended to need quite a bit of help. There is just something so distinctly human about Jesus hitting a threshold where he needed to go away so that he would be able to have the energy to continue in the work.
I’ve heard this passage used, and even perhaps used it myself, as a passage modeling an early rising prayer routine. These healings and the casting out of demons are miraculous, and for Mark, who is notorious for giving the short version of the story to include this bit of Jesus’ routine is significant. But I wonder how our takeaways from this passage might be different if instead of seeing ourselves in Jesus’s patterns, we turned our gaze toward Simon’s mother-in-law, who, though she goes unnamed in this text, likely has a significant impact on the disciples and those around them.
Now, it is important for me to name that when I first read this text and this woman is healed from her crippling illness, only to get up and immediately start serving the men, that I felt a strong sense of resistance. It’s true that we never read scripture without our own lenses and through our own experiences, and as someone who has been told more than once that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, not in the pulpit, I read it with the a deep sense of all the injustices women have had to face and experience throughout most of recorded history. I wanted more for this woman who doesn’t even get mentioned by name, but only by her relation to Simon. I wanted more because roles of service have so often been solely aligned with women, that it was hard to see that this woman was not only doing what she was made to do, but setting an example for all Christians to follow after her.
Because this is not the service of an overworked mother-in-law rushing to get dinner on the table, but rather it is the tender and faithful service that we perhaps see most clearly when we get to see Deacon Kellie set the table for Holy Eucharist. Because the word in the text used for service is not female-centric, but rather it is diakonia the word from which we get the word deacon. This woman is raised up from her illness and not only is she miraculously able to do the work she has been given to do, she is able to immediately step into the fullness of her being: to orient herself to God and to serve others with the gifts that she has been given. This is a passage from the gospel according to Mark is one of Jesus’s healings, but it’s also a passage about what it means to be a disciple.
After this year, after spending a nearly a year preaching to a camera and praying through these empty pews, I think I understand this woman slightly better than I might have before. Because I’m sure her miraculous healing would have a similar effect on me as if suddenly there were 200 people in these pews, and we were able to shake hands after the service and share small bits of our lives over donuts. At this point, that would feel miraculous. And we’ll get there one day, I truly believe we will, there is so much hope on the horizon. Soon for many of us, our other duties as assigned may begin to fade to the background, and I wonder if we will feel the same relief that this woman might have felt. This same relief that comes from moving from being unable to do what you want to do to once again dedicating your life to it.
Whenever I read a passage, especially one with a miracle or a healing in it, I try to not only see Jesus’s compassion and interest in healing and restoring people, but to also try to see where is the Good News? Where is the Good News of God in Christ in this passage? Surely it is the removal of illnesses and demons, but it’s also in the truth of what happened when this woman was lifted up. Because the same word that Mark uses here to tell us that she was lifted up and healed is how he will later describe Christ’s resurrection. The Good News of God in Christ is that after she was raised up and healed, this woman of God, this disciple, was able to lean into who she was created to be, and in that, she knew that she was never solely defined by others, but always holding others in mind.
The good news of this story of this unnamed, yet healed woman, who may well be the church’s first deacon, is that in the hope of the resurrection, she could be who God created her to be. And this is the good news for us; that we can all live fully into who we are created to be. In the hope of the resurrection we can, as we promise in our baptismal covenant , to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In the hope of the resurrection, we can step into the vast and varied ways in which we are called to be disciples of Christ. In the hope of the resurrection, we will step away from all that draws us away from the love of God. Because, like this woman, we have faith, we have hope, and because we, too, have been raised up, we will spend our lives in service. Thanks be to God.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky via livestream for Epiphany 5B on February 7, 2021.