I’m in middle school, 6th or 7th grade. The lights are darkened and a film is playing. The teacher has left the classroom for a few minutes. Teddy, the class clown, suddenly calls out, “Who farted?” The class giggles. Uh oh, I think. My stomach tightens and I try to look as small as possible. Bullies love to target me, since I am the timid awkward kid, the weird, serious kid, the kid whose gender presentation is uncomfortably ambiguous. “Jane, was it you?” I stay silent, trying to look disinterested. “It was, wasn’t it? Propane Jane! Ha, ha, ha!” While the class laughs, I turn red, embarrassed and ashamed.
Now I’m at church. My dad is the pastor of a congregation steeped in German heritage. It’s the evening of the annual potato pancake supper. When we were littler kids, we ran wild around the church nursery while our parents labored over the supper. Now we’re old enough to help; we’re expected to help. While the grown-ups grind up potatoes, mix batter, fry pancakes and sausages, dish out apple sauce and syrup in the kitchen, we wait on the tables. My church friends grumble a bit about helping. Not me. I’m so proud and happy to serve—I find my groove welcoming the guests, bringing out the fragrant plates of food, keeping coffee cups filled, then clearing the used dishes, wiping the tables, and setting them all over again.
Today’s Gospel passage begins by describing Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. It’s such a brief scene and yet this little interaction contains the whole of the Gospel, the divine message Jesus came to proclaim and embody. Jesus’ hand, stretched out to the woman, says so much. He was willing to touch a sick person, despite the risk. He wanted to comfort and support the one who was suffering. He believed that she mattered, that she was an integral member of the community. Grasping her hand with warmth and strength, he lifted her up. He raised her. Mark uses this verb, egeiro, in many healing stories. And at the end of the Gospel, this same verb describes Jesus’ own resurrection, “He is not here; he has been raised.”
The Gospel writer, through this choice of language, is clearly saying that resurrection is more than a singular event. Jesus’ ministry is one of resurrection. And resurrection is God’s all-encompassing, ongoing project of breathing new life into creation as a whole. If we see resurrection simply as a reversal of bodily death, then we miss the point. Resurrection is life on another level, life that is full with love and joy, courage and hope.
The brief scene closes with Peter’s mother-in-law, having been restored to health, beginning to serve the guests in her home. On the one hand, we can perceive a troubling cultural norm at work in this text—an assumption that the primary role of women, their whole reason for being, is to serve men. Why didn’t Jesus tell her to take it easy while he made the food this once? On the other hand, the word for service, “diakonia,” is used repeatedly to describe the ministry of Jesus and his followers, in ways that very much turn those gendered cultural norms upside down. In Mark 10:45, Jesus’ male disciples argued about who among them was the greatest, the most powerful. These men were deeply committed to hierarchy, to a culture of strength through domination.
Jesus countered this way of being, saying that if they were going to be his followers, they would have to be willing to take on the role of servant. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. . . . For the Human One came not to be served but to serve.” The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law demonstrates that the ethos of Jesus’ community is one service, mutual service. Jesus served the woman and she served him. The church is a resurrection community. By serving each other in the name of Jesus we raise each other to new life.
The Vinery is a two-year program for congregations near a college or university who want to be better neighbors to that campus. Our leadership team—Gabe, Hikaru, and I—attended the inaugural Vinery retreat this past week. There are five other congregations in our cohort year; we’ve been assigned to be partners with a Methodist church in Raleigh, NC. At the heart of the Vinery process is the notion of “public narrative.” This concept was developed by Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a longtime community organizer and activist. Our public narratives (as individuals and as a congregation) will illustrate why we are called to engage with our university community, and to help us build to the relational power to be able to do so.
Working on my own public narrative, the two childhood experiences I shared earlier came to mind. The episode at school is one vivid moment that illustrates how I often felt in social situations growing up—lonely, rejected, and disempowered, like I could never quite belong. Though it was painful to be a misfit, I am grateful for the ways this experience grew my capacity for empathy and my passion for justice. The memory at church reminds me how, in the midst of my challenges, community has raised me up, taught me to love myself and showed me the power we have together make change. Waiting tables at the potato pancake supper, I found a home in serving others. I found my place to belong in contributing my gifts to an effort that was larger than myself.
It’s a tough time to be a young adult. Students are facing so many challenges: mental health struggles and rising food insecurity, a world in the grip of climate change, political polarization, and war. In these tumultuous times, not every church is committed to serving and raising each other and their neighbors. Not every church is making space for the misfit in each of us to find true belonging. I believe we are called to build beloved community and to reach out and invite our university neighbors (and neighbors of all sorts) to join in this sacred work.
The raising of Simon’s mother-in-law was a pivotal event that drew more and more people to Jesus. Soon the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s home. It sounds like Jesus spent most of the night healing people. He must have been exhausted; he withdrew to a lonely place to care for himself, to get grounded again in the presence of God. Jesus’ absence stressed the disciples out; people who needed care just kept coming and coming. What were they supposed to do with all these people, all these needs? “Everyone is searching for you,”they told Jesus. And Jesus replied, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so I may proclaim the message there also.” Jesus did not stay to minister to all those people. Instead, he invited the beloved community to grow in care for each other, and in the capacity to raise each other, and together embrace resurrection life. He called them to let go of old cultures of domination and to forge a new way of mutual service. Jesus sparked a movement that continues to this day, through each of us. Amen.