On the Cycle of Service
February 7, 2021
Psalm 50: 23
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who set the way
I will show the salvation of God.”
Mark 1: 29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they 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 sunset, 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. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Cycle of Service. The story we are offered today in the scriptures is not especially dramatic. There are no evil spirits to be cast out, no life-long illness reversed in a crowded village square. This week we follow Jesus from the synagogue by the shores of the sea of Galilee to Simon’s house and there we learn that Simon’s mother-in-law is down with a fever. Her name is not revealed to us but in just two short sentences, a beautiful story is told. We read, Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” In less than two dozen words, this scene is described.
The woman is ill and lying down, probably in an out-of-the-way place in the room. She is unable to greet the guests as would have been the custom. Surely she has heard of Jesus. Her daughter is married to Simon and it was Jesus who invited Simon to come and follow him. The scriptures tell us that Simon and “his brother Andrew…immediately left their nets and followed him.”
I’m purely imagining here that Simon’s mother-in-law might have been a little less than pleased that some so-called prophet had lured her daughter’s husband away from his trade. What would this mean for the family’s security? And now, here she is, down with a fever when the prophet comes through the door. Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Well, if she did not have a favorable opinion of him before, this surely changed her heart and her mind.
This next part, the part about her immediately beginning to serve them, used to really bother me when I was younger; I questioned why they were not serving her instead. After all, she was the elder and she had just been ill. Now that I am older, I understand. In the moment she was healed she was also restored to the place where she could then serve the one who had helped her. It was her gratitude and her joy that naturally and effortlessly welled up and overflowed. In serving Jesus and his companions, she was completing the cycle of service; she was given back her health and her abilities and then she wanted to give of herself in whatever way she could. It is a beautiful cycle, the cycle of service.
In thinking about the cycle of service this week, I tracked down a series of short documentary films about people here in America and from all over the world who have been empowered through Heifer International. I met a young mother from Arkansas who was lifted out of poverty with training and funding to start her own business raising chickens. After three years she was able to start hiring friends and neighbors to help her and now she spends a portion of her time travelling the state to help others get started. She is taking her place in the cycle of service.
I was curious about how Heifer International came into existence. It started with Dan West in 1944. Dan was a farmer in the Midwest and a Christian who became absolutely determined to take action to end world hunger. He travelled to Spain during the civil war to feed people and it was there that he was inspired to help people feed themselves by providing them with livestock and seeds and education. Dan returned to the States where he raised cattle, pigs, goats, and money to pay for shipping the livestock to Europe after World War II. Estimates reflect that Heifer now improves the lives of countless millions, here in America and abroad. What a beautiful story of one man’s influence. One man created a cycle of serving others who in turn are so grateful that they share their abundance of resources and knowledge with others who can do the same. Think of the arrival of a heifer and a bull in a war-torn town. The heifer will soon calve and produce milk; the calf will grow and eventually breed, creating either another source for milk, or meat. As time goes on, calves are sold or shared with others, as is the milk and the meat, and within one generation, hundreds if not thousands of lives are blessed with health, sustainability, and dignity.
Our Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, affected similar changes through his healing. In his day, there were no publicly-funded programs for education and care of the blind, the lame, and those suffering from leprosy or other life-long diseases of the body and mind. People who were alter-abled or coping with illnesses were very much dependent on the mercy of their community for care. Those whom Jesus healed were not just healed in body; they were healed in spirit. They could then find their place in a larger cycle of service, eager to give back to others, ready to pass on the blessings they had received.
I recall an idea my Father had back in 2008 when the automobile industry received 15 million in bail-outs from the Federal government. He thought that the money could have been better used in vouchers for American-made automobiles. I did the math. Every adult over 18 in the country could have had a 10,000 new car, the automobile companies would have had ample business, gathered loyal customers in the long run, and just imagine the sense of goodwill established by such an action. Imagine the gratitude, imagine the growing sense of optimism that would come from the government not just caring for big business but improving the lives of everyone in the process.
Over the next few weeks, as our elected officials debate how to best provide relief for Americans and American businesses, I pray for creative thinking and courage. Too many have been working for sub-standard wages for far too long. Our welfare system is not helping people to climb out of poverty, it is holding them in poverty. My family and I were caught in that system; it is a system that provides incentives for staying in dependence instead of empowering people to be able to accumulate enough to be self-sufficient.
We are in need of healing on many levels and the story of Jesus’s healing of Simon’s mother-in-law inspires me to think about a much larger picture of what happens when one person is moved from a place of inability to a place of ability. Healing comes in many forms and healing is not necessarily the same thing as curing, either. People speak of being healed when their illness or affliction or life circumstances no longer have power over them. I know people who have been healed even though they have not been cured and I am guessing that you know of people, too, who have found ways to live in fullness even as they are challenged, sometimes severely. It seems to me that living in fullness is made possible by placing oneself somewhere in that cycle of service. Sometimes we are the healer, offering words of encouragement, words of forgiveness, or acts of service to another. Sometimes we are the receivers. Sometimes we are the ones in need of healing, encouragement, forgiveness and assistance. Both ways, in giving and in receiving, we can experience deep healing and restoration.
In closing, I lift up the power of one. One woman can bring prosperity to a whole community. One man with one good idea can change a nation. One farmer can start a project that will feed millions. One teacher can start a spiritual revolution that continues to play out over millennia. May we resist apathy and hopelessness and pessimism. May we live in fullness, love with all our hearts, and turn our minds to the source of goodness in God. So be it. Amen.
God of all the seasons of our lives, I thank you for being with us in all we face. Help us to remember to look for the light of your guidance in every situation that challenges us. If we are in need of help, may we be just as gracious in our receiving as we are in our giving. In ways we seek healing, guide us to what heals; in ways we seek knowledge, guide us to sources of wisdom; in ways we seek meaning, guide us, Lord, to the people and the things that will bless us so that we, in turn may be a blessing to others. For our families, our town, our nation and all of humanity we pray for needs to be met, we pray for prosperity and we pray for peace. As we look to Christ for direction, may we remember the words of this prayer he gave us so long ago… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with the following words from Ephesians chapter 5:
“Walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and justice and truth.”